The Ever-Transcending Quest Introduction
A Literary Analysis of the Poetry of Sri Chinmoy
by Mrinali Christine Clarke
This dissertation was
originally submitted to fulfil
the BA (Honours) requirements
at Monash University,
Victoria, Australia, 1989.
“It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language …
Why? – Out of fear.
The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything …”
– D.H. Lawrence1
You do not dare to know
The real truth.
He does not dare to face
The real light.
I do not dare to attain
The real silence.
– Sri Chinmoy2
Does our own age fear a new spiritual voice? Lawrence was talking of a new voice to be found in the early American classics, while Sri Chinmoy’s poem here indicates that same instinctive aversion in relation to the new spiritual experience. How relevant then are Lawrence’s comments in relation to the poetry of Sri Chinmoy at the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of a new Millennium?
A common criticism of metaphysical poetry is that it is only understood by the initiated. If the poetry of Sri Chinmoy is placed in that category then it may also be restricted by traditional standards and expectations of the genre. Traditionally, literary evaluations tend to concentrate on poetic complexity or multiplicity in a way that masks or fails to uncover what really may be a distinctively new voice of the age, particularly in relation to spiritual poetry. Sri Chinmoy has intimated that the reading of his poetry and prose can be utilised as a method of entering into a higher state of consciousness for the novice, the seeker or the reader; in effect, a method of contacting or awakening the reader’s own inner pathway into this higher, more universal plane of consciousness.3
The idea of a poetic voice expressing or evoking pure consciousness is, of course, a paradoxical problem, for it raises the conundrum – how can one express in mere words an experience of such a subjective metaphysical nature, or, in other words, how does one ‘express the inexpressible’? The daunting nature of such a task has, however, never discouraged the artist or writer from attempting it. If we witness the poetic stance of Herbert, Donne, Wordsworth, Whitman, Hopkins and Dickinson, they are all in some degree attempting to relay their own experience of the relationships between the body and spirit, time and eternity, matter and consciousness; and to explore the most complex and intricate secrets of the essence of existence. They each devised a tailored style and form arising out of their own unique needs and perceptions. Sri Chinmoy also has endeavoured to forge a new style and a new language to express the particular vision of his transcendental experiences.
Sri Chinmoy came to the U.S. in 1964 with the express inner compulsion to offer the fruits of his own realisation to the Western world. His philosophy emphasises a kind of marriage between Western dynamism and Eastern spirituality – a path which promotes self-transcendence through the inner peace of the heart.4 In his attraction to the dynamic nature of Western culture, Sri Chinmoy leaves behind the spiritual views of the past whereby one must practise meditation alone and shut off from the world.5 I will argue that the spirit of the poetry of Sri Chinmoy is a natural progression from, and an extension of, the American Transcendentalist tradition, and I will concentrate on making any points of comparison with poets that I view in this context.
Sri Chinmoy’s poetic language is highly distinctive in comparison to many other styles, particularly in devotional poetry. It denotes a rather more innocent approach, rather than sophistication; not so much building on past traditions but taking universal themes and starting afresh. His use of the most basic, and simple language and tropes, brief lyrics, even aphoristic or haiku-styled poems, allows for the portrayal of very intimate but singularly significant moments in the spiritual journey of an individual. These moments then often tend to indicate a larger and more unified context of spirituality – the vision he holds of the absolute oneness of the universe. The personal and the universal are always present in each other.6
In this introduction I shall discuss this very characteristic feature of Sri Chinmoy’s poetry: the distilling down to a specific concept, which in contemplation then expands the awareness into the inferred reality beyond the physical world. I shall also look at the simple style and language used by Sri Chinmoy to see in what manner and to what extent they reflect the message he wishes to convey. Furthermore, I shall outline the criteria for the particular poems chosen for the study from the prolific poetic works available, indicating why I think they are representative and centrally related to the wider vision of Sri Chinmoy’s transcendentalist teaching.
For the most part, the poetic language of Sri Chinmoy is stripped bare of intricate nature imagery, or complex and extended metaphorical tropes. Additionally, the poet uses traditional forms of rhyme and metre quite sparingly, preferring instead the contained brevity of the lyric form in the style of free verse. However, Sri Chinmoy does use the more common metrical forms and rhyme schemes for certain vital themes, as I will show in chapter three. In any case, he never fails to maintain his brevity of style and, coupled with the subject matter of the spiritual path, this adds to the heightened austerity of the tone. As Alan Spence has indicated, there are very few things of a material or concrete description in the poetry of Sri Chinmoy, and those things which are to be found, are used as an archetypal code, a symbolic language of man’s inner spiritual life.7
…O Bird of Light, O Bird of Light,
With Your glowing and flowing flames
Do enter into my heart once again …8
The ‘bird of light’ is often used by the poet to describe both the expression of the spiritually aspiring human heart, as well as the feeling of glowing elation, or uplifting movement of the heart during meditation, attributed to the surge of the soul.
