“Ralph Waldo Emerson was the first American to pioneer the serious exploration of Indian philosophy, and as his own thinking grew over time, Indian philosophy profoundly influenced the course of that growth. This book thoroughly investigates the ways in which the scriptures of India shaped the maturing Transcendentalism of this great Amerian thinker. In addition, by analyzing in concrete detail the crucial ways in which the scriptures of India influenced Emerson’s metaphysical development, the book repudiates the arguments of those who maintain that Emerson abandoned the optimistic faith of his youth. it makes plain that those who ascribe to Emerson a “Fall” from his early beliefs are demonstrably in error, prim arily because of their serious misunderstanding of the influence, on Emerson, of Hindu and Buddhist teachings.”
Given the central importance of Emerson’s Transcendentalist movement in America’s intellectual history, and its influence upon a few generations of American luminaries, this book is a important corrective to American history and the role of Indic traditions in shaping it.
A prior book republished in India by Infinity Foundation was, “TS Eliot and Indic Traditions,” by Cleao Kearns. This book showed how Eliot’s major works, including the poems, “The Wasteland” and “The Four Quartets” were profoundly influenced by Upanishadic thoughts, Gita, etc. In fact, large passages are almost direct translations from Indic sources.
Both Emerson and Eliot were towering figures in American literature, separated by a century. Both went to Harvard where their careers were shaped by immersions in Indian texts and thought. But their relationships with Hinduism evolved in very different ways.
Emerson went back to Harvard years later to make a major address to the Harvard community, in which he publicly resigned as a Christian minister and preacher, explaining how his new philosophy (based on Hinduism) made it impossible for him to continue to preach Christianity. For making this speech, Emerson was denounced by Harvard. A decision was made to block him from ever being allowed to come to Harvard. This ex-communication from a supposedly liberal champion of intellectual freedom lasted till he died.
In Eliot’s case, after he wrote some of America’s most famous poems under Indian influence, he faced a similar dilemma as Emerson: whether to go all the way and leave behind his Christian identity, or whether to U-Turn back to Christianity. Eliot was under heavy Christian peer influence at Harvard. He eventually made a formal public “conversion” back to Christianity. This, explains Cleo Kearns’ book, enabled him to continue studying Hindu texts from the safety of an arms-length relationship. Henceforth, he was secure as a Christian and said he was merely studying Hinduism from a distance as the “other.” The post-U-turn Eliot continued to appropriate from Indic traditions and his works have left a permanent shift in Western literature and thought.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson helped to popularize the Bhagavad-gita in the West, and many devotees are familiar with his comments on the Gita:
“The Bhagavad-Gita is an empire of thought and in its philosophical teachings Krishna has all the attributes of the full-fledged montheistic deity and at the same time the attributes of the Upanisadic absolute.”
“I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke 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 which exercise us.”
Biography of Emerson
“Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was an American essayist, poet, and leader of the Transcendentalist movement in the early nineteenth century.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, son of the Rev. William Emerson, a Unitarian minister in a famous line of ministers. He gradually drifted from the doctrines of his peers, then formulated and first expressed the philosophy of Transcendentalism in his 1836 essay, Nature.
Emerson’s father, who called his son “a rather dull scholar”, died in 1811, less than two weeks short of Emerson’s 8th birthday. The young Emerson was subsequently sent to the Boston Latin School in 1812 at the age of nine. In October 1817, at fourteen Emerson went to Harvard College and was appointed Freshman’s President, a position which gave him a room free of charge. He waited at Commons, reducing the cost of his board to one quarter, and he received a scholarship. To complement his meager salary, he tutored and taught during the winter vacation at his Uncle Ripley’s school in Waltham, Massachusetts.
After Emerson graduated from Harvard in 1821 at the age of eighteen, he assisted his brother in a school for young ladies established in their mother’s house, after he had established his own school in Chelmsford; when his brother went to Göttingen to study divinity, Emerson took charge of the school. Over the next several years, Emerson made his living as a schoolmaster, then went to Harvard Divinity School, and emerged as a Unitarian minister in 1829. A dispute with church officials over the administration of the Communion service, and misgivings about public prayer led to his resignation in 1832.
His first wife, Ellen Louisa Tucker, died of tuberculosis at 19 on February 8, 1831. Despite his having been married, there is considerable evidence pointing to Emerson being bisexual. During his earlier years at Harvard he found himself ‘strangely attracted’ to a young freshman named Martin Gay about whom he wrote sexually charged poetry. Gay would be only the first of his infatuations and interests, with Walt Whitman numbered among them.
Emerson is distantly related to Charles Wesley Emerson, founder and namesake of Emerson College. Both were Unitarian ministers; Charles was a family name in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s family. Their great ancestor, Thomas Emerson, immigrant, settled as early as 1640 in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and was the progenitor of a family of ministers and learned men.
Emerson toured Europe in 1832 and later wrote of his travels in English Traits (1856). During this trip, he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Carlyle. Emerson maintained contact with Carlyle until the latter’s death in 1881. He served as Carlyle’s agent in the U.S.
His travels abroad brought him to England, France (in 1848), Italy, and the Middle East.
In 1835, Emerson bought a house on the Cambridge and Concord Turnpike in Concord, Massachusetts, now open to the public as the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and quickly became one of the leading citizens in the town. He also married his second wife Lydia Jackson there. He called her Lydian and she called him Mr. Emerson. Their children were Waldo, Ellen, Edith, and Edward Waldo Emerson. Ellen was named for his first wife, at the suggestion of Lydia.
In September 1835, Emerson and other like-minded intellectuals founded the Transcendental Club, which served as a center for the movement, but did not publish its journal The Dial, until July 1840. Emerson anonymously published his first essay, Nature, in September 1836.
In 1838 he was invited back to Divinity Hall, Harvard Divinity School, for the school’s graduation address, which came to be known as his Divinity School Address. His remarks managed to outrage the establishment and shock the whole Protestant community at the time, as he proclaimed that while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. At the time, such statements were rather unheard of. For this, he was denounced as an atheist, and a poisoner of young men’s minds. Despite the roar of his critics, he made no reply, leaving it to others for his defense. He was not invited back to speak at Harvard for another 30 years, but by the mid-1880s his position had become standard Unitarian doctrine.
Early in 1842, Emerson lost his first son, Waldo, to scarlet fever. Emerson wrote about his grief in two major works: the poem “Threnody”, and the essay “Experience.” In the same year, William James was born, and Emerson agreed to be his godfather.
Emerson made a living as a popular lecturer in New England and the rest of the country outside of the South. During several scheduled appearances that he was not able to make, Frederick Douglass took his place. Emerson spoke on a wide variety of subjects. Many of his essays grew out of his lectures.
Emerson associated with Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau and often took walks with them in Concord. Emerson encouraged Thoreau’s talent and early career. The land on which Thoreau built his cabin on Walden Pond belonged to Emerson. While Thoreau was living at Walden, Emerson provided food and hired Thoreau to perform odd jobs. When Thoreau left Walden after two years’ time, it was to live at the Emerson house while Emerson was away on a lecture tour. Their close relationship fractured after Emerson gave Thoreau the poor advice to publish his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, without extensive drafts, and directed Thoreau to his own agent who made Thoreau split the price/risk of publishing. The book found few readers, and put Thoreau heavily into debt. Eventually the two would reconcile some of their differences, although Thoreau privately accused Emerson of having drifted from his original philosophy, and Emerson began to view Thoreau as a misanthrope. Emerson’s eulogy to Thoreau is largely credited with the latter’s negative reputation during the 19th century.
Emerson was noted as being a very abstract and difficult writer who nevertheless drew large crowds for his speeches. The heart of Emerson’s writing were his direct observations in his journals, which he started keeping as a teenager at Harvard. The journals were elaborately indexed by Emerson. Emerson went back to his journals, his bank of experiences and ideas, and took out relevant passages, which were joined together in his dense, concentrated lectures. He later revised and polished his lectures for his essays and sermons.
He was considered one of the great orators of the time, a man who could enrapture crowds with his deep voice, his enthusiasm, and his egalitarian respect for his audience. His outspoken, uncompromising support for abolitionism later in life caused protest and jeers from crowds when he spoke on the subject. He continued to speak on abolition without concern for his popularity and with increasing radicalism. He attempted, with difficulty, not to join the public arena as a member of any group or movement, and always retained a stringent independence that reflected his individualism. He always insisted that he wanted no followers, but sought to give man back to himself, as a self-reliant individual. Asked to sum up his work late in life, he said it was his doctrine of “the infinitude of the private man” that remained central.
In 1845, Emerson’s Journal records that he was reading the Bhagavad Gita and Henry Thomas Colebrooke’s Essays on the Vedas. Emerson was strongly influenced by the Vedas, and much of his writing has strong shades of nondualism. One of the clearest examples of this can be found in his essay “The Over-soul”:
“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.”
Emerson was strongly influenced by his early reading of the French essayist Montaigne. From those compositions he took the conversational, subjective style and the loss of belief in a personal God. He never read Kant’s works, but, instead, relied on Coleridge’s interpretation of the German Transcendental Idealist. This led to Emerson’s non-traditional ideas of soul and God.
Emerson is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.
In May 2006, 168 years after Emerson delivered his “Divinity School Address,” Harvard Divinity School announced the establishment of the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship. The Emerson Chair is expected to be occupied in the fall of 2007 or soon thereafter.
Emerson’s “Collected Essays: First (1841) and Second (1844) Series,” including his seminal essays on “History,” “Self-Reliance,” “Compensation,” “Spiritual Laws,” “Love,” “Friendship,” “Prudence,” “Heroism,” “The Over-soul,” “Circles,” “Intellect,” and “Art” in the first and “The Poet,” “Experience,” “Character,” “Manners,” “Gifts,” “Nature,” “Politics,” and “Nominalist and Realist” in the second, is often considered to be one of the 100 greatest books of all time.”