Specifically the last lines of the Wasteland:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

[The Wasteland]

The poem was written in 1922, and the invocation can be taken as a response to the horrors of the first World War, but I'm interested in the mythological context, and wonder what insight may be found in the specific text Eliot was referencing.


Looking at Swami Krishnananda's book on The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (emphasis mine):

This instruction, which was communicated to the Devas, Manushyās and Asuras – gods, men and demons – by the single letter Da repeated three times, meaning Dāmyata, Datta, Dayadhvambe self-controlled, be charitable and be compassionate, is applicable to all mankind.

So, this is from the the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, chapter 5, second Brahmana (one of the more recent ones, looking at the dates given in Wikipedia). If you're new to this, know that many tales of Hindu mythology are about the struggles between Asuras and Devas. Swami Krishnananda says Asuras "are extremely cruel in their nature," "[…] always insult, injure and harm other people," "[…] are hard-hearted people." They're the demons, but not all Asuras are necessarily evil. The antagonist of the Ramayana, Ravan, or the Asura king Mahabali, are considered capable rulers, pious, wise and knowledgeable. However, the constant warring between Asuras and Devas, while good for creating stories, isn't good for the normal people caught underfoot.

Accordingly, in this Brahmana, Lord Brahma, the Creator in the Hindu Trinity, instructs Devas to show restraint (in enjoying pleasures), Asuras to be compassionate, and mankind to be charitable. Mankind has the qualities of both Asuras and Devas, and so mankind should follow all three instructions.

Now, if these three has actually followed these instructions, so many wars could have been averted. If mankind would embrace self-control and compassion, we wouldn't be warring all the time.

Shanti literally means peace, and the triple utterance of shanti is common (see this post on the Hinduism Stack Exchange), so that by itself is not from a particular Upanishad.

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  • In my mind this answer doesn't answer the question. It's easy enough to determine which Upanishad Eliot is referencing using the footnotes. However, DukeZhou is asking why Eliot references this particular Upanishad, which is a question this answer does not discuss. – user111 Mar 13 '17 at 7:37
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    @Hamlet well, perhaps the question should be clarified then. The title is then completely pointless, since that phrase very common, and the phrase that is reasonably unique (the three Ds), are explained in the quote from Swami Krishnananda. – muru Mar 13 '17 at 8:10
  • @muru I apologize for the poor phrasing of the title, and have amended. The Krishnananda link is quite useful, and provides insight. That said, I'd be grateful for any commentary or insight you yourself may have. – DukeZhou Mar 13 '17 at 19:43

To add to muru's excellent answer, taking on the "why" part of the question, this final part of Eliot's poem presents us with a world in ruins, not as much in substance as in spirit. The prevailing intention I think, is to depict spiritual emptiness: with the invocation of the biblical crucifixion with no resurrection, the depiction of the Grail with towers upside down in air, everything hints to a world failed in its deepest spiritual meaning. The pilgrim of the lonely path is projecting his ghost, making three with the narrator that by all appearance is also a part of the same being, creating this silent, thirsty, decomposing trinity. And then, the Thunder speaks, to each and all, as in the Upanishad: "What have you given?", "Why are you locked inside yourself?", "Take control". As the thunder's voice is heard (where in many religious writings, including all semitic, to have heard the holy word is to understand and accept and live by it), the world recomposes itself, and the trinity, now as one, is seen fishing peacefully.

So in all, I see it as a metaphor of what the world is without giving, compassion and control, and how he who hears the veddic teachings will find his peace in this decomposing world. Why is the text referenced? Simply because the whole section is nothing but the poetic illustration of this very text from the Upanishads.

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  • This is a wonderful answer than addresses the "why" more fully in the context of the poem! – DukeZhou Sep 26 '17 at 19:19

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