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“Ex Oriente Lux”: Thoreau's Ecstasies and the Hindu Texts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Alan D. Hodder
Harvard University


From the standpoint of marketing and sales, Henry David Thoreau's first major publishing venture, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was something of a fiasco, a fact hardly mitigated by his famously stoic, as well as humorous, avowals of failure. When, four years after its first appearance, he finally acquiesced to his publisher's petitions to accept the seven hundred and six unsold copies piled in the warehouse, he noted wryly in his journal, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.” Besides the commercial disappointment, Thoreau must have found the book's critical reception somewhat disheartening also.

Research Articles
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1993

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1 The Journals of Henry David Thoreau (Walden Edition; ed. Torrey, Bradford and Allen, Francis H.; 14 vols.; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906) 5Google Scholar. 459. In preparing this article, I have taken advantage, to the extent possible, of the critical edition of Thoreau's journals presently being published under the general editorship of John C. Broderick by the Textual Center for the Writings of Henry David Thoreau at Princeton University Press. As of this writing, only the first four volumes of the Princeton edition are available for consultation: Journal 1: 1837–1844 (ed. Witherell, Elizabeth Hall, et al. ; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Journal 2: 1842–1848 (ed. Sattelmeyer, Robert; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; Journal 3: 1848–1851 (ed. Broderick, John C.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990)Google Scholar; and Journal 4: 1851–1852 (ed. Neufeldt, Leonard N. and Simmons, Nancy Craig; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

2 Thoreau, Henry David, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (ed. Hovde, Carl F., et al. ; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) 67Google Scholar.

3 George Ripley, “H. D. Thoreau's Book,” New York Tribune, 13 June 1849; quoted in Jackson, Carl T., The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981) 68Google Scholar.

4 James Russell Lowell, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1849); quoted in Jackson, Oriental Religions, 68. For further discussion of the critical reception of A Week, see Linck C. Johnson, “Historical Introduction,” in Thoreau, A Week, 470–77.

5 The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau (ed. Harding, Walter and Bode, Carl; New York: New York University Press, 1958) 293-94Google Scholar. For the best account of Thoreau's career as a professional writer, see Fink, Steven, Prophet in the Marketplace (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

6 See Schwabb, Raymond, The Oriental Renaissance: Europe's Discovery of India and the East, 1680–1880 (trans. Patterson-Black, Gene and Reinking, Victor; New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)Google Scholar. Although Edward Said's focus is more on the Levant than on India, he provides what is by now a classic treatment of Orientalism as a European projection in Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979)Google Scholar. Of direct interest are Halbfass, Wilhelm, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Wilson, A. Leslie, A Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1964)Google Scholar; and Inden, Ronald, Imagining India (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990)Google Scholar.

7 In 1932 Arthur Christy pioneered the study of Oriental influence on the Americans with the publication of The Orient in American Transcendentalism: A Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932)Google Scholar. Another useful early study is that of Frederic Carpenter, Ives, Emerson and Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930)Google Scholar. Since this time, a host of brief studies and a couple of significant major ones have been added. Among these, see Jeswine, Miriam A., “Henry David Thoreau: Apprentice to the Hindu Sages” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1971)Google Scholar; Mueller, Roger Chester, “The Orient in American Transcendental Periodicals, 1835–1886” (Ph.D. diss., University of Minnesota, 1968)Google Scholar; Stein, William Brysshe, “A Bibliography of Hindu and Buddhist Literature Available to Thoreau through 1854,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 47 (1967) 5256Google Scholar. Although it is somewhat brief, a fine all-around treatment is Jackson, Oriental Religions. More recent is Versluis, Arthur, American Transcendentalism and Asian Religion (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar. Fuller bibliographies on this topic, together with annotations, are available in Harding, Walter and Meyer, Michael, The New Thoreau Handbook (New York: New York University Press, 1980) 113-14Google Scholar; and Buell, Lawrence, “The Transcendentalist Movement,” in Myerson, Joel, ed., The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism (New York: Modern Language Association, 1984) 3435Google Scholar.

8 See Cameron, Kenneth Walter, Emerson's “Indian Superstition” with Studies in his Poetry, Biography, and Early Orientalism (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1954)Google Scholar.

9 See Alan D. Hodder, “Emerson, Rammohan Roy, and the Unitarians,” in Studies in the American Renaissance (1988) 133–48.

10 Among second-generation transcendentalists and their sympathizers, I should also mention such figures as Convers Francis, James Freeman Clark, and Samuel Johnson. See, for example, Mueller, Roger Chester, “Transcendental Periodicals and the Orient,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 57 (1969) 5257Google Scholar; and Versluis, American Transcendentalism, 235–304.

11 The Dial (4 vols.; Boston: James Munroe, 18401844)Google Scholar. “The Preaching of the Buddha,” which appeared in the January 1844 issue and has conventionally been attributed to Thoreau, now appears not to have been his contribution. See Anglen, K. P. Van, “Introduction,” in Thoreau, Henry David, Translations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986) 160Google Scholar n. 1.

12 Thoreau, Henry David, Walden (ed. Shanley, J. Lyndon; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971) 4Google Scholar, 111, 326.

13 Jones, William, trans., Institutes of Hindu Law; or, the ordinances of Menu, according to the gloss of Culluca (2 vols.; London: Rivington & Cochran, 1825)Google Scholar; Thoreau, Journal 1, 178. In his own references to the legendary compiler of this most influential of classical Hindu law books, Thoreau follows Jones's archaic transliteration of “Menu.” Besides Manu, Thoreau found other Oriental texts in Emerson's personal library worthy of note, in particular Wilkins's translation of the Hitopade⋅a and the Gulistan of Saʿdī. For the definitive record of Thoreau's reading generally, see Sattelmeyer, Robert, Thoreau's Reading: A Study in Intellectual History, with Bibliographical Catalogue (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

14 One such text was William Julias Mickle, “Inquiry into the Religion Tenets and Philosophy of the Bramins,” which Thoreau encountered (Journal 1, 387) in Chalmers's anthology of English poetry on a visit to Cambridge late in 1841; see Chalmers, Alexander, ed., The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper (21 vols.; London: Johnson, 1810) 21Google Scholar. 713–33.

15 On Thoreau's first reactions to the Bhagavad Gītā, see Journal 2, 253. See also Rusk, Ralph L., ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (6 vols.; New York: Columbia University Press, 1939) 3Google Scholar. 290. For the translations available to Thoreau, see Wilkins, Charles, trans., Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon (London: Nourse, 1785)Google Scholar; Wilson, Horace Hayman, trans., The Vishnu Purāṇa (London: Murray, 1840)Google Scholar; Ward, William, A View of the history, literature, and religion of the Hindoos… (Hartford: Huntington, 1824)Google Scholar; Roy, Rammohan, Translation of several principal books, passages, and texts of the Veds, and of some controversial works on Brahmunical Theology (2d ed.; London: Parbury, Allen, & Co., 1832)Google Scholar; Ishvarakrishna, , The Sankhya Karika (trans. Colebrooke, Henry Thomas; London: Valpy, 1837)Google Scholar.

16 Langlois, M. A., trans., Harivaṇsa… (2 vols.; Paris: n.p., 18341835)Google Scholar. Thoreau, Henry David, The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans (ed. Christy, Arthur; New York: Rudge, 1932)Google Scholar; this translation is also included in Thoreau, Translations, 135–44.

17 Jeswine, “Apprentice to the Hindu Sages,” 28–29; cited in Harding and Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook, 94.

18 Thoreau, Correspondence, 387–88, 397–98. On Thoreau's friendship with Cholmondeley, see Sanborn, Franklin, “Thoreau and his English Friend Thomas Cholmondeley,” Atlantic Monthly 72 (1893) 741-56Google Scholar.

19 See Schwabb, Oriental Renaissance, 33–38, 52; and Said, Orientalism, 78–79.

20 See especially Halbfass, India and Europe, 2–170; Said, Orientalism, 1–110.

21 Thoreau, Journal 1, 51.

22 Ibid., 144.

23 Thoreau, Journal 2, 371.

24 Thoreau, Journal 1, 177.

25 Ibid., 169.

26 Thoreau, A Week, 142.

27 Thoreau, Correspondence, 251.

28 Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism, 221.

29 Doren, Mark Van (Henry David Thoreau [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916] 95)Google Scholar set the temper for such readings long ago in observing that “the total influence of Oriental philosophy upon Thoreau was neither broad nor profound.” More recently, Robert Sattelmeyer epitomizes (Thoreau's Reading, 67–68) this dismissive reading when he asserts that in the end Thoreau's interest in this literature “was relatively short-lived and led to no discernible literary results.” For a more balanced, although still somewhat skeptical appraisal, see Harding and Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook, 91–94.

30 In the West, the term “yoga” has come to be construed too narrowly as referring only t o the physical postures taught in the discipline of ha⃛ha-yoga. In fact, it refers to a whole range of spiritual practices involving body, breath, meditation, devotion, among other aspects, the purpose of which is union with the personal deity or transcendent being. It derives from the Sanskrit root yuj, “to yoke, bind, or unite one thing to another.”

31 A recent, illuminating account of Thoreau's journalizing is Peck, H. Daniel, Thoreau's Morning Work (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

32 Thoreau, Journal 4, 141.

33 Thoreau, Journal 1, 480.

34 Thoreau, Journal 3, 251–52.

35 Ibid., 305–6.

36 For a particularly balanced and highly readable appraisal of Thoreau's life, see Richardson, Robert D. Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

37 The pathos of this entry makes it hard not to search through the earlier journals for some of the literary manifestations of such boyhood experiences. There are several that may be noted; see, for example, Thoreau, Journal 1, 50–51, 69–70, 256.

38 Thoreau, A Week, 382.

39 Thoreau, Walden, 131.

40 Ibid., 17.

41 Paul, Sherman, “The Wise Silence: Sound as the Agency of Correspondence in Thoreau,” The New England Quarterly 22 (1949) 511-27Google Scholar; see also idem, The Shores ofAmerica: Thoreau's Inward Exploration (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958) 6470Google Scholar. See also Rhoads, Kenneth W., “Thoreau: The Ear and Music,” American Literature 46 (1974) 313-28Google Scholar.

42 Thoreau, A Week, 173–74.

43 The drum motif makes its most celebrated appearance in one of the most quoted passages in American literature: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it i s because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away” (Thoreau, Walden, 326). These famous lines acquire a fuller resonance when we see their relation to the night drummer of A Week and Thoreau's sustained meditations on the relation between music and ecstasy throughout his journals. For the source of the Walden passage, see idem, Journal 3, 313.

44 Thoreau, A Week, 174–75. For allusions to Thoreau's reception of the music of the spheres, see idem, Journal 1, 50, 54, 446–47; idem, Journal 2, 174; idem, Journal 3, 323; idem, A Week, 176.

45 Thoreau, Journal 1, 324. Compare idem, A Week, 153; Institutes of Hindu Law, 1. 24.

46 In his own thinking about natural sounds and natural language, Thoreau appears to have synthesized the classical tradition of the music of the spheres with the brahmanical conceptions of the Veda as the cosmic language; see Thoreau, Journal 1, 249.

47 Ibid., 427.

48 See ibid., 320–21; idem. Journal 2, 167; idem, Journal 3, 129; idem, A Week, 50; idem, Walden, 123.

49 Thoreau, Journal 1, 128. Compare idem, A Week, 45–46.

50 Thoreau, Journal 3, 190; The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 3. 51.

51 The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 4. 493.

52 See, for example, Porte, Joel, “Emerson, Thoreau, and the Double Consciousness,” The New England Quarterly 49 (1968) 350Google Scholar.

53 Thoreau, A Week, 48.

54 Shanley, J. Lyndon, The Making of Walden (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) 3031Google Scholar. 72–73.

55 Plato Respublica books 3, 10. For the role of the metaphor of the mirror in Western literary theory, see Abrams, M. H., The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953) 3046Google Scholar.

56 See Augustine Confessiones 8.1, 7; The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (trans. Wolters, Clifton; London: Penguin, 1978) 102Google Scholar. See also Shepherd, Thomas, “Ineffectual Hearing of the Word,” in The Works of Thomas Shepherd (ed. Albro, John A.; 3 vols.; Boston: Doctrinal Tract and Book Society, 1853) 3Google Scholar. 370; Hooker, Thomas, The Soul's Preparation for Christ (London: n.p., 1638) 58Google Scholar.

57 See Emerson's statements, “The troubled water reflects no image. When it is calm it shows within it the whole face of heaven” and “Man stands on the point betwixt the inward spirit & the outward matter. He sees that the one explains, translates the other: that the world i s the mirror of the soul” (Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks [16 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963] 3Google Scholar. 244 and 5. 103). See also the Swedenborgian Reed, Sampson (Observations on the Growth of the Mind [Boston: Cummings & Hilliard, 1826] 41)Google Scholar who wrote, “This world is the mirror of him who made it.”

58 Buddhacarita, 12.2, in Buddhist Scriptures (trans. Conze, Edward; Baltimore: Penguin, 1959) 50Google Scholar.

59 On Zen, see Dögen, Eihei, Moon in a Dew Drop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen (ed. Tanahashi, Kazuaki; San Francisco: North Point, 1985) 71Google Scholar. On the kabbalah, see Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Classics of Western Spirituality; trans. Matt, Daniel Chanan; New York: Paulist, 1983) 61Google Scholar, 75, 80. On Sufism, see Iraqi, Fakhruddin, Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality; trans. Chittick, William C. and Wilson, Peter Lamborn; New York: Paulist, 1982) 70Google Scholar, 73, 77. On Taoist and Confucian instances, see Ching, Julie, “The Mirror Symbol Revisited: Confucian and Taoist Mysticism,” in Katz, Steven, ed., Mysticism and Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983) 226-46Google Scholar. For an exploration, with a particularly suggestive bearing on Walden and the relation of the mirror to Aztec ritual and sacred geography, see Sullivan, Lawrence, “Reflections in the Miraculous Waters of Tenochtitlan,” in Carrasco, David, ed., To Change Place: Aztec Ceremonial Landscapes (Nuwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1991) 205-11Google Scholar.

60 Wilkins, Charles, trans., Bhagvat-geeta (New York: Philes, 1867) 38Google Scholar.

61 Ward, A View of the history, literature, and religion, of the Hindoos, 204; see also pp. 149, 166, 221, 171. For a neo-Hindu explication of the Sāmkhyan “witness,” see Yogi, Maharishi Mahesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yoga on the Bhagavad-gita: A New Translation and Commentary (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969)Google Scholar.

62 Porte, “Emerson, Thoreau, and the Double Consciousness,” 46–48.

63 Thoreau, Walden, 134–35.

64 The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 4. 313.

65 Thoreau, Journal 2, 40; see also idem, A Week, 147.

66 Wilkins, Bhagvat-geeta (1867 ed.), 59.

67 Thoreau, Journal 3, 227.

68 Ishvarakrishna, Sankhya Karika, 35.

69 Rammohan Roy, Translations of Several Principal Books, Passages, and Texts of the Vedas, reprinted in Stein, William Bysshe, ed., Two Brahman Sources of Emerson and Thoreau (Gainesville, FL: Scholars Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967) 1415Google Scholar.

70 A glance at the context of the “Solitude” passage as a whole and its evolution out of the journals accentuates these Oriental affiliations. This paragraph did not appear at all in the Walden manuscript until Thoreau introduced it in his fourth version sometime in 1852 or 1853; see Shanley, Making of Walden, 72–73. Its principal source appears to have been an entry that he drafted into his journal on 8 August 1852 (The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 4. 289–91). In Walden, a reworked version of this entry is introduced with a series of some of Confucius's more metaphysical musings. In the original entry, however, the Persian poet Saʿdī has this honor. Early on in Walden (p. 79), Thoreau quoted a story of Saʿdī's Gulistan, but in the journal passage Saʿdī appears to serve the function of an emblematic other in Thoreau's concern to argue for a perennialist view of religion.

71 See, for example, Thoreau, A Week, 61,68, 114, 380; idem, Walden, 112; idem, Journal 1, 38, 118, 135, 257, 312, 473; idem, Journal 2, 201.

72 Augustine, Expositions on the Books of Psalms (6 vols.; Oxford: Parker, 1857) 6Google Scholar. 46–47.

73 See Hodder, Alan D., “In the Glasse of God's Word: Hooker's Pulpit Rhetoric and the Theater of Conversion,” The New England Quarterly 66 (1993) 67109CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Thoreau, Walden, 112.

75 One of the books that Thoreau received as part of the Cholmondeley collection in 1855, too late to influence his composition of Walden, was Horace Hayman Wilson's translation of six classic Hindu dramas. See Wilson, Horace Hayman, trans., Select specimens of the theater of the Hindus (2 vols.; London: Parbury, Allen, & Co., 1835)Google Scholar.

76 Thoreau, A Week, 382–83.

77 Thoreau, Journal 3, 215–16. See also Cameron, Kenneth Walter, Transcendental Apprenticeship (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1976) 234Google Scholar.

78 Ishvarakrishna, Sankhya Karika, 97.

79 Ward, A View of the history, literature, and religion, of the Hindoos, 222.

80 Thoreau, Walden, 171.

81 Thoreau, A Week, 174–75.

82 Thoreau, Journal 1, 173.

83 Ibid., 311–12.

84 Ibid., 317.

85 Ibid., 327.

86 Thoreau, Walden, 221; see also idem, A Week, 150.

87 See Stoehr, Taylor, Nay-Saying in Concord: Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau (Hamden, CT: Archon, 1979)Google Scholar. On Graham's health regimen, epitomized in the principle that stimulation leads to debility, see Nissenbaum, Stephen, Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America: Sylvester Graham and Health Reform (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980)Google Scholar.

88 Thoreau, Journal 1, 137–38. As Stein has suggestively demonstrated, the first chapter of Walden may be read in this light as an elaborate homology in which the construction of a house and the clearing of the land serve to represent the narrator's ulterior concern, as he says, to “cultivate a few cubit feet of flesh” (Thoreau, Walden, 5). See Stein, William Bysshe, “The Yoga of Walden: Chapter 1 (Economy),” Literature East and West 3 (1969) 126Google Scholar. Compare Manu, 6.16–11: “A mansion with bones for its rafters and beams; with nerves and tendons, for cords; with muscles and blood, for mortar; with skin, for its outward covering; filled with no sweet perfume, but loaded with feces and urine”; in The Works of Sir William Jones (13 vols.; London: Stockdale & Walker, 1807) 7Google Scholar. 287.

89 Thoreau, Journal 1, 327.

90 Thoreau, A Week, 136.

91 Ibid., 140.

92 Ibid., 148; see also idem, Journal 1, 428.

93 Thoreau, Journal 3, 62.

94 Thoreau, A Week, 155; see also idem, Journal 1, 414, 424; The Journals of Henry David Thoreau, 13. 77.

95 Thoreau, Journal 3, 216.

96 The earliest drafts of both these works did not contain anything like the wealth of Oriental material included in the published versions. See Shanley, Making ofWalden, 30. For the best study of the origin and evolution of A Week, see Johnson, Linck C., Thoreau's Complex Weave: The Writing of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1986)Google Scholar.

97 Thoreau, A Week, 143.

98 Thoreau, Journal 1, 387.

99 See ibid., 387, 409; idem, Journal 2, 252; idem, Journal 3, 21; idem, A Week, 126.

100 See also Thoreau, Journal 1, 177, 386; idem, Journal 3, 200.

101 Thoreau, A Week, 137. As this passage suggests, Thoreau was clearly fascinated by stories of brahmanical contemplative discipline and “wonderful power of abstraction”; he went on to quote at length a passage from Warren Hastings's introductory notice to Wilkins's translation of the Bhagavad Gītā: “To those who have never been accustomed to the separation of the mind from the notices of the senses, it may not be easy to conceive by what means such a power is to be attained; since even the most studious men of our hemisphere will find t i difficult so to restrain their attention, but that it will wander to some object of present sense or recollection; and even the buzzing of a fly will sometimes have the power to disturb it. But i f we are told that there have been men who were successively, for ages past, in the daily habit of abstracted contemplation, begun in the earliest period of youth, and continued in many to the maturity of age, each adding some portion of knowledge to the store accumulated by his predecessors; it is not assuming too much to conclude, that as the mind ever gathers strength, like the body, by exercise, so in such an exercise it may in each have acquired the faculty to which they aspired, and that their collective studies may have led them to the discovery of new tracks and combinations of sentiments, totally different from the doctrines with which the learned of other nations are acquainted; doctrines, which however speculative and subtle, still, as they possess the advantage of being derived from a source so free from every adventitious mixture, may be equally founded in truth with the most simple of our own” (Wilkins, Bhagvat-geeta [1785 ed.], 8).

102 Thoreau, A Week, 150.

103 Thoreau, Journal 1, 494.

104 Ibid., 172.

105 Ibid., 387.

106 Thoreau, Journal 3, 215–16.

107 Ibid., 306.