German Migrants and the Circulation of Buddhist Knowledge between Germany and British Ceylon

During the first half of the twentieth century, a few Germans migrated to British Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and changed the local understanding of Buddhism. This translation process started in Germany with the publication of Karl Eugen Neumann’s German translations from the Pali Canon. These translations, especially the edition from 1911 and the posthumously published works from 1921/22, became bestsellers in Germany. They were widely revered, judged by many as comparable only to Shakespeare’s writings and as culturally significant as Luther’s Bible translation.1 The reception of these publications was part of a Buddhist boom in German culture in the early decades of the twentieth century. In intellectual and artistic circles, it seemed that everybody was reading about the Buddha: Hermann Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Mauthner, Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, and many more engaged with the Buddha’s writings.

Buddhism’s arrival in German-speaking Europe was mediated by books. Most Germans with an affinity for Buddhist thought or a desire to actually become Buddhist, however they understood under this term, gained their knowledge through texts. The scarcity of reliable information about Buddhism often resulted in confusion about what constituted Buddhist practices or ideas in the first place. Often basic knowledge was lacking, but that did not deter those looking to live an authentic Buddhist life. Anton Gueth was probably the first German who migrated to South Asia to become a Buddhist monk. He began in India, birthplace of the Buddha and Buddhism, although very few Buddhists had actually lived there since the twelfth century.

After the initial phase of explorers like Gueth venturing into terra incognita, knowledge about Buddhism, about its ideas, practices, rituals, and Asian homelands, was transmitted back to Europe via letters, books, and Buddhist journals. It was patchy and often faulty, but that did not deter German Buddhists, many of whom saw Neumann’s translations as an adequate tool for gaining an understanding of the Buddha’s ideas, which would augment their current Weltanschauung. For others, however, Buddhism did more than supplement their worldview. Instead it afforded a complete substitute and thus required the acquisition of additional knowledge about how one could live as a Buddhist in the present.

Title page of Neumann's posthumously published translation, via the Internet Archive
Title page of Der Buddhist, "Independent German monthly for the entire field of Buddhism," vol. 1 (1905/06), via the Internet Archive.
First page from first issue of Der Buddhist, via the Internet Archive.

Those in the know met such needs with a wide range of publications, including not only more translations and anthologies but also, crucially, journals and magazines like Der Buddhist, Die Buddhistische Warte, and Der Pfad, which conveyed a steady flow of information from Asia to the German-speaking public in Europe. Especially intriguing were reports that offered a glance at Buddhist lifeways. Here British Ceylon played a vital role for two main reasons. First, it was closely associated with Theravada Buddhism and the Pali Canon which, dominated German understandings of Buddhism at this time. Second, British Ceylon had an image among Buddhist circles in the West as the holy land of Buddhism. With that came the apparent promise of pure Buddhism.

The center of German-Buddhist migration was the Island Hermitage, founded in 1911 by Anton Gueth. Born in 1878 in Wiesbaden, Germany, Gueth was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1903 in Rangun, Burma, and took the name Nyanatiloka. During the First World War, Nyanatiloka was held in the Diyatalava internment camp in British Ceylon, and in 1919 he was repatriated to Germany.2 After a short stint there, which he used to publicize the Island Hermitage in German Buddhist circles and thus attract new adherents and benefactors, he spent the next several years in Japan teaching Pali, before returning to the Island Hermitage in 1926. The Hermitage had fallen apart due to neglect, but was soon rebuilt and attracted more visitors thanks to its prominent status in the German Buddhist scene.

In German Buddhist circles, mostly centered in Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, and Breslau, the Hermitage had gained an almost mythical reputation. Personal accounts, published in German Buddhist journals and often full of exaggerations, provided welcome material for curious readers. Practical information about travel routes, visa requirements, and living conditions were also disseminated through informal networks by word of mouth or letters. This continuous circulation of knowledge that facilitated German migration to British Ceylon in the interwar period. Potential migrants now had more reliable information and could access supportive networks instead venturing into the complete unknown. Soon these networks became institutionalized. German migrants brought a penchant for clubs and associations with them, and in 1931 they founded the International Buddhist Association, the first ecumenical Buddhist organization, so to speak.

In many cases, however, the reality migrants encountered led to disillusionment. In 1934, the German nun Else Buchholz, also known as Uppalavanna, wrote, “Besides the Venerable Nyanatiloka, Vappo [Ludwig Stolz], and a new samanera [novice monk], all of the Germans who came here have left again.”3 Yet as Germans fled Nazi Germany, a couple dozen sought refuge in British Ceylon. Again, the Island Hermitage grew. Then, with the beginning of the Second World War, all of the Germans, including the significant percentage of Jewish descent, were brought to Colombo for a short time before being sent to the internment camp in Diyatalava, British Ceylon. This was the second time for Nyanatiloka (Gueth). In all, ninety-five Germans were interned there, two-thirds of them merchants and sailors stranded on the island at the start of the war. These sixty-seven men, sixteen women, and twelve children were then sent to the Dehra Dun camp in British India.4

After the war, only a few Buddhists of German decent returned to Ceylon from India to revive the German Buddhist legacy, yet they did so with remarkable success. Besides Nyanatiloka (Gueth), a couple more people stand out. One was Siegmund (Sholom) Feniger, today primarily known as Nyanaponika, born in Hanau on July 21, 1901, and raised in a secular Jewish household in which both German patriotism and cultural Judaism intersected. Feniger arrived in 1936 and quickly established a reputation as a prodigy. He was a prolific writer and became one of the foremost Buddhist intellectuals of twentieth century Sri Lanka, a towering figure who left a heavy footprint on the Buddhist landscape until his death in 1994.

