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21 Jan

The Case for Comparative Literature

  The Case for Comparative Literature- R K Dhavan

Q. How does R K Dhavan define comparative Literature?

Etymologically, the term means ‘any literary work that compares’. Such a comparison could be in terms of structure, style or philosophic vision. It should lead us to a more comprehensive and adequate understanding of the works and their authors. Mainly, it seeks to study interactions between literatures written in various countries in various languages.

Q.How does, according to Dhavan, Arnold illustrate the plurality of Comparative Literatures?

Arnold speaks of  a plurality of comparative literatures, specified as being those of England and the Continent. He places them together not for comparison but for contrast. In his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Arnold declares, “No single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures. The literature of ancient Greece, the literature of the Christian Middle Age, so long as they are regarded as two isolated literatures, two isolated growths of the human spirit, are not adequately comprehended.” Later he says “We must compare . . . the works of other ages with those of our own age and country . . . to know how others stand, that we may know how we ourselves stand”.

Q. Comment on the methods and aims of Comparative Literature as it is practised.

The methods and aims of comparative literature have neither been unanimously accepted nor been well spelled out. The reason is that comparative literature is still in the process of its growth. The comparatists adopt various approaches in their investigations. Some of them merely find out identities or similarities, some only differences and disparities, while some others both. Such studies may not be entirely futile, but they fail to serve the true ends of comparative literature. The aim of a comparatist should be to find out the implications and the underlying identities of both similarities and differences so that even the differences can be given their proper place in a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the artist. The comparatist has to keep an open mind and should be earnest and sincere in his inquiry and desire for truth. He has to be as self-critical as critical of others in his procedure.

Q. How does Dhavan describe the influence of epics on later texts?

Epics like Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Milton’s Paradise Lost and the two Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have influenced later texts. The influence of the last two epics stands preeminent on the Indian life. These have been veritable store houses of unsurpassed human experience in all its grandeur and beauty. In every region in the country there have been traditions of the literary translations and adaptations of the epics. Regional writers rewrote these epics in their respective languages and gave their own interpretations to some of the episodes. The imagination of the readers was so receptive to the epics that these became a part of their consciousness. These became a source of inspiration to the new generations which acquired all the knowledge incorporated in the epics of their times.

Q. What kind of bond existed between India and America?

Before the independence of the colonies, America shared a common bond with India; both the countries were yoked to the British dominion. There existed, therefore, an indirect link between America and India. Before the American War of Independence, India and America were politically so placed that they could not help being drawn to each other. Early American interest in India was guided by the treaures of the earth and the treasure of wisdom. Initially India attracted traders and missionaries from America which then led to a cultural exchange between both the countries.

It was the American trade with East India Company that acted as a ‘via media’ for the import of Indian thought to America. The early trade venture with India, besides bringing commodities to the Ameican market, opened fresh vistas of knowledge – both cultural and spiritual – for the New World. The Americans, in the first half of the 19th century, were trying to discover in Indian thought and philosophy the spiritual values, they felt, they had lost in the wake of material progress. The American scholars looked upon the East as the only hope for their spiritual rejuvenation.

In America, the transcendental writings of the mid- 19th century were greatly influenced by Hindu philosophy and religious thought. In those times there did not exist modern means of communication. It was the literary tourism through which the minds traversed all over the distance.

Q. How did Thoreau influence Gandhi?

Page 56, paragraphs 1 and 2.

Q. In what way did English education influence Indian thinking and writing?

All the Indian languages and literatures were greatly influenced by the spread of English education. This led to the introduction of new literary genres like the novel, short-story, essay and biography in the Indian languages. With the advent of English education, there was a spurt in literary activity. The new literature entered the consciousness of the educated class  . The urban sophistication portrayed in literature replaced the rural simplicity and sound psychology. A study of much of the creative writing of the period reveals that each of the Indian literatures was influenced and shaped by the western culture and thought. The coming of English marks therefore the most important phase in the evolution of Indian literature. In 1835, when the Britishers drew up their educational policy and implemented it a little later, the need to master the language of the rulers became compelling and its consequences to Indian literature was  immediate and far-reaching. The modern period in Indian literature may well be deemed to begin with this contact, for its influence is still the dominant force in the literary scene.

