Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

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.

T. S. Eliot
Indian influences, both Hindu and Buddhist, are scattered everywhere in the work of the British (American-born) poet/critic/dramatist T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). For instance, the three shantis (peace blessings) that close The Waste Land transforms the long poem of 1920 into an Upanishad, for in the Indian tradition only Upanishads are permitted the triple benediction at the end. While acknowledging the Brihadaranyaka–Upanishad, Eliot changes the advice of Prajapati to the three kinds of intelligent forms who came to him as disciples: gods, anti-gods, and man. In the original Sanskrit, the gods are given the final advice by Prajapati to be disciplined, to control themselves, because gods tend to be victims of arrogance; the anti-gods are advised to be compassionate, because they tend to be brutal and vicious; and the men are asked to be giving, because they tend to become victims of selfishness. Eliot turns the sequence into datta (give), dayadhvam (be compassionate), and damyata (be self-controlled). He has switched the order of the shastra (rule), and shastras are best not tampered with. What appears to have the words of an Upanishad is therefore not an Upanishad, but a Christian reworking.

In 1944, “The Dry Salvages” section of Four Quartets sets forth the advice by Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, “Do not think of the fruit of action.” Eliot may have been talking here to the Allied soldiers in the Battle of Britain (Eliot was an ARP warden). Was he trying to say that one should fight but forget that one is fighting to save democracy from Nazism and Fascism? The doubt lingers: “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant… Fare forward… Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers.” Maybe not even that, but just fare on. Who can tell if our faring is linear (in the Western sense of time) or circular (in the Eastern sense, karma)?

Eliot expressed a similar doubt in 1943 in his poem “To the Indians Who Died in South Africa,” written at the request of Miss Cornelia Sorabjee for Queen Mary’s Book for India:
…action
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgment after death,
What is the fruit of action.

In 1950, in The Cocktail Party, Celia Coplestone, guilt-ridden by her adulterous affair, goes to Sir Harcourt Reilly, the psychiatrist, for analyses and advice. He tells her:
Go in peace, my daughter.
Work out your salvation with diligence.

The words of the Buddha to his disciple Ananda were: “So karohi dipam attano (Be a lamp to yourself. Work out your nirvana.)” The difference between “salvation” and “nirvana” is critical. Salvation suggests self-fulfillment after self-discovery; nirvana implies snuffing-out, self-extinction. What kind of self-extinction can be obtained in the crowded corridors of cocktail party circuits? In comparing poems by Eliot, it becomes apparent that he plays with metaphors and imagery from both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions in creating his world cosmography.