Westward: Emerson, Thoreau And Whitman


‘If the red slayer think 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,
I am 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.’



The first European Language translations of Sanskrit texts were in English, William Jones [1746-1794] and the Asiatic Society. Anquetil Duperon published a Latin and French version in Paris in 1802. Schelling and Schopenhauer then brought it actively into German Academic circles and soon after it spread across the Atlantic and into the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.

These roamings come full-circle. David Thoreau’s classic essay on ‘Civil Disobediance’, a work heavily influenced by these new arrivals, was the originating spark for Gandhi’s celebrated Satyagraha movement.

Thoreau’s essay [1849], originally called ‘Resistance to Civil Government’, was written in support of his philosopher-friend Bronson Alcott, who was arrested for non-payment of taxes which Alcott, an Abolitionist, believed supported Slavery.

It was proper then that Gandhi’s Civil-Disobedience actions should be picked up again by Martin Luther King to renew the Struggle in the land where the idea originated.

The Dial [1840-1844], the magazine of the New England Transcendentalists was the first to publish both Vedic [‘Laws of Manu’] and Buddhist translations in its pages. It was alternately edited both by Emerson and Thoreau. 

I savor Alcott’s introduction to the Journal: ‘A free journal for the soul which awaits its scribes.’