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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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
The American Transcendentalist essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) did not effect much change in his borrowing from India in his poem “Brahma,” which originated from an extract in his journal for 1845. The extract is from H. H. Wilson’s Vishnu Purana: “What living creature slays, or is slain? What living creature preserves, or is preserved? Each is his own destroyed or preserver, as he follows good or evil.” “Brahma” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for November 1857, the year of what the British called the Indian Mutiny.

Emerson knows the Brahma he is writing about is the first person singular of the word “Brahman.” Brahma is Pure Being, without attributes, without form, unclassifiable, unknowable, the Everywhere Breather who breathes without breath. The advice to the seeker of the True Good at the poem’s end is “…And turn thy back on heaven.” Heaven is the easy reward of good deeds. What’s needed is selfless deed.

William Butler Yeats
Three Indians, two of them Bengalis, were influential in the life of the Irish poet/dramatist W. B. Yeats (1865–1939). In December 1885 he attended a talk in
Dublin on Upanishadic philosophy by the theosophist Mohini Mohun Chatterjee. He put me in a dream, says Yeats in his essay “The Way of Wisdom.” “Ah, how many years it has taken me to awake out of that dream!” Forty-three years, to be exact, because in 1928 he wrote what is probably the only poem in English literature that has for its title the name of a living Indian person: “Mohini Chatterjee.”

Chatterjee’s explanation of life and love to Yeats in 1885 was absurdly simple: Don’t ask for anything, because you will get it—and get fed up with it, sooner or later. Especially don’t ask for love. Speak from a position of strength, not weakness; fulfillment, not emptiness; giving, not begging. Only by giving love can you receive it. Life is the greatest gift; life is fulfillment, not love.

This pronouncement apparently placed Yeats in that incredibly long dream. In the third and fourth quatrains of “Quatrains and Aphorisms” (January 1886), Yeats does seem to endorse Mohini’s philosophy:

Long for nothing, neither sad nor gay;
Long for nothing, neither night nor day;
Not even “I long to see thy longing over”

To the ever-longing and mournful spirit say.

The ghosts went by with their lips apart

From death’s late languor as these lines I read

On Brahma’s gateway, “They within have felt
The soul upon the ashes of the heart.”

Yet Yeats wanted love. He craved for Maud Gonne. When she refused him, and married John MacBride, “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” he proposed to her stepdaughter Iseult, who on Maud’s advice rejected him also. Yeats did not accept the wise advice of Mohini whom he describes as a “handsome young man with the typical face of Christ,” an Indian who taught “all action and all words that lead to action were a little trivial.” (What Mohini meant, of course, was “ego-loaded” action.)

The Western twist that Yeats gives to Mohini’s Hindu belief is obvious. We are born again and again (as Yeats puts it: “Grave is heaped on grave”) to seek and find the perfect love. To argue that love is not fulfillment is self-deception. Love is moksha (liberation, or release from the changing world and the cycle of birth and rebirth, samsara). Mohini Chatterjee would have smiled at that.

The second Indian in Yeats’s life was Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he kept up an on-and-off epistolary relationship until 1930. He found Tagore’s prose-poem translations from the Bengali Gitanjali good enough for inclusion in his anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

The third Indian was a Swami whose poems also found place in Yeats’s anthology. With Swami Purohit, Yeats entered the esoteric realm of Hindu religious myth and symbolism. Yeats met the Swami in 1930 and collaborated with him in translating the Upanishads and other sacred Sanskrit texts. Faber & Faber published these in book form through the good offices of one of its directors, T. S. Eliot, who, incidentally, had earlier in his “primer of modern heresy” consigned Yeats to literary hell, along with James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, for producing morally dubious and corrupting literature. The primer was aptly titled After Strange Gods.

Before he met the Swami, Yeats had composed in 1920, two years after the havoc of World War I, a poem titled “The Second Coming.” He writes: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…revelation is at hand…what rough beast…Slouches towards Bethlehem to born?” Yeats transforms St. John’s vision of the coming of the Anti-Christ into a fearful image of an avatar of Vishnu, Nara-Simha (the Man-Lion), turning him into a Doomsday beast who, at the end of the 2000–year gyre of Christian civilization, crawls toward the Christ-child’s manger. In other words, the Christian values of love and innocence have been wasted on mankind. Bethlehem has become Bedlam (etymologically, “bedlam” is a corruption of Bethlehem Asylum in London). Poor Nara-Simha, one of the nine manifestations of Vishnu who restore dharma each time it declines in the successive yugas (ages). A perfectly sensible Hindu avatar saving an age of men-lions is metamorphosed (with a touch of the Sphinx) into a world-destroying monster in Yeats’s Christian imagination.

In 1934, Yeats wrote a remarkable sonnet titled “Meru.” Meru is the mythical Hindu mountain of spiritual realization. Everest is the world’s tallest physical mountain, the scaling of which is considered a major accomplishment. Which is better? Neither, concludes Yeats. Spiritual achievement and material achievement (“hermits on Mount Meru or Everest”) both lead to “the desolation of reality.” Eastern spirituality and Western technology are both temporary and illusory. “Before dawn/ His glory and his monuments are gone.”
So what remains? What is the message, if a poem can be said to have a message? “The Second Coming” was written just after World War I, “Meru” five years before World War II began. Is Yeats saying, when will they ever learn?