INDIAN INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN WRITERS
DR. D. V. K. RAGHAVACHARYULU, M. A., Ph. D.
Professor of English, Andhra University Post-graduate Centre, Guntur
Among the curiosities brought by the prosperous shipping houses of Boston from Calcutta in the nineteenth century were Indian classics in English translation, notably the principal Vedas and Upanishads–the Bhagavadgita, Vishnu Purana, Harivamsha, Hitopadesha and Panchatantra. When the books reached Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman their effect on them was immediate and inspiring. That process of cultural interaction and influence has continued since then. Indian ideas and ideals have even returned home through American channels with an alienated majesty to be recycled into our own national renaissance. Emerson’s ‘Oversoul’ concept, derived partly from Vedantic inspiration, has re-emerged as the supramental consciousness in Sri Aurobindo. Both Thoreau and Gandhi were by conviction and influence true Satyagrahis to be followed later by Vinoba Bhave and Martin Luther King. Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ was considered to be a Yankee Bhagavadgita; the cyclonic that Vivekananda read and reread the Song of Myself and concluded that Whitman was a genuine Sannyasin. If Vivekananda was discovering Whitman at Chicago, Henry Adams was contemplating Buddha and Brahma at Anuradhapura. Adams found in Indian wisdom least a momentary stay against his spiritual confusion. Mark twain, who dispensed laughter to the millions, visited Kipling’s country and went back a confirmed misanthrope and a mysterious stranger in his own land. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have in return entered the boyhood mythology of Swami and his friends. Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt taught Sanskrit and the Dharmapada at Harvard, and applied the doctrines of Pramada, Auchitya and Lokachinta to Western literature to refute romantic excess and uphold classical propriety. Their pupil, Eliot, absorbed the Indian tradition into his poetic individuality and when Indian scholars use his theories of the objective, correlative and irony, they are unconsciously remembering the ancient alamkarikas.
Ezra Pound, Robert, Frost and Upton Sinclair were sincere admirers of Tagore. Nehru’s agonised reference to Frost’s poem, ‘Stopping by the Woods’ is well-known. Eugene O’Neill, who dramatised Indian themes in ‘Lazarus Laughed’ and ‘Marco Millions’ was saved from self-destruction by Indian philosophy to which he was introduced by the New York Anarchist, Terry Carlin, who was a close friend of Dhan Gopal Mukherji, the Indian exile in America. ‘Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination’ has a salesman hero who preaches non-violence and Satyagraha. Saul Bellow’s Herzog is an eccentric medley of Marcus Aurelius and Gandhi writing unmailed letters to Nehru and Vinoba Bhave on the predicament of modern man. Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Salinger, Kerouac, Ginsberg and others have their own usable India. Recent Hermetical poetry in America shows a strong Indian slant towards Dhyana and Bhakti via Zen and Transcendental Meditation. Denise Levertov is inspired by Tamil devotional poetry. Muriel Rukeyser is enchanted by the aesthetic modalities of Ajanta. William Stafford has made some articulate renderings of Ghalib’s Ghazals.
It would however be erroneous and unwarranted to conclude that American writing is Indian thought writ large. American writers respond to cultural forces, wherever they may come from, at the creative rather than mimetic level. Otherwise they would not be meaningful or interesting. Emerson, for instance, uses the Yama-Nachiketa discourse in Brahma, and the Parasara-Maitreyi dialogue in Hamatreya, to attest and revalorise his own specific situation and intuition as a nineteenth century American in revolt against the repressive cheerlessness of the Calvinist tradition. The concept of the Universal Soul is set up as a foil to that of Divine Election; and the Vedantin is put up to fight Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards.
Similarly, Thoreau seeks the sanction and authority of the Hindu ascetic ideal for his life in the woods. Even his contemplative mixture of the Ganga and Concord waters retains a strong flavour of the Protestant Ethic. Thoreau’s real motive was not renunciation, but a bracing immersion in the life-force. Footrugs and paper-weights were messy and cumbersome; no less were sham, greed and speed; they were a hindrance to the invisible velocities of the spirit. Hence the need to test life on first principles, and feel the soul’s texture by the touch of the mystic. The infinitude of the private individual was what Emerson preached; but Thoreau had to prove it by experimenting with the truth. The metaphor of the Brahman was a proven and reliable wisdom, whereby he could see the world with new eyes. The forest was the axis of re-entry into society, not an escape route away from secular strife. Of all the American Transcendentalists, Thoreau makes the most extensive use of his Indian reading. Fables, parables, myths, legends and anecdotes from India fill his Works. On occasion he amazes us by his radical awareness of Indian concepts and idiom. Take a passage like this, for instance:
Suppose you attend to the suggestions which the moon makes for one month, commonly in vain, will it not be very different from anything in literature or religion? But why not study this Sanskrit? What if one moon has come and gone with its world of poetry, its weird teachings, its oracular suggestions,–so divine a creature freighted with hints for me, and I have not used her? One moon gone by unnoticed.
The rhetorical burden of the passage falls on the word Sanskrit, the refined language of the Gods. The moon emerges as a powerful oneiric symbol of the inner life attuned to the higher laws; and by semantic irradiation Sanskrit hints at the ordaining power of logos. In this sense, the whole of Walden is a quest for Sanskrit–spiritual refinement and divine perfection.
Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ reveals the poet’s creative sympathy with Vedanta and Yoga. The theme of the ‘Song of Myself’ is the transcendent Self as witness to the Cosmic reality. No critical prompting is needed to recognise in the following lines the hieratic canon which inspires the poet’s vision:
...depressions and exaltations
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever
of doubtful news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating
and Wondering at it.
