Western Romanticism of the 18th century had perceived India as the country of desire, which was considered to be an ideal and harmonious combination of spiritualism and rationalism. This romanticist longing for something that the West had lost, was imagined in India in its old scriptures that contained age-old wisdom accumulated by the saints, writers and academicians over the millennia. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) had initially put forward the idea that India was the cradle of all civilization in his book Ideen zur Geschichte der Menschheit. Deeply rooted in this academic notion of the times, Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829), and to a larger extent his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel (1767-1845), got inspired to critically study Indian languages, literatures and the systems of philosophy. This deep interest in India and its culture, finally led to the foundation of the study of Indology and comparative linguistics in German universities. In an enthusiastic letter, Friedrich von Schlegel wrote about the Sanskrit language: “Here is the source of all languages, all thought, and all poetics, everything, everything, generated in India, without exception.” In his work Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder (1808) he postulated a relationship between the peoples and languages of Asia and Europe. It was his brother August Wilhelm von Schlegel, who in 1819 became the first Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Bonn, and therefore the founder of German Indology. In his endeavour to proliferate Sanskrit texts in Europe, he got the types of the Devanagari alphabet made in Paris and brought them back to Bonn. The first Sanskrit book printed (around 1820) with these types in Europe was the Bhagavadgita accompanied by a Latin translation by Schlegel himself.
A few years before this, in 1788, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), a judge and linguist, discovered a linguistic similarity between Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Keltic languages with Sanskrit. He suggested that Persian and the European languages were derived from a common ancestor, which was not Hebrew. His hyphothesis was substantiated only in 1816 by the German linguist from Berlin Franz Bopp (1791-1867) in his work Über das Konjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen, persischen und germanischen Sprache.
Goethe and Shakuntala
Travel writer Johann Georg Forster translated into German the famous 5th century drama by Kalidasa Shakuntalam, the love story of King Dushyanta and Shakuntala, daughter of the heavenly nymph Menaka. The fascinating fineness in the description of emotions and human relations was greatly admired by the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Goethe, full of awe and appreciation, wrote in 1791:
“Will ich die Blumen des frühen, die Früchte des späteren Jahres,
Will ich, was reizt und entzückt, will ich, was sättigt und nährt,
Will ich den Himmel, die Erde, mit einem Namen begreifen,
Nenn’ ich Sakontala, dich, und so ist alles gesagt.”
Goethe’s fascination for Indian literature is reflected in his West-Östlicher Diwan, where he put together his own ideas of the ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’, their peculiarities and differences.