Friday, December 01, 2006

Walt Whitman - Hindu influence

The relationship of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) to Vedic thought is considerably complex. Emerson once described Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a blending of Gita and the New York Herald. In his reminiscing essay, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1889) Whitman claims to have read "the ancient Hindu poems" and there is enough evidence to show that in 1875 he had received a copy of the Gita as a Christmas present from and English friend, Thomas Dixon. [20]
Although the mystic trend in much of Whitman's work is unmistakable, but he was never the less a product of America in its robust love for life and zest for living.
One report has it that it was Thoreau who led Walt Whitman to dip into what was then collectively called "Oriental" literature. We have to take the word of his biographer for that. Whitman, from all the evidence, was vastly impressed by his readings. It is only in recent years that critics have come to recognise the deepening of Whitman's religious feeling and his far saner intuitions of human nature in such superb poems of the late 1850's and the 1860's as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and "Passage to India"-a term, incidentally, that E.M. Forster was to pick up in later years.
Of "Passage to India" it has been especially said that it "contains his most eloquent idealism." His main theme was the question asked by the feverish children of the modern age: "Whither, O mocking life?" The coming together of the seas in the Suez Canal, the crossing of the great American continent by steel do not satisfy, they are but shadows of a greater dream. There must be a passage to more that India. The soul, "that actual me," must voyage beyond its material successes in order to amplify its love, its ideals, its "purity, perfection, strength." So "sail forth-steer for the deep waters only."
Passage O soul to IndiaEclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables...The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos'd dreams,The deep-diving bibles and legendsThe daring plots of the poets, the elder religions;O you temples fairer than lilies pour'd over by the rising sun!O you fables spurning the known, eluding the hold of theknown, mounting to heaven!You lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as rose,burnished with gold!Towers of fables immortal fashion'd from mortal dreams!You too I welcome and fully the same as the rest!You too with joy I sing!
Whitman's constantly phrased and re-phrased conception of "the real me"-'I pass death with the dying' brings to mind the reincarnation doctrine, as it is specifically mentioned in the Gita.

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