East meets West

East meets West
Oriental Seeds in Occidental Soil
by Swami B.G. Narasingha
and Satyaraja dasa (Steven Rosen)

Reprinted with permission of author


Although worlds apart in terms of geography and culture, no two nations have been so intimately connected as the United States and India. It was Christopher Columbus’ fateful error, in his search for a new route to India, that led him to the discovery of America. He had heard of India from the writings of Marco Polo [1], whose descriptions of India’s riches had fired the ambitions of many a traveler. “The part of India known as Malabar,” Polo had written, “was the richest and noblest country in the world.” [2] And Marco Polo, it may be remembered, had by then seen many lands, not least China.

The hope of discovering a passage to India was not given up even after the time of Columbus and settlement in the New World. Rather, the hope intensified as Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton dreamt of discovering a land route to India-as opposed to Columbus’ sea route- and with the coming of the railroads many thought that this dream would soon be realized. Senator Benton’s statue in St. Louis bears an inscription which reveals his hopefulness: “There is the East; there lies the road to India.”

“The part of India known as Malabar,” Marco Polo had written, “was the richest and noblest country in the world.”

Up until the eighteenth century, interest in India was largely for trade and other commercial purposes. India was a land with multifarious riches: silks, spices, diamonds, gold. And these brought good prices in Western ports. In Boston, for instance, merchants dealing with Indian trade quickly grew in wealth and prestige. It was considered a distinction to have one’s office on “India Wharf,” where American captains sought for their families and business acquaintances such treasures as carnelian necklaces, pieces of valuable cobweb Dacca muslin and even rare books in Sanskrit. [4] When Captain Heard of the Salem brig Caravan set out for Calcutta in 1812, he took with him a request from his friend, Henry Pickering, for a “Sanskrit Bible.” [5]

“There is the East; there lies the road to India.”

Sanskrit literature was soon in great demand. And it was not long before Indian thought began to manifest itself in American writing. Defending Indian lifestyle against various attackers, American writers-especially those with a deep appreciation for Indian philosophy- began dedicating much of their work to establishing the undeniable value of ancient Indian thought. Pamphlets appeared criticizing the British attitude toward India, most notably the exploitative tactics that East India Company exerted on Indian villagers. Writing under the name “Rusticus,” John Dickinson, author of Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer said:

Their (Company officials) conduct in Asia for some years past, has given ample proofs, how little they regard the laws of nations, the rights, liberties or lives of men. They have levied war, excited rebellions, dethroned Princes and sacrificed millions for the sake of gain. The revenue of mightly kingdoms have entered their coffers. And these not being sufficient to glut their avarice, they have, by the most unparalleled barbarities, extortions and monopolies, stripped the miserable inhabitants of their property and reduced whole Provinces to indignance and ruin. Fifteen hundred thousand, it is said, perished by famine in one year, not because the earth denied its fruits, but this “Company” and its servants engrossed all the necessities of life and set them at so high a rate, that the poor could not purchase them. [6]* * *

For nearly three decades, from 1836 to 1866 or the end of the Civil War in America, the United States witnessed the flowering of an intellectual movement the like of which had not been seen before. The movement flourished in Concord, Massachusetts and was known-though it had no formal organization- as the Transcendental Club or Circle. Its members were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the Unitarian Minister James Freeman Clark, the teacher and philosopher Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and some clergymen. Their collective achievement in quality of style and in depth of philosophical insight has yet to be surpassed in American literature. And their major influence, without exception, were the Vedic literatures of India.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavat-Gita. 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 that exercise us.” [7] Emerson is the first great American literary figure who read deeply and fully the available philosophic literature from India. It certainly shows in his own writings. In a letter to Max Mueller, Emerson wrote: “All my interest is in Marsh’s Manu, then Wilkins’ Bhagavat Geeta, Burnouf’s Bhagavat Purana and Wilson’s Vishnu Purana, yes, and few other translations. I remember I owed my first taste for this fruit to Cousin’s sketch, in his first lecture, of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna and I still prize the first chapters of the Bhagavat as wonderful.” [9]

