THE IMPACT OF INDIAN LITERATURE ON THE WEST
(Extracts from the book LIGHT FROM THE ORIENT by Swamy Tathagatananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 2005, adaptation by Khandavalli Satya Deva Prasad)
From a historical perspective beyond the reach of memory, Indian civilization reaches into the present with full vigor.
MARK TWAIN(1835-1910) the American author recognized that â€œIndia is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only.â€
LONGEVITY OF INDIAN KNOWLEDGE: Dr.S.N. DASGUPTA, in his History of Indian Philosophy, writes of the antiquity of the Vedas and their present influence: â€œWhen the Vedas were composed, there was probably no system of writing prevalent in India. But such was the scrupulous zeal of the Brahmins, who got the whole Vedic literature by heart by hearing it from their preceptors, that it has been transmitted most faithfully to us through the course of the last three thousand years or more with little or no interpolation at all.
Using the astronomical calculations from the Rig Veda itself, Tilak dates the hymns at about 4500 B.C.E. This date is corroborated by P.C.Sen Gupta, who specifically calculates that an eclipse described in Rig Veda(IX.40.5) actually occurred on 26th july,3928 B.C.E.
INTELLECTUAL CONQUEST OF THE HINDUS: Sir Charles Elliot noted Indiaâ€™s global relevance in his â€˜Hinduism and Buddhismâ€™ and wrote of the failure of historians to appreciate the significance of her real conquest in philosophical thought: â€œScant justice is tone to Indiaâ€™s position in the world by those European histories which recount the exploits of her invaders and leave the impression that her own people were a feeble dreamy folk,â€¦Such a pictrure takes no account of the intellectual conquests of the Hindus.â€(vol I, xii).
Vedic religion native to India: Max Muller noted that, â€œthe Vedic religion was the only one the development of which took place, without any extraneous influences, and could be watched through a longer series of centuries than any other religion.â€ â€œIn India alone, and more particularly in Vedic India, we see a plant entirely grown on native soil, and entirely nurtured by native air.â€ (India-What It Can Teach Us, p 134-5).
The Self-perpetuating nature of Hinduism: American professor J.B.Pratt, points out that Hinduism is â€œthe Vedic wayâ€¦ a self-perpetuating religionâ€¦the way of constant spiritual reinterpretation leading to life, which is self-perpetuating, self-renewing and which for the individual and for the world may be eternal.â€(Why Religions Die, New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1932, p 17-18). Again he says, â€œThat which is not vital and true, cast off the old shell and clothed itself in more suitable expression, with no break in the continuity of life and no less in the sanctity and weight of its authorityâ€¦Mutually contradictory creeds can and do keep house together without quarrel within the wide and hospitable Hindu family.â€(Why Religions Die, p 272).
Superiority of Hindu Philosophy: The German Philosopher Schlegel in his work on Indian Language, Literature and Philosophy remarked, â€œEven the loftiest philosophy of the Europeans, the idealism of reason, as it is set forth by Greek philosophers, appears, in comparison with the abundant light and vigor of Oriental idealism, like a feeble Promethean spark in the full flood of heavenly glory of the noonday sun.â€
Indian way is the only alternative: Swamy Ghanananda, the author of â€˜Sri Ramakrishna and His Unique Messageâ€™, requested the noted British historian Arnold Toynbee to write a foreword for the book. Toynbee read the book twice before writing his foreword on Aug 30, 1969. Extracts from the foreword: â€œToday we are still living in this transitional chapter of the world history, but it is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. In the present age, the world has been united on the material plane by Western technology. But this Western skill has not only â€˜annihilated distanceâ€™; it has armed the peoples of the world with weapons of devastating power at a time when they have been brought to point-blank range of each other without yet having learnt to know and love each other. At this supremely dangerous moment in human history, the only way of salvation for mankind is an Indian wayâ€¦.here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family- and, in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves.
