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W.B. Yeats and the Upaniṣads


Shalini Sikka

This book focuses on the Irish Nobel laureate W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), and his interest in the Upaniṣads, the ancient Sanskrit scriptures of India. Yeats undertook to assist the Indian monk Shree Purohit Swāmi in the task of translating the Ten Principal Upanishads into English. Not only did Yeats impart the qualities of spontaneity and fidelity into the work, but also managed to enhance his own creativity. The philosophy of the Upaniṣads enabled him to better understand and revise certain sections of A Vision: the Sphere or ultimate reality, the lunar symbolism and eschatology. Yeats found in the Upaniṣads a confirmation of his belief in the immortality of the soul, something he had sought to prove through countless visits to séances. Yeats also discovered a parallel for his concept of Unity of Being in Turīya, a final stage in meditation wherein bliss and a consciousness of unity are achieved. Imagination, he discovered, was a faculty of the Ātman or Self. It created the images in anima mundi seen in their trances by seers and poets. To Yeats, imagination explained the nature of revelation. Finally, just as an Upaniṣadic seer meditated upon any object chosen from the universe in order to reach the formless reality beyond, a poet could use symbols that a reader would meditate upon, thus evoking the original experience of the poet in the reader’s mind.