Sanskrit Scriptures And The West
In India, Sanskrit and the Sanskrit literature have been almost forgotten but it has influenced the European writers in a big way. Very recently it was found in New-Zeeland that if a student knows Sanskrit it can very easily master English. So Sanskrit is included in the school syllabus there.
In the beginning, the Sanskrit works which have influenced the European writers were three works: the Jataka stories, the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesa. Being stories, communicating classical Hindu themes with ethical message those suited the medieval taste. They rationally appealed to all those who loved to listen to and tell mysterious stories. People used to hear and enjoy such stories, especially when they moved from one place to another as merchants or soldiers or pilgrims or travellers or ascetics .
The story of Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1340-1400), was based on one of the Jataka stories. In a similar manner, the tales of Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma mixed up with some tales of the Hitopadesa and the Kathasaritsangare came to be known to the literary world as the Fables of Pilpay or Bidpai. It is almost a source of much European literature related with folklore tradition. -1 The earliest English references to these tales are found in Sir Thomas North’s (1535-1601), The Moral Philosophy of Doni. For centuries the India that evoked some response in the western brains and world was the India of tale collections or the India of amazing wealth. The India that Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) mentioned in his Suppliant Women:
And tales I know, how Indian women roam;
By camels drawn, each in the tented home. -2
This India was not the golden India of later times. The India that appears colourfully in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in the account of ‘Emetreus Kyng of Inde’ (11.2155-2189)-3, is the India of Gold. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentions India which testifies to this golden Inde idea of tradition. -4 Robert Ralston Cawley in the section on ‘The East Indies’ in his book, The Voyagers and Elizabethan Drama, echoes that with the golden India concept was related to the range of other ideas indicating wonderful geography, anthropology, flora, fauna and customs.-5 Yet it was from the late sixteenth century onwards that pragmatic accounts of India began to appear, such as the accounts of the Dutch missionary Abraham Roger, Edward Terry, Thomas Coryate (1577-1617)-6, John Ogilvy (1600-1676), Richard Eden (1521-1576)-7, Richard Willes and Sir Thomas Herbert. The impact of the belief of India as an actual rather that amazing country can be seen in Restoration Literature and the orientation of Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) Rasseles (1759) and Voltaire’s (1694-1778) Zadig.
Prior to the eighteenth century, India for Western World was known for her wealth and affluence. Western people were concerned only with the gold and other valuable materials. But at the end of the eighteenth century, their approach was changed. Now India was also known for her rich philosophy. With the luxury goods, philosophical ideas also travelled to western world from India. Times Literary Supplement, comments:
Between East and West the cultural wind blows both ways,
though a hasty present-day inspection might suggest that
it blew mainly eastward . . . . The wind from the East is quieter,
older, less immediately detectable; it penetrates and mingles,
and its note is deep . . . . Today the student from the Orient may
find himself to some degrees at home in Western Thought
for the elements of his own cultures, that are mixed in it.-8
Towards the fag end of the eighteenth century, curiosity in Indian literature and philosophy was aroused in the West by the translations of some major Indian scriptures and literary works. Germans were the first to show curiosity in the Indian writings on religion, philosophy, and literature. About five hundred years ago we find a German translation of the Panchatantra, entitled as Panchatantra Das Buch der byspel der alten Wyseen, by Anthonius Von Pforr (1488)-9 , based on Sanskrit via Pahlavi, Old Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. Bhartrihari’s verses were translated into German in 1663.-10 B.Hirzal translated Sakuntala in 1833. -11 The translation of the Manusmriti by J.C.Huttner appeared in 1797 and one of the Upanishads in 1808.-12 A wave of translations came out after Peiper (1834) who enlarged the value of his metrical depiction by copious grammatical, mythological and philosophical notes. Max Muller (1823-1900) contributed greatly to the translation of Sanskrit literature as editor of The Sacred Books of the East. He translated Hitopadesa (1844), Meghduta and parts of the Rig-Veda.-13
Bhagavad Gita’s Journey To West
In India, due to the faulty secular policy and vote bank politics, this great book has been rendered controversial book. So much so, in Soviet Russia very recently it was banned and it was declared a book preaching violence. But Bhagavad Gita has influenced and impressed a large number of western scholars. This book is more than five thousand years old.
J.W.Hauer, a Sanskrit Scholar who served for a few years as missionary in India, gave to the Bhagavad Gita a central place in German faith.-14 A huge number of German scholars were deeply influenced by the Indian philosophy. Kant (1724-1804), Herder (1744-1803), Fitche (1762-1814), Hegel (1770-1831), Schlegal (1772-1829), Schiller (1759-1805) and Goethe-15 (1749-1832) are very significant names in this regard. Friedrich Von Schlegal (1767-1829) who translated the Bhagavad Gita, quoted a few passages of the Bhagavad Gita in his own metrical translation (1808), collectively with lines from the Ramayana; Manusmriti and Sakuntala. The German pioneer Baron Wilhelm Von Humboldt started studying Sanskrit in 1821. After reading the Bhagavad Gita he thanked God that he had lived long enough to read such an inspiring book. He delivered a famous lecture on the Bhagavad Gita beforethe Academy of Science in Berlin in 1825.-16 In German, there is a museum named after the name of Herder ‘Herder Museum’. In this museum a number of Indian Manuscripts, carried away from India during the last more than a thousand years are conserved.
