Bhagavad Gita as a Source of Knowledge and Inspiration for Emerson

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Bhagavad Gita as a Source of Knowledge and Inspiration for Emerson essay
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Officially Hinduism is said to have entered America in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda's words of address, 'sisters and brothers of America', won thunderous applause at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. But in actuality a cross-cultural synthesis of Indo-American spiritual bonding had already started in the thinking and writings of American writers. The wisdom of the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita – had already blossomed in the minds of the greatest American writers of the 19th century - Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and many others. The philosophy of the Upanishads was so deeply engraved on their minds that Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman were called the Brahmins of America. Emerson and Thoreau though were born in America yet they were Indians by temperament, nature and philosophy. Both these pioneers were the key figures among the writers of the Renaissance1.

Literature knows no racial or national boundaries but it crosses all seas to bring peoples into harmonious understanding. The literature of the world and certainly that of the India is now abundantly available on the internet to those readers who use the English language. A new and readable translation of the Bhagvad Gita, available for a few cents, has sold a million copies in America and has become a household book of guidance for numberless American natives and Indians2.


In my research paper on ‘Bhagavad Gita a Great Source of Knowledge and Inspiration for Emerson’ I have brought forth that Ralph Waldo Emerson was heavily influenced by The Bhagavad Gita. The highest in Western civilization is moving on the path delineated by the Great philosopher Emerson. Thus it is important for all to understand his thoughts for success not only in the Western Civilization but also throughout the world. Its ardent follower Emerson said, “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagvad Gita. 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.3” In fact Ralph Waldo Emerson has made the Bhagavad Gita and Vedic thought an integral part and foundation of Western philosophy.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was America’s poet-prophet. He is remembered primarily for his endeavour to elevate the spiritual landscape of the American psyche. Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, USA. He lost his father when he was only eight and was raised by his mother. Emerson lived his whole life in Massachusetts and became the leading member of a group known as Transcendentalists. His beliefs and ideas may be summarized by one of his own sentences: “Can anyone doubt that if the noblest saint among the Buddhists, and noblest Mahometan, the highest Stoic of Athens, the purest and wisest Christian, Manu in India, Confucius in China, Spinoza in Holland, could somewhere meet and converse together, they would find themselves of one religion?4” Before proceeding to discuss how Indian thought influenced Emerson’s ideas and works, it is important that I briefly focus on the movement known as Transcendentalism.

What is Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism, or American Transcendentalism5, was a multi-faceted movement. It introduced freethinking in religion, intuitive idealism in philosophy, individualism in literature, new spirit in social reforms, and new optimism in peoples’ mind. This New England movement flourished in a period between 1830 and 1860. One of the beginning marks of this movement was the Transcendental Club meeting held at George Ripley’s home in Boston in the fall of 1836. As an intellectual movement, Transcendentalism was influenced by Romanticism and post-Kantian idealism, and its major exponents were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Initially, it started its journey as a religious movement, but shortly it addressed many other issues of the contemporary time.

Transcendentalism’s influence is clearly visible in many American movements—be it religious, literary, political, or philosophical. With regard to religion, it introduced freethinking and reasoning in understanding and practicing religion. In fact, it was the first revolt against historical Christianity as it rejected religious forms, creeds, rituals, and the literal explanations of scriptures. Instead, it aspired to reach for an authentic religious experience. Establishing an original relationship with God and the universe was among the main objectives of the movement. Rejecting religious formalities, Emerson in his “Divinity School Address” declared that “Whenever the pulpit is usurped by a formalist, then is the worshipper defrauded and disconsolate. We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us….It seemed strange that the people should come to church5”. Thus, Transcendentalism advocated religious experience based on intuition and an unmediated relationship with the universe and it’s Creator.

Review of Literature:

Emerson was considered the first American who read the sacred books of Hinduism. He received influence by reading these books; therefore, he discussed Hinduism in his writings. The perfect example of this influence that can be seen in the poems and essays of Emerson. Emerson conveyed about the Hindu holy book Gita that in England the accepting laws and materialist fact, the attractive, the tactful, the fearless, the beneficial but they were not able to create like a book of Gita6.

