Sunday, July 28, 2013

Strike a pose: Yoga in America

Yoga today is many things to many people. Variously or together it can be a path to spiritual liberation, a defense against illness, or a super-cool workout. Types of yoga taught include the classic Iyengar yoga, yoga for pain, yoga for women, and the ultra-sweaty Bikram yoga, which heats the room to 105 degrees in order to warm, stretch and strengthen muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But let's backtrack a bit with the following:

 10 facts about yoga

  1. The Sanskrit word means “union,” of the individual self with the cosmic Self.
  2. The physical aspect of yoga is really, really old. Stone carvings showing figures in various poses (asanas) go back to about 3000 BCE.
  3. Asanas comprise only one of the eight "limbs" of classical yoga, but they and meditation/breathing are the components most practiced in America.
  4. Physical benefits of yoga include strengthening and stretching as well as softening tense, stiff muscles. They also make the spine more flexible, which the Chinese believe to be a key to longevity.
  5. Yoga poses improve blood circulation and increase the body's ability to take in oxygen.
  6. A 2008 study inYoga Journal showed that at that time 16 million people practiced in the U.S.
  7. Emerson and Thoreau were some of the earliest Americans to embrace yoga. The latter would often meditate from sunrise to noon, and once wrote in a letter from Walden, “To some extent, and at rare intervals, I even am a Yogin.”
  8. In the early 1900s, the ritzy Braeburn Country Club in Nyack, NY, offered activities ranging from practicing yoga to joining a cross-dressed baseball team to watching circus trapeze acts.
  9. In 1940s Hollywood, Russian-Swedish immigrant Indra Devi taught yoga as physical culture to the likes of  Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan.
  10. When the '60s rolled around, alternative was the operative word, as yoga was seized upon for psychological, spiritual, and political healing. Allen Ginsberg sat in the lotus position and chantied in Lincoln Park in Chicago as the police clubbed protesters during the Democratic National Convention of 1968; swami Satchidananda gave an invocation at Woodstock, guiding the crowd in channeling its energies.
"Just as the computer scientists who built ARPANET created the conditions for Google without ever having anticipated it, Emerson created the conditions for an American yoga" writes Stefanie Syman in The Subtle Body, her history of the philosophy and practice of yoga in the United States. "What Ms. Syman does do deftly" wrote the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani in her review of the book, "is trace how the likes of Emerson (with his interest in Indian thought) and Thoreau (with his practice of meditation) helped create a context in which an American yoga could take root. And she provides a lively gallery of larger-than-life characters who would contribute to (or undermine, or co-opt) the progress of yoga in the United States — beginning with Swami Vivekananda, who came to America in 1893 to raise money for the poor in India, and who drew large audiences at the World Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago."
You can get up to speed with the fascinating early history of yoga in America by sampling the complete first chapter of Syman's book, after the jump.
"In hatha yoga, the subtle body describes a network of channels (nadis) and wheel-like vortices (chakras).  These are invisible to the naked eye and even the microscope; the subtle body is distinct from the gross or physical body, though manipulating one necessarily affects the other." —The Subtle Body, p. 5

