Poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his life-span from 1803 to 1882, studied literature on Hindu philosophy extensively. Scriptures that he went through included Bhagvad Gita, Manusmriti, Upanishad-s and Purana-s. These scriptures influenced his ideological disposition so deeply that his writings explicitly revealed it everywhere. Among Hindu scholars, he has always been held in high esteem and regarded as messenger of Hindu philosophy in America. He evolved himself into a prominent Transcendentalist and an exponent of philosophical elements of human life. Titles of some of his poems have been drawn from Hindu philosophy with mystical terms like Brahma, Maya, Hymn and Celestial Love etc. He was attracted to Hindu poetry too particularly of Kalidasa. Vedanta offered him some solace amidst agonies of ‘Maya’ that he had composed. Transcendentalism was a literary movement founded in 1836 by Emerson and a handful of other adventuresome American thinkers. It featured at least three authors of world stature: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Composed in 1856, Emersons poem ‘Brahma’ happens to be an important vertical in his knowledge of Hindu philosophy. Vishnu Purana is purported to have him inspired to compose the poem blended with phraseology from Katha Upanishad and Bhagvad Gita. His ‘Brahma’ is the deity of creation, a member of the trinity with other two being Vishnu and Shiva. The poem delves into eternality and universality of time, space matrix interwoven within cyclical embodiments and disembodiments.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot 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,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
This one from Emersons reflects whatever enlightenment he could derive after reading Hindu scriptures. He perceives life as a cosmic journey through the world dotted with events and eventualities throughout. He also underscores equanimity amidst vicissitudes of life vividly expounded by Vasudeva Shri Krshna in Bhagvad Gita. The poet glances at plethora of creations with mortality for all yet underlying eternality in their serial mortality.
Upward, into the pure realm,
Over sun or star,
Over the flickering Dæmon film,
Thou must mount for love,—
Into vision which all form
In one only form dissolves;
In a region where the wheel,
On which all beings ride,
Where the starred eternal worm
Girds the world with bound and term;
Where unlike things are like,
When good and ill,
And joy and moan,
Melt into one.
There Past, Present, Future, shoot
Triple blossoms from one root
Substances at base divided
In their summits are united,
There the holy Essence rolls,
One through separated souls,
And the sunny Æon sleeps
Folding nature in its deeps,
And every fair and every good
Known in part or known impure
To men below,
In their archetypes endure.
The race of gods,
Or those we erring own,
Are shadows flitting up and down
In the still abodes.
The circles of that sea are laws,
Which publish and which hide the Cause.
Pray for a beam
Out of that sphere
Thee to guide and to redeem.
O what a load
Of care and toil
By lying Use bestowed,
From his shoulders falls, who sees
The true astronomy,
The period of peace!
Counsel which the ages kept,
Shall the well-born soul accept.
As the overhanging trees
Fill the lake with images,
As garment draws the garment’s hem
Men their fortunes bring with them;
By right or wrong,
Lands and goods go to the strong;
Property will brutely draw
Still to the proprietor,
Silver to silver creep and wind,
And kind to kind,
Nor less the eternal poles
Of tendency distribute souls.
There need no vows to bind
Whom not each other seek but find.
They give and take no pledge or oath,
Nature is the bond of both.
No prayer persuades, no flattery fawns,
Their noble meanings are their pawns.
Plain and cold is their address,
Power have they for tenderness,
And so thoroughly is known
Each others’ purpose by his own,
They can parley without meeting,
Need is none of forms of greeting,
They can well communicate
In their innermost estate;
When each the other shall avoid,
Shall each by each be most enjoyed.
Not with scarfs or perfumed gloves
Do these celebrate their loves,
Not by jewels, feasts, and savors,
Not by ribbons or by favors,
But by the sun-spark on the sea,
And the cloud-shadow on the lea,
The soothing lapse of morn to mirk,
And the cheerful round of work.
Their cords of love so public are,
They intertwine the farthest star.
The throbbing sea, the quaking earth,
Yield sympathy and signs of mirth;
Is none so high, so mean is none,
But feels and seals this union.
Even the tell Furies are appeased,
The good applaud, the lost are eased.
Love’s hearts are faithful, but not fond,
Bound for the just, but not beyond;
Not glad, as the low-loving herd,
Of self in others still preferred,
But they have heartily designed
The benefit of broad mankind.
And they serve men austerely,
After their own genius, clearly,
Without a false humility;
For this is love’s nobility,
Not to scatter bread and gold,
Goods and raiment bought and sold,
But to hold fast his simple sense,
And speak the speech of innocence,
And with hand, and body, and blood,
To make his bosom-counsel good:
For he that feeds men, serveth few,
He serves all, who dares be true.
Another Hindu term that charmed Emerson is ‘Maya’ though he spelt it as ‘Maia’. He dubbed it impenetrable and its cause certainly is ignorance i.e. lack of discriminative wisdom. Poet appears to be revelling in Maya and inspiring others to follow him.
Illusion works impenetrable,
Weaving webs innumerable,
Her gay pictures never fail,
Crowds each on other, veil on veil,
Charmer who will be believed
By man who thirsts to be deceived.
Illusions like the tints of pearl,
Or changing colors of the sky,
Or ribbons of a dancing girl
That mend her beauty to the eye.
The cold gray down upon the quinces lieth
And the poor spinners weave their webs thereon
To share the sunshine that so spicy is.
Samson stark, at Dagon’s knee,
Gropes for columns strong as he;
When his ringlets grew and curled,
Groped for axle of the world.
But Nature whistled with all her winds,
Did as she pleased and went her way.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
When Hindu scriptures were read by Emerson, gladly did he declare, “It is only within this century (the 1800’s) that England and America discovered that their nursery tales were old German and Scandinavian stories; and now it appears that they came from India, and are therefore the property of all the nations.”
Emerson appeared to be so much impressed by the antiquity of Hindu philosophy that other philosophies appeared to be shallow to him, “There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a free man in the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done. How easily these old worships of Moses, of Zoroaster, of Manu, of Socrates, domesticate themselves in the mind. I cannot find any antiquity in them: they are mine as much as theirs.”
After he grasped infinitude of Hindu philosophy, he developed a sense of lamentation too as his expectations from Hindu philosophy underwent augmentation thus, “The philosophy of six thousand years (Hinduism) has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul,” he lamented. “In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.”
Law Of Karma
Emerson often quoted principles of Hinduism in their original form directly. His commitment to the wisdom was completely transparent in all his refined prose and poems. He discovered his predilections if any, too insignificant to overshadow his unpretentious sincerity and eloquently commented on the ancient wisdom. In his essay titled Compensation, Emerson wrote, “Crime and punishment grow out of the one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed, for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.” Compensation was Emerson’s interpretation of the Hindu law of Karma.
“Always pay!” he exclaimed, heralding the truths of Karma and Dharma. “First or last you must pay your entire debt. Persons and events may stand for a time between you and justice, but it is only a postponement. You must pay at last your own debt.”
“Thou canst not gather what thou dost not sow; as thou dost plant the trees, so will it grow. Whatever the act a man commits, of that the recompense must be received in corresponding body.”
“Every act rewards itself, or in other words, integrates itself, in a twofold manner, ” Emerson asserts. “First, in the thing, or in real nature, and secondly in the circumstance, or in apparent nature. Men call the circumstance the retribution. The causal retribution is in the thing and is seen by the soul. The retribution in the circumstance is seen by the understanding. It is inseparable from the thing, but it often spreads over a long time and so does not become distinct until after many years. The specific stripes may follow late after the offense, but they follow because they accompany it.”
“Cushioned on golden clouds there are those who sail and clad in splendour ride the summer gale.
Who sweep the atmosphere on painted wing, swell their rich music and adore their king. Whose silver lutes at sombre twilight play a soft farewell to all the pride of day.
— Not these we seek — yet from its cavern low, we fain would pluck the book of Prospero.
Far o’er the East, where boundless Ocean smiles and greets the wanderer to his thousand isles, Dishonoured India clanks her sullen chain, and wails her desolation to the main.
To her dark land the banded fiends resort, and Superstition crowds his haggard court. The bloated monster gluts his hellish brood, gorging his banquet with the people’s blood.
Loud on the wind the shrieks of anguish rang, from victims writhing to his lion fang. Lured by their frantic cry Rapine came, with scorpion whip and faulchion edged with flame.
And the poor victim urged his bloody toil, for tyrants spurning at the wretch they spoil. O’er man the car of fiends tremendous rolled.
On high the laugh of demons scared the bold. A cry from heaven pealed awful on their ear, and woke no echo, save the scream of fear.
The shouts of joy, the burst of proud applause, hope’s happy song – the Victory’s tale of wars – Were hushed to whispers of the stifled breath, still as the marble lineaments of death.
Sunk in the grim abyss of misery, crushed with the loaded wrath of earth and sky. Men bowed them down to slavery and chains, and labour’s crimson drops came bursting from their veins.
The maddened mother clasped her shuddering child, and flung him to the wave with accent wild.
Despair’s low moan arose while Rapine prowled, and maniac Horror clapped his hands and howled. Where distant times might lift the song of praise, and men commend their sires in loud-voiced lays.
In such wild worship to mysterious powers, the Indian stands in Ganges’ holy bowers. On the hot sands where human nature fails, with Vishnu’s aid he braves the fiery gales.
His caney hut on beds of lotus reared, the groves of palm where Brahma was revered. Soft though they seem to fancy’s cheated eye, these yield no shelter to the brave that die.
Bewildered fancies in his scriptures tell— No faint oblations soothe the gods of hell.
Go snuff the Dragon’s breath, whose monstrous coil girdles the world with everlasting toil.
In the fierce ardour of the noon-tide sun, drink in the blast, for patient penance done.
Else — seek thy doom, and find it with the dead, and Yemen’s vengeance revel on thy head!
They sleep a sleep the thunder will not wake. They thirst with thirst which Ocean cannot slake. Not Brahma’s self can quench the burning storm, and Seeva’s red hand our promise shall perform.
Vain the ambitious toil by hope, led on to match proud Grandeur on his blazoned throne. In the mid path to Honour’s glittering shrine, stands the stern Bramin armed with plagues divine.
Whose wrath outgoes his daemon’s yelling storm,— Scoffs at the prayers which kneeling hope can form. Due to presumption claims a forfeit life, and lifts with taunting gibe the consecrated knife.
No crown of glory sheds its light for him. No raptured trance reveals the cherubim. Nor heaven nor earth contain a hope to save, and wan Despair doth mock him in the grave.
The following paragraph alludes to the degradation of the lowest caste in India and the punishment which attends an attempt to alter their condition.
How long shall anxious ages roll away, unblest with promise of approaching day.
Ere India’s giant genius strongly wake, stretched in dark slumber o’er Oblivions lake, Snatch from his heaven, aspiring to be free, the crystal cup of Immortality?
Oh who can tell what joy creation owns through all her myriad Powers on sunbright thrones.
When crushed by all the plagues which blast the earth, A nation struggles into godlike birth. Such have been written on the page of time, and thou sad land mayst read the tale sublime.
Once, wreathed in light, a peerless maiden shone, high on her mountain-girdled land, alone.
Round the bright summit, in the distant sky, the far clouds mustered and the storm drew nigh.
The growling thunderclouds of death rolled on, and hid the sweet light of the golden sun.
That maid’s majestic eye beheld serene, the gathering terrors of the hostile scene.
While o’er her head the Storm’s black legions closed, and launched the bolt which all the fiends composed.
Fate snatched her scatheless from the impending blow, and wove the laurelled lightnings round Columbia’s brow.
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 and blest his favourite child.
Fair Science pondered on thy mountain brow, and sages mused — where Havoc welters now. The dazzling crown was thine, which soothed the brave, gathered in their rich glory, to the grave.
Alas! thy wreath is sear, thy banners stained, thy faith perverted, and thy shrines profaned. The cormorant sits lonely in thy walls. The bittern shrieks to Ruin’s echoing halls.
Robbed of its ancient pride, thy brow appears sad with the sorrows of unnumbered years. What choral burst awakes the startled deep? What visions strike Oblivion’s iron sleep? — Gaze on yon parting cloud’s refulgent shew! Revealing angel forms to men below.
The maids of empire come, whose awful sway the prostrate nations of the world obey. The cloud pavilion purples round the throng, whose sweeping folds give echo to their song.
India, they come to see thy shackles riven, to throw thy thraldom to the winds of heaven. The holy cherubim in heaven shall bow, the archangel’s trump ring out its triumph now. Whose raptured note sounds out for aye farewell, to Superstition and the hosts of hell.
First in that throng— gathering her Eagle’s food. Land of our pride! Thy guardian angel stood. Flushed from her strife in Freedom’s conquering cause, she holds the charter of sword-sanctioned laws.
Fair as the dayspring, clad in burnished mail, Queen of the East! She hastes to bid thee hail.
No Indra thunders in Columbia’s sky, no “man-almighty” grasps at destiny. Bold were the arm whose rash presumption strove, to tamper with the Power whose law we love.
In every lonely glen Fair Freedom starts, amid the huts of men. Girds her bright armour round the limbs of Health, and mounts the marble battlement of wealth.
Wide through the nations is her watchword known, her spear uplifted, and her bugle blown.
That sound went out with power across the globe, to rend the idol and the royal robe. India hath caught it, where her ample moon rose to the music of the loud monsoon.
Its latest echo woke the Italian shore — It shall not sleep till Time shall be no more.”
In spite of Emersons appraisal of contemporary Bharata was far from positive, he understood Bharata to have been once proud and prosperous nation –
“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.”
(Op.cit., Indian Superstition, page 52)
In his poem India was “once illustrious in the elder time,” now miserable due to external invasions and ‘to superstitious excesses of an internal origin’ –
“Dishonoured India clanks her sullen chain,
And wails her desolation to the main.”
(Ibid., page 49)
He reveals his acquaintance with Hindu pantheon, mentioning Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Indra with genuine concern for fate of Hindu-s –
How long shall anxious ages roll away,
Unblest with promise of approaching day,
Ere India’s giant genius strongly wake.
(Ibid., page 52)
Emerson answers his own question in foreseeing a happier future for India when India i.e. Bharata 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.
(Ibid., page 53)
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.”
(Ibid., page 52)
First published in 1847, the title was derived from Vishnupurana and abbreviated from “Hail Maitraya symbolising glory of Mother Earth. The title evokes images of Ashrama associated with intense dialogue between Guru and Shishya-s over various disciplines of study. ‘Hamatreya’ thus represents contents of the poem being discourse of Parashara Muni his disciple Maitreya in response to latters inquiry about Maya and its real worth.
The basis of Emerson’s attention can be traced
from his association with the work of Sir William
Jones, father of The Royal Asiatic Society. Emerson
studied Jones, “Narayena” that exemplifies some
significant thoughts about the Indian Divinity and
Maya or Deception. The first stanza of the Hymn
elaborates the inspiring characteristics of the absolute
being and the three shapes in which the being comes
into view to the people powers, wisdom and
Spirit of spirits! Who, though every part
Of space expanded and of endless time,
Beyond the stretch of lab, ring thought sublime,
Badst uproar into beauteous order start,
What line first impell’d three to exert they might?
Ever fresh the broad creation
A divine improvisation
From the heart of God proceeds
A single will, a million deeds
He is the heart of every creature
He is the meaning of each feature
And his mind is in the sky
Than all it holds more deep, more high.
(The works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fireside Edition. BOSTON AND NEW YORK. MDCCCCIX. Page 56)
(Londhe, S. A Tribute to Hinduism. Thoughts and Wisdom Spanning Continents and Time about India and Her Culture. PRAGUN PUBLICATION New Delhi. 2008. Pp. 17-18, 20, 21, 33)
Emerson, Apr. 14, 1821, https://epistemicinstruments.ca/2020/02/11/emerson-poem-indian-superstition/