Philosophy History & Culture

How Indian thought influenced T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

One among the many western scholars, who were influenced by Indian philosophy, T.S. Eliot let his understanding become a key factor in his magnum opus, The Waste Land. The dominant poetic voice of the 1920s, Eliot used an essential, allusive and elliptical technique to put across the view that modern western urban civilisation was sterile and unsatisfying. He avoided personal emotion in contrast to the more romantic effusions of the Georgian poets. His distaste for romanticism, a desire to treat the poem in isolation from the poet and the cult of traditional classical values went hand in hand with a dislike of the modern world.

The Waste Land appeared in 1922. The poem, which won Eliot the Nobel Prize in 1948, follows the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King combined with vignettes of contemporary British society. He employs literary and cultural allusions from the western canon, Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads. The poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy featuring abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location, time and conjuring a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures.

Five sections

The Waste Land is divided into five sections. The “Burial of the Dead” introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair. The second is “A Game of Chess” and the third, “The Fire Sermon,” shows the influence of Augustine and Eastern religions. The fourth is “Death by Water” and the fifth and final section is “What the Thunder said,” which features the influence of Indian thought on the Poet Laureate.

Eliot became a prominent poet in the aftermath of the chaos and convulsions of the First World War. Europe was home to existential philosophy owing its origin to Kierkegaard. This was a reaction against German idealism and the complacency of established Christianity. (We can find an echo of the existential philosophy in our own Charuvakas and Jabalis.)

Dr. Radhakrishnan records how T.S. Eliot, when asked about the future of our Civilization said, “Internecine fighting, people killing one another in the streets.” Civilization to him appeared a crumbling edifice destined to perish in the flames of war. The tragedy of the human condition imposes an obligation on us to give meaning and significance to life. Eliot’s prescription for a new dawn is given in Part V — “What the Thunder Said.”

“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

DA

Datta: what have we given?

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed

Which is not to be found in our obituaries

Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider

Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor

In our empty rooms

DA

Dayadhvam: I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only

We think of the key, each in his prison

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison

Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours

Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus

DA

Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon — O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih”

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad alludes to Prajapathi, the Creator, talking to his three offspring — Devatas, Demons and Men. In the first Brahmana Chapter V, all the virtues are brought together under the three Da’s which are heard in the voice of the thunder namely Dama or self-restraint for the Devas, Danas or self-sacrifice for the humans and Daya or compassion for the Demons. Eliot was greatly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. See Chapter XVI, Verse 21.

Part V of The Waste Land indicates a turning point. ‘The Word of the Thunder’ offers a ray of hope penetrating the despair that hangs over the rest of the poem. In a letter to Bertrand Russell, Eliot described it as “not only the best part but the part that justifies the whole.” Eliot uses concepts from Sanskrit texts as a framework to give shape to and support the many ideas that constitute the human psyche on a spiritual journey.

What sparked his interest in Vedic thought is not recorded but it is known that he was occupied with Sanskrit, Pali and the metaphysics of Patanjali. The Waste Land reiterates the three cardinal virtues of Damyatha (Restraint), Datta (Charity) and Dayadhvam (Compassion) and the state of mind that follows obedience to the commands as indicated by the blessing Shanti, Shanti, Shanti — the peace that passes understanding.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 5, 2021 10:09:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/how-indian-thought-influenced-ts-eliot/article25122620.ece

Next Story