Due to Emerson and his direct sucessor Thoreau, millions of Americans have touched and felt India since the mid-nineteenth century. In Boston the seaport was bustling with texts from abroad, including travel logs of India, and stories derived from ancient scriptures. Like Indian spices and mercantile goods, translations of the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures were welcomed to the new world with much enthusiasm and interest. Emerson’s mind was deepily influenced by Hindu texts and Indian philosophy as seen in his works and quoatations, his own interest in these topics inspired Thoreau to also consume and speculate upon such literature.
In his journal Emerson wrote on the Bhagavad Gita saying, “It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us” It will become clear that much or what Emerson is pulling from his reading is that the purpose of life is a spiritual transformation from the divine here on earth. Emerson’s education in Indian religious practices and philosophy embellished and deepened his own thoughts.
In “The American Scholar” Emerson reflects on idea’s regarding older texts and its value to an intellectual. There is a quotation from the Vedas about knowledge obtained from books that reads, “As a well, a fountain, with its waters more or less stagnant, is useless to the true theologian.” This is strikingly similar to Emerson’s quote from “The American Scholar” that says, “Books re for the scholar’s idle times. Stagnant and idle the water of past knowledge is, useless to the true theologian and intellectual without original thought. In “The American Scholar” Emerson warns against “bibliomaniacs” and students who sit in libraries forgetting that the books they read were written by men of the world. Emerson calls for the intellectual to avoid being an imitator, the books the scholar uses are only valid in inspiration, just as Emerson uses Hindu texts to further develop his Emersonian mode of thinking. Emerson uses the exact form of scholarship he speaks of in his address in regards to his own encounters with Hindu texts.
Take Emerson’s theory of compensation for example, almost a direct image of the Laws of Karma. In 1841 Emerson wrote in his essay, “Compensation”, “Treat men as pawns and ninepins, and you shall suffer and well they. If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own.” This is, in American dialect, quite frankly karma. In Hindu texts, the word karma first appears in the ancient Rig Veda, but it is not until the Upanishads that karma is expressed as a principle of cause and effect based off of human actions. One interpretation of karma Emerson must have been familiar with is seen in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5. which states, “Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad. He becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds.” Emerson also says in “Compensation”, “Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected repens within the flower of the pkeasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed, for the effect already blloms in the cause, the end pre-exists iin the means, in the fruit and the seed.” Emerson’s interpretation of karma is one of compensation, a very Western interpretation and makes the karmic laws consumable for Americans.
In Emerson’s essay, “The Over-Soul” he demonstrates a high understanding of Brahma. The essay captures the Vedantic idea that everything, every creation, every material expression, is Brahman. He states in “The Over-Soul”, “We live in succession, in division, in parts and particles. Meantime, with in man, is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.” Many critics and commentators see this essay as a quintessential example of influence from Hindu writings. Even Swami Paramananda, a swami who traveled to the United States to speak Vedanta philosophy wrote, “There can be little question that Emeson was strongly imbued with the spirit of the Upanisads when he wrote his essay on the Over-Soul. The title itself indicates it for “Over-Soul” is almost a literal translation of the Sanskrit word, ‘ParamAtman (Supreme Self)” (Swami Paramanada, 65).
Most famously from these scriptures comes Emerson’s poem, “Brahma”. “If the red slayer think he slays /Or if the slain think he is slain/They know not well the subtle ways/I keep, and pass, and turn again” This poem, and these lines particularly derive from almost identical passages in the Katha Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita. Chapter 2 verse 19 of the Gita reads, “He who considers this individual self as a slayer, or he who thinks that this individual self is slain, neither of these knows the Truth for Self slays not neither is It slain.” These borrowings are not accidental nor do they serve as embellishments, but are central to the Emersonian world view. An essay called, “Emerson as Seen from India” by Pratap Hunder Mozoomdar, a leader if the Brahmo Samaj, says, “Brahmanism is an acquirement, a state of being rather than a creed. In whomsoever the eternal Brahma breathed his unquenchable fire, he was the Brahman. And in that sense Emerson was the best if Brahmans. He shines upon India serene as the evening star. He seems to some of us to have been a geographical mistake.”
