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Emerson’s Earliest Interest In India

Emerson’s Earliest Interest In India
by Robert C. Gordon, PhD

Ralph Waldo Emerson could justly be called the first Boston Brahmin, since he was the first American to champion the wisdom of ancient India, and was born and bred in Boston. By the time of his birth in 1803, western contact with Indian civilization was nigh on to three centuries old. However, not until rather late did the West begin to understand and appreciate the spiritual heritage of India. While it is true that sketchy accounts of India (mainly French and some Dutch) began to appear in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, these were decidedly critical and dismissive.

More substantial and positive assessments began to circulate only in the latter half of the 18th century. At that time, a few generally sympathetic Englishmen, brought to India by the British conquest, began a more serious examination of the history, philosophy, and literature of the “Hindoos.” Of these, some of the most important were Charles Wilkins, who provided the first translation of The Bhagvat Geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; Sir William Jones, the first giant of Indology, whose early essays “On The Hindus,” “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India,” and “On the Chronology of the Hindus” were widely read in England and Europe; and Thomas Colebrook, who contributed the first serious analysis of the Vedas by a Westerner.1 All of these works were to travel across the Atlantic, importantly influencing the philosophical development of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

One of the first Americans to benefit from the new English appraisals of India was the Reverend William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s father. Reverend Emerson founded the Anthology Club in 1804, and its members often discussed Indian themes. At about the same time, he became editor of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, a periodical which carried a number of articles on Indian philosophy and history during the years of Ralph Waldo’s childhood. He also obtained what books on India he could, evidencing a more than passing interest in this subject. His sister Mary Moody Emerson had a considerable interest in India as well, an interest that would occasion important correspondence concerning “the Hindoos” between herself and Ralph Waldo, her favorite nephew.

Although Reverend Emerson died just short of Ralph Waldo’s 8th birthday, we can easily imagine that the precocious youngster may have had his first introduction to India through family readings at the fireside, or through listening to his father discuss Indian themes with his literary and philosophical friends.2 In any event, by the time the young Emerson entered Harvard College in 1817, he had a definite interest in the subject of India, as his readings and college compositions attest. Some scholars have maintained that Emerson came to his interest in India only rather late in life, that his early Transcendentalism was shaped in ignorance of Indian philosophy. His Harvard days argue otherwise.

In 1818, Emerson submitted an essay for the Bowdoin Prize at Harvard titled a “Dissertation on the Comparative Merits of Ancient and Modern Historians.” In this essay, Emerson cites William Robertson’s An Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients Had of India. This citation reveals that early in his Harvard years, Emerson was interested in the subject of India. During the summer of 1818, Emerson read Thomas Duer Broughton’s Selections from the Popular Poetry of the Hindoos. These selections conveyed a positive impression of ancient India, impressions that were to make their way into Emerson’s future work in college.

In September of 1819, just before his junior year at Harvard, Emerson read Lord Alexander Woodhouselee’s Considerations on the Present Political State of India, which sought to explain the “degraded” condition of Indian society, paying special attention to the Brahmin’s repression of the lower castes. The following spring, Emerson’s appreciation for India deepened when he explored a rich treasure trove of Indian hymns translated by Sir William Jones in volume I of The Asiatick Miscellany. One of these, the “Hymn to Narayena,” made a life-long impression on Emerson – he included it in Parnassus, his 1875 compilation of his favorite poems and poets.3 It would prove important to his early philosophical development, providing the seed idea for his first book Nature.

Also in spring 1819, Emerson read Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, a colorful romance that presented ancient Indian life in beguiling fashion. While it contained no gems of philosophical wisdom, Lalla Rookh reinforced Emerson’s image of India’s early history as rich and idyllic, and is the probable inspiration for a journal revery in which Emerson imagines himself “the pampered child of the East. . . .born where the soft western gale breathed upon me the fragrance of cinnamon groves.”4

Countering the positive effect of “Narayena” and Lalla Rookh was Robert Southey’s review “British Monasticism,” a highly critical account of the extreme asceticism of the early Christians in Egypt and the yogis of India. Southey’s negative comments made their way into Emerson’s Bowdoin Prize essay “The Character of Socrates,” in which he notes that while Socrates did employ “harsh discipline” to achieve moral rectitude, he never carried “it to anything like that excess of Indian superstition which worships God by outraging Nature.”5 In this same essay, Emerson displays some familiarity with Indian cosmology when he mentions “Brahma, moulding magnificent forms, clothing them with beauty and grandeur.”6

