Twenty-five years ago, Bruce Springsteen who had moved temporarily to California from New Jersey, wrote a song inspired by the hardships faced by Mexican workers, whether documented or undocumented. He called it The Ghost of Tom Joad, after a character in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel describing a Depression-era migration from the Oklahoma dust-bowl to a California which, like many promised lands, fails to deliver on its promise. Near the end of the novel, Tom Joad is on the run for retaliating against the killer of his friend Casy, a preacher-activist who was unionising agricultural labourers.
A chunk of Springsteen’s song, which is better known through a hard rocking cover by the protest band Rage Against The Machine, paraphrases Tom’s final conversation with his mother:
Now Tom said, “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me, Mom, I’ll be there
Wherever somebody’s fighting for a place to stand,
A decent job or a helping hand,
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Ma, and you’ll see me”
Springsteen omitted the underlying idea Tom expresses through these situational examples, the notion that there is a single soul linking every human being. Henry Fonda movingly conveyed this in John Ford’s masterful cinematic adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath:
Tom: “Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then...”
Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?
Tom: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark - I’ll be everywhere… I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build - I’ll be there, too.”
The blending of individualistic self-reliance (people eating what they raise and living in houses they build) with spiritual interconnectedness in Tom’s speech owes much to the Transcendentalists, a seminal group of nineteenth century American intellectuals led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Steinbeck embraced the concept of the Oversoul developed by Emerson who had, in turn, drawn upon the explication of Brahman in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. The Transcendentalists’ colossal influence familiarised the thinking public with Vedantic philosophy, creating, inter alia, the foundation for Swami Vivekananda’s success in the United States.
Steinbeck’s originality lay in appropriating an American Transcendentalist belief that originated in classical Hindu texts, and embedding it in a powerful narrative while adapting it to twentieth century conceptions of social justice. The result was compelling enough to inspire Bruce Springsteen decades later, and continues to resonate today, when migration is playing a more prominent role than ever in global political discourse.
The concept of Brahman has never underpinned a philosophy of resistance or political justice in the land of its origin, probably because the religious and historical context within which it is received in India is too strongly tied to a caste-based idea of social order.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.