There is also evidence of the early Roman contact with India, though the contacts are limited to trade only. But quickly these contacts resulted in intellectual interactions. As a result of this interaction, Anquetil du Perron (1731-1805) translated Upanishads into Latin. In Surat, Gujrat, India, he discovered the Avests and published it as Zend-Avests in 1771.-17 The Oupnek’het which he then translated was the Persian version of the Upanishads, translated in 1656 by the Mogul prince Dara Shikoh, son of Mogul ruler Shahjahan, the elder brother of brutal and fanatic Aurangzeb. Realising that he was in fact, dealing with a Sanskrit text, he decided to translate the text into Latin. The first translation of a Sanskrit text into Latin was completed in 1796 -18 which was published in 1801-1802.
The Nelopakhyana episode of the Mahabharata was translated from Sanskrit in 1819,-19 while the first Latin collection from the Gita was published by O.Frank in 1820. A.W Von Schlegel was the first to bring out a complete Latin translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1823. With the support of Goethe, Von Schlegel also started a Latin translation of the Ramayana but did it only partly.-20 Lassen also contributed in the field of translating Gita and other Hindu scriptures in the European languages.
The invasion of the East India Company in India brought England and India nearer not only politically and commercially but also culturally. In England Sir William Jones (1756-1794), who passed away at the age of forty-eight was a pioneer and almost a crusader in this field.-21 He lived in India for ten long years. As proved by the records, he was the first English intellectual to command the Sanskrit language and interpreted the Eastern classics to the West. He was also and the first to translate Kalidasa’s Abhigyan Sakuntalam into English in 1789.-22 William Jones also was the first man to bring out an edition of a Sanskrit text. This was a short poem entitled Ritusemhara or Cycle of the Season published in 1792-23. In the same year, he published his English translation of Jaydeva’s Gitagovindam. -24
The first Governor General of Bengal, Sir Warren Hastings appealed to some Hindu Pundits (scholarly people) to prepare a digest of Hindu Law. They prepared a scholarly work in twenty-one chapters, called Vivadarnavasetu. But when the work was ready nobody could be found to translate it directly from Sanskrit to English. As a result, first, a Persian version was made, which was translated by Hellhed into English called A Code of Hindoo Law in 1776. -25 Warren Hastings also helped the establishment of the Asiatic Society -26, who’s first President was Sir William Jones. -27 Hastings sent Charles Wilkins to Benaras to learn Sanskrit, and when Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita was ready in manuscript, he persuaded the East India Company to have it printed and published in London. He himself wrote the introduction of this great Hindu book. The translation was published with the title, The Bhagvat Geeta or Dialogue of Kreeshna and Arjoona. This translation was in eighteen chapters and was brought out in 1783 -28. The combined efforts of Charles Wilkins and William Jones gave a strong force to more and more translations from Sanskrit. Colebrook lived in India for more than thirty years, (died in 1837) and he translated A Digest of Hindu Law on Contracts and Successions in 1797.-29 In 1804 he edited the Hitopadesa–30 with an introduction, and the Amarkosa-31, with marginal translation in 1808. He also prepared a Lexicon and Grammar of the Sanskrit Language in 1805-32. He also undertook the difficult task of translating works on arithmetic and astronomy.
Literature is also a philosophy. Though some critics may not agree with this notion. There are countless examples of seer poets enlightening ancient truths. Such graceful revelations are universal spiritual truths to which no one person, age, or religion can lay claim but certainly Hindu scriptures are closest to universal truth. In their effort to unravel the mystery of life and death poets and writers tried to make rapport with the Indian spiritual reality, like Hindu sages.
- Marshman and William Carey editedThe Ramayana of Maharishi Valmiki in the original Sanskrit -33 with a prose translation and explanatory notes in 1806. H.H. Wilson came to India as a doctor of the East India Company but was soon interested in Hindu scriptures. In 1813 he published his first translation of Kalidasa’s Meghduta and Select Specimens of the Theatre of the Hindus. -34 from the original Sanskrit. He also prepared the first Sanskrit-English Dictionary in 1819-35 and was the first to take up the chair of Sanskrit in Oxford in 1832. In this respect, Britain lagged behind the French where the first Chair of Sanskrit in Paris was established 1814 and in Germany where it was first set up in Bonn in 1818. Sir Edwin Arnold in 1860 translated Hitopadesa, in 1875 Jaydeva’s Gita-Govinda and finally in 1885 The Song Celestial i.e. the Gita. His famous book, The Light of Asia is also heavily influenced by the Indian philosophy especially the Gita. Charles Wilkins’ translations of the Bhagavad Gita (1785), the Hitopadesa (1787), the story of Sakuntala from the Mahabharata (1793); A Grammar of the Sanskrit Language (1823)-36 were parts of that zeal for Indology, that from the last quarter of the eighteenth century onwards, extend over a number of western countries such as Britain, America, France, Germany, France, Russia, Italy and others.
