Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Hindu Literature
Author:
Chari, V.K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

There are numerous allusions to Hindu books, authors, and ideas scattered through Whitman's poems, prose writings, notebooks, and scrapbooks that indicate his general interest in India, its history and culture. Evidently Whitman shared the fascination of his century for India's mystic wisdom and sang of it in rapturous tones in "Passage to India." He wrote a brief explanatory comment on Emerson's "Brahma" in the Brooklyn Daily Times of 1857, which indicates his familiarity with the Hindu philosophical concept of Brahman or universal soul. But in none of these does Whitman exhibit more than a superficial acquaintance with Hindu philosophy, whereas his comments on the German thinkers—Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schelling, and especially Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in whom he evinced keen interest—are in comparison more extensive and reveal a more precise and detailed understanding of their key concepts.

While it appears that Whitman possessed some knowledge, direct or indirect, of Hindu philosophical literature, the extent of his indebtedness to that source is difficult to assess. We also do not know for certain when his interest in India began. Some of his early notebook entries suggest possible Hindu influence. What is puzzling is his denial to Thoreau in 1856 that he had read the Orientals and his later admission in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888) of his having read "the ancient Hindoo poems" (meaning perhaps the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, about which he had some knowledge) in preparation for Leaves of Grass (Whitman 569). In The Roots of Whitman's Grass, T.R. Rajasekharaiah examines a vast body of Indian philosophical literature—including periodical material, from some of which Whitman took clippings—that was in circulation during the period of the gestation of Leaves of Grass (1840s to 1855) and decides, on the strength of close parallels in thought and phrase, that Whitman owed more to these sources than he was willing to admit. Rajasekharaiah's study establishes a high probability that Whitman could not have escaped some, at least second-hand, knowledge of Hindu philosophy even before 1855, and that his affinities to it are perhaps more than merely accidental. Whitman mentions the Vedas by name, but no mention occurs of the Bhagavad-Gita, the most influential of the Hindu sacred books. He did own a copy of it, however, given to him by a friend in 1875. But he could have picked up a medley of Indian religious-philosophical ideas, including those of the Gita and the Upanishads, from scholarly expositions, from reviews in the Dial and other magazines, and above all from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Some of the fundamental tenets of Whitman's poetic faith are no doubt strikingly similar to Hindu ideas, but one should be cautious in claiming for them exclusive resemblances, for they can be traced to many different sources, Eastern and Western. Such, for instance, are the ideas of soul, immortality, God, divine immanence, and so on. However, some discriminations are possible between the Indian and Western conceptions, both in regard to their underlying premises and thought structures and the experiential modes in which they are realized and expressed. Thus Whitman's conception of the soul and the egocentric perspective that dictates his ecstatic "Songs" are consistent with German and romantic idealistic philosophy. But in its structure and its mode of expression Whitman's soul is closer to the Vedantic Self in that it does not take the romantic route of humanizing/subjectivizing nature (pathetic fallacy), nor the German dialectical route of cultivating the opposition between the "I" and nature, but operates by the method of ego-magnification and by annulling the opposites through incorporation or identification. The God-like self portrayed in "Song of Myself" bears a close resemblance to the cosmic person of the Gita and the Self of the Upanishads both in form and spirit, although certain features of that vision—the unitive consciousness, the heightened perception of the phenomenal world, and above all the element of ecstasy—are also common to other expressions of mystical consciousness, including the theocentric type.

On the question of God, Hindu philosophy (especially the Gita) provides for both theistic and nontheistic approaches, and for both an immanent and a transcendent God. Whitman's early poetry is predominantly ego-centered rather than God-centered, equating the self with God and making it, rather than an immanent or pantheistic deity, the pervasive presence. This emphasis fits better into the Vedantic system of thought than into the Judeo-Christian or theistic Hindu molds. In his later poetry, Whitman addresses a deistic/pantheistic God (e.g., "Passage to India," "Prayer of Columbus"), whose description may recall the Brahman of the Upanishads or the Lord in the Gita. But it may equally be traced to Western sources, even though in "Passage" Whitman sees India as a generic symbol of man's spiritual quest.

A belief in the immortality of the soul is shared by many traditions, and Whitman could have found confirmation for that idea in more than one place. His conviction of a mystical identity or immaterial essence, however, "the Me myself" ("Song of Myself," section 4) beneath the phenomenal layers of consciousness, standing aloof like a spectator or detached participant in world action, belongs typically to the Vedanta and Samkhya systems expounded in the Gita, although it is not uncommon in other varieties of religious experience. Whitman's manner of presenting this experience—its declamatory flow and its paradoxical structure—is especially like the mystic effusions of the Upanishads and the Gita.

Similarly, on the question of the relative status of the spiritual and the real world, Whitman approximates the Vedantic position that the spirit or self alone is ultimately real and that the objective universe is only relatively (empirically) real and in that sense an illusion or maya—a thought that Whitman expresses in many places (see "Eidólons," Democratic Vistas). Whitman's adoration of life in all its forms presupposes a thought that is akin to the declaration of the Upanishads that all things are "honey for the self" because they are animated by the Self and are held dear to it. His celebration of sex may also be related to the Tantric worship of the human body as a conduit for divine energy.

The question of Whitman's actual borrowings from Hindu sources will perhaps never be settled. But these and other similarities in thought provide a legitimate ground for comparison. In addition, the Hindu philosophical models can serve as useful critical instruments: they can clarify and illuminate Whitman's meanings.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Mercer, Dorothy F. Articles on Whitman and the Gita. Vedanta and the West 9 (1946) to 12 (1949).

Rajasekharaiah, T.R. The Roots of Whitman's Grass. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1970.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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