The Use of Buddhist and Hindu Concepts in Wagner's Stage Works - Peter Bassett

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday, 1 January 2014 | 10:44:00 pm

Buddha: V&A Museum

The following is taken from a presentation given by Wagner scholar Peter Bassett during the Melbourne Ring in 2013 - which can be heard by clicking here. Printed here with kind permission of the author.

Peter, is author, among much else, of lasts years study of Wagner and Verdi: 1813: Wagner and Verdi. He also recently completed a four audio disc exploration of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Combining his own commentary with the Solti Ring cycle. Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen – Explorations is available from Decca and is highly recommended.


Buddhist and Hindu Concepts in Wagner’s Stage Works 

Peter Bassett 


Wagner was strongly attracted to the idea of metempsychosis - the endless cycle of births and deaths - and so was Schopenhauer. In a letter to Liszt, Wagner wrote: ‘The Buddha’s teaching relating to the transmigration of souls almost certainly expresses the truth.’

Why should oriental practices and ideas have anything to do with Richard Wagner’s stage works, which are so strongly identified with European, and especially Germanic traditions?

In the Saxony of Wagner’s youth, eastern ideas, tastes and manners were visible everywhere in the Chinoiserie of architecture and design, the manufacture of Europe’s first hard-paste porcelain at Meissen, and the fashion for operas and plays with oriental themes. Wagner had grown up with these things but he wasn’t at all interested in the quaint and patronising orientalism that has attracted other composers over the centuries, from Mozart to Richard Rodgers. Instead, he was drawn to a school of thought which linked German intellectual achievements with those of ancient India.

His interest in the east had been stimulated by his brother-in-law, Hermann Brockhaus who had married Wagner’s sister Ottilie in 1836. Hermann was an orientalist, and in 1848 he was appointed to the chair of ancient languages and literature at Leipzig University, specialising in Persian and Sanskrit. German, French and English philologists had discovered that Sanskrit – the liturgical and scholarly language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – had much in common with European languages. All belong to the Indo-European linguistic family. Some scholars went further, arguing that there were also cultural connections via a common Indo-European ancestry.


In 1872 the Danish historian and critic Georg Brandes offered his own explanation for this sudden fascination with Indian culture. ‘It was not a surprise’ he wrote, ‘that there came a moment in German history when they – the Germans – started to absorb and to utilize the intellectual achievements and the culture of ancient India. It is because Germany – great, dark and rich in dreams and thoughts – is in reality a modern India. Nowhere else in world history has metaphysics bereft of any empirical research achieved such a high level of development as in ancient India and modern Germany.’

The American scholar, Suzanne Marchand, has written that the Germans were ‘the most important orientalist scholars between about 1830 and 1930, despite having virtually no colonies in the east’. The effect of this, she maintains, was that German orientalism, especially the study of Zoroastrian Persia, India and Mesopotamia, helped to destroy western self-satisfaction, and to provoke a momentous change in the culture of the west: the relinquishing of Judeo/Christian and classical antique models as universal norms.


Opening scene of Adelaide Ring. 2004

If this argument can be sustained, then it must be said that Richard Wagner made a noteworthy contribution to the process. During the last three decades of his life, he demonstrated a serious interest in the two great religions of India and, in a letter to Liszt of 1855 wrote admiringly of ‘the oldest and most sacred religion known to man, Brahman teaching and its final transfiguration in Buddhism, where it achieved its most perfect form’. He held the view that Christianity, although first appearing in the Greco-Roman world, had its distinguishing roots in India. One can find shared moral principles in the teachings of Jesus and the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who lived in the fifth century BC. In the same letter to Liszt, Wagner cited contemporary research suggesting that Buddhist ideas had flowed westwards after the spread of Alexander’s empire to the Indus in 327 BC, and had influenced Christian doctrine. Whether or not Buddhism did, in fact, have any influence on Christianity, all that matters for our purposes is that Wagner believed that it did, and this belief shaped his works, especially Parsifal.

