Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

India's Encounter with the West:
Some Literary Perspectivetc "India's Encounter with the West\:
Some Literary Perspective"

Ramesh Chandra Shah*

There is no more absorbing story than that of the discovery and interpretation of India by Western consciousness. I refer above all to the various cultural adventures inspired by the growing revelation of Indian languages, myths and philosophies… This discovery of India is still in progress and nothing entitles us to suppose that it is nearing its end.1                – Mireea Eliade

Although India’s encounter with the West is a much older and longer story, we would like to concentrate on a comparatively recent and well – researched area – that of Romantic poetry. This fruitful interaction can be looked upon as the natural consummation of a process that began with the oriental renaissance. This second Renaissance, as Raymond Schwab in his famous work La Renaissance Orientale has put it, “combined India with the Middle Ages and thereby displaced the centuries of Augustus and Louis XIV. The job of this displacement was apportioned to the great capitals: Calcutta provided, London distributed, Paris filtered and generalized.”2 It was thus that the achievements of scholars like Duperron, Willion Jones, Charles Wilkins, Schlegal brothers, Colebrook and Burnouf brought before the Western people a number of discoveries in the learning and literature of India and vitalized the influx of the Romanticism that was then gaining ground.

Romanticism had welcomed the East as an influence benefiting both poetry and philosophy. What Max Mueller declared towards the end of the 19th Century is similar in spirit to the hope expressed by William Jones almost a century earlier, when English Romantic movement had hardly begun its career. “If I were to ask myself,” Max Mueller says, “from what literature we here in Europe, nurtured exclusively on the thoughts of the Greeks and Romans and of one Semitic race, the Jewish – may draw that corrective which is most wanted … I should point to India.”3 Let us compare this declaration of Max Mueller to what William Jones felt towards the end of the 18th Century: “I cannot but think our European poetry has subsisted too long on the perpetual repetition of the same images and incessant allusions to the same fables.”4 Max Mueller emphasized the need for the ‘corrective’ from India with respect to philosophy and religion while Jones looked for the same enrichment primarily in the field of European poetry. Let us remember that William Jones, the comparative philologist and mythologist had also made himself the first worthwhile Anglo-Indian poet. In fact, he established ‘a kind of tradition that Southey, Moore and Kipling were to follow after him.’5 His hymns to Camdeo (1784), to Narayan (1785), to Surya (1786), to Ganga, to Indra and other gods had stirred creative imagination in Europe as well as America.

John Holloway has convincingly shown how the metric of Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ is derived from Jones’s ‘Hymn to Narayan’ and also, how the figure of Love in ‘Prometheus Unbound’ resembles Camdeo, the Hindu Eros, celebrated in another hymn of Jones.6 Holloway has also noted not only ‘a similarity of rhythm, but also ‘a correspondence of fealings and ideas between Wordsworth’s ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality and Jones’s beautiful ‘Hymn to Narayan.’ This poem of Jones’s presents the spirit of god as moving on the waters of existence, celebrating the creation of the world and recognising the created world both as a constant joyous embodiment and also as a mere reflection of god. One understands why this scholar-poet emphasized ‘the extra-emotional dimension’ of the Hindus. In his hymn to Surya, he makes a direct allusion to himself:

He came and lisping our celestial tongue

Though not from Brahma sprung

Draws orient knowledge from its fountains pure

Through caves obstructed long and paths too long obscure.7

More than a century later, T.S. Eliot, felt a similar longing ‘to draw orient knowledge from its fountains pure’. In his radio talk of 1946 on the ‘Unity of European Culture. Eliot recalled: “Long ago I studied the ancient Indian languages and while I was chiefly interested at that time in philosophy, I read poetry too; and I know that my own poetry shows the influence of Indian thought and sensibility.8 So far as the influence of ‘thought’ or philosophy is concerned, one wonders whether Eliot was really luckier with his scholarly teachers than his senior contemporary W.B. Yeats (who had received no academic training in philosophy) was with his two gurus – Mohini Chatterjee and Purohit Swami who were certainly much better representatives of Indian thought and sensibility. Both J.H. Woods and C.R. Lanman have been taken to task by Ananda Coomarswamy for their scholarly pretensions. Let me quote a couple of these critical castigations here:-