These translations and transcriptions of Sanskrit scriptures and literary books created a culture in Europe in the nineteenth century, influencing the important English writers. Of all the translations of Indian scriptures and literarily works, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita exercised the broadest and deepest influence on the imagination of western writers and thinkers. The reasons are not difficult to understand. The Bhagavad Gita has a significance and message which is apparently so universally human that its meaning remains significant to all ages and cultures. It is not a ‘neutral text’, but one which has played the most noteworthy role in India’s religious and philosophical movements as well as in the political life of a common man. It is one book which is not sectarian because it does not drive its sacredness from the subjective belief of its worshippers. The Bhagavad Gita is replete with dynamic inspiration which lifts up and moves the heart and mind of the reader. D.S. Sarma rightly points out:
We may read the Bhagavad Gita a thousand times and
think we have exhausted its meaning, but the next time
we go to it we get a new light, which we never dreamt
of before. The suggestiveness of the wonderful book is
really infinite, If only we begin to interpret it for ourselves
In terms of our own experience. -37
Bhagavad Gita and the English Literature
The Gita influenced a large number of English men of letters but in a big way, famous Romantic poet S.T.Coleridge was the first important English poet to respond to the Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Coleridge more than any other of his generation poets, was familiar with the works of a number of ideologists such as Sir William Jones.
In this field, the Asiatic Researchers, founded by Sir William Jones did a lot. It also holds the proceeding of the Bengal Asiatic Society which was established in 1784, and The Ordinance of Manu; written in 1794, is also an important name. Major Runnel, prepared the first correct map of India in his Bengal Atlas in 1779-38, Thomas Maurice’s History of Hindustan 1795 -39, Sir William Ouseley’s, Oriental Collection, 3 vols., 1797-99-40, and Jean-Antoine Dubois’ Hindu, Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies, in English was translated from the original text in French in 1816. -41. Kathleen Coburn observes:
India was the subject of Coleridge’s considerable reading;
mention’s Wilkins’ translation in connection with the poet’s
projected poem of the fancy and the understanding to
be entitled The Conquest of India by Bacchus. -42
One of the Indian scholars, Dr.Munir Ahmed, who has made a thorough examination of the reflections of Indian thought in Coleridge’s poetry, maintains:
The pantheism of ‘The Eolian Harp’, the demonic agencies in ‘The Ancient Mariner’, the intense longing for deep self-possession and calm response in ‘Osorio’ and ‘The Triumph of Loyalty’ and also perhaps the idea of the soul’s transmigration suggested in ‘Christable’, can be related to his Indian readings.-43
It is clearly mentioned in the ‘Philosophical Lectures’, that Coleridge read the Gita translated by Wilkins. Between December 1818 and January 1819, Coleridge read the Bhagavad Gita, just as he read The Ordinances of Manu, The History of Hindustan and other Indian books, as a part of his extensive pursuit for a religious philosophy and his deep interest in Hindu philosophy. He writes:
We have in this work (The Wilkins’ Gita), which I have now before me, an extract from the great poem of India where pantheism has displayed its banners and waved in victory over three hundred millions of men and this has been published in England as a proof of sublimity beyond the excellence of Milton in the true adoration of the Supreme being. It is an address to the pantheistic god.-44
Coleridge also has read an article in the Annual Register which he borrowed from the Bristol Library on 10 March 1796, which contains, “It is better, say the Hindoos, to sit than walk and to sleep than to wake; but death is the best of all.-45 He echoes these words in a letter written twenty months later to his friend Thelwall on 14th October 1797:
At other times I adopt the Brahman creed and say – It is better
to sit than to stand, it is better to lie than to sit, It is better to sleep
then to wake but death is the best of all! – I should much wish like
the Indian Vishnu to float along an infinite ocean cradled in the
flower of the Lotus and wake once in a million years for a few minutes.-46
In Coleridge’s poetry, there are evidences to the effect that he read the Wilkins’ Gita. The pantheistic outlook that Coleridge had found in the Bhagavad Gita, is present in ‘The Eolian Harp’, composed at Clevedon, Somersetshire, the home country of Charles Wilkins:
O: the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power a light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere,
Methinks, it should have been impossible,
Not to love all things in a world so filled.-47These lines and the lines immediately below them refer to all animated nature as organic harps diversely framed one intellectual breeze sweeps. These lines very closely echo the idea of the following lines of the Bhagavad-Gita as translated by Wilkins:
The man whose mind is endued with this devotion, and looketh on all
things alike, beholdeth the supreme soul in all things, and beholdeth
all thing in me, I forsake not him, and he forsaketh not me. The ‘Yogee’
who believeth in Unity, and worshippeth me present in all things, dwelleth
in me in all respects, even whilst He liveth. -48
Parallels to the Bhagavad Gita are easily visible in many other poems of Coleridge. Likewise, Wordsworth was also responsive to the greatly constant influence of the Bhagavad Gita. Wordsworth’s own experience of pantheistic Immanence was made stronger by his contact with Coleridge. In ‘Tintern Abbey’ the following lines easily recall to mind the Indian thinking as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita:
That blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:-that serene and blessed mood. -49
The following extract from the Bhagavad Gita expressing the same idea:
The ‘Yogee’ of a subdued mind; thus employed In the exercise of his
devotion, is compared to a lamp, standing in a place without wind,
Which waveth not. He delighteth in his own soul, where the mind,
regulated by the service of devotion, is pleased to dwell, and where,
By the assistance of the spirit, he beholdeth the soul. He becometh
acquainted with the boundless pleasure which is far more worthy
of the understanding than that which ariseth From the senses . . . he
is not moved by the severest pain. This disunion from the conjunction
of pain may be distinguished by The appellation of ‘Yog’, spiritual union
or devotion. It is to be attained by resolution, by the man who knoweth his own mind. -50
Wordsworth feels the same state when the “breath of this corporeal frame” is “almost suspended” and then, “we are laid asleep in the body, and become a living soul.”
