AD's English Literature : “Brahma”- Hindu Religious Elements in Emerson’s Writings

“Brahma”- Hindu Religious Elements in Emerson’s Writings

Ralph Waldo Emerson

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

 “Brahma” is the most notable expression of the Hindu religious elements in Emerson’s writings. “Brahma” is the underlying, unchanging reality; it can best be understood in contrast with Maya, the changing illusory world of appearance.

 The poem ‘Brahma’ was first published in the ‘Atlantic Monthly’ for November 1857. In its day it was “the famous or at any rate the most notorious of Emerson’s poems. Emerson divined the best explanation of the poem ‘Brahma’ for ordinary puzzled readers when he said to his daughter”. If you tell them to say Jehovah instead of brahma, the will not feel any perplexity.
 Prof . K . R. Chandrasekharan in his learned article has identified the key terms in this fashion: “Brahma” (properly Brahman”); The absolute or universal soul or over-soul;  “the red slayer”;  Siva the destroyer; “the strong gods”;  Devas or celestial beings akin to angels; “The sacred seven” celebrated sages who sought God through austerities and penance; “meek lover of the good”, the yogi who through simple piety realized Brahman and is thus superior to those who seek merely for heaven through merit.

 About the sources which Emerson tapped for this poem, Harris considered The Bhagavad-Gita as the real source. But Maulsby thought that The Laws of Manu and the Kathopanishad as the probable sources; whereas Kennedy concluded that Emerson used Roer’s rendering of the Kathopanishad in Bibliotheca Indica.

The main ideas embodied in Emerson’s “Brahma” are as follows:
          1.     The slayer who think he slays and the slain who thinks that he is slain are both mistaken.
          2.     Far and near, shadow and sunlight, shame and fame, the doubter’s doubt and the Brahman’s hymn, are all the same to Brahman.
3.     The gods and the sages pine for Brahmin’s home.   
4.     The meek lover of the good finds god more easily than the gods and the sages.
5.     The attainment of mere heaven through the performance of rites, etc. is a contemptible reward compared with the realization of god.

There is authentic evidence to show that Emerson read English translation of The Laws of Manu, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Upanishad, and many other important books of the Hindus. Even the particular translations which he used have been ascertained. But a perusal of these editions can’t lead to any conclusive result for the simple reason that in philosophical treatises like The Upanishads and The Gita, ideas and images recur as frequently as in the different gospels of the New Testament

As regards The Laws of Manu, there is hardly any passage therein which has a fairly close resemblance with any passage in “Brahma”. But there are several passages in The Gita and The Upanishads which give expression to the ideas incorporated by Emerson in his poem, in language which has the same ring as the language of the poem.
The Kathopanishad which are expressions of philosophical concepts. They embody the beginnings and progress of esoteric ideas, which had to a large extent been writings supplementary to Brahma could have supplied the poem with the ideas numbered 1,2 and 4 in the list already given. For instance, idea 1 is dealt within the following passage in The Kathopanishad:

“If the slayer thinks that he slays, if the slain that he is slain, neither of them knows the truth. The self slays not, nor is he slain.

While The Kathopanishad could have been the source from which Emerson derived the three ideas discussed above, The Bhagavad-Gita could have provided all the five ideas in “Brahma”. Thus, the delusion of the slayer and the slain is mentioned in The Bhagavad-Gita in the chapter 2, verse 19:

“The man who believeth that it is the soul which killeth, and he who thinketh that soul may be destroyed are both deluded; for it neither killeth nor it killed”

The second idea, that near and far etc., are all the same of Brahman is discussed in ninth chapter of The Bhagavad-Gita. The third idea occurs here and there at intervals, but notably towards the close of Chapter XI of The Bhagavad-Gita. The fourth idea, that simple piety is superior to austerities and rites expressed in verse 46 in the sixth chapter of The Bhagavad-Gita. Similarly the fifth idea may be traced very easily in The Bhagavad-Gita. So it is possible that Emerson could have drawn all the ideas used as the material of the poem from The Bhagavad-Gita alone.

But for certain ideas, as indicated above, The kathopanishad seems a more probable source, partly because of “the closer similarity in style” and partly because “all the three ideas are contained in continuous passage.”

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