November 17, 2005

American interest in Indian spirituality: Emerson and Thoreau

American interest in Indian spirituality traces back to the Transcendental Movement of the middle of the 19th century. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were the leaders of this Movement. Others included Margaret Fuller, Palmer Peabody, James Freeman Clark, and Charles and Myrtle Fillmore. Henry David Thoreau is better known in India. This is because Mahatma Gandhi was influenced by Thoreau's short book, Civil Disobedience (1849). Ralph Waldo Emerson shows most clearly the influence of Hindu scriptures on him and his fellow thinkers.
In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Gita, and the Vishnu Purana... I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita. 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.
His ideas about the nature of the soul and God parallel those found in Hindu scriptures, as is evident from the following. He talked of a divine presence that permeates the whole creation and all living things. Behind the appearances in the universe, there is a Reality of a Being and Consciousness which is One and Eternal. This One Reality is the Self of all things. God could best be found by looking inward into the core of one's being, into one's Soul. By living according to the dictates of an inner Will, one could transcend the materialist world of sense perception, the world of cause and effect. These ideas are best expressed in his lecture on the Oversoul, delivered at the Harvard Divinity School in 1844.

The transcendentalists believed that intuition rather than reason is the higher faculty. A mystical union with the Divine is the goal. The process of seeking unity with the Divine is inherently individualistic rather than congregational. Contemplative solitude is necessary. Henry David Thoreau lived in a 10x15 cabin on the banks of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He lived deliberately in the tradition of ancient Vedic Rishis or seers. His observations are recorded in a short book, Walden (1854). Thoreau wrote: In the morning I bathe my Intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.
SRI AUROBINDO ON THE FUTURE ROLE FOR INDIA, Dr. Madan Lal Goel (also known as M. Lal Goel), University of West Florida, ,

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