Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher and poet whose work has greatly influenced modern thinkers. Perceiving that traditional Christian values had lost their influence in society, he coined the phrase “God is dead.” His concept of the Ūbermensch, or “superman,” was misinterpreted by the Nazis to try to justify their aggression. Here Śrīla Prabhupāda explains who the Ūbermensch really is.
Disciple: Schopenhauer spoke of the “blind will” of the individual as being the basic propelling force that keeps the soul tied to material existence, to transmigration from body to body. Nietzsche, on the other hand, spoke of der Wille zur Macht, the “will to power,” which is a different kind of will. This will is not used for subjugating others but for mastering one’s lower self. It is characterized by self-control and an interest in art and philosophy. Most people are envious of others, but it is the duty of the noble man, the philosopher, to transcend this envy by sheer willpower. In Nietzsche’s own words, the philosopher “shakes off with one shrug much vermin that would have buried itself deep in others.” When the philosopher has rid himself of resentment and envy, he can even embrace his enemies with a kind of Christian love.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This is called spiritual power. Envy is a symptom of conditioned life. In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is stated that the neophyte who wants to understand the Vedic literatures should not be envious. In this material world, everyone is envious. People are even envious of God and His instructions. Consequently people do not like to accept Kṛṣṇa’s instructions. Although Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead and is accepted as such by all the ācāryas, there are nonetheless foolish men called mūḍhas who either reject Kṛṣṇa’s instructions or try to screw out some contrary meaning from them. This envy is symptomatic of conditioned souls. Unless we are liberated from conditioned life, we will remain confused under the influence of the external material energy. Until we come to the spiritual platform, there is no possibility of escaping from envy and pride by so-called willpower. A person in the transcendental (brahma-bhūta) stage is described in the Bhagavad-gītā [18.54] as samaḥ sarveṣu bhūteṣu: He can look at everyone with the same spiritual understanding.
Disciple: Nietzsche calls the man who possesses spiritual power the Ūbermensch, a word meaning literally “above-man” and often translated as “superman.” The Ūbermensch is totally self-controlled, unafraid of death, simple, aware, and self-reliant. He is so powerful that he can change the lives of others simply on contact. Nietzsche never referred to any historical person as the Ūbermensch, nor did he consider himself such.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: We accept the guru as the genuine superman because he is worshiped like God and can put one in touch with God and His grace. Yasya prasādād bhagavat-prasādaḥ: “By the mercy of the guru one receives the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Caitanya Mahāprabhu also accepts this: guru-kṛṣṇa-prasāde pāya bhakti-latā-bīja: “By the mercy of Kṛṣṇa and the guru one receives information about spiritual life so that he can return home, back to Godhead.” Śrī Caitanya Mahaprabhu requested everyone to become gurus, or supermen. The superman distributes transcendental knowledge strictly according to the authorized version he has received from his superior. This is called paramparā, the disciplic succession. One superman delivers this supreme knowledge to another superman, and this knowledge was originally delivered by God Himself.
Disciple: In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche concludes that all men want power. At the top of this hierarchy in the quest for power is the Ūbermensch. Thus the Ūbermensch would be one who has conquered his passions and attained all good qualifications. His actions are creative, and he does not envy others. He is constantly aware that death is always present, and he is so superior to others that he is almost like God in the world.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: In Sanskrit the real Ūbermensch or superman is called a svāmī or gosvāmī, who is described by Rūpa Gosvāmī as one who can control his words, mind, anger, tongue, belly, and genitals. These are the six forces that drive men to commit sinful activities. A gosvāmī can control these forces, especially the genitals, belly, and tongue, which are very hard to control. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura says, tā’ra madhye jihvā ati-lobhamaya sudurmati: The force of the tongue is very great, and for its gratification we create many artificial edibles. Nonsensical habits like smoking, drinking, and meat-eating have entered society simply due to the urges of the tongue. Actually, there is no need for these things. A person does not die simply because he cannot smoke, eat meat, or drink liquor. Rather, without these indulgences he can elevate himself to the highest platform. It is therefore said that one who can control the tongue can control the urges of the other senses also. One who can control all the senses—beginning with the tongue—is called a gosvāmī, or, as Nietzsche would say, the Ūbermensch. But this is impossible for an ordinary man.
Disciple: Nietzsche believed that everyone has a “will to power,” but that the weak seek power vainly. For instance, in his will to power, Hitler sought to subjugate as much of the world as possible, but he was ultimately unsuccessful, and he brought disaster upon himself and Germany. Instead of trying to conquer himself, he attempted to conquer others, and this is the will to power misdirected or misinterpreted.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Men like Hitler are not able to control the force of anger. A king or national leader has to use anger properly. Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura says that we should control our powers and apply them in the proper cases. We may become angry, but our anger must be controlled. For example, although Caitanya Mahāprabhu taught that we should be very submissive—humbler than the grass and more tolerant than a tree—He became very angry upon seeing His dear devotee Nityānanda Prabhu hurt by Jāgai and Mādhāi. Everything can be properly utilized in the service of Kṛṣṇa, but not for personal aggrandizement. In the material world, everyone is certainly after power, but the real superman is not after power for himself. He himself is a mendicant, a sannyāsī, but he acquires power for the service of the Lord. For instance, I came to America not to acquire material power but to distribute Kṛṣṇa consciousness. By the grace of Kṛṣṇa, all facilities have been afforded, and now, from the material point of view, I have become somewhat powerful. But this is not for my personal sense gratification; it is all for spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness. The conclusion is that power for Kṛṣṇa’s service is very valuable, but power for our own sense gratification is condemned.
Disciple: Hitler twisted Nietzsche’s philosophy, claiming that he was the Ūbermensch, although Nietzsche clearly says that the Ūbermensch is not intent on subjugating others but on subjugating his own passions. Such a superman is beyond good and evil and is not subject to mundane dualities.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, because the superman acts on behalf of God, he is transcendental. At the beginning of the Bhagavad-gītā, Arjuna was thinking like an ordinary person in his reluctance to fight. From the material point of view, nonviolence is a good qualification. Arjuna was excusing his enemies, although they had insulted him and his wife and usurped his kingdom. He pleaded before Kṛṣṇa that it would be better to let them enjoy his kingdom—”I am not going to fight.” Materially this appeared very laudable, but spiritually it was not, because Kṛṣṇa wanted him to fight. Finally Arjuna carried out Kṛṣṇa’s order and fought. Clearly, this kind of fighting was not for personal aggrandizement but for the service of Kṛṣṇa. So by using his power for the service of the Lord, Arjuna became a superman.
Disciple: In his writings on religion, Nietzsche expressed a dislike for the nihilism of the Buddhists and the caste system of the Hindus, especially the Hindu treatment of the untouchables.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is a later concoction by the caste Hindus. The true Vedic religion does not speak of untouchables. Caitanya Mahāprabhu Himself demonstrated His system by accepting so-called untouchables like Haridāsa Ṭhākura, who was born in a Muslim family. Although Haridāsa Ṭhākura was not accepted by Hindu society, Caitanya Mahāprabhu personally indicated that he was most exalted. Haridāsa Ṭhākura would not enter the temple of Lord Jagannātha because he did not want to create a commotion, but Caitanya Mahāprabhu Himself came to see Haridāsa every day. It is a basic principle of the Vedic religion that one should not be envious of anyone. Kṛṣṇa Himself says in Bhagavad-gītā [9.32]:
māṁ hi pārtha vyapāśritya ye ‘pi syuḥ pāpa-yonayaḥ
striyo vaiśyās tathā śūdrās te ‘pi yānti parāṁ gatim
“O son of Pṛthā, those who take shelter in Me—though they be lowborn, women, vaiśyas, or śūdras—can approach the supreme destination.” So despite birth in a lower family, if one is a devotee he is eligible to return home, back to Godhead. The śāstras do not speak of untouchables. Everyone is eligible to practice Kṛṣṇa consciousness and return to Godhead, provided the necessary spiritual qualifications are there.
Disciple: Nietzsche believed that by stressing the value of going to the transcendental world, a person would come to resent this world. He therefore personally rejected all formal religions.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This material world is described as a place of suffering (duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam). We do not know whether Nietzsche realized this or not, but if one actually understands the soul, he can realize that this material world is a place of suffering. Being part and parcel of God, the soul has the same qualities possessed by God. God is sac-cid-ānanda-vigraha, eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, and the living entities in the spiritual world have the same nature. But in material life their eternality, knowledge, and bliss are absent. It is therefore better that we learn to detest material existence and try to give it up (paraṁ dṛṣṭvā nivartate). The Vedas enjoin that we understand the spiritual world and try to return there (tamasi mā jyotir gama). The spiritual world is the kingdom of light, and this material world is the kingdom of darkness. The sooner we learn to avoid the world of darkness and return to the kingdom of light, the better it will be for us.
Disciple: Nietzsche was greatly influenced by the Greeks, and he was astounded that out of so few men, so many great individuals emerged. He attributed this to their struggling with their evil instincts, and he thought that even today, with the help of favorable measures, great individuals might be reared who would surpass all others. Thus Nietzsche believed that mankind ought to be constantly striving to produce great men—this and nothing else is man’s duty.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Everyone is trying to be a great man, but one’s greatness is genuine when he becomes God realized. The word veda means “knowledge,” and a person is great when he is conversant with the lessons of the Vedas. The object of knowledge, as described by Bhagavad-gītā, is God or the self. There are different methods for self-realization. However, since every individual is part and parcel of God, if one realizes God, he automatically realizes himself. God is compared to the sun. If the sun is out, we can see everything very clearly. Similarly, in the Vedas it is said, yasmin vijñāte sarvam evaṁ vijñātaṁ bhavati (Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.3): “By understanding God, we understand all other things.” Then we automatically become jolly (brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā). The word prasannātmā means “jolly.” At that time we can see that everyone is exactly like ourselves (samaḥ sarveṣu-bhūteṣu) because everyone is part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. At this point, real service to the Lord begins, and we attain the platform of knowledge, bliss, and eternity.
