9/2/2016 1:14:39 AM
Subject: Political philosophies of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, how their political situations were similar, and how they have influenced each other, politically and philosophically.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they've killed you." (April 1968) Photo courtesy The Chicago Sun-Times.
When Mahatma Gandhi was working out his concept of non-violent resistance, he was impressed by Henry David Thoreau’s advice to resist things that were wrong. Thoreau suggested that individuals could resist immoral government action by simply refusing to cooperate. Gandhi adopted many of Thoreau’s thoughts in developing his concept of Satyagraha (non-cooperation), or Truth Force. One of the most significant and tangible effects India has had on life in the United States was Mahatma Gandhi’s influence on the Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, who adapted Gandhi’s idea of civil disobedience to the civil rights movement in the United States. Martin Luther King always paid tribute to Gandhi as one of the most important sources of his own values. In 1959, Dr. King made a pilgrimage to India.
This lesson can enhance a discussion of the civil rights movement in the United States, and can be used as a start of a student research-based project on other instances of civil disobedience and non-violent protest.
Through research and textual analysis students will come to know the political philosophies of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, how their political situations were similar, and how they have influenced each other, politically and philosophically.
Three class periods
Handouts and cartoon
Library or Internet for research
Black or whiteboard or poster board and markers
Paper and markers
Reading comprehension; textual, historical, critical, and cross-cultural analysis; discussion; research, and presentation skills; and ability to work within a group.
1. First part of lesson, break students up into groups to research the political views of Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Martin Luther King.
2. Each group will write brief description of the view they researched.
3. Outline the main points on the board in three categories.
4. Resources: articles, internet
5. Discuss the following:
· The similarities and differences in their views.
· How they influenced one another.
· How were the social and political climates they were struggling against similar? How were they different?
· How did these climates prompt them to influence each other?
· How have the social climates that each one fought against changed?
6. Briefly discuss each one’s religious background. How are their religious philosophies similar to one another’s? (Consider Ahimsa, nonviolence, love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, etc.)? What similar values do they promote that may have caused them to be influenced by each other’s tactics?
7. Look at the cartoon.
8. Discuss the following:
· What is the meaning of this cartoon?
· What are some examples of how both Gandhi and King have lived on after their deaths?
9. Have each student draw their own cartoon that makes a statement that they have learned from this lesson.
There have been dozens of examples of civil disobedience through history, including many instances of civil rights, environment, or religious leaders who have followed the path of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For example:
Anti-Apartheid Campaign in South Africa
Campaigns for religious freedom, such as the one led by the Dalai Lama or monks in Burma/Myanmar
Environmental movements, such as tree sitting
Mahatma Gandhi Bio
Born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, India, Mahatma Gandhi studied law and advocated for the civil rights of Indians, both at home under British rule and in South Africa. Gandhi became a leader of India’s independence movement, organizing boycotts against British institutions in peaceful forms of civil disobedience. He was killed by a fanatic in 1948.
Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, Kathiawar, India, which was then part of the British Empire. His father, Karamchand Gandhi, served as a chief minister in Porbandar and other states in western India. His mother, Putlibai, was a deeply religious woman who fasted regularly. Gandhi grew up worshiping the Hindu god Vishnu and following Jainism, a morally rigorous ancient Indian religion that espoused non-violence, fasting, meditation and vegetarianism.
Young Gandhi was a shy, unremarkable student who was so timid that he slept with the lights on even as a teenager. At the age of 13, he wed Kasturba Makanji, a merchant’s daughter, in an arranged marriage. In the ensuing years, the teenager rebelled by smoking, eating meat and stealing change from household servants.
In 1885, Gandhi endured the passing of his father and shortly after that the death of his young baby. Although Gandhi was interested in becoming a doctor, his father had hoped he would also become a government minister, so his family steered him to enter the legal profession. Shortly after the birth of the first of four surviving sons, 18-year-old Gandhi sailed for London, England, in 1888 to study law. The young Indian struggled with the transition to Western culture, and during his three-year stay in London, he became more committed to a meatless diet, joining the executive committee of the London Vegetarian Society, and started to read a variety of sacred texts to learn more about world religions.
Upon returning to India in 1891, Gandhi learned that his mother had died just weeks earlier. Then, he struggled to gain his footing as a lawyer. In his first courtroom case, a nervous Gandhi blanked when the time came to cross-examine a witness. He immediately fled the courtroom after reimbursing his client for his legal fees. After struggling to find work in India, Gandhi obtained a one-year contract to perform legal services in South Africa. Shortly after the birth of another son, he sailed for Durban in the South African state of Natal in April 1893.
Spiritual and Political Leader
When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, he was quickly appalled by the discrimination and racial segregation faced by Indian immigrants at the hands of white British and Boer authorities. Upon his first appearance in a Durban courtroom, Gandhi was asked to remove his turban. He refused and left the court instead. The Natal Advertiser mocked him in print as “an unwelcome visitor.”
A seminal moment in Gandhi’s life occurred days later on June 7, 1893, during a train trip to Pretoria when a white man objected to his presence in the first-class railway compartment, although he had a ticket. Refusing to move to the back of the train, Gandhi was forcibly removed and thrown off the train at a station in Pietermaritzburg. His act of civil disobedience awoke in him a determination to devote himself to fighting the “deep disease of color prejudice.” He vowed that night to “try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process.” From that night forward, the small, unassuming man would grow into a giant force for civil rights.
