The essence of spirituality and Hinduism is synthesized in the poem Brahma by the American philosopher, writer and poet Emerson. This poem touches on essential themes of metaphysics and spirituality while simultaneously being applicable to our daily lives.
Brahma was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a spiritual and intellectual giant of American history. In this 16- line poem we are able to explore significant foundations of Eastern and Western philosophy. Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott, were among the first in America to explore the crown jewels of Indian philosophy: the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. The Bhagavad-Gita dates back to before the time of Christ, and recounts the conversation between the spiritual teacher Krishna and his heroic disciple Arjuna on the battle field of Kurushetra in ancient India. The Upanishads may well predate ancient Egypt and weave spiritual lessons into timeless stories including the tale of Nachiketas journeying into the realm of death to atone for the sins of his father. In Nachiketas discussion with Yama, the Lord of Death, the mysteries of life and death are revealed.
These two source writings can provide a lifetime of inspiration. Swami Vivekananda, one of the first Indian yogis to come to America, first speaking at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, carried with him two books from India. One was the Bhagavad-Gita.
Take a slow read through the poem written by Emerson in 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War, and then we will explore the main themes and see how we can apply them to our lives.
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
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
I will take one stanza at a time in order to unravel the depth and beauty of this poem.
First Stanza: The Eternal Nature of the Soul
The poem speaks in the first person. It is the voice of one who has reached the pinnacle of spiritual illumination. The insights echo first hand experiences of illumined saints and sages from all traditions while the imagery and framework are from Hinduism. It is also the voice of Brahma, who in the Hindu religion is the ultimate God. Hinduism has many gods, just as the Bible has many saints and angels and archangels; but the supreme God in Christianity is the Father and in Hinduism the word used is Brahma.
The red slayer can represent anyone who kills and the message of the first stanza is that death is not the end of existence. Most people live in constant fear of growing old and death. We fear pain and the idea of non-existence. Our society pushes death away from our eyes while glorifying youth. Death is a transition to a more subtle realm and from the careful observation of the death process we can learn so much. The red slayer is also symbolic of Kali the Hindu goddess of death and transformation. She is often portrayed carrying a sword with blood dripping from it; hence the red-slayer.
Emerson approaches the immortality of the soul both from the vantage point of he who thinks he can destroy others: the red slayer, and the vantage point of she who fears death. The “subtle ways” referred to is the subtle existence of the soul, which is hidden from the view of most people because their minds are bounded by material objects.
Second Stanza: Non-Duality
The second stanza is from the same point of view but this stanza reflects the viewpoint of one who has transcended duality. The four dualistic conceptions that no longer affect the speaker are far/ near; remembered/ forgotten; shadow/ sunlight; vanished / appearing; and shame / fame.
Dualistic thinking emerges from undifferentiated consciousness. Through meditation and deep prayer one can enter the realm of pure consciousness. In that state there is no duality; hence fame and shame are the same.
Think of a glass of water. The water is one entity. If you shake the glass there will be waves and water will splash, that is the moment of duality. If you see only the splashes you will think of the water as separate units but if you know the source you will know that ultimately all the water is one. It is the same with shame and fame. They appear different yet at a deeper level they are both the same: human experience from which we grow.
The second stanza points to the idea that ultimately the differences we observe in ourselves and the world dissolve as we begin to understand that our mind itself is the creator of what we perceive and the differences we observe.
The same principle applies the physical world: that which was lost can become found and that which was near can become far. What is far from one person can be near to another. Hence reality depends on our vantage point and how we relate to our vantage point is determined by our minds, not by any external control system.
Third Stanza: All is God
These four lines speak to the idea that all activity, efforts and results are ultimately the same energy. I am reminded of the story of a man who had been though a troubled time and he looked back upon his journey and saw his footsteps in the sand and thought, “Why did God leave me all alone in this time of trail.” God’s voice answered back, “Those are my footstep, I carried you through the challenges.”
Hopefully we get daily inspiration to read, exercise, pray and do other things that give us joy. We think it is us who need to create the inspiration. The poem says that ultimately all comes from the Source. There is no difference between the seeker, the prayer offered and the God who hears it. The poem says, “I am the doubter and the doubt.” Normally we think of ourselves as separate from our thoughts and our thoughts separate from the world. This stanza says that ultimately all is one and that the Ultimate energy is in the each aspect of our devotion and aspiration: “And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.” Brahmins are the priestly class in Indian society.
Fourth Stanza: The Meek Shall Inherit the World
The final stanza proclaims the majesty of the “meek lover of the good.” Brahma says that many long to enter the ultimate realm of existence but that it is the individual who is meek and loves goodness that will be able to enter the realm of the truly sacred. This echoes Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount.
Notice the last line, “Find me and turn your back on heaven.” The insight here is that heaven is a conception in our minds, a thought based dream, a hope, that we carry with us. In experiencing the realm of Brahma the seeker goes beyond the world of thought and has the direct experience of the Ultimate Reality. At that time one goes beyond ideas and conceptions and hence can “turn your back on heaven,” and instead be in the Ultimate.
It is important to note that Emerson was not writing from a theoretical or solely scholarly vantage point. In his essay Nature Emerson recounts a mystical experience that he has while walking through the woods on afternoon: his third eye, the mind’s eye of internal vision, opens up and he describes the experience of being able to see in all directions, and to see the cosmos spinning.
He wrote: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
This transcendental experience is open to each one of us. It only requires that we spend time contemplating the meaning and significance of our lives. Prayer, meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices can accelerate our ability to access this level of awareness.
*Read our other collections of articles on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: