Johan and Vedanta

    Johan der Sleeve and Vedanta

    (Part 1)
    Kees Boukema

    Philosopher and poet Johan Andreas dèr Mouw [1863-1919] is an exceptional figure in Dutch literature. He was an intelligent thinker, who read Sanskrit effortlessly and who, according to experts, also possessed impressive mathematical insight. In everyday life, however, Dèr Mouw was clumsy and often eccentric and maladjusted in dealing with people. He opposed the Christian faith and was allergic to hypocrisy, but he liked to debate with sincere Christians and he helped them if necessary (Lucien Custers, Alleen in wervelend wereld, Roermond, 2018, p. 139 et seq.).

    As a philosopher, Dèr Mouw spended much of his considerable energy, writing talent and sarcasm on combating the work of Leiden professor G.J.P.J. Bolland (1854-1922). A scholar, who was seen as an important philosopher in the Netherlands in the 19th century, but is nowadays put aside as an epigone and advocate of the German philosopher Hegel (1770-1812). [See Willem Otterspeer, Bolland, A biography, A’dam, 1995, p. 352 and Custers, p. 197].

    In his study “Het Absolute Idealisme” (The Hague, 1905), Dèr Mouw characterizes Bolland’s view that ‘by logical reasoning the pure truth could be found’ as an illusion. Dèr Mouw shows that the language Bolland uses to think and communicate is too limited and impure due to the use of imagery and analogies and is also evidently influenced by religious, moral and aesthetic tendencies. Moreover, Bolland ignores the fact that what a person experiences through perception is only an image of reality, not reality itself. Whether that reality also exists outside of consciousness cannot be proven. Dèr Mouw reproaches Bolland for ignoring this matter.

    For most philosophers this, so-called “solipsism”, is a theoretical problem. But for Dèr Mouw (as well as for Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and later also for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951) it was bitterly serious: A lived experience of oppressive loneliness and fear. The possibility that there is no outside world not only led Dèr Mouw to doubt about his own identity, but also turned his emotional life upside down, partly as a result of an unhappy love affair. Because of all this Dèr Mouw fell into a deep depression and tended towards suicide.

    His essays show, according to his biographer, that in that difficult period Dèr Mouw also started to look to the East for the answer to his life questions. In his view, the Buddha and Immanuel Kant were, in fact, promulgating the same ideas. They originated from a mystical experience that is expressed in concepts. The Western philosophers turned these ideas or revelations into rationally reasoned constructions.


    According to Dèr Mouw, one should go back from the concepts to the mood, the mystical awareness, from which they arise. In the Upanishads, for example, there is little argumentation and thus the attention is not mentally fixed. Brahmanism and Buddhism show that “a complete worldview or religion can be founded on the same principles” (“Misbruik van Mystiek,” 1916; Custers, pp. 125/126 and 236-242).