Gandhi formed the Natal Indian Congress in 1894 to fight discrimination. At the end of his year-long contract, he prepared to return to India until he learned at his farewell party of a bill before the Natal Legislative Assembly that would deprive Indians of the right to vote. Fellow immigrants convinced Gandhi to stay and lead the fight against the legislation. Although Gandhi could not prevent the law’s passage, he drew international attention to the injustice.
After a brief trip to India in late 1896 and early 1897, Gandhi returned to South Africa with his wife and two children. Kasturba would give birth to two more sons in South Africa, one in 1897 and one in 1900. Gandhi ran a thriving legal practice, and at the outbreak of the Boer War, he raised an all-Indian ambulance corps of 1,100 volunteers to support the British cause, arguing that if Indians expected to have full rights of citizenship in the British Empire, they also needed to shoulder their responsibilities as well.
Gandhi continued to study world religions during his years in South Africa. “The religious spirit within me became a living force,” he wrote of his time there. He immersed himself in sacred Hindu spiritual texts and adopted a life of simplicity, austerity and celibacy that was free of material goods.
In 1906, Gandhi organized his first mass civil-disobedience campaign, which he called “Satyagraha” (“truth and firmness”), in reaction to the Transvaal government’s new restrictions on the rights of Indians, including the refusal to recognize Hindu marriages. After years of protests, the government imprisoned hundreds of Indians in 1913, including Gandhi. Under pressure, the South African government accepted a compromise negotiated by Gandhi and General Jan Christian Smuts that included recognition of Hindu marriages and the abolition of a poll tax for Indians. When Gandhi sailed from South Africa in 1914 to return home, Smuts wrote, “The saint has left our shores, I sincerely hope forever.”
Fight for Indian Liberation
After spending several months in London at the outbreak of World War I, Gandhi returned in 1915 to India, which was still under the firm control of the British, and founded an ashram in Ahmedabad open to all castes. Wearing a simple loincloth and shawl, Gandhi lived an austere life devoted to prayer, fasting and meditation. He became known as “Mahatma,” which means “great soul.”
In 1919, however, Gandhi had a political reawakening when the newly enacted Rowlatt Act authorized British authorities to imprison those suspected of sedition without trial. In response, Gandhi called for a Satyagraha campaign of peaceful protests and strikes. Violence broke out instead, which culminated on April 13, 1919, in the Massacre of Amritsar when troops led by British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer fired machine guns into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators and killed nearly 400 people. No longer able to pledge allegiance to the British government, Gandhi returned the medals he earned for his military service in South Africa and opposed Britain’s mandatory military draft of Indians to serve in World War I.
Gandhi became a leading figure in the Indian home-rule movement. Calling for mass boycotts, he urged government officials to stop working for the Crown, students to stop attending government schools, soldiers to leave their posts and citizens to stop paying taxes and purchasing British goods. Rather than buy British-manufactured clothes, he began to use a portable spinning wheel to produce his own cloth, and the spinning wheel soon became a symbol of Indian independence and self-reliance. Gandhi assumed the leadership of the Indian National Congress and advocated a policy of non-violence and non-cooperation to achieve home rule.
After British authorities arrested Gandhi in 1922, he pleaded guilty to three counts of sedition. Although sentenced to a six-year imprisonment, Gandhi was released in February 1924 after appendicitis surgery. He discovered upon his release that relations between India’s Hindus and Muslims had devolved during his time in jail, and when violence between the two religious groups flared again, Gandhi began a three-week fast in the autumn of 1924 to urge unity.
The Salt March
After remaining away from active politics during much of the latter 1920s, Gandhi returned in 1930 to protest Britain’s Salt Acts, which not only prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt—a staple of the Indian diet—but imposed a heavy tax that hit the country’s poorest particularly hard. Gandhi planned a new Satyagraha campaign that entailed a 390-kilometer/240-mile march to the Arabian Sea, where he would collect salt in symbolic defiance of the government monopoly.
“My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India,” he wrote days before the march to the British viceroy, Lord Irwin. Wearing a homespun white shawl and sandals and carrying a walking stick, Gandhi set out from his religious retreat in Sabarmati on March 12, 1930, with a few dozen followers. The ranks of the marchers swelled by the time he arrived 24 days later in the coastal town of Dandi, where he broke the law by making salt from evaporated seawater.
The Salt March sparked similar protests, and mass civil disobedience swept across India. Approximately 60,000 Indians were jailed for breaking the Salt Acts, including Gandhi, who was imprisoned in May 1930. Still, the protests against the Salt Acts elevated Gandhi into a transcendent figure around the world, and he was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1930.
The Road to Independence
Gandhi was released from prison in January 1931, and two months later he made an agreement with Lord Irwin to end the Salt Satyagraha in exchange for concessions that included the release of thousands of political prisoners. The agreement, however, largely kept the Salt Acts intact, but it did give those who lived on the coasts the right to harvest salt from the sea. Hoping that the agreement would be a stepping-stone to home rule, Gandhi attended the London Round Table Conference on Indian constitutional reform in August 1931 as the sole representative of the Indian National Congress. The conference, however, proved fruitless.
