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«Thoreau's India - An Outsider's View V.Meenakumari Henry David Thoreau came in contact with India through Emerson's library of erudite books. He ...»

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IRWLE VOL. 7 No. 2 July 2011

Thoreau's India - An Outsider's View


Henry David Thoreau came in contact with India through Emerson's

library of erudite books. He influenced Thoreau with a certain enthusiasm for the

Wisdom of India. During his stay in 1838 with Emerson's brother, Thoreau had

unrestricted access to Emerson's library which contained the great works of India

such as The Vedas, The Laws of Manu, the Hitopadesha of Vishnu Sharma, the

Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Thoreau read the Hindu scriptures with delight and with each reading; he was raised into a rare region of thought.

Thoreau not only read books on Indian Philosophy from Emerson's library but also from his borrowings from the Harvard College Library during 1849-

1854. On 11 September, 1849, he borrowed `Mahabharata, Hariwamsa, On Historic de la famille', and Garcin de Tassy's `Histoire de la literature Hindoui'. In 1850, from January 28th to April, he read Wilson's translation of the `Vishnu Purana', Icvara Krsna's `The Sankhya Karika', `The Samveda Samhita' translated by Stevenson, Rammohan Roy's Translation of passages of the Veda; and vol.IX of the works of Sir William Jones. (This volume contains `Sacontala, or, the Fatal Ring' and Sir Jones' translation of Kalidasa's `Abhijyana Sakuntalam,' Charles Wilkins' translation of the Bhagavad-Gita - `Bhagvat-geeta, or, Dialogue of Kreeshna and Arjoon' was borrowed by Thoreau on 9th October, 18541.

His steadily growing interest in Indian philosophy led him to study Colebrooke's `Essays', and Burnouf's `Introduction a "histoire du Buddhisme Indien". An article, `The Preaching of Buddha', based on his study of Burnouf's book, selections from `The Laws of Manu', and selections from the Oriental scriptures, were also contributed by Thoreau to the `Dial'. In the Prefaces to the selections, Orientalists like Colebrooke, Hodgson and Wilkins are frequently cited by Thoreau. All this shows his interest in India. In January 1843, Thoreau published selected passages from the Laws of Manu from a French version of the Sanskrit Harivansa in The Dial, Thoreau also translated a story, "The Transmigration of seven Brahmans", and in The Dial of January 1844, he published excerpts from Buddhist Scriptures under the title "The preaching of Buddha". Hindu scripture tells us that the central core of one's self (antaratman) is identifiable with the cosmic whole (Brahman). The Upanishads state : "The self within you, the respondent, immortal person is the internal self of all things and is the universal Brahman". Concepts similar to this cardinal 1 IRWLE VOL. 7 No. 2 July 2011 doctrine of vedanta appear in the writings of the Transcendentalists. But there are many ideological similarities among Oriental literature, the neoplatonic doctrines, Christian mysticism, and the philosophy of the German idealists such as Kant and Schilling. And, since the Transcendentalists were acquainted with all of these writings, it is not always possible to identify specific influences.

Nevertheless, the striking parallels between Transcendentalist writing and Oriental thought make it clear that there was a spiritual kinship.

When Thoreau began his intensive study of Hindu scriptures, he wrote in his journal, "I cannot read a sentence in the book of the Hindu's without being elevated upon the table land of the Ghauts..... The impression which those sublime sentences made on me last night has awakened me before Cock-crowing..... The simple life herein described confers on us a degree of freedom even in perusal...... wants so easily and gracefully satisfied that they seem like a more refined pleasure, repleteness". Later, in his first book, he said any moral philosophy is exceedingly rare. This of Manu addresses our privacy more than most. It is a more private and familiar and at the same time a more public and universal work, than is spoken of in parlour or pulpits nowadays. As our domestic fowls are said to have their original in the will pleasant of India, so our domestic thoughts have their prototypes in the thoughts of her philosophers.....

