– Richard Sharp
The New England Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, both studied at Harvard University where they were introduced to Indian metaphysics through the translations of British scholars, some from Kolkata’s Asiatic Society–Warren Hastings, Charles Wilkins, and Sir William Jones, to name several–and thus were able to read the Vedas, Upanishads, Vishnu Purana, and Manu-Smrti (or The Laws of Manu, as they were known then).
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an ordained minister in the Unitarian Church, but even though the most liberal theology of the time, he resigned in order to pursue a solitary quest for Truth. His study of Oriental philosophy remained an inspiration all his life. In an 1840 letter to Samuel Gray Ward, he writes:
“The Vedas, the bible of the tropics, . . . I find I come back upon every three or four years . . . It is sublime as heat and night and a breathless ocean . . . It contains every religious sentiment, all the grand ethics . . . It is of no use to put away the book . . . Nature makes a Brahmin of me presently: eternal necessity, eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken silence—this is her creed. Peace and purity and absolute abandonment.”
In 1845 Emerson was reading Wilkins’ translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, published in England in 1785 but not in U.S. until 1867. The Indian metaphysic of “non-dualism” is apparent in his essay “The Over-Soul”:
“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.”
Though primarily an essayist, Emerson is also one of America’s great poets. In lyrics such as “Hamatreya”, “The World-Soul”, “Maia” and “Brahma”, a profound appreciation of Hindu thought is evident.
Illusion works impenetrable,
Weaving webs innumerable
Her gay pictures never fail,
Crowds each on other, veil on veil,
Charmer who will be believed
By man who thirsts to be deceived.
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.”
Henry David Thoreau made his living as a pencil maker and surveyor; like Emerson, he was a radical individualist, a nature mystic, and today is revered as the father of the modern ecology movement. He is best known for his masterpiece, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As protégé to Emerson, he lived with his mentor’s family for several years, using his vast library, and for two years he lived in a one-room cabin he built himself on Emerson’s property at Walden Pond. Walden becomes a symbol of the mysterious wisdom and divinity of Nature:
“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 seem puny and trivial . . . I lay down my book and go to the well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas . . . I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, reveals his affinity for Eastern metaphysics as a counterbalance to the spreading materialism of 19th century America. He recommends to the merchants of his country a good book:
“I would say to the readers of scripture, if they wish for a good book, read the Bhagavad-Gita . . . it deserves to be read with reverence even by Yankees, as part of the sacred writings of a devout people; and the intelligent Hebrew will rejoice to find in it a moral grandeur and sublimity akin to those of his own Scripture . . . In comparison with the philosophers of the East, we may say that modern Europe has yet given birth to none. Beside the vast and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green and practical merely . . . The Western world has not yet derived from the East all the light which it is destined to receive thence.”
Thoreau anticipates the modern study of comparative religion, as a way to increase human understanding and religious tolerance, rather like Emperor Akbar before him, or after, Swami Vivekananda and the Brahmo religion of Tagore:
“It would be worthy of the age to print together the collected scriptures or sacred writings of the several nations—the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians, the Hebrews, and others, as the Scripture of mankind. The New Testament is still, perhaps, too much on the lips and in the hearts of men to be called a scripture in this sense. Such a juxtaposition and comparison might help to liberalize the faith of men. This is a work that Time will surely edit, reserved to crown the labors of the printing press. This would be the Bible, or Book of Books, which let the missionaries carry to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
Walt Whitman lived in New York City, not New England, but he is the greatest Transcendentalist of them all. He is also America’s national poet–our greatest spiritual philosopher–the creator of modern “free verse”, and as many have suggested, he may be the most original voice ever to arise in the New World, North or South.
Sri Aurobindo refers to Whitman several times in his book of essays The Seer-Poet, published in 1920, and like Whitman, he envisions the advent of a New Era, a coming spiritual age and a new consciousness:
“A greater era of man’s living seems to be in promise . . . but first there must intervene a poetry which leads him to it from the present faint beginnings . . . A glint of this change is already visible . . . The conscious effort of Whitman . . . and the rapid immediate fame of Tagore are its first signs. The idea of the poet who is also the Rishi has made again its appearance.”
In the poem from which I will read, “Passage to India”, his last great poem, Whitman refers to a similar idea of the poet-prophet; he imagines, after all the works of all the scientists and technologists and engineers, will appear the “Poet of the Modern” to reconcile the trinity of Man and Nature and God:
“Finally shall come the poet worthy the name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.”
Whitman wrote this visionary poem in 1869, inspired by three recent achievements, wonders of the modern world: the Transatlantic Cable; the Transcontinental Railroad in America, and the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (It is also striking to consider that 1869 was exactly 100 years before Apollo 12 landed on the Moon.) I will read Section 9, the conclusion of “Passage to India”:
“Passage to more than India!
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?
O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those?
Disportest thou on waters such as those?
Soundest below the Sanscrit and the Vedas?
Then have thy bent unleashed.
Passage to more than India!
O secret of the earth and sky!
Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers!
Of you O woods and fields! of you strong mountains of my land!
Of you O prairies! of you gray rocks!
O morning red! O clouds! O rain and snows!
O day and night, passage to you!
O sun and moon and all you stars! Sirius and Jupiter!
Passage to you!
Passage, immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!
Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovel’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?
Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only,
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!”
Passage to MORE than India; indeed, Whitman seeks passage to the land of “deep-diving bibles”, to the “realms of budding bibles”. But Whitman was also seeking something more, what he terms “a worship new”–a new religion– the spiritual marriage of all the peoples of Earth. He is questing for humanity’s most elusive dream: the Brotherhood of Man.
Advancing toward this same ideal, not by poetry but by way of political reform–world peace through social justice–let us return to Thoreau. In addition to Walden, he wrote an equally-famous essay, “Resistance to Civil Government”, later re-titled “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, which influenced innumerable pacifists and social reformers including Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. In 1846, Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax, possibly the first modern instance of war-tax resistance. His was an act of noncooperation with the US Government’s imperialist aggression against Mexico. The Mexican War of 1846-48 forced our Southern neighbor to cede half its lands to the United States; many intellectuals saw this brazen land-grab as something even more: a successful attempt to expand African slavery. (This was 15 years before the American Civil War.)
In this essay Thoreau argues that “government is but an expedient”, a useful machine to organize human affairs as efficiently as possible, at best a moral force for the general welfare. In this regard Thoreau was a good citizen and willingly paid the highway and school tax. However, when the State becomes an instrument of injustice and compels the individual to participate in the injustice, it is an offense to Conscience.
“Unjust laws exist, and the dilemma for the moral person is: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? . . . If it is of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I must do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
He even defines non-violent revolution:
“If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would to obey them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceful revolution.”
And he further states:
“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it . . . When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be a refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty all the more urgent is the fact the country so overrun is not our own, but we are the invading army . . . This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”
He concludes by stating that Conscience is superior to the Constitution:
“Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable, even the State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable, and rare things, to be thankful for, such as great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are still what I described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?”
Thoreau was no reformer; in fact, he detested ‘do-gooders’. He acted out of one motive only: to preserve the integrity of his conscience.
In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa became the world’s most famous social reformer by moving beyond simple non-cooperation with evil. His theory evolved from passive resistance to active disobedience and, during a second stay in a Johannesburg jail, he first read Thoreau’s essay. Louis Fischer’s states in Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World:
“The prisoner’s soul, Gandhi found, was free. In this he echoed Henry David Thoreau, the New England rebel, who wrote of his own prison experience, ‘I did not feel for a moment confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.’ Gandhi copied these words from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and studied the entire essay . . . he called it a ‘masterly treatise which left a deep impression on me.’ There was a Thoreau imprint on much of what Gandhi did, as there was an Indian imprint on Thoreau . . . Gandhi, at the very moment when he read Thoreau, was in jail for denying unjust laws on moral grounds, and would do so steadily for the rest of his life.”
Undoubtedly, one of the most singular coincidences–or is it synchronicity? –in the intellectual history of the world. But as most of us are well aware of Gandhi’s successes in “satyagraha” in South Africa, and later in India, let us move on to modern America.
Martin Luther King Jr. began his career as a social reformer in 1955 when providentially he was chosen to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott that resulted in the abolition of segregation in America ten years later. His 1958 essay, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, discusses the impact of Gandhi upon his own evolution; but first, his reaction to Thoreau:
“When I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1944 . . . I read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” for the first time. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. This was my first intellectual contact with nonviolent resistance.”
Later he heard a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard, America’s most prestigious African-American university, who had just returned from India and spoke of the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. Afterward, King immediately bought a dozen books by and about Gandhi.
“Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaign of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by the Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of ‘Satyagraha’ was profoundly significant to me . . . Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships; . . . but when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.
Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking . . . I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
As King repeatedly stated, Christ furnished the motivation, but Gandhi provided the method, or strategy. Dr. King concludes the essay:
“My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil . . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power . . . It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.”
Like Gandhi, he was adamant that ‘Nonviolent Direct Action'(as he defined his form of Satyagraha) was the weapon of the strong, and was in no way “passive”. Both men were men of action – karma yogis. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where his new philosophy was tested, King wrote:
“As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”
This last statement reminds me of Gandhi’s own experiments with Truth; although he said he had never “seen” God, he firmly believed that “God appears not in person, but in action.”
In 1959, King and his peace delegation visited India and went to the Gandhi Memorial in New Delhi:
“It was an amazing thing to see the marvelous results of nonviolent struggle. India won her independence but without violence on the part of Indians. The aftermath of hatred and bitterness that usually follows a violent campaign is found nowhere in India between the Indian and the British people within the Commonwealth . . .
“The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally, it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”
In 1963, during his campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King was arrested and put in jail. When he was publicly criticized by eight white clergymen—seven ministers and one rabbi—he responded with the famous essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. King identified with the Apostle Paul — who also wrote epistles from prison — and with Jesus and Socrates as well. The clergy said his actions were “unwise and untimely”, that he was an “outsider” and an “extremist”, implying he was a Communist “agitator”. He responded:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . . [and] injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere . . . Whatever effects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This defines one of his guiding principles: the interrelatedness of all people, all communities and all nations. He then explains the four basic steps in any nonviolent campaign: 1) collection of facts to determine the extent of the injustice, 2) negotiation, but if that fails, 3) self-purification, and 4) direct action. By purification he meant the critical self-examination by each participant to see if he or she could participate without retaliation of any kind, but to respond only with love and forgiveness (American ‘ahimsa’); if so, then his followers would participate in nonviolent workshops and, finally, sign a pledge of peace.
He further defended his actions by saying that civil disobedience–whether noncooperation (strikes and boycotts) or direct action (sit-ins, pray-ins, and breaking unjust laws)–is necessary if a society continues to deny an evil, in this case racial segregation laws.
“This is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
When criticized because he would not ‘wait’ patiently for the courts to decide the matter, he responded:
“Justice too long delayed is justice denied. We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
To the criticism that he should not lead his people to break laws, he responded as Thoreau and Gandhi:
“There are two types of laws, there are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all’. . . . [and] St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law . . . All segregation laws are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority . . . Segregation is . . . morally wrong and sinful.”
And when his Christian colleagues stated that his actions were leading to “anarchy”, he wrote:
“One who breaks an unjust law must do so ‘openly’, ‘lovingly’ (not hatefully) . . . and with a willingness to accept the penalty . . . . An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust . . . is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
When they accused him of being “untimely”, he said:
“Actually time is neutral . . . . We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.”
And when they charged him with “extremism”, he countered, “Was not Jesus an extremist in love—‘Love your enemies, bless those that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you’”. He then identifies St. Paul and Martin Luther (for whom he was named), Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson as “creative extremists”.
“So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love . . . . The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
He then denounces the white church for its moral neutrality, and the white moderate for his complacency, for being “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Dr. King ends his essay with the lofty rhetoric of a Biblical epistle:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. Yours in the cause of Peace and Brotherhood.”
This essay is Dr. King’s most reprinted work, and deservedly so. For let us just imagine for a moment, without the presence of Dr. King the Southern United States would have flowed in the blood of thousands of Black and white citizens. And I must wonder too about India without Gandhi: how many hundreds of thousands would have died in a decades-long armed revolt?
I will conclude by sharing with you King’s most courageous speech, one he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967: “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam”. In it he gives seven reasons why he must denounce publically that evil war, mainly because of what he called “the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism”. He knew that war is the enemy of the poor and exploits the poor; he knew it takes advantage of racial minorities by making them bear the burden of conscription; he knew that foreign wars were often motivated by racism or religious prejudice and ended up destroying the most helpless of those unlucky nations. And he knew that wars always enrich the arms-makers–the “military industrial complex”–and protect the interests of US corporations investing overseas, enriching the richest and threatening to bankrupt the nation.
He called on the young men of America to resist conscription (the draft) by applying for conscientious objector status (as I did, along with 134,000 others, a little-known fact even in the US). And he also made it clear that the major reason he chose to oppose that insane war, at a time when it was highly-unpopular to do so, was a simple one: because he loved America. As the conscience of the country, he knew that his nation had drifted far from its founding principles and he felt a ‘revolution of values’ was needed:
“I’m convinced that if the US is going to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation [or poverty] are incapable of being conquered.”
He knew that an ethical revolution would reject war as a rational means of settling international disputes:
“This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nations homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
And he continues:
“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all embracing unconditional love for all men.”
And what does he mean by ‘love’, that clichéd and over-used word? He speaks of it as a ‘force’:
“This often misunderstood and misinterpreted concept . . . is no weak or cowardly force, [or mere sentimental affection], [it] has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind . . . I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door that leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully expressed in the epistle of John: ‘Let us love one another, for God is love.’”
He opposes the war because he loves his nation which he believes has fallen away from its founding principles, and he fears for its future:
“And don’t let anyone make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman to the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems I can hear God saying to America, ‘You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name.”
King ends his speech with an appeal to what he called “the Beloved Community” and alludes to prophet Isaiah’s vision of “the Peaceable Kingdom”:
“With this faith, men shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And the nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore.”
One year to the day after King delivered this speech against imperial America, he was assassinated. And it is not a conspiracy theory to state he was killed, directly or indirectly, by the FBI; the King family acknowledges this fact.
I must say I am shocked that very few Indians I have met truly admire Gandhi; his face is on their currency but his radical lessons are ignored. Similarly in America, a statue of King was placed on the National Mall in 2012, but his warnings against the Vietnam War and increasing militarism is easily forgotten. These two men are so much more than heroes — they are prophets — and it must be true, as it is said, “prophets are not welcome in their own country”. Gandhi and King (and the late Nelson Mandela) are the gadflies of society who forever force us to see our own guilt: our complacency, our complicity, and our cowardice. The Sermon on the Mount, which influenced Gandhi as much as King, tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” So yes, let us revere our national heroes, but let us never forget our prophets!
I wish to end my talk with two short quotations of King, words so telling in our age of accelerating super-human violence. Dr. King wrote (and this was 1959): “Assuming mankind has a right to survive—I believe that because of the destructiveness of modern warfare . . . nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence, or nonexistence.”
So the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warns America, and India, and the whole world: “Today we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”