Author: VVN Rao
Here I use the term ’digestion’ in the sense of ‘appropriation of ideas without acknowledging their source” (See: Debating Digestion & Translation / Interview with Spanish Diplomat Dr. Oscar Pujol).
There are numerous examples of digestion of Hindu literary, philosophical and scientific ideas across the West. One, hitherto obscure, example is that of the Czech National Motto.
“Truth prevails” (Czech: Pravda vítězí, Slovak: Pravda víťazí, Latin: Veritas vincit) is the national motto of the Czech Republic. The motto appears on the standard of the President of the Czech Republic, which the Czech Constitution designates as a national symbol. Before the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the motto was the motto of Czechoslovakia and appeared on the standard of the President of Czechoslovakia as well.
The Czech National Motto is believed to be derived from a phrase of Jan Hus – “Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death”. But there is ample evidence that the source of this motto was not Jan Hus, but the ancient Hindu scripture, Mundaka Upanishad. ‘Pravda Vítězí’ (Truth Prevails), is a near verbatim translation of ‘Satyameva Jayate’ (Truth Alone Prevails) which is a part of a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad. (Incidentally, ‘Satyameva Jayate’ is also the National Motto of India.)
To show that the identical nature of these two phrases is not a mere coincidence, and that there is causal connection, we should trace its history. To trace ‘Pravda vítězí’ of the Czech Republic back to “Satyameva Jayate” of Mundaka Upanishad, we should start with Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder was a highly influential 18th century German philosopher, theologian, poet, and literary critic.
सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं सत्येन पन्था विततो देवयानः ।
येनाक्रमन्त्यृषयो ह्याप्तकामा यत्र तत् सत्यस्य परमं निधानम् ॥ ६ ॥
satyameva jayate nānṛtaṃ satyena panthā vitato devayānaḥ | yenākramantyṛṣayo hyāptakāmā yatra tat satyasya paramaṃ nidhānam || 6 ||
Truth alone wins, not falsehood; by truth, the Devayanah (the path of the Devas) is widened, that by which the seers travel on, having nothing to wish for to where there is that—the highest treasure attained by truth.Mundaka Up 3.1.6
It was Herder’s influence that led to Goethe’s interest in Sanskrit literature, in particular Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Another philosopher heavily influenced by Herder was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. It was Masaryk, as the first President of Czechoslovakia, who selected ‘Pravda vítězí’ as the National Motto of Czechoslovakia shortly after independence from Austria-Hungary in 1918. This debunks the belief that Masaryk adopted his nation’s motto as a shortened form of Jon Hus’s phrase.
A few sample passages from various books provide abundant proof of Herder’s reverence for Hindu scriptures, and his knowledge of Sanskrit language, Bhagavad Gita, the Hitopadesa, and the works of Kalidasa and Bhatrihari. He traveled to India to learn more about Hindu scriptures.
“He saw in India lost paradises of all religions and philosophies”, “the cradle of humanity”, and also its “eternal home”, the great orient ‘waiting to be discovered within ourselves.”
According to him, “mankind’s origins can be traced to India, where human mind got the first shapes of wisdom and virtue with a simplicity, strength, and sublimity which has frankly spoken – nothing, nothing at all equivalent in our philosophical, cold European world.”
Herder considered the Ganges region as “the primordial garden” where human wisdom started and was nourished, and the birth place of all languages, the Sanskrit language being the mother. He also considered Sanskrit poetry as mother of all other poetry works elsewhere. He had extreme reverence and adulation for Hindu literature. He considered India a holy land and yearned for it.Source: Herder and India: The Genesis of a Mythical Image. By Leslie Willson
Herder regarded the Hindus, because of their ethical teachings, as the most gentle and peaceful people on earth. Herder’s “Thoughts of some Brahmins” (1792) which contains a selection of gnomic stanzas in free translations, gathered from Bhartrihari, the Hitopadesa, and the Bhagavad Gita, expressed these ideals.Source: www.ece.lsu.edu Entry: 43. Johann Gottfried Herder
He also considered Sanskrit poetry as mother of all other poetry works elsewhere. It is Herder’s interactions with the great Germain philosopher and poet Goethe that made the latter to learn Sanskrit and study Kalidasa’s famous works – Sakuntala and Meghduta. Goethe’s famous work, Faust itself was influenced by Kalidasa’s Sakuntala.Source: Herder’s “Thoughts of Some Brahmins” Page 155
As a side note , as a testimony of the suppression of Hindu origins of many Western ideas, both Wikipedia as well as Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy turn a blind eye to the influence of Hinduism on Herder. It leaves little doubt that Herder had extensive knowledge of and extreme reverence and adulation for Hindu literature – Vedas, Bhagavad Gita, Hitopadesa, and works of Kalidasa and Bhatrihari. And there is little doubt that Herder heavily influenced many philosophers including Masaryk.