Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9 No. 2
Poetry as Satyagrah: A Gandhian Reading of Les Murray's "Walking to the Cattle Place"
The present essay is an attempt to read Les Murray’s important poem “Walking to the Cattle Place” through Gandhi’s vision of art, action and aesthetics. It is important to note that, in the Gandhian world-view, human life as well as art, if it has to meaningfully contribute to the greatest good of all (sarvodaya), should represent or address truth (satyam), the lok-sangraha ( the public good) and sundaram (the beautiful)-which are mutually inseparable values, existing in a creative continuum or samavaya. Similarly, satyagrah as holding on to truth-force, in the Gandhian world-view, enables an individual (a political activist or a writer/ artist alike) to non-violently resist injustice, exploitation, inequality and violence prevailing in a society at a particular time.
To a writer, her/his text becomes the means or the site where her quest for truth (satya), swaraj (self-rule - both political meaning freedom and spiritual meaning self-knowledge or atma-bodh) and concerns for the universal welfare (shivam or sarvodaya) are aesthetically represented leading to the aesthetic experience (rasa) of the beautiful (sundaram) and bliss (ananda). It is in this sense the very process of writing poetry/literature is a satyagrah or an embodiment of truth-force – which enables a writer not only to represent her/his protest against the prevailing injustice and infliction of violence but also to aesthetically reconstruct an alternative space or reality where the writer as well as the reader
become one — sharing an indescribable (anirvachaniya) aesthetic experience (rasa) or ananda (bliss).
Les Murray is an eminent contemporary Australian writer/poet whose poetry may well be considered as a perpetual quest for truth or satyagrah in the context of increasing injustice, materialism, spiritual emptiness, violence and exploitation in contemporary Australia in particular and in the world at large in general.
Leslie Allan Murray was born in 1938 in the Manning River district of
the lower north coast of New South Wales. He spent his childhood and adolescence
on his grandfather’s family farm in the nearby Bunyah district where he still
lives. He studied at Sydney University and later became a translator at the
Australian National University and an officer in the Prime Minister’s
Department. After 1971, he made literature his full-time career. His important
books of poetry include – The Ilex Tree (1965), Poems Against
Economics (1972), The Vernacular Republic (1976), Lunch and
Counter lunch (1975), The Boy Who Stole The Funeral (1980),
The People’s Otherworld (1984), Translations from the Natural World
(1993), The Daylight Moon (1987), Dog Fox Field (1990) and a
verse-novel- Fredy Neptune (1998). Not only his books but also some of
the titles of his works easily tempt a careful reader to read his poetry through
Gandhi. For example, such terms as “against economics”, “vernacular republic”,
“The people’s otherworld” and “translations from the natural world” etc., lend
an unmistakable Gandhian flavour to his poetry of truth and non-violence.
Translated into the Gandhian aesthetics, Murray’s “vernacular republic” would
become “gram-swaraj”( eco-friendly-village-republic) , his “ against economics”
would resemble “swadeshi and swaraj”, and his “people’s otherworld” would become
“sarvodaya or antyodaya” (universal welfare or unto this last)-
all embedded in the spiritual values of satya (truth) and ahimsa
In order to attempt a Gandhian reading of Les Murray’s poetry, let us begin by analyzing his two recent statements about his poetry :-
"Poetry is the best means to make clear what we mean by sacred. Each of us live inside a poem which is sacred to us. It could be the poem of a job a marriage. We enjoy its myths and legends. Poetry celebrates experience. It is visceral and immediate. It is like dreaming and thinking and dancing all in the same instance.” (Murray, “Interview” p. 6).
“I encounter a lot of open ridicule in the west about religion. But it is not easy to dismiss the existence of god in the light of human experience. I do believe in God. Religion is all about taking us closer to salvation. But when we forget this fundamental fact, we start cutting each other’s throats in the name of our gods”. (Murray, “Interview” p. 6).
