Paul Deussen’s meeting with Pundit Baijnath9 min read

When Pundit Baijnath unexpectedly appeared at a meeting in Najibabad in 1908, just after Shri Dada had been mysteriously called away to the Himalayas, he was to all appearances a prosperous, middle- aged lawyer, accompanied by three companions, coming to see his friend and finding him not at home. But the teachings which he gave on that occasion showed that outward appearances were deceptive and that his listeners were in the presence of a real jnani.

Dr Shastri had first heard Pundit Baijnath giving a talk on Vedanta when he was in Delhi in 1905. The Pundit was then about forty. He was rather stout, with a cheery disposition and a magnetic personality. He spoke rather loudly, often punctuating his remarks with OM, and was clearly someone who was used to public speaking. He was already a very successful lawyer. The story of Baijnath’s early life and his brilliant academic career which led to his appointment as a lawyer and judge in the district courts in Meerut and Agra is well-known. So too is the story of his meeting with Swami Nirbhyananda and his achievement of self realisation at an early age through his dedication to his Guru.

It was a characteristic trait of his personality to assume the role of relative obscurity in the background in regard to spiritual matters. He used to say: “I do not know philosophy, and I am not acquainted with the holy classics; it is my devotion to my Guru alone that has emancipated me … I cannot teach anyone the profundities of the Yoga metaphysics, but I know how to teach them to serve their Guru and receive his grace.” Yet in the Sat Sang held in Meerut in the roof garden of the Pundit’s house, when asked by Baijnath to give his blessings to the assembly, we find Shri Dada prefacing his words by saying: “In the presence of two Mahatmas, Swami Satchitananda and Pundit Baijnath, there is no call for me to speak; but obedience is a great yogic virtue.”

It was in early December 1892, some thirteen years before Dr Shastri first encountered him, that one of the greatest German scholars of Vedanta, Paul Deussen, met Pundit Baijnath whilst he was on a visit to Agra, and he has left us a fascinating account in his book Memories of India (Erinnerungen an Indien, 1904).

Deussen was the son of a pastor in the Rhineland, who had been a fellow-student and friend of Nietzsche, who introduced him to the study of Schopenhauer. As a result of Schopenhauer’s enthusiasm for the Upanishads,

Deussen taught himself Sanskrit with the help of an old, impoverished historian living in Bonn, called Lassen, who had specialised in the history of Ancient India. Deussen earned his keep in early life teaching Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but he later began to write and lecture on metaphysics. After getting a job as a tutor to a rich family in Geneva, he was lucky enough to find the library of an older scholar, Roer, in a second-hand bookshop, and there discovered an early edition of Shankara’s Commentary on the Vedanta Sutras. At the age of thirty-five he obtained a teaching post at the University of Berlin and began to produce a great series of expository works and translations of Indian philosophy.

He sent a copy of his greatest work, The System of the Vedanta, first published in 1883, to Nietzsche, who replied: “A man must have a great many gifts to be able to open up a doctrine like that of the Vedanta to us Europeans. And not least, my dear old friend, I value the fact that you have not forgotten how to work hard … If you look hard, you will find that even the greatest artist differs little from a handicraftsman.”

In 1889, at the age of forty-four, Deussen moved to Kiel University, where he stayed, continuing to teach and write, up to the end of his life, although his sight failed and he had to write his last books by dictating them to secretaries.

It was in 1892, three years after he had moved to Kiel, that Deussen made his journey to India. He had sent a letter of introduction to Baijnath before his arrival in Agra, and Deussen tells us that the young Indian judge looked for him in his hotel in the afternoon, but found that he had gone out. Baijnath thought rightly that Deussen would be at the Taj Mahal. Deussen then describes how, late on that afternoon, he was watching the last rays of the setting sun gilding with beauty the cupolas and minarets of the majestic memorial palace and musing on its history, when a well-dressed man came towards him and greeted him by name, introducing himself as Lal Baijnath.