The Bhagavad Gita talks of that intellectual and ethical state in which the ‘Yogi’, the entity who has subjected his mind and body to rigorous order and has controlled his senses, experience tranquil mood, as expressed by William Wordsworth.
Among the younger romantic poets, Shelly was most vulnerable to greater idealistic principles. He was very well well-known with the works of Sir William Jones, who belonged to the University College Oxford, where Shelley studied. Shelley had read ‘The Genius of the Thames’ written by his friend Thomas Love Peacock who himself was well-known with the English account of Jaydeva’s Gita Govindam and who worked in the office of East India Company. A book that Shelley knew well and which contributed significantly to the range of his imagery, myth and symbol, was Edward Moor’s Hindu Pantheon. In a paper entitled ‘Possible Indian Influence on Shelley’, published in the Ninth Bulletin of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association of London, Dr.S.R. Swami Nathan has established the Hindu Pantheon and the Irish novelist Miss Sydney Owenson’s novel The Missionary, as the source of some important images of Shelley. Commenting on Dr.Swami Nathan’s paper, the Times Literary Supplement wrote in an editorial:
So the Greek Aphrodite- Shelley’s Promethean Asia-born of the sea foam stood- Within a veined shell, which floated on over the calm floor of the crystal sea.. -51
Lakshmi- Miss Owenson’s luxima-who tints all Shelley’s projections into womanly form of intellectual beauty, is the love that Shelley, Plato, and the Christian vision alike place at the core of being. -52
Shelley’s basics of philosophy predominantly regarding good and Evil, the Avatar and the relations of the individual soul to the celestial soul seem to have been based on the Bhagavad Gita. Shelley, like Coleridge, widely read Indian scriptures and literature. There are passages and lines in Shelley that are similar to the passages in the Bhagavad Gita. For example following lines of ‘Love’s Philosophy’:
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of Heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in this world is single,
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle. -53
Recollect the image given in the Bhagavad Gita:
SaMaud]MaaPa” Pa[ivXaiNTa YaÜTa( )
TaÜTk-aMaa Ya& Pa[ivXaiNTa SaveR
Sa XaaiNTaMaaPanaeiTa Na k-aMak-aMaq ))
samudram äpaù praviçanti yadvat
tadvat kämä yaà praviçanti sarve
sa çäntim äpnoti na käma-kämé
(Just as all water enters, from all sides, the sea, of which the shores are not transgressed, though it is being filled on all sides, so is (true) tranquility obtained only by that person who is entered by all objects of sense (without disturbing his tranquility); not by one, who desires the objects of sense (is it possible that this tranquility is acquired) -54 (Ch-2, Sl. 70).
These lines are translated in English by Wilkins as:
The men whose passions enter his heart as
Waters run into the unswelling passive ocean. -55
Here there is a picture of water of rivers entering into and losing themselves in the unmoving sea. In relation to lines of the poem of Shelley, the reference to ‘law divine’ and ‘one spirit’ has its echo in the Bhagavad Gita’s as
Servabhutasthamatmanam sarvabhutani ca tmani. (Ch. VI, sl.29)
This sloka was translated by Wilkins as:
The man whose mind is endued with this devotion, and
looketh on all things alike, beholdeth the supreme soul in
all things, and beholdeth all things in me. I forsake not him,
and he foresaketh not me. The ‘Yogee’ who believeth in
unity, and worshippeth me present in all things, dwelleth in me . . . -56
Shelley again refers in Adonis to ‘sustaining love’ and the light whose smile kindles the Universe’ in the following lines:
The one remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly. -57
On the death of Keats, Shelley recognized: “He hath awakened from the dream of life.”
The Absolute Ultimate in the centre of the transitory lots of is the idea of the Bhagavad Gita too. The concept of Maya also runs in Shelley’s poems. The Bhagavad Gita’s ideas of ‘soul’ and ‘water’ are also again and again referred to by Shelley in his important works.
Southey (1774-1843), a contemporary of Wordsworth had direct knowledge with the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian works. His footnotes to, The Curse of Krishna (1810), very frequently refers to the Bhagavad Gita and there are suggestions also to The Institute of Manu, The Mahabharata, Songs of Jayadeva, and Maurice’s History of Hindustan.
Even there are big numbers of poets of the nineteenth century but are elapsed today could not get away the sway of The Bhagavad Gita. One such poet is Richard Henry Horne (1803-1884) who refers to the Indian thought of ‘Yoga’ in his epical work Orion (1843). This poem discusses to the doctrines of Nishkam Karma and predestination. The following lines are significant in this regard:
Not in thee
Was failure born, its law preceded thing:
It governs every act, which needs must fail-
I mean give place to make room for the next
. . . . . . . . .
Sit still, Remain with me. No difference
Will in the world to be found: ‘t will know no charge,
Be sure, say that an act hath been ordained?