Gandhi returned to India to find himself imprisoned once again in January 1932 during a crackdown by India’s new viceroy, Lord Willingdon. Later that year, an incarcerated Gandhi embarked on a six-day fast to protest the British decision to segregate the “untouchables,” those on the lowest rung of India’s caste system, by allotting them separate electorates. The public outcry forced the British to amend the proposal.
After his eventual release, Gandhi left the Indian National Congress in 1934, and leadership passed to his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru. He again stepped away from politics to focus on education, poverty and the problems afflicting India’s rural areas.
As Great Britain found itself engulfed in World War II in 1942, though, Gandhi launched the “Quit India” movement that called for the immediate British withdrawal from the country. In August 1942, the British arrested Gandhi, his wife and other leaders of the Indian National Congress and detained them in the Aga Khan Palace in present-day Pune. “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside at the liquidation of the British Empire,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Parliament in support of the crackdown. With his health failing, Gandhi was released after a 19-month detainment, but not before his 74-year-old wife died in his arms in February 1944.
After the Labour Party defeated Churchill’s Conservatives in the British general election of 1945, it began negotiations for Indian independence with the Indian National Congress and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League. Gandhi played an active role in the negotiations, but he could not prevail in his hope for a unified India. Instead, the final plan called for the partition of the subcontinent along religious lines into two independent states—predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan.
Violence between Hindus and Muslims flared even before independence took effect on August 15, 1947. Afterwards, the killings multiplied. Gandhi toured riot-torn areas in an appeal for peace and fasted in an attempt to end the bloodshed. Some Hindus, however, increasingly viewed Gandhi as a traitor for expressing sympathy toward Muslims.
In the late afternoon of January 30, 1948, the 78-year-old Gandhi, still weakened from repeated hunger strikes, clung to his two grandnieces as they led him from his living quarters in New Delhi’s Birla House to a prayer meeting. Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, upset at Gandhi’s tolerance of Muslims, knelt before the Mahatma before pulling out a semiautomatic pistol and shooting him three times at point-blank range. The violent act took the life of a pacifist who spent his life preaching non-violence. Godse and a co-conspirator were executed by hanging in November 1949, while additional conspirators were sentenced to life in prison.
Death and Legacy
Even after his death, Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence and his belief in simple living—making his own clothes, eating a vegetarian diet and using fasts for self-purification as well as a means of protest—have been a beacon of hope for oppressed and marginalized people throughout the world. Satyagraha remains one of the most potent philosophies in freedom struggles throughout the world today, and Gandhi’s actions inspired future human rights movements around the globe, including those of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Martin Luther King Jr. - Biography
Martin Luther King, Jr., (January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968) was born Michael Luther King, Jr., but later had his name changed to Martin. His grandfather began the family's long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father has served from then until the present, and from 1960 until his death Martin Luther acted as co-pastor. Martin Luther attended segregated public schools in Georgia, graduating from high school at the age of fifteen; he received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, a distinguished Negro institution of Atlanta from which both his father and grandfather had graduated. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class, he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he enrolled in graduate studies at Boston University, completing his residence for the doctorate in 1953 and receiving the degree in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of uncommon intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.
In 1954, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Always a strong worker for civil rights for members of his race, King was, by this time, a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the leading organization of its kind in the nation. He was ready, then, early in December, 1955, to accept the leadership of the first great Negro nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott described by Gunnar Jahn in his presentation speech in honor of the laureate. The boycott lasted 382 days. On December 21, 1956, after the Supreme Court of the United States had declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses, Negroes and whites rode the buses as equals. During these days of boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank.
In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization formed to provide new leadership for the now burgeoning civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote five books as well as numerous articles. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world, providing what he called a coalition of conscience. and inspiring his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", a manifesto of the Negro revolution; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of Negroes as voters; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, "l Have a Dream", he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure.
At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the furtherance of the civil rights movement.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.
Henry D. Thoreau Biography
Henry David Thoreau (baptized David Henry Thoreau) was born on July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, to John Thoreau and Cynthia Dunbar. He was the third of four children. He was named after a recently deceased paternal uncle, David Thoreau, but since everyone always called him Henry, he eventually changed his name to Henry David, although he never petitioned to make a legal name change. Henry's father was a businessman and active in the Concord Fire Society. His mother spent her time raising Henry and his three siblings, Helen, John and Sophia.
Young Thoreau When Thoreau was sixteen, he entered Harvard College, where he was known as a serious though unconventional scholar. Henry's older siblings, Helen and John, Jr., were both schoolteachers. When it was decided that their brother should go to Harvard, as had his grandfather before him, they contributed from their teaching salaries to help pay his expenses. While at college, Thoreau studied Latin and Greek grammar and composition, and took classes in a wide variety of subjects, including mathematics, English, history, philosophy, and four different modern languages. During his Harvard years he was exposed to the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who later became his chief mentor and friend.
