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ROOTS OF MODERN CULTURE: Spirit



William Blake      Mohandas K. Gandhi      Leo Tolstoy      Ovid      Ghalib      Lesya Ukrainka      Mark's Jayzz      Christina Rossetti     

Spirit, Humanism, Philosophy, Culture are various names for those deep-diving thinkers who, at various times and places, inform us of who we are, describe the human condition, offer guideposts to live by, or sometimes just ask the right questions.

William Blake was such a person— poet, artist, visionary (actually seeing visions). However, The Everlasting Gospel, was never published in his lifetime; the assumption is that he was aware that others would be personally critical of his, to them, outrageous, even irreligious, opinions. It's obvious that he invested himself in these statements, crafting them into poems and allegories.



There is not one moral virtue that Jesus inculcated
but Plato and Cicero did inculcate before him.
What then did Christ inculcate? Forgiveness
of Sins. This alone is the gospel and this is the life
and immortality brought to light by Jesus. Even the
covenant of Jehovah, which is this: If you forgive
one another your trespasses, so shall Jehovah forgive
you, That he himself may dwell among you, but if
you avenge, you murder the divine image and he
cannot dwell among you because you murder him.
He arises again and you deny that he is arisen and
are blind to spirit.


If Moral virtue was christianity,
Christ’s pretensions were all vanity;
and Caiaphas and Pilate men
praiseworthy, and the lion’s den
and not the sheepfold allegories
of God and Heaven and their glories.
The moral christian is the cause
of the unbeliever and his/her laws;
the Roman virtues, warlike fame,
take Jesus’ and Jehovah’s name,
for what is antichrist but those
who against sinners Heaven close
with iron bars, in virtuous state
and Rhadamanthus at the gate?





Mohandas K. Gandhi (Gandhi) trained as a lawyer in England, lived in South Africa, where he encountered racial prejudice and began his quest for justice, failing in the courts and in public opinion. Returning to India, still ruled by the British, he became a prolific journalist, at one point involved in leading the Salt March to the Sea, because the British wanted to retain a monopoly on salt. His non-violence campaign landed him in jail, where he wrote responses to various followers, based on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book. Gandhi on the Gita is a compilation, chapter by chapter, of Gandhi's attempt to answer people's questions on spirituality. Krishna is disguised as the charioteer for Arjuna, a conflicted warrior about to fight in a war against uncles and cousins. How should he act? Arjuna questions his charioteer on the right decisions before the impending battle. Following each chapter, Gandhi wrote his own understanding of the spiritual way.




Here is Chapter Four (of 18 chapters) of Gandhi on the Gita.

The Lord says to Arjuna: “The yoga of selfless action which I commend to you is an ancient truth; I am not propounding any new doctrine. I have declared it to you, as you are my devoted friend, in order to heal the conflict in your mind. Whenever goodness weakens and evil grows from strength to strength, I incarnate Myself and protect the good and destroy the wicked. Those who are aware of this power (maya) of Mine are confident that evil is bound to go under. I am always by the good man’s side. He never strays from the strait and narrow path and comes to Me at last, for he meditates on Me and hides himself in Me and thus is delivered from passion and anger and is purified by austerity and wisdom. As a man sows, so he reaps. None can escape from the operation of the laws I have made. I established the four varnas (classes, not castes) by the different distribution of qualities and actions. However I am not their author, for I do not desire the fruits of action and have nothing to do with the merit or demerit arising therefrom. This divine maya (course of action) is worth knowing. All activities prevalent in the world are subject to divine laws, and yet God is not defiled by them. Therefore He is and also is not their author. And a man who does likewise and acts in a spirit of detachment without being defiled by actions and by the yearning for their fruit is sure to be saved. In action he sees inaction and he understands at once what is wrong action. Wrong actions are all those that are inspired by desire and cannot be performed in the absence of desire, such for instance as theft, adultery and the like. These simply cannot be done in a spirit of detachment. Therefore those who do the duty that lies nearest without desire and scheming for the fruit of the action may be said to have burnt up their actions in the fire of wisdom (jnana). A man who has thus abandoned the attachment to the fruit of action is always contented, always independent. He has his mind under control. He gives up all his possessions. And his activity is natural like the bodily functions of a healthy individual. He is free from any pride or even consciousness that he is acting on his own. He has the realization that he is a mere instrument of the divine will. What does it matter whether he meets with success or with failure? He is neither elated by the one, nor unnerved by the other. All his work is done as a sacrifice (yajna), that is to say, as service to the world. He meditates upon God in all his actions and in the end comes to Him.

“There are many forms of sacrifice, the root of which lies in purity and service, such as, for instance, control of the senses, charity and pranayama (breath control) practiced with a view to self-purification. Knowledge of these can be acquired from a wise teacher (guru) through humility, earnestness and service. If anybody indulges in various activities which he thinks are yajna, without any understanding of what yajna is, he will only do harm to himself and to the world. It is therefore necessary that all actions should be performed intelligently. This wisdom (jnana) is not mere book learning. In it there is no room for doubt. It begins with faith and ends in experience. It enables a man to see all beings in himself and to see himself in God so that everything appears to him to be actually informed by God. Such wisdom effects the salvation of the worst of sinners. It releases the seeker from the bondage of action, so that he is not affected by its results. There is nothing else in the world so holy as this wisdom. Therefore try to obtain it with a heart full of faith in God and with the senses under control, so that you will enjoy perfect peace of mind.”

The third, fourth and the following fifth chapter should be read together, as they explain to us what the yoga of selfless action (anasakti) is and what are the means of practicing it. If these three chapters are properly understood, the reader will have less difficulty in tackling what follows. The remaining chapters deal in detail with the ways and means of achieving anasakti. We should study the Gita from this point of view, and if we pursue this study we shall find without much trouble a solution of the problems which confront us from day to day. This calls for daily practice. Let everybody try it. If for instance he is angry, let him remember the verse dealing with anger and subdue that enemy. Supposing we heartily dislike somebody, or are impatient or gluttonous or in doubt as to whether we should do or should not do something or other, all these difficulties can be solved with the help of Mother Gita if we have faith in it and give it constant study. Our daily recitation of the Gita as well as this series of letters is a means to this end.



Leo Tolstoy



When Leo Tolstoy gave up writing his epic novels, he plunged into his own quest for the Christianity that he didn't find in the Russian Orthodox tradition. Rather, it appeared among the illiterate peasants of his estate. Why? How? After producing four books of his own biblical analysis, he chose to narrate his own synoptic gospel. However, the Russian Orthodox Church forbade its appearance in print; first printings and translations were pirated editions in Switzerland, England, and elsewhere.

This edition of The Gospel According to Leo Tolstoy, includes some additional material, only accessible after 1954, when Khrushchev declared openness in the "Great Thaw" period. The key for Tolstoy was to accept only two elements as fundamental: what Jesus said, and what Jesus did. Tolstoy threw out all the rest as irrelevant to Jesus' gospel, and misleading. Throw away the miracles, ashcan the genealogy, disregard the Resurrection (even if he came back from the dead, he offered no new teaching). The result? Tolstoy finds a humane doctrine with five commandments of Jesus, the most important one today is Resist Not Evil. This single message specifically gave strength to the campaigns of Gandhi, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.




Ovid     



The Classical World from which we (Americans/Europeans) trace our roots was basically the history and stories of Rome and Greece, with a bit of Egypt thrown in. Ovid, a Roman poet, brings together a compendium of the gods and goddesses, heroes and maidens alive in the spiritual life of those times in The Changes (Metamorphoses). This world was active, alive, intelligent, full of opportunity and challenges. The polytheistic model had no commandments, no doctrine of sin, a much simpler afterlife, no heresy. Relationship to a god or goddess was often personal. This edition is based on Jacob Tonson's edition, with iambic pentameter lines of poetry by a couple dozen writers, some of them deceased by the time of publication. Poets include Joseph Addison, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, others.

Here is one of the 118 tales:

The Transformation of Cygnus into a Swan


Cygnus beheld the nymphs transformed, allied
To their dead brother on the mortal side,
In friendship and affection nearer bound;
He left the cities and the realms he owned,
Through pathless fields and lonely shores to range,
And woods made thicker by the sisters’ change.
While here, within the dismal gloom, alone,
The melancholy monarch made his moan,
His voice was lessened, as he tried to speak,
And issued through a long-extended neck;
His hair transforms to down, his fingers meet
In skinny films, and shape his oary feet;
From both his sides the wings and feathers break;
And from his mouth proceeds a blunted beak:
All Cygnus now into a Swan was turned,
Who, still remembering how his kinsman burned,
To solitary pools and lakes retires,
And loves the waters as opposed to fires.
Meanwhile Apollo in a gloomy shade
(The native luster of his brows decayed)
Indulging sorrow, sickens at the sight
Of his own sunshine, and abhors the light;
The hidden griefs, that in his bosom rise,
Sadden his looks and overcast his eyes,
As when some dusky orb obstructs his ray,
And sullies in a dim eclipse the day.
Now secretly with inward griefs he pined,
Now warm resentments to his griefs he joined,
And now renounced his office to mankind.
“Ever since the birth of time,” said he,
“I’ve borne A long ungrateful toil, without return;
Let now some other manage, if he dare,
The fiery steeds, and mount the burning car;
Or, if none else, let Jove his fortune try,
And learn to lay his murdering thunder by;
Then will he own, perhaps, but own too late,
My son deserved not so severe a fate.”
The Gods stand round him, as he mourns, and pray
He would resume the conduct of the day,
Nor let the world be lost in endless night:
Jove too himself descending from his height,
Excuses what had happened, and entreats,
Majestically mixing prayers and threats.
Prevailed upon at length, again he took
The harnessed steeds, that still with horror shook,
And plies ’em with the lash, and whips ’em on,
And, as he whips, upbraids ’em with his son.