Emerson’s worked bounced back to India even with in his own lifetime. Hindu reformers quoted him, and literate Indian’s found excitement in an American embracing their sacred texts in a British dominated world. Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize winning author even told an American journalist, “I love your Emerson. In his work one finds much that is of India. In truth he made the teachings of our spiritual leaders and philosophers apart of his life.” It has even been reported that while in jail, Gandhi advised a follower to read Emerson. “The essays to my mind cobain the teaching of Indian wisdom in Western garb.” Emerson’s bounce back into India is karmic reciprocity on international levels.
Emerson’s influence of Hindu scripture and philosophy on Americans was not limited to Emerson himself. Emerson is also responsible for Thoreau’s interest in Indian affairs as well. Thoreau was originally exposed to Asian philosophy in 1841 while staying with Emerson in Emerson’s home. It is also reported that when he moved to Emerson’s cabin on Walden Pond, he brought along books from his mentor’s library. Among these books was the Bhagavad Gita, we know this due to Thoreau’s famous passage in Walden where he writes, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and it’s literature seems puny and trivial.” Thoreau is also quoted in Walden saying, “the sacred Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.” It can be argued that Thoreau read much of what was available on Indian philosophy, including Emerson’s personal library and a shipment of forty-four books from a British friend in 1855. For his haul of Vedic literature, Thoreau fashioned a new case of driftwood found in Walden Pond, “thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine.” It is said that after Thoreau’s death he had curated the finest private Oriental library in America, which was passed on to Emerson.
Like Emerson, Thoreau had mystic experiences that needed an explanation, and Hinduism helped guide him towards such answers. It is clear from his work that Thoreau was a man who found euphoria in nature, and an unexplainable connection to the earth. After reading Indian material that directly references the types of things he was feeling, Thoreau must have had an “aha!” moment, realizing he was not the only one feeling and experiencing such things, and it is in fact, apart of a long living tradition. In 1849 Thoreau wrote a letter to his friend Harrison Blake saying, “Depend on it that, rude and careless I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully… To some extent, even I am yogi.” then goes on to support his claim by quoting two verses frim the Indian epic, Harivamsa. This may have been the first occurrence of an American calling himself a yogi.
The Bhagavad Gita outlines three approaches to enlightenment. This includes jana (intellect), karma (action), and bhakti (devotion). It is seen in his work that Emerson primarily grounds himself in jana, a knowledgeable pursuit. Thoreau can be argued to be a karma yogi, following a path of selfless action and self awareness. His time at Walden Pond reflects such attitudes and even reflects hermit’s and exile as seen in Vedic scriptures, renouncing worldly affairs for a life of contemplation and oneness. In terms of his political thought, Thoreau caought the attention of India’smost influencial nonconformist, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, in a letter adressed to Henry Salt in 1929 says, “My first introduction to Thoreau’s writings was when I was in the thick of the passice resistance struggle. A frend sent me his essay, Civil Disobedience. It left a deep impression upon me. The essay seemed to be so convincing ans truthful that I felt the need of knowing more of Thoreau, and I came across his Walden and pther essays, all of which I read with great pkeasure and equal profit.”
Emerson and Thoreau have shaped much of what we consider to be American thought today, it’s core perspective having been shaped by Vedic percepts. Both men lived in the first generation of Americans that had acess to translations of Hindu texts, making them one of the first American explorers of far East thought and philosophy. While Phillip Goldberg was in Inida writing American Veda, he says he met a man whom he began to conversate with and asked him if he had been a sannyasi since his youth. The man chuckled and told Goldberg he had viewed the religion of his ancestors as backward and decided to study science in a University instead. Phillip asked what had prompted his turn around. “I took a class in American Literature,” he said, “and I read Emmerson” (Goldberg, 46).