After graduating in 1837 and into the early 1840s Thoreau was occupied as a schoolteacher and tutor. A canoe trip in 1839 convinced him that he should not persue a schoolteacher's career but should instead aim to become established as a poet of nature. In 1841 he was invited to live in the Emerson household, where he remained intermittently until 1843. He served as handyman and assistant to Emerson, helping to edit and contributing poetry and prose to the transcendentalist magazine, The Dial.
cabin at Walden Thoreau came to consider that he needed time and space to apply himself as a writer and on July 4, 1845, he moved into a small self-built house in a second-growth forest around the shores of Walden Pond. He stayed there for two years, two months and two days, sometimes traveling into Concord for supplies and eating with his family about once a week. Friends and family also visited him at his cabin, where he spent nearly every night. While at Walden, Thoreau did an incredible amount of reading and writing, and also spent much time sauntering in nature.
In July 1846, when Thoreau went into town to have a pair of shoes repaired, he was arrested for refusing to pay a poll tax meant to support America's war in Mexico. He spent a night in jail. His most famous essay, Civil Disobedience (published 1849), which in its call for passive resistance to unjust laws was to inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., was a result of this experience. The journal he kept at Walden became the source of his most famous book, Walden, Or Life in the Woods (1854), in which he set forth his ideas on how an individual should best live to be attuned to his own nature as well as to nature itself.
Thoreau left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847. After that, he resided again in Emerson's house (1847–49) and then for the rest of his life in his family home. He occasionally worked at the pencil factory and did some surveying work. He also traveled to Canada, Cape Cod, and Maine - landscapes that inspired his "excursion" books - A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods. By the 1850s he had become greatly concerned over slavery, and, having met John Brown in 1857, wrote passionately in his defense.
Thoreau, age 43 Aware that he was dying of tuberculosis, Thoreau cut short his travels and returned to Concord, where he prepared some of his journals for publication. Although he never earned a substantial living by his writings, his works fill 20 volumes.
Thoreau died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44. He is buried on Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
Source 1: Gandhi writes about Henry David Thoreau Many years ago, there lived in America a great man named Henry David Thoreau. His writings are read and pondered over by millions of people… Much importance is attached to his writings because Thoreau himself was a man who practiced what he preached. Impelled by a sense of duty, he wrote much against his own country, America. He considered it a great sin that the Americans held many persons in the bond of slavery. He did not rest content with saying this, but took all other necessary steps to put a stop to this trade. One of the steps consisted in not paying any taxes to the State in which the slave trade was being carried on. He was imprisoned when he stopped paying the taxes due from him. The thoughts which occurred to him during his imprisonment were boldly original. [From Gandhi. Indian Opinion. Quoted in M.V. Kamath. The United States and India 1776-1976. Washington, D.C.: Embassy of India, 1976. 65.] Source 2: Gandhi’s Influence on Dr. Martin Luther King When King arrived one cold day in New Delhi, as a guest of the Government of India, his first words were a tribute to Gandhi. “To other countries,” King said, “I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim. This is because India means to me Mahatma Gandhi, a truly great man of the age.” King heard of Gandhi from Dr. Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University, who had returned from a visit to India and was speaking at Philadelphia. Even prior to that, King had learnt of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence in a course offered by Professor George W. Davis, but then it had not struck fire. Professor Davis had lectured on Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha (civil disobedience) and his students had questioned him spiritedly on Gandhi’s beliefs. But in Dr. Johnson’s presentation, according to King’s biographer, “Gandhi’s spiritual leadership and pacifist techniques attained an immediate and luminescent dimension.” “His message was so profound and electrifying that I left the meeting and bought half a dozen books on Gandhi’s life and works,” King later admitted. In a letter to the Advertise, a writer, Miss Juliette Morgan, described the boycott and related it to Gandhi’s “Salt March” as an archetypal example of noncooperation, in the first public words on the relevance of Gandhi to Black www.AsiaSociety.org/Education America. “Not since the first battle of the Marne,” wrote Miss Morgan, barely after the beginning of the bus boycott, “has the taxi been put to as good use as it has been this week in Montgomery. However, the spirit animating our Negro citizens as they ride the taxis or walk from the heart of Cloverdale to Mobile Road has been more like that of Gandhi than of the ‘Taxicab army’ that saved Paris.” During that historic bus boycott and after, Gandhi became to King the measuring rod of his own social philosophy. Especially after a three-day visit to Montgomery of the Gandhian disciple and scholar Ranganath Diwakar, the idea occurred to King, that he, too, must set an example of physical suffering. Till then, King’s agony had been intellectual and psychological. After the visit of Mr. Diwaker, as Mrs. Coretta King later said, “we began to think more deeply about the whole philosophy of non-violence. We talked about how superficial and shallow our knowledge of the whole thing was.” Following his near fatal stabbing in Harlem, says his biographer David L. Lewis, “King pondered the relevance of Gandhi to the American dilemma” and decided to accept a year-old invitation to visit India, land of Gandhi. It was there, in 1959, that King met many old disciples of Gandhi and studied at first hand the Gandhian techniques of non-violent non-cooperation. He also met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who explained to him that untouchability was punishable by imprisonment under the Indian constitution. Furthermore, in the case of the University admission, government institutions were required by law to give preference to the depressed segments of society. Prof. Reddick who was accompanying King then asked if this was not discrimination. “Well, it may be,” he was told, “but this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustice we have inflicted upon these people.” Nehru’s words made a profound impression on King. The Indian visit undoubtedly quickened King’s formulation of a program of governmentally promoted compensatory treatment for American blacks. King would again visit foreign countries on several occasions, but for him, the Indian trip was a unique spiritual catharsis. Prof. Reddick observed the change in King. The visit to India, to King, had made the difference between an emotionally based intellectual conviction that non-violence was a superior and practical philosophy and certitude founded upon empirical and generalized observation of this philosophy in daily operation. King himself said: “I left India more convinced than ever before that non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. It was a marvelous thing to see the results of a non-violent campaign.” Darshan.(New York: Consulate General of India) www.AsiaSociety.org/Education Source 3: Political Carto
Indian Influences on Western Literature
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "What living creature preserves, or is preserved? Each is his own destroyed or preserver, as he follows good or evil.