In the Atomic Age the whole human race has a utilitarian motive for following this Indian wayâ€¦.The survival of the human race is at stake. Yetâ€¦the primary reason is that this teaching is right- and is right because it flows from a true vision of spiritual reality.â€
Impact of the Gita on the West: The Bhagavad Gita has been translated into 82 languages and at least 75 or more of these are foreign languages. According to statistics of 2000 C.E., there have been 70 publications of the Gita in Tamil, 150 in Telugu, 132 in Marathi, 384 in Bengali, 25 in French, 28 in German, and 270 in English. According to one estimate there are about 2000 translations and commentaries in various languages of the world today. There is no missionary zeal behind the publication of the Gita. It has been done by the people out of their sheer love for the non-dogmatic philosophy and depiction of the entire human life- of its source and culmination in emancipation. The original attraction for the eternal teachings of the Gita appealed to the enlightened minds of Western scholars, who took a serious interest in disseminating the Gitaâ€™s non-dogmatic, scientific description of human life.
England: In 1945, the Bhagavad Gita by Swamy Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood was published as a Mentor Pocket Book. More than a million copies have been sold. In his lengthy introduction to this rendition of the scripture, Aldous Huxley remarked: â€œThe Gita is one of the clearest and most comprehensive summaries of the Perennial Philosophy ever to have been made. Hence its enduring value, not only for Indians, but for all mankindâ€¦ The Bhagavadgita is perhaps the most systematic spiritual statement of the Perennial Philosophy.â€
The greatest impact on Europe came through the translation of the Gita by Sir Charles Wilkins(1750-1836) into English under the auspices of the Asiatic Society. His Bhagavat Geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon. It is the very first translation of the Gita into a European language. It was printed in London. Warren Hastings, despite all his imperialist motives, finds that the study and true practice of the Gitaâ€™s teachings would lead humanity to peace and bliss. In a prophetic vein, he says: â€œThe writers of the Indian philosophies will survive when the British dominion in India shall long have ceased to existâ€¦â€
In spite of their recognition of the true merits of the Hindu Classics like the Vedas and Gita, these Westerners could not shed their innate Christian and imperialist biases. Most of them tried to press the universal message of the Hindu Classics in the service of Christian evangelization. For instance, G.G.Sengupta in his Indology and Its Eminent Western Savants, Calcutta, 1996, p 33, unmasks the bias of Hastings which reflects in his foreword to Wilkinsâ€™ translation: â€œâ€¦among all the known religions of mankind of a theology accurately corresponding with that of the Christian dispensation and most powerfully illustrating its fundamental doctrine.â€ Lo! The Gita illustrates the fundamental doctrine of the Christian dogma!
The moral of the story is that we should take the laudatory words of Western Christians about Hindu Classics in their proper context and motive. The stark truth is that whatever â€˜nobleâ€™ work is done by these Christian worthies, the ultimate aim of all their works is to further the cause of their empire and church. There is no such thing as Nishkaama Karma in ninety nine out of hundred cases of such â€˜nobleâ€™ works. Their works are part and parcel of the on going global Civilizational conflict between the Abrahamic and the Dharmic religions.
France: In 1787, Abbe Parraud retranslated Wilkinsâ€™ English version into French. In 1832, a French translation of the Bhagawad Gita was made directly from the Sanskrit by Jean-Denis Lanjuinais and published after his death. By the late eighteenth century, French writers acquired intimate knowledge of Indian literature. Seeing that India possessed a great richness of spiritual unity, Henri Frederic Amiel, a contemporary of Victor Hugo, saw the need of â€œBrahmanizing soulsâ€ for the spiritual welfare of humanity.
Germany: The Bhagavad Gita helped to shape the worldview of Germany. Jacob Wilhelm Hauer(1881-1962), a modern German Indologist, afforded the Bhagavad Gita a pivotal role in the spiritual life of Germany. An official interpreter of faith in Germ,any, Hauer described the Gita as â€œa work of imperishable significanceâ€¦that offers not only profound insights that are valid for all times and for all religious life, but it contains as well the classical presentation of one of the most significant phases of Indo-German religious historyâ€¦It shows us the way as regards the essential nature and basal characteristics of Indo-Germanic religion.â€ (Quoted by S.Radhakrishnan in his Introductory Essay to The Bhagavadgita, eleventh impression, 1997,(New Delhi, Harpar Collin Publishers, India), 11).
Again! Look at the mention of the so called Indo-Germanic religion! Was there ever a common religion for India and Germany? No. Then what is the significance of these words? There is a double significance. First- it is a suggestion of the common â€˜aryanâ€™ racial origin of Indians of the Gita and the Germans. Second- there is the now familiar attempt to subsume the Gita message under Christianity! (see Hastingsâ€™ words above).
