2. The Voice of an Old Intelligence

Hindoo” Texts Enchant Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman


For centuries European explorers, traders, imperialists, and missionaries had gone to India in search of everything from spices and fabrics to cheap labor and souls. Then, some who went to serve the church or the colonial campaign began to see some value in the country’s ancient philosophical and spiritual texts. Their translations and commentaries found their way to New England, and eventually into the hands of Ralph Waldo Emerson. So important was this discovery in Emerson’s life, and so important was Emerson in the life of America that chapter 2 begins with this sentence:

If only one American had ever read the sacred texts of India, and that lone reader had been Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Vedic impact on the nation would still have been huge.

Emerson, America’s seminal philosopher, passed along his love for Asian philosophy to another icon, Henry David Thoreau. That pair and their Transcendentalist brethren – not to mention our founding bard, Walt Whitman – set the template for American Veda. They absorbed Vedic ideas, adapted them to their own thoughts and other influences, assimilated them into the developing American sensibility and disseminated them to countless others. They were America’s first Vedic transmitters. Every high school or college student who reads Emerson’s essays or Thoreau’s Walden or Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is getting a taste of India, whether they know it or not.

The chapter is about India’s impact on Emerson and the others.