By 1856 Emerson had read the Kathopanisad and his ideas were increasingly reflecting Indian influence. His poems, such as Hamatreya (a poem composed in 1845) showed he had digested his Indian philosophic readings well. Hamatreya apparently was inspired by a passage from the Vishnu Purana (Book IV). He was concerned with the subject of illusion-maya. He wrote about it. In his essay Illusions he said: “I find men victims of illusions in all parts of life. Children, youths, adults and old men, all are led by one bauble or another. Yogavindra, the goddess of illusion, is stronger than the Titans, strong than Apollo.” [10]

In his poem Maya he wrote:

Illusion works impenetrable,
Weaving webs innumerable,
Her gay pictures never fail,
Crowds each other, veil on veil,
Charmer who will be believed,
By man who thirsts to be deceived.

But the poem by which Emerson is best remembered and one which is often quoted for the influence Vedic thought had on him is Brahma.

If the red slayer thinks he slays,
Or if the slain thinks that he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Fear 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 over good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Some of his stanzas were almost directly quoted from these lines in the Bhagavad gita:

“He who thinks that the living entity is the slayer or that the entity is slain does not understand. One who is in knowledge knows that the self slays not nor is slain. (Bg. 2:19)

“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of heat and cold, happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and sumer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”(Bg. 2:14)

“Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a prior existence.”

Brahma was composed in 1856 and represents the maturity of Emerson’s comprehension of some of the fundamental concepts of Vedic thought. According to Professor Frederic Ives Carpenter, those sixteen lines probable express those concepts “more clearly than any other writing in the English language-perhaps better than any writing in Hindu literature itself.” Emerson also wrote knowledgeably about reincarnation, the theory of Karma and of Fate, of the latter not in the classic Greek sense, but in it’s Indian interpretation: “Fate is nothing but deeds committed in a prior existence.”

The Great Transcendentalist:Henry David Thoreau

Emerson and Thoreau are invariably paired as the two leading Transcendentalists. Thoreau was the younger of the two. He was also the more exuberant and impetuous and the more frankly admiring of Vedic thought. There is no record that he read any Indian literature while at Harvard but in Emerson’s library he found and read with zest Sir William Jones’ translation of The Laws of Manu and was fascinated. In his Journal, he wrote: “That title (Manu)… comes to me with such a volume of sound as if it had swept unobstructed over the plains of Hindustan… They are the laws of you and me, a fragrance wafted from those old times, and no more to be refuted than the wind. When my imagination travels eastward and backward to those remote years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place. I remember the book as an hour before sunrise.”

Later, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) he was again writing about the same work, “Most books belong to the house and street only, and in the fields their leaves feel very thin…But this, as it proceeds from, so it addresses, what is deepest and most abiding in man. It belongs to the noontide of the day, the mid-summer of the year, and after the snows have melted…(it) will have a place of significance as long as there is a sky to test them [the sentences of Manu] by.”

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.”

Thoreau read the Dharma Sastra in 1841, when he was twenty-four, and the Bhagavad Gita when he was twenty-eight years of age. [13] Of the latter he wrote: “The New Testament is remarkable for its pure morality, the best of the Vedic Scripture, for its pure intellectuality. The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” He had the Gita with him during his stay by Walden Pond. [14]

“What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum,” he remarked in 1850. “The religion and philosophy of the Hebrews are those of a wilder and ruder tribe, wanting the civility and intellectual refinements and subtlety of Vedic culture.” [15] He writes in Chapter Sixteen of Walden: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

Thoreau died very young but during his mature years he read a great deal of Indian literature, perhaps more than Emerson. In 1855 he received from an English friend an entire treasure-chest of 44 volumes dealing with Vedic literature. For them he fashioned a new case from driftwood found in a New England river “thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine.”

The extent of Thoreau’s reading of Indian literature is astounding. He read Jones’ translation of Shakuntalam; Wilson’s translation of the Sankhya Karika and of Vishnu Purana: Wilkins’ translation of Harivamsa (which he later put into English) and Garcin de Tassy’s Histoire de la Litterature Hindoui et Hindostan. In his Journal, he wrote: “One may discover the root of an Indian religion in his own private history, when, in the silent intervals of the day and night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with stern satisfaction.” No wonder Gandhi loved and revered him and accepted Thoreau as his teacher. [16] In another time and place, he would have been considered the ideal Yogi-ascetic, seeker after Truth.

An American scholar, John T. Reid, commenting on Walden has said that if one read it, without screening its lines for possible foreign influences, the net impression will be that of a frugal, practical Yankee, greatly interested in the details of New England’s flora and fauna, gloriously happy in the tranquil peace of unsullied Nature, an eccentric at odds with most of his neighbor’s foibles. “He was not in any accurate sense an Yogi,” adds Reid,” but he did pay devoted heed to those glimpses of light from the Orient which he saw.” [17]

Teacher, Quaker, Rover, Mystic

Apart from Emerson and Thoreau, four other distinguished Americans of the period showed an interest in, or were influenced by, Indian philosophic thought. They are Alcott the Teacher, Whittier the Quaker, Melville the Rover and Whitman the Mystic.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888) was a visionary, a stimulating and original teacher whom Caryle called “the good Alcott,” a kind of venerable Don Quixote whom nobody could even laugh at without loving. He was born poor and as a young man earned his livelihood as a peddler. But he taught himself, read widely in the well-stocked libraries of Philadelphia, and became acquainted with the Quakers and their doctrine of the ‘Inner Light.” Born in Connecticut, he returned to his native New England and for a time carried out his well-known educational experiment at the Temple School. That did not succeed and for a time he did some writing, but with no demonstrable financial gains. So he went back to manual labor and in the meantime he held public “conversations” in the best Socratic style. He thus transmitted the sum of his own reading to young minds.

Alcott was an enthusiastic vegetarian (as were Emerson and Thoreau) [18] and tried to introduce his ideas in his ill-fated utopian experiment of Fruitlands (1841). He was, in a sense, the father of the Organic Food concept, but, as with his progressive educational experiments, was too far ahead of his time.

Unlike Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was a talented poet who was influenced by Emerson and from whom he borrowed a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. To Emerson he wrote: “I will e’en keep it until I restore it to thee personally in exchange for George Fox (founder of the Society of Friends, the Quakers). It is a wonderful book-and has greatly excited my curiosity to know more of the religious literature of the East.” [19]

The results of Whittier’s reading are evident in a good number of his poems like “The Oval Heart,” “The Cypress Tree of Ceylon,” “The Dead Feast of the Kol-Folk,” and “The Khan’s Devil.” A particularly striking example of his use of Indian material is his well-known poem “The Brewing of Soma,” which describes the preparation and use of the Vedic sacrificial drink.

The relationship of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) to Vedic thought is considerably complex. Emerson once described Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a blending of Gita and the New York Herald. In his reminiscing essay, “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” (1889) Whitman claims to have read “the ancient Hindu poems” and there is enough evidence to show that in 1875 he had received a copy of the Gita as a Christmas present from and English friend, Thomas Dixon. [20]

Although the mystic trend in much of Whitman’s work is unmistakable, but he was never the less a product of America in its robust love for life and zest for living.

One report has it that it was Thoreau who led Walt Whitman to dip into what was then collectively called “Oriental” literature. We have to take the word of his biographer for that. Whitman, from all the evidence, was vastly impressed by his readings. It is only in recent years that critics have come to recognise the deepening of Whitman’s religious feeling and his far saner intuitions of human nature in such superb poems of the late 1850’s and the 1860’s as “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “Passage to India”-a term, incidentally, that E.M. Forster was to pick up in later years.

Of “Passage to India” it has been especially said that it “contains his most eloquent idealism.” His main theme was the question asked by the feverish children of the modern age: “Whither, O mocking life?” The coming together of the seas in the Suez Canal, the crossing of the great American continent by steel do not satisfy, they are but shadows of a greater dream. There must be a passage to more that India. The soul, “that actual me,” must voyage beyond its material successes in order to amplify its love, its ideals, its “purity, perfection, strength.” So “sail forth-steer for the deep waters only.”

Passage O soul to India
Eclaircise the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables…
The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams,
The deep-diving bibles and legends
The daring plots of the poets, the elder religions;
O you temples fairer than lilies pour’d over by the rising sun!
O you fables spurning the known, eluding the hold of the
known, mounting to heaven!
You lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as rose,
burnished with gold!
Towers of fables immortal fashion’d from mortal dreams!
You too I welcome and fully the same as the rest!
You too with joy I sing!

Whitman’s constantly phrased and re-phrased conception of “the real me”-‘I pass death with the dying’ brings to mind the reincarnation doctrine, as it is specifically mentioned in the Gita.

The Early American Indologists

The American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 though the study of Sanskrit itself, did not start in American universities until some years later. The first American Sanskrit scholar of any repute was Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901) who taught at Yale (Elihu Yale was himself ultimately connected with India and had profound respect for Vedic philosophy). Another early Sanskritist, Fitzedward Hall (1825-1901) was in the Harvard class of 1846 but left college to search for a runaway brother in-of all places-India, where he continued his studies of Indian languages and even became tutor and professor of Sanskrit at Banaras. He was the first American scholar to edit a Sanskrit text-the Vishnu Purana.

One of Salisbury’s students at Yale, William Dwight Whitney (1827-1901) went on to become a distinguished Sanskritist in his own right having studied in Berlin under such distinguished German scholars as Bopp and Weber. Whitney became a full professor of Sanskrit language and literature at Yale in 1854, wrote his classic Sanskrit Grammar (1879) and was the doyen of Indologists of his period. Whitney was succeeded in the Chair of Sanskrit Studies of Yale by Edward Washburn Hopkins (1857-1932). Hopkins was an excellent scholar but made his name principally as an exponent of India’s religions. His book The Religions of India (1895) was for many years one of the principal works on the subject available in America and his Origins and Evolution of Religion published in 1923, sold well.

With Yale leading the way, Harvard caught up and beginning with James Bradstreet Greenough (1833-1900), had a succession of great Sanskrit teachers, the most distinguished among them was Charles Rockwell Lanman who taught for over forty years, publishing such works as Sanskrit Reader and Beginnings of Hindu Pantheism. But his greatest contribution was planning and editing of the Harvard Oriental Series. In his time he was responsible for influencing such students of his who were later to achieve literary renown as T. S. Eliot, Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt. The tradition of American Indologists has been nobly kept up by those who followed: to mention only a few names, A.V. William Jackson, Franklin Edgerton, W. Norman Brown, and Joseph Campbell.

T.S. Eliot and the Three Cardinal Virtues

T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, drew his intellectual sustenance from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, St. John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, the Greek dramatists, Baudelaire, and the Bhagavad Gita. Over and over again, whether in The WastelandFour QuartersAsh Wednesday or Murder in the Cathedral, the influence of Indian philosophy and mysticism on him is clearly noticeable.

Eliot was a twenty-three year old student at Harvard when he first came across eastern philosophy and religion. What sparked his interest in Vedic thought is not recorded but soon he was occupied with Sanskrit, Pali and the metaphysics of Patanjali. He had also read the Gita and the Upanishads as is clear from the concluding lines of The Waste LandThe Waste Land ends with the reiteration of the Three Cardinal Virtues from the second Brahmana passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishaddamyata (restraint), datta (charity) and dayadhvam (compassion) and the state of mind that follows obedience to the commands is indicated by blessing Shantih shantih shantih, that Eliot himself roughly translated as “the peace that passeth understanding.” But it is the Gita that evidently made a more permanent imprint on Eliot’s mind. It will be found relevant not only to The Waste Land, but to The Four QuartersThe Dry Salvages, and The Family Reunion. The tolerance preached by the Gita is echoed in Eliot’s use of imagery drawn from several religions. As Prof. Philip R. Headings has remarked in his study of the poet, “No serious student of Eliot’s poetry can afford to ignore his early and continued interest in the Bhagavad Gita.” [21] In a sense Eliot follows in the giant footsteps of Emerson and Thoreau and the early Transcendentalists, but, it would seem, with a greater sense of urgency and relevance. There is a sharper, keener perception of what endures and should endure, and incessant demand that all traditions of literature, music, painting, architecture and philosophy be put to their proper psychic or religious use. In that sense, Eliot’s message is the message of the Gita, of the essential utility of all activity: a message for all time, though it is harder to understand because it must be united from the materials, tone and perspective of his poems.


In modern times (since the death of T. S. Eliot in 1965) the influence of India’s spiritual thought in America has taken leaps and bounds. Turbulent peace-seeking days of the sixties and seventies opened the doors for alternative thinking, and Spiritual India was welcomed with open arms. Words like dharma and karma have come to be listed in our English dictionaries, and meditation (of some variety) is practiced, or at least attempted, by millions of Americans.

The list of prominent thinkers over the last twenty years who have been profoundly affected by the spiritual precepts of India is too long to mention. In music, in art and in literature, as well as the political arena, the serenity of transcendental thought quietly expunded in humility from the shores of India has had a greater (although subtle) influence on the Americal public than perhaps any other sincle foreign culture.

Although a slight shift away from spiritual ideals was experienced in the early to mid-eighties, it appears to have been only a momentary hesitation. The now materially-exhausted yuppies are again searching for deeper values, and the New Age spiritualists, most of whom accept reincarnation, karma, meditation, chanting and vegetarianism are filling the spiritual gap. Of course there are unscrupulous persons who seek to flourish materially in the spiritual marketplace, and the New Age community is overrun with imitation. But the precious commodity of the spiritual gems of the Vedas, the Gita and India’s other literary jewels continue to shine light on the proper utilization of the modern world of material affluence. With the spiritual eyes of the East and the material legs of the Western world, the lame man and the blind man may once and for all see and walk on the path of freedom from all anxieties.


  1. Polo, Marco,The Travels of Marco Polo (The Venetian),revised from Marsden’s translation and edited with introduction by Manuel Komroff, (Livright Pub., 1953) p. 201.
    2. Ibid., p. 203.
    3. Dr. M. V. Kamath, The United States and India (1776-1976), (The Embassy of India, Washington D.C., 1976) p. 9.
    4. Ibid. p. 35.
    5. Ibid.
    6. Ibid., p. 23.
    7. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909-1914], 7:241-42 and 7:511.
    8. Ibid., p. 41.
    9. Ibid.
    10. Ibid.
    11. Roger Mueller, The Orient in American Transcendental Periodicals (1835-1886), (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1968), pp. 10-11.
    12. Thoreau, Journal, 1:55. The Journal is published as vols. 7-20 in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed., Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen, 20 vols. (Walden ed., 1906; reprint ed., New York: AMS Press, 1968).
    13. Ibid. 2:36.
    14. Ibid.
    15. Thoreau, Journal, 2.4.
    16. Clarence L. F. Gohdes, The Periodicals of American Transcendentalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1931), p. 190.
    17. Ibid.
    18. Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought (Nineteenth-Century Explorations), Greenwood Press, London, England, 1981, p. 80.
    19. Ibid.
    20. Dr. M. V. Kamath, The United States and India (1776-1976), (The Embassy of India, Washington, D. C., 1976) p. 51.
    21. Ibid., p. 56.