Society & Lifestyle
|Literary Shelf||Share This Page|
John Donne's 'No Man is an Island'
|by P. Ravindran Nayar|
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.
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:
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|
|Top | Literary Shelf|
|Views: 256 Comments: 5|
Comments on this Article
P Ravindran Nayar
05/08/2022 06:24 AM
P Ravindran Nayar
05/08/2022 05:32 AM
K Govindan Kutty
05/07/2022 23:37 PM
05/07/2022 21:28 PM
05/07/2022 15:31 PM