Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Influence of the Bhagavad Gita on T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

Abstract: T S Eliot had an acute interest in faith and divinity. Like many artists and writers, he had expressed the mysteries of faith in a more converse and beautiful way through his poems. ‘The Four Quartets’ is one of the masterpieces of Eliot, which presents the best of Eliot in both form and content. This paper presents how Eliot has used the thoughts of the Bhagavad Gita in the ‘Four Quartets’. This paper, taking the verses of the Bhagavad Gita, tries to compare them with the lines of Four Quartets. Even Eliot himself accepts that he was greatly influenced by the Indian philosophy and mysticism—mostly by the Bhagavad Gita.

Published in The Icfai University Journal of American Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3 and 4, August and November 2009.


If we learn to read poetry properly, the poet never persuades us to believe anything…What we learn from Dante, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or any other religious poetry is what it feels like to believe that religion.

---T S Eliot, Address at Concord Academy, 1947

Philosophy is difficult unless we discipline our minds for it; the full appreciation of poetry is difficult for those who have not trained their sensibility by years of attentive reading. But devotional reading is the most difficult of all, because it requires an application, not only of the mind, not only of the sensibility, but of the whole thing.

----T S Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was one of the most influential modern poets, dramatist and literary critic, who was awarded with Noble Prize for literature in 1948. He is better known for his poem ‘The Waste Land’, but he considered ‘Four Quartets’ his masterpiece. Besides Dante, Shakespeare, The Bible and other Christian mystics, Eliot was also greatly influenced by the Indian Philosophy and mysticism---mostly by The Bhagavad Gita, which is universally acknowledged as one of the world's literary and spiritual masterpieces. His thorough knowledge of The Bhagavad Gita is clearly evidenced by his statement that, “the next great philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy with my experience”.

‘The Four Quartets’ is the most perfect piece of poetry ever written in Eliot’s whole literary career, which presents the best of Eliot in both form and thought. It is a collection of four poems---Burnt Norton, East Coker, Dry Salvages and Little Gidding---which represent the separate elements of thought and time, eternity, action, inaction, attachment and detachment, for a philosophical solution to the immediate problems of both emotion and intellect.

A Hindu thought, as expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, becomes the central theme of the poem as Eliot’s need of finding solace through Vedic metaphysics. George Williamson informs that the basic idea contained in the Four Quartets is seen “analogous in both Christian and Hindu thought, in St. John of the Cross, or the Bhagavad Gita” (Williamson, 1970). In fact, the Bhagavad Gita has largely been followed in both its form and content in the ‘Four Quartets’. The Gita, which presents the very essence of Vedanta, recommends total surrender to God as the means to win his grace. Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to follow the path of total self-surrender for winning his grace if he finds the path of knowledge and action difficult, as repeatedly bestows the hope of his grace on one who seeks refuge in him with all his being:

Sarva-dharman parityajya

Mam akam saranam vraja

Aham tvam sarva papebhya

Moksayisyami ma sucah (Bhagavad Gita, XVIII, 66)

(Give up then thy earthly duties, surrender thyself to Me only. Do not be anxious; I will absolve thee from all thy sin.)


Tam eva saranam gaccha

Sarva-bhavena bharata

Tat-peasadat param santim

Sthanam prapsyasi sasvatam (Bhagavad Gita, XVIII, 62)

(With all thy strength, fly unto Him and surrender thyself, and by His grace shalt thou attain Supreme Peace and reach the Eternal Home.)

These words strike a significance parallelism with the words of Jesus: “Come unto me, I will give you rest.” Obviously, Eliot’s repeated emphasis on humanity and prayer in the ‘Four Quartets’ is common to both Christianity and Hinduism, and the efficaciousness of human effort is to be found as much in the form of total surrender and devotion to God as in that of perfect knowledge and detached action (Srivastava, 1977).

The text of the ‘Four Quartets’ is spread over into four sections, that is the Burnt Norton, the East Coker, the Dry Salvages and the Little Gidding. The Bhagavad Gita consists of four yogas, such as, the Dhyanyoga, the Jnanayoga, the Karmayoga and the Bhaktiyoga channelizing the knowledge of self-perfection, and also the release of the soul to its ultimate goal. The all four yogas, disseminating the theories of right action, meditation, wisdom and devotion, have been followed by Eliot in the four chapters of the ‘Four Quartets’, in a perfect bond for the search of the Ultimate Truth, moksa,--redemption and an inter-linked approach to salvation (Dangwal, 1999).