Gandhi also relates art to the sacred or the spiritual in its widest sense that subsumes the so-called secular space also:- “Productions of man’s art have their value only insofar as they help the soul towards self-realization”. (Gandhi, 1924). Murray also, in a way, seems to connect the outward as reflected in a poem (the text) to its internal context (the articulation of the spiritual or the sacred) like Gandhi. According to Gandhiji the external and the internal domains of art are mutually complementary:-
There are two aspects of things – the outward and the inward. The outward has no meaning except insofar as it helps the inward. All true art in thus the expression of the soul. The outward forms have value only sofar as they are the expression of the inner spirit of man (Gandhi, 1924).
In his poem, “Poetry and Religion” (CP, 267). Murray a la Gandhi connects poetry to religion or spirituality:- “Religions are poems./ They concert our daylight and dreaming mind, our/ emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture/ into the only whole thinking : poetry. (CP 267) and further still he clarifies his (Gandhian) position:- “God is the poetry caught in any religion,/ caught, not imprisoned./ There will always be religion around while/ there is poetry”. (CP 267). Moreover, on the issue of the centrality of religion (dharma) and the significance of civilization values endangered by the mindless march of consumerist, techno-modernity, Gandhiji is on the side of Les Murray:
Let me explain what I mean by religion. It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions, but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which binds one indissolubly to the truth within and which ever purifies (Gandhi, 1920).
Gandhiji’s firm faith in God truth is also echoed in Les Muray’s poems. Gandhiji rightly says: “To me, God is Truth and Love ; God is ethics and morality; God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life and yet He is above and beyond all these” (Gandhi, 1925).
Both Gandhi and Murray are , therefore, show their concerns for the rural poor and environment, their protest against the godless, valueless western modernity and their emphasis on the preservation of civilizational moral/ethical values.
The present essay is, therefore, a modest and tentative endeavour to read Les Murray’s poems as a satyagraha (holding on to truth or soul force in the Gandhian sense) against injustice, violence, exploitation and untruth. In other words, Murray’s poetry is a satyagraha or non-violent crusade for establishing a society where dharma (moral duty), self-realisation (atmabodh or salvation), satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence) are considered the cardinal virtues.
II. Poetry as Satyagrah Against
While writing the manifesto of the Australian Commonwealth Party – A Focus of Vision, Murray critiques the modern civilization based on the abuse of technology and its dehumanizing impact on the contemporary culture and society. He proposed that the Australian Commonwealth Party would make:-
A start on the work of eliminating all exploitative and exhaustive techniques from the Australian economy. No Luddite reversion to the past advocated here; bad greed – motivated, typically violent technology must be replaced in great party, by the development of good ecologically responsible technology. We cannot and should not destroy the Machine – we must civilize it. (Bourke, 82).
Like Murray, Gandhiji also wanted to civilize the modern science and technology by making it a means of creating an eco-friendly and non-violent society free from hunger and want. In a way, Gandhiji’s project was to “civilize” or “spiritualise” science and modernity both. That’s why, Murray asks us in his poem “SMLE” to “evade the modernities” (Murray, 41). Murray criticizes the destructive impact of modern civilization on the millions of people:- “The onrush of modern technological development has unseated million of people from their older centeredness in religious faith.” (Murray, 1978, p. 52). Similarly, Gandhiji, in his Hind Swaraj (1908), critiqued the modern western civilization because of its emphasis on the multiplication of desires and amoral nature as “satanic”:-
The civilization is irreligion, and it has taken such a hold on the people in Europe that those who are in it appear to be half and.... This civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self-destroyed. Hinduism calls it the Black Age. (Gandhiji, 1953, 33-34).
Like, Murray, Gandhiji too decried the dehumanizing and destructive use of machines in modern civilization:- “Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization; it represents a great sin.” (Gandhi, 1995, p 83). And, furthermore, Gandhiji warned against the impact of the predominance of machines in a country like India:-”How can a country with crores of living machines afford to have a machine which will displace the labour of crores of living machines? It would spell their unemployment and their ruin” (Gandhi, 1935).
Like Murray, Gandhi is also not a Luddite in his condemnation of machinery. In Young India (Nov. 13, 1924), Gandhiji criticized the use of machinery to serve human greed:-
What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation....... Scientific truths and discoveries should first of all cease to be mere instruments of greed.