About the same time as the composition of his “Socrates” essay, Emerson recorded in his journals a number of ideas “promiscuously received” in his college lectures. One of them concerned ancient Greece. Emerson notes that the written record provides us with a sufficiently detailed picture of Greece in the later states of its development, but “as we go back before the light of tradition comes in the veil drops.” He then makes a comment that would prove prophetic of his future philosophical development: “All tends to the mysterious east.”7

During his senior year, Emerson read Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind. In this work, Stewart discusses the similarities and contrasts between the philosophies of George Berkeley, the well-known English Idealist, and the Idealism of the Hindus. Stewart included in his analysis a trenchant summary of “the tenets of the Védánti school,” sent him by a friend posted to India. Stewart’s correspondent learned from a “young Bramin” that,

besides the myriads of gods whom their creed admits, there was one whom they know by the name of BRIM, or the great one, without form or limits, whom no created intellect could make any approach towards conceiving; that in reality, there were no trees, no houses, no land, no sea, but all without was Maia, or illusion, the act of BRIM. . . .and that the reunion of the soul to BRIM, from whom it originally sprung, was the awakening from the long sleep of finite existence.8

Not long after he studied this passage in Stewart, Emerson read Charles Grant’s “Poem on the Restoration of Learning in the East.” It reinforced in his mind the close relationship between Berkeleian and Hindu Idealism, and acquainted him with the ancient Indian sage Vyasa. In Grant, Emerson read the following lines that were to influence his first book Nature:

Such was thy strain, Vyasa, saint and sage,
Th’ immortal Berkeley of that elder age.
Like him, with flames of holiest rapture fir’d,
To thoughts sublime thy daring mind aspir’d,
And, nature opening to thy ardent glance,
Saw God alone through all the vast expanse

Grant supplemented his poem with an explanatory discussion which identified Vyasa as the author of The Mahabarat (including The Bhagvat Geeta) and the founder of “the most celebrated philosophical school in India, called the Vedanti School, of which the principal tenet is that so ably recommended to his countrymen by the celebrated Bishop Berkeley.”10

In terms of understanding Emerson’s esteem for India, it is all-important to appreciate his identification of the wisdom of Vyasa with that of Bishop Berkeley, for Berkeley was perhaps the greatest of the young Emerson’s philosophical heroes. As he explained years later in a letter to Margaret Fuller, “I know but one solution to my nature & relations, which I find in remembering the joy with which in my boyhood I caught the first hint of the Berkleian philosophy, and which I certainly never lost sight of afterwards.” Berkeley’s Idealism, Emerson goes on to explain, caused him “to see that there was a cause behind every stump & clod,” an insight that made the material world “oscillate a little & threaten to dance.” He continues that this ability to see the spiritual cause behind material phenomena – the ability that causes nature to “dance” – is to “the Idealist terror & beauty, life & light.” He concludes, “This Insight is so precious to society that where the least glimmer of it appears all men should befriend & protect it for its own sake.”11

From this time forward, Emerson was clear that the heart of both Berkeley and the “Vedanti” School was the denial of materialism and the assertion that “every stump & clod” was ultimately an emanation or projection of Spirit. Further, Vyasa came to be identified in Emerson’s mind as the founding philosopher of India’s Idealist tradition, a tradition which explained the material world as, in Grant’s words, “Maya, or Delusion; supposed to be a Goddess sprung from Brahma.” Grant’s poem versified the principle of maya, a “Hindoo” doctrine that was to have an enormous influence of Emerson’s mature philosophy:

‘Tis all delusion: Heaven and earth and skies,
But air-wove images of lifeless dyes.
HE only lives – Sole Being – None beside –
The Self-existing, Self-beatify’d:
All else but wakes at Maya’s fairy call;
For All that is, is not; or God is All.
Stupendous Essence! Obvious, yet unknown;
For ever multiply’d, for ever One

Grant’s poem not only reinforced the idea that Berkeley and Vyasa held similar Idealistic philosophies and introduced Emerson to the concept of maya, but it also taught him of the Indian principle of transmigration, explaining that,

At Brahma’s stern decree, as ages roll,
New shapes of clay await th’ immortal soul.

In his footnotes to his poem, Grant explains that evil souls may be condemned to sub-human forms of life as punishment for their errant deeds. Transmigration, along with an Idealism explained in terms of maya,will become key doctrines in Emerson’s mature Transcendentalism.

Robert Southey’s The Curse of Kehama was another important source for Emerson’s early introduction to India. In telling the story of Kehama, who sought through penance and sacrifice to control the Earth, Emerson learned more about Hindu history and philosophy, not only through the work itself but also through Southey’s extensive footnotes which excerpted valuable lore and wisdom from numerous Indian sources.

