Education About Asia: Online Archives

The Asian Soul of Transcendentalism

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The treatment of Transcendentalism by twentieth-century teachers of literature and American history has followed a long tradition of focusing primarily on the European and American cultural influences on its major figures, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. Their work is seen as fitting into various Western currents such as German Romanticism, Unitarian theology, neo-Platonism, and American utopian thought. In this framework, their writings were of great significance, constituting the headwaters of Western environmentalism, Northern abolitionism, voting rights for women, advocacy of public education and curricular reform, inter-faith mysticism, and diet and health movements, among others.

To perceive the Transcendentalists as largely formed by and working in the Western intellectual tradition, however, is seriously flawed because it ignores a central strand in this cultural fabric: the influences from Asia. Despite the work of a few earlier scholars demonstrating the importance of Asian and Islamic traditions for the major Transcendentalists (e.g., Christy 1932), the Western-centered historical narrative still remains the focus in teaching about Walden, Emerson, and the writings of the Alcotts. It is time to reshape this too narrow and incorrect viewpoint and to understand that it was the Transcendentalists, among all Americans, who first gleaned the entire world of human religious belief and practice. As they relentlessly pursued “the universals” in human life, they assiduously borrowed and eagerly read the first translations of dozens of Asian and Islamic texts, acquiring their own copies whenever possible.

Recently, scholars such as Alan Hodder have expanded upon insights gleaned by earlier authors in demonstrating that Transcendentalism’s leaders, Emerson and Thoreau, were seriously engaged in the reading of Asian religious texts as the first translations found their way into European languages, especially English.1 As they creatively sought timeless transcultural spiritual truths, they were nourished by these first translations of the major works of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Islam that were published in Europe.

Our view is that the Transcendentalists’ enthusiasm and inspiration was founded on their realization that they were among the very first intellectuals to see the full global vision of human religious understanding. They realized that this spiritual knowledge from India, China, and Persia would open up a rich garden of new understandings, with the potential to alter human lives and civilization’s destiny. Educator,writer, and father of novelist Louisa May Alcott,Bronson Alcott envisioned a “Bible of Mankind” that would capture the spiritual wisdom gathered from “Homer, Zoroaster, Vishnu, Gotama, Confucius, Mencius, Mahomet, mystics of the Middle Ages, and of times later.”2 Going beyond European and American ideas, the Transcendentalists absorbed fresh insights, reveled in the new realms of religious imagination, and sought ways of assimilating their global discoveries into a new world view that was in harmony with what they were seeing, perceiving, feeling, and experiencing.

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