T.S. Eliot and Indian Philosophy

T.S. Eliot — Wikimedia Commons (Octave.H)

It is well-known that T.S. Eliot engaged deeply with Indian philosophy in ways which significantly influenced his worldview and his poetry. In fact,Eliot was a student of the eminent Sanskrit scholar Professor Charles Rockwell Lanman at Harvard University, and in fact Eliot’s PhD supervisor there, Josiah Royce, had also earlier learnt Sanskrit from Prof. Lanman.

Prof. Charles Rockwell Lanman — Wikimedia Commons (Harvard University)

Eliot’s PhD thesis was on the idealist metaphysics of F.H. Bradley, which he found appealing due to its affinities with Indian philosophical sensibilities. Eliot also published on Indian philosophy as a PhD student and edited articles on India. Indeed, Eliot himself tells us –

“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.”

[T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, pp.190–191]

Eliot was influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism, and especially by the Bhagavad Gītā, which he described as one of the greatest philosophical poems, and by the Mādhyamika or Middle Way Buddhist philosophy of Nāgārjuna. The references to Indian literature are particularly prominent in The Waste Land, several section titles of which themselves reference Indian imagery. Thus for example, ‘The Fire Sermon’ references the sermon of the same name delivered by the Buddha; ‘Death by Water’ engages with Indra’s slaying of Vṛtra to release the waters in the Rig Veda; ‘What the Thunder said’ references the eponymous episode from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad.

Interesting too is the motif of the wheel, recurring over and again in Eliot’s oeuvre in passages such as the following –

“The inhabitants of Hampstead are bound forever on the wheel.”

“I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.”

“Madame Sosostris picks out a Tarot card containing the image of “the Wheel””

“You have also thought, sometimes at your prayers …
When the bird cries, have thought of further scorning.
That nothing lasts, but the wheel turns …”

In his pioneering study of Eliot, Dr. P.S. Padmanabhan explains –

“The human predicament in the midst of this omnipresent and universal change and suffering is often expressed in Vedanta and Buddhism by the image of the wheel. Krishna speaks of the terrible wheel of birth and death which binds the individual down to the phenomenal world of time and circumstance … And the Buddha alludes to the wheel of existence, which he calls samsara … Eliot is invoking the image of the wheel … in order to convey the hopeless predicament of “the crowds of people,” doomed to repeat their lives endlessly”

[P.S. Padmanabhan, The Influence Of Vedanta And Buddhism On The Poetry And Drama Of T.S.Eliot]

As Prof. Jeffrey Perl and Prof. Andrew Tuck explain in a fascinating review of Eliot’s Indic studies, Eliot rejected the both the idea of a single exclusive religious or spiritual truth and also the idea that all religions reflect the same ultimate truth. Rather, Eliot articulated a perspectival approach to truth which he adopted from Hindu and Buddhist sources. As Prof. Perl and Prof. Tuck explain

“For [Eliot], a perspective … should involve the recognition of a multiplicity of valid views, each of them merely provisional but correct nonetheless in context … the place from which one views the world will unavoidably determine one’s ‘world view’.”

In Eliot’s own words, quoted here –

“A view is false in one sense, true in another. This kind of synthesis is characteristic of Buddhism from its very beginnings under the name of middle path … Life is neither pain nor pleasure. The views that the world eists or not, both are false, the truth lies in the middle, transcending both views.”

Further, in regard to his own religious belief, as Prof. Perl and Prof. Tuck explain –

“Eliot’s devotion to tradition and convention is not an expression of cultural absolutism but virtually the opposite: an expression of radical skepticism in regard to any one philosophical perspective. Eliot had accepted and assimilated the Buddhist model for salvation …”

As Eliot himself explains (quoted in the above article) –

“it is salutary to learn that the Truth … is not wholly concerned to their own religious tradition, or on the other hand to an alien culture and religion … [yet] no man has ever climbed to the higher stages of the spiritual life, who has not been a believer in a particular religion … It was only in relation to his own religion that the insights of any one of these men had its significance to him, and what they say can only reveal its meaning to the reader who has his own religion of dogma and doctrine in which he believes.”

In this sense, then, Eliot’s strengthened adherence to his own Christian faith and indeed his conversion from the Unitarianism of his youth to the Church of England and Anglo-Catholicism were motivated by his reading of Indian philosophy.

Much research has been done over the years on this aspect of Eliot’s life and work, by both Western and Indian scholars, which I have only just touched the surface of in this article. Regarding Indian interest in Eliot, Prof. Makarand Paranjape has written –

“For many years, T S Eliot was India’s favourite Anglo-American writer next only to Shakespeare … this presence has also waned considerably, if not vanished altogether in the last twenty years. … Eliot was actually a political conservative who seldom criticized British imperialism openly. This did not matter so much to us, though, because we did not seek in him a political ally. … he sought succour in the springs of the sacred and mystical traditions of the West itself … But in this project, he also secured help from the now all too familiar elements of Eastern spirituality.”

[M. Paranjape, Another Canon: Indian Texts and Traditions in English, pp.13–15]

Certainly, given the richness and erudition of Eliot’s poetry, there is surely much more research that can be done on this front. We may finish with Eliot’s own words as follows (quoted in the above article) –

“India has already given something of the highest value to the world … That without spiritual knowledge man is an incomplete being”

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