The 19th-century writer drank deeply from the Vedas, lived in
communion with nature and advocated a life of mystical simplicity
The unlikely hermit stole a spot in the woods, built a cabin, stilled his mind and burrowed into nature. By day, whippoorwill melodies drifted through the tranquil glen. At dusk, bullfrogs bellowed deafening nocturnes. Slowly a higher presence embraced the solitary advances of the kindly Lincolnesque form, yielding a flurry of pristine secrets. By the time he died at 44, with two million words quilled in broad journals, Henry David Thoreau had softly cracked nature’s subtlest codes and thundered forth his primal civil command—obey conscience first, society second. Half a century later, curled up in a dank South African jail cell, a persecuted Mahatma Gandhi nursed himself on Walden—Thoreau’s nature odyssey—and sealed the fate of India’s independence studying a copy of Thoreau’s Duty of Civil Disobedience, the germ spark of his satyagraha (tenacity in truth) campaign.
Around the globe, the soulful ruminations of the son of a New England pencil-maker spread. Thoreau knew well that his works were a mere echo of a true, unfathomable divine order, and recognized that Hindu scripture hugged this perception as dearly as he. He assiduously probed Hindu writings borrowed from Harvard’s library. The contours of his driftwood bookshelves were lined with Upanishads and other Indian treasures which he read again and again: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the Gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial. Even our Shakespeare seems sometimes youthfully green.”
Uninterested in the separate-from-man-and-nature God of the Occidentals, he allied his deepest sympathies with the “gods of the Orient.” He once shared: “The Hindu Laws of Manu comes to me with such a volume of sound as if it had swept unobstructed to me over the plains of Hindustan, and when my eye rests on yonder birches, or the sun in the water, or the shadows of the trees, it seems to signify the laws of them all. They are the laws of you and me, a fragrance wafted down from those old times and no more to be refuted than the wind.”
He identified with the austere lifestyles of the rishis: “One may discover the root of the Hindu religion in one’s own private history, when, in the silent intervals of the day or the night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with a stern satisfaction.”
Thoreau was born in 1818 in a chipmunk of a town: Concord, Massachusetts. Though Christian by count, this homely Atlantic seaboard region spawned an unusual tribe of Orientalized minds that America later proudly identified as Transcendentalists. This loose metaphysical brotherhood of brilliant, highly educated writers—including Ralph Waldo Emerson andlater compatriot Walt Whitman—were versed in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian thought. Like a band of divine blacksmiths sent from inner worlds, they pounded on society’s repressive puritanical mind-set, working to refashion it back to some semblance of America’s embryonic vision: individual freedom, abhorrence of enslavement and reverence for a mystical, undoctrinaire approach to God. The anvil ring of their message echoes today through every high school and college in America. India fondly adopted the Transcendentalists as kindred souls, especially Thoreau. Every English-medium-educated Indian boy or girl studied his classic weapon of nonviolence, Duty of Civil Disobedience. Walden’s meditative message has such a strong Indian appeal, it has been translated into Tamil, Gujarati, Telegu, Malayalam, Hindi, Kannada and Bengali.
Thoreau was junior to Emerson by 14 years, but the two were very close. It was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau built his immortalized Walden Pond cabin. But Emerson scolded Thoreau for lacking ambition, coaxing him to shoulder more of the literary burden of their clandestine mission to reform America’s stiff mentality. He railed one day at the incontrovertible introvert: “Instead of being the head of American Engineers, you are captain of a huckleberry party.”
Thoreau ignored the lifelong spur and maintained an icy dispassion to all self-conscious, master-minded literary strategies to recompass America’s future. Lack of fame also failed to concern him. “I have now a library of 900 books, over 700 of which I wrote myself,” he once said jesting about a heap of his unsold books.
He and Emerson were invited to join Brook Farm, the commune and heady vortex of the Transcendentalist movement. Both declined. The idea disgusted Thoreau: “I would rather keep bachelors’ hall in hell than go to board in heaven! I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. A man thinking or working is always alone.”
When Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he took up the occupation of his three brothers and sisters—teaching. That job lasted barely a semester. Asked to flog one of his students, he refused, left and started his own school, Concord Academy. At Harvard he had seen everything he hated about schooling in his day—intellectually dehydrated professors, mind-dulling recitation and a police-state behavioral demerit system. His school was the opposite—coeducational, free tuition for the poor, no flogging and discipline maintained by an honor code. Discussion was encouraged, and classroom walls often evaporated as field trips took the students to dig for Native American relics, visit craft shops and plunge deep into the woods where Thoreau taught his specialty—nature. But his brother’s illness forced him to close the school after two years.
Thoreau’s shyness and intense inner life would certainly not make him a popular figure or a leader of any sort. His grey, owlish eyes gazed more inward than out. “He is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and somewhat rustic, though with courteous manners,” American author and Concordian Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of his bearded dinner guest of August 31, 1842. Hawthorne’s wife Sophia was kinder: “He is gentle, simple, ruddy, and meek, as all geniuses should be. How his great blue eyes fairly outshine and put into a shade that nose I once thought must make him uncomely forever!” Yet the photo on the previous page was commissioned by a reader who, entranced with the first edition of Walden, sent a photographer to register the remarkable man behind the words.
Regular townsfolk acknowledged him less and tagged him an “idle fellow”—a rank insult in those proud pioneering days. Getting himself published was irregular at best. Needing steady income, he worked for his father making pencils and ink compounds and finally settled on working three days a week as a surveyor. The other four he walked, climbed mountains, canoed, idled with true dedication and kept his journal. “I lived like the Puri indians, of whom it is said that for yesterday, today and tomorrow they have only one word—pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow and overhead for the passing day. This was sheer idleness to my fellow townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.”
He considered his cabinside pond “at least as sacred as the Ganges” and one morning visualized: “Now I go for water, and while there I meet the servant of the Brahmin priest of Brahma, Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas.” Thoreau’s reverence for ancient wisdom and the sacredness of creation often stretched out to the Gods themselves. Thoreau had his own personal form of prayer: “This journal, I must not live for it, but in it for the Gods. They are my correspondents, to whom daily I send off this sheet postpaid. I am a clerk in their counting room and at evening transfer the accounts from day-book to ledger. It is as a leaf which hangs over my head in the path. I bend the twig and write my prayers on it; then letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven.” Enraptured by the power of contemplation, he wrote with the mellowed voice of a Vedic forest sage: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in such undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and forsaking of work.”
Thoreau’s treasured jewels
The post office notified Mr. Thoreau that some large wooden crates had arrived for him. The lean and bearded wordsmith marched down Concord’s muddy main street and claimed the unexpected items. The year, 1855. As he pried off the lids, his opalescent blue eyes dilated. Inside glittered “jewels,” 44 volumes of Hindu scriptures—Rig Veda, Mundaka Upanishad, Nala Damyanta, Vishnu Purana, Shankya Karika, Aphorism of the Mimamsa, Aphorisms of the Nyaya, Bhagavad Gita and more. Bliss. This was more exciting than getting a favorable review of Walden in a Boston paper, or listening to a summer squall thunder through a muggy afternoon or receiving a letter from his only close female friend, Lydia Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s handsome wife. Immediately, like a priest installing a Deity, he created a special shelf out of driftwood for his Hindu treasures. Now Vedic wisdom, like heady soma juice, was on tap in Thoreau’s private writing den. He began to imbibe from each, but within a few days announced, “Of them all, the Rig Veda is the most savory I have yet tasted.”
It was during his student days at Harvard, in dusty library aisles, that Thoreau first discovered the Upanishads. They were sunlight to the footloose literary giant. They resonated with the advaitic mind strata that he personally accessed through his own woodsy, contemplative lifestyle. His Asian leanings mushroomed over the years. Eventually, the self-styled forest sage wrote in his Journal that his beloved fish and frog pond Walden sometimes seemed like the sacred Ganges. He further imagined his $28.47 self-built waterside cabin a typical rishi’s hermitage and himself a dhoti-clad brahmin. Though literate in four languages and versed in the scriptures of many religions, he assessed, “It happens that I am better acquainted with those of the Hindus, Chinese and Persians than of the Hebrews” and soberly suggested a new Bible, filled two-thirds with Buddhist and Hindu verse. Thoreau fondly quoted Hindu writings in his works and harped on the need of “establishing himself in the consciousness of the Atman, always.”