Eliot’s anxiety of a lost identity, awe, anger and dullness created the atmosphere to write the ‘Four Quartets’. Particularly, Lord Krishna’s gospel of the action and inaction theory of the Bhagavad Gita revives courage in Eliot to counter act his own passive inactivity. Lord Krishna sermonizes Arjuna to dispel his passive inactivity as:


Ma phalesu kadachana

ma karma phala hetur bhu

ma te sango’stv akarmani (The Bhagavad-Gita, II, 47)

(To work alone you have the right but never claim its results. Let not the results of action be your motive. Nor be attached to inaction)

Expecting a result from the action you have done is the first hurdle in the way to moksa, so that the human being remains in perennial suffering. The karma theory aims at awakening Arjuna from his slumber of dullness and inactivity, which Eliot best imitates as a thought imbibing relief of his own attachment, and also inactive self, when Eliot conveys:

But perhaps neither gain nor loss,

For us, there is only the trying,

The rest is not our business. (East Coker, V)

From these lines, it seems that Eliot has followed a gospel told by the Lord even better then Arjuna in a most human and the psychological world (Dangwal, 1999). The lines, “And do not think of the fruit of action” (The Dry Salvage), also impart the whole discourse of the Bhagavad Gita in to the main framework of the poem.

Burnt Norton

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita is seen from the beginning lines of the Burnt Norton, the first section of the ‘Four Quartets’:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable. (Burnt Norton I)

These lines demonstrate Eliot's grasp of time, its spiritual significance, and its philosophically exasperating nature which the poet contemplates in the line: "time is eternally present," an assertion that lends to time both relative and absolute properties while combining its various, fluctuating forms----the past forever disappearing, the future forever being born, and the present forever being renewed into a single moment. Pointedly juxtaposing time and eternity, Eliot calls attention to the close relationship between them. By merging past, present, and future, he creates the eternal present, absolute and relative, never changing and always fleeting, captured in time like the lovers on Keats' urn for future unborn generations (Fairchild, 1999). These lines find a relation to Lord Krishna’s revelation of the idea of ‘timelessness’ to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. He speaks:

Na to evaham jatu nasam tvam neme janadhipah

Na caiva na bhavisyamah sarva vayam atah param. (The Bhagavad Gita, II, 12)

(In Fact. there was never a time when I was not or when you or these kings were not. Nor is it a fact that hereafter we shall all cease to be.)

And again,

Sarganam adir antas ca madhyam caivaham arjuna

Adhyatma vidya vidyanam vadah pravadatam aham. (The Bhagavad Gita,X, 32)

(Oh Arjuna, I am the beginning and the middle and the end of all creations. Of science, I am the science of all the soul, or metaphysics; in disputant, I am the right type of reasoning.)

There is another stanza of analogous concept, which describes the influence of Gita in the poem:

Not that only, but the co-existence

Or say that the end precedes the beginning

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end,

And all is always now. (Burnt Norton, V)

As Lord Krishna confirms his conviction that ‘time is timeless’ and so it can be free of all past, present and future, Eliot follows the same in its full content, affirming that there is neither past nor future, but only present. It has been conceptuated that the universe is in a continual flux of change, limited in its simple form of happening.

The ‘Still Point’ appearing in the ‘Four Quartets’ has a great concern to Eliot’s philosophical as well as literary expressions. Eliot has interpreted ‘still point’ as a stage between death and rebirth. It has been presented as a stage capable of the real mode of salvation. Eliot writes:

At the still point of the turning world

Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point,

there the dance is. (Burnt Norton, II)

Here, the image of ‘neither flesh, nor fleshless’ and ‘neither from nor towards’ describes the state of self-realization, a state for the mode of salvation. As McCarthy (1952) regards, the still point is “both temporary and eternal, in time and out of time”, and points out “the state of spiritual peace and release from desire, action and suffering.” The image of the dance echoes the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, a state free from ‘the practical desires’.

East Coker

The second chapter of the ‘Four Quartets’, the East Coker, which represents the element ‘earth’, is a philosophical presentation of the Vedic cycle of births and deaths. The expressions, “In the beginning is my end” followed by “In my end is my beginning” explain a system of births and deaths as described in the Bhagavad Gita. Death renews life and a life reborn is bound to die. Death is the metaphysical reality that alone makes birth possible. Lord Krishna tells that the mortal body is like the clothes which are thrown away for exchanging the new:

Vasamsi jirnaniyatha vihaya

Navani grhnati nara parani

Tatha sarirani vihaya jirnany

Anyani samyati navani dehi. (The Bhagavad-Gita, II, 22)

(Just as a person gives up worn out clothes and puts on the other new ones, even so does the embodied self give up decrepit bodies and enter other new ones.)