Emerson presented the Maya in his many writings. For instance, he believed that people are living in empire of illusion. He described the situation of human life that human changes only bed or shifts from one bed to another. He lifted from nothing of life to nothing of death. In his essay ‘Experience’ he said that people are looking from the glass (illusion) but they don’t know whether it is the reality. He said that it is very complex to go through this illusion as Krishna in Upanishads describes. ‘This divine maya of Mine, made of the gunas, is difficult to penetrate. But those who take refuge in me alone, they penetrate this illusion’. Emerson concluded that there is no edge of illusion. Emerson wrote about the concept of illusion which he took from the Maya. Maya is the concept of Hinduism which means dishonesty, fraud or treachery6. There are various types of illusion which divert and mislead the sense. In the sacred vernacular, Maya means uselessness, different from the realism embodied by god or Brahman. God in his everlasting and supreme aspect is pure consciousness and his response is a simple development within that awareness. Maya is also illustrated in the Hindu scriptures as the play (lila) of god ratified through his artistic and dynamic power or force. Emerson composed a third poem with a Hindu title other than 'Brahma' and 'Hamatreya', this small poem, entitled 'Maya”. The poem is called Maya for Hindu goddess who keeps mankind beneath the magic charm of illusions. For Emerson, life was a puzzle; he appreciated the Hindus because they had endeavoured to discover a suitable respond to it. Another Hindu work inspired his mind a great deal: The Katha Upanishad. In 1856, when he was fifty three, he wrote in his Journal7.

Karma, another Indian theoretical idea, had a great influence on Emerson. Karma means work or action. The consequence of disobedience will suffer pain in the future. Various Hindu books (Gita, Upanishads and Vedas) show that disobeyers will face serious penalty. ‘Self Reliance’ is very similar to Karma. Emerson also discusses about karma in his writings. This is also a concept of Hindu religion6. The word karma means actions or deeds. As a religious expression, karma describes the intentional moral dealings that influence one's kismet in this life (present) and the next (life hereafter). Karma is common idea to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, but explained in dissimilar ways.

Anwaruddin conveys that despite of minute disagreement, the idea of Emerson is associated with Indian religious and philosophical concept. This had very vast influence on Emerson’s writings. Emerson explored the Indian spiritual and philosophical mores. He cemented the path for the people who were interested in works of Hinduism like Gita and Upanishads. Emerson clears the path for those people who are interested to work on Hindu philosophies6. Due to his Indian philosophical influence, he knows much about Hindu concepts which he shows in his writings. Singh presents the similar notion that Emerson Intellectual writings have been influenced by Indian religious and philosophical concepts. With the discovery of Indian philosophical and spiritual concepts, the way for those people who wanted to explore the ancient texts like Gita and Upanishads8.

Emerson writings are much influenced by Eastern texts, Hindu Mysticism to Chinese philosophy, Persian poetry to Hafiz to Buddhist. Pickford, the famous mystical poems were influenced by Persian poets such as ‘The Sphinx’ it shows Emerson’s mystifying and visionary tone, ‘Hamatreya’ shows the Hindu insights (wisdom) towards the England, ‘Bacchus’ shows the carnival of poetic motivation, ‘Days’ shows the mixture of Puritan principles and vision and ‘Brahma’ shows a concentration of Hindu concepts which direct to the connection of Niravana with selflessness9. Kumar also gives the same idea that Emerson searched the value of acquisitive world and unending power10. That’s why he studies Hindu texts such as Gita, Vedas the Upanishads, German idealism and various sacred books. Emerson was a great writer8. His essays are full of ideas and scriptures of notions. He was the first who read the sacred scriptures of Hinduism and was deeply inclined by the concepts of Hinduism. His works show the Hindu influence. The titles and themes are derived from Hindu book Vishnu. Many critics have stated about orient of Islam and original corpus of Emerson, centring on the fundamentals of Sufi Mysticism, Hindu Spiritualism and literary principles of Asian culture in his works10. When he was young he began to study Hindu Scriptures like Vishnu Purana, Gita, Katha Upanishad and Manu. He gave various references to these sacred scriptures in his poems and essays.

