What similarities exist between Nietzsche's theory of the Eternal Recurrence and Eastern Religions?

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Answered by: Richard, An Expert in the Alternative Religions - General Category
Although some seem to see a strong affinity between Friedrich Nietzsche’s discussion of the eternal recurrence and the Buddhist view of samsara (which, incidentally, isn’t really “reincarnation” at all), this feeble connection makes me chuckle slightly. But what kind of a Nietzsche reflection would this be if I were to escape without laughing? And now, lest the gaiety should be allowed to subside, I intend to use this short essay to dance in malicious jubilation upon the ignorance that informs the previously stated perspective.

While I do heartily agree that Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal recurrence could easily find a home in eastern religion, I do not agree that Buddhism is the most obvious place to look. Rather, it is my view that the best place to look for a picture of Nietzsche’s thinking and attitude as a whole would be Sanatana Dharma (popularly known as Hinduism, which is what I shall call it from this point forward). More specifically, it is my assertion that much of what Nietzsche is saying can be seen in the traditional Hindu concept of the deity Shiva as Nataraja: The Lord of Dance.

In spite of the fact that it would be far more Nietzschean of me simply to continue ranting on at this point, I would like to begin by explaining why I do not think that it is appropriate to see the eternal recurrence as being similar to samsara.

First, as briefly mentioned above, the Buddhist view of samsara is not actually a view about anything that is at all like what most people think of when they use the word “reincarnation.” Buddhist teachings reject the notion of any sort of permanent soul (a concept referred to as anatman or anatta as opposed to the earlier Hindu atman) and they clearly involve the belief that you and I as we are now will never again exist after our deaths (either through “reincarnation” or an eternal recurrence).

Rather, in the Buddhist view of samsara, you and I each consist of five skandhas or “bundles” of personality which can be thought of roughly as our individual character attributes. When we die, our skandhas are separated from one another as they are simultaneously flung back into a great cosmic soup of all of the skandhas that are not currently being used. From this cosmic soup, new personalities are eventually ladled out again and are made up of skandhas that used to be parts of other personalities.

(wikipedia.com – “Skhanda”)

For example, it would be not be impossible for a future personality to have my sense of humor, Gandhi’s devotion to ahimsa, and Jack Temkin’s affinity for wine and cigars (assuming that the grapes and tobacco had been produced under fair trading and labor conditions, of course). In any case, this concept is so far removed from Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence that it is rather laughable to even compare them.

Secondly, samsara (be it what it is made out to be the Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Sikh or any other view) falls miserably short of the grandeur of the eternal recurrence. Sure, it is a high and fanciful thing to think of what it might be like to be “reincarnated” as somebody else or even something else, but this too is not even close to what Nietzsche appears to have had in mind. What has your life, reader, been like thus far? Has it been mostly pleasant or mostly sad? Did your dog get hit by a car when you were a child? Did you fall off your bike when you were seven? Did you get good grades in high school? Were you bullied by someone whose boss you will probably be some day?

Well, I hope you do not have too many complaints because according to Nietzsche, at least, it will be that way for you again… and again, and again, and again, and again just as it always has been and forever will be. You will never be anything but what you really are, and you will never experience anything other than what you have experienced before and will experience again, right down to the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant detail. In my mind, samsara doesn’t come close to capturing the extremity of this claim!

What, then, should we do in light of these things? Why, dance, of course!

The Hindu god Shiva certainly has no problem with this suggestion. In fact, his doing so is thought by some to correlate directly with the destructive and creative phases in the cyclical view of time (kalachakra) that is adhered to by traditional Hinduism. According to Hindu teachings, time can be viewed circularly (or, perhaps as Zarathustra would say, a “ring”)(The Portable Nietzsche, 340-343), consisting of four stages or yugas. The kalachakra represents an eternal recurrence of creation and destruction with the end of the destructive kali yuga phase leading directly into the creative satya yuga phase. (about.com - Time in Hinduism, The 4 Yugas)

This process is often represented by an image known as “The Dance of Nataraja,” in which the stern-faced, tangled-haired Shiva is shown dancing on top of a mean-looking demon while surrounded by a fiery ring. It is said that Shiva’s dancing itself is representative of the ongoing creation and destruction of the universe (Shiva dances hard during the destruction and more softly during the creation), the demon represents what can roughly be called ignorance (maya), the flaming ring represents the eternally repeating cycle of time (the greater context in which samsara takes place), Shiva’s expression shows his acceptance of the cycle itself, and his long, unkempt hair is supposed to display his rejection of social ties and responsibilities. (lotussculpture.com, wikipedia.com – “Nataraja”)

What, the reader might ask, does a more-than-human being who dances with all his might as both a destroyer of ignorance and a creator of life while acknowledging an eternally recurring cycle of time and choosing to live as a hermit have to do with Nietzsche? Well, if I have to illustrate the connection in detail then the reader must not be very familiar with Nietzsche’s writing! Now, obviously there are many stark differences between Nietzsche’s thinking and the basic tenets of Hinduism, but the imagery of The Dance of Nataraja seems in my mind to bear a striking resemblance to Nietzsche’s attitude towards life as expressed in The Birth of Tragedy, The Gay Science, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In conclusion, what difference does any of this make (to mangle slightly a proverb of Zarathustra)?(The Portable Nietzsche, 430) Really none, ultimately, except perhaps that it may serve to draw attention to Nietzsche’s incredibly vast and deep knowledge of ancient teachings due to his training and career in philology (assuming any of his thinking was actually drawn from Hinduism, which would not be entirely unbelievable in light of his many textual references to Buddhism but which is, at the same time, entirely speculative on my part). In any case, perhaps it would be best to treat these possibilities as more aesthetically interesting than gravely academic.

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