Throughout his life, Gandhiji emphasized the difference between the Western (modern) civilization and the spiritually oriented Indian civilization:-
Modern civilization is chiefly materialistic as ours is chiefly spiritual. Modern civilization occupies itself in the investigation of the laws of the matter and employs the human ingenuity in inventing or discovering means of production of weapons of destruction, ones is chiefly occupied in exploring spiritual laws (Gandhi, 1934, 329).
Murray’s early collections of poetry, The Ilex Tree (1965), The Weatherboard Cathedral (1969) and Poems Against Economics (1972) symbolize an alternative rural cultural space which offers hope to the people who are struggling against the aftermath of a misplaced and valueless modernity in Australia and elsewhere.
Similarly, his intertextual “Walking to the Cattle Place” (Murray, 1994, 55-57) included in his collections – Weatherboard Cathedral (1969) and Poems Against Economics (1972), is based on the re-working of the Indic mythical metaphors of Prithu, the king and the civilizationally loaded signifier- “go” or “cow”. The poem that resonates with many significant references to the Indian archetypes is structured into fifteen sections. The first one is titled “Sanskrit” and the fifteenth is named “Goloka” (the Earth) whereas the other sections such as “The names of the People”, “Death Words”, “The Commonwealth of Manu” and “The Boeotian Count” are also replete with value-loaded terms central to the spiritual semiotics of Hindu philosophy – which was also used by Gandhiji in his political movements.
Murray refers to Gandhi in his parodically subversive poem – “The Dream of Wearing Short Forever” (CP, 234) – “They are never Robes/as other bare leg outfits have been/the toga, the kilt, the lava-lava/the Mahatma’s cotton dhoti”. Murray wants to subvert the dominant craze for a hollow and hypocritical modernity which decries the wearing of shorts. Murray candidly refers to Gandhi’s self-conscious choice to counter western modernity and imperialism by wearing a “cotton-dhoti” as “half-naked fakir” (to borrow Winston Churchill’s remark). Murray’s “shorts” (though existing in a dream-state) and Gandhi’s “Cotton dhoti” become the objective correlatives of their non-violent struggle (satyagrah) for truth and freedom. Les Murray longs to wear “shorts” to identify with those who exist on the margins of modernity whereas Gandhi himself self-consciously wore “cotton-dhoti” and “khadi” in order to identify with the so-called subaltern or the deprived in the Indian society and also to resist the temptations of western civilization.
Apart from his “Walking To The Cattle Place”, Murray’s other poems such as “The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever” (included in Daylight Moon – 1987), “At Thunderbolt’s Grave in Uralla” and “Poetry and Religion” also articulate his growing unease with modernity and its impact on the rural, aboriginal life in Australia and foreground his faith in the grounding of poetry in the spiritual/religious matrix or context.
III. Murray’s “Walking To the Cattle Place”: Its Etymology, Mythology and Politics of Satyagrah:-
About the genesis of the poem, “Walking To The Cattle Place”, Murray talks about the Indo-European etymology of the word “Cow/go” which is pregnant with profound symbolical meanings :-”It is really an etymological sequence as much as any thing else. It was sparked off by realizing from linguistic studies that the oldest root we can trace in Indo-European languages is “Cow” (Crawford 27).
Interestingly in Sanskrit, the cattle place (or shelter for cattle) is called “gotra” (Williams, 364) which also means-family, race, lineage, the family name, caste, class, group (Williams 364; Apte, 353). The word “go” in Sanskrit is a loaded signifier – the significations of which connote a whole world-view which was based on the pastoral, simple, agricultural rural Boeotian way of life. Go-which stands for a cow as well as cattle or a herd of cattle is a polyphonic word symbol in Sanskrit that implies the following (Williams 363-369) :-
a. to set out for a battle b. milk c. flesh d. sky e. stars f. moon g. horse h. water i. the earth j. a mother k. speech (Saraswati).
Murray himself aptly comments on the semiotic significance of “go/cow” – “I set out to follow a cow and I found a whole world, a specious, town-despising grassland where Celt and Zulu and Verdic Aryan were one in their concerns” ( Wilde et al, 2000 p. 560).