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 midsummer of the year and after the snows have melted, and the waters evaporated in the spring, still its truth speaks freshly to our experience.....".

Thoreau sought throughout his life to live a life of meaning - a life in which he would understand the truths of his own nature, his relationship with other

men and his relationship with Nature and with the Universe. In the BhagavadGita, Thoreau found clues for his quest which he transposed into his Journals :

"The man who, having abandoned all lusts of the flesh, Walketh without inordinate desires, unassuming, and free from pride, obtaineth happiness. The wise man.... seeketh for that which is homogenous to his own nature".

We too know that Thoreau's reading led him to an interest in yoga. He wrote in a letter to a friend : "Free in this world as the buds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who have practiced the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruit of their works..... The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation..... Divine forms traverse him.... and united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating original

–  –  –


Thoreau, Emerson and few others were the men who believed in high thinking and simple living and they were called the Transcendentalist and this group of thinkers and writers came to be called the `Concord Brahmins'. Thoreau had "in himself a vein of intellectual independence which resisted doctrinal or dogmatic conformity to any given religious tradition2".

Thoreau was "too non-conformist to adhere to any given Christian Church.

It is this non-conformity that allowed him in all matters to strike out an independent line of thought and a distinctive way of life which was his own"3.

Thoreau was not able to keep pace with the existing social milieu. This was only an instance of his social non-conformity. Because of such a frame of mind he was open to all the fresh influences. He had an open mind and was able to accept doctrines from all spheres of the world. He considered the preachings of Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Lao-tze as a gospel of life. He had an inquiring mind and was drawn towards Indian Philosophy, in his striving for a fuller and more natural localization of self. The lessons he learnt from India became "the warp and woof of his earthy being"4.

Thoreau read nature books. His observations of nature as depicted in Walden are like that of the Rishis of India. Rishis of India learnt nature not only to exploit or conquer her but also to be in constant communion with Nature. They discovered completeness in Nature. The vedic seers called this Rita. Rita in Nature is the moral order in the heart of man. The feeling of reverence they exhibited towards Nature was similar to the feeling of reverence that Kant had.

He said : “There are two things that strike me with awe and reverence. One is the starry heavens above and the other is the moral law within. The cosmic law that governed the starry heavens was Rita. The moral law that governed the world of man was Satya"5.

Thoreau read books that gave him a knowledge and insight into Nature and this helped him build a philosophy of life. He acquired this knowledge of Indian Philosophy, from extensive reading of the English sources. In 1855, Thoreau's friend Thomas Cholmondeley sent him "a handsome library of Oriental literature which included the First and Second Ashtaka of Rigveda Samhita, Gaurapada's commentary on the Sankhya Karika, select specimen of the Theatre of the Hindus, Vishnu Purana translated by H.H. Wilson, Colebrooke's translation of the Sankhya Karika, and Treatise on the Hindu Law of Inheritance and

3IRWLE VOL. 7 No. 2 July 2011

Miscellaneous Essays, Sri William Jones translation of Menu Roer's translation of the Upanishads in Vol.XV of the Bibliothria Indica, Milman's Nala and Damayanti and M.E. Burnoff's Lotus de la Bonne. Thoreau received his gift with great enthusiasm. In a letter to his friend Blatu, Thoreau says, "They are in English, French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. One is splendidly bound and illustrated........ I am familiar with many of them and know how to prize them"6.

Thoreau also read Oriental Poems, Preachings of Buddha and selections from The Laws of Manu. All these reflect his interest in India. Twentieth Century Discovery tells that Thoreau's translation of Harwansa entitled "The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmins : a translation from the Harwansa of danglois" is found in Widener Library, Harvard University.

Thoreau's reflections on his reading of Indian philosophy find expression in all his works; and the influences of Indian philosophy can be seen from references he makes in his writings.

After he read the "Laws of Manu" he confided in his Journal.

