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When the East and the West Meet: Indian Influence on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land


When the East and the West Meet: Indian Influence on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

Sharuk Rahaman

Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English Literature

The English and Foreign Languages University

Hyderabad, Telangana, India



“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” wrote Rudyard Kipling once. Ironically, T. S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Waste Land, one of the canonical texts of the Western modernism, ends with a direct reference to an Eastern scripture—the Upanishad. The poem abounds in references to Indian philosophy, spirituality, religion, and history. The titles of two sections in the poem—"The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said”—bear direct allusions to Indian religions, namely Hinduism and Buddhism. Eliot places together two great masters of asceticism—Lord Buddha and Saint Augustine—from the East and the West. The ultimate solution to the social ills, spiritual banality, religious bankruptcy, degradation of emotions, and predicament of human virtues in the modern Western world is found in the Indian principles of Datta (Charity), Dayadhvam (Compassion), and Damyata (Restraint). Taking into consideration Eliot’s formative years in oriental studies at Harvard, the present paper analyzes the influence of the Indian spiritual and philosophical traditions in The Waste Land.

Keywords: T. S. Eliot, Upanishad, Buddhism, Hinduism, Vedas, The Waste Land

Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Ballad of East and West famously begins with: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” (line 1).But there are instances throughout history that bear evidences to how the Eastern world has been influenced by the Western civilization and vice versa. One prominent example of this East-West amalgamation is certainly T. S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Waste Land, one of the canonical texts of the Western modernism, that ends with a direct reference to an Eastern scripture—the Upanishad. Not only Eliot, Indian spirituality has also attracted and influenced many other Western intellectuals through the ages, including Walt Whitman, R. W. Emerson, H. D. Thoreau, W. B. Yeats, Hermann Hesse, etc. Moreover, a number of scholars like Max Muller, Charles Wilkins, Sir William Jones, Bertrand Russell were heavily influenced by ancient Indian civilization and culture.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was greatly inspired by Indian philosophy, religion, and spirituality. During his study at Harvard (1906-1914), which was a renowned centre for Oriental Studies, Eliot got profound interest in Indian thoughts through the teachings of great mentors like George Santayana, James Woods, Irving Babbitt, Henry Warren, Josiah Royce, and Charles Lanman. He got enrolled in Lanman’s Indic Course and studied Pali, Sanskrit, Buddhism, and Hinduism. He studied about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras under James Woods. He was particularly influenced by Irving Babbitt, whose “system of thought was based upon the study of the Pali manuscripts, the earliest authentic Buddhist documents” (Mayo 173). In many of his works, references are made to the Upanishads, the Bhagavat Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and Buddhist scriptures. Particularly, Four Quartets, The Waste Land, To the Indians Who Died in Africa, and The Cocktail Party abound in explicit allusions to Indian philosophy and culture. Eliot was so fascinated by the Gitaand considered it “the next greatest philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy within my experience” (Selected Essays 258). Later also he acknowledged the Indian influence in his works: “Long ago I studied the ancient Indian languages, and while I was chiefly interested at that time in Philosophy, I read a little poetry too; and I know that my own poetry shows the influence of Indian thought and sensibility” (Notes Towards 113). Eminent scholar A. N. Dwivedi opines that “Eliot presented the credentials of a wide-ranging poetic sensibility by incorporating in his writings not only the ‘best’ of European culture but also of Indian thought” (qtd. in Naugle 1-2).

The Waste Land (1922) is deemed to be the most complex piece in modernist literary movement. The observation made by A. N. Dwivedi is quite pertinent:

The Waste Land . . . combines in its texture a number of sources ranging from the fertility rituals, the Grail legends, the Tarot pack of cards (all representing the primitive pagan ways of life), through St. Augustine and the Bible (both forming the Christian tradition), the Greek myth and the creation of Tiresias, the Latin writers and poets (constituting the continental Classical tradition), Buddhism and Hinduism (both championing the Indian tradition), to a host of British, French, Italian and German authors (all betokening the various nationalities of Europe). (121)

This 433-lined intricate poem has drawn its mythical elements from Jessie Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance and James Frazer’s book The Golden Bough. The poem abounds in references to Indian philosophy, spirituality, religion, and history. The poem depicts a Christian waste land, while Indian philosophy serves as a catalyst for healing waters.

