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Oriental Seeds in Occidental Soil

By Swami B. G. Narasingha and

Satyaraja dasa (Steven Rosen)


By Swami B.G. Narasingha


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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."