Incidentally, the English word “cow” also comes from Indo-European ‘go’. That is why, Murray names the first section of the poem – “Sanskrit” which begins with an evocative, vivid picture of the non-modern, pastoral/rural world:-”Upasara, the heifer after first mating,/ adyasvina, the cow about to calve, strivatsa, /the cow who has borne a heifer calf (atrinada/ the calf newly born). I will smuggle this sutra.” (CP 55).
In the vedic/Indian way of life, “upasara” stands for the first calf from first mating as well as a bull’s longing for a cow (Apte, 212). Upasaranam, its another derivative, means to go towards somebody/something”. “Adyasvina” implies a woman about to give birth to a child (Apte, 23) whereas “Strivatsa’” implies the infant she-calf or girl-child which comes from “vatsa” (calf, child, Apta, 893). From “vatsa” comes “Vatsala” (Apte 893) meaning one who loves children or affectionate or loving. “Sutra,” in Sanskrit, means “aphoristic sentence/definition” (Apte, 1119) whereas “sutrika” (Apte 1119) denotes the coir used to tie cattle. interestingly, the poet wants to smuggle this “sutra” or talisman or mantra to create an alternative rural, simple way of life, so well epitomized by Gandhi in his notion of “Swaraj”, in the midst of mind-boggling materialism. Murray, in the very first lines of the poem, strikes the key-note of his poetic “satyagrah”- his quest for a non-violent society made by simplicity and eco-friendly existence. The poet-narrator by identifying himself with this god-centric, spiritual and pastoral early-vedic world, longs for its preservation:-”I will wake up in a world that hooves have led to”. (CP, 55)
Murray in “Walking to the Cattle Place” also suggests a common, (the so-called ancient) cultural heritage of Europe and Asia (including Australia) as it is evident from the dissemination of the linguistic legacy: “To be of Europe also is a horn-dance/cattle-knowledge. Even here, where Europa/dumped rusty in her disgrace, gathered childhood afresh/by the dray wheel’s mercy, on creeks of the far selections” (C.P., 56). But the poet is conscious of the disruption of this simple, god-centric “way of life” or “alternative culture” which is based on the symbiotic existence with nature, because : “Today for no sin much, neither killing a brahmin/ nor directly a cow, I will follow cattle” (CP 56).
Apparently enough, the so-called civilized, progressive society sanctions violence against cows as well as Brahmins – that were considered sacred in the Vedic society. According to Manu, the brahmins are expected to lead a life of minimalistic needs and to disseminate true knowledge : “ For Brahmins, he ordained teaching, sacrificing for themselves and sacrificing for others, giving and receiving” The Laws of Manu, Chapter 1, 88 p.12-13).Similarly, only those who practiced in their conduct “restraint of mind, restraint of senses, penance, cleanliness, endurance, guilelessness, knowledge , realization, faith in scriptures”( The Gita, Ch. XVIII.42,p. 587) were called “ Brahmanas” in the ancient Vedic society. Thus , nobody was a born Brahmana- - brahaminhood was to be earned through the practice of the virtues and values as mentioned in the preceding quote from the Gita. Likewise,” agriculture, rearing of cattle, and trade are the works of the Vaishyas”( The Gita, Ch.XVIII. 44,p.583), whereas those who exhibited in their conduct such qualities as “ courage, power, resolution, skill, non-flight from the battle and generosity” were to be called the Kshatriyas( The Gita, Ch. XVIII.44,p.588). Those who performed service or menial service to the other three varnas were called Shudras (The Gita, Ch.XVIII.44, p.588). It was this non-hierarchical, non-violent division of human society grounded in the inevitable differences of aptitudes, approaches, abilities, qualities and professions that was suggested in the Purush Sukta in the Rigveda or the eighteenth chapter of the Gita as the varna system. Murray in his poem laments the absence from our society of true Brahmins- who are committed to the production and dissemination of knowledge. Murray, in accordance with the Gita and Manu, does nor confuse varna system with its latter-day corrupt form called “caste or jati system”.
