Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"The Best of Brahmans": India Reading Emerson Reading India

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"The Best of Brahmans": India Reading Emerson Reading India

Article excerpt

Critics in the past have tended to conceive Emerson's well-known interests in classical Hindu literature, philosophy, and religion as antiquarian and politically neutral. A close examination of his reading of selected Hindu texts, together with selected subsequent readings of Emerson by representative Hindus, suggests that this is not the case: both were deeply conditioned by Anglo-Indian colonial politics and the legacy of British orientalism. Emerson's interest in classical Hindu literature followed a trajectory from the condescending dismissal of his adolescent years to the enthusiastic approbation subsequent to his reading of the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnu Purana in 1845. At all periods, however, his conception of India was shaped by the regnant discourse of European orientalism, as evinced particularly in his penchant for conceiving classical Indian society in perennialist Romantic terms as the cradle of civilization, and his uncritical utilization of the familiar Kiplingesque dichotomy of East versus West. Although such conceptions have sometimes been seen by cultural critics in unilateral terms--"imposed solely by Europeans upon helpless colonial subjects"--ironically they were also employed by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Hindus as a mode of resistance to English political and cultural domination. In the case of several notable Indian leaders--Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Yogananda, and, in particular, P.C. Majumdar--Emerson's perennialist readings of India were effectively appropriated to privilege the Hindu religious heritage and, at the same time, sanction an emergent discourse of anti-colonialist sentiment and Indian independence. At such points, Emerson becomes a site of contestation, a sort of posthumous pawn, in the larger colonial struggle.

**********

In the winter of 1900, during his second trip to the United States, the noted Hindu religious leader Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) visited Pasadena, California, to deliver two lectures on classical Hindu literature to the local Shakespeare Society. Vivekananda had made his American debut seven years before in 1893 when he addressed the assembled delegates of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago as one of the invited representatives of Hindu India. On that earlier occasion, his immediate objective was clearly to lend his support to the ecumenical spirit of the conference, but as his remarks soon made clear, he was also determined to correct what he considered to be certain invidious Western misconceptions about India and Hindu life. So taken were the delegates by the remarkable eloquence of their till then unknown Indian guest, his apparently limitless erudition, and his compelling advocacy of Hindu religious pluralism, that they quickly conferred upon him a sort of celebrity status. He became the talk of the town, and as the American press caught wind of the excitement, his fame spread. Invitations to lecture filtered in from other parts of the country, and later that year, he embarked on a six-month lecture tour of the Midwest and South. The following spring he spoke at Harvard, and the next summer he presided over a two-week retreat at the Greenacre Summer Conference in Eliot, Maine. After returning to Harvard to lecture on Vedanta philosophy in 1896, he was offered a chair in Eastern philosophy, but politely declined. Underscoring his reputation for wide learning--Vivekananda spoke several languages and was widely read in literature, philosophy, and history--one of his Harvard hosts, Professor of Greek, W.H. Wright, lionized him as a man "more learned than all of our learned professors put together." (1)

When Vivekananda arrived in Pasadena several years later, his reputation had clearly preceded him. On this occasion, he offered two lectures on the Sanskrit epic tradition, and in keeping with the literary interests of his audience, his concern was essentially educational. The second of his two presentations examined the great epic, the Mahabharata, together with the Bhagavad Gita, its most famous section. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.