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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.

Henry David Thoreau. Source: http://tiny.cc/47gtl.

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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Source: http://tiny.cc/dsf42.

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.

Bronson Alcott. Source: http://tiny.cc/u23ez.

Although the core “Transcendentalists” were amused by the name given to them by the public, they all believed that a Divine Essence enlivened everything and that this essence was available to every human being without the need of an intermediary. As Harvard professor and Emerson biographer Lawrence Buell observed about the Transcendentalists, 

If you have to point to one and only one thing it would be the idea that Emerson expresses most powerfully, of the God or the Divine Principle within the individual self…. ‘Every person has a spark of the divine.’ Emerson wrote in his journal, ‘I have been on the lecture circuit for a decade and I really have only one doctrine to preach: the infinitude of the private man.’ 3 

The most accessible way to experience the Divine Essence was through Nature, untrammeled by human hands, as this allowed for direct perception without first negotiating the sometimes narrow path of logical reasoning. As Emerson wrote in Nature (1836), the short text that was an open invitation to moving beyond the culture they inherited, “Why should we not also enjoy an original relationship with the universe? Have our own poetry? Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past? There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”4 The excitement these new discoveries engendered explains the vitality of the Transcendentalist movement.

Margaret Fuller. Source: http://tiny.cc/mg9fl.

Even in its nineteenth-century heyday, Transcendentalism never included more than a dozen major exponents, but it fostered enormously significant cultural initiatives, including two of America’s utopian communities (Brook Farm and Fruitlands), an early women’s rights manifesto (Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century), influential moral discourses on the abolition of slavery, the nation’s earliest influential voice of environmentalism (Thoreau’s Walden), and a new style of travel writing (Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, along with his travel narratives in Massachusetts, Maine, and Cape Cod). It is difficult to overstate the significance of Transcendentalism’s richest and most original literature or how its leaders and their writings inspired new lineages of thought and a wealth of subsequent creative expression in each one of these fields. 

Louisa May Alcott. Source: http://tiny.cc/kcz7p.

What is now clear from studies of their journals and letters is how the Concord circle of Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott) were all influenced in a very deep and thoroughgoing way by the philosophies conveyed in Asian religious texts. Emerson eagerly sought out the newest publications from his Paris and London booksellers for their “revelations” drawn from “The East,” and Thoreau revealed his excited consideration of their ideas in his journals and letters. While Thoreau had borrowed Asian texts from his good friend Emerson and the Harvard Library, in 1855 he received his own “nest of Indian books”—forty-four volumes in all—from a visiting Englishman who had made his acquaintance and understood his predilections. Thoreau, who could hardly believe his luck, built a special bookcase for these treasures that were, as he wrote to a friend, “in English, French, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.” Calling them “a godsend,” he eagerly shared the volumes with Emerson and Alcott.

Bronson Alcott’s utopian community, Fruitlands. Source: http://www.alcottfilm.com/louisa-may-alcott/photo-gallery/.

Granted, authors of the books were often Europeans making first attempts to understand Asian traditions, and many of the works are full of terms, analogies, and conclusions that later scholars of these faiths would correct or reject. Nonetheless, in most cases, these works convey the essentials coherently enough for their learned American readers. For the Transcendentalists, this was no mere dabbling in the “exotic,” as one school of earlier scholars had viewed their engagement in Asian texts. In the words of Arthur Christy, author of The Orient in American Transcendentalism and one of the first American academics to recognize the depth of this connection, the Transcendentalists turned to the scriptures of Asia because “they could not live with an absentee God.”

The following chart lists the Asian books known to have been in the hands of Emerson and his circle and the date acquired:

(Chart)

The ideas the Transcendentalists found in this growing library of works from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Sufism directly entered into their understanding of the world, shaped their vocations as writers, and informed their mission to disseminate the new intellectual and spiritual vistas these sages and saints were revealing. Although by now the scholarly evidence is well established that the Transcendentalists’ engagement with Asian belief systems profoundly influenced their work, this important insight has not, for the most part, appeared in textbooks and popular treatment of this topic. It is our conviction that teachers who cover this movement and the writings of its major figures should highlight this Asian religions-Transcendentalism connection. This can be, in fact, a pivotal case study for classroom teaching about the globalization of cultural ideas. It can also be a case study of how the Euro American ethnocentrism of scholars and teachers can limit understanding of even the greatest literary figures. 

