On Thoreau and Vedic Thought
from Back To Godhead Magazine #21-10, 1986
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
From leads obtained during my visit to the Thoreau Lyceum in Concord, Massachusetts, I have now gathered a few more articles and books that link Thoreau’s life and philosophy with the Vedic tradition. My readings have confirmed the feelings I had while at Walden Pond that Thoreau was striving in his own way to practice yoga. Without a bona fide spiritual master, however, he was unable to understand the real goal of yoga.
In an article published in the New England Quarterly (Sept. 1964), Frank Macshane puts together convincing evidence from Thoreau’s writings that Thoreau was heavily influenced by Indian spiritual thought. Macshane claims that most readers think of Thoreau’s Oriental themes as incidental, whereas actually they are at the heart of his life and writings:
[In Walden] there are many overt references to the sacred texts of India, as in, “how much more admirable the Bhagavad-gita than all the ruins of the East!” And Thoreau himself followed certain Hindu customs: “It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India.” … Flute playing, his own and that of John Farmer, is also reminiscent of the God Krishna’s favorite musical pastime. Most significant of all are the many references to the river and the definite equation of Walden Pond with the sacred Ganges.
Macshane argues that Thoreau went into seclusion not with the usual Christian idea of repentance and resignation from life, but with the aim of releasing himself from petty daily affairs to contemplate his personal nature. “What he did,” writes Macshane, “is precisely described in the sixth book of Bhagavad-gita: ‘The yogi should retire into a solitary place and live alone. He must exercise control over his body and mind….’”
“Rude and careless as I am,” Thoreau wrote in his journal, “I would fain practice yoga faithfully.”
Macshane describes the goal of yoga as union with Brahman, or God. He also thinks the Vedic literature teaches one to follow the yoga most fit for one’s nature. He concludes that Thoreau’s interest in Hindu philosophy was monistic and that Thoreau valued the freedom of “following his own inclinations with dignity.”
According to Macshane, Thoreau’s experiment of living by Walden Pond has a sacramental feature, which Thoreau followed in the mood of a yogi:
Every morning he would go down to the pond, for all the world like a Hindu in Benares, for his morning ablutions. This bathing in the lake he characterized as “a religious exercise and one of the best things which I did.”
Macshane depicts Thoreau as a jnana-yogi, due to his intellectual inclinations. He also describes him as a karma-yogi, owing to his renunciation of worldly acts in favor of loftier pursuits. Macshane equates Thoreau’s strict dietary control, solitude, and chastity with the practices of ashtanga-yoga.
Although Macshane has only a vague understanding of bhakti-yoga, he makes an interesting presentation of Thoreau, who was so devoted to nature, as a bhakti- yogi: “Throughout those sections devoted to the pond itself, the animals, the fish, and even the earth, there is a constant note of praise and indeed of worship.”
Thoreau’s nature worship was not a simple pantheism. He did not see God as identical with nature or with the self, but as the transcendent creator. As Thoreau wrote in his journal: “The red-bird which is the last of Nature is but the first of God,” and, “If Nature is our Mother, is not God much more?”
In a 1967 Back to Godhead article, Hayagriva dasa described both Emerson and Thoreau as striving toward Krishna consciousness.
In Walden Thoreau wrote in even greater length about the Gita, and it is clear that the words of Krishna figured prominently in the transcendentalist movement. The transcendental ideal was to obtain union with God through “plain healthy living,” avoidance of the frills of society and all forms of artificial intoxication, avoidance of dogmatic “church religion,” and abandonment to the direct revelation of the Supreme, who usually spoke through His nature, or prakriti, revealing His supreme purusha, or what Emerson called the “over-soul.” For the transcendentalist, direct contact with nature was as good as direct contact with the divine, for it served as a springboard to direct realization of Him. Nature was a wise, familiar, and loving guru.
Even if we consider Thoreau a yogi, we should be aware that he was grasping only the lower rungs of the ladder of yoga and therefore failed to realize the personal nature of the Supersoul, the original form of the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna. In one sense we cannot blame him for this. After all, the Vedic texts available to him did not give Vaishnava commentaries. Perhaps if he had met a pure devotee, he would have surrendered. In any case, he never gained such an opportunity.
My study of Thoreau’s Vedic leanings brings to mind two conclusions. First, no matter how great a thinker or individualist one may be, no one can rise above material desire and reach to the ultimate truth without a Vaishnava guide. Even after a life of renunciation and philosophical speculation, one can only approach an inkling of God realization: “If Nature is our Mother, is not God much more?”
Seeing Thoreau stranded in his own thought makes me appreciate more the transcendental welfare work begun by His Divine Grace A C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and continued by his followers in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. There are always persons, like Thoreau, with strong leanings toward spirituality, and specifically toward Vedic knowledge. These persons may have inherited this inclination from past lives. In any case, at least in this life they are attracted. To bring such sincere souls to the realization of their heart’s desire and to connect them in loving service to Krishna, devotees of the Lord must vigorously preach, reaching out to budding transcendentalists, whether they be living in forest retreats or in cities.
In this way we can make useful the emotions and associations that come to mind when we think of the almost Krishna consciousness of Henry David Thoreau, who loved the Bhagavad-gita:
The sweltering inhabitants of Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta drink at my well. 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 literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water and lo! there I meet the servant of the brahmana, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas or dwells at the foot of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant, our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water mixes with the sacred water of the Ganges.