Unmarried, abstinent, Thoreau identified easily with the Indian yogi. Villagers said he could sit motionless for eight hours just watching duck eggs hatch. “He knew how to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits, nay, moved by curiosity, should come to him and watch,” Emerson shared. “Free in this world as the birds in the air,” Thoreau wrote, “disengaged from every kind of chain—those who practice the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruit of their works. I would [gladly] practice yoga faithfully. The yogi absorbed in concentration contributes in this degree to creation. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him. To some extent and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi. If I am not a modern Hindu, we are near neighbors.” His mystical senses were clearly awakened by his solitary sojourn. “I find myself in perfect connection with nature, and the perception, or remembrance even, of any natural phenomena is attended with a gentle pleasurable excitement… Each man’s necessary path, though as obscure and apparently uneventful as that of a beetle in the grass, is the way to the deepest joys he is susceptible of; though he converses only with moles and fungi and disgraces his relatives, it is no matter if he knows what is steel to his flint… Pursue, keep up with, circle ’round and ’round your life as a dog does his master’s chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. Be not simply good. Be good for something.”
Thoreau abjured alcohol, coffee and meat. “I believe that every man earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food.” However he exempts the sage who has “true faith in the Omnipresent Supreme Being and may eat all that exists.” He prized a pruned lifestyle. “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three and keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” His test of yogic detachment (vairagya) came one parched fall afternoon. A spark from his campfire ignited dry grass and then engulfed the nearby woods. Thoreau ran to alert Concord. There was nothing anyone could do. Thoreau gravely pondered his next move—wallow in guilt or watch. He quickly raced up a near hilltop and spent the afternoon watching nature magnificently consume in ruby, crimson and green flames the woods he loved probably more than anyone. He wrote later the day was one of his fullest.
Gandhi’s political inspiration
One day in London, in the frustrating pursuit of a vegetarian meal, Thoreau’s biographer, Henry Salt, met with Mohandas K. Gandhi and asked: “How influenced were you by Thoreau?” Gandhi smiled like he had been asked how influential his mother had been. Greatly influenced, he said right off, adding that he knew passages from Civil Disobedience like his own pulse. He shared that he especially admired the sage’s austere lifestyle and obstinate dedication to freedom—personal, civil and spiritual. He added that all his study always left him “feeling the need of knowing more of Thoreau.” It was a worn-out copy of Civil Disobedience that Gandhi repeatedly took with him to jail during his turbulent years in South Africa fighting for Indian rights. “Like his salt-making and his hand-spinning, civil disobedience was [one of the key] symbols Gandhi shared,” notes author Sujit Mukherjee. Gandhi later told an American journalist that he named his movement Satyagraha (tenacity in truth) after reading Civil Disobedience. Gandhi’s Indian commune near Durban, the Phoenix Settlement, was inspired by Walden Pond, as well as by the works of Tolstoy. “Noble villages of men,” Thoreau had advised. Gandhi took the Thoreauvian ideals of frugal self-sufficiency, vegetarianism and the sacred value of manual, not mechanized, labor and planted them in South Africa, and later back in India.
Today, the solitary fellow “who frequently tramped eight or ten miles to keep an appointment with a beech or yellow birch” is read throughout India as one of America’s greatest authors. This is certainly true: Thoreau’s writing is unparalleled in vision and craft, each sentence chiseled with a sculptor’s feel. But the older, Independence-generation Indians value Thoreau as he would have preferred—for his Vivekananda-like, Kshatriya disdain for servitude.
Hindus treasure Thoreau’s fondness for Hindu writings and admire how he made them part of his inner quest. Even deeper and broader, he remains to all a universal teacher of the joy of stillness and oneness with nature. For everyone who has at some time felt they were sadly party to the mass of humanity “leading lives of quiet desperation” (as Thoreau surmised), the soulful musings of the woodsy yogi always sparkle. Like clear water from a magical mountain spring, his infectious joy revitalizes nerves worn dull by over-civilizing and reawakens the child-like capacities for wonder and awe, too often trampled on or traded in for “adulthood.” ∏π