Excerpts from the Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson’s encounter with the ideas of India was through the scriptures, especially the Upanishads (which he refers to as the Vedas) and the Bhagavad Gita. The influence of the idea of the non-duality of the soul and the Supreme can be seen in his poem “Brahma,” which paraphrases some of the ideas of the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 2). It was greeted with more criticism than praise when it was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1857.


I owed—my friend and I owed—a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spake 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.

[From Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909-1914), 7:11.]

In the sleep of the great heats there was nothing for me to read but the Vedas, the bible of the tropics, which I find I come back upon every three and four years. It is sublime as heat and night and a breathless ocean. It contains every religious sentiment, all the grand ethics which visit in turn each noble and poetic mind…

[From Letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Friend, 1838-1853,  ed. Charles Eliot Norton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Riverside Press, 1900), 28-29.]

In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of fundamental Unity…This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Geeta, and the Vishnu Purana. Those writings contain little else than this idea, and they rise to pure and sublime strains in celebrating it.

[From The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward W. Emerson, Centenary ed., 12 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904), 4:49.]

Brahma
If the red slayer thinks 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,
And I 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.

[From Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Brahma,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1 (November 1857), 48.]