The same way, Eliot represents in the third section of ‘the East Coker’ that ultimate destination of a being is to ‘go into the dark’:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,

The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed. (East Coker, III)

Dry Salvages

The most direct reference to the Bhagavad Gita occurs in the opening lines of the third section of ‘The Dry Salvages’, where the poet says:

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant-

Among other things - or one way of putting the same thing.

This reference to Lord Krishna reinforces the idea of timeless reality, i.e., “time, the destroyer is time, the preserver”. This section is built on a contrast between the ‘river of life’ and the ‘sea of life’. Here, the river symbolizes the journey of the jeeva (living creature) flowing from birth to death. The river and the sea denote the allegory of life-cycle, “the drop of water lifted as a vapor from the sea, consigned as rain upon the Himalayas, and carried again seaward by the Ganges”. Eliot writes in the Dry Salvages, “The river is within us, the sea is all about us”. Here the river symbolizes change and the sea symbolizes the permanence. The sea symbol in which the life-river of an individual shall submerge, finds origin of the Dry Salvages in the Bhagavad Gita, in the lines:

Apuryamanam acala-pratistham

Samudram apah pravisanti yadvat

tadvat kama yam pravisanti sarva

Sa santim apnoti na kama-kami

“He attains peace into whom all sense---objects enter even as ‘rivers’ enter an ‘ocean’ which is unaffected though being ever filled, and not one who is desirous of enjoyments”. (The Bhagavad Gita, II, 70)

Even Arjuna uses these symbols to describe the ceaseless flow of temporal reality into the all-devouring mouth of endless eternity at the time of devise vision revealed to him by Lord Krishna:

Yatha nadinam bahava ‘mbu-vegah

Samudram evabhimnukta dravanti

Tatha tavani nara-loka-vira

Visanti vakrani abhivijvalanti (The Bhagvad Gita, XI, 28)

(Just as many currents of water from rivers flowing rapidly verily enter the ocean; similarly all these kings of the world are entering your fiery mouths from all directions.)

Evidently, the reference to Lord Krishna in the Dry Salvages reinforces the idea of the timeless reality both as eternal preserver and as destroyer. It also refers to the recurrent idea of the simultaneity of time or the unity of all time in eternity. Lord Krishna’s sermons ultimately precipitate in the text of the ‘Four Quartets’ in entirety of its thought-process. The Lord’s lines:

Jneyah sa nitya-saayasi

Ya na dvestina kanksati

Nindvandvo hi maha-baho

Sukham bandhat pramucyate (The Bhagavad Gita, V, 3)

(He who neither dislikes nor desires should be known as a perpetual renouncer of action; for O mighty---armed one, one who is free from the dual throng is easily freed from bondage.)

reflect in a recurrent idea in the concluding lines of the ‘Dry Salvages’:

And right action is freedom

From past and future also

For most of us, this is the aim. (The Dry Salvages)

Little Gidding

Eliot’s most profound poetic exploration of the Bhagavad Gita takes place in the ‘Little Gidding’, where the image of ‘fire’ becomes the dominant symbol. Here, the symbol ‘fire’ has been used in a strategic plan of Eliot’s philosophy. Eliot writes:

We only live, only suspire

Consumed by either fire or fire (Little Gidding)

According to the Hindu philosophy, ‘fire’ is a witness, a God to all kinds of rituals, including the birth, marriage, death, and the post-death ceremonies. Agni (Fire) is the purifying God, exempting the sins thereof. The Bhagavad-Gita speaks of two kinds of fire, i.e., the fire of desire, which consumes the human being, and the fire of knowledge, which elevates the human being to the super-sensible. Eliot advocated the knowledge of fire for the attainment of love of god. He writes:

The only hope, or else desire

Lies in the choice of pyre or pure

To be redeemed from fire by fire (Little Gidding)

The ‘Four Quartets’ is one of the most challenging works of T S Eliot, which consists of the possibilities of an impersonal theme attempted in view of his most personal experience. The Bhagavad-Gita has supplied him both the form and content; it has influenced Eliot’s poetic technique in whole of the ‘Four Quartets’. Eliot makes the best use of the sermons of Lord Krishna and their expressions in the quartets, making it a poetic equivalent of a symphony. Whether it is the concept of time or detachment or salvation, Eliot exterminated his romantic memories into a philosophical realization through the classical techniques imitated upon the sermons of the Bhagavad-Gita (Dangwal, 1999). Apart from the form and content, the Bhagavad-Gita has also provides a rare kind of source in finding philosophical solutions to the most psychological problems faced by the mankind.