- I -

It is hardly possible for the Western scholar to realise that the very terms applied by themselves to Vedic texts (puerile, arid and inane, said of the Brahmanas by Lanman in his famous Sanskrit Reader, p. 357) are precisely those in which their own exegetical productions are evaluated by the most competent Indian scholars who are either too polite to say what they think or politic enough to play the game of Western Scholarship by way of condescension to the secular susceptibilities of the present day and age.9 

- II -

When Blake speaks of a marriage of Heaven and Hell, there is indeed more of the Vedas than can be found in learned disquisitions on their philosophy. What right have Sanskritists to confine their labours to the solution of linguistic problems? Is it fear that precludes their wrestling with the ideology of the texts they undertake?10

The ‘fear that Coomarswamy speaks of here can be seen to have infected not only Eliot’s Sanskrit teachers but his own mind as well. In 1933, Eliot delivered a lecture at the University of Virginia, in which he chose to record his experience of that encounter thus:

“Two years spent in the study of Sanskrit under Lanman and a year in the mazes of Patanjali’s metaphysics under Woods, left me in a state of enlightened mystification. A good half of the effort of understanding what the Indian philosophers were after – and their subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys – lay in trying to erase from my mind all the categories and kinds of distinction common to European philosophy. And I came to the conclusion that my only hope of really penetrating to the heart of that mystery would lie in forgetting how to think and feel as an American or a European; which for practical as well as sentimental reasons I did not wish to do.”

This statement implies a kind of disassociation which exists in Eliot’s approach to Indian thought. By the way, we can discern a double pattern in the history of this literary philosophical encounter right upto the 20th century: creative encounter with India being felt as enrichment and useful persistence on the one hand and diminishment and worrying presence on the other. Let us briefly look into this matter.

There is no doubt that when the British first went into India, they exhibited a serious concern in its culture. But throughout the latter part of the 19th Century, one can observe a growing alienation from the Hindu Culture. John Holloway has quoted a line from Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ to demonstrate how “it reveals the link between this unsympathetic attitude to the East and the work and attitude of the missionaries, who emphatically repudiated the indigenous religion as simply the work of Satan.”11 This self-righteous strain in the attitude of the European mind towards Hinduism had in fact already been reflected in ‘the Curse of Kehama’. In the preface to this poem, Robert Southey says, “In the religion of the Hindus, which of all false religions is the most monstrous in its fables, no figures can be imagined more anti-picturesque and less poetical than the mythological personage of the Brahmins”.

This is an aspect of the British image of India which is almost contemporary with the other aspect, which we observed in the example of William Jones. On the one hand there are orientalists like Jones and Raymond Schwab, who look upon the Indian influence in Romantic literature as enrichment. On the other hand, there are scholars and poets who take a negative view of the same. This double pattern persists right upto the present day. Ezra Pound, a major modern poet and friend of both Yeats and Eliot once chose to express himself thus: “I loathe and always have loathed Indian art … obnubilated short curves, muddle, jungle etc. We find the hingoddamdo is a bloody and voracious usurer. Maybe Gandhi isn’t, but nobody else has been to see him. From what you told me, I can see separate villages, life as of herd of wild animals in Africa: no main structure to the country, nothing to satisfy European sense of the state.”12

William Jones had made his discovery of the old Indian humanism with his translations of ‘Hitopadesh’ as well as Kalidasa’s ‘Œakuntala’. The latter aroused more excitement in Europe than any previous oriental translation except Arabian Nights, and as Cannon has remarked, “in those fateful days of French Revolution, it was an important topic of conversation in Europe”. Now William Blake, whom we have already met in Coomarswamy’s statement, and who, like Jones, was a champion of this Revolution, does not seem to have read these secular books of Jones, but there is some evidence of his having read Alexander Dow’s History of Hindoostan and, also, Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagvadgita. Charles Wilkins was the first Englishman really to master Sanskrit and he had done so before William Jones. His work impressed Blake so much that he dedicated No. 10 of his ‘Descriptive Catalogue’ to it: ‘The subject is Mr. Wilkins translating The Gita; an ideal design suggested by the first publication of that part of the Hindu scripture translated by Mr. Wilkins.”13

Yeats, the earliest editor of Blake must have recognized those passages in Blake’s works, which prove his acquaintance with Hindu thought. Scholars have already pointed out that the Hindu myth describing the universe as a yarn spun by a giant spider appears in Blake’s First Book of Urizen, and again twice in The Four Zoas. Dow’s History of Hindoostan describes a Hindu Creation myth from the ‘Bedang Shastra’ and Blake knew it well. The Bedangshastra drawn upon by Dow, is actually “Srimadbhagavat” which bears a close affinity to Vishnu Purana, where sage Parashar tells his disciple Maitreya about succession of poet-sages born from age to age to deliver the perenial wisdom of the Vedas to mankind. This poet-sage is identified as Vishnu himself. According to Coomarswamy, this concept of god as the supreme poet or artist is paralleled in European tradition in the thought of Meister Eckhart, whose nearest and closest descendant is William Blake himself. Blake also habitually thinks of the divine attributes in terms of Art.

Vishnu Purana, because of its considerable vogue in America, must have attracted Eliot’s interest also. Of the two Indian books which Emerson read often, one was Wilkins’s translation of the Gita, and another this Vishnu Purana, translated by the famous orientalist H.H. Wilson in 1840. Walt Whitman also, in his Chanting the Square Deific was influenced by certain passages in Vishnu-Purana.14 This Purana describes three manifestations of the one Absolute, each possessing fourfold powers – which can be compared to Blake’s three states of Eden, Ulro and Beulah and his own concept of the fourfold being embodied in Tharmas, Luvah, Urizen and Urthona. Time is mentioned as a constant element of the fourfold powers of god as Becoming. That reminds us of Eliot’s “Time the destroyer is also time, the preserver” in ‘Dry Salvages’, which precedes the section about “what Krishna meant.”              

Eliot has criticized the ‘lower mythology’ of poets like Blake and Yeats. Eliot himself was perhaps better acquainted with the higher mythology of Hinduism as presented in Vishnu Purana. Yeats’s imagination, however, is as much attuned to the so-called ‘lower mythology’ of Karma and Reincarnation as to the metaphysical equivalent of the higher mythology of the ‘Self’, described in the texts of Yogic philosophy and Vedantic mystical wisdom.

Yeats’s early picture of India was inescapably romantic and pastoral, but in course of time it became more realistic. Yeats met India through personalities in three successive waves marking the early, middle and the last phases of his life. The early period is marked by three poems on Indian themes, they are, “a witness to the spell of Hindu thought, cast over him by the Brahmin Mohini Chatterje.”15 Second encounter was with Tagore, which fortified him in his resolve to revive the spirit of Ireland and to give it a voice other than the raucous voice of polities. But the third and the most important Indian influence was that of Purohit Swamy, who not only gave him the much-needed support for building up his theories about the progress of the soul and the progress of civilization, but proved a catalytic agent in the crystallization of the ‘Supernatural Songs’ and ‘The Herne’s Egg’. It is Yeats who has made us aware not only of ‘the sinking flame’ of Indian tradition, but also of the creative potentialities inherent in a religion of the Self.

Eliot’s encounter with India is also one of extraordinary openness and even of intellectual vulnerability in the beginning. His receptivity and sensitivity to the experience of reality, infact, appears to be more immediate and sharper than that of his great rival Yeats. But, ironically, his own mechanism of sensibility lost some of its flexibility in the course of his personal development. Stephen spender has rightly observed that “a Buddhist is as immanent as a Christian in The Waste Land. It was Eliot, who judged The Bhagavad-Gita to be truly a philosophical poem next only to Dante’s epic. Eliot had also felt his way into that notion of Infinity, which W. Jones had found omnipresent. The ‘Asiatic vague immensities’ of Yeats were, after all, not so vague to Eliot’s trained intellect, for he had really wrestled with them. But he recoiled from the deeper plunge that was imminent. He saw the need of saving his European soul – the soul which he sought to realize during a lifetime’s struggle through his vocation as a poet.

