The great American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817- May 6, 1862), met Ralph Waldo Emerson for the first time when Emerson gave his lecture “The American Scholar” to a crowded house at Harvard in 1837.
Emerson’s talk moved Thoreau so profoundly that he introduced himself to Emerson and the two became good friends. Emerson subsequently became Thoreau’s mentor. Scholars point out that it was Emerson who was instrumental in rekindling in Thoreau the deep appreciation for Indian religious and philosophical writings.
It was in the summer of 1840 when Thoreau found the Laws of Manu in Emerson’s library. Thoreau’s reaction to his first reading of the text was similar to someone who had heard the voice of God for the first time.
Thoreau wrote in his journal that this text “comes to me with such a volume of sound as if I had swept unobstructed over the plains of Hindostan, and when my eye rests on yonder birches ~ or the sun in the water or the shadows on the trees ~ it seems to signify the laws of them all.”
When Thoreau was living in Emerson’s home, he borrowed several books from his mentor, which he brought to the cabin that he had constructed for himself next to Walden Pond in 1845, where he lived in complete seclusion for a little over two years. The Bhagavad Gita was one of the texts that Thoreau carried with him to Walden Pond, which became his constant companion.
Thoreau described his love and admiration for the Bhagavad Gita thus: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvad-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.”
Although Thoreau respected Christianity, he was drawn to Hinduism as a novel way to conceptualize God and an individual’s relationship to the world around her/him. In his essay on Thoreau, Steve Adisasmito- Smith states that in Hinduism Thoreau found “an alternative to what was considered scripture in New England in the 1840s” and that “the voice of the Other” could “confirm Thoreau’s own inclinations.”
The important aspects of Hinduism that resonated with Thoreau were the conceptions of the world, which Christianity could not fully satisfy. Thoreau was particularly interested in the Bhagavad Gita because it informed him about how to find God and the divine in the material world.
Thoreau’s conceptualization of God was very similar to Bhagavad Gita’s in important ways. Among the most important is the idea that God is not only omnipresent and omnipotent but also immanent and transcendent.
Thoreau felt God’s immanent presence in the natural surroundings where he sought refuge. In the essay, The Gita within Walden, Paul Friedrich suggests that Thoreau’s God appears to him in acts like “the loon’s wiliness” and “his own interplay with a rainbow.” Friedrich argues that Thoreau could see God’s divine presence in nature.
From Thoreau’s understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, he believed that the divine could be found anywhere, like in his Walden Pond. It was this particular passage among others in the Bhagavad Gita that particularly resonated with Thoreau, shaping his belief that God and the divine can be found in the material world: A good Hindu can “looketh on all things alike, beholdeth the supreme soul in all things, and all things in the supreme soul.”
Thoreau carried this idea of God’s immanent presence in nature with him to Wald en Pond. He expressed his belief in immanence when he discussed the morning in his magnum opus, Walden, as having a “serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips.”
Thoreau’s journals often extolled the “Great Knowledge” that the Vedas provided, which was based on sublimity, purity, fairness, and universal vision, as evidenced in the following excerpts:
“Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of the sectarianism. It is of all ages, climes, and nationalities, and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge.”
“What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum.”
It has been reported that Thoreau often had mystical experiences when he would have moments of rapture in the cradle of Nature. However, he couldn’t explain these euphoric and joyous moments until he read Indian philosophical and religious texts.
The sacred Indian texts informed Thoreau of the difference between a philosophical inquiry and spiritual practice. “One may discover the root of an Indian religion in his own private history,” Thoreau wrote in his journal, “when, in the silent intervals of the day and night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with stern satisfaction.”
Frank Macshane’s essay on Thoreau in the New England Quarterly argues that Thoreau went into seclusion by Walden Pond for a little over two years not because of the Christian idea of repentance and resignation from life. He did so to contemplate. According to Macshane, Thoreau’s experiment to live like a hermit by Walden Pond has “sacramental” significance, which Thoreau followed in the style of a yogi:
“Every morning he would go down to the pond for all the world like a Hindu in Benares, for his morning ablutions.
The bathing in the lake he [Thoreau] characterized as A ‘religious exercise and one of the best things which I did.’”
Macshane has portrayed Thoreau as a jnana-yogi due to his intellectual powers. Macshane has also depicted Thoreau as a karma-yogi due to his renunciation of a materialistic life in favor of a spiritually grounded one. In Macshane’s opinion, Thoreau’s simple diet, chastity, meditation practices, and enjoyment of a solitary life reflected the life of a quintessential yogi.
A modern reader of Walden can’t help but be engaged by his philosophy that nature holds the key to our spiritual questions. By making the natural world as a source of divinity and as an escape from the struggles of the material world, Thoreau shows us that by becoming close to the world of nature we can get more in touch with our own humanity.
Thoreau’s Walden also teaches us that if we were to tap into the nature that surrounds us, we are likely to find something sublime and beautiful. Walden is as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1854. Thoreau’s words and deeds still continue to inspire millions around the world who seek solutions to critical environmental and political challenges.
Thoreau may be the only American who called himself a yogi, as he stated: “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.” In American Veda, Philip Goldberg calls Thoreau a karma yogi because Thoreau followed “the path of selfless action rooted in transcendent awareness.”
Some Americans have even called Thoreau a sannyasi for renouncing the worldly life. Thoreau led a life of a hermit for slightly more than two years, living alone, subsisting on a simple diet without meat, eschewing alcohol and tobacco always and following the path of Dharma.
He stood up against injustices wherever he found it. Thoreau was thrown in jail when he refused to pay a one-dollar poll tax to register his protest against slavery and the Mexican War.
Consequently, Thoreau was thrown in jail for one night but he tried in vain to extend the jail sentence in order to make his stand on slavery and the Mexican War more public.
Sadly, Thoreau passed away at the young age of forty-four in May 1862, exactly four months before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which would have madeThoreau very happy.
When Thoreau died, his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his eulogy: “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. . . . His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”
The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.