by Asim Chaudhuri

Introduction

By the time Swami Vivekananda set foot on American soil, the stalwarts of the American Transcendentalism movement, which was based on an adapted-and-modified version of the “Transcendental Idealism” doctrine developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) earlier, had already passed on; the movement then was considered to have lost some of its influence on society since its heyday in the early to mid-19th century. Swamiji missed one of the stalwarts, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), by just over one year. However, the indelible impression those founding fathers of American Transcendentalism had left in their wake lingered, and Swamiji felt some of its afterglow in the movement’s birthplace: New England. 

This article will touch briefly on Transcendentalism from the American perspective, as presented by Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and others. It will also recount Swamiji’s encounter with some adherents of the movement from a later era, and examine whether he could be called a “Transcendentalist” in a general sense. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Transcendentalism: what is it? 

Transcendentalism, or more specifically “American Transcendentalism,” is most commonly associated with a philosophical/religious view of a group of New England (mostly from Massachusetts) intellectuals in the early to mid-1800s; it is not a religion, but rather a spiritual philosophy that counters Empiricism and Rationalism. The votaries of this group were many, and some of the well-knowns are: Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), William Henry Channing (1810-1884), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892). The group, comprised mostly of Unitarians, found even their liberal religion too formal and rationalistic to fulfill their spiritual and emotional needs. In simple terms, the members sought to “transcend,” or rise above, the materialistic impulses of life and move from the rational to a spiritual realm. Transcendentalism emerged as one of the most monumental movements in American history, with Emerson, who was probably the highest-profile member of the “Transcendental Club,” as the movement’s “unequivocal leader.”

 Swamiji was fully aware of the Transcendentalist Movement, but he called it the “Concord Movement;” he knew that Concord town in Massachusetts was considered the center of the movement. Discussing the Bhagavad Gita during a lecture in 1900 at Pasadena, California, he said, “If you want to know the source of Emerson’s inspiration, it is this book, the Gita. He went to see Carlyle [Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)], and Carlyle made him a present of the Gita; and that little book is responsible for the Concord Movement. All the broad movements in America, in one way or other, are indebted to the Concord party.”1 He was probably referring to the “New Thought Movement” that he had been exposed to earlier in New England, in 1894-96.

Since significant perceptual differences existed among the Transcendentalists in regard to the movement’s goals and principles, it is difficult to compile a list of the movement’s beliefs that will accurately reflect the views of every member of the aforementioned “Club”. We will, therefore, accept the views of Emerson, the movement’s leader, as the basic tenets of American Transcendentalism, as expressed in his four seminal essays: “Self-Reliance,” “Nature,” “The Transcendentalist,” and “The Over-Soul.” Those tenets, further augmented by the ideas contained in Thoreau’s Walden and by the views of a few others, are summarized as follows (the list is by no means all-comprehensive):

  1. Self-Reliance, leading to self-sufficiency, gives one the freedom to discover one’s true self and thus allows him to attain true independence; all knowledge begins with self-knowledge. 

  2. An individual should follow his own will instead of conforming to social norms and expectations, and be guided by his own intuitions, or instinct, rather than by “tuitions,” the secondhand knowledge acquired from an intermediary, or from other sources. God’s presence can best be sensed through intuition rather than through reason.
     
  3. The emphasis is “on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture,”2 not on fate, predestination, or determinism; this life is more important than the afterlife.

  4. Nature symbolizes the spirit, meaning that God is present in all aspects of Nature, including every human being. When an individual is in communion with nature, he feels the presence of God. The ultimate function of nature, therefore, is to lead an individual to communicate with the universal spirit residing in him, which Emerson calls the “Over-Soul.” “For this communication is an influx of Divine mind into our mind,” which manifests itself as “Revelation,” according to him.3    

Indian Vedantist meets American Transcendentalists

It has been mentioned earlier that the founder-members of the American Transcendentalist Movement were all dead by the time Swamiji arrived in the U.S. But he did meet some who can be called second-generation Transcendentalists; prominent among them were Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831-1917) and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911). Ralph Waldo Trine (1866-1958), who was close to Swamiji’s age and interacted with him a great deal, can be labeled a third generation, non-New England Transcendentalist. 