Similarly, Murray’s poem may also be read as an ode to cow-protection- in which a cow metonymically stands for all innocent beings and our fragile eco-system already under a grave threat from the growing consumerist culture of our day. Gandhiji like Murray also considers the cow as a “poem of pity” and a symbol of the lower order of creation:-
The cow is a poem of pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is the mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means the protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless. (Young India, Oct. 6,1921)
In this imagined cattle republic or “goloka” (the earth), the humans as well as the cattle were not to be subjected to exploitation and violence. There was punishment reserved for those who inflicted violence on humans or animals : “The king should impose a fine in direct proportion to the amount of pain caused when someone strikes men or animals to give them pain” (LM, Ch. 8. 286 p.183).
The poet’s imaginary “goloka” is destroyed by the “wall street tremor”, the red-shift on “the flesh-eating graphs” and by the ghastly spectacle of “how ghostly cows must be crowding the factory floors now” (CP 56). The Vyanjana or suggestion effected by the poet is that the vice of human greed and lust for immorally-earned profit and power are responsible for the depletion of our sustainable environment and the destruction of our symbiotic co-existence with nature including the animal world. It is this vedic world-view which does not admit of such divisions/partitions of the world as are connoted by the asymmetrical power blocks viz. the rural and the global “there is no life more global than a village”. (CP 57).
Interestingly, in the famous Prithvi Sukta or Bhoomi Sukta (The Earth Mantra) of the Atharvaveda (Ch. 12 verse 1-63), the Vedic seers, like Les Murray, imagined a nation not as a politico-economic community but as the civilizational space which was not divided into the politically and economically expedient units of the local, the natural and the animal world. In this civilizational space, the human beings are supposed to live in complete harmony with the animal and the natural world according to the Prithvi Sukta. The Vedic seer has used “Cow/go” metaphor about ten times in this sukta to refer to mutually interdependent, symbiotic relationship between the resources of the earth and its praja or people. The seer, therefore, imagines this “cow/earth/go” to be his “mother” – “our mother is the earth; we are the off springs of the earth” (Atharvaveda, Prithvi Sukta” 12.12) In his poem, “Migratory” (CP,395), Murray’s poet-persona identifies with the “nest”, “the egg”, “the beach”, “the food”, “the shade”, “the right feeling”, “the wrongness of here”, “the crying heads to fill”, “the sand” and all other forms of nature showing the oneness or advaita of being – a state in which “I” becomes all and all “I”. Les Murray’s poem “Walking To The Cattle Place” is an ode to this Vedic vision of the good society. The Vedic word “go” when it means cattle is in plural number as it connotes a sense of property-(“Cattle is chattel, is owned” CP 58). The Sanskrit derivative “gotra” also means “property” (Apte, 364). Murray invokes the Prithu myth (Apte, 633) of Hinduism in order to foreground the dependence of humankind on the optimum and the ethical use of the earth-resources and sets it off against an exploitative modern civilization “the seed-eater towns” that go on plundering our natural resources:- “but we could still find common knowledge, verb roots/and noun bark, enough for an evening fire of sharing,/Cattle-wisdom/though it is a great year yet/till Prithu will milk from the goddess..../ and down through his fingers into the rimmed vessel earth/grain and food gardens./ We are entirely before/ the seed-eater towns (CP, 58-59)
Hence “go” or “cow” serves as metonymy suggesting an alternative world free from the taint of greed and violence as suggested by Gandhi and Murray. Gandhiji says:- “Cow-protection, to me, is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man, through the cow, is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives.” (Gandhi, 1921). Thus, there is hope for humanity for sustainable, environment-friendly growth so long as we continue to value our “verb roots’, “noun barks’ and “ evening fire of sharing” and “cattle-wisdom”- which create a samavaya (an inseparable union) of all beings in an ethical and integrated existence.
The Prithu myth (as narrated in the Bhagavadapurana) used by Les Murray in the poem is significant for enlarging the scope and appeal of the poem. In Indian mythology Prithu was the first king of the earth (Apte, 633) and “Prithvi” or the earth was so named often him. When his own people were dying of famine, he forced the earth to yield fruits and vegetables for sustenance. The earth took the form of a cow and started running away from Prithu who kept on following it. The cow (the earth) surrendered and promised to yield the necessary fruits, grains and vegetables for the people only if he provides it with a heifer in order to make it yield milk. Prithu made Swaayambhu Manu the heifer and milked the cow (the earth). The Prithu myth in the modern context, as suggested and re-contextualised by Les Murray in his beautiful poem, is of crucial significance to all our development and welfare economists who through their empirical graphs and theories, wish to peddle their logic of sustainable and environment friendly development from the air-conditioned and insulated cabins of the Planning Commission. But this longed-for pastoral world of “verb roots” , “noun bark” and “cattle wisdom” is on the brink of extinction- thanks to the rabid growth of industries and consumerist culture.
The cows (or the cattle) are now being led to be slaughtered to satisfy man’s greed for cash and profit :- “They are going to the plains of cash and the captive bolt /......: they are chilled from dripping/and marbled in their fat they are pillars of the city/till out of cool rooms they crowd into are view” (CP 60). In other words, these lines signify Murray’s concern about the exploitation of the earth-resources and destruction of nature to pander to human greed in the context of the so-called economic globalization. The sixth section of the poem entitled “The Commonwealth of Manu” deals with the four fold division of human (also Australian) society on the basis of professional/occupational qualities – (and not on the basis of heredity or birth as it happens in the caste system). The poet uses the Hindu/Indian varna-framework to designate the composition of Australian society. “just for moment/it seemed true of our country equally./ Brahmin, Kshatriya Vaishya, Shudra /the four castes in our country, too plus such as myself/and the black man” (CP, 62) Contrary to the hugely mistaken belief, the ancient vedic (Hindu) society was divided into four varnas (not castes) on the basis of human qualities or gunas (and not on the basis of heredity or birth – The Laws of Manu, 232-233, 243). Like Murray, Gandhiji also visualizes the varna-system as a strategy for the management of different duties, obligations, and functions on the basis of people’s qualities, occupations, and aptitudes, without connoting untouchability or gradation of social prestige or power. He says – “Varnashrama is not a vertical line, but that it is a horizontal plans on which all the children of God occupy absolutely the same states, though they may be engaged in different pursuits of life and though they may have different qualities and different tastes.” (Harijan, Feb 18, 1933). The degeneration of varna into the so called hereditary “caste – system” fraught with power-relations and infliction of violence and inequality is a later story consequent upon the socio-cultural decline of the early Vedic society. Les Murray uses the varna-division to characterize the sinister dominance of the Vaishyas (the modern-day capitalists or business tycoons, the controllers of trade and commerce , the big agriculturalists) in the modern civilization:-
“Vaishya, though merchant, lowest of the twice-born,/ consider his dominance:/ the whole nation turning on him/ the government his the laws, his the profits/, his system the System./ All his, the glory of goods,/ to make silent the rivers, to level the untidy hills/ a dispensation not found in the laws of Manu” (CP 62)
Thus, the greedy merchant or the late capitalist class is termed the debased vaishya by Murray. In these lines quoted above, Murray underlines his critique of the unethical economization of the human existence- which is the sole guiding force behind the so-called “globalisation” in the world today. Murray and Gandhi both fear the rapid transformation of the desired good society into a goods society propelled by greed and consumerism.
In the Hindu tradition, artha ( or the generation and enjoyment of wealth) is , indeed, one of the cardinal principles of life (purusharthas) — dharma (variously described as moral law ,duty, or ethical obligation), artha (generation and enjoyment of wealth), kama (sexual desire) and moksha (final liberation). But artha, like other purusharthas has to be subservient to dharma, if one has to lead a peaceful and contented existence. That is why, Murray and Gandhi both find fault with the unethical techno-modernity that destroys the moral health of society and endangers the whole eco-system. But the modern-day vaishya instead of believing in the glory of good (ness), works only the glory of goods – which is not enjoined upon him by Manu:- When a commoner (vaishya) has undergone the transformative rituals and married a wife, he should constantly dedicate himself to making a living and tending livestock. ...... He should know the high or low value of gems, pearls, ....... He should know how to sow seeds, .... and the worth or worthlessness of a merchandise, the good or bad qualities of countries, the profit and loss from trades....... And he should know the various languages of men, the way to preserve goods and buying and selling. He should make the utmost efforts to increase his goods by means in keeping with the duty and take pains to give food to all creatures (LM ch.9 verses no. 326-333 p. 232).
