Zimmer, Heinrich Robert

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ZIMMER, HEINRICH ROBERT (18901943), German Indologist and comparative mythologist. Son of the Sanskritist and Celticist Heinrich Friedrich Zimmer (18501910), Heinrich (Henry) Robert Zimmer was born in Greifswald, in present-day Germany, on December 6, 1890. Beginning his studies in Berlin in Hebrew literature, Germanics, and art history, he received his doctorate in 1913 with a thesis on India's traditional system of gotras. After service in World War I, he qualified as professor at Greifswald and then moved to Heidelberg in 1922. Zimmer's marriage to Christiane von Hofmannsthal, daughter of the Jewish poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and his consistent outspokenness as an anti-Nazi were causes for his eventual dismissal from the university in 1938. After lecturing at Oxford and Johns Hopkins universities, Zimmer was appointed visiting lecturer at Columbia University in 1941. He died of pneumonia two years later, on March 20, 1943.

Although the son of one of Germany's pioneering Indologists, whose Altindische Leben: Die Kultur der vedischen Arier is a landmark in Vedic studies, Heinrich Zimmer is most often linked rather to two other persons: Joseph Campbell and, particularly, C. G. Jung. Jung apparently first learned of Zimmer through the latter's Kuntsform und Yoga im indischen Kultbild (1926), a work that introduced Tantric studies to Jung and to much of educated Europe. Zimmer and Jung first met in 1932, and their deep friendship, based on shared strong interests, had important consequences for both; not least important was their joint founding of the Psychology Seminar of Zurich. As editor of Zimmer's posthumous English publications, upon which Zimmer's reputation principally rests, Joseph Campbell's role also has been extremely important.

Zimmer's passionate interest in Indian thought and spirituality as witnesses to the universal aspirations of the human spirit marked something of a departure from contemporary and immediately preceding continental approaches to the study of India's religions, and is reminiscent rather of the attitudes of such late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German Romantics as Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel. With Sir John Woodroffe (also known as Arthur Avalon), who seems strongly to have influenced his own thought, Zimmer was among the first in the twentieth century to urge that understanding the adventure of Indian religious and philosophical thought would help one better understand one's own situation in the world. This enthusiastic, personal element represents an early flowering of a new, "second-generation" attitude in the European study of non-European religious thought and culture. Rather than holding the "alien" cultural material at arm's length, Zimmer embraced it (though he was never able to fulfill his wish to visit India). While his enthusiasm led to certain excesses and disputable interpretations of India's religions, Zimmer's own example eloquently suggests the importance of such enthusiasm for true understanding. In Jung's words, Zimmer's was "a spirit that overcame the limitations of the specialist and, turning towards humanity, bestowed upon it the joyous gift of eternal fruit" (Jung, Collected Works, vol. 11, 1963, p. 577).


Had Zimmer written nothing else, his The Art of Indian Asia, 2 vols., completed and edited by Joseph Campbell (New York, 1950), would have assured his reputation and importance. Four others of his works are available in English. His important Kuntsform und Yoga im indischen Kultbild (Berlin, 1926) is now translated into English by Gerald Chapple and James B. Lawson as Artistic Form and Yoga in the Sacred Images of India (Princeton, N.J., 1984). Joseph Campbell also completed and edited three further works. Possibly the most engaging of these is Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (New York, 1946), which remains among the more useful introductions to traditional Indian thought and culture. The essays constituting The King and the Corpse (New York, 1948) well illustrate Zimmer's broad interests in comparative mythology and folklore. No doubt the liveliest introduction to the sweep of classical Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy is his Philosophies of India (New York, 1951), though some of his interpretations must be treated with caution.

A charming autobiographical sketch written by Zimmer only three months before his death is included as an appendix in Chapple and Lawson's translation of Kunstform und Yoga along with a select bibliography (pp. 243267). Heinrich Zimmer: Coming into His Own, edited by Margaret H. Case (Princeton, N.J., 1994) is a volume of illuminating essays stemming from a 1990 Columbia University conference celebrating Zimmer's birth centenary. Among these essays are two personal reminiscences (one by Zimmer's daughter), Zimmer's own estimate of Jung's significance for his work, and helpful assessments of Joseph Campbell's role in preserving and transmitting Zimmer's scholarship by Wendy Doniger and Gerald Chapple. Inter alia, Chapple notes the substantial amount of Zimmer's scholarly and popular writing in German that remains untranslated.

G. R. Welbon (1987 and 2005)

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