Goethe and the Gita: Faust in pursuit of action

Kelsey Raybooks, culture

Goethe and the Gita

“Alas, I have studied philosophy, / the law as well as medicine, / and to my sorrow, theology; / studied them well with ardent zeal, / yet here I am, a wretched fool, / no wiser than I was before.”

Did Goethe read the Bhagavad Gita? We know that he read Govinda’s Gita, a lyric revolving around Krishna, from Fritz von Dahlberg‘s translation in 1802. That same year, a confidant of Goethe’s, Friedrich Majer, translated the Bhagavad Gita into German.

From his letters and poetry we can be certain that he was fascinated by Hinduism (at least for a while) for the same reason he was interested in ancient Greece: The union between science and divinity. Hinduism was a sort of art more than a religion. Furthermore, it’s texts a combination of poetry, philosophy and mystery. And the Gita a central text to this lifestyle. I find it very likely that if he did not read the epic in its entirety, he became familiar with it through summaries and discourse.

Yet could this sacred text have influenced his work? Possibly. We are what we read.

Knowledge and Action

“I am not omniscient, but I know a lot.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust: First Part

The pursuit of knowledge without limit is a known theme of Faust, first published in 1806. Religion versus reason. The need for harmony between rationality and spirituality, between man and nature.

Less discussed is the conflict between knowledge and action. Despite his vast knowledge, Faust does not understand how to responsibly utilize it.

This dilemma is at the root of chapter three of the Gita, in which the god Krishna counsels the warrior Arjuna how he must act during the Kurukshetra war:

Faust by Delacroix

Delacroix, Illustrationen zu Goethes Faust, Blatt 1: Studierzimmer, Faust allein. 

Arjuna Said:

So what is it that impels a man to do evil, Varshneya [Krishna], even unwillingly, as though compelled to it by force? 

The Lord Said:

It is desire…By this perpetual enemy of the wise, by this insatiable fire in the form of desire, knowledge is obscured, Son of Kunti. 

Faust enters into his deal with the devil in his desire to perfect his knowledge, and later to be with Gretchen. He seeks in his later years to become a man of action – without knowing quite how to act. Even as a Christian he attempts suicide – suggesting that his spiritual knowledge is not as strong as he believes.

“From desire I rush to satisfaction; from satisfaction I leap to desire.” Goethe, Faust

Faust and the Gita’s definition of action.

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” – Goethe, from Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years

The popular myth extracted from the Bible generally treats gaining knowledge as a sin. We are Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit, exiled from paradise. After this point, humans understand the difference between good and evil. Yet in Faust we find a very different image.

We find a knowledgeable man unwittingly committing evil acts. Perhaps because he underestimates the consequence of his actions. If you only read Act One, it appears that Faust and Gretchen are punished much like Adam and Eve – with exile and death. But unlike with their ancestors, we see the chance of redemption at the end of Act Two. Furthermore, this clear conflict between knowledge and action lie beneath the surface. His knowledge drives his desire to act, yet each reckless action leads him further away from divinity.

Possibly Faust’s missteps are not due to a lack of obedience to God, but rather due to his inability to understand action.

Meanwhile the Gita suggests that action is unavoidable. The core of this chapter conveys that one should do their duty, even if they do so badly.

Krishna and Arjuna

Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata, 18th-19th century, India.

The Lord said:

A man does not attain freedom from the results of action by abstaining from actions, and he does not approach perfection simply by renunciation.

For no one ever, even for a moment, exists without acting; everyone, regardless of their will, is made to perform actions by the constituents which originate from material nature. 

For the good of his soul, Faust might have stayed as a man of consciousness – his duty being to preserve knowledge, not to act upon it.

But without his valiant attempt at individualism, we would hardly have a resilient story.

Whether or not these philosophical similarities were intentional, I see another instance of marriage between Indian and German philosophies. What do you think?