But, this European soul was not a matter of poetic conscience or of a European sense of form, as Eliot soon came to conclude. It was above all of a European sense of spirit. By the time Eliot came to set down his ‘Notes towards a definition of Culture’, he had made up his mind about India. It was not Western culture which was superior to Indian culture, it was not western philosophy which was superior to Indian philosophy. It was Europe’s religion – Christian theology with its dogma and doctrine of Original Sin and Incarnation etc. – that marked a real advance upon what India had achieved in the realm of spiritual knowledge. Hence it was imprudent on the part of Imperial Britain to seek to impose its culture on the natives of India. They should have offered their religion first, and culture only afterward. Historically speaking, Eliot was not with Macaulay, but with the orientalists; not with the earlier wave of orientalists like William Jones, nor with the middle one of men like H.H. Wilson – the translator of Vishnu Purana – but with that last wave, of which the crest was Max Mueller. Here, I would like to quote a passage from Max Mueller’s famous book of lectures – I point to India. Let us listen to what he says:-

In Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s translation of the Upanishads we can clearly see that in his view of the deity and of the relation between the human and the divine, he had never yielded an inch of his old Hindu conviction though his practical religion was saturated with Christian sentiments. The same mixture of Hindu thought and Christian sentiment can be seen in all the reformers. They could not surrender that ineradicable belief in the substantial identity of the eternal element in god and in man …My conviction is that great opportunities were lost then for planting Christianity on the old and fertile soil of India.18

So, the Western mind, after all, has not been as disinterested in its encounter with India, as one might suppose it to be. It is impossible to read this passage of Max Mueller and not to be reminded of that passage in Eliot’s Notes towards the definition of Culture, which we had just now referred to. One is also involuntarily reminded of that sentence in Eliot’s world-famous essay – ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’: “The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul.” It was not for nothing that Eliot had, in that essay, proposed to halt at the frontiers of metaphysics.

Yeats, on the other hand, did not halt at the frontiers of metaphysics. In fact, he was quite at home there, for he was a metaphysical poet in the truest sure of the term. Eliot who had a remarkable historical imagination, did not have the same range of metaphysical imagination as Yeats, though he shared with him his basic interest in Eastern thought.

Here it would be relevant to consider the views in this context of Albert Schweitzer, – missionary, doctor and philosopher, – who puts forward the thesis that Indian thought is predominantly world and life negation while European thought is predominantly world and life affirmation and that both are incomplete and undergoing change. According to him, “this change began simultaneously in both, about the middle of the 19th Century. In European thought the change consists in being unable to maintain the truth of the world – knowledge on which it had hitherto rested, and in having now to establish the world – view of ethical world and life affirmation by processes of thought that are absolutely conditioned by reality.”19 This observation, by the way, is very close to the standpoint adopted by Stephen Spender in his illuminating book on T.S. Eliot. The task before India, as Schweitzer observes further on the some page, is “to give up world and life negation and adjust itself to ethical world and life affirmation.”

What does Schweitzer mean by ‘adjustment’? Schweitzer himself has expressed his feeling that the development of Indian thought was determined by a secret conflict between world and life negation and world and life affirmation. He recognizes the contributions of The Gita as well as Tagore, Gandhi and Aurobindo towards a positive evolution in favour of world and life affirmation; but finds fault with each of them in turn on the ground that the real conflict has, somehow, yet to be faced. He does not seem to realize, however, the contribution of the West itself (in the blatantly unequal encounter) to this confusion and complication in the Indian mind and sensibility.