In the poem ‘There Was a Child Went Forth’ Whitman shows awareness of the basic Hindu attitude involving the interpenetration of subject and object. In ‘Passage to India’ he employs India as an eidolon for America’s Manifest Destiny, implicating the past into futurity and prophesying the passage of the human soul to cosmic and divine unions. The poem, ‘Chanting the Square Deific,’ is said to have been inspired by the image of Shakti as Durga and Kali which Whitman happened to see in the Tudor Collection. The ‘Dark Hindu half of Life,’ as Melville calls it, as embodied in the image, interlaced with the creative process, held out a shock or recognition. Whitman finds his own conception of Satan as a vital being authenticated, so that he expands the Christian Trinity into a Deific Square in which Satan is adapted as Son of God.
Herman Melville represents the sceptical side of American Romanticism, stressing human limitation rather than human possibility. His references to Indian myth and philosophy are naturally coloured by his tragic vision. Apart from the scattered allusions in Moby Dick to Matsya-Avatara, Vishnu, Shakti, Shiva and Brahma to emphasize the cosmic immensity and creative mystery of the white whale, Melville has an interesting poem on Rama. Melville interprets the story of Ramayana as God’s trial by human existence, reflecting the author’s characteristic theme of Man’s need as God’s necessity. He sees in Rama’s heroic suffering and renunciation the value of self-alienation and redemptive martyrdom. The Indian epic hero’s exile and isolation demonstrate the tragic equation of the Fortunate Fall:
That Rama whom the Indian sung–
A god he was, but he knew it not;
Hence vainly puzzled at the wrong
Misplacing him in human lot.
Curtailment of his right he bare
Rather than wrangle; but no less
Was taunted for his tameness there.
A fugitive without redress,
He never the Holy Spirit grieved,
Nor the divine in him bereaved,
Though whet that was he might not guess.
Rama’s outlawry brings cosmic justice into question; but it is also the instrument that brings out the ‘patient root or virtue.’ Melville finds the paradox of life and fable agree in Rama as in Christ and Daniel Boone.
The Orient attracted Henry Adams, the famous American historian, who confessed that his historical neck was broken by eruption of new, incomprehensible forces. Unable to choose between the Dynamo and the Virgin, he hoped to find comfort in the Dharma Chakra. There were two ways out as he saw: admit that chaos is the law of the universe, and order the dream of man; or, eliminate the mirror of the self and thereof the refractive illusions of samsara, or the world-process. Adams embodies these reflections in his poem entitled, Buddha and Brahma, which starts with Malunka’s query to Milinda as to the meaning of Buddha’s Padma-Pani Mudra. The Vedantist Kshatriya, while admiring the Sakyamuni’s way, still prefers the world of action, though it means strife. There is a fierce honesty in Adams’ inference that the West, oriented to Kshatra-Dharma, cannot accept Nirvana as a way Out of its Manichaean conflict.
T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land contains many erudite allusions to Indian myth, religion and philosophy. Buddha’s Fire Sermon and the Shanri-Vakya from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad are the most important of these references. The benedictory formula: Da, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata; Shantih-Shantih-Shantih gives the poem its shape and tone, and emphasizes the west’s need for the East Western culture has led man to a spiritual waste land without any prospect of hope, fulfilment or salvation. Western society is a heap of broken images, corrosive memories and mithridated spirits. The twisted, time-ridden individuals of ancient and modern cities of the West are contrasted with Dadhichi, Rishyasringa, Bhagiradha, Krishna and Buddha who represent knowledge, fortitude, spiritual enterprise and redemptive action. Eliot has a high degree of sensitivity to Sanskrit usages which he employs incrementally for purposes of Irony and symbolic action. Take this passage, for instance:
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
By using Ganga, not the distorted form Ganges, Eliot captures the suggestive fullness of the root-meaning of the word, which is organic to his vision of a world in disintegration, overshadowed by a cosmic process that has lost its power of generic motion. Ganga sunken means the dried-up river as well as the potential flow–the antarvahini, the spiritual life that lies in earnest beneath the decaying surface affected by drought and dead men’s bones. The jungle image is equally appropriate in a setting so profoundly resonant with Vedic litanies. It acts out symbolically the wisdom of the Aranyakas and the primordial decrees of Naimisha. This is flanked by the image as a crouching beast, which is the opposite of rita, and stands for the ecological erosion of the Western world. In the Four Quartets, Eliot incorporates Krishna’s message of disinterested action into the Christian framework of the poem. In the ‘Cocktail Party,’ he literally repeats Buddha’s Dear Park Sermon when the psychiatrist asks the householder and the martyr each to work out their salvation diligently.
In conclusion, we may refer to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem Ajanta. The Ajanta frescoes symbolise a way of life and thought is disconcerting to the Western mind, for it trifles with time and space, revealing a thunder it never heard, a light it never saw. The poet, on looking at the paintings, finds herself entering the real world, not that of shadows, but of archetypal essences. She is full, and fulfilled.
Came to Ajanta cave, the painted space of the breast,
The real world where everything is complete,
There are no shadows, the forms of incompleteness.
I stand and am complete.
Indian materials and themes are thus employed by the best American writers not derivatively, or doctrinally, but creatively. That is the best homage that genius may pay to genius. India has without question been one of the catalytic agents bringing American literature to dramatic self-reference. Yet it would be a mistake to see in American literature an image of India either more or less than the look of a flower that is looked at.
21st December, 1973