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Indian Motives in Russian Culture
January 27, 2014 11:33

Direct and mediated culture-historical links of Russia and India are rooted in hoary antiquity. They appeared much earlier than trade and economic relations of the two countries.

Some of the ancient Russian songs recorded by folklore collectors in the 18th – 20th centuries mention India and word-paint this faraway fantastic country. Thus, an ancient song of the 9th-12th cc is dedicated to the Indrik Beast, a mythological mighty character, the father of all beasts, who abides in abundant India. Interestingly, the character is sometimes called Indra as well, and it is clear from the song that its authors had some picture of the fantastically rich country and heard about Indra from the pantheon of Indian gods.

In Russian fairy tales, legends, and bylinas India always remained an amazing, fruitful and generous land, inhabited by fine and wise people.

In search of trade the epic Novgorodian Sadko, and then the real Tver merchant Afanasy Nikitin undertook risky and stunning journey to India.

One of the most mysterious facts is that in different parts of Russia, in particular, the Vologda, Arkhangelsk, Perm, and Omsk Regions, as well as in Siberia there is a number of rivers and lakes under meaningful Sanskrit names, such as Ganges, Shiva, Kama, Tara, or those referring to India as such, for instance Indiga, Indossat, Sindyushka, Indomanka, etc.
Data about the faraway India reached the Russian land in two ways: from books and via direct contacts with the East. In the 11th century lots of descriptions and chronicles came to Russia from Byzantium and Bulgaria. Extensive historical data, including archaeological finds, testify to quite broad communications of the Old Kievan Rus’ with the East. Keeping that in mind, it is very strange that Old Russian chronicles contained few records about India. So, the first Pskov chronicle of 1352 mentions about a terrible epidemic pointing that “some decided the pestilence had come from the Indian land, from the Sun City”.

Moreover, the well-known literary monument Legend on Indian Kingdom that appeared during the crusades in Europe, and then in Russia, told some fantastic nonsense about Hindus, like about horned, three-legged and six-handed people with dog heads, etc. Only after the courageous travel of the Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin from Tver to mysterious India in the mid 15th century people here got trustworthy information. In his monumental groundbreaking book titled A Journey Beyond the Three Seas (Khozheniye za tri morya) Afanasi Nikitin gave realistic description of the mysterious country.
As for detailed bookish acquaintance with India, it started right after the Christianization of Kievan Rus', with the inflow of Greek and South Slavic books. In the 12th century there was the renowned Story of Barlaam and Iosaph (Persian Belawhar o Būdāsaf), a Greek Christianized novel of Buddhist origins. It was a peculiar transcription of the legend biography of Buddha. The name Iosaph is a corrupt arabicized form of Bodhisattva.

The Story inspired and became the basis for a number of creations by the Russian poets V.A. Zhukovsky and A.N. Maykov.
In that period and in later time stories about Indian Naga Brahmin wise men became known in Russia. Thus, in the 15th century the scribe Efrosin wrote Tale of Brahmins and Their Divine Life based on chronicles by Amartol and other sources. The author emphasized the piety of Brahmins, who were “free from acquisitiveness”.

The Legend on Indian Kingdom also played a big role in making the image of India among Russians. Translated from Latin, it included tales of a distant rich country with exotic animals, emeralds and rivers flowing from paradise. A detailed description of India was part of the illustrious composition Alexandria that had several versions. The earliest of them dates to the 11th-12th centuries. It paid special attention to Brahmins, who “are not burdened with sins, unlike us, but humbly live near angels, and Lord grants them with bliss”. Rich India became a steady image of the Russian bylinas (epic folk tales). For example, there is a bylina about Duke Stepanovich, who boasted to the Kievan Prince Vladimir about treasures of his homeland India.

In the 15th century the story of Indian origin – Stephanite and Ikhnilat – came to Russia. It goes back to Indian Panchatantra, which was translated from Sanskrit into Pehlevi and then Arabic. In the 11th century it was translated into Greek and supplemented with inserts from the Bible and antique authors. The Slavic version is attributed to St. John of Damascus.
Real interest in India was shown under Ivan the Terrible, who paid special attention to finding new ways to this country. So, in the draft agreement with Iran in the late 16th century they agreed about Russia’s trading with India through Iran territory. Though Russia had no official contacts with India at that time, nevertheless some Russian merchants got there. In the 1590s the Russian merchant Leonti Yudin lived in Bukhara and India for nine years. Indian merchants also came to trade in Russia. Russian-Indian trade relations grew more stable and intense in the 17th century. In that period Indian trading stations were based in Astrakhan, and Moscow government started to arrange special diplomatic and trade missions to Great Moguls. It marked a new stage in the history of Russia-India relations and brand new understanding of India in Russia. Gradually the bookish and fairy tale image of India gave way to solid scientific studies and reports by Russians and foreign travelers of the late 17th century.

An officially new level of cultural and economic relations with India was experienced under Catherine II, that is in the late 18th – early 19th. Journeys of Russian people to India became more and more frequent. In the 1940s for example the publicist and artist A.D. Saltykov visited it twice and even published his travel essays. Another Russian traveler A.G. Rotchev in later time made a horse-riding trip traveled all around India.

All these factors prompted a lot of outstanding Russian writers to resort to the Indian subject. The renowned historian N. M. Karamzin translated fragments from the world famous drama The Sign of Shakuntala by Kalidasa into Russian.
The influence of Old Indian culture on Russian culture as part of the world culture was great. Illustrious Russian thinkers and men of letters, including Zhukovsky, Belinsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin, Konstantin Balmont, Vasily Vereshchagin, and Nicholas Roerich had a profound interest in philosophy, religion, literature and art of India. Gerasim Lebedev laid the foundation of the Russian Indology, which contributed a lot to deep studies of the Indian cultural heritage. This talented person arrived in India in 1785 and spent there 12 years. Being a musician, he organized the first theater in Calcutta.
Final formation of domestic Indology is justly associated with Ivan Minayev, who also visited India and published a number of linguistic and historical works about it. His students V. P. Vasilyev, S.V. Oldenburg, F.I. Shcherbatskoy, as well as their teacher were engaged in research of Indian religions and languages and became world-famous.

One should not forget the most vital condition for Indian influence on Russian culture: it is the openness of Russian culture. Russia has always been deeply interested in other cultures, especially Oriental ones. Its openness made it possible to adopt and adapt a palette of Oriental motives, including the Indian ones.

These loans can be traced in Russian literature and poetry, music and painting, even in fashion and modern stage.
Indian motives can be found in works by great Russian writers and poets, including Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy, who are the embodiments of nearly all truly Russian literature.

So, how can one explain presence of numerous Indian motives in Russian culture? In other words, what is the reason for spiritual affinity of Russian and Indian cultures? Numerous authors look for the answer to this question in our common historic roots, genealogical relationship and the hypothesis that the Arians came to India in the 2nd millennium BC and brought with them the culture developed under the influence of the people that lived nearby, i.e. the Slavs.

(Based on the article by Prof. A.Ya. Sokolovsky)



Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Culture     

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