When Tristan and Isolde sing: ‘Then I myself am the world’, they are drawing on one of Schopenhauer’s favourite passages in the Upanishads: ‘I am all these creatures, and besides me there is no other being’, 
His awakening, so to speak, to the literature of the east, can be traced to the early 1850s. In 1852 he wrote from Zürich to his former assistant August Röckel languishing in Waldheim prison, about the poetry of the fourteenth century Persian mystic, Hafiz, whose works were then being edited by Hermann Brockhaus. ‘We with our pompous European intellectual culture’ wrote Wagner, ‘must stand abashed in the presence of this product of the orient, with its self-assured and sublime tranquillity of mind.’ In 1814, Goethe had been drawn to the poetry of Hafiz and used it in his collection of twelve lyrical poems West-Eastern Divan, symbolizing exchanges and mixtures between the orient and the occident.

Wagner’s reading of Hafiz informed his ideas on a number of Ring-related issues. He wrote again to Röckel while working on his Rheingold poem, saying: ‘Study Hafiz properly. … something similar will also become clear in my Nibelungen.’ Perhaps he had in mind these words of the poet: ‘Man of self, raised up with endless pride, we forgive thee – for love’s to thee denied’.

The Persian poet also had something to say about fate and destiny that is relevant to Wagner’s treatment of Erda. Wotan believes that success, life and power are all that matters, but Erda tells him that all things that are will end; he is not the ultimate controller of his fate. Hafiz describes the futility of resisting an appointed destiny, and offers only one solution: ‘cast the world aside, yes abandon it’.


The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s knowledge of the eastern texts dated from the end of 1813, but by that time his own insights had already been described in his early writings. He was astonished and delighted to discover that his views had much in common with key doctrines of Hinduism and Buddhism, and happily proclaimed this in his later writings, notably The World as Will and Representation. This led some people to think that the ancient texts were the source of Schopenhauer’s ideas, which wasn’t the case. Working in the central tradition of western philosophy he had arrived independently at similar conclusions.

The American scholar, Suzanne Marchand, has written that the Germans were ‘the most important orientalist scholars between about 1830 and 1930, despite having virtually no colonies in the east’

There is an interesting parallel here with the relationship between Wagner’s ideas and Schopenhauer’s writings. The impact of these writings on the composer was great; not because they were the source of his ideas but because they clarified notions that had already occurred to him and yet he found difficult to accept. He first read The World as Will and Representation in 1854, and found in it a coherent explanation for his treatment of Wotan. His intention had been to show nothing less than the breaking of the god’s proud spirit, not by an external and greater force but by what Schopenhauer would call the annihilation of the will – the negation of compulsive wanting, striving, and yearning that leads inevitably to disappointment and pain. The Buddha would have called it the renunciation of craving and desire which lies at the root of suffering and is represented musically in the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner got to know the Hindu Upanishads and the Buddhist writings and would draw on their imagery in the Ring, Tristan, an unfinished Buddhist opera Die Sieger, and Parsifal.

Parts of the Tripitaka, the texts that make up the Buddhist canon, arrived in Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century, somewhat later than the Upanishads which Schopenhauer admired so extravagantly. The first European scholar to provide a comprehensive and informed account of Buddhism was the Frenchman Eugène Burnouf, who in 1844 published his Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism. It was this book that Wagner devoured during a period of convalescence in Zürich in 1855 before sketching out an opera called Die Sieger (‘The Victors’) drawn from Burnouf’s material. ‘What a shameful place our entire learning takes’ he told Mathilde Wesendonck, ‘confronted with these purest revelations of most noble humanity in the old orient’.

The title De Sieger was inspired by the word Jina, which in Sanskrit means ‘Victor’. It is used in a specific Buddhist sense, for one who is victorious in the quest for enlightenment. The sketch dealt with an event in the legendary life of the Buddha - the enlightened or awakened one - whose honorifics included Jina, the Victor. Wagner had been attracted to the story not least because of its theme of reincarnation, which he saw as an ideal vehicle for his compositional technique of emotional reminiscence. He told Cosima: ‘only music can convey the mysteries of reincarnation’.

His intention to complete Die Sieger remained with him for decades but, in the end, its themes were subsumed in Parsifal’s and it remained unfinished. One reason for this was that Wagner had no direct knowledge of India and found it hard to imagine the specific culture, atmosphere, plants and so on to which he could relate. Most of the Sanskrit scholars of Wagner’s day, including Hermann Brockhaus, had no direct knowledge of India either, even though they knew the ancient texts intimately. Their conception of India was abstracted and idealized.