As evident from the title itself, The Waste Land portrays a barren, infertile, wasted land with the inhabitants morally sterile and spiritually bankrupt. In the Rig Veda, there is a reference to a waste land, as is also found in the legend of the Holy Grail, devoid of water, because the seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu) are locked up. Many years later Bhagirath brings Ganga down from the heaven to the earth, and the dried land is rejuvenated. The first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead” talks about the renascence of modern humanity with the drop of rainwater:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (ll. 1-4)

Drawn from the Buddhist text, Dhammapada, this thought can be traced back to Gautama Buddha, who suggests manto grow a Bodhi tree in his heart by becoming spiritually aware of his existence.C. D. Narasimhaiah notes:

In any case we should find it illuminating to read a Thai Buddhist monk’s translation of Dhammpada under the title, ‘Growing the Bodhi Tree in the garden of the Heart’. . . with a prologue which he calls The Waste Land . . . The question now is how to grow the seeds of this tree in the heart of everyone of us—which is analogous to the re-enactment of crucifixion in the life of every Christian. The land is wasted and the seeds have no chance to grow without the water. There are verses in the Dhammapada which say they should be irrigated well with the waters of compassion and richly manured by meditation. (97-98)

Though it is unlikely that Eliot may have taken the title of his poem from the above version of the Dhammapada (as it was published in 1966, long after Eliot’s poem), but he may have got the idea from his reading of the Buddhist scriptures. He was so greatly influenced by Lord Buddha’s teachings that “at the time when he was writing The Waste Land, he seriously considered becoming a Buddhist” (Spender 60).

The title of the third section “The Fire Sermon” is a direct reference Lord Buddha’s famous sermon to the gathered priests at Sarnath in which he discussed the suffering and pains experienced by modern humans as a result of their careless pursuit of desire and passion:

All things, O priests, are on fire. . . . The eye, O priests, is, on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire. . . . With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire. (qtd. in North54)

This part of the poem focuses on overcoming desire and resisting temptation on the way to Nirvana.“The fact that [Eliot] chose to place “The Fire Sermon” at the very center of the poem suggests that desire, and in this case perverse, sexual desire, is what lies at the bottom of society’s ills” (LeCarner 406).The section is particularly notable for bringing together ideas from Eastern (Buddhist) and Western (Christian) traditions. The asceticism advocated by Lord Buddha is placed together with that of St. Augustine. The latter acknowledges that when he was younger, he was often lured by sensual desires and was away from God: “I sank away from Thee, and I wandered, O my God, too much astray from Thee my stay, in these days of my youth, and I became to myself a barren land. To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves” (qtd. in North 58).He implores God to relieve him from the fire of passion:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest (ll. 307-10).

The above lines point to the filthiness of carnal pleasures, thereby linking it with the second section “A Game of Chess,” which portrays the degradation of marriage and sex in modern society through the episodes the glamorous aristocratic lady and Albert-Lil. “The subject of Part II is sex without love, specifically within marriage, just as the subject of Part III is the same horror outside it” (Smith 79).

Modern man must abandon lust and restlessness to overcome infertility and sterility. Lord Buddha demonstrated this path of Negation by leaving his family and the comforts of royal palace in search of enlightenment. Like St. Augustine, “Even the Buddha wasn’t free from the tempters—Mara sends his daughter to seduce Buddha—in the last stage of his Enlightenment. But Buddha’s constant vigilance saves him” (Narasimhaiah 108).The two great ascetics of the East and the West, thus, witness humanity as “burning” in the profane fire of desire. The references to Lord Buddha and St. Augustine assert that the knowledge of the East and the West coexist to demonstrate the road to redemption (Nirvana) via austerity. Regarding this, Eliot comments in his notes: “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident” (qtd. in North 25).

