T.S. Eliot, the Vedas and the Concept of Time

Śiva Națarāja – Wikimedia Commons (KarlHeinrich)

For the generation that came of age in the early twentieth century, their worldview was particularly shaped by the rapid advances in science and technology then taking place, and in particular, by the work of Albert Einstein, who was himself a member of this generation.  Einstein published four breakthrough papers in the year 1905, among them the special theory of relativity.  The subsequent experimental confirmation of this theory in 1919 caused a revolution in how we think about time.

The concept of time seems to have been a preoccupation for many leading figures of this generation across a variety of fields, stimulated perhaps in part by the linking of hitherto distant regions through railway and telegraphy during the nineteenth century, and likely also by the impact of Einstein’s work.  Such figures might include Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, Marcel Proust, Salvador Dali and many others.

T.S. Eliot, who had in fact studied under Henri Bergson among other philosophers, appears to have been similarly preoccupied with the concept of time, in his Four Quartets in particular.  The first of these, Burnt Norton, opens with the lines –

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”

[Four Quartets, p.3]

These opening lines may indeed remind us of how Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity seemed to lead to a Block Universe theory, whereby time was eliminated as a fundamental feature of reality, leaving all of past, present and future as fully determinate and immutable.   This idea was also grappled with by William James and Wallace Stevens among others.  At the same time, a  specifically Christian reading of the above is possible, as will be proposed shortly.  Indeed, many of the references and allusions of this poem and Eliot’s others have puzzled readers of subsequent generations, and perhaps his full range poetic influences will never fully be known or understood.

In any event, as described in an earlier article, the influence of Indian thought on his poetry is clearly evident and was remarked on by T.S. Eliot himself.  This influence stemmed from his graduate studies in philosophy at Harvard, where he took electives in Sanskrit, Pali and Indian Philosophy under the renowned Indologist Prof. Charles Rockwell Lanman.

That earlier article also discussed the coherence between T.S. Eliot’s own devout Christian faith, fully expressed in his poetry, and the meaningful inspiration that he incorporated from Hindu texts and ideas to buttress and support that faith, both in his life and in his poetry.  This article will be more specific, suggesting that Eliot’s Four Quartets explore at least two concepts of time, and will compare these with two of the rather more well-known passages from a few early Sanskrit texts, in order to raise the possibility that these were among the sources of inspiration for T.S. Eliot.

Going further in Burnt Norton, we read –

“Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight …
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation …
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces”

[Four Quartets, p.3]

Here, Eliot presents a conception of time as mere sequence, as ‘time before and time after’, and is rather disparaging of those with ‘strained time-ridden faces’, who live with and in such a conception of time.  Eliot goes on to connect it with their physical decay –

“Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid”

[Four Quartets, p.6]

This tone of disparagement extends into the idea of time as creation followed by death, destruction and decay as we read on –

“In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble …
… there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.”

[Four Quartets, p.13]

We may compare this with the idea of time as a force of creation, maintenance and, above all, decay and destruction that is found in Indian thought, and especially in a well-known quoted passage that was also referenced or paraphrased by well-known Western students of Sanskrit such as Prof. Robert Oppenheimer –

“I am time, creating and destroying worlds, come here to withdraw worlds.”

[Bhagavad Gītā Ch.11 Verse 32; my own translation]

We can quite easily understand how T.S. Eliot would be morally and spiritually opposed to such a mundane and impoverished conception of time as mere sequence of events.  Rather, from a Christian perspective, we may observe that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the moment of Christ’s crucifixion in the past, is made directly present, and that future salvation is in a sense ‘contained’ in this present.  Indeed, this is an explicitly Christian way of thinking, whereby time is profoundly redemptive, leading through suffering in order to culminate in ultimate salvation, rather than merely a cause of cyclical generation and decay.  Yet at the same time, Eliot’s articulation of this idea is innovative, and illuminated by other spiritual traditions, resulting in the uniquely spiritual vision that is seen throughout much of his later work.

Thus, contrasting with the desultory conception of time described above, Eliot seems to present an alternative, more positive conception of time in the following lines –

“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. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

[Four Quartets, p.5]

Now we have the conception of time as a dance, perhaps vaguely reminding us of the dance of destruction of Śiva, who is also Mahākāla, Great Time, although in Eliot’s context, this is of course elaborated in terms of a more Christian ethos.  The idea of a wheel turning, with a still point at its centre, and a rotation around this, which is what seems to be in play here, is in fact a prominent theme in much Indian literature, starting with the Rig Veda, where we encounter the idea of a wheel or a one-wheeled chariot as a metaphor or symbolic representation of the sun, in verses such as the following –

Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot; one horse with seven names pulls it;
Where all these worlds stand upon the unaging, unobstructable three-naved wheel

[Ṛg Veda 1.164.2 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

The imagery of time as a wheel turning is also prominent in another of Eliot’s works, ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, in passages as follows, where the wheel turning is more closely associated with the progress of fate and momentous changes rather merely the passage of time in the abstract –

“For good or ill, let the wheel turn.
The wheel has been still, these seven years, and no good.
For ill or good, let the wheel turn.”

[Murder in the Cathedral, p.17]

“You have also thought, sometimes at your prayers
Sometimes hesitating at the angles of stairs,
And between sleep and walking, early in the morning,
When the bird cries, have thought of further scorning.
That nothing lasts, but the wheel turns,
The nest is rifled, and the bird mourns;”

[Murder in the Cathedral, p.38]

In the second of these passages, the character of a bird, which was already seen in Burnt Norton, is here brought more directly into apposition with the wheel image.  Interestingly, this bird too appears in an elaboration of the Rig Vedic wheel symbol in the following passage from one of the Upaniṣads.  I quote from the 19th century translation of Prof. Max Müller, which brings this out very nicely –

“In the vast Brahma-wheel, in which all things live and rest, the bird flutters about, so long as he thinks that the self (in him) is different from the mover (the god, the lord).  When he has been blessed by him, then he gains immortality.”

[Śvetāsvatara Upaniṣad 1.6; translation by Prof. Max Müller]

To summarise based on Eliot’s ideas, it seems that certain trends of modernity can only conceptualise time in relatively sterile ways, such as mere sequence of events.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that Old English and other early languages had a much broader and more varied set of vocabulary for time concepts than we find in modern English and other modern languages.

If we want to probe more deeply into the mystery of time, especially in its connection with human phenomenology and the meaningfulness of events, we may do well to turn to the wider and richer array of resources found in philosophy, poetry and religious thought and practice.   We may accordingly end with another rather enigmatic verse from the Rig Veda, translated by Prof. Wendy Doniger as follows –

“Those that are in the future they say are in the past; those that are in the past they say are in the future.”

[Ṛg Veda 1.164.19 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; trans. Prof. Wendy Doniger, The Rig Veda, p.76]

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