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  • Indian Karma Yogi in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet
  • Sukhbir Singh (bio)

"I think I am an Oriental, Wallace."

Artur Sammler

Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, Shastras, Puranas, Upanishads, Ramayana, and Bhagavadgita have in the last two centuries attracted several American writers in their search for solutions to the perennial perplexities of life.1 Critics in both India and America have unequivocally hailed their attempts to find a lasting remedy for human predicament in the Hindu holy books.2 Yet, no commentator thus far has taken note of a similar influence on one of the most significant American novelists of the postmodern period: Saul Bellow. The purpose of this essay is to show the influence of karma yoga on Bellow in the portrayal of Artur Sammler—the protagonist of his well-known novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969).

The philosophy of karma yoga finds an elaborate mention in chapters I–V of The Bhagavadgita, which forms a sacred part of the Hindu religious epic, The Mahabharata. The karmic ideology inspires an individual to seek a morally and spiritually exalted life in a world fraught with evil. And, Lord Krishna's updesha [holy message] to the supreme archer Arjuna in the Gita informs the seeker about the various modes (yoga) of action (karma) whereby he can live a morally and spiritually virtuous life. For such a life, he has to first acquire an atmic santulan [spiritual equanimity] by controlling his errant five indriyas [senses]. With this, the individual becomes virkt from the phenomenal world—nonattached, desireless, and selfless. He then turns to a karma yogi, whose decisions in life and behavior with others are guided by an acute sense of righteousness. Devoid of fear, greed, anger, and egotism, he works as God wills and performs yajna daily—sacrifices his everyday actions in the service of God and for the welfare of every human being. Some of [End Page 434] these propensities, interestingly manifest in Sammler's character, call for an inquiry into the elements of karma yoga in Mr. Sammler's Planet. To trace the philosophy of karma yoga in Bellow's novel will help indicate the source and establish the authenticity of Sammler's mystical ideas, which otherwise seem hypothetical without a basis in an organized religious order. It will also impart a realistic touch to Sammler's character and a theological perception into his mental and spiritual harmony and holistic and universal ideals in the light of the Hindu yogic system. The essay's argument will advance in terms of Sammler's steady growth from an atheist [adharmi] in his youth to a believer [dharmi] in his old age. In the process, his consistently maturing views [dharna] will be critically examined with reference to the key concepts of karma yoga in the Gita. And, simultaneously, appropriate evidences of comparative nature from other religious disciplines such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, and of confirmatory nature from scholarly commentaries on Bellow's novel and the karmic philosophy, will be supplied to signify Sammler's status as a yogi.

The yogic aspect of Mr. Sammler's Planet until now has gone unnoticed largely due to a very enthusiastic critical response from Jewish American scholars, whose criticism of Bellow's novel is so compelling in relevance and richness as not to easily allow them or others to see beyond the existing scholarly scene. However, the critical responses of these Jewish American scholars to Bellow's novel are inherently united by their onerous search for a Jew (orthodox or liberal) in the septuagenarian protagonist, Sammler. In fact, Bellow published Mr. Sammler's Planet in the backdrop of the "turbulent sixties" when the conservatives (orthodox) and the moderns (liberal) or, in Bellow's own terms, the "Cleans" and the "Dirties," clashed vigorously to capture the American cultural and intellectual scene.3 The Jewish scholars who still cherished the "Old World" values of the fifties—dignity, order, stability, and God—hailed Bellow's novel as a manifesto of meaningful survival amid the anarchic social conditions in postwar America. The others who supported the counterculture of the sixties assailed the novel for Sammler's cynicism toward the new American spirit of freedom, excitement, novelty...


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