Q. What are the contributions of Gandhi, Tagore and Aurobindo on Indian literature?

It was under the blazing influences of Gandhi, Tagore and Aurobindo that the Indian writers grew to be of any significance. They were the exponents of the most living traditional values and they polished these values radiantly even with the aid of European consciousness.

Rabindranatha Tagore is unquestionably the most towering figure of modern Indian and Bangla literature. He is a master of several literary forms. He is a poet, a novelist, a short-story writer and a playwright. Author of Gitanjali and its "profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse", he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. In translation his poetry is viewed as spiritual and mercurial.

Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit. He was highly influential in introducing the best of Indian culture to the West and vice versa, and he is generally regarded as the outstanding creative artist of modern India. During his stay in England he translated Gitanjali into English, with forewords by W.B. Yeats.

His verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed for their lyricism, colloquialism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. His compositions were chosen by two nations as national anthems:India's Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh's Amar Shonar Bangla. Known mostly for his poetry, Tagore wrote novels, essays, short stories, travelogues, dramas, and thousands of songs. Of Tagore's prose, his short stories are perhaps most highly regarded.

Whatever Gandhiji’s influence may have been on political and economic spheres of the country, there is hardly any doubt that he has left a deep impression on our literatures. He is a mine of themes for writers and commentators though he himself never worked on any literary topic or genre. Dramatic reconstructions of Gandhiji’s life in film and fiction range from Richard Attenborough’s academy award winning film, Gandhi, in 1982 to Indian English novels like those of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and R.K Narayan.

Gandhiji gave new strength and new confidence to Indian languages that suffered contempt, neglect, indifference, and disgrace for a long time. Gandhiji insisted on high thinking and simple living which was reflected and highlighted by the literary English authors of the time, who in their novels and short stories, portrayed the real picture of the the then society from various sides, thereby presenting the influence of Gandhi on Indian villages and towns. Almost all of their novels represent events, which distinctly correspond to the examples of actual incidents, and teachings that Gandhiji in real life encoded during his visits at various places.

The writers working in different languages in those days either were mostly persons who had come directly under Gandhiji’s influence, many had even taken part in the freedom movements, or they were highly influenced by his ideals. Their writings were immensely burdened with Gandhian idealism, lifestyle, his teachings, and anti-colonial stands. Gandhiji was so much part and form of any literary genre of that period that he made appearance in many dramas, novels, stories and in poems.

In most of the cases, the Gandhian writers, especially the novelists and short story writers, made Bapu an important, guest character or they made a local Gandhi replica and presented him in the light of Mahatma. Not only did the Indians turn Gandhiji into a veritable cult but also a flesh & blood Rama or Krishna who could change the society by his single finger touch. P. Rama Moorthy in ‘Gandhi’s letters to the West’ quotes: “For me there were only two―God & Bapu, and now they have become one.”

To read Sri Aurobindo is to experience the consciousness that lies at the heart of the Truth of existence. Nobel Laureate Roman Rolland said: “Sri Aurobindo (is) the foremost of thinkers, who has realized the most complete synthesis between the genius of the West and the East...”

His main literary works are The Life Divine which deals with theoretical aspects of Yoga and Savitri, an epic poem. His works also include philosophy, poetry, translations and commentaries on the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Gita.

In Sri Aurobindo's theory of poetry, written under the title The Future Poetry, he writes about the significance that art and culture have for the spiritual evolution of mankind. It is perhaps in Sri Aurobindo's own poetry, particularly in his epic poem Savitri, that we find the fullest and most powerful statement of his spiritual thought and vision.

Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura

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