After these introductions it was decided that they would send their carriages on and walk back to the hotel together in the cool of the evening. The conversation soon turned to spiritual matters, and Deussen said that he had a sense that, to begin with, Baijnath seemed to have some reservations in his mind as to what a European could contribute to such a discussion. Soon, however, as they talked, this feeling changed, and he began to show a warm affection to Deussen, which increased steadily from then on. Together they tirelessly discussed for the rest of that evening, questioning and explaining to each other this or that point in the Indian teachings.

Deussen was impressed at how seriously Baijnath took his belief in Vedanta. He learned that Baijnath in his daily devotions read from the great volume of Yoga Vashistha and that he was not content with mere intellectual sacrifice to the divine, which Deussen understood as the object of Raja Yoga, but believed in the practice of discipline in everyday life to earn the grace of the Lord. He likened this to the belief of the pietists in the West, who hold that we must live strictly according to the principles of the Christian life in order to find salvation. Deussen contrasted this with the view that it is only by the gift of the Holy Ghost, and not through any effort of ours, that we can be born again, and in support of this view he went on to quote to Baijnath the passage in the Vedas which says that Atman “takes up his abode only in one whom he himself chooses, and that all works, both good and bad, are nothing when one is dealing with the highest reality”.

It is interesting to see here how the learned and highly intelligent Western scholar misses his way in understanding the message of the Gita. Deussen approaches the Vedanta with the mind of someone who is already steeped in the metaphysics of Kant and interprets Shri Shankara’s philosophy as a forerunner who anticipated Kant’s thought on the ultimate reality. But Kant, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and almost all the Western philosophers, remains in the end only an intellectual, whereas Shri Shankara, like all the great teachers of Yoga, bases his metaphysics, not on reasoning, but on the highest spiritual experience.

After this first meeting Deussen spent almost all his time in Agra in the company of Pundit Baijnath. The following morning Baijnath fetched him from his hotel and drove him to Sikandra, to visit the grave of the Emperor Akbar which is about an hour’s journey from the town. It is another mighty palace with many towers, columns and staircases. They went on- to the large terrace on the roof to enjoy the wonderful view over the surrounding country. Nothing disturbed the deep silence which surrounded them except the chirping of the small green parrots perched in large numbers on the tops of the trees below them.

“I often come here in order to dwell on my thoughts,” Baijnath told him, and Deussen adds that there could hardly be a better place for collecting one’s soul than this memorial of the great Indian emperor, who came here to obtain solitude and forget the world. They visited several of the other memorials of the Mohammedan’s greatness, and also went to see the artistic workshops and shops in the town.

In the evening they went back to Baijnath’s house, which was just outside Agra. Baijnath had asked Deussen to develop the thoughts which had formed the contents of their discussion together and asked if he might have leave to invite some friends. Deussen said he was happy to agree to this but was rather surprised to find a large assembly, before whom his address became a full-scale lecture on all the main points of the Vedanta. A long discussion followed which took place partly in English and partly in Sanskrit. The result of this meeting was that accounts of the occasion spread rapidly by word of mouth and also in letters or in the newspapers, and in several towns which he later visited people knew about it and asked for a lecture to be given.

After the company had retired Deussen remained alone with Baijnath, who invited him to an evening meal. On the first evening he gave him a European meal, but the next day his wife prepared a meal according to the Hindu tradition, with the guests sitting cross-legged on the floor in an airy room of the house and the food placed in front of them on square wooden boards in small clay pots or on banana leaves. When the meal was over Baijnath, resting on a carpet and leaning comfortably on a large cushion, sang several songs and accompanied himself on the lute.

As Deussen finally took his leave of Pundit Baijnath on leaving Agra, Baijnath gave him a beautifully carved and decorated ebony walking-stick, inlaid with precious stones, an antique piece which he had bought once at an auction in Benares. On the handle were curiously intricate curves of an Arabic name, inlaid in ivory, which a friend of Deussen’s later deciphered as “Osman Elias Mohammed Padisha”, the last title suggesting that the stick had probably once belonged to an Indian emperor. Deussen said that he had managed to bring it home in spite of all the dangers on the way and that it was for him a precious memory of Baijnath and the days spent in Agra and the wonderful country, which lived in his memory like a lost paradise.

This incident from Deussen’s account of his life illustrates the meeting of two great figures from East and West.