The Metempsychotic Birds: An Exploration of Samuel Beckett’s Allusions to the Upanishads

Thirthankar Chakraborty, University of Kent


This paper discusses references made to Indian culture and philosophy in Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, tracing them back to their sources via Arthur Schopenhauer. The allusions induce a rethinking of the conventional Cartesian interpretation of Murphy, and reconsider the usage of compulsive voice and situational irony within the novel from an Upanishadic point of view. The paper then analyses Waiting for Godot, and questions whether Beckett might have effaced his early allusions to Indian religious thought or could he have ironically personified the Upanishadic allegory of dualism as Vladimir and Estragon confined to a stage containing a single tree?

[Keywords: Samuel Beckett, Indian philosophy, Upanishads, dualism, allegory]

 Establishing Textual Parallels

In his German letter dated 7 July 1937, Samuel Beckett notes, “For in the forest of symbols that are no symbols, the birds of interpretation, that is no interpretation, are never silent” (Beckett 2009: 519). He writes this in a context where he appears to censure people, critics in particular, or the birds of interpretation, as being “hard of hearing” and incapable of remaining silent. This paper magnifies Beckett’s choice of words and considers whether he might have allowed these birds of interpretation to travel through his first published novel Murphy and into his later play Waiting for Godot.

In another letter dated 17 July 1936, Samuel Beckett writes that he chose to keep Murphy’s “death subdued and go on as coolly and finish as briefly as possible [. . .] because it seemed to me to consist better with the treatment of Murphy throughout, with the mixture of compassion, patience, mockery and ‘tat twam asi’ that I seem to have directed on him throughout” (Beckett 1983: 102). Whilst Murphy along with Beckett’s other works have yielded various critical exegeses vis-à-vis themes ranging from humour, ethics and aesthetics, scholars have so far largely ignored the phrase tat twam asi, loosely translated as “that you are”, originally from the Chandogya Upanishad. Based on empirical evidence from Beckett’s letters and the Whoroscope notebook, past critics have observed that Beckett adopted the phrase from the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, without intending any direct reference to Indian thought.As John Pilling notes for example, by the time Beckett began writing Murphy, his grasp of Schopenhauer had become “second nature”, so much so that he dispensed with specific references (Pilling 1992: 14). My objective, on the contrary, is to expand this Schopenhauerian influence in Murphy and have it flow into a limited tract of Indian philosophy, as discussed in the Upanishads.

First, however, it is necessary to establish empirically the relation between Murphy and Indian philosophy. One must account for the fact that there is as yet a complete lack of archival material to suggest that Beckett studied the Upanishads, although the Bangladeshi playwright Sayeed Ahmed recalls in a newspaper interview that during his meetings with Beckett in Paris, Beckett would ask him probing questions about the Upanishadic philosophy. A major advantage is that Murphy and the Upanishads are essentially works of art, not cut and dried philosophical treatises, and consequently merit a comparative literary analysis, if nothing else. Beckett is not interested in delving into ontological disputes, just as the Upanishads “would not be considered philosophical in the modern, academic sense” (Britannica).Also, Schopenhauer, who stands as a common denominator that links Beckett to Indian Philosophy, is often compared to “a wisdom writer” rather than a philosopher (O’Hara 254).

At the start of Murphy, there are several references that are directly relevant to the Upanishads. In the first chapter, we learn that Murphy visits Neary several times and sits at his feet (Beckett 1957: 3). This, as annotated in Demented Particulars(2004), might refer to the term “Upanishad”, the Sanskrit etymology of which can be translated as “sitting down near” or “sitting close to” the guru or the teacher’s feet in order to gain spiritual knowledge (Ackerley2004: 32). Thus, if an immediate parallel is to be drawn, one could regard Murphy as a character curious about the Upanishads, and could further claim that the author was at least aware of the existence of this central body of early Sanskrit text.

In addition to the general definition, the term “Upanishad” also originally meant “‘connection’ or ‘equivalence’ and was used in reference to the homology between aspects of the human individual and celestial entities or forces that increasingly became primary features of Indian cosmology” (Britannica).This second meaning markedly coincides with the fact that Murphy pedantically follows the astrological chart or “ThemaCoeli With Delienations Compiled By Ramaswami Krishnaswami Narayanaswami Suk” (Beckett 1957: 32).What’s more, the first three parts of the compiler’s name are Indian, with the suffix swami signifying “holy man”. The prefix of the first two parts from left to right are the major avatars of Vishnu – Rama, from the Ramayana, and Krishna, from the Mahabharata – while the third, Narayana, is an alternative name for Vishnu, the preserver of the cosmos in Hinduism. The Vaishnavas or the monotheistic followers of Vishnu regard their God as the personification of the Brahman, the all-pervasive self beyond verbal grasp, or the tat from tat twamasi, a concept immediately relevant to Murphy’s design as a character.

To further this heuristic approach, Neary’s ability to stop his heart in “situations irksome beyond endurance” is relevant, added to the hand gestures that he practices corresponding to murdras (3). As annotated by Chris Ackerley, “the relation between heart rate and respiration permits the individual to exercise some control by means of sustained expiration” (Ackerley 2004: 32), which contextually refers to pranayama, the control of breath or vital power. In the Chandogya Upanishad (I.5), breath plays a central role, as elaborated by Max Müller, a nineteenth century German scholar of comparative language, religion, and mythology (Britannica), “The breath in the mouth, or the chief breath, says Om, i.e. gives permission to the five senses to act, just as the sun, by saying Om, gives permission to all living beings to move about” (Müller 1879: 12). Thus, having control over his breath, not only is Neary capable of stopping his heart, but he can also supposedly liberate his self from quotidian necessities such as drinking water and he can also annul “the pangs of hopeless sexual inclination” (3). What is more, Neary has acquired his knowledge of pranayama “somewhere north of the Nerbudda” (3), more commonly known as the river Narmada that runs across the central states of India. However, as far as the plot is concerned, Neary has clearly failed in his venture of suppressing his desires, which are directed instead “‘To gain the affections of Miss Dwyer’”…Access Full Text of the Article