Shadow and Sunlight

Shadow and Sunlight

This week’s choice is Brahma, by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803—1882)

Poem 230. Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Brahma is the god of creation, one of the three major gods of the Hindu religion. In this poem, Emerson illustrates the ubiquitous nature of creation: it is everywhere and encompasses everything. The killer in the act of murder (referenced by the red slayer—another name for the god of war, Yama) and his victim in the act of dying are likewise ignorant of the true nature of things: death is not a termination but a transition to a spiritual existence, and Brahma is all places, times and existences.

The second quatrain develops this: dusk and dawn are one, and even distant and long-forgotten things are accessible to this omnipresent deity—even vanished gods are known to him since he operates in the spiritual realm and in the physical world, and neither flashy celebrity nor burning shame have any value to him: human emotions are irrelevant to one who has achieved this state.

The third stanza reinforces this assertion: Brahma isn’t just part of the scenery, he is the scenery. Those who have omitted him from their plans find him intruding in them; those who fly from him find that their flight is only possible through him; he is the substance of the scepticism as well as the sceptic, so that he has power even over the atheist as well as the Brahmin priest who sings his praises.

He reaches the crux of his declaration in the fourth quatrain: even the most powerful gods covet his abode: the whole universe. Finally, Brahma beseeches the reader to abandon the desire for heavenly reward in return for the benefits of nirvana or moksha, a timeless state of perfection.

I don’t know what I like about this poem. Perhaps because it suggests the boundless, endless nature of creativity and the idea that it is everywhere and everything, a global principle that is so ubiquitous we accept it without question, and which is so far beyond petty humans that their concerns and their gods are irrelevant to it.

Terry Pratchett adapted the poem for his book “Unseen Academicals.” Pedestriana, the goddess of football, appears as the crowd shout, and the shouting resolves itself into a kind of chant:

If the striker thinks he scores
Or if the keeper cries in shame
They understand not the crowd’s applause
I make, and hear and earn again
For I am the crowd and I am the ball
I am the triumph and the blame
I am the turf, the pies, the All
Always and ever, I am the Game.
It matters not who won or lost
Nothing is the score you made
Fame is a petal that curls in the frost
But I will remember how you played.

—      Sir Terry Pratchett (1948—2015)

Perhaps that is another reason why I like the poem, it reminds me of Pratchett’s writings, and that’s always a good moment.