The fifth section “What the Thunder Said” prescribes a kind of solution based on Vedic notions, and the concluding line “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” makes Eliot’s Vedic reference even more explicit. The last section of the poem refers to an episode in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. This Upanishad has six chapters called Aranyakas, and Brihad means great. Tiresias, the most important character in the poem, is similar to Drasta (seer) of the Upanishads. What Drasta observes is the content of the Upanishads, just as what Tiresias perceives is the essence of the poem. Tiresias and Drasta, in their different spatial locations, see the complete vista of desolation:

Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

Waited for rain, while the black clouds

Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

Then spoke the thunder (ll. 395-99)

Particularly noticeable is the poet’s use of the Sanskrit terms ‘Ganga’ and ‘Himavant’ instead of the widely used Anglicized versions the Ganges and the Everest. Ganga is regarded as a divine river due its association with Lord Shiva, while the sacred mountain is supposed to be the habitat of Shiva and Parvati (Himavant is also the name of Parvati’s father).G. Nageswara Rao feels that Eliot has correctly rejected the two degraded Anglicized versions ‘Ganges’ and ‘Everest’, because none invokes the whole range of spiritual and philosophical ideas associated with Ganga and Himavant (“Why Sanskrit” 533). Moreover, it is not really easy to explain to the foreign people the emotions and sentiments of the Indians as associated with the holy river and the mountain. Eliot uses the word ‘sunken’ to characterize Ganga, as it suits the poem’s metaphorical undertone. The dark clouds gathered over the Himavant herald the arrival of rain that can revive the dead soil’s fertility and restore spiritual consciousness to contemporary humanity.

The episode of “The Three Great Disciplines” in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is narrated as the following:

Prajapati had three kinds of offspring: gods, men, and demons (asuras). They lived with Prajapati, practising the vows of brahmacharins. After finishing their term, the gods said to him: “Please instruct us, Sir.” To them, he uttered the syllable da [and asked]: “Have you understood?” They replied: “We have. You said to us, ‘Control yourselves (damyata).’” He said: “Yes, you have understood.”

Then the men said to him: “Please instruct us, Sir.” To them he uttered the same syllable da [and asked]: “Have you understood?” They replied: “We have. You said to us, ‘Give (datta).’” He said: “Yes, you have understood.”

Then the demons said to him: “Please instruct us, Sir.” To them he uttered the same syllable da [and asked]: “Have you understood?” They replied: “We have. You said to us, “Be compassionate (dayadhvam).’” He said: “Yes, you have understood.”

That very thing is repeated [even today] by the heavenly voice, in the form of thunder, as “Da,” “Da,” “Da,” which means: “Control yourselves,” “Give,” and “Have compassion.” Therefore one should learn these three: self-control, giving, and mercy. (qtd. in North 62-63)

Despite having many positive attributes, the gods are commonly chaotic and kill others for their sports. So, the Creator God advises them to have self-control. Men are asked to share their wealth as fairly as they can, because they are by nature avaricious. Given that demons are inherently cruel and inclined to harm others, God commands them to be friendly and kind to everyone. However, the attributes of all the three species can be found among human beings alone. Men have unrestraint nature, greediness and cruelty, and hence are identified as gods, men, and demons simultaneously. Thus, what the thunder said—the words of Prajapati—applies to human beings. What is particularly noticeable here is that Eliot altered the sequence of the Upanishadic terms to meet his intention. The Thunder’s orders exist in the sequence of Damyata, Datta, and Dayadhvam in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, but Eliot significantly modified the order in composing The Waste Land and presented it as Datta, Dayadhvam, andDamyata. The Upanishadic system appears to value ‘self-control’ in the evolution of a person, while Eliot’s alteration makes the third element “the most emphatic” (Mayo 175).