Just as the ‘extra emotional dimension’ (William Jones) was added to the orthodox Vedic world – view through the assimilation of the Gita and the Epics, an extra intellectual dimension was added to it through the assimilation of some of the speculative energy generated by Buddhism. This process, one thinks, was consolidated in the works of Sankaracharya. This towering 7th Century philosopher was called by some of his critics an implicit Buddhist (Prachchanna Bauddha). This is not entirely unwarranted, because Sankaric Monism (Mâyavâd) does lend to world – negation in a way that the original Upanishadic Vedanta doesn’t. Perhaps that is why Sri Aurobindo has called it “The Refusal of the Ascetic”.20 This was the secret transformation that Buddhism had wrought in orthodox Hinduism. But, such an assimilation of Buddhist elements would not have been possible without an inherent openness at the heart – centre of that orthodoxy and without something congenial to the older tradition inside Buddhism itself. As Colin Wilson has very perceptively observed, “even Buddhism is not basically a negative religion, but an extremely positive religion. Its world – rejection is quite unlike the Christian renunciation”.21 Colin Wilson also recognizes that ‘grimly clinical attitude to existence implied in Buddha’s doctrine’, which T.S. Eliot had found so congenial while writing his masterpiece ‘The Waste Land’. But, he, then goes on to emphasize the next part of Buddha’s doctrine which exhorts us to widen our perception until we contemplate the whole world and suddenly know that happiness is wanting nothing. Thus man becomes an enormous mirror reflecting reality.” Now, it is precisely this achievement of a mirror – like quality through meditation that is urged upon us by the philosophy and praxis of Yoga also. But Yoga goes beyond even this state and is still more positive in its findings. That’s why it lends itself equally to the three ways of Knowledge, Devotion and Action, described in Gita,, which T.S. Eliot thought next only to Dante’s Divine Comedy. W.B. Yeats has rightly called this Yoga “the central experience of Indian civilization, that wherein all thought and all emotions expect their satisfaction and rest.”22

That’s why, Colin Wilson, while recognizing the positive thrust of Buddhism, in regard to mystical experience, has reached the conclusion that Hinduism is more positive still. “The essential drawback of Buddhism, according to him, is that “contemplation is closely bound up with desire …. Mind therefore, requires a more positive aim which Buddhism fails to supply. In contrast, Hinduism’s attitude to these mystical moments of insight is altogether more active.”23 This seems to me a valid point and in the light of this distinction, one is tempted to suggest, that of the two poets, it is Yeats rather than Eliot, who appears to be more attuned to this positive aim of Hinduism. Eliot, on the other hand, would appear to have responded more sensitively to the ‘clinical clarities’ of Buddhism, although in his ‘Four Quartets’, we find him invoking The Gita rather than the Buddha. But that’s hardly surprising. Infact Joseph Campbell has already drawn our attention to “the Susceptibility of Buddhist and Hindu mythologies to readings approximately Christian.”24 And, he himself has pointed out that, “advantage has been taken of this by T.S. Eliot in his ‘Four Quartets.”25

Lastly, it would be worthwhile here to invoke the testimony of Arnold Toynbee, the historian in this context. He is frank and forthright enough to accept the fact that “the difference in ethos between Hindu weltanschauung and the western weltanschauung was an outright antithesis.”26 Naturally, therefore, the effect of Western Imperialism on India was very different from what it was elsewhere. There was, as Toynbee says. “a far sharper tension here between a native spiritual force and an alien one.”27 The Russian intellectuals in comparable circumstances were enabled to find release from this tension through the gift of artistic expression, as Toynbee himself adds, implying that the Indian intelligentsia couldn’t avail of such a literary safety – valve because the gulf between India and Europe was incomparably greater than that between Russia and Europe ¯ Russia being very much a part of European Christendom.

We are not primarily concerned here with philosophy or ethics. We are concerned here only with a particular case of the way in which cultural and creative encounters take place through the medium of literature. Even a literary giant like Dostoevsky appears to think like Albert Schweitzer in his novel ‘The Possessed’. He arrives at the position that the Christian – non-Christian conflict is less important than the conflict between life-negation and life-affirmation. I would like to conclude this essay with a hint from Sri Aurobindo, which seems to me to comprehend the points made by Dostoevsky as well as Schweitzer, and, also, at the sametime, enables us to reach a further illumination. According to him, “In Europe and Asia, respectively, the negation of the materialist and the refusal of the ascetic have sought to assert themselves from time to time as the sole truth and to dominate the conception of life. In India, it has led to a great bankruptcy of life, in Europe in things of the spirit.”28 As we have seen above, the evidence for this great bankruptcy of life’ as well as a continued care for the ‘things of the spirit’ is available not only in the explorations of an Alexander Dow and a William Jones, but also in the words of such culturally cosmopolitan writers as T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats. But, as Sri Aurobindo himself has pointed out, “Human mind cannot rest satisfied in the barren contradictions of Spirit and Matter. It must always seek a complete affirmation and it can find this complete affirmation only by a luminous reconciliation.”29

