Part I: Emerson
In the past 130 years the United States has swiftly travelled a long way down the road of materialism and atheism and has done a great deal in bringing the rest of the world down that road with them. It is a dead end road, but anyone jumping off that bumbling, rambling bandwagon is likely to encounter squatting along the roadside as fine a company of transcendental "bums" as one could ever want to meet Emerson, Thoreau, Miss Emily Dickonson, Whitman, and "roaring boy" Hart Crane. There are some others, but these are the principle American transcendental waysiders who keep their fires of love and canned beans of joy and bliss warm for the hungry, wearied traveller.
There is little doubt in the minds of most truly intelligent man that America has been betrayed by the money-hungry, power-hungry atheist class of men. They have initiated that rambling bandwagon of capitalism that is presently wending its merry way to hell under the banners of Progress, Prosperity, Materialism, Power, and Sense Enjoyment. Even the countries that have previously boasted considerable God-consciousness, such as India, are now scrambling to get on the bandwagon. As a result, the devotees of the Supreme Lord are feeling more isolated and generally "out of it" socially. They lock their doors, close their windows, and chant softly in order not to disturb their atheist neighbors. At least this is the cast in the big American cities. There is no transcendental hero or bearded bard of Fifth Avenue sounding his "barbaric yawp all over the roofs of the world." The hollow men with heads of straw are holding the wagon reins, and even a whisper frightens them.
This calamity is largely due to there never having been sufficiently powerful spiritual leaders in America. Although some of the early settlers came to this country seeking religious freedom, the New World soon came to represent a challenge of material conquest gold and land rather than a spiritual promise. The Christian Church was imported from Europe, and spasmodically with Jonothan Edwards, Edward Taylor, and the revivalists of the 1830's and 50's the air was surcharged with spirituality. But after the Civil War this country began to ascend the ladder of Material Progress: the bumbling, rambling bandwagon started rolling down the open road to chaos, and the sages started jumping off. Since then the real spiritual gurus have been chased out, killed, or cancelled amid the waves of official materialist propaganda, or perhaps given quaint roles in the Great American Circus. What great poets and sages America has given birth to have had to attain their realization in a secular way, and with God's help and grace. With many it was a lonely battle there were no systems planned for them. For the American, the cosmic way to spiritual universe was uncharted, and the few who managed to make their ways to it were often eccentric poets, polite mendicants, hermetic spinsters, mad geniuses in short, the American "transcendental bums."
From a spiritual point of view, India is most fortunate in its parampara system of God-realization, a system of disciplic succession steming from Brahma, the creator-god. This system utilizes the guru-brahmachary (student) principle of desseminating transcendental knowledge from generation to another. Krishna speaks of this is the Gita:
The eternal yoga I taught to Vivasvat (the Sun god); Vivasvat taught it to Manu (the father of mankind); and Manu taught it to Ikshvaku (ancestor of the earth-warriors). Thus handed down from one to another, it became known to the royal sages. But through long lapse of time, this yoga has been lost to the world. (Gita, 4.1-2)
To re-establish this yoga on earth, Krishna spoke the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. In the West, the best example that can be given of disciplic succession is the Roman Catholic Church which traces its papal history directly from Christ and St. Peter, the first Vicar of Rome. Such systems are useful, especially for guiding the mass of people who look to higher authorities in spiritual matters. The dangers of such a system are also obvious: the system may become regimentalized, it may deviate from the original teachings, it may become corrupt and die, it may become narrow and secular in which cases the parampara system stumbles over itself and deals a death blow to God-consciousness. The system is legitimate, but man is frail and subject to error.
There was never such a system in America. America is a new country not even 200 years old a baby compared to Vedic culture and civilization. The saints, sages and poets of this country do not generally work out their salvation or progress in God consciousness through the parampara system, or, for that matter, through any orthodox religious system. Many seem to have been directly favored by the Supreme Who endowed them with prophetic powers and Who gave them poetic powers with which to praise Him and direct grace by which to attain Him. In fact, direct revelation always the Supreme's gracious gift seemed natural in a country where individualism and the new, free man were spiritual ideals. One often hears in Whitman and other transcendentalists the sigh of relief for their release from the rotting philosophic, literary and religious traditions of Europe. And the Supreme Lord seems to have taken many of them by the hand, showing them how to "celebrate" Him and justify His ways to man. God is not limited and neither are His ways, and although man may be confined to stringent systems and rules, He is beyond all rules and reveals Himself to whomever He pleases. The tendency of many religionists to place the Supreme under the regulations of their religions is vain and silly.