In the fall of 1857, a new magazine went into the U.S. mails. Its design was emphatically plain. Its title, The Atlantic Monthly. A Magazine of Literature, Art, and Politics, was printed in black type on paper the color of pine boards. Inside, two long, tight columns ran down its pages. There weren’t any illustrations, except, on the cover, a small engraving of John Winthrop, Puritan founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony, in a ruffled collar and thick goatee. Whether Winthrop was the magazine’s patron saint or muse, you couldn’t mistake the Atlantic’s lineage. It had strong ties to the eastern seaboard in general, and Boston in particular.1
Contributors, or “literary persons,” were listed on the inside front cover, but the essays and poems that filled the magazine were unsigned, as was then customary. No reader was confused for long, though, about who had written a set of verses titled “Brahma,” on page 48, because the Atlantic’s publisher had leaked the byline to a Boston newspaper. The author was Ralph Waldo Emerson—poet, philosopher, prophet, Sphinx—and his presence in the magazine was one of its selling points.2
Emerson, along with several other New England luminaries, had helped Francis H. Underwood launch the Atlantic. Underwood saw the magazine as an intellectual platform; his employer, book publisher Moses Dresser Phillips, saw it as a way to boost book sales.
Happily, Phillips’s business interests intersected with Emerson’s self-interest. At the time, it was nearly impossible for him to make a living as an author, and the Atlantic promised a wider readership as well as a much appreciated source of additional income.
But the literary persons behind the Atlantic—a group that included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James R. Lowell—were nothing if not high-minded, and the pecuniary reasons for starting a new magazine paled beside their self-appointed mission, which was to free American belles lettres from European condescension once and for all. The Atlantic would provide this badly needed aesthetic leadership. It would be a place where quality trumped popular taste, and American, rather than English or French, authors reigned.
The new magazine had one other purpose: to denounce, in a “scholarly and gentleman like” tone, the most egregious social injustice of the day— slavery.
The founders had their differences (Holmes, for one, was notoriously impatient with Emerson’s “Oriental” meanderings), but they agreed on three things: American writers must be supported, slavery must be abolished, and at times readers must be damned. And so, the author of “American Scholar” gave voice to “Brahma”:3
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.
In the Atlantic number 1, this pithy celebration of nonduality— “shadow and sunlight are the same”—followed three other poems, all Emerson’s, and it stands out from the group for its austerity. “Brahma” eschews the exoticism of “The Romany Girl” (which is about a Gypsy beauty) and “Days” (where time marches like “barefoot dervishes”) for simple declarative sentences. In it, Emerson managed to compress Brahman, the Absolute, or Supreme Being, whose names, qualities, and powers clutter India’s most sacred texts, into four adamantine verses.
“Brahma” is not so much a poem as a paean to a divinity that more closely resembles gravity, an impersonal, immutable force, than it does the God of the Bible.
Yet if Emerson was making some sort of declaration of his heterodoxy, it was probably lost on readers. Most had no idea who or what Brahma was, didn’t recognize him as part of the Hindu pantheon at all, and, if they did, could justifiably have been confused about his exact identity since, in Emerson’s day, transliterated spellings of certain Sanskrit words were even less standardized than they are today.
The word Brahma sometimes referred to the concept Brahman (as it’s now commonly spelled), the Absolute or Supreme Being “behind and above all the various deities . . . beings, and worlds.” Other times, nearly the same word designated the creator god, who is part of the classic Hindu triad along with Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer.4
The New York Times immediately deemed the poem an “exquisite piece of meaningless versification.” Soon friends and sympathizers came to Emerson’s aid. In mid-November, Walt Whitman published a concise piece in the Brooklyn Daily Times reminding readers of Brahma’s identity (an Indian deity, etc.) and defending the poem. Not long after, the Brooklyn Eagle quoted an obscure periodical that had excerpted “a passage from the Mahabharata, similar both in thought and in phrasing,” to “Brahma.”5
But even after Brahma’s identity was revealed—Emerson’s poem clearly referenced the Absolute—newspapers and magazines across the country continued to mercilessly deride it. Twenty-six parodies were written in just the first month after the poem’s publication, and these were frequently reprinted over the next year.6
It hardly mattered to Emerson. His repudiations of “sacraments, supernaturalism, biblical authority, and of Christianity,” in the words of one of his most ardent followers, had electrified audiences from Maine to Minneapolis for two decades. Irreverence was his stock-in-trade, and it had made him famous. By the time “Brahma” appeared, he was an icon of independent thinking in a country proud of its independence. In Emerson’s hands, “Brahma” was American.7