Some hand must do it: therefore do not move:
An instrument of action must be found,
And you escape both toil and consequences: -58
This extract is a direct suggestion to the well-known idea of the Bhagavad Gita that the doer and master are only, God.
Likewise one more poet, William Bell Scott (1811-1890), in his Autobiographical Notes, confesses to has referred to the Cosmogony of the Hindoos in his famous and popular poem ‘The Fear of the World’ a philosophical poem on freedom from the fall (1846). Again In the Autobiographical Notes, (vol. I, p.237), he says that in the poem referred to, he has repeated a portion of the Bhagavad Gita.-59 this he does in section III of part ii of the poem in which his hero, Lyremmos, is shown, standing on the banks of Holy Ganges. He listens to a divine voice. Actually, this was the clear influence of the Bhagavad Gita on him. The God, he feels, pervades and sustains all things.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a powerful thinker and writer of the Victorian age was among those who read the Bhagavad Gita and incorporated its philosophical ideas in his works like Sartor Resartus (1832), etc. it was he who gave a copy of the Bhagavad Gita to the famous American Poet and philosopher, Emerson, when the latter visited him at Craigenputtock.-60 Carlyle’s concept of Duty, (work is worship), his theory of the great man, i.e., the Hero, and his firm conviction of the world’s being an illusion are so close, in letter and script, to the teachings of Bhagavad Gita, that in the mid-nineteenth century he may be called the greatest apostle of Indian philosophy. It is not without significance that he alone among all English men of letters has been acknowledged as the prophet. An independent work of the influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Carlyle is possible.
Another great Victorian poet Robert Browning, his view, values, vision, and convictions are very close to Hindu vision in general and the Bhagavad Gita in particular.-61 Similarly it is also believed that Karl Marx’s Enlightenment Theory is nothing but the reinterpretation of Hindus’ philosophy of Vasudhevkutumbakum although it is a different issue that he was a very bitter critic of Hindus and Hinduism.
Tennyson accepts that intellect is not strong enough to understand the final reality. It only “stirs the surface shadow” but never “hath dipt into …/ The abysm of all abysms”. Hindu Vedic scriptures assert the illusory (maya) dualistic mask or surface-shadow as ‘maya’. This is something we need to understand and defeat.
Only Hindu mystics or saints see this truth or maya through Self-realization and poets and thinkers declare it through transcendental imagination. Once they experience out-of-body awareness, mystics attain the area of pure consciousness and the self seems “to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this is not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest… the loss of external personality, (if so it were) seeming not annihilation but the only true life.”Tennyson here conveys the essence of Advaita Vedanta, the cardinal tenet of Hinduism, Brahma (God) alone is real. The universe is unreal, and the individual soul is none other than the universal soul. This idea is taken by Tennyson from the Bhagavad Gita.
Evidently, this state is not confined to sages. At times poets also realise this state:
In ‘Memoirs’ Tennyson informs Mrs Bradley: “There are moments when this flesh is nothing to me when I feel and know the flesh to be the vision, God and the spiritual the only real and true.”
D H Lawrence is overjoyed at the prospect of discarding his flesh “Like luggage of some departed traveller”.
The poet William Blake confidently said: “I am in God’s presence night and day.” In this mystical trance, which is seeing the soul with bodily eyes closed, is when we receive the highest kind of intuitive knowledge.
This is nothing but influences of the Bhagavad Gita: Evidently, this state is not confined to sages only.
A parallel is found in the Bhagavad Gita: “The flesh was as though dead, yet in my intense awareness I knew that never before had I been fully alive. My sense of identity was no longer narrowly confined to a body but embraced the circumambient atoms…. An oceanic joy broke upon calm endless shores of my soul. The spirit of God, I realised, is exhaustless Bliss.”
In the Kathopanishad, Yama tells Nachiketa that the supreme person, the size of a thumb, dwells forever in the hearts of all beings. Krishna assures us in the Bhagavad Gita: that He is seated in the heart of all beings. Vivekananda said: “After long searches here and there, in temples and churches…at last you come back completing the circle from where you started, to your own soul and find that He …is nearest of the near, in your own Self.”
However, among the poets of the Victorian era, it is Matthew Arnold who seems to have been more deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita than any of his contemporary poets. He was born in an age which was surcharged with orientalism due to the increasing political and cultural intimacy of the West and the East. It was the age which had several translations of the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian scriptures and literary works by a number of European scholars, and of Omer Khayyam by Fitzgerald. It also witnessed the growing popularity of the Koran references to which were made by Carlyle in his lecture on Mohammad, the Hero as Prophet, and of the Arabian Nights, etc.
Son of a distinguished educationist and a strict disciplinarian, Mathew Arnold felt ill at ease in his family. He felt equally dissatisfied with the atmosphere at Oxford University where he was sent to study. Later on dissatisfied, as inspector of schools, he experienced a spiritual and intellectual crisis. At Rugby School, he was seen very reserved and known as ‘Lofty Mat’. His mockery is said to have been directed on at least once, and without its victim’s knowledge, upon Dr. Arnold himself. “He displeased his father Dr. Thomas Arnold and was stood behind the Doctor’s chair, he gratified his friends by making faces over father’s head.-62 Saintsbury points out, “His bent was hopelessly anticlerical, and he was not merely too honest, but much too proud a man, to consent to be put in one of the priests’ offices for a morsel of bread”.-63 As inspector of schools he felt disgusted with traveling which he found tedious and depressing.