Karl Eugen Neumann (1865–1915), via Wikimedia Commons
Nyanatiloka Mahathera, born Anton Gueth (1878–1957), via Wikimedia Commons
Nyanaponika Mahathera, born Siegmund (Schlomo) Feniger (1901–1994), via Wikimedia Commons

There were also the brothers Peter and Malte Schönfeldt, born into a middle-class Jewish family and later part of a circle around Stefan George. Like Nyanaponika (Feniger), who had worked as a bookseller in Germany, Peter Schönfeldt had experience in the book trade, including through employment at a small publishing house in Berlin. The brothers were also part of the Hermitage community in the 1930s and 1940s and thus numbered among those interned by British authorities. Malte Schönfeldt shed his Buddhist robe in the 1950s and became one of Sri Lanka’s most eminent documentary filmmakers. Peter Schönfeldt also laid down his robe and became a Swami, a guru in the Hindu tradition.

The number of German Buddhist migrants with practical experience in the book trade is striking, and their knowledge of this field was bound up with the role that books played in mediating their knowledge of Buddhism. They continued this dual tradition in Ceylon. For them and from early on, language study, translation, and publishing played a crucial role in their faith practices. Nyanatiloka (Gueth) founded the short-lived publishing house Island Hermitage Publications in 1948. Ten years later, Nyanaponika (Feniger) co-founded the Buddhist Publication Society, still the most important publishing house for Buddhist texts in English and Sinhala in Sri Lanka today

The ensuing transmission of knowledge through texts changed the local understandings of Buddhism considerably. Besides publishing expertise, Germans brought to the undertaking a tradition of Indology, the meticulous philological study of original South Asian texts, pioneered already by the Schlegel brothers in the Romantic era. This tradition guided the German Buddhists in their efforts to make Buddhist texts accessible to a German audience and, later, to Sri Lankan society at large.

The scholarly expertise and piousness of this handful of German Buddhists is beyond doubt in Sri Lanka today. At the same time, they introduced a previously unusual reliance on texts to Buddhism there. As a consequence, many local indigenous Buddhist traditions came to be seen as entailing interpolations into the pure text-based Buddhism espoused by the German Buddhists. Even Sri Lankans hold such views. Together with the Pali Text Society founded by the British civil servant Thomas Rhys Davids in 1881, the Buddhist Publication Society gained so much influence that they significantly shaped the perception of Buddhism in British Ceylon and Sri Lanka. In fact, the Buddhism they produced in the texts differed greatly from the religious traditions on the ground. The preeminent scholar of Theravada Buddhism, Richard Gombrich, argues that two types of Buddhism exist in Sri Lanka today—one traditional with local variations and one modern, the textual invention of a handful of British and German Buddhists.5 Ironically, these German Buddhists had migrated to British Ceylon precisely because they had wanted to leave behind the purely textual reconstruction that had introduced them to Buddhism in order to engage with the lived traditions on the island. In doing so, they changed what they had set out to know.

This history must also be seen within the framework of colonialism in two important ways. There was the German Orientalism that pervaded Germans’ interest in Buddhism. And there was the British Empire and the information that flowed from its colonies in South Asia. Because the German migrants were European, they ranked rather high in the colonial hierarchy in British Ceylon. As migrants from a nation Britain was at war with, however, their situation proved precarious. British authorities interned and subsequently deported them in both World Wars. Yet the German Buddhists returned and left a lasting legacy, changing the religious landscape on the island of Ceylon. Their story offers an interesting example of knowledge translation in a local framework, not to mention the relationship that texts can play in religious change. It tells us about one kind of religious migration between Europe and Asia as well as about the circular flow of knowledge that could accompany it with surprising effects.

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Sebastian Musch is a research fellow at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) and in the Department of History and the University of Osnabrück. He is the author of Jewish Encounters with Buddhism in German Culture (Palgrave 2019), and his Twitter handle is @sebastian_musch.

  1. Hellmuth Hecker, Die Lehre des Buddha und Karl Eugen Neumann: Eine Betrachtung zum 90. Geburtstag K. E. Neumanns (Konstanz: Verlag Christiani, 1955), 31. ↩︎
  2. My biographical sketch follows Bhikkhu Nyanatusita and Hellmuth Hecker, The Life of Nyanatiloka Thera: The Biography of a Western Buddhist Pioneer (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 2008). ↩︎
  3. Walter Mangelsdorf, Erlebnis Indien: Besinnliche Reise von Ceylon nach Buddha Gaya (Braunschweig: Vieweg-Verlag, 1950), 23. ↩︎
  4. Fünftes Merkblatt über die Lage der Deutschen in Britisch-Indien und auf Ceylon, Archiv des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte, Munich, ED 353-2-27, fol. 13. ↩︎
  5. Richard F. Gombrich, Buddhist Precepts and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon (London: Routledge, 2009), 65. “Invention” here in the sense used by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Sebastian Musch, "German Migrants and the Circulation of Buddhist Knowledge between Germany and British Ceylon," Migrant Knowledge, April 18, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/04/18/circulation-of-buddhist-knowledge-between-germany-and-british-ceylon/.
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