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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Number 14: Ralph Waldo Emerson "Brahma"


If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Hap Notes: Emerson (1803-1882) probably needs no introduction. Everybody had to at least be familiar with his essays "Self-Reliance" and "Nature" when I was in school although, admittedly not everyone understood them. You know, all that "to be great is to be misunderstood" stuff. Just between you and me, I have a collection of his journal entries which I find far more readable. I do love his odd poetry, too.

Emerson was large contributor to the Transcendentalist movement, which I suppose you already know. He knew some of the brightest people of the era, Thoreau, of course, but also John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, abolitionist John Brown, John Greenleaf Whitter and sculptor Daniel Chester French (the guy who later created the seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial) just to name a few. Emerson met Abe Lincoln, too, and was acquainted with Walt Whitman.

In the mid 1800s he started reading Vedic literature- the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. This poem is a direct outcropping of this reading as the speaker in the poem is the Hindu god, Brahma- the creator of the universe. The colorful picture above is Brahma (and if you are wondering if he had that many heads- yeah, he did if he wanted to.)

Brahma is telling us that he is everything and that things which appear to be opposite, stem from the same source and are part of the same thing. Brahma also tells us in the poem that other Hindu gods long to live in the spirit of Brahma as do the holy men of the past. Brahmin are priests who sing hymns to Brahma. Oh, if that "red slayer" thing is unfamiliar to you, I'll simplify and say that the warrior/military caste (Kshatriya) in India was often depicted as red (fury, aggression.)

Brahma speaks the last two lines directly to us- find your way to Brahma and you will be released from the need for heaven- you will understand you are already a part of eternity. Don't believe this? Brahma says, that's alright, I created your disbelief, too. In fact, he is you. You cannot win an argument with Brahma.

So what's the point of the poem? How about this; you'll never be happy until you discover that you are part of the fabric of the universe just like everything else. Then, you will truly be everything, immortal and free. Easy to say, hard to do.

Here's that famous Emerson quote (one of many): "Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

And here's another: "We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul."

You can find more of Emerson's poetry here:

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