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Repetition and Silence: Responses to Godbole’s Song

Haley Rhodes

Haley Rhodes (class of 2016) is from Bedford, MA, a suburb of Boston. Haley plans to study public health and Spanish while at Davidson. She is passionate about healthcare and youth empowerment, and she loves to learn about new cultures. At Davidson, Haley is a member of the Honor Council, is a Chidsey Fellow, tutors at the Ada Jenkins Community Center, and is a Young Life/College Life leader. Haley’s paper was written for Dr. Berkey and Dr. Denham’s Humanities 160: Cultures and Civilizations course.

His thin voice rose, and gave out one sound after another. At times there seemed rhythm, at times there was the illusion of a Western melody. But the ear, baffled repeatedly, soon lost any clue, and wandered in a maze of noises, none harsh or unpleasant, none intelligible. It was the song of an unknown bird. Only the servants understood it. . . .The sounds continued and ceased after a few moments as casually as they had begun. . . .It was a religious song. I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, “Come! come to me only.” The god refuses to come. I grow humble and say. . .Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one. . .come to me. He refuses to come. . . .But He comes in some other song, I hope! . . .There was a moment of absolute silence.

E. M. Forster, A Passage to India

Godbole’s poignant song reverberates throughout E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. The melody is baffling yet potent. Godbole places himself in the position of a lowly milkmaiden who pleas with her God for unity and connection. Godbole recites this plea to the God Shri Krishna in the form of a raga, a rhythmic pattern where the musical notes are repeated over and over, as Godbole reprises, “Come, come, come, come, come, come.”1 The repetition of “come” is in essence an echo. While this motif is most directly associated with the Marabar Caves, it is seen throughout the novel and is first introduced in the form of Godbole’s song. The refrain speaks to the root of tension in the novel and uncovers the underlying source of disunity amongst the characters as well as between England and India. Each character responds uniquely to the echo of the song, which demonstrates either their ability to grasp the multiplicity of India to find unity.

Like the numerous echoes in the novel, Godbole’s “come” keeps repeating, yet receives only silence in response. Krishna’s silence represents what Gertrude M. White calls “the problem of separation” between matter and essence. His song “signifies man’s attempt to forge unity between the material and the spiritual” and each character repsonds to this attmpt differently.2 The nature of each character’s relationship with transcendent powers is inherently distinctive because each character grapples with different aspects of doubt and confusion. Tracy Pintchman confirms the diverse struggles of Forster’s characters, saying “different characters have different responses to the echoes based on their diverse personal, cultural, and religious values.”3 It is through their responses to the echo of Godbole’s song that “Forster’s characters reveal their multiple and often contradictory assessments of the cosmos and the human condition.4 Forster’s use of the characters’ “contradictory assessments” demonstrates not only the separation between the material and the spiritual, but also the separations within the social and political world.

Forster shows each distinct culture (British, Muslim, and Hindu) to have an opposing response to the echo in Godbole’s song. Forster asserts that “no one is India,” as he uses Mrs. Moore and Adela to symbolize the English, Aziz the Muslims, and Godbole the Hindus.5 The English cannot understand the echo, the Muslim ear is indifferent, and the Hindu strives–and appears to succeed–in grasping the elusive significance of the song.

Despite attempts to comprehend Krishna’s response, the English ultimately fail in their quest for greater understanding. According to Pintchman, they “have not the apparatus for judging whether life is a mystery or a muddle because they do not know whether there exist worlds beyond which they could never know or if all that is possible enters their consciousness.”6 To the English, Godbole’s song is a mystery; they do not know why Krishna responds with silence or why the milkmaidens seek a sexual union with the God. The English struggle to connect to one another, let alone a higher power. The notion of transcendental powers frightens and baffles the English because there do not appear to be distinct answers, but rather open-ended questions that appear to lack a complete answer. Mrs. Moore even says, “We English. . .hate mysteries.”7 They instead seek definite, concrete answers. For instance, Adela wants to “see the real India” manifested in one singular person, such as Aziz.8 She cannot grasp the plurality of an India that is made up of “a hundred Indians”.9 The English “excel at the practical life, but are lost in the spiritual.”10

