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East Meets West — An Indo-American Friendship
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, 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." And Marco Polo, it may be remembered, had by then seen many lands, not least China.

"The part of India known as Malabar," Marco Polo had written, "was the richest and noblest country in the world."

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."

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. 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."

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.

* * *

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." 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."


The Great Transcendentalist:
Henry David Thoreau

Emerson and Thoreau are invariably paired as the two leading Transcendentalists. Thoreau was the younger of the two. He was also the more exuberant and impetuous and the more frankly admiring of Vedic thought. There is no record that he read any Indian literature while at Harvard but in Emerson's library he found and read with zest Sir William Jones' translation of The Laws of Manu and was fascinated. In his Journal, he wrote: "That title (Manu)... comes to me with such a volume of sound as if it had swept unobstructed over the plains of Hindustan... They are the laws of you and me, a fragrance wafted from those old times, and no more to be refuted than the wind. When my imagination travels eastward and backward to those remote years of the gods, I seem to draw near to the habitation of the morning, and the dawn at length has a place. I remember the book as an hour before sunrise."

"In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita."


The relationship of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) to Vedic thought is considerably complex. Emerson once described Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a blending of Gita and the New York Herald. In his reminiscing essay, "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1889) Whitman claims to have read "the ancient Hindu poems" and there is enough evidence to show that in 1875 he had received a copy of the Gita as a Christmas present from an English friend, Thomas Dixon.

T.S. Eliot and the
Three Cardinal Virtues

T.S. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis, Missouri, studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948, drew his intellectual sustenance from Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, St. John of the Cross and other Christian mystics, the Greek dramatists, Baudelaire, and the Bhagavad Gita. Over and over again, whether in The Wasteland, Four Quarters, Ash Wednesday or Murder in the Cathedral, the influence of Indian philosophy and mysticism on him is clearly noticeable.

Eliot was a twenty-three year old student at Harvard when he first came across eastern philosophy and religion. What sparked his interest in Vedic thought is not recorded but soon he was occupied with Sanskrit, Pali and the metaphysics of Patanjali. He had also read the Gita and the Upanishads as is clear from the concluding lines of The Waste Land.

The Early American Indologists
The American Oriental Society, founded in 1842 though the study of Sanskrit itself, did not start in American universities until some years later. The first American Sanskrit scholar of any repute was Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901) who taught at Yale (Elihu Yale was himself ultimately connected with India and had profound respect for Vedic philosophy). Elihu Yale was the governor of Madras, India whose financial contribution established Yale University, which was named after him.

In modern times, the influence of India's spiritual thought in America has taken leaps and bounds. Turbulent peace-seeking days of the sixties and seventies opened the doors for alternative thinking, and Spiritual India was welcomed with open arms. Words like dharma and karma have come to be listed in our English dictionaries, and meditation (of some variety) is practiced, or at least attempted, by millions of Americans.

The list of prominent thinkers over the last twenty years who have been profoundly affected by the spiritual precepts of India is too long to mention. In music, in art and in literature, as well as the political arena, the serenity of transcendental thought quietly expanded in humility from the shores of India has had a greater (although subtle) influence on the Americal public than perhaps any of us have yet come to realize.

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