“The Catcher in the Rye” and the Hindu Concept of Maya (Delusion) and Dharma (Duty)

by Aranyakananda

NOTE: Here’s one I wrote a while back, wasn’t able to find anything to do with it. It is a bit longer than what I usually post here. So read it if you want to, at your own risk:

J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye” was born Jewish, but in adulthood had adopted many core Hindu beliefs and practices. He so  carefully weaved these beliefs into the character of Holden Caulfield and the plot of the novel that even to this day, the book remains enigmatic to many readers.

Holden Caulfield, in his attitudes toward the world, represent the Hindu concept of Maya, or delusion that the material world is the ultimate reality. The most obvious hint is that Holden incessantly refers to people (mostly, but also) places and things as “phony.” Fake. Not real

Holden, though opinionated, even hateful, in many respects, often comes off as a disinterested observer of the external world. Non-attachment is the key to yoga in Hinduism. But Holden also tells of how, for various reasons, he “feels sorry for” various characters in the book. There is a divine sense of empathy in Holden. Because he knows the source of pain, and he longs for changlessness in his world.  This is illustrated by his memories of the museum he used to visit as a kid, how he could count on every display in the museum staying exactly the same even if he changed.

He shows himself to be a profound observer and articulator of human nature. In one particular little nugget he reveals to the reader how all you have to do is say something that nobody understands and people will pretty much do anything you want them to do. All through the book, Holden is making observations on human behavior like this. In his awareness of the ways of the world, he appears to be well beyond his sixteen years. He’s an “old soul”. He’s made progress in jnana in his sojourn from life to life.

Holden narrates how he is often unconcerned when he loses things or forgets to pick up his change, and how every time he receives a gift from anyone, it ends up making him depressed. This reminded me of Paramahansa Yogananda’s account in “Man’s Eternal Quest” of receiving a gift that was so beautiful that he felt he might become attached to it. Attachment leads, of course, to a state wherein if the object of our attachment were lost, we would feel a sense of loss, and therefore hurt. Yogananda asked the Lord to relieve him of this gift, and that very night it was stolen out of a coat check closet, solving the problem. I think Holden would have understood this.

Holden later mused that money often did nothing but make a person feel “blue”. He was onto the game that was being played in society when he said that. He was aware of the delusive nature of money. He was well aware of many sources of delusion, particularly that of sex. Holden, in another narrated rant, describes how girls “make you forget where you are” when all you think about doing is getting physical with them.

When he rants to a girlfriend, Sally Hayes, about schoolmates’ obsession with girls, cars, football, etc, he may be just making excuses not to have been able to get along with people and succeed in school. But he may have been saying something about maya (delusive nature). He was fond of avoidance. Anytime anyone brought up his future (his dharma?) he said he had to leave. At the beginning of the book a teacher was talking with him about it and he said he had to leave for a reason that he later revealed to have been a lie. At the end another of his former teachers expressed profound concern about Holden’s future. This was followed by a scene where Holden is convinced that the male teacher tried to make a pass at him. Avoidance of his true purpose. Contentment to remain in delusion. The same theme comes up in his repeated mention that he’d like to call this girl Jane Gallagher, but always coming up with a reason not to. She was even down in the lobby of his building once, but he came up with a reason not to go talk to her.  Jane was one of two girls he talks about all through the book. She is also the less physically attractive one, but the one he, on a deeper level, has had a more intimate relationship with. But he keeps getting thrown off the course of pursuing it. We all do that. This, again, is the work of maya, delusion.

Back to the concept of dharma for a second though. After bumming around for a couple of days, after being kicked out of Pencey Prep, Holden goes back home and visits with his kid sister Phoebe before leaving town forever. She asks him to name one single thing that he really liked, seeing as he is always seems to be so negative. He couldn’t name anything but he narrated that all he could think about when she asked him that was two things. The first thing was a boy who he’d gone to school with who jumped out a window to his death rather than take back something he’d said about a bully classmate. The other was two nuns he’d met that day at a diner. I believe that the boy and the nuns both represent conviction and commitment (one misguided, one more selfless.)

