Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
India, Whitman in
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.

Whitman's reputation in India has been due mainly to the affinities that Indian readers have felt between his ideas and the Hindu philosophical teachings. He has been admired for his bold, prophetic voice, for his all-embracing sympathies, and above all for his ecstatic celebration of the Self, in which Indian readers could readily recognize resemblances to the sublime utterances of the Gita and the Upanishads. But whether these resemblances are a pure coincidence or whether they point to actual indebtedness on Whitman's part to Indian sources remains uncertain in spite of the most laborious research. Whatever the case may be, Indian readers have over the years come to see in Whitman's poems the quintessential spirit of Indian philosophy.

It was, however, the American orientalists who first detected Indian elements in Whitman's thought. Indian interest in Whitman came later, toward the turn of the century, due to contacts with American intellectuals and due also to the new enthusiasm for Indian philosophical systems such as Vedanta, Samkhya, and Yoga, generated by the activities of the Vedanta missionaries headed by Swamy Vivekananda in the 1890s. Later Indian scholarship on the subject also followed important investigations by American scholars; it was in fact spurred by them.

The very first individuals to observe Indian elements in Whitman were the poet's own friends and admirers. We learn from Frank B. Sanborn's account in "Reminiscent of Whitman" (The Conservator, May 1897) that Emerson described Leaves of Grass as "a remarkable mixture of Bhagvat Ghita [sic] and the New York Herald" (qtd. in Rajasekharaiah 21). In a letter to Harrison Blake, 6–7 December 1856, Henry David Thoreau called the poems "[w]onderfully like the Orientals" (qtd. in Allen 260). Edward Carpenter, in Days with Walt Whitman (1906), cited many parallels from the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Buddhist scriptures. William Norman Guthrie, in Walt Whitman the Camden Sage (1897), thought that the study of the Gita was indispensable for a correct understanding of Whitman's poems. More recently, Malcolm Cowley, in the introduction to his edition of the 1855 poems, claimed that most of Whitman's mystical ideas belonged to the mainstream of Indian philosophy. The first systematic and full-scale attempt at a comparative study of Whitman and Indian thought is, however, Dorothy F. Mercer's University of California dissertation "Leaves of Grass and the Bhagavad Gita: A Comparative Study" (1933), published in part as a series of articles in Vedanta and the West (1946–1949), in which she examined parallel ideas such as God, Self, Love, and Yoga.

One of the first Indians to be impressed with Whitman's spirituality was Swamy Vivekananda (1862–1902). We learn from Romain Rolland's account of him in Prophets of the New India that Vivekananda called Whitman "the Sannyasin [monk] of America" (348 ff.). Rabindranath Tagore was equally struck by Whitman's mysticism and said that "No American has caught the Oriental spirit of mysticism as well as he" (qtd. in Holloway 156). The noted philosopher and Indologist Anand K. Coomaraswamy, in Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism (1916), found in the lines of "Song of Myself" modern equivalents of the spiritual values of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. Subsequent studies of Whitman by Indian scholars, both books and articles, consistently followed the mystic line, bringing further substantiation to the established view of Whitman as a mystical poet. The concern of many of these studies is not, however, to discover resemblances in a purely comparatist spirit, but to use the Indian philosophical concepts as critical tools to explain Whitman's meanings. Thus V.K. Chari's Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism uses the Vedantic concept of the Self to interpret Whitman's cosmic dynamism and other aspects of his thought. O.K. Nambiar in Walt Whitman and Yoga applies the principles of the Yoga philosophy to explicate enigmatic passages in "Song of Myself," especially section 5. Indian philosophies have generally regarded sex as a sacred function and a manifestation of divine energy, capable, if properly tapped, of helping us to transcend the narrow limits of ego-consciousness; thus scholars have tried to justify Whitman's sexuality in that light.

While most comparative studies of Whitman evade the question of Whitman's debt to Hindu literature, T.R. Rajasekharaiah in The Roots of Whitman's Grass is convinced that Whitman borrowed all of his basic philosophical ideas from Hindu sources, but that he deliberately tried to suppress all evidence of his borrowings. Rajasekharaiah's study is valuable, not as a source study, because it does not take us much beyond the realm of probability, but for the many, hitherto unsuspected, parallels it discovers in thought, image, and language.

Indian studies of Whitman have focused almost exclusively on his mysticism and paid little attention to the ideological aspects of his writings. They have been inclined to view his ideology as a natural corollary to his mystical vision. Two scholars, Kshitindranath Tagore and R.K. Dasgupta, however, have struck a different note and seen Whitman's value as a prophet of democracy rather than as a mystic. Some recent studies, including Chari's essay "Whitman Criticism in the Light of Indian Poetics," focus on critical and aesthetic matters, perhaps indicating a shift in interest.

Whitman has left no significant mark on the course of modern Indian literatures for the obvious reason that there were no translations of his poems into any of the Indian languages until recently. Hence interest in him has been confined to English-educated scholars and literati. However, an interesting study by V. Sachithanandan, Whitman and Bharati, reveals the high admiration that the Tamil national poet Bharati (1880–1921) felt for Whitman. Bharati, who had an English education, was inspired not only by Whitman's mysticism but by the American nationalistic fervor that prompted him to write some of his patriotic songs. Whitman's prosodic freedom influenced Bharati in his attempts to free Tamil poetry from the tyranny of literary conventions. He wrote a poem entitled "Nan" ("I") in free verse, apparently in imitation of Whitman. Rabindranath Tagore also noticed Whitman's significance for a new poetry and probably followed his example in structuring the English version he wrote of his Gitanjali.

Indian response to Whitman has been remarkably enthusiastic throughout. The consistent aim of the Indian studies has been to vindicate the poet's vision of man and his cosmos, and to see all facets of his poetic personality as an expression of that unifying vision.

Bibliography

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

Allen, Gay Wilson, and Ed Folsom, eds. Walt Whitman & the World. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.

Chari, V.K. "Whitman Criticism in the Light of Indian Poetics." Walt Whitman: The Centennial Essays. Ed. Ed Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1994. 240–250.

____. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Dasgupta, R.K. "Indian Response to Walt Whitman." Revue de Littérature Comparée 47 (1973): 58–70.

Holloway, Emory. Walt Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1926.

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

Mishra, R.S. "Whitman's Sex: A Reading of 'Children of Adam.'" Calamus 23 (1983): 19–25.

Nambiar, O.K. Walt Whitman and Yoga. Bangalore: Jeevan Publications, 1966.

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

Rolland, Romain. Prophets of the New India. New York: Boni, 1930.

Sachithanandan, V. Walt Whitman and Bharati: A Comparative Study. Madras: Macmillan, 1978.

Tagore, Kshitindranath. "Walt Whitman." Trans. from Bengali by R.K. Dasgupta. Walt Whitman Review 19 (1973): 3–11.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959.


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