A bad carriage on a filthy lane, a bun snatched hastily in railway station,
thirty pupils, teachers to examine in an inconvenient room, and nothing to
eat, except a biscuit given by a charitable lady, eighty training college candidates to supervise for seven hours a day, with the gas burning most
of the time, either to give light or to help warm the room.-64
Environment, around him further intensified his pain. The industrial revolution ushered in an era of ‘haves and have nots’ and presented a social view of naked poverty and ugliness. The old social order was cracking and nothing concrete was there to replace that. The untimely and sudden death of his father upset him emotionally and spiritually. It was, therefore natural that a sensitive man of the nature of Arnold found himself between two worlds ‘one dead and the other powerless to be born’. “Always at war with the worldliness-the worldliness within the worldliness without”,-65 Arnold was poignantly conscious of his inner conflict. Some critics think that ‘he on occasions behaved in the most unpredictable manner’. -66 In September 1849, he went to France and there he met a girl named Marguerite. Arnold was infatuated with the girl and wanted to marry her but he could not do so. This further upset him emotionally. However, she became an important character in Arnold’s life.-67
All these factors convinced him of the meaningless of life. Legouis and Cazamian write: “The vague Christianity of Arnold, the moral pantheism to which all his philosophical reflection leads, seems to have left in his inner self an emptiness, a scar which is revealed only in his poetry”.-68 He felt as Arjuna did before the commencement of the war at Kurukshetra. He was in search of spiritual peace. It was, therefore, natural that he developed a deep interest in Hindu scriptures, particularly in the Bhagavad Gita. He wrote to his friend Clough in Sep.1849,
My dearest Clough these are damned times, everything is against one the
height to which knowledge is come to spread of luxury, our physical
enervation, the absence of great natures, the unavoidable contact with
millions of small ones, newspapers, cities, light profligate friends, moral desperados like Carlyle, our own selves and the sickening consciousness of
our difficulties, but for God’s sake let us neither be fanatics nor yet half blown by the mind.-69
For these reasons, his interest in the Bhagavad Gita increased day after day. He particularly admired the doctrine of Nishkam Karma. He carefully read the Wilkin’s Gita, as his letter to Clough shows. In one of his letters to Clough on March 1, 1848, he wrote: “I am disappointed the Oriental wisdom, God grant it were mine, pleased you not”. -70 The two, had been, no doubt, acquainting themselves with oriental wisdom sometime before this date. On March 4, 1848, he again wrote to Clough: “The Indians distinguish between meditation and absorption, and knowledge, and between abandoning the practice and abandoning the fruits of action and all respect thereto. This last is a supreme step, and dilated throughout the poem”. -71
The “Poem” referred to in the letter is the Bhagavad Gita. Arnold’s language and a few words used in the above letter show that Arnold had read Wilkin’s Gita. Wilkin’s translates the twelfth Sloka of the twelfth chapter thus:
Knowledge is better than practice, meditation
Is distinguished from knowledge, forsaking the
Fruits of action from meditation, for happiness,
Hereafter is derived from such forsaking. -72
Again, in the depiction of the forty-third Sloka of the second chapter, Wilkin’s introduced the word “absorption”, for which there is no identical in the original. He also used the word “meditation” for both the Sanskrit words Dhyana and Samadhi. These peculiarities of explanation are in none of the other translations available to Arnold such as Schlegel’s Latin translation published in 1823, Lassen’s bigger and better account of the later published in 1846. It is a different matter that Arnold might have also discussed with either Schlegel or Lassen or Cockburn Thomson, who published his translation in 1855. Cockburn Thomson writes that the Schlegel’s edition was the one “most generally used”. Lionel trilling believes;
Arnold has at his disposal several translations of the Gita…I suspect
that Arnold read the Essay of W. von Humboldt on the Gita (Berlin, 1826),
and the improved and amplified Latin rendering of A.W. Von Schlegel (1823). -73
These facts have now been confirmed by Kenneth Allots’ publications of Arnold’s reading lists contained in his three early diaries. -74 H.F. Lowry in his editorial note to Arnold’s letter of March-4, to Clough suggests that the Bhagavad Gita “heavily influenced” Arnold’s ‘Resignation’ and other early poems. But Clough did not like Arnold’s curiosity in Oriental philosophy. In a review of Arnold’s 1852 volume which incorporated ‘Empedocles on Etna’, he quoted Arnold’s poem ‘Mortality’ and was happy to find that Arnold had “for once” escaped from “the dismal cycle of his rehabilitated Hindoo Greek Philosophy”.-75 But the fact is that Arnold could not escape from the eastern influence as Basil Willey points out, “Arnold is a child of new era and has felt the full strength of the modern spiritual east Wind”.-76
Edwin Arnold, R.W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, T.S.Eliot, W.B.Yeats etc., are some other names who were deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, Vedic philosophy and Hindu way of life. There are numerous such examples. It is said that then Ambassador to USSR, Dr.S. Radhakrishnan, famous philosopher-politician used to give lectures to ruthless communist dictator Stalin on the Bhagavad Gita. It was to everybody’s surprise that Stalin was charmed by this great philosopher. In a lecture, on Hindu philosophy Stalin listened Dr.S.Radhakrishnan. After that meeting, Stalin almost became a disciple of Dr.S.Radhakrishnan. At the time of Dr. Radhakrishan’s departure from U.S.S.R. to India, Stalin expressed his wish to see him. Dr. Radhakrishan met him and before leaving, he patted Stalin on the cheek and back like a father blessing his son. Stalin almost in tears and reacted emotionally, “you are the first person who has treated me like a human being and not like a monster you are leaving and I am sad.” -77
World order in Hindu cosmology was governed by immutable cycles of an almost inconceivably vast scale — millions of years long. Kingdoms would fall, and the universe would be destroyed, but it would be re-created, and new kingdoms would rise again. The true nature of human experience was known only to those who endured and transcended these temporal upheavals.