The first command ‘Datta’ does not refer to offering alms to the impoverished; rather, it signifies throwing oneself away during an emotional crisis when blood is “shaking my heart” (line 402). Throughout a man’s life, there are moments when he has to abandon his reasons and hesitations and succumb to the demands of his clamouring heart. As the poet writes: “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract/ By this, and this only, we have existed” (ll. 403-05). The second order, ‘Dayadhvam’ alludes to a valuable attribute to be cultivated by man, that of understanding and kindness. The contemporary man is full of power and prosperity but lacks compassion for others. The poet hints to this idea by mentioning Count Ugolino from Dante’s Inferno who was imprisoned in a tower and chained up there, with no communication with the outside world. Modern man has likewise grown self-centered and egotistical:“. . . each in his prison/ Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (ll. 413-14). The third message of the Thunder, ‘Damyata’ emphasises the importance of regulating the heart, which has been enslaved to ‘blood’ (impulsive living) and ‘compassion-lessness,’ both of which are related to the waterless land of the Fisher King. The well-disciplined heart eases human existence in the same manner that a boat glides easily and safely on a stormy sea under the management of competent hands. Thus, the speaker says:

The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands (ll. 418-22)

By referring to the Indian principles, Eliot implies that the modern men, who are morally degraded and spiritually bankrupt, should learn to sacrifice for others, sympathize with fellow beings, and control themselves. Only then, the Western world can find its ‘Shantih’, that is, the eternal peace. Furthermore, Eliot provides a sense of ‘action’ at the conclusion in the manner of the Gita: “Shall I at least set my hands in order?” (line 425). As Jessie Weston notes down, “In the Mahayana scriptures Buddha is referred to as the Fisherman who draws fish from the ocean of Samsara to the light of Salvation” (119-20). After realising the essential significance of ‘Karma,’ the protagonist takes on the persona of the Fisher King at an instance when “London bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (line 426). It is a critical time when the whole world is in anarchy: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats 3-4).

The last line of the poem, drawn from the Sanskrit tradition of chanting the Shantih mantra, has particularly baffled the scholars since its publication. “Vedic recitations strictly end with the chant of the Santih mantra, which is a verse invocation seeking the blessings of gods and sages in one’s pursuit of spiritual wisdom” (Chandran 682). Some Western scholars consider the chanting of ‘Shantih’ to the Christian tradition of uttering ‘Amen’ at the end of prayers. Eliot writes that it is “a formal ending to an Upanishad” and its equivalent is “the Peace which passeth understanding” (qtd. in North 26). However, the Sanskrit term has a strong evocative force and refers to a state of mind obtained when all concerns, troubles, and grief have been resolved. The Shantih mantra is uttered in all auspicious occasions in Hindu religion such as marriage, morning prayer, evening prayer, entering a new house, riding a new vehicle for the first time as well as during the cremation of the dead body, thereby linking with “The Burial of the Dead.” As G. Nageswara Rao argues, “The word shantih is purposefully repeated thrice to indicate the absolute three dimensional peace resulting from a freedom from all disturbance from within (adhyatmikam), from above (adidaivikam) from around (adibhoutikam)” (“The Upanishad” 89).

It is interesting to consider the aesthetic importance of the poem’s ending with Shantih. Santarasa, the primary rasa in the poem, is echoed and emphasised in the iteration, “Shantih shantihshantih.” As in the Mahabharata, the several stories showing diverse rasas eventually lead to the major santarasa after all the fights and wars, similarly in The Waste Land, the various episodes expounding complicated emotions eventually lead to santi(peace). Thus, the great sage of modern poetry ends his monumental work with a ritualistic tradition of the Hindu culture. By taking cues for two sections of his poem from Hinduism and Buddhism and with other references to Eastern mysticism, T. S. Eliot acknowledges the strength of the teachings and lessons of Indian civilization. It firmly establishes that the East is not a passive recipient of the Western culture, but a contributor to the global peace and human welfare.


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