Mrs. Moore acts as a lens through which we view the reaction to the echo of Godbole’s song. For Mrs. Moore, the echo is “a frightening assertion of meaninglessness.”11 When she questions Godbole about Krishna’s appearance in another song, it becomes clear she cannot acknowledge the possibility of an intangible answer from Krishna. She interprets the silence as indifference.12 As Mrs. Moore grapples with the idea of a God unconcerned with his devotees, she fears that while “Everything exists, nothing has value.”13 In essence, everything is the same, but in this sameness is nothing.14 Krishna’s answer (or, rather, silence) catapults her into a state of disillusionment because the emphasis of nothingness and silence threatens her “talkative little Christianity.”15 After witnessing the milkmaiden’s fruitless attempt atpassage21 Repetition and Silence: Responses to Godbole's Song unity, she becomes apathetic about life; she loses interest in her family and friends. She comes to see that relationships are pointless because there is the possibility of being let down, just as the milkmaidens are let down by their god.16 Mrs. Moore’s apathetic view of relationships is solidified when she feels chafed by Mrs. Bhattacharya’s evasion, Adela’s failed engagement, and even by her Christian god that cannot help her make sense of India and the question it provokes.

As Mrs. Moore’s beliefs shift, she realizes that everything amounts to “Boum”: it all “amounts to same [sic],” thus undermining her views of the hierarchical Christian religion that emphasizes the tangible and material.17 Mrs. Moore is crippled because she is confronted with the abstract, transcendental nature of the Hindu religion. She grapples with the concept of absence and nothingness, as do many who read the novel through a Western lens. The echo, in the form of Godbole’s song, brings Mrs. Moore’s world crashing in. As she contemplates the idea that her life has been built upon a faulty foundation of relationships and beliefs, she isolates herself. Instead of embracing the nothingness of Krishna’s response, she draws away from her faith and her family, dying at sea. She ultimately dies in a transitional phase, neither in England nor India: rejecting her former beliefs, yet running in fear from her newly-discovered truth.

Like Mrs. Moore, Adela also finds disillusionment in Krishna’s silence. However, the meaninglessness she feels corresponds to her physical relationship with Ronny rather than to her spiritual relation with the divine.18 The echo enables her to see that she does not love the man she is about to marry. Krishna’s refusal to unite with the milkmaidens foreshadows that there will be no union between Adela and Ronny because, unlike in the song, there is no sexual connection between the couple.19 White suggests that a loveless union would be rape.20 The echo instills in Adela an intense fear caused by her anticipated sexual union with Ronny. Driven by anxious expectation of a sexual union or perhaps that there will not be a connection, Adela imagines a sexual encounter with Aziz. Adela’s hallucination leads to her embarrassment and to subsequent accusations of Aziz.

Forster shows each distinct culture (British, Muslim, and Hindu) to have an opposing response to the echo in Godbole’s song.

The theme of unity in Godbole’s song parallels both Adela and Ronny, and therefore India and England’s inability to unite. There is nothing pleasant or collective about the relationship between the two countries. In fact, Ronny proclaims that his only job is India is “to hold this wretched country by force.”21 Mrs. Moore rebukes Ronny with the Bible verse that says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love.”22 Mrs. Moore speaks with the only vocabulary she knows, that of Christianity, a religion that fails to live out its own commandment in the novel. The use of violence and force during and following the trial scene by the British symbolizes the failure of Christianity and the “utmost degradation of such a union” like that between Ronny and Adela.23 The lack of love and kindness between the two countries represents the imperialistic rape of India by England.

While the Anglo-Indians are distressed by the significance of Godbole’s song, Aziz has no reaction. When he first hears the song, it sounds like “a maze of noises” to his Muslim ear.24 Godbole’s language baffles Aziz, emphasizing the divide between Islam and Hinduism. Forster portrays Aziz as baffled by India, his own country, throughout the novel. Through this ambivalence, we see that Islam’s tenets do not equip Aziz to encompass the significance of the song. As a result, Aziz fails in his attempts to connect both with the other characters and with India.

Aziz acts under false pretenses when he tries to convince the other characters, namely the English, that he is knowledgeable about India. However, he is wrong about many aspects of India, such as the Marabar Caves. To sound cultured, Aziz interrupts Godbole’s explanation of the caves to Mrs. Moore and Adela. He excitedly interjects, yet contributes inaccurate information that Godbole then corrects. Once at the caves, Azia, “in spite of his gay, confident talk, had no notion of how to treat this particular aspect of India; he was lost in it without Professor Godbole.”25 Aziz is no more knowledgeable about India and the significance of Godbole’s song than the Christian characters.26 He does not understand India and he is most definitely not “India,” as Adela believes.27 In spite of their differing reactions, both the English and the Muslims fail to grasp the relationship between the material and spiritual in India, leading us to believe that perhaps Godbole is the only one to completely comprehend the significance of his song to Krishna.

The sexual message of Godbole’s song demonstrates his desire for complete unity with Krishna. Rather than interpreting Krishna’s silence as an absence of meaning, Godbole sees the silence as “a sign of hope which not only allows but encourages one to beckon divinity.”28 For him, the absence of response does not equate to indifference, but rather serves as a symbol of unity through cosmic confusion. According to Shusterman, Godbole himself is baffled because his plea for religious clarity and unity is answered with silence.29 However, Godbole welcomes this confusion instead of balking in disillusionment. He realizes that the absence of Krishna’s response implies a form of existence that finds value in nothingness.30 Godbole, through his Hindu beliefs, accepts the confusion, which Hinduism celebrates.

Forster portrays Hinduism as “the most accepting” of the spiritual ambiguity that causes conflict for the non-Hindu characters.31 Hinduism’s centrality in A Passage to India is crucial and is intrinsically linked to the echo of Godbole’s song because only Hindu servants seem to understand it.32 “The echo, the symbol of the formlessness, eternity, confusion, and illusion brought into relief by India, cannot be eradicated by the insistent denial of its existence. The Hindu sensibility understands this and celebrates the essense of the echo,” which leads us to conclude that Hinduism is the only religion that allows for the answer to Krishna’s response.33

“Temple,” the third section of the novel, marks the culmination of the story’s agenda. The temple represents the Hindu religion and demonstrates its mediation of diversity in the universe. The world is a mystery, not a muddle, because an answer exists to the question of unity; however, the answer is conceptual and metaphysical.34 The Hindus recognize “the sacred bewilderment” of the characters’ reactions to Godbole’s song as a mystery that encompasses all things to achieve unity despite apparent contradictions.35 Hinduism is not concerned with “cosmic contradictions” such as that of good and evil which is explained by Professor Godbole.36 Forster portrays both Christianity and Islam to rely on form, which then negates the contingency of complete unity. As a result, the English and Muslim characters only perceive Krishna’s response as a muddle.37 Godbole’s starkly different interpretation of the song’s echo, which reflects his Hindu beliefs, is abstruse to the other characters.

By the end of the novel, we realize that “the way of Godbole is the only possible way: love, even though to exist it must maintain a detachment from the physical world and human relationships, offers the single upward path from the land of steritly and echoing evil.”38 Krishna’s response to Godbole’s song is provided during the Birth ceremony of Krishna in the form of “infinite love” that came to save the world from sorrow.39 But the human ability to accept this love is inhibited by the confines of concrete knowledge. Despite Godbole’s Hindu beliefs, it becomes clear that no one can achieve unity through “infinite love.”40 During the British ceremony, Godbole “remembered a wasp seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone. He loved the wasp equally. . .he was imitating God. And the stone where the wasp clung–could he, no, he could not, he had been wrong to attempt the stone, logic and conscious effort had seduced.”41 If the significance of the song is unity through infinite love, then the only way India and England will be unified is if they interact in a loving manner.

