Hindu Religious Ideologies Reflected in Leaves of Grass
Dr. Sangeeta Singh,
Lecturer - English Literature, Govt. J.D.B P.G Girls College , Kota (Rajasthan) - India
Ph. 94143 31103, email:
Dr. Sanjit Mishra
Prof. of English, IIT, Roorkey (Uttrakhand) - India
Ph. 95487 74358, email : sanjitmishra2001@yahoo.com


To use the religious metaphor, it would be better to say that out of the churning of the ocean (Samudra manthan) of Hindu religious philosophy, there popped up some ideologies as beautiful gems. Whitman used them to decorate his plain and prosaic verse. To indicate deal without discuss those ideologies which illumine his verse like diamonds, is the objective of this study. As an extension to this objective, the opinions from critics, scholars, philosophers and extracts from the scriptures have been put forth for the complete examination of their basic concepts. A reader of this type of religious literature, pertaining to Hindu ideologies can grasp them after contemplating over them. After having the basic knowledge of the Hindu religious philosophical concepts and systems the tracing of these underlying ideas is a convenient step. The resemblance between the scriptural ideologies and the excerpts from Leaves of Grass can be traced in several common concepts. Such a comparative study is based on various excerpts from the related verse portion.
One of the similarities found between the two streams that is the verse of Leaves of Grass and the hidden treasure of the systemic religious ideas is –reverence to women. As in Manusmriti (another great Hindu scripture) it has been said that where a woman is worshipped (respected) gods enjoy treading there –“yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devta”-(chap.3 shloka 56, p.110). In the same way Whitman in the stanza twenty one of his poem “Song of Myself” pays regards to women, saying “ I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,/And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man/ And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.” (422, 426-428).
This perhaps he has written to emphasize the feminine aspect of nature, and, finally, to assert the necessity of merging the qualities of both sexes in every individual but the actual feeling of reverence cannot be denied when he names her different roles in life and her ages as girl and woman1 (though he cannot be called a feminist because he has written a lot for the man also):
"The young mother and the old mother shall comprehend me,
The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment
And forget where they are,
They and all would resume what I have told them".(Song of Myself: 1258-1261).
This manifestation of the wholesomeness can be compared to the “Ardhnarishwar” concept of projection of Lord Shiva whose one of the manifestation is seen as vertically divided in two equal parts half man and half woman vertically in Hindu religion.Next the ideology of sacrifice is to be discussed here in the process of the study. In Hindu religion the sacrifice of a body of an incarnation or son of God is never seen, though in some of the myths like the sacrifice of King Harishchandra (Shankar n. pag.) and King Mordhwaj (Kalidas n. pag.) who sacrificed his own son by his own hands have been heard. Of course, the sacrifice of the marital joy of the incarnation of God has been seen in the famous ‘Ram- katha’—the story of the life of King Rama. He renounces his beautiful and pious wife Seeta even after ordeal and sends her to sage Kanva’s hermitage for maintaining the social equilibrium in his kingdom and for pacifying the voices of the fourth section of the society-‘sudra’( Gita press,1994). Here it is worthy to mention that Whitman has used the word ‘sudra’ in its correct sense in his poem “Chanting the Square Deific” - “With sudra face and worn brow—black, but in the depths of my heart, proud as any” (L.G. 444, 29). The piety for the down trodden has been shown by Lord Rama in his sacrifice and here the similarity can easily be seen in these lines in the same poem by Whitman:
All sorrow, labor, suffering, I tallying it, absorb in myself,
Many times have I been rejected, taunted, put in prison, and crucified, and many times shall be again,
All the world have I given up for my dear brothers’ and sisters’ sake, for the soul’s sake. (L.G. 444, 17-19)
