Set apart from another by thousands of miles, India and America still managed to maintain a relationship firstly based on trade and later more on India's philosophical might. Seeing how the present United States was discovered by European colonists, who brought about the formation of the New World in search of India, they undoubtedly had a favourable view of the land. The great traveller Marco Polo on his way back from China stumbled across India's west coast, chronicling its culture and vast riches which eventually made Christopher Columbus set sail. "The part of India known as Malabar," Polo had written, "was the richest and noblest country in the world." Ludicrous as it may sound now, that even centuries after Columbus' passing, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton still dreamt of discovering a land route to India—as opposed to De Gama's sea route—and with the advent of the railroads many thought that this dream would soon be realised.
All this obsession finally led to some of the greatest American thinkers from the 19th century to look up teachings that had been the bedrock of Indian thought for millennia. This was a period where a newly independent America was finding its feet and still had lingering disenchantment with the British. They made an effort to highlight the atrocities of the East India Company and their exploitative nature. With this they greatly took an interest in Indian culture, trying to incorporate its influences and build an identity of their own. After the American Civil war, from about the 1830-1860s, it was possibly the most glorious period in American literature and philosophy as it brought about the formation of the Transcendental Club or Circle. This illustrious group consisted of amongst others Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Two giants in their fields who had a profound effect on American literature that possibly still stands unmatched today.
The transcendentalists wanted their principles not to be solely based on rejection-able empirical methods, but also thought arising out of the inner spiritual experience of man. They were foremost proponents of the inherent goodness of man and the power of the individual. This philosophical movement had elements of Vedic thought as well as Romanticism, though the latter's refusal to accept scientific thought made them differ in their views. The individualism aspect was also stressed upon to discover one's innate abilities and display a sense of self-reliance. They had an abhorrence towards organized religion and political parties whom they thought as manipulative. This idealist nature and abolitionist stand was frowned upon by many.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
(1803-1882) laid the foundation for what was to become Transcendentalism with his seminal work, the 1836 essay, Nature
. Emerson wrote, "Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts". Renowned as a poet, essayist as well as lecturer, his contribution to American literature made him a towering figure as he influenced people such as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. He read Wilkins' Bhagavat Gita,
Burnouf's Bhagavat Purana
and Colebrooke's Essays on the Vedas
and a few other translations to deep-dive into Indian philosophical literature. The influence of Vedanta
is undeniable as he frequently writes about the non-dualist nature of man. He wrote:
"We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within 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. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul."
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) was the disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson and is perhaps best remembered today for his groundbreaking work, Walden. Here he speaks about man's oneness with nature and attempts to recount the time he spent isolated in a cabin to engage with his inner self. His wont for an austere lifestyle was noticeable when he stated:
" I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
A man of many talents, Thoreau achieved much in his short life and his areas of interest varied from environmentalism to being a tax resister. Thoreau followed various Hindu customs, including following a diet of rice, flute playing (the favourite musical pastime of Krishna), and yoga. His literary style of self-inquiry, personal experience, symbolic meaning fit perfectly with Vedantic thought. His exuberant nature made him openly declare his appreciation for such thought when in his Journal, he wrote:
"That title (Manu)... comes to me with such a volume of sound as if it had swept unobstructed over the plains of Hindustan... They are the laws of you and me, a fragrance wafted from those old times, and no more to be refuted than the wind. When my imagination travels eastward and backward to those remote years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place. I remember the book as an hour before sunrise."
Like most pioneers, both were mocked by a vast section of the populace and even by literally stalwarts such as Robert Louis Stevenson describing Thoreau in Walden as ascribing to a "womanish solicitude; for there is something unmanly, something almost dastardly" about the lifestyle. Transcendentalism has been described as the first intellectual movement of America with its influence as far-reaching as India with some Hindu reformation movements and also people such as Walt Whitman, who formed a bridge between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating vital parts of both.
References / Footnotes
1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
2. Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
3. The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo and Rustichello da Pisa
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