Disciple: Nietzsche was emphatic in stating that there has never yet been a superman. He writes, “All too similar are men to each other. Verily even the greatest I found all too human.” Nor does the superman evolve in the Darwinian sense. Nietzsche thought the Ūbermensch a possibility at present if man uses all his spiritual and physical energies. He wrote, “Dead are all the gods; now do we desire the superman to live.” But how is the Ūbermensch possible without an object for his spiritual energies?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: We become supermen if we engage in the service of the Supreme Person. The Supreme Being is a person, and the superman is also a person. Nityo nityānāṁ cetanaś cetanānām: “God is the chief among all personalities.” The superman has no other business than carrying out the orders of the Supreme Being. Kṛṣṇa, or God, wants to make everyone a superman. He therefore orders, sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja: “Give up everything and simply surrender to Me.” [Bhagavad-gītā 18.66] If we can understand and follow this instruction, we are supermen. The ordinary man thinks, “I have my independence and can do something myself. Why should I surrender?” However, as soon as he realizes that his only duty is to surrender to Kṛṣṇa, that he has no other duty in this material world, he becomes the superman. This consciousness is attained after many, many births (bahūnāṁ janmanām ante). After many lifetimes, when one actually attains full knowledge of Kṛṣṇa, he surrenders unto Him. As soon as he surrenders, he becomes the superman.
Disciple: Nietzsche would reject dependence on anything exterior to the superman himself. In other words, he would reject “props.” But isn’t it impossible for a man to elevate himself to that platform without depending on the Supreme Lord?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Of course, and therefore Kṛṣṇa says, “Depend upon Me.” You have to be dependent, and if you do not depend on Kṛṣṇa, you have to depend on the dictations of māyā, illusion. There are many philosophers and politicians who depend on others or on their own whimsical ideas, but we should depend on the perfect instructions of God. The fact is that every living being is dependent; he cannot be independent. If he voluntarily depends on the instructions of God, he becomes the genuine superman, or Ūbermensch.
Disciple: Nietzsche’s superman appears to resemble the haṭha-yogī, who elevates himself by his own efforts seemingly independent of God.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, seemingly. As soon as a haṭha-yogī gets some extraordinary mystic powers, he thinks that he has become God. This is another mistake, since no one can become God. A yogī may attain some mystical powers by practice or by the favor of the Lord, but these powers are not sufficient to enable him to become God. There are many who think that through meditation or haṭha-yoga it is possible to become equal to God, but this is another illusion, another dictation of māyā. Māyā is always saying, “Why depend on God? You can become God yourself.”
Disciple: Independence seems to be central to Nietzsche’s philosophy. In a sense, his superman is somewhat like Hiraṇyakaśipu, who performed so many penances to gain immortality and who made the demigods tremble to see his austerities.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, and ultimately he was outwitted by the Supreme Himself. Actually, it is not good to struggle for material power and control over others. If one becomes a devout servant of God, he becomes the superman automatically and acquires many sincere followers. One does not have to undergo severe austerities; everything can be mastered in one stroke.
Disciple: And what of sense control?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If one becomes a devotee of the Supreme Lord, he controls his senses automatically, but he never thinks that he has become God, or the supreme controller.
Disciple: One last point on Nietzsche. He believed in what is called eternal recurrence—that is, after this universe has been destroyed, it will be repeated again after many eons.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: In the Bhagavad-gītā it is stated, bhūtvā bhūtvā pralīyate: “This material world is created at a certain point, maintained for a certain period, and then destroyed.” [Bhagavad-gītā 8.19] This material world is created for the conditioned soul, who is put here in order to learn his position as the eternal servant of God. Lord Brahmā, the first created being in the universe, is given the Vedic instructions, and he distributes them through the disciplic succession, which descends from Brahmā to Nārada, from Nārada to Vyāsadeva, from Vyāsadeva to Śukadeva Gosvāmī, and so on. These instructions enjoin the conditioned soul to return home, back to Godhead. If the conditioned soul rejects these instructions, he remains in the material world until it is annihilated. At that time he remains in an unconscious state, just like a child within the womb of his mother. In due course of time his consciousness revives, and he again takes birth. The point is that anyone can take advantage of the Vedic instructions, become a superman or Ūbermensch, and go back to Godhead. Unfortunately, the conditioned living entities are so attached to the material world that they repeatedly want to take up material bodies. In this way history actually repeats itself, and there is again creation, maintenance, and destruction.