Wagner’s notions of Buddhism were expressed in the context of European narratives and settings. However he believed that ancient India had provided the cultural roots of German thought. This might strike us today as curious, but a hundred and sixty years ago it was no more curious than Charles Darwin’s theory of the universal common descent of species through evolution. Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the year of Tristan und Isolde. 

This connection can be demonstrated by one piece of music composed for Die Sieger that ended up in the Ring. According to Cosima Wagner’s diary entry for 20 July 1878, it had been written for the Buddha himself. 

It has been said that for Wagner, who lived in exile for much of his creative life and was seriously disenchanted with politics, Buddhism was a way of answering his three most fundamental questions: what does it mean to be German? What does it mean to be Christian? What is art? In his view, Buddhism wasn’t remote from German thought but intrinsic to it.

This connection can be demonstrated by one piece of music composed for Die Sieger that ended up in the Ring. According to Cosima Wagner’s diary entry for 20 July 1878, it had been written for the Buddha himself. It is misleadingly labelled these days as ‘the motive of the world’s inheritance’, but it was described by Wagner’s assistant Heinrich Porges as the ‘redemption theme’. The phrase in question is first heard in the Wanderer’s final scene with Erda. He desperately wants answers to one question in particular: how to stop a turning wheel. In Buddhist teachings, the turning wheel of karma is the inexorable working out of the consequences of one’s actions, the destiny of suffering that is shaped by one’s deeds. Erda is baffled and unable to help him. He pauses to collect his thoughts and then he says that he is no longer concerned about the end of the gods and, in fact, consciously wills it. What he once resolved in despair, he will now do gladly. At that point, we hear in the orchestra the majestic theme once intended for the Buddha. During the first rehearsals, Wagner said that this passage ‘must sound like the proclamation of a new religion’. Indeed it does.

In Parsifal we find a veritable cornucopia of Buddhist images. The events surrounding the shooting of the swan in Act One follow almost exactly those found in a collection of Buddhist legends dating from the first century AD. In both cases, the incident is used to provide a lesson in compassion. In the legends we also find the story of Mara, the tempter figure who, with the help of his seductive daughters, had tried to prevent the Buddha from achieving enlightenment. The imagery in Act Two of Parsifal including that of Klingsor and the Flower Maidens owes much to the Mara legend. Kundry is a tormented creature, longing for sleep and death but condemned to endless rebirths. In the first Act, Gurnemanz wonders aloud whether she carries a burden of sin resulting from actions in a previous life, which is a curious remark for a Christian knight to make. In time we learn that in a former life she had laughed at the Saviour on the cross, which is the very antithesis of compassion. His own compassionate gaze fell on her, she says, and now she seeks him again ‘from world to world’ – which is to say, from life to life.

In the legends we also find the story of Mara, the tempter figure who, with the help of his seductive daughters, had tried to prevent the Buddha from achieving enlightenment. The imagery in Act Two of Parsifal including that of Klingsor and the Flower Maidens owes much to the Mara legend.

Wagner was strongly attracted to the idea of metempsychosis - the endless cycle of births and deaths - and so was Schopenhauer. In a letter to Liszt, Wagner wrote: ‘The Buddha’s teaching relating to the transmigration of souls almost certainly expresses the truth.’ In Parsifal, even the innocent fool declares in the final Act: ‘Ah! what transgression, what burden of guilt must my foolish head have borne from eternity.’ In the first Act, Parsifal reveals that he has had many names but has forgotten them all; and in the third Act he speaks of all that lives and will live again.


At the heart of Parsifal is the notion that salvation is to be found not in the satisfaction of selfish desires but in the ability to share the sufferings of others. In our shared sense of compassion we can recognize the fundamental unity of all beings – of all creation.

Unity of being is also a central idea in Tristan und Isolde, where mystical union offers the only way in which the lovers’ unquenchable longing can be realized. Some of the most beautiful and poetic imagery in Tristan is drawn from the Upanishads, which Schopenhauer praised for their recognition that our senses are only able to grasp a representation of the world, and that this representation stands like a veil between the subject and the hidden world of timeless reality - Tristan’s wondrous realm of night.

