Albert Schweitzer and Indian Thought – by Rasoul Sorkhabi

“He [Albert Schweitzer] is the only Westerner who has had a moral effect on this generation comparable to Gandhi’s. As in the case of Gandhi, the extent of this effect is overwhelmingly due to the example he gave by his own life’s work.” Albert Einstein

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), the renowned Christian theologian, philosopher, musician, physician, author, and the winner of the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, was one of the great minds of humanity and one of the reputed activists of world peace in the twentieth century. When I was a young boy, Dr Schweitzer’s story of how he left a comfortable life in Europe to establish and work in a hospital in Africa and to help the needy people represented for my generation a role model of compassion and self-less service to humanity. However, as singers, actors, and entertainers are increasingly becoming heroes among the young generation, the Forest Doctor’s life story and philosophy is gradually fading away from the public memory. Nonetheless, I hope, his heritage will survive in history and will influence those who listen to their inner voices and are touched by the sufferings of humanity and the beauties of life on Earth. In my research on Dr. Schweitzer, I have noted his deep connections to Indian religious philosophy. This is a less investigated but an illuminating aspect of Schweitzer’s life with a message for our time and of significance for scholars who are interested in the history and philosophy of peace movements.

A Sketch of Schweitzer’s Life
Albert Schweitzer was born on 14 January1875 in Kayserberg, Upper Alsace, Germany (now Haut-Rhin department in France). “Schweitzer” means Swiss, referring to Albert’s Swiss ancestors who went to Germany in the seventeenth century. His father and maternal grandfather were pastors who taught the young Albert the art of playing and building the organ – an interest he carried throughout this life. (Schweitzer was an authority on J S Bach’s music, and records of his playing Bach are available.) He studied theology and philosophy at the University of Strasbourg in France, obtaining his PhD in 1899. For a number of years, he taught at the Theological College (Seminary) of Saint Thomas at Strasbourg and later wrote books on the life and works of Jesus Christ and Saint Paul. In 1905, Schweitzer decided to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg in order to go to Africa as a physician missionary. He obtained his degree in medicine in 1912, and the same year he married Helene Bresslau, a girl friend from his student years.

Despite much opposition and worries from his parents, colleagues and friends, Albert and Helene left for the French Equatorial Africa (the present Republic of Gabon) in 1913, and set up a clinic near an already existing mission station in Lambaréné. Schweitzer treated and operated thousands of patients, including many victims of African sleeping sickness, and took care of hundreds of lepers. There were several interruptions in their African life, especially during World War I (1914-18) when Albert and Helene were taken as prisoners of war to France. Nonetheless, they always returned to their hospital and a life full of service in Africa. (Schweitzer had fourteen trips between Africa and Europe.) Helene died in 1957 and Albert Schweitzer died on 4 September 1965 (aged ninety); both of them are buried on the hospital grounds in Lambaréné. They were survived by their only daughter Rhena Schweitzer Miller who administered the hospital for many years. The Lambaréné hospital still remains as an internationally supported health centre serving African patients, and as a symbol of human love in action.

Reverence for Life
Schweitzer described his life philosophy or “worldview” (Weltanschauung) as “ethical mysticism” or “the ethics of reverence for life.” He believed that all life forms possess “the will-to-live in the midst of will-to-live.” We know this from our own life as well as observing other living beings. Through our own experience and realization we appreciate the rights of all life forms and the sacredness of life itself. Schweitzer remarked that he first articulated the term “reverence for life” in September 1915 at sunset when he was sailing on the Ogowe River, some 48 miles from Lambaréné. Later, Schweitzer expounded upon his philosophy of life in speeches, interviews, articles and books, especially in The Philosophy of Civilization (1923).

How did Schweitzer develop the idea of “reverence for life” ? I suggest four sources. First, from childhood, Schweitzer was lovingly sensitive to the life and suffering of animals. In his Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, Schweitzer wrote:

“Already before I started school it seemed quite incomprehensible to me that my evening prayers were supposed to be limited to human beings. Therefore, when my mother had prayed with me and kissed me goodnight, I secretly added another prayer which I had made up myself for all living beings: Dear God, protect and bless all beings that breathe, keep all evil from them, and let them sleep in peace.”

Second, Schweitzer (brought up in a Christian family and educated in Christianity) was deeply influenced by Jesus’ teaching of love (“Love Thy Neighbour”) and Moses’ commandment of “Thou Shall Not Kill.”

Third, Schweitzer was impressed by Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, especially his book, The World as Will and Idea (1819), in which the German philosopher argues that there is an intuitive “Will” in the world of living beings. He calls it “the Will to Live” (Willen zum Leben).

Fourth, both Schopenhauer and Schweitzer were influenced by Indian religious thinking, particularly by the idea of ‘ahimsa’ (‘not-harming’ or ‘non-violence’). Schweitzer, in fact, wrote a (less-known) book on Die Weltanschauung der Indischen Denken: Mystik und Ethik (Munich, 1935) (“The World View of the Indian Thinkers: The Mystical and the Ethical”) which has been translated into English as Indian Thought and Its Development (translated by Mrs C E B Russell, published by Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1936; reprinted by Adam and Charles Black, London, 1956). In that book, Schweitzer remarks:

“The laying down of the commandment not to kill and not to damage [ahimsa] is one of the greatest events in the spiritual history of mankind. Starting from its principle, founded on world and life negation, of abstention from action, ancient Indian thought – and this in a period when in other respects ethics have not progressed very far – reaches the tremendous discovery that ethics know no bounds! So far as we know, this is for the first time clearly expressed by Jainism” (p. 83). “If Jainism requires that the monk should suppress all emotions of hatred and revenge, the Buddha lays on him the further command, that he shall meet all living things, yea, the whole Universe, with a feeling of kindness” (p. 104). “The Buddha is the first to express the fundamental law that ethical spirit quite simply in itself means energy which brings about what is ethical in the world” (p. 106).

Schweitzer and Indian Thought
How did Schweitzer become interested in Indian religious thought? In the preface to Indian Thought and Its Development, Schweitzer confesses:

“Indian thought has greatly attracted me since in my youth I first became acquainted with it through reading the works of Arthur Schopenhauer.” He then acknowledges three persons: (1) Professor Moritz Winternitz of Prague (author of A History of Indian Literature, 1933) for “his great work on Indian literature” and for “giving me a fund of information in response to my questions”; (2) the British-Indian friend of Mahatma Gandhi, Charles F Andrews (author of Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas, 1929) for discussions; and (4) Romain Rolland for his “penetrating studies on [Sri] Ramakrishna and [Swami] Vivekananda.”

In a letter dated 29 November 1964 to the then Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Schweitzer acknowledges his correspondence with several “Indian friends” including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru through Charles Andrews,and states that his own ideas “are consistent with Indian ideas” and that the ethics of respect for all living beings “existed for Indian thought for more than two thousand years” and is “first clearly expressed by Jainism.” (Quoted from Albert Schweitzer Letters, 1905-1965, edited by Hans Walter Bahr, p. 348.)

In 1965, four months before he died, Schweitzer wrote to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta [Kolkata]:

“I studied Indian philosophy early on, when I was attending the University of Strasbourg, Alsace, even though no course was being given on that subject. But then, around 1900, Europe started getting acquainted with Indian thought. Rabindranath Tagore became known as the great living Indian thinker. When I grew conversant with his teachings, they made a deep impact on me. In Germany it was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who first recognized the significance of Indian thinking. A pupil of Schopenhauer was director of the Mulhouse Secondary School in Alsace, which prepared students for the university. [The school Schweitzer attended.] His name was [Wilhelm] Deecke. In this way I got to know Indian thinking at an early date. And by the time I completed my doctoral examination in philosophy, I was familiar with Indian thought. By then I was teaching at the University of Strasbourg. Focusing as I did on the problem of ethics, I reached the conclusion that Indian ethics is correct in demanding kindness and mercy not only toward human beings but [also] toward all living creatures. Now the world is gradually realising that compassion for all living creatures is part of true ethics.” (Albert Schweitzer Letters, 1905-1965, p. 351)

Schweitzer’s Indian Thought and Its Development has 16 chapters: (I) Western and Indian thought; (II) The rise of world and life negation in Indian thought; (III) The teaching of the Upanishads; (IV) The Samkhya doctrine; (V) Jainism; (VI) The Buddha and his teaching; (VII) Later Buddhism in India; (VIII) Buddhism in China,Tibet and Mongolia; (IX) Buddhism in Japan; (X) The later Brahmanic doctrine; (XI) Brahmanic world-view in the laws of Manu; (XII) Hinduism and Bhakti mysticism; (XIII) The Bhagavad Gita; (XIV) From the Bhagavad Gita to modern times; (XV) Modern Indian thought; and (XVI) Looking backward and forward.

Schweitzer also wrote Chinese Thought and Its Development, which still remains unpublished. In passing I should mention that Schweitzer’s attitude toward Indian religions was not always positive or factual. In Indian Thought and Its Development, Schweitzer emphasizes over and over that Indian religions have mainly adopted a nihilistic outlook of “world and life negation”, while Christianity is based on the idea of “world and life affirmation.” One should note that the Western knowledge of Indian religions in the early twentieth century was very limited. Schweitzer himself did not live and study in India and his knowledge and criticism of Indian religions were thus those of a Western-Christian outsider, albeit intellectual and spiritual, confined to his own time and place. In reference to Schweitzer’s analysis of Indian religions as nihilistic, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in his book Eastern Religions and Western Thought comments:

“To divide peoples into those who will not accept the world at all and those who will accept nothing else is hardly fair.”

Ahimsa is the Way
What I find very significance in Schweitzer’s life and philosophy is his reafirmation of the idea of ahimsa (non-violence) developed over 2500 years ago in India. Schweitzer did not base his philosophy of “reverence for life” on any scientific finding or metaphysical debate; he regarded one’s own life experience and realisation as a basis for “ethical mysticism.” Perhaps the following poem by the thirteenth century Persian poet, Sa’di summarizes Schweitzer’s idea of “reverence for life”:

Do not harm that ant that carries a little grain;
It has life and life is sweet.

Rhena Schweitzer Miller once remarked:

“One day I asked my father, “You have done so much for Africa. Has it given you anything in return?”

He said,

“Yes, nowhere else could I have found the idea of reverence for life than here.”

Our world is facing violent conflicts and brutality fuelled by religious extremism, dirty politics, personality cults, inhuman nationalism, and economies based on never-ending greed. The root causes of all this bloodshed, cruelty and suffering are the same old vices: Self-centred views, prejudices, hatred, limitless desires, and little appreciation of life and nature. Given this grave situation, Schweitzer’s philosophy of “reverence for life” as a way of loving and appreciating this sacred planet on which we are privileged to live, and the Indian idea of ahimsa as a humane way of resolving our conflicts peacefully and making a better world gains a new significance. It is thus appropriate to close this essay with a quote from Albert Schweitzer himself:

“Ethics are complete, profound, and alive only when addressed to all living beings. Only then we are in spiritual connection with the world … Profound love demands a deep conception and out of this develops reverence for the mystery of life. It brings us close to all beings. To the poorest and smallest, as well as all others. We reject the idea that man is ‘master of other creatures,’ ‘lord’ above all others. We bow to reality. We recognize that all existence is a mystery, like our own existence. The poor fly which we would like to kill with our hand has come into existence like ourselves. It knows anxiety, it knows hope for happiness, it knows fear of not existing any more. Has any man so far been able to create a fly? That is why our neighbor is not only man: my neighbor is a creature like myself, subject to the same joys, the same fears, and the idea of reverence for life gives us something more profound and mightier than the idea of humanism. It includes all living beings” (Quoted in The Schweitzer Album, edited by Erica Anderson, 1965, p. 174).

Rasoul Sorkhabi graduated from universities in India and Japan, doing his Ph.D. thesis on the geology of the Himalayas. He is currently a Research Professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City where he lives with his wife Setsuko. The couple published articles on Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Rumi, and the Dalai Lama. This article was first published in the UK monthly Yoga & Health, April 2006, and has been slightly modified by the author for The Gandhi Way. He can be contacted at Copyright: Rasoul Sorkhabi (2006, 2008).

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Categories: Nonviolence


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One Comment on “Albert Schweitzer and Indian Thought – by Rasoul Sorkhabi”

  1. February 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Very interesting and thought provoking posting about Albert Schweitzer. I have a link to it in my 2/2/09 Avenues to Success Notes posting to encourage others to read it.


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