Here is another important lesson for Hindus. The heydays of European-Indian contact, coincided with a consistent, constant attempt by various European nations to claim noble, hoary, civilisational heritage for their own juvenile cultures. They found a very ancient living civilization in the Vedic Hindu society with its great Sanskrit heritage. So they tried to claim that heritage for themselves by establishing kinship with the Hindus. To do so they created an â€˜Aryan raceâ€™ out of thin air by twisting some Vedic words. At the same time the exclusivist spirit they imbibed from Christianity did not allow them to behave in a noble, straight forward manner. So they tried to twist the Vedic knowledge system in such a manner as to make it Christian! To do so they performed innumerable twists, turns, and tricks. Western Indology is a bag of such tricks. It is a huge attempt to refurbish the image of Christian West by using Vedic Hindu knowledge, culture and religion as expendable sources. In the past the Christian West sucked up the life blood out of many pagan civilizations like Greek, Roman, Maya, Inca, Aztec, etc., Now they are doing the same to the Hindu civilization. Western Indology, South-Asian Studies and many other academic ventures are different forms of that destructive, parasitic project. Those who are interested to have the latest status report on this diabolic project, may consult the books- Breaking India, Western Interventions in Dravidian and Dalit Faultlines, by Rajiv Malhotra and Aravindan Neelakandan; and Invading the Sacred. by Ramaswamy, Krishnan; Antonio de Nicolas, et al., (2007). Rupa & Co.)
Coming to the impact of Gita, Charles Wilkinâ€™s translation had become a favourite book among Westerners throughout Europe. The brothers Friedrich von Schlegel and August Wilhelm von Schlegel used their own printing press in 1823 to publish August Wilhelmâ€™s Latin translation of the Bhagavad Gita with the original Sanskrit text. This translation was to be an important resource for Wilhelm von Humboldt(1767-1835)and, later, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel(1770-1831), both of whom gave it their undivided attention.
Wilhelm von Humboldt claimed that his familiarity with the Oupnekhat(Upanishad), the Manusmrti, Burnoufâ€™s extracts from the Padmapurana and Colebrookâ€™s essay, â€œOn the Religion and the Philosophy of the Indians,â€ enabled him to comprehend the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.(Hiltrud Rustau, From Indology to Indian Studies: Some Considerations, Bulletin, March 1998,126.). Humboldt wrote about Gita that â€œthis episode of the Mahabharata is the most beautiful, nay, perhaps even the only true philosophical poem which we can find in all the literatures known to usâ€.(Maurice Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, Vol I, part 2, second edition(Calcutta, University of Calcutta, 1963,375). He ranked the Gita above the works of Lucretius, Parmanides, and Empedocles.(Indiaâ€™ Contribution to World Thought and Culture Lokesh Chandra and others edited., Vivekananda Kendra Publication, Madras,1970). After looking into the Gita, he wrote to his friend, statesman Frederick von Gentz in 1827:
â€œ I read the Indian poem for the first time when I was in my estate in Silesia and , while doing so, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude to God for having let me live to be acquainted with this work. It must be the most profound and sublime thing to be found in the worldâ€(quoted from P.Nagaraja Rao, The Bhagavad Gita: The quest for the moral Ideal, Religious Values and the Affirmation of Faith, The Author, Madras, 1986, 20.)
Humboldt wanted to inform the world of the concept of God that he found and appreciated in the Bhagavad Gita according to his lights. His lecture on the Bhagavad Gita at Berlinâ€™s Royal Academy of Sciences to Prussiaâ€™s intellectual elite in 1825 was a landmark. It was published in 1826. Next year he presented his analysis of the Gitaâ€™s Advaitic structure founded on Samkhya philosophy, and summarized the Gitaâ€™s discourses and poetic value in great detail.
The first Humboldt lecture on Gita caught the attention of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who exerted tremendous influence on Karl Marx. Hegel published a review of the lecture with a critical and appreciative analysis. Hegel felt the lecture to be â€œan essential enrichment of the knowledge of the Indian way of concepts of the highest spiritual interests.(G.W.F.Hegel, Review of â€˜Uber die unter Namen Bhagavad Gita bekannte Episode des Mahabharataâ€ (On the Episode of Mahabharata, Known by the name of Bhagawad Gita), by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Berlin, 1826.)(G.W.F.Hegel, Werke(works), Vol 20, 59.) quoted in From Indology to Indian Studies, 128. Hegelâ€™s review served to promote Humboldtâ€™s work.
Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) was the first German to study Sanskrit and Indian religion and philosophy. His interest in India was greatly influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. Schlegel produced his work, On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians: A Contribution to the Foundation of Antiquity(Uber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, 1808). It contains translations of extracts from Sanskrit texts like the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana.
August Wilhelm von Schlegel(1767-1845) hoped to inspire a new ethics and was the first to publish standard text editionswith commentaries and translations in classical Latin of the Bhagavad Gita, Hitopadesa and Ramayana(Swamy Ashokananda, The Influence of Indian Thought on the Thought of the West, Mayavati, 1931). His praise for the Bhagavad Gita made him remark: â€œIf the study of Sanskrit had brought nothing more than the satisfaction of being able to read this superb poem in the original, I would have been amply compensated for all my labours. It is a sublime reunion of poetic and philosophical genius.â€
In 1932, the German scholar and Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto(1869-1937) wrote a work on mysticism in comparative religion. Otto regarded the Bhagavad Gita as an excellent example of mysterium tremendum and understood the significance for the West.
Sir Edwin Arnoldâ€™s Song Celestial: England first brought Indiaâ€™s spiritual treasure to the attention of the Europeans in the Eighteenth century. Sir Wilkinsâ€™ translation of the Bhagad Gita became the basis for all later work.
In the nineteenth century, Sir Edwin Arnold(1832-1904) was mysteriously drawn to Indiaâ€™s philosophy through his attraction for the English translations of Indian literature. In 1885, exactly one hundred years after Sir Wilkins English translation of the Bhagavad Gita was published , Sir Arnoldâ€™s blank verse translation of the sacred scripture appeared as the Song Celestial .Sir Arnold published a portion of the Song Celestial in the International Review and dedicated it to the American people. It enjoyed wide circulation and many scholars of the Gita acknowledged its influence on readers.
Englandâ€™s George Augustus Jacob(1840-1918) dedicated himself to making Hindu thought more accessible to Western minds. In 1857, he travelled to India and did not return to England until 1890. In India he became proficient in Urdu, Marathi, and Sanskrit. He compiled an alphabetical index of the main words of Sixty six principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in his Concordance to the Principal Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita(Upanishad Vakyakosha).
Charles Johnston, a retired English civil servant in Bengal and a Sanskrit scholar, brought forth a translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1908, from Flushing, New York under the title â€œThe Songs of the Master.â€ Johnston paid tribute in his lengthy General Introduction to the historical and eternal significance of the scripture: â€œ The Bhagavad Gita is one of the noblest scriptures of India, one of the deepest scriptures of the worldâ€¦a symbolic scripture, with many meanings, containing many truthsâ€¦(that) forms the living heart of the Eastern wisdom.â€(The Songs of the Master, Charles Johnston, trans, Flushing, New York, 1908).
Americaâ€™s Love for the Bhagavad Gita: Americaâ€™s poet Ralph Waldo Emerson(1803-1882) wrote in his essays:
â€œIn all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. The raptures of prayer and ecstasy of devotion lose all being in one Being. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavad Geeta and the Vishnu Puranaâ€¦they rise to pure and sublime strains in celebrating it.â€(Essays, X:120).
In 1845, Emersonâ€™s Journal records that he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Colebrookeâ€™s Essays on the Vedas. According to Swamy Vivekananda, Emerson â€œwent to see Carlyle, and Carlyle made him a present of the Gita; and that little book is responsible for the Concord(Transcendental) Movement. All the broad movements in America, in one way or other, are indebted to the Concord party. (Complete Works, Vol IV, 95). The only book Carlyle showed to Emerson during their first visit together, was an translation of the Bhagavad Gita by Charles Wilkins. He told Emerson, â€œThis is a most inspiring book; it has brought comfort and consolation in my life- I hope to do the same to you. Read it.â€(Swamy Abhedananda, Thoughts on Sankhya Buddhism and Vedanta, Calcutta: Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, 1989, Appendix I, 118). The Gita that Carlyle gave to Emerson is preserved in the Emerson archives in Boston.