" in the essay Brahma. Etching by Sam W. Rowse, 1878.
Let me first present an intriguing difficulty for all who wish to study the influences of Indian ideas, values, and beliefs on Western literature. Consider that some key words on both sides of the East-West divide have no translatable equivalents.
SANSKRIT: artha, avatara, dharma, kala, kama, karma, moksha, nirvana, shanti
ENGLISH; absolution (of sins), blasphemy, guilt, heaven, hell, incarnation, irony, miracle, religion, resurrection, secular, sin, tragedy
This very much affects how Indian philosophy is represented in Western literature. Words that cannot be translated are given a description that may not represent the true intention or its value within Indian culture. Plus, we may attribute some of our cultural concepts to make meaning of theirs, when actually those concepts may not even exist in the original context. For example, Indian philosophy has no word for “miracle” in Sanskrit or any of the Indian languages. Miracles cannot happen because nothing in this world of matter and karma operates outside the orbit of matter and karma. Hindu gods have notoriously clay feet and are subject to the laws of cause and effect as are we poor mortals. The gods we worship are the gods we create; we cannot worship the God who creates us.
Hindus have no word for “heaven” in the sense of eternal reward. Our heaven is a temporary abode, after the enjoyment of which one is born again and given another chance to do better than gaining heaven.
Hindus also do not pray in the way Westerners do; to Hindus, prayers granted become curses. Hindus feel one should pray, but not because one wants something. One prays because one has everything—that is, life—for prayer is really a thanksgiving, not a supplication. The tragedy of life is not that we don’t get what we want, but that we get exactly what we want—and with its built-in opposite. That’s the fearsome catch. You think it, you wish it, you dream it, you reach for it, you get it—and you’ve had it. The point is that in this ambivalent world, sweets bring stomachache, toys bring boredom, pleasure brings pain; sex, fame, money, and power are dreadfully counterproductive. Our sweetest songs are those that tell the saddest thoughts. Even life brings death, for the only way not to die is not to be born.
“Dharma” does not mean “religion” but “that which is stable,” from the root dhri meaning earth. There are four such stabilities operating simultaneously at any given moment in every individual’s life: sava-dharma (self-stability, the instinct of self-preservation, individuality); kula-dharma (family-stability); yuga-dharma (the spirit of the age); and sanatana-dharma (that which is unchanging, eternal, absolute). Like all of us in the conflicts of life, Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra is caught simultaneously in these four dharmas and has to choose. His choice will determine the quality of his character. Not choosing is not an option.
“Kala” is Cosmic Time. It’s a glorious mystery. It means both yesterday and tomorrow. Its movement, if it can be said to move, is apparently circular, not linear. In kala all is created; in kala all is killed. Kala is mahakala (great time) as well; and mahakala is Shiva, who is Destroyer and Creator. The feminine of kala is, of course, Kali, the horrific, malevolent yet blessed dark goddess, the symbol of all-consuming Time. “Time past and time present/ Are both contained in time future,/ and time future/ Contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable.” Fine, but how do you redeem the redeemer? These lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” make difficult sense to the Indian reader.
Sanskrit has no word for “irony,” either. The use of words to express something other than or the exact opposite of their literal meaning is more associated with clever city-based civilizations than with the sentimental forest-based ones. English is so charged with irony that I constantly have to be careful when choosing words to translate sacred and secular Sanskrit or other Indian texts.
Finally, in none of the Indian languages is there a word for “tragedy.” Pain, misery, suffering, loss, hurt, despair, downfall, even anguish, but not tragedy. Heaven is a disproportionate “reward” (it’s really a punishment!) for good deeds, and hell a disproportionate punishment for bad deeds—or so the Indian sensibility feels. To the Western mind, tragedy is acceptable as extreme punishment of the hubris-ridden hero. Excessive punishment or reward just doesn’t work in a culture fine-tuned to the workings of karma. The German poet/philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) clarified this idea by saying, “Nature is always correct; man makes right and wrong.” An Indian would have liked to add: and good and evil; and venial sin and mortal sin; and permanent heaven and permanent hell; and forgiveness and absolution.
Another example of discretionary translation is that there can be no word for “blasphemy” because genuine blasphemy is a reverse declaration of faith. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his poem “Brahma”:
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.
While some poets, novelists, and thinkers may take in whole and without question whatever appeals to them in the Indian tradition, the major creative writers of the West do not. They explore, differ, dissect, and when they do accept, make changes they feel are necessary. You cannot be firmly grounded in your own culture and uncritically absorb the values of another without making your integrity suspect. Plus, mindless acceptance could be seen as a form of disrespect to the other culture’s identity.