The golden Boat
Is beauty’s speed.
The golden Shore
Is divinity’s crown.
The golden Dream,
The golden Pilot,
Similarly, here Sri Chinmoy extends the common trope of the sea of life, to illustrate his chosen path to God as the Boat, the Shore as the goal of realisation, the Dream as God’s vision for humanity, and the Pilot as God Himself, both inner and outer aspects.
I would like to argue that this paring down or reductive tendency, the very simplicity of language, is one of the quintessential ingredients of Sri Chinmoy’s poetry, as it mimics the message he is attempting to convey – that of the surprisingly simple but profound nature of consciousness itself. To express the transcendental consciousness, Sri Chinmoy must illustrate feelings of ‘soulfulness’, a task he attempts as though it were as easy and as natural as the expression of joy, love, honour and so on. The simplicity, purity and power of the poet’s language are facilitated by such methods as the Sanskrit mantra and sutra, which he brings to his poetic style in English from his native Bengali traditions.10
There is a necessity then for this style of expression to be freed from extraneous connotations of worldly associations and experience, and the intellectual transactions of the mental faculties. It must be recognised that this is where the traditional schools of poetic expression diverge from the voice which Sri Chinmoy chooses. His choice is not to rely on the imaginative faculty of the mind, but to utilise and merge with the more intuitive and instinctive connections of the soul with its highest consciousness, producing, in many instances, poems which are created whole rather than ‘worked out’ or developed in the usual fashion of drafting over and again. This complicates and frustrates the role of the literary critic, whose tools of analysis tend to involve the intellect as the mainstay, and any higher creative functions, such as intuition, as merely an inspirational bonus. In addition, it raises the question of what category of literature we are dealing with here, and what possible evaluations we can make of the poetry.
The experience of the poetry of Sri Chinmoy illustrates that the absolute highest consciousness of the divine can be more easily apprehended by the heart: a psychic centre of the being, which is closest to the soul and, therefore, according to this Yogi’s teaching, manifests similar qualities such as purity, delight and humility. The faculty of the heart is separate from the faculty of the mind, whose step by step, analytical and critical functions tend to interfere and distract, reducing all ideas to a discursive or dialectical level (a problematical situation which is well known to individuals practising meditation). Therefore, descriptive density as such would be counter-productive and superfluous in this case since it would tend to engage the imaginative intellect rather than the heart. What the poet is trying to achieve is a purity and simplicity of expression, which take on a most particular significance and beauty – in a way, elevating the language. In addition, if it is correct that the consciousness of the heart can directly apprehend or intuit as it were some kind of spiritual truth or experience, then this certainly has some interesting implications in the argument about whether language is used to express reality or whether reality can be shaped by language.
Sri Chinmoy explains this further dimension of communication: “The soul uses the soul’s language, which is light. It is through light that the soul expresses itself. When the soul’s light expresses itself to the physical in us, the physical mind gets the message in a way it can understand. It is not actually words that the soul is using. The soul is offering and scattering its light and the physical is receiving it in the way that it finds most convincing.”11 In other words, what we would call a ‘flash of intuition’ can occur; or perhaps it can be recognised as that sometime familiar ‘twinge of conscience’. One technique that Sri Chinmoy uses to express or illustrate this ‘flash’ or message from the consciousness of the soul is the compound noun, an interesting feature of his style because of its unique nature. Bennett hails Sri Chinmoy’s use of the compound noun as a new form, working for a conceptual advance “… used to indicate a development in man’s comprehension of God”,12 and makes extensive comparisons of the use of this feature by other poets.
The compound noun can in fact be seen as an emblem of the unity of the form and the message. Rather than being vague or indefinite, it can produce that unique precision and compactness which at once comes down to a single image and then expands into the vision of the universal reality of being; for example: ‘welkin-rim’, the slightly curved, outer edge of the firmament, upper sky or heavens, beyond land to the unknown; ‘nectar-silence’, sweet, fluid, nourishing substance, food of the gods; and, ‘Father-Son’, with its Christ allusions, the act of realisation, the lover and the Beloved become interchangeable.
The brevity of Sri Chinmoy’s poems in no way detracts from the qualities of concentration and intensity of the poetic image, rather the effort in reading helps one to the intuited feeling of a truth revealed. A leap of imagination is not needed here. Shakespeare in the same way seemed to bridge this gap, the communication of the deep mysteries of human life, with aphoristic utterances of universal significance, which have since passed into the common colloquialism. For example, Hamlet comes easily to mind: “What a piece of work is man …” and “To be or not to be: That is the question …”
If then this seeming simplicity of language masks merely the subtlety of expression of a heightened consciousness of the poet, how may we read the poems correctly to apprehend this experience ourselves? Do we in fact re-create the experience of the poet as we read what he has written? Or is it a closed and very select fraternity of spiritual adepts who will gain entry into this experience of the highest? To explore these questions through the language of the poetry, I have chosen what I see as a particular group of related poems. These poems I have united under a single theme – the ancient topos of ‘The Quest’. The spiritual quest for self-realisation or God-realisation, which is a commonplace in poetry of a transcendental nature, is predominant in even the most cursory glance through the writings of Sri Chinmoy. His prolific output (some 40,000 poems published to date) can in fact be more easily apprehended as a united life work in the light of the topos of the quest. Whilst reading for a selection of poems it became clear to me that many poems were interrelated. Significant patterns of development and convergence seemed to appear to my mind. Keeping in mind Bennett’s proposition that there can be no ‘measured sequence’ imposed on these poems13, I nevertheless felt compelled to arrange them in the ascending pattern of complexity that follows.