The use of oriental ideas, particularly from the Bhagavad-Gita, in Eliot’s poetry raised a lot of controversy. Helen Gardner (1949) tells that the introduction of Lord Krishna in the Dry Salvages is “an error and destroys the poem’s imaginative harmony”. B Rajan (1947) believes that, “Eliot is never happy in the maze of Oriental metaphysics, and his wanderings this ‘time’ are uncomfortably sinuous”. Harvey Gross (1966) described the reference of Krishna in the ‘Four Quartets’ as “unilluminated metaphysics”. But, Kristian Smidt (1961) observed that Eliot “manages to reconcile Christianity and Hinduism without offending against either”. Raymond Preston (1946) says that Eliot is “interested in Heraclitus and the Bhagavad-Gita insofar as they reveal to him different ways of putting the same thing”. Whatever it may be, a close study of Eliot’s poem reveals the although his Christian orthodoxy prevents him from accepting completely the cardinal truth of the efficaciousness of human effort for union with Brahman, as Kristian Smidt (1961) has suggested, Eliot’s references to the idea of the Bhagavad-Gita are by no means halfhearted. Eliot’s firsthand and thorough knowledge of the Bhagavad-Gita is clearly evidenced by his statement, “the next great philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy with my experience”.


By 1942, Eliot was in an exile, a loneliness of selfhood. In spite of his loss and seclusion in personal life, he wanted to get satisfaction in life, which was not possible in his life style. The Bhagavad Gita entrusts him the better satisfaction with its metaphysical wisdom that any individual, wherever he may be, should depart to the divine abode, leaving his behavior, relations and all other attachments in this world. Eliot felt satisfied with the Vedic knowledge, particularly the Gita, which he read in his Harvard days. The Four Quartets is the result of Eliot’s need of finding solace through Vedic metaphysics, where the knowledge expressed in the Bhagavad Gita became the central theme of the Four Quartets.

The ‘Four Quartets’ is a unique example of Eliot’s reconciling the human ills to a supersensible state of a self-satiating realization. Eliot reconciles his psychological ills of personal memory through the mode of resignation and renunciation, as told by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita to Arjuna. The four successive parts of the ‘Four Quartets’ correspond to the four yogas thought by the Lord for attaining a perfect salvation from this temporal earth. ‘The Burnt Norton’, the first Quartet of the For Quartets describes ‘air’ and relates to meditation, i.e., the Dhyanyoga. ‘The East Coker’ uses the element ‘earth’ describing action, i.e., the Karmayoga. ‘The Dry Salvages’ deals with the element ‘water’ describing wisdom, i.e., the Jnanyoga. And finally, ‘The Little Giddings’ presents ‘fire’ as its symbol describing the devotion, i.e., the Bhaktiyoga. Eliot accepted the views of Lord Krishna and believes that depending on the action of the human being, either his/her soul takes another shape or gets the permanent abode. Obviously, Eliot is as much concerned with the search for a unified vision of reality as he is with a synthesis of culture and thought, and his synthesis imparts to the Four Quartets a universality of vision which seems to be the chief aim of the poet. Lord Krishna---the Still Center---is evidently, central to the structure of the ‘Four Quartets’.

Apart from the Four Quartets, Eliot has used the philosophical thoughts of the Bhagavad-Gita in his other poems like ‘The Waste Land’. The poem end with the repetition of three cardinal virtues---damyata (restraint), datta (charity) and dayadhvam (compassion)---and the blessings shantih shantih shantih that Eliot himself roughly translated as “the peace the passeth understanding”. One should practice these three things in his life time: self control, alms-giving and be compassionate. It is a clear evidence from this that it is the Bhagavad-Gita that made a more prominent imprint in Eliot’s mind.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata

Shantih shantih shantih (The Waste Land)


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11. The Bhagavad-Gita,

12. Williamson George (1970), Reader’s Guide to T S Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysts, p. 210Thames and Hudson, London

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