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Emerson’s notion about “The Over Soul” is connected entirely with Indian. The close review of the concept of “Brahma” along with its sources shows that the theme is not very near to Hebatic as Indian. The analysis exposes that Emerson got the idea of moralizing tendency from Vishnupurana. He got quick motivation and explanation from katha Upanishads as well as the Gita offered an accurate framework and its theoretical profundity. His ideas about sin, evil, freedom, suffering and destiny were stimulated by Hinduism. Emerson’s notion about moral law has also derived from Hinduism. It is stuck in God, Over Soul or Highest Mind. Emerson’s idea of soul or mind (Budhi of Indian concept) is derived from Hinduism8. He identifies two sorts of mind, one is intuition and the other is intellect. Intellect provides superficial information or the knowledge of variations and intuition offers the information about harmony, unity and rationality. Emerson established the concept of intuition in famous essay ‘Self Reliance’ while searching for the reason of self trust8.

Emerson is the first great American literary figure who studied intensely and completely the available philosophic literature from India. It surely illustrates 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”. By 1856, Emerson had read the Katha Upanishads and his thoughts were progressively more reflecting Indian influence11. His poems, such as ‘Hamatreya’ (a poem composed in 1845) showed he had digested his Indian philosophic readings well. Hamatreya actually was motivated by a passage from the Vishnu Purana. He was anxious with the subject of illusion-maya. Emerson went all the way through Indian philosophy, literary and influenced from the Hinduism. The sacred books of Hinduism the Puranas, the Vedas, The Gita, and Upanishads were affected his intrusive mind. This irresistible impact converted his spiritually. He showed in his poems such as Hamatreya and Brahma the concept of Hinduism. Emerson is very near to Indian culture and his interest makes him nearer to the Hindu philosophies12. Manu is actually the mythology of India and Emerson uses the impact of Manu in his works. Rao elaborates that Emerson was surely affected by Indian concepts. He had the ability of observe the Indian culture from every aspect. People could get the impact of Manu, Hinduism and Gita from his works and life12.

Research Questions

i. Why did Ralph Waldo Emerson have Hinduism in his writings? ii. Why was Emerson so close to Hindu religion? iii. From where did he get the influence of Hinduism? iv. What was the reason mentioning Hindu Sacred Books in most of his writings? v. Why was Emerson so well known regarding Hindu religion?

Emerson is known to have a great impact on the philosophy and thought of his contemporaries and also his successors. He brought Hinduism as a major influence in his writings. Some believe that he might have gone for a detailed study of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature while he stayed in Germany. It is also thought that his aunt Mary Moody Emerson brought to him several indian religious scriptures like the Vedanta, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, in his book New Age Religion and Western Culture deals heavily with Emerson’s take on Oriental religion and philosophy. He writes:

Buddhism remained alien to him, as to many of his contemporaries, and the same goes for Taoism. Confucianism, by contrast, was admired by Emerson for its ethical concern and common sense. But his deepest appreciation was for Hinduism, which he perceived (partly under the influence of the reform-Hinduism of Rammohun Roy’s Brahmo Samaj, which had fascinated European and American Unitarians since the early 19th century) largely in terms od Advaita Vedanta13.

Emerson avoided any observance and ritual of Hinduism and his point of concentration was solely the divinity, the religion offers universally. Emerson’s devotion to Indian religion is apparent in many of his poems like ‘Brahma’, ‘Hematreya’ and ‘Maya’. ‘Brahma’ (1857) is a poem where he directly invokes the Hindu supreme God Brahma, the God of creation along with two other connected terms Brahman (the essence, or 'soul,' of the universe) and Brahmin (the Hindu priests). The poem is a blend of philosophies from “Katha-Upanishads”, “Maitri Upanishads” and the spiritual teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, according to which, the human soul exists with full vigour even after the mortal body gets deceased. A sense of unification between the creator and the creation is surging throughout the verses. Emerson indicates that the ultimate way to eternalise the human soul is through finding the true essence of Brahma. Emerson draws the theme and title of “Hematreya” (1846) from Vishnu Purana, an old Vedantic mythology. In “Hematreya”, he brings in a sharp contrast between the mortality of human power and the immortality of the Earth. Hematreya is actually representing Maitreya, a character of Vishnu Purana who gets engaged in conversation with Lord Vishnu regarding the pride of the mighty Kings of the world and their ignorance about their mortality. Emerson’s poem also takes the same theme in which Earth declares her superiority over the arrogant human beings.

Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds: And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough. Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs; who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet Clear of the grave. [Hamatreya: Lines 11-16]14

Not only Emerson’s poems, but also his essays are enriched with his Indian ideas. In his noted essay “The Over-Soul” (1941), Emerson dealt with the divine nature of human soul, an indomitable spirit which can only be perceived through moral action and spiritual practices. Emerson, upon his reading of Indian philosophy was highly motivated with concept of eternal soul, as prescribed in the Bhagavad-Gita. Emerson brought one of his poems named “Unity” as the epigraph of the essay. It is thought that Emerson started losing interest in his own religion after the death of his dear ones at very early stages: his first wife died only at the age of nineteen, his brother died at twenty nine and his son died before reaching the age of six due to scarlet fever. Though, he belonged to a highly religious family and even he was a religious preacher, his faith in religion started to get loosened for the tragedy he faced in his life. The circumstances made him restless and he devoted himself to study Indian spiritualism for mental peace.

Emerson began his bookish association with the wisdom of Asia during college days. Though his acquaintance with the writing of the East did not develop into intimacy until after Melville had inhaled the strong breezes of Sumatra Emerson was almost the high priest of Orientalism in America by the time he published “Brahma” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1857. It will not be out of place here to cite the poem ‘Brahma’ verbatim here:


If the red slayer thinks he says, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways I keep, and pass, and turn again. Far or forget 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 sing. The strong god pine for my abode, And pine in vain the sacred Seven; But thou, meek lover of the god! Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

The ideas of this poem are weaved around a Shaloka in the Bhagwad- Gita and mantra in Katha Upanishad. Both these Shaloka and the mantra means: “If the slayer thinks I slay, If the slain things I am slain, than both of them do not know well, the soul does not slay, nor is it slain.” The ending of the poem speaks of immortality interests of Indian philosophy. Several more examples can be cited from this poetry and prose as a proof of this soul having been merged with the Oriental Thought.


Western poets, writers and thinkers started realizing the negative intoxication caused by Western materialism which only provoked the society to live for the personal gain and benefit. So, the poets and thinkers of this generation showed the certain apocalypse if human generation cannot be motivated towards spiritualism, a still existing practice in the Orient. Therefore, the influence of Indian philosophy in present day’s America is not limited within its spiritual quest; the influence has spread across the other spheres of life. Thousands of Indians are living in the USA and in the American continent for several decades for their professional needs. Hence, a multilingual and multicultural country like India is day by day contributing a lot to the Native Americans’ thoughts and beliefs. ”Yoga”, a popular Indian physical, mental and spiritual practice, is gaining popularity in America. Indian spiritual gurus often organise yogic camps in America and in other western nations. Modern days’ Americans believe that through yoga, they can have a stress free life which is physically and mentally sound. According to “Yoga in American Studies15”, conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, there are presently 36.7 million US yoga practitioners (In 2012 there were 20.4 millions).

The report also says that 34 percent of Americans are likely to start practicing Yoga in the next 12 months. In this way, one of the most economical and technological superpowers of the World is still following the trends of their native poets through taking shelter on Oriental practices of spiritualism. Thus, Indian philosophy, most particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, not only play major roles on the works and philosophies of the nineteenth and twentieth century American poets, they have created a timeless appeal. From its very beginning to the contemporary times, the literature of the “Turtle Island’ owed too much to the Indian language, religion, myths, legends, epics and spiritual hymns and it reached its summit in the nineteenth and twentieth century in the verse and prose of Emerson. It is Emerson who started the tradition, Whitman who nurtured it in a more mystical way and finally, it was Eliot who transformed it into being universal.

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