While talking about the ideology of sacrifice and austerity, it reminds of yet another sacrifice of King Rama as his exile to forests for 14 years by the orders of his father for the sake of honing the ideals and religion in the Kingdom. (Tulsidas 1994) From the point of view of comparison, it is noteworthy that Christ was crucified for the sins of the humankind. In “Salut au Monde!” this acceptance of ritual along with the pathos for the sacrifice is seen when the poet asserts “I see Christ eating the bread of his last supper in the midst of youths and old persons,/I see where the strong divine young man the Hercules toil’d faith-fully and long and then died” (L.G. 142, 97-98)
The ideology of immortality of the soul is also seen in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”in this immortal quotation “The smallest sprout shows that there is really no death” (6:126, L.G. 34). This belief also has been well established in the twentieth shloka from the second chapter of The Bhagavatg?t?:
He is never born, nor does he die at any time, nor having (once) come to be will he again cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, permanent and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain (107). A discernible identity between religious ideologies of the third line of the above quotation can be traced in the following proclamation of a creditable book “The Vedic concept of Atma” that quotes Brihadaraanyak Upanishad (2.3.1) :
Mrtyu resides in amrta and amrta resides in mrtyu. (Both are interwoven with each other). Mrtyu pervades Vivasv?n (Brahman) and the ?tman of mrtyu resides in Vivasvan (Brahman). That is why mrtyu does not meet with death... (Ramanathan 29). For Whitman, death has no sting;. In his poem “Scented Herbage of My Breast” he asserts it saying “you faint tinged roots, you make me think of death (114, 10).
Even passing over of the soul has been shown as it has been often heard in Hindu folk tales and legends like Savitri and Satyawan about which Whitman had also written in an article. Though here it sounds like supernatural and gloomy yet it is not a description invoking fear in the poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death”:
Whispers of heavenly death mummur’d I hear,
Labial gossip of night, sibilant chorals,
Footsteps gently ascending, mystical breezes wafted soft and low,
Ripples of unseen rivers…
I see, just see skyward, great cloud-masses,
Some soul is passing over.) (L.G. 442, 1-12)
Whitman, in the sixth stanza of “Salut au Monde!” echoess the same language of The Bhagavadg?t? (102), where Lord Krishna in eleventh shloka of the second chapter, denies Arjuna to weep and mourn over the relatives
Do not weep for me,
This is not my true country, I have lived banish’d from my true country, I now go back there,
I return to the celestial sphere, where everyone goes in his turn (L.G. 142, 101-103).
In section six of “Song of Myself” he hints that death is as big a reality as life is:
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward nothing collapses.
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier. (L.G 34, 128-130).
As well as it is reminiscent of Herbert’s famous poem “The Retreat” where the poet wants to return to heaven. This is the famous Hindu religious ideology of heavenly abode which is said to be the actual home of the souls.But Whitman has spoken of death as sleep in his poem “The Sleepers” and speaks like lord Krishna who knows every incarnation of each and every creature in the universe “I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers” (L.G.426, 30-31). The last line of the poem indicates clearly that he will meet his mother after death as the day has been regarded as life and the darkness indicates death-land— “I will duly pass the day O my mother, and duly return to you” ( L.G. 433,185).
Whitman seems to associate the unattainable ‘detached state of being’ as well as this temporal world, both with ‘a dream’. Here, in his poem, “Song of the Universal” he talks of his craving for salvation and calls the lack of the desired things a dream, and suddenly switches over to the last line saying “And all the world a dream” inculcating the ideology of “maya”:
Nay but the lack of it the dream.
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream.
