Trade and Transcendentalism

The ideas and culture of Hindu India have had an impact on America for nearly two centuries. The history of relations between India and America probably begins with the trading ships that sailed back and forth from Salem and Boston to India in the early nineteenth century, carrying “missionaries and ice” and returning with textiles and spices. In 1841, for example, one John Christian Frederick Heyer and three missionary couples left Boston bound for the East on a freighter with a cargo of 260 tons of ice packed in sawdust. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were reports of Hindus participating in Salem’s Fourth of July parade. Today, the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem houses a rich collection of Indian arts and artifacts expressive of this rich period of commerce between India and New England.

In the nineteenth century, Hindu texts and ideas also became a lively part of the intellectual life of New England’s most famous literary figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Thoreau. As early as the 1820s Emerson wrote of India in his journals. By the 1830s he had copies of Hindu sacred texts—the Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” forms part of the sixth book of the epic Mahabharata and contains Lord Krishna’s teachings to the warrior Arjuna. The Gita is beloved by Hindus for its message of selfless action and devotion to God., the UpanishadsThe Upanishads, dating largely from the eighth to the sixth centuries BCE, are the “wisdom literature” of the Vedas. Most Upanishads take the form of dialogues between teachers and students. They turn from the rites of the fire altar that had been the..., and the Laws of ManuThe Laws of Manu constitute one of the classic sources of teaching about Dharma in the Hindu tradition. Dating to the period from about 200 BCE to 200 CE, this articulation of law or dharma begins with the story of creation and then covers such subjects a.... He was especially attracted to the teachings of the Upanishads and the VedantaVedanta means the “end of the Veda” and refers to the Upanishads, those teachings which investigate the nature of the soul and ultimate reality and which are the last part of the Vedic corpus. The term also designates the philosphical system of classi..., which speak of the unity of spirit linking the human soulThe soul is the inner spirit, the life-essence of a person, regarded in many religious traditions as Divine. In the Hindu tradition, the atman or pure consciousness within is understood to be one with Brahman, the ultimate reality that pervades the entire... and the Transcendent, the “unbounded, unboundable empire.” Emerson and his circleIn some Pagan traditions, a “circle” refers to the people who gather for a ritual. When standing in a circle, all the participants are able to see each other, with no one member elevated over any other. This practice is often felt to encourage egalita... came to be called TranscendentalistsTranscendentalism was a movement of 19th century American thought, associated especially with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and subsequent liberal and Romantic thinkers. Their vision was stretched toward universalism by a v..., because of their emphasis on this transcendent oneness of spirit. By the 1840s, Emerson began to publish excerpts from what he called the “Ethical Scriptures” in the transcendentalistTranscendentalism was a movement of 19th century American thought, associated especially with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), and subsequent liberal and Romantic thinkers. Their vision was stretched toward universalism by a v... journal, The Dial.

Henry David ThoreauHenry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was one of the first American intellectuals to take an interest in Buddhism and is said to have translated part of the Lotus Sutra from French. clearly had the Bhagavad GitaThe Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” forms part of the sixth book of the epic Mahabharata and contains Lord Krishna’s teachings to the warrior Arjuna. The Gita is beloved by Hindus for its message of selfless action and devotion to God. with him during his sojourn at Walden Pond, and it was no doubt through his book Walden that many Americans first encountered its ideas. “In the morning,” he wrote, “I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta… in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” In the winter, Thoreau marveled at both the physical and mystical connection between the land of the holy Ganges and his beloved Walden. As he contemplated the Bhagavad Gita from his hut, big ice-blocks of the pond he called “God’s drop” were cut and sent by rail to Boston and thence by ship to Madras.

Many New Englanders, especially those of the liberal Unitariana belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... tradition, were drawn to what they learned of India’s religious ideas—its insistence on the oneness of the Divine, the deep linkage of the soul and the Divine, and the transcendent unity of diverse paths and ways. There were early connections between the Unitariansa belief in one God that rejects the three persons of the Trinity that has much in common with the belief in the early Christian church about the superiority of God over Jesus and the Anti-Trinitarian writing that emerged during the Protestant Reformation... of Boston and some of the reformist “Hindu renaissance” movements in Bengal. The Unitarians particularly admired the reformer Rammohan Roy for his Vedanta idealism and his critique of Hindu polytheismPolytheism is a belief in many gods. Most Pagans are polytheistic. Some are soft polytheists, believing that all gods are aspects of one greater God/dess (or sometimes aspects of two greater deities, a Goddess and a God). Other Pagans are hard polytheists... in favor of what seemed for all the world a Unitarian perspective.


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