Now the Bhagavad Gita is either part of the syllabus or taught in a number of universities in America and universities in other countries, especially European universities. After the establishment of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, (ISKON), in July 1966, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in New York, U.S.A., the Bhagavad Gita became one of the most popular books, world over and it was translated in almost all the languages. -78
Father of atomic bomb J.Robert Oppenheimer was also a big fan of the Gita.
“Death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” US President Barack Obama said on Friday at Hiroshima, where his country dropped an atomic bomb – the first – that killed 140,000 people in August 1945.
Obama’s words were evocative of what J. Robert Oppenheimer, the’ father of A-bomb’ said – or remembered thinking – after the bomb, christened ‘Little Boy’, was dropped on Hiroshima on the orders of the then President, Harry Truman.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and, to impress him, takes his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
Oppenheimer, Jewish by birth, was quoting a translation of verse 32 from Chapter 11 of the Gita:
Bhavad yugapad uthitaa
Yadi bhaah sadrshi saa syaaad
Bhaasas tasya mah’aatmanaah!
Kaalo’ami loka-kshaya-krt pravrddho
Lokaan samaahatum iha pravrttah!”
In 1933, when Oppenheimer was in Berkeley – prior heading the atomic bomb project called the Manhattan Project – he became a student of Arthur Ryder, a Sanskrit professor. That’s when he developed an interest in the Gita and read it in Sanskrit.
Oppenheimer would later say the Gita was one of the books that shaped his philosophy of life. -79
Everyone has infinite potential and talent. Yet most people live and die without so much as a glimpse of who they really are or what they bring to the world. The Bhagwad Gita helps unlock your potential so that you gain the power to rock the world. All it takes is a slight shift in attitude, change in thinking.
M K Gandhi was a timid barrister who transformed into a Mahatma. Swami Vivekananda initially trembled at the thought of trembling the thought of addressing the Parliament of Religion, became a world-famous preacher! Abdul Kalam rose from humble origins to become President of India. -80
World celebrates, 21 December as ‘Gita Jayanti Day,’ means that the Shreemad Bhagavad Gita came on the earth on this day.
1–P.Harvey, The oxford Companion to English Literature: (London, 1953), P.87.
2-Quoted by M.K. Naik et al. (ed.), The Image of India in Western Creative Writing,(Dharwar, 1971), P.35.
3-A.C. Cowley (Ed.), Chaucer : Canterbury Tales, (London, 1950), pp.58-59.
4-C.R. Banerji, ‘India in Shakespeare’: Indian Journal of English Studies (1964), pp.67-75.
5-R.R. Cawley, The Voyagers and Elizabethan Drama (rpt)., (New York, 1966), pp.107-161.
6-In 1612, Thomas Croyate visited India and reached Agra in 1616. He died at Surat. A letter of his from the court of Greet Mougal is printed by Purchase, and this and another letter from the East are included in a collection called Thomas Coriate Traveller for the English Wits: Greeting (1616). (Harvey, p.188).
7-He published in 1533 a translation of Munster’s Cosmography, in 1555 of Peter Martyr’s Decade of the Newe Worlde or West India. (Harvey, p.250).
8-Times Literary Supplement (London), (26, Dec. 1958), p.751.
9-W.M.Callewaert and S.Hemraj, The Bhagvadgitanuvada, (Ranchi, 1983), p.293.
14-Hauer Calls it (Gita), a work of imperishable significance. He declares that the book “gives us 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-Germanic religious history. It shows us the way as regards, the essential nature and basal characteristic of Indo-German religion. Here spirit is at work that belongs to our spirit”. He states the central message of the Gita in these words: “We are not called to solve the meaning of life but to find out the Deed demanded of us and to work so, by action, to master the riddle of life”.
(Quoted in Hibbert Journal, April 1940, p.341).
15-Goethe wrote in 1826: I have no means of aversion to things Indian, but I am afraid of them, for they drew my imagination into the formless and the diffuse against which I have to guard myself more than ever.
(Quoted by R.K. Das Gupta, ‘Western Responses to India Literature’, Indian Literature; Sahitya Akademi, Jan-March, 1967, pp.5-15.
16-Callewaert and Hemraj, p.294.
21-A.L. Basham (Ed.). A Cultural History of India, (Oxford, 1975) pp.409-10.
22-Naik et al., p.91.
23-A. Macdonnel, A History of Sanskrit Literature, (London, 1928), p.3.
24-Callewaret and Hemraj, p.235.