And all the world a dream. (L.G. 228-229, 57-65)
He seems to know the Panchtattav concept (that body is made of air, water, soil, ether and fire) because in the very beginning, in the sixth line of the “Song of Myself” he inculcates this knowledge “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air” (28, 6). He uses ‘air’ adding it to the Christian religious ideology where, in Genesis (3.19) of The Holy Bible Lord God says to Adam “dust you are” and “to dust you shall return” (7). It has been said in many of the devotional songs that we go to be the dust after death:
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. (“Song of Myself” 89, 1337-40)
He very calmly echoes the famous ideology of sthitpragya (wise person) from fifteenth shloka of second chapter of The Bhagavadg?t? (105) which says “The man who is not troubled by these, o chief of men (Arjuna), who remains the same in pain and pleasure, who is wise makes himself fit for eternal life” (108). Now, here we can easily perceive that he is echoing in his small poem “Me Impurturbe” this famous ideology of sthitpragya (wise person) when he asserts “Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies,/To confront night, storms, hunger ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do (L.G. 11, 8-9)
Now, this is rationality, reason, wisdom, ideology, everything else but not a spiritual experience which is associated with mysticism. Hindu religious ideologies recognize that both determinism and free will are applicable to human beings, and that how bound or how free we are ,depends on our spiritual awareness. If we are not conscious of our spiritual Self and do not know how to stand apart from the movements of our nature, we will be driven to action by desires and emotions, we will be overpowered by joy and grief, the consequences of success and failure in action. On the other hand, if we are aware of the movements of nature—desires and emotions—within ourselves and can stand apart from them, we will be able to have control over nature and exercise free will. In the forty seventh shloka of the second chapter of the The Bhagavadg?t? it has been instructed that the ideal way to attain freedom is to offer every action to God and leave the results in God’s hand (trans. Radhakrishnan 119). Here, we can apply this ideology on Whitman’s excerpts from Leaves of Grass. Dorothy F. Mercer, who in her article “Walt Whitman on Karma Yoga” opines:
“Whitman's attitude toward right action is similar to the karma yoga of Hindu scripture. Beyond "the exoteric teaching and action of service, beyond mental purification and ordinary unselfish endeavour" (September-October 1947, 150-153).
For the comparative study, regarding the ideology of sin and atonement, “Autumn Rivulets” is a suitable collection for discussion. In a poem from this section – “O Star of France.”, Whitman talks of the sinners in a liberal way and says that the painful phase of life is the sanctifying agent for that sinful part of life and it leaves the sinner purged off—“Miserable! Yet for thy errors, vanities, sins, I will not now rebuke thee,/ Thy unexampled woes and pangs have quell’d them all, And left thee sacred” (L.G. 396, 15-16).
In Hindu religious ideologies, it is clearly indicated that one has to reap what he sows and when that karm-phal (the after effect of the deeds) is exhausted only then one is freed from that bondage of life and death. In “Unnamed Lands” the poet reconciles the evil and sins of all the residents of the unnamed lands saying that they are the eventual part of “the scheme of the world every bit as much as we now belong to it” (L.G. 372, 11). They get in life, strictly according to their deeds—“In exact proportion to what he or she grew from in life, and out/of what he or she did, felt, became, loved, sinn’d, in life (L.G 372, 22).
He has said in “O Star of France” he does not want to rebuke the sinner but he develops the incorporated ideology in “Song of Prudence” by brooding over the subject in the context of the Upanishads:
What is prudence is indivisible,
Declines to separate one part of life from every part,
Divides not the righteous from the unrighteous or the living from the dead,
Matches every thought or act by its correlative,
Knows no possible forgiveness or deputed atonement, (L.G.375-376, 46-50)
“Song of Prudence” indicates the ideology of sanchit karma (accumulated deeds) leading to prarabdha (the predestination in according to actions the present or future life) according to the accumulated action during the present)
Not one word or deed, not venereal sore, discoloration, privacy of the onanist,
Putridity of gluttons or rum-drinkers, peculation, cunning, betrayal, murder, seduction, prostitution,
But has results beyond death as really as before death. (L.G. 374, 12-14)
This quotation of “Song of Prudence” literally denotes the karm- phal (as you sow so you reep) ideology from The Bhagavadg?t?
All that a person does, says, thinks, is of consequence,
Not a move can a man or woman make, that affects him or her in a day, month, any part of the direct lifetime, or the hour or death,
But the same affects him or her onward afterward through the indirect lifetime.
The indirect is just as much as the direct, body, if not more. (L.G.374, 7-11)
Whitman has used the word m?y? in its correct sense in his small poem “Are you the new person drawn towards me?”—“Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man? / Have you no thought O dreamer that it may be all m?y?, illusion?” (L.G.123, 8-9).