 Isn’t that a befitting conclusion to this necessarily short and sketchy account of the encounter between India and the West on the literary level? I would like to add a post-script here: the recent launch – ceremony of the Global Foundation for Civilizational Harmony in New Delhi, which the present writer attended, appears to point towards precisely that ‘luminous reconciliation’ which Sri Aurobindo has underlined. Was it, after all, a mere coincidence that the initiative for such a venture had to come from India?


   1.  Eliade, Mircea, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Bollinger Sense LVI, Princeton 2nd ed. 1969); foreword.

   2.  Cited in Said, Edward, ‘Raymond Schwab and the Romance of Ideas’ (Daledalus, winter, 1976)

   3.  Mookerjee Nanda (Ed.), I point to India: Selected Writings of Max Mueller (1823-1900) (Bomb Shakuntala Printing House, 1970), p. 13.

   4.  Jones, William, ‘The Poetry of the Eastern Nations’, The Works of William Jones, Vol. X, p. 959.

   5.  Cannon Garland, Oriental Jones (ICCR, 1964), p. 136.

   6.  Holloway, John, Widening Horizons of English Verse (London, Routledge, 1966), p.79.

   7.  Cannon, p. 136.

   8.  Cited by Howarth, Herbert, in Notes on some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot (London, Chatto & Windus, 1965, p.11.

   9.  Coomarswamy, An Approach to the Vedas (London, Luzac, 1933) p. 101.

10.  Ibid, p. 102.

11.  Holloway, ibid, p.74.

12.  Paige, D.D.. (ed) The Lefters of Ezra Pounds (N.Y. Harcourt, 1950) p. 330.

13.  Cited by Holloway, n.7, p.70.

14.  See the article of Nambiar in M.K. Naik (ed) Indian Response to Poetry in English (Macmillan, 1970) p. 103.

15.  Stock, A.G., W.B. Yeats: this poetry and thought (Cambridge, 1964) p.11.

16.  Spender, ‘Remembering T.S. Eliot’, Encounter, April, 1965.

17.  Eliot, Notes towards a Definition of Culture (London, Faber, 1948) p.65.

18.  Nanda, n.3, p.89.

19. Schweitzer, Indian Thought and its development (London, Adams & Blake, 1956) p. 244.

20.  Aurobindo, Sri, The Life Divine, (Pondicherry, 1970) Book1, p.17.

21.  Wilson, Colin, Poetry and Mysticism (Hutchinson, London, 1970) p.30.

22.  Yeats’s introduction to Purohit Swamy’s translation of Aphorisms of Patanjali (Faber, 1973) p. 16.

23.  Wilson, n.31, pp. 30-1.

24.  Campbell, Joseph, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (London, Souvenir Press, 1974) Vol. IV, p. 109.

25.  Ibid.

26.  Toynbee, A story of History (London, O.U.P., 1954) Vol. VIII, pp. 205-06

27. Ibid, p.207 (f.n.)

28.  The Life Divine (6th Indian edition, 1970) p.9.

        29.           Ibid, p.7.



When the divine architect bored his father who

is supreme and fashioned the human form,

All the gods entered the mortal frame and

made it their home,

The evil gods and the good ones.

Theft, ignoble doings, sins, wickedness,

And truth, sacrifice, great glory,

Power, prowess, brilliance just as well

Came to reside in this human form.

Prosperity and calamity, the manifold hungers and thirsts,

Jealousies and loves, ayes and noes,

Faith and heresy,

Knowledge and ignorance,

Joys, pleasures, rejoicings and festivities rushed in just the same.

The sun appropriated the eye, the wind appropriated the breath.

The rest of the procession of divinities apportioned their lots in a similar wise.

Thus it is that the knower knows the body as the veritable Brahma.

The entire god-kind has resorted to it like unto the fold the kine.

                                                 Atharva-Veda 11. 8. 18-24, 30-32.
(Translated by Acharya Raghuvira)