Shantih, Shantih, Shantih – The Peace That Passeth All Understanding

Thomas Stearns Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 for his outstanding contribution to the world of present-day poetry. One such pioneering work of his is The Wasteland. For Eliot, the wasteland symbolizes that area of human life where men exist without a guiding faith, where men have turned their backs on spiritual enlightenment, and the title points to this dilemma.

The poem, divided into five parts is thus fragmented, lacking in logical continuity and time sequence, and is a projection of the psychological oscillations and conflicts which raged in the soul of man in the early twentieth century (the situation is no different today). Eliot felt that Western civilization had become mechanical, dull and dehumanized. Corruption, degeneracy and stark materialism were rampant. In this broken fragmented world, nothing could be integrated.

Despite the poem being a patchy kaleidoscopic entity, it is held together only in the all-embracing prophetic vision of Tiresias, the bi-sexual blind seer of ancient Greek tragedy, and what Tiresias sees is the substance of the whole poem. Psychologically speaking, he is the conscious of humanity. As a symbol of the past still surviving in the present, the old Tiresias, “with his wrinkled female breast” has foresuffered all that is being enacted in the ugly stage of the contemporary world.

He transcends the barrier of time and place with swift flashes embracing with his empty gaze, now a scene in the present – the images of “the ruins of the falling London bridge”, a “taxi throbbing and waiting”, to epitomize the life of an immoral and wanton twentieth century typist, as also of the past – Dante’s inferno, the amorous sport of Cleopatra, Elizabeth, and brings out in our mental image the enormity of the sin committed by the mythical king Oedipus of Thebes – the drought-and-sin ridden land – in his sexual violation of his mother Jocasta, and of the necessity of purifying the sinner’s soul through suffering.

In The Wasteland, the images and symbols fall broadly into two categories: the images taken from the common aspects of urban life but raised to great intensity (the throbbing taxi image), and the symbols from myth, nature and religion – these being centred in the theme of death and rebirth. Thus drought is symbolic of spiritual dryness, and rain of spiritual fertility. However, certain objects may symbolize two opposite ideas based upon their functions. Thus, water is, on the one hand, a symbol of creation – of life and growth, of purification and transformation, in the form of a river or sea and, on the other hand, it is also destructive of life and property. Similarly, fire as a destructive agent, is a symbol of lust which consumes a person to a state of “living death”; but fire, as the sacred altar-flame, is also a symbol of inspiration, illumination and spiritual exaltation. Eliot constantly plays with ambivalent images.

Of the post-war European society, its spiritual sterility is conveyed by the symbol of a stony and barren soil. The idea of a stalemate, of life come to a dead end, is conveyed by the symbol of the “game of chess”. The idea of life as meaningless, dull and languid movement in a narrow circle is conveyed by the image “we are living in a rat’s alley where dead men lost their bones”. The idea is reinforced by the images of squalor and vulgarity, as for instance, the river sweats oil and tar and carries along its current the dirty freight of empty bottles, cigarette ends, silk-handkerchiefs and other testimonials of summer parties and sexual encounters between city-nymphs and their chance paramours.

The theme of barrenness, decay and death is woven with the quest for life and resurrection which Eliot found in the legend of the Holy Grail and other anthropological myths, with a sprinkling of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu religious analogies, and the sense of release from this state and of freedom is conveyed by the image of a boat gliding smoothly under the expert hand, God, who brings to balance all the reverses that man has done in the stupid belief of his superiority, and thus, of self aggrandizement.

The Wasteland is Eliot’s spiritual autobiography, his search through the junkheap of modern culture for an integrating principle just as you would have a Pilgrim’s Progress (From this world to that which is to come, by John Bunyan). Eliot’s vision moves backwards and forwards with a relentless shuttling movement over legend, belief and symbol. And, in the end, the pilgrim, now seemingly a solitary figure, walks on. The grass is “singing” and there comes a damp gust bring rain”, symbolic of rejuvenation, of resurrection. Three claps of thunder are heard, and the voice of the thunder, in Sanskrit, offers three words of advice: “Give, Sympathize and Control” – “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih”, the peace that passeth all understanding. Eliot sees the solution to human situation in Hindu religious term.

Eliot forces the problem of the wasteland on us because we, whether we know it or not, are the citizens of the “unreal city” and we must find our Grail – the platter used by Jesus at the Last Supper and in which one of his followers is said to have received His blood at the Crucifixion.