While Godbole, through his Hindu beliefs, comes closest to grasping the concept of infinite love, he fails to fully comprehend its significance. Despite his attempt to love everything equally, he still cannot achieve unity with Krishna and instead finds himself standing opposite to him at the Birth ceremony. Godbole’s failure to love the stone equally demonstrates that the ideals of Hinduism are simply too great and abstract for the human mind to grasp. After all, “no one is India”–neither the English, nor the Muslims, nor the Hindus, and no one can have India.42 India, the symbol of infinite love, calls “come,” come achieve unity, but it is not a promise, only an appeal.

 

Bibliography

D’Cruz, Doreen. “Emptying and Filling Along the Exisential Coil in A Passage to India.”Studies in the Novel 18, no. 2 (1986):193-212.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1924.

Koponen, Wilfrid R. “Krishna at the Garden Party: Crises of Faith in A Passage to India.” International Fiction Review 20, no. 1 (1993): 39-47.

Pintchman, Tracy. “Snakes in the Cave: Religion and the Echo in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.” Soundings 75, no. 1 (1992): 61-78.

Shusterman, David. “The Curious Case of Professor Godbole: A Passage to India  Re-Examined.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76, no. 4 (1961): 426-35.

Spencer, Michael.”Hinduism in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.” Journal of Asian Studies 27, no. 2 (1968): 281-95.

White, Gertrude M. “A Passage to India: Analysis and Revaluation.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 68, no. 4 (1953): 641-57.

 

 

  1. Tracy Pintchman, “Snakes in the Cave: Religion and the Echo in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India,” Soundings 75, no. 1 (1992): 64; Forster, 80. []
  2. Gertrude M. White, “A Passage to India: Analysis and Revaluation,” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76, no. 4 (1953): 647. []
  3. Pintchman, 71. []
  4. Ibid., 62. []
  5. Forster, 72. []
  6. Pintchman, 73. []
  7. Forster, 69. []
  8. Ibid., 24. []
  9. Ibid., 15. []
  10. White, 651. []
  11. Pintchman, 65. []
  12. Ibid., 64. []
  13. Ibid., 149. []
  14. White, 648. []
  15. Forster, 150. []
  16. Ibid., 135. []
  17. Pintchman, 75. []
  18. Pintchman, 72. []
  19. Wilfrid R. Koponen. “Krishna at the Garden Party: Crises of Faith in A Passage to India,” International Fiction Review 20, no. 1 (1993): 46. []
  20. White, 648. []
  21. Forster, 50. []
  22. White, 652. []
  23. Ibid., 650. []
  24. Forster, 80. []
  25. Ibid., 141. []
  26. Ibid., 304. []
  27. Ibid., 72. []
  28. Pintchman, 74. []
  29. David Shusterman, “The Curious Case of Professor Godbole: A Passage to India Re-Examined,” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 76, no. 4 (1961): 430. []
  30. Doreeen D’Cruz, “Emptying and Filling Along the Existential Coil in A Passage to India,” Studies in the Novel 18, no. 2 (1986): 193. []
  31. Pintchman, 63. []
  32. Michael Spencer, “Hinduism in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India,” The Journal of Asian Studies 27, no. 2 (1968): 281; Forster, 80. []
  33. Pintchman, 73. []
  34. White, 651. []
  35. Pintchman, 74. []
  36. D’Cruz, 204. []
  37. Ibid. []
  38. Shusterman, 426. []
  39. Forster, 287. []
  40. Pintchman, 76. []
  41. Forster, 286. []
  42. Ibid., 72. []
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