In May 1868, in the diary he called ‘The Brown Book’, Wagner jotted down some correlations between Hindu/Buddhist concepts, dramatic imagery and modes of musical expression. His identification of truth and reality with night, and selfishness and illusion with day is at the heart of Tristan und Isolde. Interestingly too, Wagner equated Nirvana with ‘untroubled, pure harmony’, the most perfect example of which comes in the final bars of Isolde’s Liebestod when she is joined at last with her Tristan in mystical union. No wonder Richard Strauss described it as the most beautifully orchestrated cadence in all music. It could be no other. Far from Nirvana, the troubled and illusory world of appearances and unsatisfiable longing – the world of ‘day’ – is harmonically at the other extreme, and there is no more violent example than the shattering orchestral dissonance and Brangäne’s scream when Melot, Marke and their hunting party burst upon the lovers.


When Tristan and Isolde sing: ‘Then I myself am the world’, they are drawing on one of Schopenhauer’s favourite passages in the Upanishads: ‘I am all these creatures, and besides me there is no other being’, illustrating how someone contemplating nature necessarily draws nature into himself, transcending individuality and joining with the sublime. This image also finds an echo in the Good Friday scene in Parsifal, when Gurnemanz draws even the humblest things in nature - the grasses and flowers of the meadow - into a greater reality. In both instances the music achieves an overwhelmingly beautiful ‘untroubled, pure harmony’, to use Wagner’s phrase. When, in Tristan und Isolde the lovers sing: ‘heart to heart, mouth to mouth, bound together in one breath’, Wagner is alluding to the Sanskrit word âtman – ‘breath’ or ‘self’ - often used to express truth, infinity and something beyond comprehension. Âtman is related etymologically to the German word for breath: Atem - and the Greek word atmos. We find the most vivid expression of this in Isolde’s final vision, in which the once-living Tristan enters into the ‘immensity of the world’s breath’. Indeed, a passage in the Upanishads reading: ‘The âtman is beyond sound and form, without touch and taste and perfume’, appears to have inspired Isolde’s rhapsodic final words.

In a prose draft for the new ending, Wagner made absolutely clear that his inspiration was a Buddhist one. He imagines Brünnhilde expressing the hope that, like her, Siegfried will not be reborn, but she foretells that Hagen will suffer many rebirths

The clearest and, perhaps most important Buddhist connection with the Ring came with a change in 1856 to the text for the closing scene of Götterdämmerung, written contemporaneously with the sketch for Die Sieger and within months of the first sketch for Parsifal. Earlier versions of the ending contemplated the survival of the gods and the triumph of love over wealth and power. By 1856 however, the goal was no longer redemption through love but redemption through renunciation. In a prose draft for the new ending, Wagner made absolutely clear that his inspiration was a Buddhist one. He imagines Brünnhilde expressing the hope that, like her, Siegfried will not be reborn, but she foretells that Hagen will suffer many rebirths. In the metrical version, intended for singing, Brünnhilde refers to herself as the ‘enlightened one’ and anticipates her own release from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Ultimately this text wasn’t used because, as Cosima pointed out, its cumbersome language was sounding contrived. Nevertheless, Wagner printed it as a footnote in his 1872 definitive edition of the poem, with the explanation that ‘its meaning was already conveyed with the greatest precision in the musical expression of the drama’.


So, unlike the earlier endings, it wasn’t the meaning that changed but the means of conveying it. It was, and still is in my view, a Buddhist-inspired ending. The nature of Brünnhilde’s insight which had transformed her from an insanely angry woman at the end of Act Two to the redeeming figure at the conclusion of Act Three is explained in a remark by Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck in 1858, about his difficulties in depicting the Buddha in De Sieger. ‘I have now solved the problem’ he wrote, ‘by having him reach one last remaining stage in his development whereby he is seen to acquire a new insight, which – like every insight – is conveyed not by abstract associations of ideas but by intuitive emotional experience; in other words, by a process of shock and agitation suffered by his inner self; as a result, this insight reveals him in his final progress towards a state of supreme enlightenment’.

Those words can equally be applied to Brünnhilde, whose insight was born of her overwhelming, grieving love for Siegfried, and also to Parsifal who tells Amfortas: ‘Blessed be your suffering that gave compassion and wisdom to the timid fool’. So Brünnhilde and Parsifal are both, in their own ways, redeemer and redeemed, and exemplify Wagner’s idiosyncratic application of the Indian religions to his greatest works for the stage.

More Of Peter's writing about Wagner can be read here for free: