|by Jessica Ramsawak|
Passage O Soul to India!
A glance at Whitman’s transcendentalism through an Indian lens
June 2017 – August 2017
“Thou Reader throbbest life and pride and love the same as I.
Therefore, for thee the following chants.”
― Walt Whitman, “Thou Reader” Leaves of Grass
Basics of Indian Philosophy
Post #1 | Jessica Ramsawak
Basic Indian philosophy can be divided into two classes: astika and nastika.
The astika systems respect the ancient Vedas (the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism) as their source and scriptural authority, whereas the nastika systems of Jainism, Buddhism, and Lokayata, reject Vedic thought, literally meaning not astika.
Six Systems of Philosophy
The six orthodox schools of the astika system, Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, Mimamsa, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika, were codified during the medieval period of Brahmanic-Sanskritic scholasticism. These schools are outlined in the Vedas as well as the Bhagavad Gita.
- Founder: Sage Kapila / Ishvarakrishna
- Samkhya is the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems.
- Philosophy: Everything in reality stems from purusha (self or soul or mind) and prakriti (matter, creative agency, energy). It is a dualist philosophy, between the self and matter, and liberation occurs with the realization that the soul and the dispositions of matter (steadiness, activity and dullness) are different.
- The Samkhya school assumes the existence of two bodies, a temporal body and a body of “subtle” matter that persists after biological death. When the former body has perished, the latter migrates to another temporal body.
- Founder: Patanjali in his 2nd Century B.C. Yoga Sutras
- Philosophy: Yoga accepts the Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is more theistic, with the addition of a divine entity to Samkhya’s twenty-five elements of reality. The relatively brief Yoga Sutras are divided into eight ashtanga (limbs), reminiscent of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path, the goal being to quiet one’s mind and achieve kaivalya (solitariness or detachment).
- Founder: Aksapada Gautama in the 2nd Century B.C.
- Philosophy: The Nyaya school is based on the Nyaya Sutras, a system of logic that has subsequently been adopted by the majority of the Indian schools, in much the same way as Aristotelian logic has influenced Western philosophy. Its followers believe that obtaining valid knowledge (the four sources of which are perception, inference, comparison and testimony) is the only way to gain release from suffering.
- Founder: Kanada in the 6th Century B.C.
- Philosophy: The Vaisheshika school is atomist and pluralist in nature. The basis of the school’s philosophy is that all objects in the physical universe are reducible to a finite number of atoms, and Brahman is regarded as the fundamental force that causes consciousness in these atoms. The Vaisheshika and Nyaya schools eventually merged because of their closely related metaphysical theories (although Vaisheshika only accepted perception and inference as sources of valid knowledge).
- Philosophy: The main objective of the Purva Mimamsa school is to interpret and establish the authority of the Vedas. It requires unquestionable faith in the Vedas and the regular performance of the Vedic fire-sacrifices to sustain all the activity of the universe. Although in general the Mimamsa accept the logical and philosophical teachings of the other schools, they insist that salvation can only be attained by acting in accordance with the prescriptions of the Vedas. The school later shifted its views and began to teach the doctrines of Brahman and freedom, allowing for the release or escape of the soul from its constraints through enlightened activity.
- Founder: The philosophical system of Uttara Mimamsa does not have a specific founder since it is a conglomeration of three different schools of thought (Advaita, Visishtadvaita and Dvaita)
- Philosophy: The Uttara Mimamsa school concentrates on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads (mystic or spiritual contemplations within the Vedas), rather than the Brahmanas (instructions for ritual and sacrifice). The Vedanta focus on meditation, self-discipline and spiritual connectivity, more than traditional ritualism.
“The principles of the Bhagavad-gita were spoken to Arjuna, and, for that matter, to other highly elevated persons, because he was highly advanced compared to ordinary persons in other parts of the world. Two plus two equals four is a mathematical principle that is true both in the beginner’s arithmetic class and in the advanced class as well. Still, there are higher and lower mathematics. In all incarnations of the Lord, therefore, the same principles are taught, but they appear to be higher and lower in varied circumstances. The higher principles of religion begin with the acceptance of the four orders and the four statuses of social life, as will be explained later.” (asitis.com)
Eknath, Easwaran. The Bhagavad Gita. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. Print.
For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval.
– Chapter 2, Verse 20, Bhagavad Gita
In his 1872 collection of Leaves of Grass, Whitman introduced one of his many poems with transcendental influence, “Passage to India”, in which he describes the completion of the physical journey to India through advancements such as the railroad system, steamships, and the Suez Canal, built in 1869. He praises these achievements and wishes for, “the lands to be welded together”, increasing the connection between different countries and cultures. With this increase in communication and travel, Whitman sings of the new sights to be seen and ideas to be shared, “O you temples…you too I welcome and fully the same as the rest. You too with joy I sing.”
Whitman continues his praise of innovation with the idea that these feats are only a prelude to the spiritual pathway to India, the East, and, ultimately, to God, as he welcomes not only the temples, but also the spirits inside, “The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams…You too I welcome, and fully, the same as the rest”.
While he explores this theme with the physical body compared to the soul in his other works, for example “Song of Myself”, in this piece he is rather comparing the concrete advancements of buildings and transportation to the journey that his soul will take with the new knowledge to which he will be exposed.
The transcendental belief that the temporary material body and the eternal spiritual soul are fundamentally distinct, is a refrain found in South Asian thought, for example in the classic Indian work of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient text from the Mahabharata which provides a basis of the ideals of the astika system of Indian philosophy. In this poem, Whitman explores the idea of his soul carrying on after his mortal death. This idea can be found in the Samkhya school of thought. The Samkhya school assumes the existence of two bodies, a temporal body and a body of “subtle” matter that persists after biological death. When the former body has perished, the latter migrates to another temporal body.
Although Whitman never travelled to India himself, his work certainly carries the spiritual load that ancient Indians created so many years ago.
“A worship new I sing,
You captains, voyagers, explorers, yours,
You engineers, you architects, machinists, yours,
You, not for trade or transportation only,
But in God’s name, and for thy sake, O soul.”
– Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”, Leaves of Grass
Whitman, Walt, and Francis Murphy. Walt Whitman: the complete poems. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Eknath, Easwaran. The Bhagavad Gita. Petaluma, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1985. Print.
Salut Au Monde!
Post #3 | Jessica Ramsawak
Whitman’s “Salut au Monde”is a song in itself, a proud announcement of love and acceptance that can be considered a benchmark of sorts in American history. The poem reminds Americans of the true foundation of the country with its call for people and professions from across the globe, and contains similar values to some Hindu philosophies.
Whitman’s poetry revolves around the idea of equality and tolerance throughout this poem. He aligns himself with not only the “the workman singing, and the farmer’s wife singing”, but also “Christian priests at the altars of their churches” and the “the Hindu teaching his favorite pupil the loves, wars, adages, transmitted safely to this day from poets who wrote three thousand years ago.” Whitman presents these people as worthy of love and admiration by highlighting their differences, but uniting them and carving a place for each of them in his piece. As the poem progresses, Whitman not only hears these people, places, and things, but he sees them, and even becomes them, “I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them / I am a real Parisian”. He continues to name as many ethnicities and professions as he can, concluding his song with a loud, positive message, “Health to you! Good will to you all—from me and America sent / For we acknowledge you all and each.”
By supporting his brothers and sisters across the seas, and not only appreciating them but recognizing that he is in fact a part of them, Whitman is finding himself amongst some of the most popular philosophies in India.
Whitman brings back his belief that his spirit and soul is detached from his body, a refrain found in “Passage to India” and “Song of Myself”. This theme is found in the the Samkhya school of thought, that states that when the former body has perished, the latter migrates to another temporal body. Whitman shows that he too has found this truth, “My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole Earth…I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.”
Whitman also introduces an idea of equality, ideals found in some of the sutras in Buddhism. In the “Lotus Sutra”, the key message is that Buddhahood, the supreme state of life characterized by boundless compassion, wisdom and courage, is inherent within every person without distinction of gender, ethnicity, social standing or intellectual ability, a mindset that is surely found in Whitman’s “Salut au Monde”.
Whitman’s outlook in this poem can be considered pantheistic; pantheism being a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe. In The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore (1918) , Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan discusses the philosophies of Sir Tagore, who shows that there is neither East nor West in the realm of spirit. Whitman clearly agrees with this sentiment, writing, “I have looked for equals and lovers, and found them ready for me in all lands.” In an article from ThoughtCo., the author describes Whitman’s desire for equality and global acceptance, “In accepting the prostitute and murderer along with the deformed, trivial, flat, and despised, Whitman is trying to accept all of America (accepting the ultra-religious, along with the godless and un-religious). Religion becomes a poetic device, subject to his artistic hand.”
It has long been known that Whitman is considered “The American Poet of Democracy.” His message throughout this poem certainly proves his name. “Salut au Monde” reinforces the strictly American ideal that everyone is welcome, everyone is equal, and everyone is loved. Differences are beautiful, the spirit is in all of us, and the sun shines on all people, regardless of race, gender, age, or profession. Whitman writes, “Each of us limitless, each of us with his or her right upon the Earth…as divinely as any is here.” Whitman’s words and beliefs are real and true; they are important and refreshing to hear.
Salut au Monde!
What cities the light or warmth penetrates, I pen-
etrate those cities myself,
All islands to which birds wing their way, I wing my
I raise high the perpendicular hand—I make the
To remain after me in sight forever,
For all the haunts and homes of men.
– Walt Whitman, “Salut Au Monde”, Leaves of Grass
Whitman, Walt [unsigned in original]. “Walt Whitman, The American Poet of Democracy.” November 1869. The Walt Whitman Archive.
Werner, Karel (1998). Yoga And Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 170. ISBN 978-81-208-1609-1.