Buddhist Undercurrents in the Late Work of Velimir Xlebnikov

Andrea Hacker, University of California, Santa Barbara

Approximately 250 years ago Buddhism became one of the officially recognized religions in Russia. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the study of Buddhism gained momentum under St. Petersburg Indologist I. P. Minaev, whose research into Buddhism and translation work from Sanskrit and Pali influenced intellectuals such as Lev Tolstoj. Minaev’s work was continued by his pupils, S. F. Ol’denburg and F. I. Ščerbatskij, in the new century and into the Modernist era. One student of Sanskrit in St. Petersburg at the turn of the twentieth century was the poet Velimir Xlebnikov. Xlebnikov had been exposed to Buddhism from an early age. He grew up in Astraxan Province, a region populated by Kalmyks (the western most Buddhist nation in Russia) and, as Russian researcher Vasilij Babkov pointed out, Xlebnikov’s father investigated Kalmyk religion and history. The young Velimir was undoubtedly familiar with his father’s findings. 

Xlebnikov’s late works in particular show Buddhist influences. Some of the theories from his cosmological treatise, Doski sud’by, as well as poems such as “O azija! Toboj sebja ja muču” or “Stekljannyj šest pokoja nad pokoem” unarguably echo Buddhist notions. In a couplet from the latter, for example, we read on Asia: “Ty vsja – stoletij rešeto, i tvoj prekrasnyj syn – nikto.” Rudolf Duganov pointed out, that this “nikto” is none other than the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. In this couplet Xlebnikov also alludes to the underlying principle of his theory on time, which he formulated at length in Doski sud’by: Xlebnikov was convinced that all intervals between occurrences subject to temporal flux were regular and that these occurrences were all interwoven. In Doski sud’by Xlebnikov connects, for example, planetary orbits, historical events and the rebirths of certain people. His theory suggests that these occurrences are united by an underlying mathematical principle. This idea is reminiscent of Buddhist concepts such as reincarnation, Pratityasamutpada (all things are mutually dependent and interconnected), and Kalachakra (a tantric tradition revolving mostly around the concept of time-cycles.)

However, there are fundamental incompatibilities between Xlebnikov’s work and the Buddhist way. For example: As a Futurist, he was part of a quintessentially Modernist movement, which underlined and fostered the cult of the individual. Just like his fellow avantgardists, Xlebnikov often celebrated his lyrical “I”. One needs only to think of “Ja i Rossija” or “Zangezi”. Such a focus on the individual stands in stark contrast to Buddha’s anatta-teaching of the “no-self”. An independent, inherent existence of things and living beings is foreign to Buddhism.

For my presentation I will focus on the conceptual Buddhist tenets mentioned above and investigate how they resound in Xlebnikov’s late work. I will also discuss how they coexist with some western philosophical notions (such as neo-Platonic thought), which are clearly present in Xlebnikov’s poetic universe.