The poetry of T. S. Eliot and the Bhagavad Gita13 min read

Despite the great difference between the literary and social backgrounds of the Bhagavad Gita and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, there is an essential similarity between certain ideas which are found in both. The parallelism between these ideas cannot be said to be exact for in the Bhagavad Gita they are related to other Hindu doctrines while in Eliot’s poetry they are fitted into a framework of Christian dogma. But it is the fundamental attitudes and particularly the views of the human condition expressed in these ideas which are similar.

Three main points of similarity may be noted. Firstly, the starting point common to both Eliot and the Gita is dissatisfaction with human life bound by the limitations of the phenomenal world. Secondly, both hold that the nature of the bondage is ignorance of the Reality behind the phenomenal world and that the only release is through spiritual awakening and knowledge. Thirdly, both also hold that the majority of people are unable to follow the path of complete renunciation and meditation which is the direct way to knowledge, and for these both recommend a path of ‘ discipline, prayer and action ’ as a result of which release from bondage is also eventually obtained. Let us discuss these points in more detail.

Dissatisfaction with the World

Western critics have called the Gita pessimistic because certain of its doctrines concerning the nature of the world and human life express dissatisfaction with the apparently existing order of things. T. S. Eliot’s poetry, particularly his early poetry, has been called pessimistic too, and for the same reason. But in both cases this aspect should be considered in its relation to the work as a whole. The pessimism is initial, not final. It is attached to the existing order and not to the ultimate Existence, the realization of which is seen to be the goal of life.

In the West there has been a tendency to assume that the phenomenal world possesses a reality of its own. The Gita denies this and teaches that the world has no absolute reality ; if reality is thought to reside in objects, this is merely due to a misunderstanding of reality for only the Self is real—

Of the unreal no being there is ; there is no non-being of the real.
But know That to be Imperishable by which all this is pervaded.
None can cause the destruction of That, the Inexhaustible.

(II. 16/17).

Such reality as the world has is entirely dependent on the Lord,

Penetrating the earth I support all beings by My energy.

(XV. 13.)

Eliot was expressing a similar point of view when he wrote in “ Murder in the Cathedral ”,

All things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee ;
all things exist only in Thy light,
and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee ;
the darkness declares the glory of light.
Those who deny Thee could not deny, if Thou didst not exist;
and their denial is never complete for if it were so, they would not exist.

The dreamlike quality of the world and existence in the world is often referred to by Eliot in words which bring to mind the idea of Maya. In “ The Cocktail Party ” Celia refers to

the phantasmal world
of imagination, shuffling memories and desires

In “ Ash Wednesday ” Eliot speaks of

this brief transit where the dreams cross the dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying

On several occasions Eliot says that “ Humankind cannot bear very much reality ”, which implies that what human beings usually bear is comparatively unreal.

Contrasted with the tendency of modern society to take a very positive attitude towards life in the world, assuming that it is the means of obtaining happiness, is the Gita’s view of life as bondage in ‘ the ocean of Sansara’

The four tempters in “ Murder in the Cathedral ” also warn us

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment
All things are unreal
Unreal or disappointing
All things become less real. Man passes
From unreality to unreality.

Reflecting the modern attitude are a set of values which have been exalted far beyond their proper position. By turning outwards, men have given more and more of their attention to material objects and in so doing have isolated themselves from the true spiritual basis of their lives. It is Eliot’s horror at this spiritual emptiness, the result of man’s separation from God, which finds expression mainly in his early poetry. The early poems present a series of pictures of contemporary society which clearly point out the feeling of boredom, futility and fear which underlie it. The characters which appear in them are drawn from many different sections of society, but they are all entangled in the nightmare of an existence which has no meaning or purpose. They are afraid of the world which is left when the pretence of purpose fails

as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.

In the later poetry, the decadence of modern society is no longer the sole preoccupation of the poet. The same conditions apply to human life in general and not only to contemporary life. And in the light of a deeper understanding they no longer seem as something from which the only escape is annihilation but as a bondage from which release is possible.

Bondage and Release

According to the Gita, the identification of the Self which is unlimited with objects such as the body which are limited constitutes bondage

Purusha, when seated in Prakriti, experiences the qualities born of Prakriti.
Attachment to the qualities (gunas) is the cause of his birth in good and evil wombs. (XIII. 21.)

But the identification is an illusion due to ‘ ignorance ’ (avidya) for, unlike the body, the Self is immutable and is not affected by the continual change which is characteristic of the phenomenal world.

He is not born, nor does He ever die ; after having been,
He again ceases not to be.
Unborn, eternal, unchangeable, primeval,
He is not slain when the body is slain. (II. 20.)

It is because, in his grief, Arjuna displays ignorance of the nature of the Self that he is rebuked by Shri Krishna and taught that knowledge is the means of release. Speaking of such knowledge Shri Krishna says,

This is the Brahmic state, 0 son of Pritha.
Attaining to this, none is deluded.
Remaining in this state even at the last period of life,
one attains to the felicity of Brahman. (II. 72.)

Eliot also sees man’s bondage as being due to spiritual ignorance. The lack of spiritual knowledge which he found in the learning and so-called progress of modern civilization is expressed in “ The Rock ”,

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness ;
Knowledge of speech but not of silence ;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living ?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge ?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information ?