Recent research shows that he had borrowed a copy of the Gita from his friend, James Eliot Cabot,(The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ralph L. Rusk ed., 1939 reprint, New York and London, Columbia University Press, 1966, I, lx; III, 288), before going to England and meeting Carlyle, and before getting a copy of his own, sent from London. â€¦He returned it on Sept 28, 1845, only after his copy from London had arrived from John Chapman, to whom he had written on May 30, requesting the Wilkins translation.
A catalogue of the books in Emersonâ€™s library, compiled by Walter Roy Harding, lists a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that was Published by Trabner in London in 1874 â€¦ Rod W. Horton wrote in Background of American Literary Thought(1952) that, â€œEmersonâ€™s favourite of all Vedantic writings was the Bhagavad Gita which he read and loaned to his friends until it was worn out.â€
In a letter to Max Muller on August 4, 1893 (Letters of Emerson VI-246, Bhagavad Geeta(1785) x) he confessed.
â€œI owed-my friend and I owed- a magnificient day to the Bhagavad Geeta. It was first of books; it was as if an empire spake to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.â€(Journals, RWE, VII.241-42 and VII.511).
On Aug 4, 1873, nine years before his death Emerson had also written to Muller that â€œall my interest in the Aryan is â€¦Wilkinâ€™s Bhagavad Geeta;; Burnoufâ€™s Bhagavat Purana; and Wilkinâ€™s Vishnu Puranaâ€¦â€. He credited a work he had read in his youth for the spark of enthusiasm he received from the Gita: â€œI remembered I owed my first taste for this fruit to Cousinâ€™s sketch(Victor Cousinâ€™s Cours des Philosophies), in his first lecture, of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjoon, and I still prize the first chapters of Bhagavat as wonderfulâ€.(Letters of Emerson VI.246, I.322-23).
Emersonâ€™s profound harmony with the Indian scriptures is best illustrated in his poem â€œBrahmaâ€(Brahman) derived from Kalidasa. According to his Journal, the theme for Brahma, composed in 1856, came to him after he read the Upanishads in the Bibliotheca Indica. He was clearly influenced by the Katha Upanishad and by the second discourse of the Bhagavad Gita.
His poem Brahma reached the highest level of American Vedantism. The higher truths of non difference between the illusory opposites, the contrasting descriptions of the absolute and their ultimate transcendence in the Unity of Brahman, are all reflected in Emersonâ€™s poem:
â€œIf the slayer thinks he slays,
Or if the slain thinks he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The description of Unity in his poems â€œThe Celestial Loveâ€ and â€œWood-Notesâ€ reflects the description of the immanence of the Supreme Being in the tenth discourse of the Bhagavad Gita. Emersonâ€™s Essays include his comments:
â€œFor a self-conceited modish life, made up of trifles, clinging to a corporeal civilization, hating ideas, there is no remedy like the Oriental largeness. That astonishes and disconcerts English decorum. For once, there is thunder it never heard, light it never saw, and power which trifles with time and space. I am not surprised to find an Englishman like Warren, who had been struck with the grand style of thinking in the Indian writings, depreciating the prejudices of his countrymen while offering them a translation of the Bagavat(Gita).â€((Essays V.258-59).
The sun of Vedanta in Emerson found youthful relfection in Henry David Thoreau(1817-1862).He lived in Emersonâ€™s household during his early twenties and was absorbed with the Indian literature he found in Emersonâ€™s study. In the Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, Romain Rolland offers some details of their mutual love for Vedanta and of Thoreauâ€™s significant influence on Emerson in this regard:
â€œThoreau was a great reader; and between 1837 and 1862, he was Emersonâ€™s neighbour. In July 1846, Emerson notes that Thoreau had been reading to him extracts from his A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Now this work is an enthusiastic eulogy of the Gita, and of the great poems and philosophies of Indiaâ€¦.And he(Thoreau) took for his motto, Ex Oriente Lux(Light from the East). (Life of Swamy Vivekananda, 52-3).