This is perhaps why W. B. Yeats, in his last years, did a startling about turn and began to criticize what he decided was Rabindranath Tagore’s mystic-romantic over-sweetness and flabbiness—the same Yeats who once, riding the top of a London double-decker in 1911, had to “close the MS” of the Gitanjali (Git means song and Anjali means offering, “songs of offering”) translations he had been carrying with him “for days” because he feared “some stranger would see how much it moved me.”
T. S. Eliot may have come to the same conclusion when after deciding in his youth to convert to Buddhism, he then suddenly withdrew. Eliot gave the reason for his pullout later. He said he had felt he would have to empty himself of all his Western religious and cultural heritage in order to fill himself with the Buddhist ethos—more daunting and risky a task than what he preferred to undertake. Two mature traditions in a face-off situation? The need, perhaps, is to affirm that all mature civilizations offer metaphysical and related attractions, without one mature civilization having to be defensive against another.
The task is to transmute and absorb. The next part of this essay examines how some literary and musical figures have done, or not done, this. Let us look briefly at a few poets, a novelist, and some songwriters—Emerson, Yeats, Eliot, Hesse, and the Beatles—and how they were influenced by Indian culture and philosophy.
Continue below for examples from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Herman Hesse, and The Beatles.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The American Transcendentalist essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) did not effect much change in his borrowing from India in his poem “Brahma,” which originated from an extract in his journal for 1845. The extract is from H. H. Wilson’s Vishnu Purana: “What living creature slays, or is slain? What living creature preserves, or is preserved? Each is his own destroyed or preserver, as he follows good or evil.” “Brahma” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly for November 1857, the year of what the British called the Indian Mutiny.
Emerson knows the Brahma he is writing about is the first person singular of the word “Brahman.” Brahma is Pure Being, without attributes, without form, unclassifiable, unknowable, the Everywhere Breather who breathes without breath. The advice to the seeker of the True Good at the poem’s end is “…And turn thy back on heaven.” Heaven is the easy reward of good deeds. What’s needed is selfless deed.
William Butler Yeats
Three Indians, two of them Bengalis, were influential in the life of the Irish poet/dramatist W. B. Yeats (1865–1939). In December 1885 he attended a talk in
Dublin on Upanishadic philosophy by the theosophist Mohini Mohun Chatterjee. He put me in a dream, says Yeats in his essay “The Way of Wisdom.” “Ah, how many years it has taken me to awake out of that dream!” Forty-three years, to be exact, because in 1928 he wrote what is probably the only poem in English literature that has for its title the name of a living Indian person: “Mohini Chatterjee.”
Chatterjee’s explanation of life and love to Yeats in 1885 was absurdly simple: Don’t ask for anything, because you will get it—and get fed up with it, sooner or later. Especially don’t ask for love. Speak from a position of strength, not weakness; fulfillment, not emptiness; giving, not begging. Only by giving love can you receive it. Life is the greatest gift; life is fulfillment, not love.
This pronouncement apparently placed Yeats in that incredibly long dream. In the third and fourth quatrains of “Quatrains and Aphorisms” (January 1886), Yeats does seem to endorse Mohini’s philosophy:
Long for nothing, neither sad nor gay;
Long for nothing, neither night nor day;
Not even “I long to see thy longing over”
To the ever-longing and mournful spirit say.
The ghosts went by with their lips apart
From death’s late languor as these lines I read
On Brahma’s gateway, “They within have felt
The soul upon the ashes of the heart.”
Yet Yeats wanted love. He craved for Maud Gonne. When she refused him, and married John MacBride, “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” he proposed to her stepdaughter Iseult, who on Maud’s advice rejected him also. Yeats did not accept the wise advice of Mohini whom he describes as a “handsome young man with the typical face of Christ,” an Indian who taught “all action and all words that lead to action were a little trivial.” (What Mohini meant, of course, was “ego-loaded” action.)
The Western twist that Yeats gives to Mohini’s Hindu belief is obvious. We are born again and again (as Yeats puts it: “Grave is heaped on grave”) to seek and find the perfect love. To argue that love is not fulfillment is self-deception. Love is moksha (liberation, or release from the changing world and the cycle of birth and rebirth, samsara). Mohini Chatterjee would have smiled at that.
The second Indian in Yeats’s life was Rabindranath Tagore, with whom he kept up an on-and-off epistolary relationship until 1930. He found Tagore’s prose-poem translations from the Bengali Gitanjali good enough for inclusion in his anthology The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.
The third Indian was a Swami whose poems also found place in Yeats’s anthology. With Swami Purohit, Yeats entered the esoteric realm of Hindu religious myth and symbolism. Yeats met the Swami in 1930 and collaborated with him in translating the Upanishads and other sacred Sanskrit texts. Faber & Faber published these in book form through the good offices of one of its directors, T. S. Eliot, who, incidentally, had earlier in his “primer of modern heresy” consigned Yeats to literary hell, along with James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, for producing morally dubious and corrupting literature. The primer was aptly titled After Strange Gods.
