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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.

The Beatles
The Beatles had two time periods of Indian influence. The first was a stylistic one that dealt with Indian music and instruments, especially the sitar. The album Help! has a few sitar notes opening the song, that’s all. “Norwegian Wood” was the first pop song to extensively include the sitar.  In fact, people wondered what kind of new guitar the Beatles had invented. “Love to You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are considered the songs in which the Beatles entered into Indian musical style full tilt.

The second stage was influenced by Indian philosophy. The song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is all about maya (love/ illusion, but in this song they are speaking of it as love). “Would you believe in love at first sight?” gets an off-the-cuff answer: “Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time.” “Getting Better” is in its own way escapist. And “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is about another kind of maya (illusion): the deceptive reality of show business (the circus) and the cloud-cuckoo-land of the imagination (the “kite”).

Very obvious Indian philosophical influence is found on two Beatles albums. In reference to “Instant Karma” John Lennon said, “I wrote this in the morning, recorded it that night, and released it the next week. It had to battle with ‘Let It Be’ and it lost. It was a nice happy-go-lucky song, and has the same chord sequence as ‘All You Need is Love.’”

Instant karma’s gonna get you,
gonna knock you right on the head,

You better get yourself together,
pretty soon you’re gonna be dead……

Living in the Material World by George Harrison is the only album by a Beatle that solely espouses Indian ideas and values in any sort of depth. “Give Me Love” chants:

Om M M M M M M M M M M
Lord… Please take hold of my hand.

That’s the opening song on side one. Side one concludes:

I’m living in the material world

Living in the material world

I hope I get out of this place
By the Lord SRI Krishna’s GRACE
My salvation from the material world

There are two songs on the Let It Be album that are miracles of meaning. One is the title song:

When I find myself in times of trouble

Mother Mary comes to me

Speaking words of wisdom,
let it be, let it be.

The other, “Across the Universe,” John Lennon said was “one of my favorite songs. I gave it at first to the World Wild Life Fund, but they didn’t do much with it, and then we put it on the Let It Be album.”

Limitless undying love
which shines around me
like a million suns

It calls me on and on across the universe
Jai Guru Deva Om

Nothing’s gonna change my world

Nothing’s gonna change my world.

The Beatles were acknowledged as the first popular Western band to influence people around the world. Their use of Indian music and philosophy has helped spread awareness of Indian culture, especially to those who might not have access through other ways.

In Hindu mythology, Vishnu is represented as reclining on the phosphorescent waves in the clutch of the thousand-headed cosmic serpent Shesh-naga whose coils girdle the globe. Shesh-naga can be seen as a metaphor for representation and influence, and his thousand heads could be the different ways cultures understand one another through their language and cultural underpinnings. Vishnu reclines amidst it all, possibly signaling that is how we should understand and react to the effects of influence, to “Let it Be.”

Author: P. Lal

P. Lal is Honorary Professor of English in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He has lectured on Indian culture and literature in over a hundred English, American, and Australian colleges and universities.  He is currently engaged in a ten-year weekly reading in Kolkata of his English transcreation of the complete Mahabharata of Vyasa, of which 210 volumes have appeared from Writers Workshop, Kolkata.  He is a widely published author, translator, and poet and holder of India’s Padma Bushan. His transcreations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana are widely read, as are his own poetry and short stories.

Please see PDF version for footnotes and definitions.