I cannot read a sentence in the book of the Hindoos without being elevated as upon the table land of the ghauts. It has such a rhythm as the winds of desert, such a tide as the Ganges and seems as superior to criticism as the Himmaleh mounts. Even at this later hour unworn by time, with a native and inherent dignity it wears the English dress as indifferently as the Sanskrit. The great tone is of such fibre and such severe tension that no time nor accident can relax it (Journal 1-P.266).

“A week on the Merrimack River's" contains echoes of The Laws of Manu.

Thoreau says in A Week :One of the most attractive of those ancient books that I have met with, is The Laws of Manu". The book acquires a divine character and invokes nothing but unquestioning admiration. "The `Laws' appear to Thoreau as intensely private and yet public and universal. They are beyond refutation. They are above criticism. The only reason, why the book should have so profoundly impressed Thoreau seems to be, its absolute impersonality. The stability of society, like the stability of the earth itself, is of supreme importance and individual sufferings sink into insignificance. There is an element of in escapability from the Law of being and every individual must accept his station in life with an uncomplaining obedience and strive for excellence for the social good;

for a man's station in life is determined by his own actions in the past life or lives"7.

4IRWLE VOL. 7 No. 2 July 2011

Thoreau was influenced by the reading of Laws of Manu and it is clear from his statement "I love my fate to the very core and vind". Thoreau surrendered to nature and established a complete union with nature. He discovered harmony in nature. Thoreau says "The birds with their plumage and their notes are in harmony with the flowers." This "is a feeling similar to the one which the vedic Rishi expressed in the beautiful Rig Vedic hymn to Ushas or the Dawn Ushas of the vedic hymn is Aurora, the greek Eos to whose "blushes" Thoreau refers to. Thoreau discovered this at-one-ment with nature in Kalidasa, when he said : `Even in Kalidasa's Drama of Sacontala, we read of "rills dyed yellow with the golden dust of the Lotus". `Let us first be simple and well as nature ourselves, dispel clouds that hangover our brows and take up a little more life into our pores". To Thoreau every nuance of nature was familiar. Every change in nature thrilled him. He was so attuned to it "All change", he said, "is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant"8.

Thoreau was also influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. He was introduced to Gita in Emerson's library. He looked upon the Gita as the greatest discovery of the age. Thoreau says "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 seem puny and trivial".

Comparing the Gita with the Holy Bible, "Thoreau finds the New Testament remarkable for its pure morality, the best of the Hindu scripture, for its pure intellectuality. The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a higher, purer or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. "Thoreau calls it one of the noblest and most sacred scriptures which have come down to us". For Thoreau, the Gita is more colossal than any other masterpiece of the East. Thoreau speaks of "the sanity and sublimity" of the Gita, which has impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants and tells American contemporaries to study it with reverence, for it is a part of man's common heritage: `I would say to the readers of scriptures, if they wish for a good book to read the Bhagavad Gita..... known to have been written..... more than four thousand years ago..... it matters not whether three or four or when...... it deserves to be read with reverence even by Yankees, as a part of the sacred writings of a devout people"9.

These references reflect Thoreau's debt to India. Thoreau makes references to the Bhagawad Gita in his work "Walden and also in A week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers". He talks of the philosophy "contained in it as the `cosmogonal philosophy' into which he bathed his intellect every morning”

–  –  –

(Writings II-P.328).

Biographers say that Thoreau went to the Walden Pond to write his first book "A week on the Concord and Merimack Rivers," but at the same time his journey to the woods is that of a Hindu Yogi to practice some sort of penance.

Thoreau says, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to face only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived and Thoreau confesses to Harrison Blake in 1849 that "to some extent and at rare intervals even I am a Yogi" (Writings VI-P.175) and this statement of Thoreau can be compared to the sayings of the Gita.

Unswerving devotion to Me in Yoga of non-separation, resort to sequestered places, distaste for the society of men (Bhagavad Gita XIII-10).

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