The dominance of the valueless (adharmik) greed-driven Vaishya community( the late capitalists) is the cause of so many undesirable social, economic and political changes in the history of modern world. Slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, indenture-system, pax Britannica, pax Americana, etc are the dark chapters of human history which expose what unbridled human greed could do to humanity. Murray also takes a dig at the popularity of Ganesha among the Vaishyas as Ganesha “the greedy one” is an “overcomer of obstacles” (vighnesh) (CP 62). The tenth section:- “The Boeotian Count” presents the image of an alternative rural society to a reader where even the pretense to academic learning is abandoned in order to emphasize the centrality of action or Karma which is a form of lila (bliss, play or sport, Apte, 880):- “I pray that Hughie./will send you/safe home/ where ploughing is playing/where karma is Lila”. (CP 67)
It is this vision of an alternative society and culture so ably informed by the notions of “Karma”( right actions) and “Lila” that remains at the core of Murray’s imagined Boeotian society. According to the Gita , it is only through actions or works (Karma) that the welfare of all on the earth (loksangrah) can be realized:- “Janaka and others achieved perfection through works alone. At least, to promote the welfare of the world, you ought to do works” (The Gita ch.3.20, p. 116).
But, as Murray suggested, Karma or action can only be “lila” or sport when performed with detachment as has also been outlined in the Gita. In the second chapter of the Gita ( verses- 47 & 48), Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to perform works or actions with detachment in a state of equanimity of mind in order to attain true happiness in life:-
To works alone have you the right and never to the fruits of works. Don’t be impelled by the fruits of works ; at the same time, don’t be tempted to withdraw from works. Giving up attachment and established in Yoga, with evenness of mind in success and failure, perform works, O Arjuna, this evenness is Yoga. (Ch.2.47 and 48, p. 69).
Gandhiji also believed in the theory of detached action or nishkama karma:-
“I firmly believe in the Law of karma, but I believe too in human endeavour. I regard as the summum bonum of life the attainment of salvation through Karma by annihilating its effects by detachment” (Gandhiji, 1928).
Gandhiji understood that only detached action can become lila or play which is the real meaning of freedom:-
“That person who works without attachment is free, that is, he is not bound by the effects of karma.” (Gandhi quoted in Hingorani, 1985). In the twelfth section “Hall’s Cattle”, Murray again attacks the inhumane modern civilization and the hegemony of American consumerist culture:- “They will sentence me next time/they have sentenced our sort/and all I know is this life/I know nothing of America” (CP, 69 ). In the section “Boopis”, Murray self-consciously juxtaposes “the earth” with “cow” :- “Coming out of reflections/I find myself in the earth/My cow going on...”(CP 70)
Thus, his reflections on “go” or “cow” -centric world signify his continuing satyagrah for an eco-friendly, non-violent world in which humans, animals and the vegetal world –all exist in an existential and ethical harmony. And the continuous nurturance of this “connection” between the animal, the vegetal and the elemental world is vital for the survival of the mankind on this planet. This poem- “ Walking To The Cattle Place” re-affirms Murray’s faith in Gandhian Swaraj in which the human and the natural forms of creation are at peace, or, in harmony with each other.
The last section of the poem “Goloka” (in Sanskrit – the earth) is also the largest section of the poem in which the poet re-iterates his commitment to dharma (moral duty) to transform this materialistic, consumerist world into a “goloka” (Murray’s vision of the good society or swaraj). The rural people of peasants/aborigines use their “speech” (yet another meaning of “go”) to rename their places in accordance with their tradition. Though the maddening march of modern civilization has numbed the finer human instincts and destroyed the integrated existence, the poet re-asserts his commitment to satyagrah (holding on to truth) amidst confusion and chaos:- “The ancient tune is faint (fainter still, the kings in her/but it keeps me farming./rather than raping, or embalming the land”. (CP , 74).
