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Indian Influences on Western Literature

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "What living creature preserves, or is preserved? Each is his own destroyed or preserver, as he follows good or evil." in the essay Brahma. Etching by Sam W. Rowse, 1878.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "What living creature preserves, or is preserved? Each is his own destroyed or preserver, as he follows good or evil." in the essay Brahma. Etching by Sam W. Rowse, 1878.


Let me first present an intriguing difficulty for all who wish to study the influences of Indian ideas, values, and beliefs on Western literature. Consider that some key words on both sides of the East-West divide have no translatable equivalents.


SANSKRIT: artha, avatara, dharma,  kala, kama, karma, moksha, nirvana, shanti

ENGLISH; absolution (of sins), blasphemy, guilt, heaven, hell, incarnation, irony, miracle, religion, resurrection, secular, sin, tragedy

This very much affects how Indian philosophy is represented in Western literature.  Words that cannot be translated are given a description that may not represent the true intention or its value within Indian culture. Plus, we may attribute some of our cultural concepts to make meaning of theirs, when actually those concepts may not even exist in the original context. For example, Indian philosophy has no word for “miracle” in Sanskrit or any of the Indian languages. Miracles cannot happen because nothing in this world of matter and karma operates outside the orbit of matter and karma. Hindu gods have notoriously clay feet and are subject to the laws of cause and effect as are we poor mortals. The gods we worship are the gods we create; we cannot worship the God who creates us.

Hindus have no word for “heaven” in the sense of eternal reward. Our heaven is a temporary abode, after the enjoyment of which one is born again and given another chance to do better than gaining heaven.

Hindus also do not pray in the way Westerners do; to Hindus, prayers granted become curses. Hindus feel one should pray, but not because one wants something. One prays because one has everything—that is, life—for prayer is really a thanksgiving, not a supplication. The tragedy of life is not that we don’t get what we want, but that we get exactly what we want—and with its built-in opposite. That’s the fearsome catch. You think it, you wish it, you dream it, you reach for it, you get it—and you’ve had it. The point is that in this ambivalent world, sweets bring stomachache, toys bring boredom, pleasure brings pain; sex, fame, money, and power are dreadfully counterproductive. Our sweetest songs are those that tell the saddest thoughts. Even life brings death, for the only way not to die is not to be born.

“Dharma” does not mean “religion” but “that which is stable,” from the root dhri meaning earth. There are four such stabilities operating simultaneously at any given moment in every individual’s life: sava-dharma (self-stability, the instinct of self-preservation, individuality); kula-dharma (family-stability); yuga-dharma (the spirit of the age); and sanatana-dharma (that which is unchanging, eternal, absolute). Like all of us in the conflicts of life, Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is caught simultaneously in these four dharmas and has to choose. His choice will determine the quality of his character. Not choosing is not an option.

“Kala” is Cosmic Time. It’s a glorious mystery. It means both yesterday and tomorrow. Its movement, if it can be said to move, is apparently circular, not linear. In kala all is created; in kala all is killed. Kala is mahakala (great time) as well; and mahakala is Shiva, who is Destroyer and Creator. The feminine of kala is, of course, Kali, the horrific, malevolent yet blessed dark goddess, the symbol of all-consuming Time. “Time past and time present/ Are both contained in time future,/ and time future/ Contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.” Fine, but how do you redeem the redeemer? These lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” make difficult sense to the Indian reader.

Sanskrit has no word for “irony,” either. The use of words to express something other than or the exact opposite of their literal meaning is more associated with clever city-based civilizations than with the sentimental forest-based ones. English is so charged with irony that I constantly have to be careful when choosing words to translate sacred and secular Sanskrit or other Indian texts.

Finally, in none of the Indian languages is there a word for “tragedy.” Pain, misery, suffering, loss, hurt, despair, downfall, even anguish, but not tragedy. Heaven is a disproportionate “reward” (it’s really a punishment!) for good deeds, and hell a disproportionate punishment for bad deeds—or so the Indian sensibility feels. To the Western mind, tragedy is acceptable as extreme punishment of the hubris-ridden hero. Excessive punishment or reward just doesn’t work in a culture fine-tuned to the workings of karma. The German poet/philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) clarified this idea by saying, “Nature is always correct; man makes right and wrong.” An Indian would have liked to add: and good and evil; and venial sin and mortal sin; and permanent heaven and permanent hell; and forgiveness and absolution.

Another example of discretionary translation is that there can be no word for “blasphemy” because genuine blasphemy is a reverse declaration of faith. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his poem “Brahma”:

They reckon ill who leave me out.

When me they fly, I am the wings.

I am the doubter and the doubt,

And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

While some poets, novelists, and thinkers may take in whole and without question whatever appeals to them in the Indian tradition, the major creative writers of the West do not. They explore, differ, dissect, and when they do accept, make changes they feel are necessary. You cannot be firmly grounded in your own culture and uncritically absorb the values of another without making your integrity suspect. Plus, mindless acceptance could be seen as a form of disrespect to the other culture’s identity.

This is perhaps why W. B. Yeats, in his last years, did a startling about turn and began to criticize what he decided was Rabindranath Tagore’s mystic-romantic over-sweetness and flabbiness—the same Yeats who once, riding the top of a London double-decker in 1911, had to “close the MS” of the Gitanjali (Git means song and Anjali means offering, “songs of offering”) translations he had been carrying with him “for days” because he feared “some stranger would see how much it moved me.”

T. S. Eliot may have come to the same conclusion when after deciding in his youth to convert to Buddhism, he then suddenly withdrew. Eliot gave the reason for his pullout later. He said he had felt he would have to empty himself of all his Western religious and cultural heritage in order to fill himself with the Buddhist ethos—more daunting and risky a task than what he preferred to undertake. Two mature traditions in a face-off situation? The need, perhaps, is to affirm that all mature civilizations offer metaphysical and related attractions, without one mature civilization having to be defensive against another.

The task is to transmute and absorb. The next part of this essay examines how some literary and musical figures have done, or not done, this. Let us look briefly at a few poets, a novelist, and some songwriters—Emerson, Yeats, Eliot, Hesse, and the Beatles—and how they were influenced by Indian culture and philosophy.

Continue to the following pages for examples from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Herman Hesse, and The Beatles.