Thoreauâ€™s life long inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita began when he read Charles Wilkins English translation. A yound English scholar, Thomas Cholmondeley, who visited Thoreau, later expressed his gratitude by sending him a crate of forty-four Oriental books that included a copy of the Gita, and the Upanishads.(Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth Century Explorations (Westport, CT & London, England, 1981)69). Thoreauâ€™s gift collection became one of the first Oriental libraries in America. The first record of Thoreauâ€™s experience of Indian thought was in 1841. He wrote in his journal:
â€œcould not read a sentence in the book of the Hindoos without being elevated as upon the table-land of the Ghauts. It has such a rhythm as the winds of the desert, such a tide as the Ganges, and seems as superior to criticism as the Himmaley(Himalaya)Mountsâ€¦ The great thought is never found in mean dress, but is of virtue to ennoble any language.â€ (Thoreau, Journal, Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, eds. Boston, Houghton, 1949, 1-266).
Pondering the Gita deeply, he ever favoured it, for â€œthe reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher or rarer region of thought than in Bhagavad Geeta.â€ The force from the Upanishads that Thoreau inherited emerged in Walden and inspired not only those who pioneered the British labour movement, but all who read it to this day. (To him) the Gita wisdom and teachings are the purifier of the mind: â€œ By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent.â€ He had found his sacred Ganges. Living by it and trying to â€œpractice the yoga faithfullyâ€ during his two years at Walde(pond). He wrote:
â€œIn the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elspsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial
Amos Bronson Alcott(1799-1888), father of Louisa May Alcott recorded in his The Journal of Bronson Alcott that after Thoreau died, â€œEmerson brought him some Oriental books that Thoreau bequeathed to Alcott, including the Bhagavad Gita. Alcott wrote that he was deeply moved by the last discourse of the Gita and hoped to transcribe it entirely into his Journal. Edwin Arnold had sent Alcott a gift of his Light of Asia, which he also recorded in his journal. As the dean of the Concord Summer School of Philosophy, Alcott influenced the reading habits of the Boston readers. Lectures on the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu philosophy were delivered there in 1882.
Walt Whitman(1819-1892) inherited the transcendental spirit of Emerson and Thoreau. There is documentation of his English friend Thomas Dixon sending Cockburn Thomsonâ€™s translation of the Bhagavad Gita to Whitman at Christamas time in 1875. Whiman underlined parts of it and wrote in its margins. In Reminiscences of Walt Whitman(London, 1896) William S.Kennedy reported Emersonâ€™s remark to the prominent writer Franklin B.Sanborn that Leaves of Grass was a â€œmixture of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald.â€ Whitman himself reminisced in â€œA Backward Glance Over Travelled Roadsâ€ (1889) that he read â€œthe ancient Hindu poem before writing Leaves of Grassâ€.
On the first page of her unpublished doctoral dissertation, â€œLeaves of Grass and the Bhagavad Gita: A Comparative Study,â€ Dorothy F.Mercer wrote: â€œWhitmanâ€™s own prose reveals an immediate knowledge of Sanskrit literature acquired before the publication of Leaves of Grassâ€(J.P.Rao Rayapati, Early American Interest in Vedanta(New York: Asia Publishing House, 1973, 14). Malcolm Cowley and others express similar views that Whitman was absorbed in the Vedantic transcendental philosophy that had penetrated American literature in the 1840s and 1850s.(In Rao Rayapati, 14-15). In the introduction to Whitmanâ€™s first edition of Leaves of Grass Cowley wrote that â€œmost of Whitmanâ€™s doctrines, though by no means all of them, belong to the mainstream of Indian Philosophy.â€ Whitman was also associated with intellectuals of the American Transcendental Movement who had a specific interest in Hinduism. Britannica Ready Reference Encyclopaedia, (2005, Vol 10, p 175) has this to say about Whimanâ€™s influence â€œWhitmanâ€™s Leaves of Grassâ€¦was hailed by figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and exerted a strong influence on American and foreign literatureâ€¦His powerful influence in the 20th century can be seen in the work of poets as diverse as Pablo Neruda, Fernando Pessoa, and Allen Ginsberg.â€
Franklin Edgerton(1885-1963) the American Sanskritist wrote on The Bhagavad Gita in two volumes which appeared in 1944. Dale Riepe, in his Philosophy of India and its Impact on American Thought wrote that Edgertonâ€™s second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is â€œOne of the most elegant accounts of the development of Hindu speculationâ€ and gave equal praise to the third chapter, â€œthe Upanishads and Later Hindu Thoughtâ€.(Springfield, Illinois, 1970, 151-52).