Surrounded by all sorts of materialistic shares, a citizen of Murray’s “Goloka” will continue to “Farm” the land in order to connect with the mother earth (“go”). This is his satyagrah in the Gandhian sense. Gandhiji also said, “Our civilization, our culture, our swaraj depend not upon multiplying our wants – self indulgence, but upon restricting our wants”.( Young India, Feb. 23,1921).
But the peasants or the rural people who live in harmony with environment will not “be peasants again” in the “New World” (CP 74) – which is based on the principles of greed and unethical profit. Murray in a way, defines his “Swaraj” (good society) in a telling way which readily reminds an Indian reader of Gandhi’s vision of swaraj based on the spiritual values of Indian civilization:-”I am looking at equality where it seeks no victories” (CP 76) Or where “The king of justice (human) would not enter paradise without the lost, or his dog/living and work are one thing.” (CP 76).
By referring to an event associated with Yudhistihira, the Pandava king (in the Mahabharata) who was also called the incarnation of dharma (moral law) and who refused to enter heaven without his dog, Murray has tried to show the centrality of dharma (the moral law or duty) in his swaraj (or goloka). When he seeks an equality that does not need victories or wars, he is in fact, very close to the Gandhi’s vision of swaraj (self-rule) based on truth and non-violence, which harmonizes the sacred and the secular into an inseparable civilization space:
“Under Swaraj based on non-violence, nobody is any body’s enemy, everyday contributes his or her due quota to the common goal”. (Gandhi, 1939). Gandhiji, like Murray, situates his good society or swaraj in the reign of truth and non-violence :-
My conception of swaraj is not mere political independence. I want to see Dhama Raj – establishment of the kingodm of heaven on earth, the reign of Truth and Non-violence in every walk of life. That alone is independence to the starved masses of this vast country. (Gandhi, 1945).
Murray’s poem, “Walking to the Cattle Place” is a form of poetic satyagrah in the Gandhian sense for the establishment of a good society in which the humans, the hills, the wood, the cattle, the birds, the insects and all beings and non-beings alike-live in a symbiotic existence with the sun, the moon the stars and the elements. But his seeming utopian vision of “goloka” demands a satyagrah (soul or truth force) against the destructive impact of modern civilization in order to sufficiently spiritualise it. Murray aptly says:-
It would be something indeed, to break with western culture by not asking, even now, the characteristic second step into alienation, into elitism and the relegation of all places except one or two urban centres to the sterile status of provincial no-man’s land largely deprived of any art or any creative self-confidence. This is what is at stake” (Murray cited in Wilde et al, 2000, p. 560).
It is only in Murray’s imaginary “Goloka” or Gandhi’s “Swaraj” that there would be no gap between “religion”, “art” and “ action”. Murray affirms that religions are “poems” and “God is the poetry caught in any religion...a law against its closure/There’ll always be religion around while there is poetry” (CP, 267).
Apte, V.S. Sanskrit-Hindi Kosh, Delhi, Motilal Banarasi Das, 1997, further cited as Apte with page numbers in parentheses. Bourke, Lawrence, A Vivid State, Kensingon, NSW Press, 1992.
Crawford, Robert. Les Murray – “Talking with Robert
Crawford” Verse, No. 5, 1986,
Gandhi, M.K. Hind Swaraj, Ahmedabad, Navjivan, 1995, first published in 1938, pp. 33-34.
Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Madras, G.A. Natesan, 1934.
Harijan, March 25, 1939.
Young India, Oct 18, 1928.
Young India, Oct 6, 1921.
Young India, 13 Nov, 1924.
Young India, 8 May, 1920.
Young India, March 5, 1925.
Harijan, March 1, 1935.
The Hindustan Times, June 20, 1945.
Hingorani, A.T. and G.A. Hingorani. The Encyclopaedia of Gandhian Thought, N. Delhi, All India Congress Committee, 1985. Manu The Laws of Manu (Tr. by Wendy Doniger with B.K. Smith), N. Delhi, Penguin, 1991, further cited as LM with page numbers in parentheses.
Murray, Les. “Interview with Vineetha Mokkil” in The Times of India,
January 15, 2006, p6, col.
1-3. “Walking To The
Cattle Place” in
Port Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1994. Further cited as CP with page numbers
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