In “ Burnt Norton ” the poet describes a moment when the ‘ stillness ’ was perceived and a degree of release experienced

At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless Neither from nor towards ;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered…
I can only say there we have been : but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say how long, for that is to place it in time

Eliot’s experience here was evidently of limited value for it brought only momentary understanding and probably only a certain degree of understanding. In “ Little Gidding ” Eliot has spoken of such moments as ‘ hints ’. But it was sufficient to indicate the difference between two spheres of existence and to point to the true goal of human life as union with God.

The Path of Action

At the beginning of his exposition of Karma Yoga, Shri Krishna speaks of two ways of attaining liberation,

In this world a twofold path was taught by me at first, 0 sinless one—
that of Sankhyas by devotion to knowledge and that of Yogins by devotion to action. (III. 3.)

The Sankhya path is the more direct of the two but Arjuna is told to follow the path of action because, like most of us, he is better suited to it. He is not capable of experiencing the direct knowledge of the Sankhya path. We see how he is overcome by the vision of the universal form and has to beg Krishna to assume his usual form again.

In “ The Cocktail Party ” Reilly, who in the role of a psychiatrist acts as a spiritual adviser, also describes two ways. He tells Celia, who has realized that the world she had thought of as real is an illusion, that one of these ways

leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.

Reilly makes it understood that very few people are capable of following this path. It is terrifying because most of us, like Arjuna when he saw the vision of the universal form, cannot yet bear the degree of spiritual exaltation which it involves.

Man’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension.
But to apprehend The point of intersection of the timeless
With timey is an occupation for the saint.

But although the path of knowledge is inaccessible to most of us, the path of action also leads to salvation. It is said in the Gita

That state which is reached by Sankhyas is reached by Yogins also. (V. 5.)

And Eliot writes

And right action is freedom

From past and future also.

The essence of the path of action is renunciation of the fruits of actions, for when action is performed out of desire for fruits, attachment to the empirical self, which is the root of all desire, is increased and bondage results. Shri Krishna says

Except in the case of action for sacrifice’s sake,
this world is action-bound.
Action for the sake thereof do thou, 0 son of Kunti,
perform free from attachment. (III. 9.)

The path of action is one of purification, since attachment to self must be given up before there can be knowledge. In Chapter XVIII, verse 53, Shri Krishna says,

Having abandoned egotism, strength, arrogance, desire, enmity, property,
free from the notion of ‘mine ‘ and peaceful, he is fit for becoming Brahman.

In this verse, the qualities enumerated after egotism, in the sense in which they are to be understood, are all products of egotism. Thus it is egotism which must be overcome by the aspirant.

Eliot also sees selfishness (in the widest sense of the word as ‘everything that arises from awareness of self’) as one of the main causes of bondage. In “ The Waste Land ” we find the idea that by selfishness one is, as it were, locked in a prison. Eliot quotes the account of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of the meaning of the thunder’s crash ‘ Da Da Da’ as ‘ Datta, dayadhvam, damyata (Give, sympathize, control). The sound of thunder promises man relief from the dryness, the spiritual emptiness of “ The Waste Land In the same poem Eliot found in the Buddha’s Fire Sermon a correlative which helped him to express his meaning in the condensed form of his poetry. The Buddha taught that the senses are a fire, that is, the desire to fulfil the cravings of the senses destroys or obscures our real purpose which is to obtain knowledge. Eliot used the symbol in “ The Waste Land ” to describe the pursuit of sensual satisfaction with which he was concerned in the early poetry. In “ Little Gidding ” it becomes the fire of self-love which produces desire ; if we submit to this fire, we are consumed by it. But there is also the fire of purification

The only hope, or else depair,
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire …
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

If we submit to the second fire, the fire of purification, we are saved from the fire of self-love, but in this case we must eventually lose our selves, for

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not. (East Coker.)

Shri Krishna says that

He whose engagements are all devoid of desires and purposes
and whose actions have been burnt by the fire of wisdom,
him the wise call a sage.
(IV. 19.)

Because attachment to the fruits of action is a form of attachment to self, Shri Krishna tells Arjuna

Thy concern is with action alone, never with results.
Let not the fruit of action be thy motive.
(II. 47.)

Similarly the voice of the Rock says

I say to you : “ Make perfect your will ”
I say : “ take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing ”

Eliot has quoted directly from the Gita (VIII. 6.) in the following passage from “ The Dry Salvages ”,

At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this : “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death “—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others :
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.

For the Hindu the time of death is a transition between one life and rebirth in another life, and here Eliot suggests that every moment is in a sense a dying and therefore a rebirth.

‘ O voyagers, O seamen,
You who come to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Eliot means that the attitude towards the future which involves the wish ‘ fare well’ should be replaced by an attitude of ‘ faring forward ’, accepting one’s destiny with an equal mind whether it promises suffering or not.

This is the same as Shri Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna.

Then, treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss,
success and defeat, prepare for the battle.
(II. 38.)

The following stanza from “ Ash Wednesday ” sums up the attitude of humility, self-surrender and devotion which is necessary to the path of action.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee