The Transcendent Genius of Rudyard Kipling

Those who are blessed with great talents are sometimes also greatly tormented by inner-demons which lead them on to great follies (or worse.) We, however, should not allow our vision of the greatness that talent produces to be blocked by the clouds of darkness that folly sends up. We ourselves do not desire that other people should chiefly judge us on the basis of that which is worst about ourselves, we want them to overlook that, because the ‘real me‘ is so much more than my greatest mistakes. Well, the same applies to the creative works of those whose insight into the essence of things-as-they-are is greater than their self-awareness or their grasp on the politics of the day.

Which brings me to Rudyard Kipling. Because of his Imperialism (always with a capital I,) jingoism and presumed racism, as well as his whiteness, maleness and deadness he often stands at the head of lists of those whose works should be instantly removed in order to decolonise the curriculum. Yet he was an immensely talented writer with an imaginative, intuitive ability to grasp the inner realities of lives and lifestyles other than his own, and to share those sympathetically with the wider world. For example, without apparently being in any way mystically minded himself- where mysticism is defined as a direct encounter with the numinous, transcendent, reality that underlies the cosmos- he showed himself able to truthfully depict the mystical journey and some perspectives of the mystics. And that is the subject of this essay.

The Miracle of Purun Bhagat tells the story of an English educated Brahmin, the prime minister of a small Indian State and a recipient from the British of the honourable title ‘Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire,’ who abandons everything apart from a begging bowl and takes to the roads as a wandering sannyasin, an Indian holy man. Eventually he makes his way to the Himalayas “‘Yonder,’ said Purun Bhagat, breasting the lower slopes of the Sewaliks, where the cacti stand up like seven-branched candlesticks—‘yonder I shall sit down and get knowledge.’” What Kipling has grasped here is that the kind of knowledge which the mystic seeks is not found through the mere act of abandonment, the dispossessing oneself of daily cares and the ownership of things, but through a combining of this abandonment with a sitting and waiting. It is a type of knowledge which reveals itself to those who wait for it and who do nothing else but wait for it.

The now former wanderer settles himself into a small shine near a hill village and begins regular a daily practice-
He would repeat a Name softly to himself a hundred hundred times, till, at each repetition, he seemed to move more and more out of his body, sweeping up to the doors of some tremendous discovery; but, just as the door was opening, his body would drag him back, and, with grief, he felt he was locked up again in the flesh and bones of Purun Bhagat.

Being unattached to things, being still, emptying one’s mind of everything but the name of God; these are the gateways to the sort of knowledge that the mystic desires to obtain. Even so, they do but briefly draw back a small part of one of the many veils which conceal the full vision of the Transcendent Other which he or she seeks. The disciples of Christ had a similar experience in Emmaus ‘He sat at meat with them, He took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew Him; and He vanished out of their sight’.(Luke 24:30-31 KJV) Kipling, who had the acuteness to recognise these truths about the mystic journey also, then, grasped how essential patience and hope in the face of these nearly-but-not-quite-grasped experiences was for the mystic seeker ‘He knew for a certainty that there was nothing great and nothing little in this world: and day and night he strove to think out his way into the heart of things, back to the place whence his soul had come.’

Kipling, of course, was British and not Indian, and in the climax of the story Purun Bhagat offers his life as a sacrifice to save the villagers from a death which their sleep-wrapped condition would have otherwise brought upon them. In this, no doubt, Kipling demonstrates a Christian influenced sensibility. That is certainly the case in another of his short stories ‘The Gardener‘ which tells of the journey of a bereaved woman to one of the huge cemeteries for the war dead established after the conflict of 1914-1918. Searching for a particular grave among the thousands she has this encounter-
A man knelt behind a line of headstones – evidently a gardener, for he was firming a young plant in the soft earth. She went towards him, her paper in her hand. He rose at her approach and without prelude or salutation asked: “Who are you looking for?”
“Lieutenant Michael Turrell – my nephew”, said Helen slowly and word for word, as she had many thousands of times in her life.
The man lifted his eyes and looked at her with infinite compassion before he turned from the fresh-sown grass toward the naked black crosses.
“Come with me”, he said, “and I will show you where your son lies.”
When Helen left the Cemetery she turned for a last look. In the distance she saw the man bending over his young plants; and she went away, supposing him to be the gardener

In the 1920’s Kipling would have taken for granted that his readers would immediately have recognised that this was a clear reference to the Gospel account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ, whom she did not recognise, and that they (the readers) would have interpreted his story using this knowledge as a key tool for understanding. In the 2020’s we cannot take any such thing for granted. This is the relevant biblical text-
She turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing Him to be the gardener, saith unto Him, Sir, if thou have borne Him hence, tell me where thou hast laid Him, and I will take Him away.

(John 20:14-15)

The mystical insight, or at least the Christian mystical insight, here is that by grace we encounter the Transcendent One in our ordinary lives, often at moments of great suffering and anguish, and although we do not always recognise Him nonetheless we always depart from Him refreshed and renewed, with a sense of peace we did not previously possess. Kipling, whose own son had been killed in the World War, was himself a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. If he wrote of such encounters it may not be because he himself had experienced them but possibly because he longed to do so and, therefore, he understood something about those who framed that longing within the context of their religious faith.

Kipling’s most famous poem is ‘If,’ which has been called by some Indian commentators a distillation of the essence of the Bhagavad Gita, a key Hindu scriptural text, contains these lines-
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

The second line of this stanza tends, I think, to get overshadowed by the other three. This is because in the West the whole tendency of societal development for the last several centuries has been precisely towards making thought- clear analytical thought- our definite aim, as being the means whereby all human problems will, and can be, solved. This is the pursuit of the kind of knowledge which Purun Bhagat left behind in order to seek a different kind of knowledge, requiring a different sort of knowing. The philosopher Karl Popper wrote that “all life is problem solving.” It would, though, be more accurate to say that all Western Thought is problem solving, but that at least some human desire was directed not towards the solution of any problem but the direct realisation of and encounter with, That-Which-Is, prior to the first, and after the last, of the problems requiring solution. Another poet, the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross put it this way-
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies

So, when Kipling talks about thinking without making thoughts our aim he is pointing to the usefulness of the ratiocination which leads us up to the point of Encounter, or which enables us in some sort to describe it afterwards, but which we need to lay aside temporarily because we will know more about encounters through encountering than we will do by thinking about encounters. That is, we learn things by doing which we will not learn by merely thinking.

A comment that I often used to come across during my twentieth century childhood was that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The idea being that an analysis of the mere elements involved in a particular unique combination will not tell you about the uniqueness of it, only about its elements, and if you focus on those you will fundamentally misunderstand and misinterpret the thing before you. That comment is not something I come across in the twenty-first century because the currently dominant narrative rejects it. It argues that the whole is actually less than the sum of its parts because it consists only of the weakest most reprehensible element in the thing (or person) examined. But if we dismiss the entire whole because of the one part we disapprove of then the greatest loss will be suffered not by that which we have dismissed but by ourselves because we will have preferred our partial thought to the potential benefit of a total encounter with that which is before us. Humility, however, should teach us that even a flawed human being has the ability to teach us something about ourselves, and that we should, therefore listen to such voices. Or, as Arthur Conan Doyle once put it ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognises genius

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My other blog is thoughtfully catholic.


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