As he completed his senior year at Harvard, Emerson made use of his Indian research first in his Bowdoin Prize essay “The Present State of Ethical Philosophy,” and then in his poem “Indian Superstition,” composed for the Harvard Senior Exhibition of 1821. In his “Ethical Philosophy,” Emerson drew from Southey’s “Curse of Kehama”14 in comparing the Catholicism of medieval Europe and the wisdom of ancient India. Deriding the petty penances of the Papists, Emerson avers,

The Hindoo had gone far beyond them in his moral estimates. ‘If thou be not,’ says the law-giver Menu, ‘at variance, by speaking falsely, with Yama, the subduer of all, with Vaivaswata, the punisher, with that great divinity who dwells in the breast, go not on a pilgrimage to the river Ganga, nor to the plains of Curu, for thou has no need of expiation.’15

This same essay reveals Emerson to have been reading Madame de Staël on India, for he quotes her description of “the system of emanations of the Hindoo.”16 In his notebooks, Emerson identified the “Hindoo” emanation theory as an example of the “curious attraction which united Man to the Universe.”17

De Staël’s comment reinforced Emerson’s understanding of the “the fundamental tenet of the Védánti school” that he first met with in the Sir William Jones’ passages quoted by Dugald Stewart, “that external appearances and sensations are illusory, and would vanish into nothing, if the divine energy, which alone sustains them were suspended but for a moment.18 Stewart glosses Jones’ words by explaining that in the “Védánti school,” the material universe is conceived “as every moment upheld by the agency of Divine Power,” and as having “no existence independent” of the mind of “the Creator.”19

In addition to Southey, Emerson drew on the lines from Grant which we have already noted introduced him to the principle of transmigration. Emerson explains that “the lower orders in Europe” began to make progress after “the decline of the Roman church” because they “had no Indian Brahmin to tell them that in the eternal rounds of transmigration their souls could never rise above the jackal.”20

While Emerson’s essay on “Ethical Philosophy” contained a few choice selections of Hindu wisdom, he devoted his final composition at Harvard, his long poem “Indian Superstition,” entirely to the subject of India. As the title of the poem suggests, Emerson’s appraisal of the India of his day was far from positive. However, the poem makes clear that Emerson understood her to have once been happy and proud:

Oh once illustrious in the elder time!
Young muses caroled in thy sunny clime;
When maids of heaven the flowers celestial curled
To twine the pillars which sustain the world,
When Brahma, for thy land, in distance viewed,
Abandoned his empyreal solitude;
Serene the Father veiled his glory mild,
Crowned thee with joy, & blest his favourite child

In Emerson’s poem, while India was “once illustrious in the elder time,” she was now sunk in misery due to external conquest and to superstitious excesses of an internal origin. As a result,

Dishonoured India clanks her sullen chain,
And wails her desolation to the main

Emerson’s poem traces this desolation to specific causes, both political and religious, revealing a significant familiarity with India as presented in the literature of his day. The poem also makes clear his growing acquaintance with the Indian pantheon, mentioning Brahma, Vishnu, Seeva, and Indra. Most importantly, his poem evidences a genuine concern for India’s fate. He wonders,

How long shall anxious ages roll away,
Unblest with promise of approaching day,
Ere India’s giant genius strongly wake

Emerson answers his own question in foreseeing a happier future for India, when she will be visited by the “angels” of democracy and freedom:

India, they come to see thy shackles riven,
To throw thy thraldom to the winds of heaven

Emerson predicts that India, with the help of her protecting angels, will ultimately be victorious, for despite being “crushed by all the plagues which blast the earth,” her time will come as “A nation struggles into godlike birth.”25

Emerson’s delivery of “Indian Superstition” at the close of his senior year was the capstone of his college career, and marked the culmination of his readings and research on the “Hindoos.” By the time he graduated from Harvard, Emerson had read numerous sources on the history, beliefs, and religious practices of India. These included three articles in the Christian Disciple, four more in the Christian Observer, five in the Edinburgh Review, one in the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, two in the North American Review, and six additional articles in the Quarterly Review. Emerson had also studied ten books on the subject of India, complemented by myriad readings in the encyclopedias then available to him in Cambridge and Boston.26 From these many sources he learned four important things that were to influence the course of his metaphysical development.

First, Emerson appreciated India as a country of deep spiritual wellsprings, which had a proud history both political and intellectual. She had once enjoyed a golden age, when sages like Vyasa set the spiritual tone for entire society. However, because of internal factors like caste and certain spiritual beliefs run amuck, as well as through the external factor of conquest by the Muslims and British, India was now sunk in despair and misery. Despite these debilitating factors, Emerson had no doubt that India was soon to throw off her shackles and reclaim her glorious heritage, revivified by the modern influences of science, democracy, and humanistic individualism.