Whitman once said of Emerson, “Even when he falls on stony ground he somehow eventuates in a harvest.”8
Since its appearance in 1857, “Brahma” has helped spur a centuryand-a-half-long engagement with Hinduism. The yield has been plentiful and varied: American translations of Sanskrit texts, the philosophy of William James, new academic specialties, and, more to the point, an American yoga.
That Emerson himself was indifferent to yoga makes him no less central to its assimilation here. Yoga is connected to a host of philosophies as well as competing and even contradictory metaphysics; it encompasses varied practices and is technically a part of three “world religions”: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Steered by his own family toward Hinduism, Emerson steered Americans toward a specific understanding of yoga even though the discipline didn’t really interest him. Just as the computer scientists who built ARPANET created the conditions for Google without ever having anticipated it, Emerson created the conditions for an American yoga.
Like many Boston Unitarians and intellectuals of his era, Emerson’s father, the Reverend William Emerson, was an armchair Orientalist (an eighteenth-century term applied to anyone who studied or wrote about Oriental cultures).
William Emerson was one of the founders of the Monthly Anthology, which published Sir William Jones’s translation of a famous Hindu play— Sacontalá; or, The Fatal Ring—in 1805. When William Emerson died six years later, he left his wife and three young sons (Ralph, Edward, and Charles) a library that included several major works on India and its religious culture.9
Together, the Emerson family would read J. Priestly’s Heathen Philosophy or Elizabeth Hamilton’s Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah: Written Previous to, and during the period of his residence in England, an evening’s fireside entertainment and edification.10
These were groundbreaking books. As late as 1785, Western research into Indian religion was, in the words of the infamous Warren Hastings, then governor-general of Bengal, still very much “a wide and unexplored field of fruitful knowledge.”
Colonial administrators and British missionaries were among the first to sally forth into this intellectual wilderness. But they were hobbled by the usual barriers that confront anyone trying to translate elements of one culture into another. There was the problem of language, of course. There was also the presumption, shared by clergymen and colonizers alike, that the Enlightenment had left India behind.
For those who could find ways around the first two, more slippery problems awaited them. The first was the temptation to refer to a wide variety of practices and beliefs as a coherent, defined religion. Many missionaries succumbed, and most described what they saw as either heathenism or, more respectfully, Brahmanism or Hinduism.11
Another problem, related to this, was the belief that if you could rightly point to something called Brahmanism, it would function much like Christianity and Judaism did in Western society: it was textually based, was geared toward salvation, and made claims to universal truth.
This was an understandable but grave error.
To assimilate something is to conform it to your own worldview.
To see the varied beliefs and practices of India through the prism of
“world religion” was to assimilate these activities before even describing them.12
As for yoga, early interlocutors who considered it at all tended to dismiss it as uncouth.
Take the Reverend William Ward. Unlike most of his peers, he did extensive firsthand research in addition to consulting with native pundits and English Sanskritists. He refrained from using the word heathenism or heathens to describe his subject.
Still, he was dismissive of their practices.13
“A most singular ceremony, called yogu ̆ ,” he writes in the introduction to his widely read, three-volume exposition of the history, literature, and mythology of the Hindus, “is said to have been practiced by ascetics to prepare them for absorption” into Brahman. Several pages later he added, “The absurdity and impiety of the opinions upon which the practices of these yogeˉeˉs are founded, need not be exposed: the doctrine which destroys all accountability to the Creator, and removes all that is criminal in immortality, must be condemned by every good man.”14
When they read books about the Orient, the Emersons favored travel tales or extracts from Orientalist tracts. As a boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson also read translations of “Hindoo” scriptures, pressed upon him by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson.
Mary Moody, the Reverend William Emerson’s sister, was a voracious and intrepid reader, who took the Emerson brothers’ education seriously. Emerson considered her something of a visionary.15
She directed him to Rammohun Roy’s translation of the Ishopanishad and indulged his early dismissals of Roy and his religion.16
At Harvard, Emerson also read a variety of Oriental texts. No professorships in Sanskrit or Asian religions existed yet in America, but the output of European Orientalists, most famously the philologists William Jones, H. T. Colebrooke, and Charles Wilkins, had substantially increased since the turn of the nineteenth century. These experts, who lived in India and by day worked as British civil servants, had a more sympathetic relationship to the country and its traditions—textual, spiritual, ritual— than the missionaries had. They strived to present Indian thought in context, and to do so, they learned to read Sanskrit (which, at least in Jones’s case, they’d translate into Latin before rendering it into English). They quickly disseminated their knowledge via the Asiatic Society of Bengal.17
Emerson read Sir William Jones’s memoirs as well as scores of articles on Indian culture and history in journals such as the Edinburgh Review. One was a review of William Ward’s book, which struck Emerson with its descriptions of India’s “immense ‘goddery’” and the “squalid and desperate ignorance” of Asians, as he remarked in his journal. He also rather viciously denigrated “Yoguees of Hindostan” in these pages. Having never encountered one, he deemed them morally and mentally diseased and unrivaled “in their extravagancies and practices of self-torture.”18
After graduation, Emerson’s journal entries related to Hinduism multiplied, and his reading list on the subject slowly grew. Eventually, Emerson, who was by then going by the name Waldo, warmed up to some of the books that had fascinated his aunt, including Roy’s translation of the Ishopanishad.
Rammohun Roy, a Bengali of Brahmin caste, was one of the few Indians publishing works in English in the early nineteenth century, but he was hardly a dispassionate translator; he was deeply troubled by “Hindoo idolatry” as well as the temples built and ceremonies performed to propitiate “innumerable gods and goddesses” and believed his countrymen had lost sight of the true meaning of the Vedas, the scriptural bedrock of “Hinduism.”
He was also probably the first “Hindu” to have used the word Hinduism (in 1816), and the term gained in popularity over the nineteenth century. Like Brahmanism, Hinduism elides all sorts of philosophical, theological, and metaphysical disputes, not to mention diverse rituals. As noted above, that Hinduism might be encapsulated in its scriptures is already an imposition of Western conceptions of religion.19
This approach served Roy’s broader argument that the Upanishads, which together constitute Vedanta, espoused a gospel of monotheism. Roy assigned himself the task of demonstrating this to the world, which made him popular with New England’s liberal Christians. (He also helped set up the first Unitarian Mission in Calcutta, in 1821; this and his pamphlet “The Principles of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness” incited controversy amid India’s Trinitarians, which further endeared him to American Unitarians.)20
The Ishopanishad, in Roy’s view, was a particularly powerful counterweight to descriptions such as Ward’s, which detailed the objects of Hindu worship: besides 333 million gods and goddesses, there were “beings in strange shapes,” “beasts,” “birds,” “rivers,” and “a log of wood.”21
The bulk of the Ishopanishad circles around the Supreme Spirit, heaping adjectives and qualities upon him even though he supposedly defies apprehension. “He pervades the internal and external parts of the whole universe”; and he is “one unchangeable” who seems “to move everywhere, although he in reality has no motion. . . . He overspreads all creatures. . . . He is pure, perfect, omniscient, the ruler of the intellect, omnipresent, and the self-existent.”22
This is Brahman, a God transcendent—it’s both everything at once and yet completely independent of all that it’s supposed to be.
With any idea of the divine as one and unified, questions arise: If everything is God and it’s all the same stuff, why do we see the world as made up of all sorts of different objects and beings? To which Vedanta answers, the world isn’t really separate and distinct. We just see it that way. Vast cataracts of ignorance cloud our vision. Ultimately, there is no difference between the pitch pine and the sumac, the rhododendron and the bulrushes, the copperhead and the pickerel, your neighbor and yourself. All mask the infinite, eternal, immutable soul of the universe. As for Jesus Christ, he also partakes of the Supreme Being; however, to say that the Supreme Being was a man, even a divine one, and not everything else at the same time would be to limit the infinite, which is like trying to pour the ocean into a cup.
The Katha Upanishad (at least as translated by Roy) expresses a similar unitary conception of the divine: “As fire, although one in essence, on becoming visible in the world appears in various forms and shapes, according to its different locations, so God, the soul of the universe, though one, appears in various modes . . . and like space, extends over all.”23
Call it pantheism or the philosophy of identity or a brand of idealism, Emerson’s church-bred convictions didn’t stop him from absorbing, and later transmitting, this idea. At the time, it moved him so much he added a fragment from Sir William Jones’s “A Hymn to Narayena” to the end of several pages of musings on God:
. . . “Of dew-bespangled leaves and blossoms bright Hence! vanish from my sight,
Delusive pictures; unsubstantial shews!
My soul absorbed, one only Being knows,
Of all perceptions, one abundant source, Hence every object, every moment flows, Suns hence drive their force,
Hence planets learn their course;
But suns and fading worlds I view no more, God only I perceive, God only I adore!”24
Most of Emerson’s contemporaries wouldn’t have recognized the God who appears in the “fine pagan strains” he cribbed from Sir William Jones’s poem. Gone was the stern Father of the Universe, gone was the loving son who suffered for our sins. Gone too was God as “an all communicating Parent” (in the words of one Unitarian minister). Gone also were flowers and leaves, the earth itself. The remnants? An absorbing force that hurtles us forward.25
Emerson quoted the “Hymn” in 1821. Similar ideas surfaced in his work, but slowly, like mountains arising from the movement of tectonic plates, after nearly another twenty years of reading and writing. And it would be another decade after that before Emerson celebrated Indian thought overtly.
In 1842, John Pickering, William Jenks, J. J. Dixwell, and a few others founded the American Oriental Society. The three main founders were Harvard alumni, and the society was based in Boston.26
The AOS, an exemplar of the American impulse to form associations, as Tocqueville had so recently put it, particularly when they wished “to advance some truth,” defined the “Orient” expansively: it encompassed Egypt, Iran, Africa, Asia Minor, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Japan as well as several Pacific islands. By studying these varied places and cultures, the AOS sought to “furnish some useful additions . . . for the complete ethnography of the globe.” Language was the key to its whole project.27
The founders, and certainly Pickering, also thought America had an edge. A lawyer and philologist, Pickering had turned down two professorships, the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages and the Eliot Professorship of Greek Literature, both at Harvard. He considered the English only middling linguists and ethnographers, and he was convinced the Americans, whose missions were particularly active when it came to native language and literature, could do better.28
Despite its broad definition of the Orient, the AOS spent a disproportionate amount of its energies on India and Hinduism, especially in relation to other Asian countries, and made deciphering Sanskrit scriptures one of its first orders of business.29
As was often still the case when it came to this subject, New England missionaries, clergymen, and theologians were most committed to the organization and its goals. They formed the bulk of the society’s membership, dominated its leadership, and contributed nearly half of the articles published in its journal until after the Civil War. Through the American Oriental Society, these men (and they were all men) brought Hinduism— and yoga—that much closer to the rest of the country.30
Emerson too was delving ever deeper into Indian thought. Since leaving his pastorate at the Second Church in 1832, he had become a successful lecturer, published two books to good reviews, and had, with Margaret Fuller and others, founded The Dial in 1840. In its brief life
span, the small literary periodical ran American translations of several Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. The Dial was the Transcendentalists’ house organ, and it reflected the group’s fascination with Oriental literature.
Around this time, Emerson read the Vishnu Puruna and the Sankhya Karika. And he owned one of the only editions in the Boston area of Sir Charles Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad-Gita.31
With increasing frequency and conviction, Emerson began to insert Hindu ideas and images from his reading into his essays and poetry.32
Today, thanks to the assiduous work of scholars and Emersonians, you can trace how a translation of a particular text wended its way into American literature. In the case of the Bhagavad-Gita, you can almost see assimilation as it happened.
Emerson acquired the Wilkins Bhagavad-Gita in 1843. That June he wrote Miss Elizabeth Hoar, “The only other event is the arrival in Concord of the Bhagavat Gıta, the much renowned book of Buddhism, extracts from which I have often admired, but never before held the book in my hands.” (It was not a Buddhist book, and his confusion shows just how new this field of knowledge was in America.)33
The Wilkins translation he had got his hands on was first published in 1785 and remains one of the most well-known products of the entire Orientalist enterprise, which was, whatever its shortcomings, to make Asian texts and culture accessible to Westerners.
Wilkins began his career as a writer for the East India Company in 1770 and mastered Sanskrit in his spare time. However, when he decided to translate the Bhagavad-Gita, he quickly realized language alone wouldn’t be enough to pry open this scripture.34
One of the most formidable obstacles he faced in putting the Gita’s more than seven hundred verses into fairly lucid English was its subject, which is “highly metaphysical.”
In fact, the Bhagavad-Gita is only one small part of the Mahabharata, an epic poem that’s often compared to the Iliad.
This part of the story, which is difficult to date but was probably composed between the fifth and fourth century b.c.e. and added to later, takes place on the dusty plains of Kuru, where warring factions are poised to fight.35
After years of exile, the five Pandava brothers, led by the mighty bowman Arjuna, have come to win back their rightful throne; their enemies are cousins, teachers, and kinsmen. This troubles Arjuna, who stalls midbattlefield. Krishna, his charioteer and teacher, berates him and exhorts him to enter the fray, to no avail. Horses snort and strain at their reins, stray arrows whistle across the front lines, but Arjuna doesn’t budge until after the last of the Gita’s verses is spoken.
Though Wilkins called the text “Dialogues of Kre ̆ e ̆ shna ̆ and A ̆ rjo ̆ o ̆ n,” the literal translation of Bhagavad-Gita is “Lord’s song.” Historically, it had been sung. But to any American who got hold of it, Wilkins’s Gita, rendered in prose, not verse, read more like a divine monologue, in which Krishna expounds a metaphysics and philosophy, a spiritual rationale if you will, for action in this world, even violent action. Arjuna’s dilemma— lives are quite literally at stake, he is pausing on the battlefield!—charges Krishna’s highly abstract exposition with drama and emotion.
Krishna’s message is this: Know me. With this knowledge, you can murder without sinning. Without it, worship will pin you to the wheel of existence.
Some consider the Bhagavad-Gita the first full-fledged yoga scripture. Krishna doesn’t just tell Arjuna he must know him; he tells him how to do this, and the method he offers is yoga. The Gita is an elaboration of yoga as a route to divine knowledge, to God figured as Krishna. In the short postscripts that close each chapter, the text refers to itself as a yoga sha ̄stra (yogic teaching) as well as an Upanishad.36
Whether or not it’s the first, the Gita is certainly more preoccupied with yoga than most works that preceded it.37
But in it, yoga is not any single practice; Krishna describes several types. There’s meditation, and there’s the yoga of devotion (Bhakti Yoga) and of selfless action (Karma Yoga), among others. All lead to Brahman’s “supreme abode.”38
To further complicate matters, the term yoga confounded Wilkins, and when he was first confronted by it in the Bhagavad-Gita, he threw up his hands. “Yog.—There is no word in the Sanskreˉeˉt language that will bear so many interpretations as this,” Wilkins writes in a long footnote. “It’s first significance is junction or union. It is also used for bodily or mental application; but in this work it is generally used as a theological term, to express the application of mind in spiritual things, and the performance of religious ceremonies.”39
Wilkins goes on to say that devotion will be a serviceable synonym and enthusiastically purges yog from much of the rest of the text, which is quite a feat.
About two years after he finally got hold of Wilkins’s translation, Emerson wrote what would become the first lines of “Brahma” in his journal. They were a direct response, nearly phrase for phrase, to Wilkins’s Gita. In Lecture II, when Krishna is trying to convince Arjuna to fight, he explains, “The man who believeth that it is the soul which killeth, and he who thinketh that the soul may be destroyed, are both alike deceived; for it neither killeth, nor is it killed.”40 Emerson wrote:
What creature slayeth or is slain?
What creature saves or {is} saved is? {brings or reaches
{Each loses or}
His life {each} will either lose{s} or gain{s},
As he shall follow{s} {good}harm or {evil}bliss.
A decade later, in 1855, the rest of the poem came to him. “Brahma” appears as an exhalation of verse between long paragraphs copied out of the Upanishads. (And it’s here that Emerson makes it clear to whom, or what, he’s referring. He writes, quoting the Katha Upanishad, “The word is Om. This sound means Brahma, means the supreme.”)42
These later verses also riff on passages in the Gita. “I am the sacrifice; I am the worship . . . ,” sings Krishna, and “he also is my beloved servant . . . to whom praise and blame are one.”
“And one to me are shame and fame,” wrote Emerson. “. . . I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.”
Around the time he completed “Brahma,” Emerson had created a mini-dictionary of Sanskrit terms in his Notebook Orientalist, one of several topical notebooks he had begun in the 1850s. Emerson primarily used this particular notebook for translations of Persian poetry and for final drafts of a handful of poems that may or may not have had an Oriental theme.43
The brief Sanskrit glossary Emerson transcribed begins with the word Avatar, which he defines as “Manifestation.” Farther down the page, Yoga is defined simply as “the effort to unite with the Deity. Concentration. See Roer, p. 117.
Several other references to yoga are in the Notebook, clumped together a few pages later, which add little to this initial definition and again refer to Roer, a well-known Indologist and member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, who translated numerous Upanishads and other works from Sanskrit.44
Roer touched on yoga in several places. Yoga, he averred, is a technique, or “appliances,” which include “keeping the body erect, taking and exhaling breath according to certain rules, selection of a quiet place, &c., &c.” The aim is to subjugate the senses and the mind, necessary preconditions for receiving the “highest knowledge.”
In May 1857, two months after the Supreme Court decided Dred Scott was neither a citizen nor a free man, a newly enthusiastic Moses D. Phillips convened the dinner now celebrated as the birthday of the Atlantic.45
Emerson was there, along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, James R. Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and a few others.46
Lowell accepted the editorship of the new magazine, and at a later dinner Holmes christened it. The name suggested trade between the New and Old Worlds, and, as Phillips had noted, each of the founding contributors “was known alike on both sides of the Atlantic.”47
But another name had been ventured, this one by an employee of Phillips, Sampson and Company’s—The Orient.48
For Emerson, the word was laden with significance. Upon reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the first time in 1855, an awed Emerson noted that he found the book “so extraordinary for its oriental largeness of generalization.”49
Emerson also ascribed frivolity and excess to the “Orient” and “Asia,” the way a parent might describe her child as defiant, a defiance of which she is secretly proud. “Mine Asia” was the nickname Emerson gave to his second wife, Lydia Jackson, explaining, “No New Englander that he knew had ever possessed such a depth of feeling that was continually called out on such trivial occasions.”50
In Emerson’s imagination, the Orient recalibrated the particulars of reality, deepening, intensifying, and expanding these until they became another order of thing.
Although Holmes’s more patriotic name won the day, Emerson hoped the Atlantic would possess a “largeness of generalization.” He saw it as nothing less than a new type of bible.51
Emerson’s optimism was rewarded. The Atlantic’s first few issues, which cost twenty-five cents or three dollars for a year’s subscription, sold out printings of twenty thousand. And by 1859, more than half of its circulation was “foreign,” which meant these issues were mailed out of state; many were distributed in the Midwest, to small towns in Ohio and smaller ones in Minnesota. There, the Atlantic became a badge of cosmopolitanism.52
“Brahma,” though, was considered something of a joke, at best.53
“His poetry is called transcendental,” Mohammed Pacha wrote huffily in the Boston Daily Advertiser in 1859, “because it transcends the comprehension of everybody except the men and women of Boston.”
Emerson was more amused than dismayed by readers’ confusion; at the time, he suggested they substitute the word Jehovah for Brahma.54
Even Lowell, Emerson’s good friend and editor, and the man responsible for “Brahma”’s public debut, was mildly chagrined by the poem. “What the deuse have we to do with Brahma?” he wondered aloud a few years after its publication, in a review of Emerson’s Conduct of Life. “We will only say that we have found grandeur and consolation in a starlit night without caring to ask what it meant . . . and as for Brahma, why, he can take care of himself and won’t bite us at any rate.”55
Others saw in “Brahma” a deft articulation of key ideas in Indian philosophy and a succinct description of yoga and, in making this case, coupled yoga more firmly to Hinduism, at least in American literature.
William T. Harris, a renowned educator and philosopher, concluded a lengthy disquisition, “Oriental Philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita,” which appeared in The Western, by noting, “The substance of all of these [quotations from the Gita and Sankhya Karika] and much more can be found in Emerson’s ‘Brahma,’ a poem that condenses the Yoga doctrine into four short verses, and furnishes a surprising contrast to the tedious recapitulation in oriental literature.”56
For a while, Emerson’s reputation as an assimilator of Oriental thought was still in play.
The American Oriental Society honored Emerson, who had become a Corporate member in 1860 and had passed away the month before, at their May 24, 1882, meeting, noting, “We were permitted and called upon to bear our part, along with all America and the whole civilized world, in homage to the genius and illustrious character Emerson.”57
Many Indian thinkers had an equally exalted view of the man, claiming a sort of spiritual brotherhood. Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, head of the Brahmo Samaj, an offshoot of the reform organization founded by Rammohun Roy, described Brahmanism as “a state of being rather than a creed” and deemed Emerson “the best of Brahmins.” (Mozoomdar exaggerated. Brahmanism would have been as antithetical to Emerson’s “original relation to the universe” as Christianity since he believed adopting any faith or doctrine to be akin to spiritual suicide.)58
At the same time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, doctor, professor at Harvard Medical School, and author, worked hard to promote the image of Emerson as a prototypical American intellectual, reassuring readers that his dear friend was Yankee at the core and his interest in the Orient purely aesthetic.
Lest “Brahma” had fooled anyone, Holmes insisted in his 1885 biography, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poem was one of Emerson’s “spiritual divertissements” and not to be taken too seriously.59
That view didn’t hold up over time. Later students of Emerson’s Oriental influences (a subspecies of Emersonians) combed through the historical record and found it impossible to rescue the poet-philosopher from his Hindu preoccupations.
In the most famous of these efforts, The Orient in American Transcendentalism, published in 1932, Arthur Christy reconstructed an exhaustive chronology of every book from or about Asia and the Middle East Emerson ever read based on his journals, letters, book collection, and borrowing records from Harvard College Library and the Boston Athenaeum. Christy’s labors weren’t in vain. His book marshaled enough evidence to counter any claim that Emerson had brought back only trinkets and cloud castles from his mental journeys to India.


  1. Baron Better Half is a radiant and devoted practitioner of the exercise regimen - alright, she's all in across the entire Ouevre, as it were... For the most part, the affect is transparent, save for dinner, where we are obliged to wash hands, say grace, and then laboriously move, creak, turn and wiggle into and assume the lotus position before eating...

    Sorely conflicted,


  2. Always good to hear from you, Herr Baron!

    Somewhere in my notes is a quote from Ananda Coomaraswamy about the great religions being like paths up a large mountain. At the base, the roads to the top seem far apart, but they all converge at the summit.
    "I am convinced that the human cultures in all their apparent diversity are but the dialects of one and the same language of the spirit, that there is a common universe of discourse transcending the differences of tongues."
    Emerson (and Pico della Mirandola) would have liked him.

    1. I love your quote. Thanks so much for sharing that vision of unity. When we look around the world with all of its religious and political strife, its cruelty and selfishness, it is often so disheartening. As Johnny Mercer said, it's time to "accentuate the positive!"

  3. Though I'm relatively late to the party, I've been "practicing" yoga for a couple of years now. I've decided a few things... 1) I will never be flexible. 2) I'm officially "that sweaty dude" when I do Bikram. 3) I wouldn't trade it for the world:) Cobra pose alone has changed my life!

    1. Employers are crazy not to offer it. Even 15 minutes at lunch would pep people up, cut down on back pain, and make things run smoother.

  4. I practice at a yoga studio just a block from work at least one day a week at lunchtime--great break during work!

  5. I love yoga! I have never taken a "real" class, but I know enough yoga instructors to have unofficial practice. There are a lot of great healing positions for a variety of ailments, it's really nice feeling better with so little work!

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