Part of the problem of seeing the Asian sources of Transcendentalism is that its chief figures did not spotlight them or readily use terms from these traditions in their most famous works. As much as they worked to deliver messages that awakened souls, the Transcendentalists also wanted what they wrote to be accessible and to sell. The result is that sources often lie buried. Similarly, one can easily move beyond the passing references to Hinduism in reading Walden to ponder the dense and rich evocations of the natural world that flow through this masterfully written text. Compare that to Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which—while laced with the wisdom of Confucius, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Hafiz, Dowlat Shah, and others—was a commercial failure. When Thoreau’s Aunt Maria told him that all those references sounded like “blasphemy,” and the influential critic James Russell Lowell complained, “We were bid to a river party, not to be preached at,” Thoreau took it to heart.

While Emerson paid homage to these sources in poems like “Brahma” and essays such as “The Oversoul” and “Persian Poetry,” generally he did not emphasize the importance of these texts in his major published works. These authors were keen to reach as broad an audience as possible, not alienate their readers. There is little doubt that the writers (and their publishers) did not want what were then, in the general public, seen as esoteric, even bizarre ideas, to undermine the popularity of the works. Teachers and professors who have relied solely on the best-selling, canonical texts to form their understanding of the Transcendentalists are missing the rich source of Asian texts that so deeply informed the Concord group in particular and did much to shape their developing worldviews. 

Walden Pond. Source: The Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods Library, photo gallery of illustrations by Herbert W. Gleason at http://tiny.cc/1w2cv.

The key to understanding and scaling the role of the Asian influences is found primarily in the journals they kept and the letters they wrote. The reading of Walden cannot miniaturize the inspiration of Asian religion once we know that Thoreau had a copy of the Bhagavad Gita on his bedside table in his cabin or once we read in his journal that the pond for him was “his Ganges River” where he retreated in the spirit of the ancient ascetic sages of India. Thoreau explicitly framed his entire “experiment” at Walden Pond, an extended metaphor for sounding the depths of the soul, as the ascetic practice of a Hindu yogin

Thoreau’s lifelong journal makes it clear that core Asian ideas powerfully transformed his intellectual and spiritual identity. In a journal entry of July 16, 1851, for example, Thoreau reflected on adolescent experiences of transcendent ecstasy that left him “daily intoxicated” with 

an indescribable, infinite, all-absorbing, divine, heavenly pleasure, a sense of elevation and expansion [that he had] nought to do with . . . I speak as a witness on the stand, and tell what I have perceived. The morning and the evening were sweet to me, and I led a life aloof from the society of men

No one could explain these states to him, and it was not until he discovered sacred writings such as the Upanishads and the Vishnu Purana that the meaning of his experiences were put into a cogent spiritual context. 

Thoreau’s connection—to Hindu texts especially—bubble more to the surface in the travel accounts where he is more direct in acknowledging what was foremost in his mind at key moments. For example, Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers:

The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagvat-Geeta [sic] . . . . The Oriental philosophy approaches, easily, loftier themes than the modern aspires to . . . [assigning] their due rank respectively to Action and Contemplation, or rather does full justice to the latter. Western philosophers have not conceived of the significance of Contemplation in their sense . . .5

He goes on to describe people who have practiced the art of separating their mind from sensory perception and the depth of a new kind of knowledge that awaits such practices.

If Thoreau’s writings and disposition incline toward the praxis of mysticism, Emerson dwells more in the realm of philosophy. As a young man, Emerson was encouraged by his spinster aunt, Mary Moody, to read Asian source texts. Fresh out of Harvard, he became a minister, only to discover that he found no sacredness in a ceremony like communion and therefore refused to offer it. He resigned from the Unitarian church, and, after his young wife died of tuberculosis, he found himself completely adrift. He sailed to Europe to meet some of the bright lights of the day, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle. While looking at a large exhibition of plants and animals in Paris— arranged in such a way as to highlight incremental growth as well as connectivity—Emerson was struck by the fact that all life is part of a web and that change is the constant state in which life finds itself. This existential insight enlivened his mind, and he never looked back: it was in Asian texts that Emerson found particularly rich images of life’s fundamental inner-connectivity. He continually read a wide range of texts in search of what he called “lusters”—pearls of wisdom that would inform his ever-expanding worldview. As his first biographer, James Elliot Cabot, noted while describing Emerson’s reading preferences, “The Oriental (particularly the Hindoo) religious books, the Bhagavat Gita, the Puranas, and Upanishads were among his favorites.” These books, according to Emerson, 

are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must—when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is.6  

Whereas Thoreau relied on these texts to validate his own ecstatic experiences, Emerson plucked jewels from wherever he found them to underscore his philosophic belief in “the infinitude of the private man,” for as he wrote, “I believe in Eternity. I can find Greece, Asia, Italy, Spain, and the Islands—the genius and creative principle of each and of all eras in my own mind.”7

Transcendentalism and the Global Dialectic 

Swami vivekananda.
Source: http://tiny.cc/5qgsv.

The influence of the Transcendentalists was profound and continues to be so. By the late nineteenth century, many in New England were interested enough in “Eastern thought” that journeys to India were not uncommon. Reverend Phillip Brooks, the highly popular minister of Concord’s Trinity Church, wrote his sister-in-law from India that a pilgrimage to the tree where the Buddha found enlightenment was now a “duty of a minister who preaches to Bostonians.”8 When asked about her religious beliefs in 1884, well-known novelist Louisa May Alcott wrote:

The simple Buddha religion is very attractive to me, and I believe in it. God is enough for me and all the prophets are only stepping stones to him . . . I seem to remember former states before this . . .9  Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was intimately involved in the publication of the book that brought the Buddha’s life more into American consciousness than any text before: Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia sold over half a million copies in Europe and America. The work of the Concord Summer School of Philosophy, with its lectures on Asian texts, amongst many other topics, was carried further in the late 1800s and early 1900s by intrepid Bostonians like Sara Chapman Bull. It was Swami Vivekananda’s connections with women, such as Chapman and others in Boston, that opened the doors wide for him at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893, and the time he spent in Boston, Maine, and New York gave birth to the first Vedanta Centers in the US.

The ripple effect of interest in Asian texts continued decades after the decline of Transcendentalism. Henry Salt, the extraordinary British socialist, was so taken by the writings of Thoreau that he wrote perhaps the best early biography of him. Salt was active in animal rights and dietary reform—and it was Salt’s pamphlet on vegetarianism that gave a young student of law in London, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the strength not to succumb to the voices around him that were insisting that he change his diet. Later in life, Gandhi wrote to Salt about diet and the influence of Thoreau: 

Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Source: http://tiny.cc/otuom.

 

 

In the 1960s, the praxis of the Civil Rights Movement, as developed by Martin Luther King, Jr., derived much inspiration from the teachings of Gandhi—and in turn from the writings of Thoreau, particularly the essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” or, as it is now known, “Civil Disobedience.” The stature of both Thoreau and Emerson continues to grow, and several recent studies have examined the educational philosophies of Alcott (and Thoreau), shedding light on their holistic approach in the classroom. At play in the field of all of the above were the teachings of the classic Asian religious texts.

Conclusion

Transcendentalism represents an important moment in a new American consolidation of global religious awareness. Seeing such strong connections that were so pervasive in one of America’s most original intellectual movements—and with Walden long-installed as part of the Western canon—now is the time to understand and teach this intellectual movement as a watershed moment, one in which influential American thinkers began to conceptualize a world where Asia and the West met, and the full spectrum of humanity’s spiritual understandings were creatively synthesized. Their pioneering curiosity for exploring other peoples’ literatures, philosophies, and spirituality is no less important or relevant for our own time. 

NOTES 


  1. Alan D. Hodder, Thoreau’s Ecstatic Witness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). 
  2. Bronson Alcott, Journals II, (August 8, 1867), 388. 
  3. Laura Knoy, “The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings,” New Hampshire Public Radio, Friday, April 7, 2006, interview with Lawrence Buell, http://www.nhpr.org/node/10499. 
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Introduction to Nature (1836). 
  5. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1849), 110. This work is available online, digitized by Google, at http://tinyurl.com/67u7kuq. 
  6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Phi Beta Kappa Address in “The American Scholar,” 1837. Note that this is the same talk that Sophia Peabody Hawthorne had just finished reading when she wrote to her brother George on October 1, 1837. 
  7. The Essays of Emerson, Volume The First (London: Arthur L. Humphreys, 1899), 9. 
  8. Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1982), 141. 
  9. Louisa May Alcott, Letter to Maggie Lukens, February 5, 1884

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The AAS Secretariat will be closed on Monday, January 17, in observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday