A Poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work and Year of Publication
......."Brahma" is a lyric poem in which the author assumes the persona of the Hindu god Brahma. Emerson completed the poem in 1856, and the Atlantic Monthly published it in 1857.
.......Emerson based "Brahma" on ideas he read in the literature of Hinduism, including the Upanishads (which express the views of Hindu teachers) and the Bhagavad-Gita, a poem centering on ethics, the immortality of the soul, and other subjects.
.......In Hinduism, many important words begin with the letters b, r, a, h, and m. Three of them are Brahma, Brahman, and Brahmin. Their definitions are as follows:
Brahma: the god of creation........Many ancient Hindus believed that the god Brahma encompassed the essence of the universe (Brahman). This essence consisted of the nature of everything that exists—every human, animal, tree, cloud, grain of sand, emotion, idea, etc. Hindus learned about Brahma and Brahman from priests called Brahmins, who were schooled in Hindu texts.
.......The title of Emerson's poem refers both to the god of creation (Brahma) and the universal essence (Brahman) that he encompasses. Emerson uses Brahmin to refer to Hindu priests.
.......In his poem, Emerson assumes the persona of the creator god, Brahma. Speaking as Brahma, he says he contains the nature—that is, the essence (Brahman)—of everything in the universe. In other words, he is both "shadow and sunlight" (line 6), "shame and fame" (line 8), and "the doubter and the doubt" (line 11). Moreover, he is the "slayer" (line 1) as well as the "slain" (line 2). Thus, shadow and sunlight are the same even though they are different, for their essences are unified in Brahma. The same is true of shame and fame, doubter and doubt, slayer and slain, and all other things in the universe.
.......The first line of the poem refers to a "red slayer." In the Hindu social system, members of the military belonged to a caste known as Kshatriya. Because a person in this caste typically burned with a fiery temperament that made him a formidable soldier, he was associated with the color red. Thus, the red slayer is a Kshatriya warrior. Kshatriya is derived from the Sanskrit word katra, meaning rule.
.......The theme of "Brahma" is this: Human beings can find fulfillment and contentment only when they realize that they are part of a universal entity.
.......Each line in the poem contains eight syllables. The dominant meter is iambic tetrameter, in which a line consists of four pairs of syllables—the first syllable in each pair unstressed and the second stressed. The last two lines of the first stanza demonstrate the pattern:
.........1...................2................3................4Lines 1, 5, and 6 appear to break from this pattern by placing stress on the first syllable of the line.
.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second rhymes with the fourth.
the role of Brahma, Emerson presents the first fourteen lines of the poem
in first-person point of view. In the last two lines, he addresses the
reader, using second-person point of view.
Summary of the Poem
.......The Hindu god Brahma tells the reader that what appear to be opposites—a warrior and his enemy, remoteness and nearness, shadows and sunlight, and shame and fame—are really the same. Anyone who does not believe this truth lives in error, for all these things are part of the essence of Brahma—the eternal god who is beyond human understanding—and therefore are unified in him and are the same. Even a hymn sung by a Brahmin, a Hindu priest, is part of Brahma's essence. Other Hindu gods—such as Yama, the lord of death; Agni, the god of fire; and Indra, the warrior god and god of rain—long to live in Brahma's essence (line 13), as do the holiest Hindus of the past (line 14). Brahma ends the poem by telling the reader that if he finds his way to Brahma's essence he will have all that he needs for all eternity.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
If the red slayer think he slays, / Or if the slain think he is slain (lines 1 and 2)Metaphor
When me they fly, I am the wings (line 10)Paradox
Far or forgot to me is near (line 5)Hinduism
.......Hinduism is a major world religion that developed in India more than three thousand years ago. It encompasses many beliefs. One Hindu may accept some beliefs that another Hindu rejects. Generally, however, Hindus believe in a supreme being, the creator Brahma. They also believe in two other major deities that, with Brahma, make up a trinity: Siva (also called Shiva), the god of destruction and restoration, and Vishnu, the preserver. Hindus believe that the Atman (spirit, soul, or eternal part of an individual) survives death and transmigrates to another body (human or animal) unless the individual has achieved a state of moral perfection and enlightenment called moksha. When a person achieves moksha, he becomes worthy of eternal peace in union with Brahman.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1. Write a short poem focusing
on a philosophical or theological subject.