Robert Ernest Hume(1877-1948), the American Sanskritist born in Bombay taught in India as well as at Oxford. He published Thirteen Principal Upanishads in 1921. It has been reprinted many times since then. Hume included his estimation of the Upanishads in a lengthy introduction:
â€œIn the long history of manâ€™s endeavour to grasp the fundamental truths of being, the metaphysical treatises known as the Upanishads hold an honourable placeâ€¦they are replete with sublime conceptions and with intuitions of universal truthâ€¦the Upanishads undoubtedly have great historical and comparative value, but they are also of great present day importance. It is evident that the monism of the Upanishads has exerted and will continue to exert an influence on the monism of the West; for it contain certain elements, which penetrate deeply into the truths which every philosopher must reach in a thoroughly grounded explanation of experience.â€(Oxford, 1941, vii ff).
â€œThe earnestness of the search for the Truth is one of the more delightful and commendable features of the Upanishads.â€(p 301n).
Humeâ€™s second revised edition The Thirteen Principal Upanishads published in 1931 included an appendix with a list of recurrent and parallel passages in the major Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita prepared by Humeâ€™s co-author George C.O. Haas.
Aldous Huxley(1894-1963),British novelist and critic; grandson of T.H. Huxley, biologist and evolutionist; brother of Julian Huxley, biologist, philosopher and first Director General of UNESCO. His novels the Near and the Far and Island explored the concepts of moksha and nirvana, was transformed by his association with Vedanta. He wrote the introduction to Bhagavad Gita, the Song of God(1944), translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. The Britannica Ready Reference Encyclopaedia, Vol 5, p91(2005) remarks: â€œhis works reveal a growing interest in Hindu philosophy and mysticism.â€
T.S.Eliot(1888-1965), the U.S-British poet, playwright and critic. Studied at Harvard University before moving to England in 1914 where he worked as an editor from the early 20s until his death. His conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 shaped all his subsequent works. His play Murder in the Cathedral(1935) is a verse treatment of St.Thomas Becketâ€™s martyrdom. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for his The Waste Land (1922) in 1948. â€œFrom then until his death he achieved public admiration unequaled by any other 20th century poetâ€- says the Britannica. Some of his poems reflect the message of the Upanishads. It is interesting to note Eliotâ€™s great esteem for the Bhagavad Gita. When he wrote his monograph on Dante(1974), he placed the sacred scripture next to La Commedia Divina of the Italian poet: â€œThe Bhagavad Gitaâ€¦is the next greatest philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy, within my experience.â€
The Bhagavad Gitaâ€™s revelations about the function of ego in human affairs deeply influenced Eliot. In his drama, Murder in the Cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is horrified to discover that the underlying motive for his supposedly noble deed of self-sacrifice for his church is actually guided by the desire of his ego to enjoy the fruits of glory that martyrdom would offer. Through Becketâ€™s speech at the height of his spiritual crisis, Eliot proved his understanding of nishkama karma as Sri Ramakrishna explained it:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Ambition comes behind and unobservable. Sin grows with doing good.
For those who serve the greater cause may make the cause serve them,
still doing right.(Studies on Sri Ramakrishna, Commemorative Volume,
150th birth anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna, Swamy Lokeswarananda, ed.,
Gol Park, Calcutta, 1988).
Russiaâ€™s Interest in the Bhagavad Gita: The first Russian translation of the Bhagavad Gita 1787 by N.I.Norikov, who relied on Charles Wilkinâ€™s English version. (G.G.Sengupta, Indology and its Eminent Western Savants, Calcutta, 1996). Count Lev Nicolaevich Tolstoy(1828-1910) was also a herald of Indian thought. He was greatly influenced by the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tamil Kural,and the modern Indian spiritual literature of his time. Milan Markovitch, author of Tolstoi et Gandhi, wrote that â€œthere is not one of Tolstoyâ€™s works written (after a particular period), which is not inspired, in part, by the great Hindu doctrines.(Raymond Schwab, The Oriental Renaissance: Europeâ€™s discovery of India and the East 1680-1880, New York, 1984)