Here he is mentioning the holy river of the Hindus- the sacred and purifier Ganges in the section thirteen of “Salut au Monde!” “You bather bathing in the Ganges!” and then as if to renounce such rituals as the Upanishadic seers did, he claims having some vedantic feeling of oneness with the humanity later in the poem:
My spirit has passed in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them” (L.G. 148, 212-214)
In Hindu religion it is believed that after death one’s soul goes upwards (urdhwagati) to heaven if he or she has done good deeds in life and contrarily downwards (adhogati) to hell. This also is somewhat akin to Christian cosmology. Whitman prepares his soul for upward journey away from the gravitational approach of the earth in the poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul” “Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us” (L.G.441, 12). The passage to heaven is hinted, ‘blank’ (unlike in Herbert’s poem “The Retreat” who gives images like ‘gilded cloud’ and ‘palm trees’ in heaven) and heaven as inaccessible. The poet is also unaware of the details of the passage from the poem “Darest Thou Now O Soul”:
I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land (L.G. 441, 7-9).
He believes that both death and birth are merely stages in the never-ending transmutation of body and soul, parts of the great process of evolution. The ‘joy’ expressed in the poem “The Mystic Trumpeter” is the celebration of this revelation that all which is visible is illusion, only Supreme Reality exists, (Brahman satya, jagat mithya)- a Hindu religious ideology by Shankara the great propounder of monism. Let us see one clip from the column “The Speaking Tree” that looks like a summary of Shankara’s intended gist of the referred part only:
We are the Supreme Bliss personified Brahmn, It is our own Self that dwells in all. The Happiness that is experienced in the world is in fact just a glimpse of Self-bliss. It is the bliss of your own inner Self that is experienced as being derived from the external objects due to ignorance. (Lilashahji 12)
Now an obvious query comes up in this context that if Whitman knew that the entire finite or perceptible world is an illusion, then what prompted him to paint the external world with so much involvement. The answer lies in the reason that he knew the religious ideology which indicates the fact that the perfection of God overflows into the world. The world is the outflow of the surplus energies of God, the supreme artist. He knew that m?y? is the manifested part of the Brahman and thus consequently this emerged part ‘Lila’ or sport is also His extension. This Lila brings out the rationality, the freedom and the joyous exercise of spontaneity involved in art of certain manifestations of God. This may be counted as the reason why he proclaims to write like a materialist:
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality (“ Starting from Paumanok” 18, 71-73)
But as it has been found in his poetry that at some places Whitman contradicts what he has proclaimed elsewhere, he is seen talking about the commitment to write about the soul just in the previous line of the same poem:
Yes here comes my mistress the soul.
The soul,
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer than water ebbs and flows. (“Starting from Paumanok” 18, 68-70). Whitman’s poem “To Thee Old Cause” also looks like the following shloka of The Bhagavatg?t?:
Never was the spirit born, never the spirit shall cease to be. Never was a time when it was not – end and beginning are but dreams. (The Bhagavatg?t? Gita 2.20. 107)
This small poem mentioned just two lines above, says that cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed, as quoted by Ralph W Emerson in ‘sacred space’ under the title ‘The End’ (30 April 2006. 12). The Nyaya philosophy also says that if there is something before your eyes, it must have a reason behind that, as the world must have a creator behind its creation. That reason, the eternal and supreme power, Brahman has been delineated in such a tiny poem in such a potential manner. The poet exclaims as if awed by the magnificence of Brahman:
Deathless throughout the ages, races, lands…
Thou orb of many orbs!
Thou seething principle! thou well-kept, latent germ! thou centre! (L.G.4, 4-11) Religion is a way of life for Whitman as for the Hindus, that is why he is devoted to suffering humanity. Just as one has to quote poetry for the sake of confirmation of the statement, one has to tell the acts also to define the real nature of the poet. O’Connor William Douglas in his vindication “The Good Gray Poet” praises Whitman for his good acts just according to his words:
He does not shrink from the smell of their sickening gangrene; he does not flinch from their bloody and rotten mutilations; he draws nigher for all that; he sticks closer; he dresses those wounds; he fans those burning temples; he moistens those parched lips; he washes those wasted bodies; he watches often and often in the dim ward by the sufferer's cot all night long; he reads from the New Testament, the words sweeter than music to the sinking soul; he soothes with prayer the bedside of the dying; he sits, mournful and loving, by the wasted dead. (whitmanarchive.org)
These acts bring peace to him, therefore in this context and the passage below from “Song of Myself” can be associated not with many complicated heavy phrases but simply ‘love’ for human beings. As we can see in the fifth section of the poem: “And that a kelson of the creation is love” (L.G.33, 95).
He bestows immense importance to body and it is worth to mention here at this point that in the fifth sarg (chapter) of one of the old epic of Sanskrit literature Kumaarsambhavam, it is written that this body is the medium, source of the compliance of doing the religious deeds (shariramadhayam khalu dharmasya sadhanam) (Kalidas 30). This is the reason why Whitman goes on chanting like this—“The man's body is sacred and the woman's body is sacred, / No matter who it is, it is sacred--is it the meanest one in the laborers' gang? (“I Sing the Body Electric” 97, 84-85). Soul alone cannot perform those righteous deeds, though the utmost credit is given to soul. Section Five of “Song of Myself” makes a similar point when the speaker addresses the soul:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, And you must be abased to the other.(L.G. 32: 82-83)
As it has been said earlier that Whitman makes a balance between body and soul, he in other concepts also seems to be a blender; at the same time he uses the rich heritage of past and modern off beat themes, removal from the past and involvement in it, between a stance as user of ideas and ideologies and a stance as one who experiences, he mediates between consciousness and reality, mind and matter, past and future.
“A Riddle Song” employs directly that technique that is present indirectly in nearly all Whitman’s poetry. The two words of “God’s riddle” may be Brahman and m?y?, or birth and death which he says in just in the middle of the poem:
Two little breaths of words comprising,
Two words, yet all from first to last comprised on it. (L.G. 476-478, 1-2)
While talking about his mysticism and Hindu religious ideologies it is next to impossible to leave discussing the soul of this study – the poem “Passage to India. The gifts and insight and splendour of old occult Brahma and the tender and junior Buddha, China’s wisdom and the imaginative wonder of Persia and Arabia, all, all shall find their place when
All these separation and gaps shall be taken up and hook’d and link’d together,
The whole earth, this cold, impassive, voiceless earth shall be completely justified (L.G.415,109-110).
Whitman here, is a visionary, neither mystical nor pragmatic, sounds more like Shelley than Raidaas or Namdev (both are the poets of bhakti school of Hindi literature):
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together (L.G.412, 30-35).
In the context of this poem , it would be better to draw the attention to Som P Sharma who in "Self, Soul, and God in “Passage to India” says that the poem demonstrates Whitman's affinity to Hindu metaphysics in its “many-leveled awareness of self as biological organism, metaphysical essence, and Godhead as the three coalesce into one another without losing their uniqueness (394-99). This is nothing but the Hindu religious ideology of vasudhaiv kutumbakam (global oneness- all the world is a family)

Work cited

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O' Conner, William Douglas. "The good grey poet. A vindication." Whitman Archive ID.anc.00170. n.p.whitmanarchive.org. Web. 25 Nov 2011.
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- - -. “A Riddle Song”. Leaves of Grass. Eds. Scully Bradly and Harold W. Blodgett. New Delhi: Prentice Hall, 1986. Print.
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1. Whitman loved his mother very much and wrote letters to her regularly.
2. Here, it is worthy to mention that from Whitman’s residence, articles related to Hindu epics have been collected.
3. The abbreviation – L.G. stands for Leaves of Grass.
© Author

(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Summer 2013)