Ghalib     

The Ghazals of Ghalib is a collection of ghazal-format poems by the mid-19th Century Indian poet. He was brought up in the Muslim tradition but was an independent thinker, a poet, not a religious leader. His relationship with God tended to be one of a rejected suitor— personal, but not satisfying. As poet, he usually brings in a twist to personalize major issues. Moving next to a mosque, he says that now, God is his neighbor.

The ghazal is a notably specific rhyme scheme in Urdu, perhaps chosen by Ghalib for its linguistic challenge. A ghazal has typically four to seven two-line stanzas. Each stanza relates to the theme, but is not otherwise related to the other stanzas. The closest parallel in Western tradition is the Rodney Dangerfield stand-up comedian two-liner with a setup, and then a punchline or ironic twist. Ghalib's ghazals often bring quick insights to familiar topics. For this translation, I went for the insights rather than rhyme. Here are a few examples:

                       Spring
Spring, recently trapped in buds, now bathes the whole town;
Beauty shows its marvels best by peeling out of a tightfitting dress.


Rustic beauty is raped when simple rose-buds are brought
out of the garden and placed in pots in the market.


Her beauty I praised, with fine words I described her—
no wonder my confidant has become my rival.



Mark's Jayzz     



Mark's Jayzz is an editor's perspective on the earliest accepted "gospel" included in the Christian bible. Mark seems to offer a series of stories circulating even 60 years after the death of Jesus. Mark's question, even as he reports the tales, is, why are these stories important? Jayzz (Jesus) would never be included in the Jewish testament alongside other minor prophets, because Jayzz broke the Covenant, the special relationship of Jewish people with God. So, were Mark and his followers still Jewish, or were they something else that didn't have a name yet?

Here are a few introductory paragraphs:

The thinker saw an unanswered question.

The writer said—I can frame the question so that it has a clear answer. Or, I’ll try.

The editor claimed to smooth the rough spots so the story was consistent within itself, without making any judgments about whether any of the details were true or not (how was he/she to know, without any witnesses still alive).

The publisher said he/she could find the right target market for the message, and, if that went well, perhaps broaden the audience. In each step of this process, we get further from reality—life as it happens—and closer to a story, the way you tell your grand-kids what your life was like when you were growing up—except you have to make sense out of your life even to yourself, so that it appears as if everything you did pointed to your current success. In other words, you do what the editor did: smooth out the rough spots, glide over the iffy parts (we all have them), and turn years of indecision or stagnancy into a golden era with opportunities all around. Funny how memory works that way. Even the bad parts take on meaning, though you didn’t realize it at the time. Musta been God’s plan, right? Nah, you just forgot.

Lesya Ukrainka     



This political statement book, The Babylonian Captivity, was written as an allegory, using the traditional story of the exile of Jews to Babylon to represent the plight of the Ukrainian people under the domination of the Russian Empire around the year 1900. (The echo of history suggests that cultural attitudes have not changed all that much between the two nations even now.) The resentment of some of the captives are roused against their own singer, but he ably defends his situation. Why an allegory? Lesya Ukrainka was not allowed by the Russians to publish her work in Ukrainian in her own home town. An activist, she found a way to broadcast the spirit of their resistance.

Here is a sample of the text:

    (An Old Man approaches an old woman sitting by the extinguished fire of another hearth, motionless, her head bowed down)
    Old Man: Give me supper!
    (The woman is silent and motionless.)
    Why haven’t you prepared it?
    (The woman is silent.)
    Why do you have ashes on your hair?
    (The woman is silent, and bows still lower.)
    Where is our daughter?
    The Old Woman: There! (points to Babylon and pours ashes upon her head.)
    Old Man: Adonai! (Tears his garments and falls down.)



Christina Rossetti     





Goblin Market is one of Christina Rossetti's children's story, with an edge toward the supernatural. The moral lesson is clear, however, in describing the power of temptation (the goblins) along with inherent dangers, which call upon one sister to go to great lengths to pull her sister back from getting so involved there might be no way back.




BritLit       History

AmLit       Shakespeare



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