Friday, December 01, 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson - the Hindu influence

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), "I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake 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 that exercise us." [7] Emerson is the first great American literary figure who read deeply and fully the available philosophic literature from India. It certainly shows in his own writings. In a letter to Max Mueller, Emerson wrote: "All my interest is in Marsh's Manu, then Wilkins' Bhagavat Geeta, Burnouf's Bhagavat Purana and Wilson's Vishnu Purana, yes, and few other translations. I remember I owed my first taste for this fruit to Cousin's sketch, in his first lecture, of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna and I still prize the first chapters of the Bhagavat as wonderful." [9]
By 1856 Emerson had read the Kathopanisad and his ideas were increasingly reflecting Indian influence. His poems, such as Hamatreya (a poem composed in 1845) 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. Yogavindra, the goddess of illusion, is stronger than the Titans, strong than Apollo." [10]
In his poem Maya he wrote:
Illusion works impenetrable,Weaving webs innumerable,Her gay pictures never fail,Crowds each other, veil on veil,Charmer who will be believed,By man who thirsts to be deceived.
But the poem by which Emerson is best remembered and one which is often quoted for the influence Vedic thought had on him is Brahma.
If the red slayer thinks he slays,Or if the slain thinks that he is slain,They know not well the subtle waysI keep, and pass, and turn again.
Fear or forgot to me is near;Shadow and sunlight are the same;The vanished gods to me appear;And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;When me they fly, I am the wings;I am the doubter and the doubt;And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,And pine in vain the sacred Seven;But thou, meek over good!Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Some of his stanzas were almost directly quoted from these lines in the Bhagavad gita:
"He who thinks that the living entity is the slayer or that the entity is slain does not understand. One who is in knowledge knows that the self slays not nor is slain. (Bg. 2:19)
"O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of heat and cold, happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and sumer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed."(Bg. 2:14)
"Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a prior existence."
Brahma was composed in 1856 and represents the maturity of Emerson's comprehension of some of the fundamental concepts of Vedic thought. According to Professor Frederic Ives Carpenter, those sixteen lines probable express those concepts "more clearly than any other writing in the English language-perhaps better than any writing in Hindu literature itself." Emerson also wrote knowledgeably about reincarnation, the theory of Karma and of Fate, of the latter not in the classic Greek sense, but in it's Indian interpretation: "Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a prior existence."

1 comment:

ellen urie said...

Please help me find Ralph W. Emerson' complete phrase for this quote " ..but real wisdom is in silent moments" Ellen Urie