Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The influence of the Gita on Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) an author, essayist, lecturer, philosopher, Unitarian minister who lectured on theology at Harvard University. Emerson was born at Boston in 1803 into a distinguished family of New England Unitarian ministers. His was the eighth generation to enter the ministry in a dynasty that reached back to the earliest days of Puritan America. Despite the death of his father when Emerson was only eleven, he was able to be educated at Boston Latin School and then Harvard, from which he graduated in 1821. After several years of reluctant school teaching, he returned to the Harvard Divinity School, entering the Unitarian ministry during a period of robust ecclesiastic debate Following the death of his first wife, Ellen, his private religious doubts led him to announce his resignation to his congregation, claiming he was unable to preach a doctrine he no longer believed.

He was becoming increasingly disillusioned with aspects of Christian teaching that just did not make sense to his active and inquiring intelligence. He was influenced by Indian Scriptures the most. His initial rebellion against Christianity in its various forms prompted him to find a ready refuge in the idealism of Hinduism.

Eminent Indian Historian Protap Chunder Mazumdar has said about Emerson that he was the best of Brahmin and:

"Amidst this ceaseless, sleepless din and clash of Western materialism, this heat and restless energy, the character of Emerson shines upon India serene as the evening star. He seems to some of us to have been a geographic mistake, he ought to have been born in India. Perhaps Hindoos were closer kinsmen to him than his own nation because every typical Hindoo is a child of Nature."

For Emerson, the idealism of the Hindus propounded in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian scriptures, was based on fundamental concepts. He turned eastward towards India very early in life, when he was in his teens.

He said this about the Bhagavad Gita:

"I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita. 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."

(source: Philosophy of Hinduism - An Introduction - By T. C. Galav Universal Science-Religion. p 65 and Hinduism - By Linda Johnsen p 42 and Hindu Scriptures and American Transcendentalists - By Umesh Patri p 22-23).

(Artwork courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. www.krishna.com).

Listen to The Bhagavad Gita podcast - By Michael Scherer - americanphonic.com.

In his Journal, Emerson paid homage to Vedic thought:

" It is sublime as night and a breathless ocean. It contains every religious sentiment, all the grand ethics which visit in turn each noble poetic mind....It is of no use to put away the book; if I trust myself in the woods or in a boat upon the pond. Nature makes a Brahmin of me presently: eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken silence....This is her creed. peace, she saith to me, and purity and absolute abandonment - these panaceas expiate all sin and bring you to the beatitude of the Eight Gods."

(source: India's Priceless Heritage - By Nani A. Palkhivala 1980 p 9 - 24).

Repelled by the increasing materialism of the West, Emerson turned to India for solace:

"The Indian teaching, through its clouds of legends, has yet a simple and grand religion, like a queenly countenance seen through a rich veil. It teaches to speak truth, love others, and to dispose trifles. The East is grand - and makes Europe appear the land of trifles. ...all is soul and the soul is Vishnu ...cheerful and noble is the genius of this cosmogony. Hari is always gentle and serene - he translates to heaven the hunter who has accidentally shot him in his human form, he pursues his sport with boors and milkmaids at the cow pens; all his games are benevolent and he enters into flesh to relieve the burdens of the world."

Emerson refers to the Indian doctrine of transmigration calling it easy of reception and used the idea in his essay on History. As early as 1821 he speaks of the intimate relationship between man and nature and the system of emanations in Indian thought. He wrote poems such as Brahma and Hamatreya. "Hamatreya" is a free rendering of a passage in the Vishnu Purana which Emerson copied into his 1845 Journal.

By 1856 Emerson had read the Kathopanisad and his ideas were increasingly reflecting Indian influence. His poems, such as Hamatreya showed he had digested his Indian philosophic readings well. Hamatreya apparently was inspired by a passage from the Vishnu Purana (Book IV). He was concerned with the subject of illusion-maya. He wrote about it. In his essay Illusions he said: “ I find men victims of illusions in all parts of life. Children, youths, adults and old men, all are led by one bauble or another. Yoganidra, the goddess of illusion, is stronger than the Titans, stronger than Apollo.”

(source: India in the American Mind - By B. G. Gokhale p. 120-21 and India and World Civilization - By D. P. Singhal Pan Macmillan Limited. 1993. p 254 and East meets West - gosai.com).

Emerson's Oversoul is the paramatman of the Upanishads.

"All science is transcendental or else passes away. Botany is now acquiring the right theory - the avatars of Brahman will presently be the text-books of natural history."

(source: India's Priceless Heritage - By Nani A. Palkhivala 1980 p.9).

Ralph Waldo Emerson says: "Plato was synthesis of Europe and Asia, and a decidedly Oriental element pervades his philosophy, giving it a sunrise color."

(source: India And Her People - By Swami Abhedananda p.223).

He felt that the genius of the Hindus was unsurpassed "in the grandeur of their ethical statement." Emerson's interest in India which began in 1818 continued well into the 1860s. He admired the "Largeness" or sweep of the Indian vision which should be a vital part of the Transcendental wisdom.

In 1848 he says that he owed a "magnificent day to the reading of the Bhagavat-Gita" and adds that England could not produce such a book as the Gita. He found Indian books "excellent gymnastic for the mind as showing treatment - imagination, volatility etc."

In 1859 he felt: "When India was explored and the wonderful riches of Indian theological literature found that dispelled once and for all the dream about Christianity being the sole revelation."

(source: India in the American Mind - By B. G. Gokhale p. 16).

In 1868, he wrote to the nineteenth century American poet, Emma Lazarus (1849-1887):

"And of books, there is another which, when you have read, you shall sit for a while and then write a poem--[it is] the "Bhagvat-Geeta," but read it in Charles Wilkins' translation." (The Bhagavad-Geeta (1785), xi)

On August 4, 1873 (nine years before his death) Emerson had also written to Max Müller that,

"all my interest in the Aryan is . . .Wilkin's [sic] Bhagavat Geeta; Burnouf's Bhagavat Purana;, and Wilson's Vishnu Purana---yes and a few other translations."

He credited a work he had read in his youth for the spark of enthusiasm he received for the Gita: "I remember I owed my first taste for this fruit to Cousin's sketch (Victor Cousin's Cours des Philosophies), in his first lecture, of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjoon, and I still prize the first chapters of Bhagavat as wonderful." (Letters of Emerson, VI:246; I:322-3).

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