Throughout the poetry of Sri Chinmoy I have discovered the three parts of a quest –namely ‘Separation, Trial and Return’ – become a more complex and integrated journey of life for the seeker to follow on the road to the highest goal. Because of this complexity, I have further divided the poems into the following steps:
1. Evolution of the soul
2. Oneness with the Absolute before incarnation
3. The quest begins
4. Loss of oneness
5. Descent into ignorance/loneliness
6. Trials of a seeker of the truth
7. Despair and loss of faith
8. Descent of God’s Compassion
9. Nearing the goal
11. Unconditional surrender
12. Attaining the goal: God/self-realisation
14. And beyond14
Sri Chinmoy demonstrates the insights of a self-realised spiritual mystic and teacher in his more recent very large collections (Ten Thousand Flower-Flames, and Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, both published in the early 1980’s). However, the poems chosen here are mainly taken from collections published in the early 1970’s, which are not as overtly instructional and display more obvious literary merits. My intention is to briefly explore the way Sri Chinmoy has re-defined and extended the normally accepted limits of the spiritual quest, especially in relation to three American poets, Whitman, Dickinson and Snyder, who can be seen to take up the thread of the American Transcendentalist tradition. This poet’s prophetic voice represents a challenge to humanity, to re-examine our destiny in a new light. But as well it throws new light on the complete interdependence of the relationship between aspiring humanity, and the self-transcending nature of the Supreme Being.
Through this brief survey of poetry we may glean some connections between the style of Sri Chinmoy’s poetry and his wider purpose of presenting the goal of the transcendental consciousness. I must emphasise however the scope of this study represents no more than a minute foray into such a large body of poetic work, not all of which by any means can be so readily categorised by my own schema of the spiritual quest. The Quest arose as a natural choice of theme. It contained the study to a small and unified sample, which I have edited down into a kind of ‘reader’s guide’. This not only readily admitted the connections between the cryptic style of language, the surface simplicity and the complex and often paradoxical attitudes, but also would show some sense of the development and fulfilment of the transcendental vision as it unfolds from within the poet’s own experience.
Read Chapter One ...
This dissertation was submitted to fulfil the BA (Honours) requirements at Monash University, Victoria, Australia, 1989.
1 Studies in Classic American Literature
2 Surrender Rose Blossoms, song #42
3 The Summits Of God-Life: Samadhi And Siddhi. This is a brief outline of Sri Chinmoy’s definition: Consciousness is the inner spark, the golden link within that connects our highest and most illumined part with our lowest. It is the connecting link between Heaven and Earth. Heaven is in our consciousness. Consciousness houses silence and it houses power. Consciousness and the soul can never be separated, whereas the body can easily be separated from consciousness. P.1ff.
4 Biographical notes on Sri Chinmoy
5 For example, Sri Chinmoy is founding director of Sri Chinmoy: The Peace Meditation at the United Nations.
6 For a more extensive comparison of Sri Chinmoy’s poetry in relation to the traditions of spiritual poetry, as well as the influences of his native Bengali traditions, reference must be made to the 1981 Doctoral Thesis at the University of Melbourne by Dr. Vidagdha Meredith Bennett, Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy 1971-1981. Aum Publications, New York, 1992.
7 Alan Spence, (Ed) Introduction Between Nothingness & Eternity, poems by Sri Chinmoy, p.9.
8 Sri Chinmoy, The Garden of Love Light, p.43.
9 Sri Chinmoy, Selections from the Golden Boat, p.1.
10 Alan Spence briefly outlines these techniques: ‘A mantra is in its simplest form a syllable or set of syllables, chanted aloud as an aid to meditation. There is an awareness here of the power of the word as incantation, invocation. Poetry described as mantric actually invokes the qualities it describes.’ And sutra ‘Literally it means thread, and it is used to describe series of terse, aphoristic utterances … These offer instruction in the path of Yoga, and are tight, densely packed, designed to be memorised and recited aloud, gradually unfolding their truth.’ op.cit., p.8.
11 Sri Chinmoy, Light Of The Beyond, p.41.
12 Bennett, op. cit., p.40ff.
13 Bennett, op. cit., p.249.
14 The use of capitals is consistent with the poet’s use to denote qualities pertaining to the Supreme Being.