Johan dèr Mouw and Vedanta
In the same year that Dèr Mouw ‘began to look to the East’, the essay ‘Sadhana’ (New York 1913) by the Indian poet and mystic Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was published. He wanted to “bring Western readers into touch with the ancient spirit of India, as revealed in our sacred texts and manifested in the life of today” [p. viii]. Tagore relates the difference between the Eastern and Western world views to the origin of Eastern and Western philosophy.
The civilization of India arose in a land of vast forests, writes Tagore, it was sheltered, nourished and clothed by it.[…] The conditions of forest life could not overcome man’s mind and did not enfeeble the current of his energies, but only gave to it a partcular direction. Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature, his mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisitions. His aim was not to acquire, but to realise , to enlarge his consciousness, by growing with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation, and that the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavour of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.
But even in the heyday of its material prosperity, the heart of India ever looked back with adoration upon the early ideal of strenuous self-realization and the dignity of the simple life of the forest hermitage, and drew its best inspiration from the wisdom stored there.
According to Tagore, the civilization of ancient Greece, was nurtured within city walls. The cradle of all modern [Western] civilizations was in fact brick and mortar. These walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook, wich begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. […] It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built.
In the West the prevalent feeling is that nature belongs exclusively to inanimate things and to beasts and that there is a sudden inaccountable break where human-nature begins. But the Indian mind never has any hesitation in acknowledging its kinship with nature, its unbroken relation with all. The fundamental unity of creation was not simply a philosophical speculation for India; it was her life-object to realize this great harmony in feeling and action.
The man of science knows, in one aspect that the world is not merely what it appears to be to our senses; he knows that earth and water are really the play of forces that manifest themselves to us as earth and water – how we can partially apprehend.
Likewise the man who has his spiritual eyes open knows that the ultimate truth about earth and water lies in our apprehension of the eternal will, which works in time and takes shape in the forces we realise under those aspects. This is not mere knowledge, as science is, but it is a perception of the soul by the soul.
When a man does not realise his kinship with the world, he lives in a prison-house whose walls are alien to him. When he meets the eternal spirit in all objects, then he is emancipated, for then he discovers the fullest significance of the world into which he is born. Then he finds himself in perfect truth and his harmony with the all is established (p.2-8).
We do not know what the spiritual path of Dèr Mouw has been. His choice of ‘Adwaita’ as a poet’s name suggests a certain affinity with the spiritual path of advaita vedanta. In any case, he celebrated his rebirth with an ‘explosion’ of poems, which started in 1913 and would continue until his death in 1919. In his first collection of poetry, ‘Brahman’, he compared his spiritual breakthrough to the pupation of a caterpillar into a butterfly (Part I, p. 9):
“Reluctantly blind to world splendour
Would I like to crawl, caterpillar, through the philosophical jungle:
Through wide suffocating darkness no gust blew,
bore no beauty, crooked, her solar-lance;
Stringy, sometimes fragrant German, always colorful French
filled my longing stomach with fibers.
frightening often, often enticing my gnawing:
Baumgarten, Fichte, Strauss and Rosenkranz.
Then my autumn came storming; and I spun
from endless sallowness of sorrow
me a world-excluding cocoon;
and waited silently. Until I left the pupa.
Now I hover round nature and own song,
Thy swallow-tailed butterfly, O Brahman’s Sun!”
The authoritative Literary critic Menno ter Braak (1902-1940) wrote in 1925 in the essay ‘Dat ben jij’ about the poems of Dèr Mouw: “Brahman gives to man as he conquers: shouting triumph in a desolate plain against the merciful sky” (V.w. vol. 1, p. 243).