Before he met the Swami, Yeats had composed in 1920, two years after the havoc of World War I, a poem titled “The Second Coming.” He writes: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…revelation is at hand…what rough beast…Slouches towards Bethlehem to born?” Yeats transforms St. John’s vision of the coming of the Anti-Christ into a fearful image of an avatar of Vishnu, Nara-Simha (the Man-Lion), turning him into a Doomsday beast who, at the end of the 2000–year gyre of Christian civilization, crawls toward the Christ-child’s manger. In other words, the Christian values of love and innocence have been wasted on mankind. Bethlehem has become Bedlam (etymologically, “bedlam” is a corruption of Bethlehem Asylum in London). Poor Nara-Simha, one of the nine manifestations of Vishnu who restore dharma each time it declines in the successive yugas (ages). A perfectly sensible Hindu avatar saving an age of men-lions is metamorphosed (with a touch of the Sphinx) into a world-destroying monster in Yeats’s Christian imagination.
In 1934, Yeats wrote a remarkable sonnet titled “Meru.” Meru is the mythical Hindu mountain of spiritual realization. Everest is the world’s tallest physical mountain, the scaling of which is considered a major accomplishment. Which is better? Neither, concludes Yeats. Spiritual achievement and material achievement (“hermits on Mount Meru or Everest”) both lead to “the desolation of reality.” Eastern spirituality and Western technology are both temporary and illusory. “Before dawn/ His glory and his monuments are gone.”
So what remains? What is the message, if a poem can be said to have a message? “The Second Coming” was written just after World War I, “Meru” five years before World War II began. Is Yeats saying, when will they ever learn?
T. S. Eliot
Indian influences, both Hindu and Buddhist, are scattered everywhere in the work of the British (American-born) poet/critic/dramatist T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). For instance, the three shantis (peace blessings) that close The Waste Land transforms the long poem of 1920 into an Upanishad, for in the Indian tradition only Upanishads are permitted the triple benediction at the end. While acknowledging the Brihadaranyaka–Upanishad, Eliot changes the advice of Prajapati to the three kinds of intelligent forms who came to him as disciples: gods, anti-gods, and man. In the original Sanskrit, the gods are given the final advice by Prajapati to be disciplined, to control themselves, because gods tend to be victims of arrogance; the anti-gods are advised to be compassionate, because they tend to be brutal and vicious; and the men are asked to be giving, because they tend to become victims of selfishness. Eliot turns the sequence into datta (give), dayadhvam (be compassionate), and damyata (be self-controlled). He has switched the order of the shastra (rule), and shastras are best not tampered with. What appears to have the words of an Upanishad is therefore not an Upanishad, but a Christian reworking.
In 1944, “The Dry Salvages” section of Four Quartets sets forth the advice by Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, “Do not think of the fruit of action.” Eliot may have been talking here to the Allied soldiers in the Battle of Britain (Eliot was an ARP warden). Was he trying to say that one should fight but forget that one is fighting to save democracy from Nazism and Fascism? The doubt lingers: “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant… Fare forward… Not fare well,/ But fare forward, voyagers.” Maybe not even that, but just fare on. Who can tell if our faring is linear (in the Western sense of time) or circular (in the Eastern sense, karma)?
Eliot expressed a similar doubt in 1943 in his poem “To the Indians Who Died in South Africa,” written at the request of Miss Cornelia Sorabjee for Queen Mary’s Book for India:
None the less fruitful if neither you nor we
Know, until the judgment after death,
What is the fruit of action.
In 1950, in The Cocktail Party, Celia Coplestone, guilt-ridden by her adulterous affair, goes to Sir Harcourt Reilly, the psychiatrist, for analyses and advice. He tells her:
Go in peace, my daughter.
Work out your salvation with diligence.
The words of the Buddha to his disciple Ananda were: “So karohi dipam attano (Be a lamp to yourself. Work out your nirvana.)” The difference between “salvation” and “nirvana” is critical. Salvation suggests self-fulfillment after self-discovery; nirvana implies snuffing-out, self-extinction. What kind of self-extinction can be obtained in the crowded corridors of cocktail party circuits? In comparing poems by Eliot, it becomes apparent that he plays with metaphors and imagery from both Eastern and Western philosophic traditions in creating his world cosmography.
A little over 10 years ago, in Calcutta, my wife and sister-in-law Paramita stumbled upon a cache of letters stashed inside a trunk in their family residence.
They were from the German author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) to their father, the late historian Kalidas Nag, dating around the time Siddhartha was being written. In letters to other friends and acquaintances, Hesse describes Kalidas Nag, who was 31 years old when they met at the International Congress for Peace and Freedom at Lugano in Switzerland in 1922, as “a scholar from Bengal…with a brown-golden smile.” Nag in his turn compares Hesse to a “true Brahmin from India.” They became close friends. Nag sang Bengali songs for Hesse and talked of “old India.” They discussed Siddhartha extracts from which Hesse, at the insistence of Romain Rolland, read at the Lugano Conference.
In a long letter to Hesse from Paris in 1930, Nag wrote: “Siddhartha is a book which should be translated in all the European languages for here we feel for the first time the real East presented to the West and not the sentimental East of Kipling nor the romantic East of Loti.” It was not until 1951 that Siddhartha appeared in English translation, from James Laughlin’s New Directions in New York, and created a sensation in American literary circles, especially among students in colleges and universities.
Let us look at the structure of Hesse’s novel. Part One has four chapters, corresponding very loosely to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. Part Two has eight chapters, again corresponding loosely to the Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.