Holden was having a hard time thinking of something he really liked, so she asked him to tell her one thing he’d like to be. They went through a few different professions, one being lawyer, like their father. But Holden argued that the problem with lawyers was you would never be able to tell if you were working hard because you wanted to be a hot-shot lawyer or if you really cared if you saved an accused man’s life. Here Holden already shows himself deeply concerned about transcendence of the ego, doing his dharma for selfless purposes.

This discussion leads Holden to revealing to Phoebe that what he’d really like to be is the catcher in the rye. I’d like to not reveal the meaning behind this phrase because, though I’ve given away a bit of the book already, if you haven’t read the book, I don’t want to give this away. It’s a nice bit. And it shows a lot about Holden’s sense of duty toward humanity.

Back to this misguided conviction that Holden appears to admire so much. During a visit with one of his former teachers, Mr. Antolini tells Holden that he was afraid Holden would one day “die nobly for an unworthy cause”. Mr. Antolini tries to tell Holden about this fall he foresees for him. When he doesn’t feel Holden is getting it, he says:
The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something that their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really even got started.

To me, this entire segment reads like the soul’s fall into delusion in the material world of which Hinduism speaks. We think we can’t find our own divinity in this world, so we give in to all of it’s distractions and pleasures. Mr. Antolini later tells Holden that “the mark of the immature man is that he want’s to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” In the Gita, Arjuna would have been an immature man had he lived to fight for the glory of it all. He was implored by Krishna to fight even if he had to die, but it was not for glory. It was for dharma. Dharma is humility.
After this discussion, Mr. Antolini goes on at length to Holden about finding the size of his mind, finding what what kind of thoughts his mind “should be wearing.” He tells Holden “like it or not you are in love with knowledge. This would make Holden a ksatriya, according to the Indian castes, and Holden later proves this to be true when he reveals what he really wants to be (see below).

Several small comments made by Holden reflect a Hindu point of view. For example he once was on a rant about cars and urban congestion when he said “I’d rather have a horse. A horse is at least human, for God’s sake.” Here, he gives a nod to the transmigration of souls from animal to human form and the idea that the soul is equal whether it takes the form of a horse or a human. Not only this, though, but on the way to making this point, he had the delusive trap of owning a car that made a certain number of miles per gallon.

In another part of the book, Holden says that he hopes when he dies they don’t bury him. He hopes they throw him in the river, a crude description of the Hindu funeral rite which involves floating the body of the deceased down the Ganges River. The river of the individual Self becoming one with the Ocean of the Universal Self, Brahman.

Toward the end of the book, Holden determines to hitchhike out west, build his own cabin and pretend to be a deaf mute so he does not have to talk to anyone. In Hinduism there are four stages in a man’s life. After being a student and a householder, one retires from family and social life, becoming a Vanaprastha, a hermit in the forest. This would be contrary to the Bhagavad-Gita though, I think in that Holden’s dharma has not been upheld. He is still a young man. Unless he is on the way to becoming a monk.

Holden, at a couple of points in the book states that being told “Good luck” depresses him. I have written about “luck” before and how it relates to karma. But for Holden, being told “Good luck” suggests that there is no hope, no control over fate. I think he knows we do have control over it and this is why he is often, in retrospect, so concerned with the results of his actions and words.

This entry was posted in atheism, Bhagavad-Gita, book review, books, Brahman, dharma, Divine Consciousness, Gita, God, Hinduism, inspiration, Judaism, karma, karma yoga, Krishna, Maya, meaning of life, meditation, opinion, philosophy, Psychology, reincarnation, religion, Sanatana Dharma, social commentary, spirituality, Uncategorized, Vedanta, Vedas, Vishnu, Western Hinduism, yoga, Yogananda and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Catcher in the Rye” and the Hindu Concept of Maya (Delusion) and Dharma (Duty)

  1. Dhrishti says:

    This is almost uncanny. I find that in this post, you’ve written about ME or my responses/views more than once, and I’m curious now about how much I might have in common with Holden. This, as soon as I find a spare minute, is a must read. 🙂

  2. treadmarkz says:

    I am glad you could recognize a piece of yourself in this. I strongly recommend that you DO give the novel a look. It is only about 212 pages if I remember correctly. A very quick read. I hope you enjoy it. Tell me when you read it.

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