27-“While he (Jones) believed in Christ and Christianity, he was attracted to the Hindu concept of the non-duality of God, as interpreted by Sanskara, and the transmigration of soul . . . ‘I am no Hindu’, but I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning a future state to be incomparably more rational more pious, and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated on punishment without end”. (D.P. Singhal, India World Civilization, (Calcutta, 1972), p.205.
29-Callewaret and Hemraj, p.235.
36-Naik, et al., p. 235.
37-D.S. Sarma, The Bhagavad Gita, (Madras, 1940), p.6.
38-Naik et al., p.38.
42-K. Coburn (ed.), The Note Book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (London, 1957), Vol.I,Note No. 1647, last paragraph.
43-M. Ahmad, “Coleridge and The Bahaman Creed “:Indian Journal of English Studies, (1960), pp. 18-37.
44-Philosophical Lectures, (ed) K. Coburn, (London, 1957), p.127.
45- The Annual Register, (London, 1782), vol.25, p.37.
46-Coleridge; Collected Letters, 1, p.350.
47- E.H.Coleridge (ed.) Coleridge Poetical Works, (London, 1969), p.1101.
48-C.Wilkins, (trans.), The Bhagavad Gita, London, 1785), VI, 65.
49-The Poetical Works of Wordsworth (ed.), T.Hutchinson, (London, 1953), p.164.
50-Wilkins, ibid., pp.64-65.
51-H.Bloom,Shelley, (ed.), New York, 1966, p.173, ‘Prometheus Unbound, II, V,ll.23-24.
52-Times Literary Supplement, (26 th December 1958), p.751.
53-The Complete Poetical Works of P.B.Shelley , (ed.), T.Hutchinson, (London, 1943), p.578.
54-OM-TAT-SAT SRIMAD BHAGAVAD GITA RAHASYA OR KARMA-YOGA-SASTRA, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Third Edition, (Poona, 1971) Revised, July-1975, p.906.
****Hereafter referred as the Gita. Sanskrit, Roman, and First translation are downloaded from Goggle.
55-Wilkins, ibid., p.42.
58-Orin (ed.), Eric Partridge, (London, 1928), p.86.
59-Naik et. Al., p.54.
60-Emerson was deeply disturbed on account of the death of his wife at an early age. It was again the reading of the Bhagavad Gita that alleviated his spiritual journey and rejuvenated him.
61- Arti Gupta, ROBERT BROWNING, (SARUP & SONS, New Delhi, 2002)
62- L. Trilling, Mathew Arnold (New York, 1949), p.19.
63- G. Saintsbury, Mathew Arnold, (London, 1955), p.6.
64- J.D.Jump, Matthew Arnold, (London, 1955), p.40.
65- D. Bush, Matthew Arnold: A Survey of his Poetry and Prose, (New York, 1971), p.71.
66- A. Wright, Victorian Literature, (Ed.), (London), p.7
67- H. Park, Matthew Arnold, A Life, (1970), p. 496.
68- E. Legouis & L. Cazamian, A History of English Literature, (London, 1954), p. 1190.
69- The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough, (ed.) H.F. Lowry, (London, 1932), p.111.
70- Ibid., p.69.
71- Ibid., p.71.
72- Wilkin’s, p. 72.
73- Trilling, p.25.
74- Kenneth Allott, Matthew Arnold’s Reading Lists in Three Early Diaries, VL, II (1959), pp.254-266.
According to the reading lists published by Allott, Arnold seems to have read Victor Cousin’s lectures on the history of modern philosophy and he may have gathered some information regarding the Gita from Cousin’s account of it. He is, however, free from the light tendency towards misinterpretation that Cousin betrays in trying to translate the thought of the Gita into terms readily intelligible to the western audience. Incidentally, Cousin declares in his lectures that his knowledge of Indian philosophy is entirely derived from Colebrook. Here, some relevant remarks from Cousin:
The yogi searches only for god, but he finds him equally in everything. Only in order to contemplate him in all things, make an abstraction of that which is not him; it is only the substance of things, pure being that it is necessary to consider, and as the end of contemplation is to unite ourselves to God, the means of arriving at this union is to resemble him as much as possible, that is to reduce ourselves to pure being, by the abolition of all thought of every interior act; for the least thought, the least act would destroy the unity in dividing it, would modify and alter the absolute substance. This state of artificial absorption of the soul in itself, this suppression of every internal and external modification and consequently of consciousness, and consequently of memory, is ecstasy. Ecstasy is the end of contemplation, it is to this that the Yogi tends, and he aspires to annihilate himself in God.
Course of the History of Modern Philosophy (trans.), O.W. Wright, (New York, 1852), I, pp.397-398.
75- Prose Remains, ed., Mrs. Clough, (London, 1888), p.373.
76- B.Willey, ed., Nineteenth-Century Studies, London, 1950.
77- S. Lal, 50 Magnificent Indians of the 20th Century, Jaico.
78-A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The Path of Perfection, The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Hare Krishna Land, Juhu, Mumbai-400049, 1979.
79- ‘When the father of the atomic bomb quoted the Bhagavad Gita’, Shailaja Neelakantam, The Times of India, (E-Paper), New-Delhi, India, May 27, 2016.
80- ‘The Gita makes You A High Network Individual’, Jaya Row, The Times of India, New Delhi, Wednesday, August 31, 2016, p- 24.
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