But that’s the skeleton. Let us look at the heart of the novel. Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, challenges the orthodox faith of his father, and goes on a search of self-discovery. Kamaswami, the merchant, teaches him the art of making money (artha); Kamala, the courtesan, shows him the subtleties of love-making (kama); and the Buddha presumably gives him inspiration to realize the higher values (dharma). But Siddhartha is out to achieve a very personal moksha (liberation), so he rejects them all.
At the novel’s end, on the very last page, beside the river, he has what appears to be a mystical experience of the Unity of Being, and he smiles. This smile is supposed to be the same as the serene smile of the Buddha. “He smiled peacefully and gently, perhaps very mockingly, exactly as the Illustrious One had smiled.”
To the Western reader, this may sound all right. (The German word used is spottisch, which means “mocking, scornful.”) To an Indian, it is scandalous. Even in the paragraph before this, Hesse rubs it in, using the same word: “…this mask-like smile… this smile of Siddhartha—was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha… It was in such a manner that the Perfect One smiled.”
Why does Hesse use this particular word? Perhaps he created the smile of the dissenting Protestant Siddhartha, who can only see life, even after the “illumination,” in terms of irony—a literary tool of abstraction that does not exist in Sanskrit. An Indian would feel that it was a waste of an experience. For this is not a Buddhist way, nor the Buddha’s way.
My father-in-law did not know German. He either missed or generously overlooked the telltale “spottisch” that prevents the light of the “real East” from shining at the end of the novel. But the light of the “real West”—questioning, arguing, and rationally refusing to be nirvanically serene—does indeed shine. And that makes Siddhartha a wonderful Western quest for selfhood, which has been argued is what it mostly represents.
This brings us to the layered argument—with a number of sides—of how representation of “the other” (in this case Indian) influences us. If the West exploits the East, using whatever it needs the way it needs it, what’s wrong with that? Some say that is one way of influencing. How do we expect people to understand concepts if they do not have a cultural or philosophical reference in which to place them? This is part of the steps to understanding and like any sort of deep study, things become more refined at each step. Another argument is that it is too egregious a process to undertake, and can lead to bold misunderstandings that might never be resolved. Both arguments have merit and should be considered intricate to the process.
The Beatles had two time periods of Indian influence. The first was a stylistic one that dealt with Indian music and instruments, especially the sitar. The album Help! has a few sitar notes opening the song, that’s all. “Norwegian Wood” was the first pop song to extensively include the sitar. In fact, people wondered what kind of new guitar the Beatles had invented. “Love to You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are considered the songs in which the Beatles entered into Indian musical style full tilt.
The second stage was influenced by Indian philosophy. The song “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is all about maya (love/ illusion, but in this song they are speaking of it as love). “Would you believe in love at first sight?” gets an off-the-cuff answer: “Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time.” “Getting Better” is in its own way escapist. And “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is about another kind of maya (illusion): the deceptive reality of show business (the circus) and the cloud-cuckoo-land of the imagination (the “kite”).
Very obvious Indian philosophical influence is found on two Beatles albums. In reference to “Instant Karma” John Lennon said, “I wrote this in the morning, recorded it that night, and released it the next week. It had to battle with ‘Let It Be’ and it lost. It was a nice happy-go-lucky song, and has the same chord sequence as ‘All You Need is Love.’”
Instant karma’s gonna get you,
gonna knock you right on the head,
You better get yourself together,
pretty soon you’re gonna be dead……
Living in the Material World by George Harrison is the only album by a Beatle that solely espouses Indian ideas and values in any sort of depth. “Give Me Love” chants:
Om M M M M M M M M M M
Lord… Please take hold of my hand.
That’s the opening song on side one. Side one concludes:
I’m living in the material world
Living in the material world
I hope I get out of this place
By the Lord SRI Krishna’s GRACE
My salvation from the material world
There are two songs on the Let It Be album that are miracles of meaning. One is the title song:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom,
let it be, let it be.
The other, “Across the Universe,” John Lennon said was “one of my favorite songs. I gave it at first to the World Wild Life Fund, but they didn’t do much with it, and then we put it on the Let It Be album.”
Limitless undying love
which shines around me
like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe
Jai Guru Deva Om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.
The Beatles were acknowledged as the first popular Western band to influence people around the world. Their use of Indian music and philosophy has helped spread awareness of Indian culture, especially to those who might not have access through other ways.
In Hindu mythology, Vishnu is represented as reclining on the phosphorescent waves in the clutch of the thousand-headed cosmic serpent Shesh-naga whose coils girdle the globe. Shesh-naga can be seen as a metaphor for representation and influence, and his thousand heads could be the different ways cultures understand one another through their language and cultural underpinnings. Vishnu reclines amidst it all, possibly signaling that is how we should understand and react to the effects of influence, to “Let it Be.”
Author: P. Lal
P. Lal is Honorary Professor of English in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He has lectured on Indian culture and literature in over a hundred English, American, and Australian colleges and universities. He is currently engaged in a ten-year weekly reading in Kolkata of his English transcreation of the complete Mahabharata of Vyasa, of which 210 volumes have appeared from Writers Workshop, Kolkata. He is a widely published author, translator, and poet and holder of India’s Padma Bushan. His transcreations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana are widely read, as are his own poetry and short stories.