The Supreme Lord has been directly praised by many great poets in the West notably Dante, the English metaphysical poets, St. John of the Cross, Milton and Blake great Christian poets who managed to utilize the orthodox terminology of religion and the Bible as the basis of their poetry. Other poets, although secular in their approach, wrote of the Absolute in different ways, often using the medium of Nature. This is the case for Wordsworth in his famous "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and Keats' reciprocal serenade between himself and the Supersoul in "Ode to a Nightengale." Byron in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" uses the ocean as a symbol of the Absolute, and it is easy to see Krishna as Coleridge's Kubla Khan. The "unseen presence" of Shelley's West Wind is addressed as "Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;/Destroyer and preserver." In fact, one might say that all the major English poets (especially of the 19th century) had to plug into the Supreme Consciousness for their inspiration.
In America, the poets' Krishna or cosmic consciousness was given a boost by the "transcendentalist" movement in the early 19th century. Prior to this time, Edward Taylor (1645-1729), a New England Puritan poet, wrote excellent metaphysical poetry in praise of Christ. No major force emerges, however, between Taylor and Emerson, the first superior literary mind of the 19th century.
In his introduction to Nature, Emerson writes:
The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should now we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? And a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs. The sun shines today. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.
This is a capsule statement of the zeit-geist catching hold in the literary circles of New England during the 1830's a new land, a new man, a new relation to God. This relationship to God is intimately tied up with the land and Nature which serve as springboards into the realms of the eternal. Emerson describes his mystical experiences in this way:
Standing on the bare ground my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. (From Nature)
Emerson was also aware of attempts to attain this cosmic consciousness by abortive, artificial means:
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself) by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals.. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature; the mind flows into and through the hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible. (From Essays, 2nd Series, "The Poet")
Regarding narcotics and the psychedelics of his day, Emerson writes:
This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers. (From "The Poet")
However, Emerson makes it clear that he does not condone such artificial means, which he considers to be used by an inferior man. He also deems the results to be imperfect and temporary and imaginary, for in actuality deterioration and dissipation are provoked by reliance on external stimuli.
Never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration, which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water. (From "The Poet")
In "The Poet," as in other essays, Emerson is prophesying the great poetic vindicator of his philosophy Whitman. Emerson's philosophy draws a great deal on Plato and the Bible, but the English romanticists and German philosophers of the 19th century also find their ways into his works. He envisions the self-reliant man in direct relationship with God, free from all "animal exhilarations" such as narcotics, society, and materialism, and also free from the intellectual shackles of the Old World, intoxicated instead with "air and water" in the great virgin woods of America. In this way he struck the theme for the transcendental man in America and Thoreau and Whitman were to be the most famous embodiments of his vision.
This liberated man is a man free from all encumbrances. He is dependant on no one. He stands alone with his Creator upon the new and fertile American landscape, and he is the epitome of rugged individualism. Emerson's famous "Self Reliance" essay advises in this way:
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.. Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. (From "Self Reliance")
Later, Whitman was also to exhort his reader to see the direct revelation:
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
(From "Song of Myself," section 2)
Emerson felt that part of man's slavery is due to his attachment to the past his functioning on old premises, theories and actions in short, his enslavement to karma. Break them off, he advises, and disregard apparent contradictions.
In your metaphysics you have denied personality to the Deity, yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hands of the harlot, and flee. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. ("Self Reliance")
Abandonment of mundane conceptualization and open acceptance of the infinite diversity of the Creator and His creation are considered by Emerson to be characteristics of the mahatma, the great-souled man. In Whitman's words, "Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" ("Son of Myself," 51) This great souled man has no time for fault-finding, scoffing, argumentation or lamentation. He is blissful, ecstatic, absorbed in Krishna-consciousness. Nor is he attached to anything on the earth.
Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them. (Emerson's "Circles")
This is non-attachment as practised by the free man who does not anchor however calm the waters. For him the universe is not a house for sleepers. It is an open road for travelling souls.
Although the poetic strain is everywhere apparent in Emerson's essays and philosophy, he was not able to completely express his thoughts in his own poetry. This remained for Whitman to do. Emerson did write poems, but he is remembered instead for his essays, which represent him better. Emerson did write a poem called "Brahma," that appears to be influenced by certain verses in the Gita, especially Krishna's injunction: "He who looks on the Self as the slayer, and he who looks on the Self as the slain neither of these apprehends aright. The Self slays not nor is slain." (Gita, 2.19) Emerson actually paraphrases this verse in "Brahma," his best poem:
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways I am the doubter and the doubt,
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
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.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the god!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
That the above poem was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita is not surprising, for it is reported that Emerson's copy of the Gita was more "widely used than the one in the Harvard College Library." No doubt Emerson was fully competent to deliver lectures on Krishna consciousness, but he was not competent to celebrate his great ideas in poetry, for his own poetry is too often stilted and sing-song. And although Henry David Thoreau, Emerson's youthful disciple, also tried verse, the ascetic of Walden Pond is also best remembered for his Walden and other essays. The poetry of the new God consciousness of 19th century America had to wait for the 1855 "yawp" of another man.
(Next Issue: Krishna Conscious In American Poetry, Part Ii: Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson)