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Brahma
A Poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Source
Definition of Brahma
Emerson as Brahma
Who Is the Red Slayer?
Theme
Meter
Rhyme
Point of View
Summary of the Poem
Text of the Poem
Figures of Speech
Hinduism
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Emerson
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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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. 

Source

.......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.

Definitions: Brahma, Brahman, and Brahmin

.......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.
Brahman: the essence, or "soul," of the universe. 
Brahmin: name of the caste (social class) to which Hindu priests belong; a priest himself. 
.......Many ancient Hindus believed that the god Brahma encompassed the essence of the universe (Brahman). This essence consisted of the nature of everything that existsu0097every 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.

Emerson as Brahma

.......In his poem, Emerson assumes the persona of the creator god, Brahma. Speaking as Brahma, he says he contains the natureu0097that is, the essence (Brahman)u0097of 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. 

Who or What Is the Red Slayer?

.......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.

Theme

.......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.

Meter

.......Each line in the poem contains eight syllables. The dominant meter is iambic tetrameter, in which a line consists of four pairs of syllablesu0097the first syllable in each pair unstressed and the second stressed. The last two lines of the first stanza demonstrate the pattern:

.........1...................2................3................4
They KNOW..|..not WELL..|..the SUB..|..tle WAYS

.....1.................2..................3................4
I KEEP,..|..and PASS,..|..and TURN..|..a GAIN

Lines 1, 5, and 6 appear to break from this pattern by placing stress on the first syllable of the line. 

Rhyme

.......In each stanza, the first line rhymes with the third, and the second rhymes with the fourth. 

Point of View

.......Assuming 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.
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Summary of the Poem

.......The Hindu god Brahma tells the reader that what appear to be oppositesu0097a warrior and his enemy, remoteness and nearness, shadows and sunlight, and shame and fameu0097are really the same. Anyone who does not believe this truth lives in error, for all these things are part of the essence of Brahmau0097the eternal god who is beyond human understandingu0097and 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 godsu0097such as Yama, the lord of death; Agni, the god of fire; and Indra, the warrior god and god of rainu0097long 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.



Brahma
By Ralph Waldo Emerson

If the red slayer think he slays, 
  Or if the slain think he is slain, 
They know not well the subtle ways 
  I keep, and pass, and turn again. 

Far or forgot to me is near;..........................5
  Shadow and sunlight are the same; 
The vanished gods to me appear; 
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out; 
  When me they fly, I am the wings;............10
I am the doubter and the doubt, 
  And I the hymn the Brahmin sings. 

The strong gods pine for my abode, 
  And pine in vain the sacred Seven; 
But thou, meek lover of the good!................15
  Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.


Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration

If the red slayer think he slays, / Or if the slain think he is slain (lines 1 and 2)
Far or forgot to me is near (line 5)
Shadow and sunlight are the same (line 6)
When me they fly, I am the wings (line 10) 
I am the doubter and the doubt (line 11)
And pine in vain the sacred Seven (line 14)
Metaphor
When me they fly, I am the wings (line 10)
Comparison of Brahma to a bird

I am the doubter and the doubt (line 11)
Comparison of Brahma to a doubter and to doubt itself

And I the hymn the Brahmin sings (line 12)
Comparison of Brahma to a hymn

Paradox
Far or forgot to me is near (line 5)
Shadow and sunlight are the same (line 6)
And one to me are shame and fame (line 8)
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

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Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write a short poem focusing on a philosophical or theological subject. 
2. Write an essay comparing and contrasting the fundamental beliefs of Hinduism with the fundamental beliefs of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. 
3. Writers are supposed to communicate with readers in a way that is clear and understandable. Does Emerson fail in this regard by making "Brahma" difficult to fathom? 
4. What was Emerson's religion? 

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