Friday, December 01, 2006

T.S. Eliot and Hindu influence

T.S. Eliot and theThree Cardinal Virtues
T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, drew his intellectual sustenance from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, St. John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, the Greek dramatists, Baudelaire, and the Bhagavad Gita. Over and over again, whether in The Wasteland, Four Quarters, Ash Wednesday or Murder in the Cathedral, the influence of Indian philosophy and mysticism on him is clearly noticeable.
Eliot was a twenty-three year old student at Harvard when he first came across eastern philosophy and religion. What sparked his interest in Vedic thought is not recorded but soon he was occupied with Sanskrit, Pali and the metaphysics of Patanjali. He had also read the Gita and the Upanishads as is clear from the concluding lines of The Waste Land. The Waste Land ends with the reiteration of the Three Cardinal Virtues from the second Brahmana passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad: damyata (restraint), datta (charity) and dayadhvam (compassion) and the state of mind that follows obedience to the commands is indicated by blessing Shantih shantih shantih, that Eliot himself roughly translated as "the peace that passeth understanding." But it is the Gita that evidently made a more permanent imprint on Eliot's mind. It will be found relevant not only to The Waste Land, but to The Four Quarters, The Dry Salvages, and The Family Reunion. The tolerance preached by the Gita is echoed in Eliot's use of imagery drawn from several religions. As Prof. Philip R. Headings has remarked in his study of the poet, "No serious student of Eliot's poetry can afford to ignore his early and continued interest in the Bhagavad Gita." [21] In a sense Eliot follows in the giant footsteps of Emerson and Thoreau and the early Transcendentalists, but, it would seem, with a greater sense of urgency and relevance. There is a sharper, keener perception of what endures and should endure, and incessant demand that all traditions of literature, music, painting, architecture and philosophy be put to their proper psychic or religious use. In that sense, Eliot's message is the message of the Gita, of the essential utility of all activity: a message for all time, though it is harder to understand because it must be united from the materials, tone and perspective of his poems.

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