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John Donne's 'No Man is an Island'

From the Perspective of the Upanishads

What has John Donne’s celebrated prose-poem ‘No Man is an Island’ got to do with the highest wisdom of Hindu spirituality as contained in the Upanishads? Perhaps a significant lot, it may appear.

Donne, an Anglican priest who served as the Dean of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral in the latter half of the sixteenth century, may not have heard of the Upanishads, let alone read any of them. But when he wrote his Devotions, as part of a series of discourses, his mind could have been influenced by some universally relevant concepts that had received the highest, distilled expression in the Upanishads.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;....

said Donne suggesting that man is not a distinct, individual entity, but a connected, inter-related part of the entire humanity. Just a tiny cog in the giant wheel of the universe. Further elucidating his point he said:

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

What Donne says so eloquently on man and humanity is strikingly similar in concept to the Jivatma-Paramatma link that the Upanishads expound while exploring the interplay between the physical and the spiritual worlds.

The best expression of this link may be found in the Chandogya Upanishad, which, among other things, propounded the Mahavakya Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art that), repeated oftentimes in its chapters, relating to the Jivatma-Paramatma interplay. In Verse 6, the Chandogya Upanishad states that all Selfs are interconnected and One. The inmost essence of all beings is the same. The whole world, according to it, is One Truth, One Reality, One Self.

The same expression may be found in many other Upanishads as well, like the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad which says Aham Brahm Asmi (I am Brahman, or I am Divine). In Mandukya Upanishad we find the concept Ayam Atma Brahma which means the Self or Atman is Brahma. All of them seek to link the individual Self of man to the Universal Self or Brahma.

It was in the course of a serious and prolonged illness that Donne, a Catholic convert to Anglicanism, started a daily note of his observations on his illness, his meditations and his prayers. Later arranged in 23 groupings of prose writings, the notes were published in 1624 as Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in My Sickness.’ ‘No Man is an Island’ appears in the 17th section of the book.

The notes follow the same pattern every day, beginning with a description of the illness or treatment, slowly expanding the theme to spiritual and esoteric concepts, culminating in his feeling that he is coming closer to God. The best of his discourses, undoubtedly, is his 17th meditative piece, ‘No Man is an Island.’

Devotions drew mixed reaction from literary critics, some finding it too introspective, too metaphysical, too much overloaded with learning of different kinds. Some find in Donne an "anxious and restless mind". Some even find in the book elements of political rhetoric or political advice. But all are uniform in their opinion that the piece ‘No Man is an Island’ highlights Donne's recognition of “the ultimate interconnectedness of humanity.”

In this aspect, unknown to him perhaps, Donne is in tune with what the Upanishads say: About the interconnectivity of the Self and Super-Self, the latter variously called Brahman, Vishnu, Supreme Self, Super Consciousness or Paramatma, that formless, shapeless entity that envelops the whole world, sustaining it.

No doubt the erudite and greatly esoteric interpretations of these aspects given by the great seers are really too difficult for the common man to grasp, The best way to understand these universal concepts, therefore, is to go in for a mundane, commonsensical approach to the Self and Super-Self interplay. It is the empiric realisation that what envelops the world like a protective sheath, nurturing and sustaining life, being both cause and effect, is nothing but the atmospheric air containing vital elements such as oxygen, so essential for humanity. This air (which also produces water by the covalent bonding of oxygen and hydrogen molecules) sustains life in all its forms, humans, animals, plant life. And every living being that breathes is perennially connected to it from first breath to the last. Life fizzles out once the individual connection to that great atmospheric reservoir is snapped.

So, when Donne says ‘No Man is an Island,’ is he not unknowingly echoeing what the ancient Upanishads said? That No Man is Him-Self, as he is perennially connected to the Supreme Self. Supreme Self, that shapeless, formless entity that envelops the entire world.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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Views: 3731      Comments: 5

Comment Govindan Kutty's question is whether it is possible to look at it from a Marxian perspective. I doubt if I am competent to do that. It will be good if Govindan Kutty throws more light on what K Damodaran had put forward in his thesis.

What I have sought to explain is that spirituality in a religious sense need not come into play at all in understanding the relationship between the individual Self and what is called the Universal Self or Paramatma, which, in a practical sense, is nothing but the oxygen-rich atmospheric air that envelops the world. Without that air, which also produces water through covalent bonding of oxygen and hydrogen molecules, there will be no life anywhere in the world. Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Jews, and people following all other faiths, all of them breathe in from the same source of air, day in and day out. There is no religious, regional, political or other differences in the air we breathe. It is the same life force to which all the people of all the world are perennially connected.

While it is such a great unifying force, the people who draw sustenance from it prefer to wage their own destructive sectarian battles and religious skirmishes.

All said and done, I feel that if there is a God up in the sky, it can only be the life giving air that covers the entire world.

P Ravindran Nayar
08-May-2022 06:24 AM

Comment I am thankful to Geetha Nair for drawing attention to The Over-soul concept promoted by Emerson. There is obviously much in common between that and what the Upanishads said about Paramatma.

P Ravindran Nayar
08-May-2022 05:32 AM

a useful comparative study. is it possible to look at donne from the marxist perspective? i remember hearing com k damodaran talk about jivatma and paramatma in terms of the individual and the society?

K Govindan Kutty
07-May-2022 23:37 PM

Comment Would you look at it from the Marxist perspective?

Govindan kutty
07-May-2022 21:28 PM

Comment If Donne arrived at something similar unintentionally, there was a group of thinkers /writers who borrowed the concept of the Paramatma consciously. The Oversoul that the American Transcendentalists popularized closely resembles the Paramatma concept that the writer has set forth here.

Geetha Nair
07-May-2022 15:31 PM

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