Friday, December 01, 2006

Henry David Thoreau - the Hindu influence

The Great Transcendentalist:Henry David Thoreau
Emerson and Thoreau are invariably paired as the two leading Transcendentalists. Thoreau was the younger of the two. He was also the more exuberant and impetuous and the more frankly admiring of Vedic thought. There is no record that he read any Indian literature while at Harvard but in Emerson's library he found and read with zest Sir William Jones' translation of The Laws of Manu and was fascinated. 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."
Later, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) he was again writing about the same work, "Most books belong to the house and street only, and in the fields their leaves feel very thin...But this, as it proceeds from, so it addresses, what is deepest and most abiding in man. It belongs to the noontide of the day, the mid-summer of the year, and after the snows have melted...(it) will have a place of significance as long as there is a sky to test them [the sentences of Manu] by."
"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita."
Thoreau read the Dharma Sastra in 1841, when he was twenty-four, and the Bhagavad Gita when he was twenty-eight years of age. [13] Of the latter he wrote: "The New Testament is remarkable for its pure morality, the best of the Vedic Scripture, for its pure intellectuality. The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita's 'sanity and sublimity' have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants." He had the Gita with him during his stay by Walden Pond. [14]
"What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum," he remarked in 1850. "The religion and philosophy of the Hebrews are those of a wilder and ruder tribe, wanting the civility and intellectual refinements and subtlety of Vedic culture." [15] He writes in Chapter Sixteen of Walden: "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial."
Thoreau died very young but during his mature years he read a great deal of Indian literature, perhaps more than Emerson. In 1855 he received from an English friend an entire treasure-chest of 44 volumes dealing with Vedic literature. For them he fashioned a new case from driftwood found in a New England river "thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine."
The extent of Thoreau's reading of Indian literature is astounding. He read Jones' translation of Shakuntalam; Wilson's translation of the Sankhya Karika and of Vishnu Purana: Wilkins' translation of Harivamsa (which he later put into English) and Garcin de Tassy's Histoire de la Litterature Hindoui et Hindostan. In his Journal, he wrote: "One may discover the root of an Indian religion in his own private history, when, in the silent intervals of the day and night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with stern satisfaction." No wonder Gandhi loved and revered him and accepted Thoreau as his teacher. [16] In another time and place, he would have been considered the ideal Yogi-ascetic, seeker after Truth.
An American scholar, John T. Reid, commenting on Walden has said that if one read it, without screening its lines for possible foreign influences, the net impression will be that of a frugal, practical Yankee, greatly interested in the details of New England's flora and fauna, gloriously happy in the tranquil peace of unsullied Nature, an eccentric at odds with most of his neighbor's foibles. "He was not in any accurate sense an Yogi," adds Reid," but he did pay devoted heed to those glimpses of light from the Orient which he saw."

1 comment:

rk said...

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