Swamiji came across Franklin Sanborn soon after his arrival in the U.S., in August 1893, at the house of the latter’s cousin Kate Sanborn, who was Swamiji’s early host in Massachusetts. Franklin Sanborn was a journalist, social reformer, social scientist, writer, and a lecturer. His literary and editorial effort, memorializing the lives of the leaders of the movement served well to keep Transcendental ideas alive and to translate the movement’s idealism into meaningful social action in organizing and promoting works of benevolence; he was more like Swamiji in that regard. He invited Swamiji to speak at an august convention of the American Social Science Association in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Swamiji delivered three lectures in early September 1893 on his way to Chicago. Their paths crossed many times thereafter in various places in New England.

Swamiji met Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson during the Parliament and post-Parliament days in Chicago. From the available records it appears that Col. Higginson’s relationship with Swamiji was more intimate than that with Sanborn or Trine. A Unitarian pastor who fought in the Civil War, Higginson became known later as a writer, liberal reformer, and thinker, who leaned, as did many other Cambridge (Massachusetts) scholars, toward Transcendentalism. He invited Swamiji to speak at the meeting of the Free Religious Association, an offshoot of the Transcendentalism movement, in the fall of 1894. About this invitation, Swamiji wrote to Mrs. George Hale, “I would have gone over to another place but Mr [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson’s invitation ought to be attended to…. This meeting (at Plymouth) is composed of the best professors of your country and other people so I must attend it.”4 Higginson’s exposition of his own view of Transcendentalism, as given below, would have found a home in Swamiji’s heart:

The soul needs some other support also; it must find this within; —in the cultivation of the Inward Light; in personal experience of Religion; in the life of God in the human soul; in faith in God and love to man; in the reverent study of the vast and simple laws of Nature….In these, and nowhere else, lies the real foundation of all authority; build your faith here, and churches and Bibles may come or go, and leave it undisturbed.5 

“All religions, Higginson declared [during his lecture on ‘Sympathy of Religions’], are essentially of the same origin and nature, and therefore Christianity, instead of being the absolute religion, is but one of the phases of universal religion.”6 That statement must have received Swamiji’s endorsement as he listened to it during the conference at Plymouth. 

Swamiji met both Sanborn and Higginson during the Greenacre Conference in Eliot, Maine, in July-August 1894, and later again at the Free Religious Association meeting (Plymouth), and the Cambridge Conference organized by Sara Bull, Swamiji’s principal patron and benefactor. All the greatest thinkers of America, especially those from the New England area with Transcendentalist leaning, were in Eliot that summer; if Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman had been alive at that time, they probably would have been there too. 

Ralph Waldo Trine, a prominent member of the “New Thought” group, which was heavily influenced by the Transcendentalist Movement, was there as the special correspondent of the Boston Evening Transcript covering the Greenacre Conference. He wrote in his book, “Among the speakers at the Conference were Joseph Le Conte, John Fiske, Swami Vivekananda, Edward Everett Hale, Joseph Jefferson—also Frank B. Sanborn, that unique old New England type, one of the last surviving members of the Concord School of Philosophy. What a memory if Emerson had been there also!”7 

Referring to Swamiji’s speeches and talks at the conference, Trine wrote, “It is a rich opportunity to us who are privileged to enjoy it, and our only regret is that so many hungry souls are missing it.”8 On Trine’s invitation to satisfy the “hungry souls”, Swamiji later gave multiple lectures at the Procopeia Club in Boston, the birthplace of the “New Thought Movement,” in the spring of 1896; the subjects were centered around the Vedanta philosophy. 

The Greenacre Conference was where Swamiji first introduced the Vedanta philosophy to an American audience; it breathed new life to his mission in America. There is a reason for that. He found most of the audience there to be of the right frame of mind to understand and appreciate the message of Vedanta. The world would love to have seen and heard Swami Vivekananda discussing Vedanta philosophy with Emerson and Thoreau (if they had been there) under the Lysekloster pine tree. That would have been undoubtedly the treat of the century! It was the Transcendentalist movement that had prepared the American mind for Swamiji’s teachings; it opened that mind to the life of the spirit. 

Was Swamiji a Transcendentalist? 

A voracious reader, Swamiji probably had been no stranger to the concept of Transcendentalism long before coming to the U.S.; Kant, Hegel, Emerson, Thoreau—all of them must have been on his list of reading materials. It is hard to ascertain exactly when he was introduced to the concept, but the timing of Prof. William Hastie’s  explanation of Wordsworth’s The Excursion, which presumably led Swamiji (then Narendranath) to the “Sage of Dakshineswar” (Sri Ramakrishna), provides us with an indication when he was introduced, or re-introduced, to the concept.9 That happened in 1881, when he was eighteen. 

The Excursion is a long and complex poem, with several additions and modifications by the poet over many years. It is hard to speculate which part of the poem brought up the subject of trance and let Hastie refer to Sri Ramakrishna. It could have been the story of the Pedlar, also called the Wanderer, whom Wordsworth depicts as a meditative soul who holds communion with nature, and thus feels the presence of God, with a “momentary trance” that comes upon him during the interlude.10 Romantic British poets such as  Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) influenced the American Transcendentalist movement. Their influence was reflected in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, the two principal flag-bearers of the movement.  

Swamiji also acknowledged self-knowledge as the highest form of knowledge, surpassing all other knowledge. In the search of one’s true self, Transcendentalists adopt the role of the jnanis, followers of the nondualistic Advaita Vedanta. True self is what Emerson called the “Over-Soul,” which is analogous to the “Atman” of Jnana-Yoga. The term “Atman” refers to the non-material self, which is beyond body and mind, and never changes. The difference between Emerson’s and Vivekananda’s treatment of Jnana-Yoga is that the former intellectualized, sometimes even romanticized, the esoteric principles inherent in the philosophy, but stopped short of explaining how to reach the goal, which is realizing the true self—the God in man. Vivekananda, on the other hand, demonstrated the nuts and bolts of the process of how to get there. He prescribed:

To stop the gyrations of the mind, so that the soul may become manifested, is the work [training]. Training begins with the body. Breathing trains the body, gets it into a harmonious condition. The object of the breathing exercises is to attain meditation and concentration. If you can get absolutely still for just one moment, you have reached the goal. The mind may go on working after that; but it will never be the same mind again. You will know yourself as you are—your true Self.11 

With regard to religion, Swamiji also emphasized getting knowledge by direct perception, which Emerson called “intuition” and declared superior to reason. Swamiji said:

The truths of religion, as God and Soul, cannot be perceived by the external senses [sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch]. I cannot see God with my eyes, nor can I touch Him with my hands, and we also know that neither can we reason beyond the senses. Reason leaves us at a point quite indecisive; we may reason all our lives, as the world has been doing for thousands of years, and the result is that we find we are incompetent to prove or disprove the facts of religion. What we perceive directly we take as the basis, and upon that basis we reason.12 

Perceive now, reason later! Swamiji, however, went a step further and showed how we can improve our faculty of intuition by yogic practices, which take the mind to a higher state and facilitates the flow of transcendental knowledge. He said: 

The whole scope of realisation, therefore, is beyond sense-perception. The Yogis say that man can go beyond his direct sense-perception [sensory perception], and beyond his reason also. Man has in him the faculty, the power, of transcending his intellect even, a power which is in every being, every creature. By the practice of Yoga that power is aroused, and then man transcends the ordinary limits of reason, and directly perceives things which are beyond all reason.13   

“You are the infinite, the universal is in you. Control yourself and listen to the voice of your true Self,” uttered Vivekananda.14 

By some commentators’ standards, Thoreau was more of a “yogi”, a practitioner; Emerson was more of a metaphysician.15 But both of them staked the exceptionality of their religious journey upon the apparent confluence of Concord River and the Ganges; Thoreau even dreamt of the pure water of Walden pond mingling with the sacred waters of the Ganges. He was drawn to solitude and the meditative life and began devoting himself to the practice of yoga while residing near Walden Pond in Massachusetts; what Walden pond had been to Thoreau, the Himalayas was to Vivekananda: a place of solitude for communion with the divine. 

According to Emerson, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.”16 Swamiji agreed with the first part, but did not totally discard the role of “intermediary” (bards and sages) in the acquisition of knowledge. He stated: “The idea is that we have to get our knowledge or [of] ordinary objects by direct perception, and by inference therefrom, and from testimony of people who are competent. By “people who are competent,” the Yogis always mean the Rishis, or the Seers of the thoughts recorded in the scriptures—the Vedas.”17 Swamiji was reiterating the importance of yogic practices expounded by sages like Patanjali. By practicing the teachings of these “competent people” we can attain the state of realization, which goes beyond reason, or inference, or even perception. 

On the same subject, it is important to mention that Hindu religion stresses the role of a guru, who can lead an individual to discover his true nature; nobody understood that better than Swamiji. That is best illustrated by Sri Ramakrishna’s parable about the grass-eating tiger living with a herd of goats and bleating like them; it lost its real identity. The wild tiger, which symbolizes the guru, showed it its true nature and delivered it from ignorance to self-realization.18 The Transcendentalists ignored the role a guru can play in a man’s life and his spiritual journey; their sole emphasis was on the individual.

Transcendentalists believe in free will, but not in determinism. Free will refers to the belief that human beings are self-determined, meaning that we have the ultimate power to choose how we act, and that the fruit of our action is not in any way influenced by external conditions. Determinism, on the other hand, refers to the belief that all events, including moral choices, are guided by causal laws, meaning that they are all determined by prior events external to the will. Swamiji has masterfully synthesized these two ideas in a way that makes it possible to believe in both without being logically inconsistent; this he did by having faith in both the doctrine of reincarnation and the Laws of Karma, the two pillars of determinism.19   

Emerson was exposed to the Bhagavad Gita, which refers to the theory of reincarnation in several places, directly and indirectly. In his poem, “Brahma,” the overall theme is the divine relationship and continuity of life and the unity of the universe. The poem opens with a precept from the Bhagavad Gita: “Neither of them is in knowledge—the one who thinks the soul can slay and the one who thinks the soul can be slain. For truly, the soul neither kills nor can it be killed,”20 and it ends with another: “Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear21; it was all Upanishads in between. 

It seems that Emerson believed in the transmigration of the soul, in other words, reincarnation. He wrote, “The soul is an emanation of the Divinity, a part of the Soul of the world, a ray from the source of light. It comes from without into the human body, as into a momentary abode. It goes out of it anew; it wanders in ethereal regions, it returns to visit it; it passes into other habitations for the soul is immortal.”22   Although he said, “Accept the place the divine Providence has found for you; the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events,”23 it is unlikely that he was alluding to determinism by those words. He recognized the influence of karmic entanglements in one’s life, but believed that each soul can “self-reliantly” seek the path of action and exercise its free will to carve its own destiny, instead of relying on a pre-ordained one. Using Hindu terminology, we can say that he stressed purushakar infinitely more than he did prarabdha karma; Swamiji looked for a balance.         

The belief that “God is present in all aspects of Nature” was shared by both Swamiji and his Master Sri Ramakrishna; from that point of view they both were Transcendentalists. Swamiji’s position is clearly stated in his poem “To A Friend” quoted below:

From highest Brahman to the yonder worm
And to the very minutest atom, 
Everywhere is the same God, the All-Love; 
Friend, offer mind, soul, body, at their feet.

These are His manifold forms before thee, 
Rejecting them, where seekest thou for God? 
Who loves all beings without distinction, 
He indeed is worshipping best his God.24  

The whole concept of God’s omnipresence, the Transcendentalists’ core belief, is embedded in these two stanzas of the poem. Swamiji’s idea of worshipping the “Living God”, an idea that he mentioned often in his letters* {Footnote: For instance, in a letter to his brother disciples he wrote: “If you want any good to come, just throw your ceremonials overboard and worship the Living God, the Man-god—every being that wears a human form—god in His universal as well as individual aspect.” (Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 6, p. 264)} and expressed in another of his poems, titled “The Living God,” has an uncanny resemblance to the words of William Henry Channing, another prominent member of the “Concord Party” of Transcendentalists: “Transcendentalism, as viewed by its disciples, was a pilgrimage from the idolatrous world of creeds and rituals to the temple of the Living God in the soul.”25 The similarity only goes to show that great men think alike. The Transcendentalists also believed in the divinity of the soul like the Vedantists, but were not very clear about how to manifest it; the Vedanta prescribes four yogic methods for doing that: Raja, Jnana, Karma, and Bhakti. 

In fact, Emerson went deep, but not deep enough. It was as if he wanted to grab the fish, but not touch the water. In the metaphor, grabbing the fish stands for self-realization, and touching the water relates to the process of achieving it; the process entails stripping off the veil of ignorance to reveal the real self in its pristine purity. This was partly brought out by Swami Nikhilananda as follows:

Emerson, a keen student of the Bhagavad Gita, was familiar with the Upanishadic doctrines and published translations of religious and philosophical tracts from the Oriental languages. His beautiful poem “Brahma” and his essay “The Over-Soul” show clearly his indebtedness to Hindu spiritual thought. But Emerson’s spirit, pre-eminently ethical and intellectual, could not grasp the highest flights of Hindu mysticism; it accepted only what was in harmony with a somewhat shallow optimism.26 

Concluding remarks

We can see that Vivekananda was a Transcendentalist in the broader sense of the term, although his views are not totally aligned with those of Emerson and others. The divinity of the soul is the major concept in which the Vedantist’s and the Transcendentalist’s views converge. The fact that most of their views are in alignment is not a coincidence, since both Emerson and Thoreau drew their inspiration from the Hindu scriptures. If Thoreau and Emerson bathed their “intellect in the stupendous and cosmological philosophy of the Bhagavat-Geeta” alone, Swamiji dived into the endless ocean of Hindu sacred books, with not only his intellect, but also his body, mind, and soul, to collect all its gems from the bottom; his thoughts, therefore, go deeper as a result. The difference between him and the members of the “Concord Party” lies mainly in the degree of incursion into the realm of mysticism, in the emphasis on the process of making that incursion happen, and in advancing ideas acquired by those incursions for the material and spiritual benefit of humanity. 

References:

  1. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 4, p. 95.
  2. The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Transcendentalist”, edited by Brooks Atkinson (The Modern Library), p. 87.
  3. Ibid., p. 269.
  4. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the WestNew Discoveries (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 2, pp. 156-157.
  5. Quoted by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Restless Souls—The Making of American Spirituality—from Emerson to Oprah, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 110-111.
  6. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the WestNew Discoveries, vol. 2, p. 161.
  7. Ralph Waldo Trine, My Philosophy and My Religion (Dodd, Mead & Company, N.Y., 1921), pp. 9-10.
  8. “Vivekananda at Greenacre,” Boston Evening Transcript, July 28, 1894.
  9. The Life of Swami Vivekananda—By His Eastern and Western Disciples (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 1, pp. 47-48.
  10. William Wordsworth, The Excursion, A Poem (Edward Moxon, Dover Street,  London, 1853).
  11. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 6, p. 96.
  12. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 232.
  13. Ibid., pp. 232-233.
  14. Ibid., vol. 7, p. 79.
  15. Ruth Small, “The Roots of Vedanta in America,” American Vedantist, June 15, 2018, http://americanvedantist.org/2018/articles/the-roots-of-vedanta-in-america/
  16. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays (A. L. Burt Company, New York), p. 28.
  17. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works (Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata), vol. 1, p. 232.
  18. Swami Nikhilananda, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, 1996), pp. 232-233.
  19. Asim Chaudhuri, “Free Will and Determinism: A Synthesis,” Bulletin of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, April 2019, p. 38.
  20. Gita II:19.
  21. Ibid., XVIII:66.
  22. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by William H. Gilman, et al. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1982), vol. III, p. 367.
  23. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays (A. L. Burt Company, New York), p. 29.
  24. Swami Vivekananda, In Search of God and Other Poems (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1981), p.  45.
  25. Perry Miller, The American Transcendentalists: Their Prose and Poetry (Doubleday, New York, 1957), pp. 36-37.
  26. Swami Nikhilananda, Vivekananda: A Biography (Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1987), p. 133.

Asim Chaudhuri is a well known researcher on Swami Vivekananda; his books include: Swami Vivekananda: The Ultimate Paradox Manager; Swami Vivekananda in America: New Findings; Swami Vivekananda in Chicago: New findings; and Vivekananda: A Born Leader: The Attributes and Thoughts of an Extraordinary Leader-Manager. Now retired from a career in business, Asim lives in Burbank, and is associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California. He can be reached at asimphoenix@gmail.com.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This