Second, Emerson understood that the central belief of Hinduism was an Idealistic philosophy much like that of George Berkeley, who agreed with ancient sages like Vyasa that the universe was an “emanation” of the Divine, or as Sir William Jones summarized the central tenet of the “Védánti school,” that the material universe is “every moment upheld by the agency of Divine Power” and has “no existence independent” of the mind of “the Creator.” But India went further than Bishop Berkeley in developing a sublime conception of the purpose of human life. Rather than salvation and an eternal place in Heaven, the purpose of life was “the reunion of the soul to BRIM, from whom it originally sprung,” in a radical “awakening from the long sleep of finite existence.” From this it follows BRIM is “that great divinity who dwells in the breast,”27 the deepest reality of every individual’s nature.

Third, Emerson the nascent Berkeleian Idealist resonated with the Hindu explanation of the world of experience, that it was the result of what Grant poeticized as “Maya’s fairy call,” a projection through a power latent in BRIM that created the illusion of materiality. However, this illusion dissipated at “the reunion of the soul to BRIM,” for the individual experienced directly the truth that the world of the many was reducible finally, in Grant’s words, to the:

Stupendous Essence! Obvious, yet unknown;
For ever multiply’d, for ever One.

Fourth, Emerson was aware that India, like the ancient Greek philosophers he loved so well, believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body through successive lifetimes. All four of these central tenets would figure prominently in the mature philosophy of the 18 year-old youth then newly graduated from Harvard. Although the far-reaching metaphysical implications of these concepts were far from clear in the mind of the young Emerson, it is nonetheless true that the grain of wisdom had been gently set around which would form the pearl of his mature philosophy. The idea that divine power was latently “in the breast” was to be an insight that would begin Emerson’s liberation from Christianity, and the equally important concept that this same divine reality was “behind nature, throughout nature” would provide the basis for his mature ontology. Having absorbed this cohering grain of wisdom in the Indian resources he read as an undergraduate, the generation of what Walt Whitman would years hence call New World Metaphysics was now in the making.


Citations which begin with “JMN” reference The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman, Alfred R. Ferguson, George P. Clark, Merrell R. Davis, Merton M. Sealts, Harrison Hayford, Ralph H. Orth, J.E. Parsons, A.W. Plumstead, Linda Allardt, and Susan Sutton Smith, et al. 16 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960 1982).

1. For a fuller treatment of this early cultural contact, see P.J. Marshall (ed.), The British Discovery of Hinduism in the Eighteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970)

2. For finer-grained detail on William Emerson and India, see Kenneth Walter Cameron, Indian Superstition by Ralph Waldo Emerson Edited with a Dissertation on Emerson’s Orientalism at Harvard, (Hanover, New Hampshire: Friends of the Dartmouth Library, 1954), pp. 14-15.

3. Ralph Waldo Emerson (ed.), Parnassus, (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1875), p. 180.

4. JMN I 72.

5. Edward Everett Hale (ed.), Ralph Waldo Emerson: Two Unpublished Essays, (Boston: Lamson-Wolff & Co., 1895), pp. 38-39.

6. Ibid., p. 15.

7. JMN I 12.

8. William Hamilton (ed.), The Collected Works of Dugald Steward, vol. 3, (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co., 1854), p. 371.

9. Op.cit., Indian Superstition, p. 28.

10. Ibid., p. 45.

11. Ralph L. Rusk, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 6 vols., (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1939. Vol. II, pp. 384-385.

12. Op.cit., Indian Superstition, p. 29.

13. Ibid., p. 31.

14. Ibid., p. 24.

15. Op.cit., Two Unpublished Essays, p. 55. Cameron traces this passage to Southey, who was quoting Jones’ Institutues of Menu. See Indian Superstition, p. 25. For this passage in Emerson’s journals, see JMN I 259.

16. Ibid., p. 46.

17. JMN I 334.

18. Op.cit., Works of Dugald Stewart, vol. 3, pp. 370-371.

19. Ibid., p. 371.

20. Op.cit., Two Unpublished Essays, p. 74. For these lines in Emerson’s journal, see JMN I 344.

21. Op.cit., Indian Superstition, p. 52.

22. Ibid., p. 49.

23. Ibid., p. 52.

24. Ibid., p. 53.

25. Ibid., p. 52.

26. See Appendix C in Cameron’s Indian Superstition for a complete bibliography of Emerson’s reading, pp. 70-72. Also helpful is Man Mohan Singh, “Emerson and India” (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1947), pp. 1-14.

27. Op.cit., Two Unpublished Essays, p. 55.