The Subtle Body
The Story of Yoga in America
By Stefanie Syman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Stefanie Syman
All rights reserved.
In the fall of 1857, a new magazine went into the U.S. mails. Its design was emphatically plain. Its title, The Atlantic Monthly. A Magazine of Literature, Art, and Politics, was printed in black type on paper the color of pine boards. Inside, two long, tight columns ran down its pages. There weren't any illustrations, except, on the cover, a small engraving of John Winthrop, Puritan founder of Massachusetts Bay Colony, in a ruffled collar and thick goatee. Whether Winthrop was the magazine's patron saint or muse, you couldn't mistake the Atlantic's lineage. It had strong ties to the eastern seaboard in general, and Boston in particular.
Contributors, or "literary persons," were listed on the inside front cover, but the essays and poems that filled the magazine were unsigned, as was then customary. No reader was confused for long, though, about who had written a set of verses titled "Brahma," on page 48, because the Atlantic's publisher had leaked the byline to a Boston newspaper. The author was Ralph Waldo Emerson — poet, philosopher, prophet, Sphinx — and his presence in the magazine was one of its selling points.
Emerson, along with several other New England luminaries, had helped Francis H. Underwood launch the Atlantic. Underwood saw the magazine as an intellectual platform; his employer, book publisher Moses Dresser Phillips, saw it as a way to boost book sales.
Happily, Phillips's business interests intersected with Emerson's self-interest. At the time, it was nearly impossible for him to make a living as an author, and the Atlantic promised a wider readership as well as a much appreciated source of additional income.
But the literary persons behind the Atlantic — a group that included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James R. Lowell — were nothing if not high-minded, and the pecuniary reasons for starting a new magazine paled beside their self-appointed mission, which was to free American belles lettres from European condescension once and for all. The Atlantic would provide this badly needed aesthetic leadership. It would be a place where quality trumped popular taste, and American, rather than English or French, authors reigned.
The new magazine had one other purpose: to denounce, in a "scholarly and gentleman like" tone, the most egregious social injustice of the day — slavery.
The founders had their differences (Holmes, for one, was notoriously impatient with Emerson's "Oriental" meanderings), but they agreed on three things: American writers must be supported, slavery must be abolished, and at times readers must be damned. And so, the author of "American Scholar" gave voice to "Brahma":
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
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.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
In the Atlantic number 1, this pithy celebration of nonduality — "shadow and sunlight are the same" — followed three other poems, all Emerson's, and it stands out from the group for its austerity. "Brahma" eschews the exoticism of "The Romany Girl" (which is about a Gypsy beauty) and "Days" (where time marches like "barefoot dervishes") for simple declarative sentences. In it, Emerson managed to compress Brahman, the Absolute, or Supreme Being, whose names, qualities, and powers clutter India's most sacred texts, into four adamantine verses.
"Brahma" is not so much a poem as a paean to a divinity that more closely resembles gravity, an impersonal, immutable force, than it does the God of the Bible.
Yet if Emerson was making some sort of declaration of his heterodoxy, it was probably lost on readers. Most had no idea who or what Brahma was, didn't recognize him as part of the Hindu pantheon at all, and, if they did, could justifiably have been confused about his exact identity since, in Emerson's day, transliterated spellings of certain Sanskrit words were even less standardized than they are today.
The word Brahma sometimes referred to the concept Brahman (as it's now commonly spelled), the Absolute or Supreme Being "behind and above all the various deities ... beings, and worlds." Other times, nearly the same word designated the creator god, who is part of the classic Hindu triad along with Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer.
The New York Times immediately deemed the poem an "exquisite piece of meaningless versification." Soon friends and sympathizers came to Emerson's aid. In mid-November, Walt Whitman published a concise piece in the Brooklyn Daily Times reminding readers of Brahma's identity (an Indian deity, etc.) and defending the poem. Not long after, the Brooklyn Eagle quoted an obscure periodical that had excerpted "a passage from the Mahabharata, similar both in thought and in phrasing," to "Brahma."
But even after Brahma's identity was revealed — Emerson's poem clearly referenced the Absolute — newspapers and magazines across the country continued to mercilessly deride it. Twenty-six parodies were written in just the first month after the poem's publication, and these were frequently reprinted over the next year.
It hardly mattered to Emerson. His repudiations of "sacraments, supernaturalism, biblical authority, and of Christianity," in the words of one of his most ardent followers, had electrified audiences from Maine to Minneapolis for two decades. Irreverence was his stock-in-trade, and it had made him famous. By the time "Brahma" appeared, he was an icon of independent thinking in a country proud of its independence. In Emerson's hands, "Brahma" was American.
Whitman once said of Emerson, "Even when he falls on stony ground he somehow eventuates in a harvest."
Since its appearance in 1857, "Brahma" has helped spur a century-and-a-half-long engagement with Hinduism. The yield has been plentiful and varied: American translations of Sanskrit texts, the philosophy of William James, new academic specialties, and, more to the point, an American yoga.
That Emerson himself was indifferent to yoga makes him no less central to its assimilation here. Yoga is connected to a host of philosophies as well as competing and even contradictory metaphysics; it encompasses varied practices and is technically a part of three "world religions": Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Steered by his own family toward Hinduism, Emerson steered Americans toward a specific understanding of yoga even though the discipline didn't really interest him. Just as the computer scientists who built ARPANET created the conditions for Google without ever having anticipated it, Emerson created the conditions for an American yoga.
Like many Boston Unitarians and intellectuals of his era, Emerson's father, the Reverend William Emerson, was an armchair Orientalist (an eighteenth-century term applied to anyone who studied or wrote about Oriental cultures).
William Emerson was one of the founders of the Monthly Anthology, which published Sir William Jones's translation of a famous Hindu play — Sacontalá; or, The Fatal Ring — in 1805. When William Emerson died six years later, he left his wife and three young sons (Ralph, Edward, and Charles) a library that included several major works on India and its religious culture.
Together, the Emerson family would read J. Priestly's Heathen Philosophy or Elizabeth Hamilton's Translation of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah: Written Previous to, and during the period of his residence in England, an evening's fireside entertainment and edification.
These were groundbreaking books. As late as 1785, Western research into Indian religion was, in the words of the infamous Warren Hastings, then governor-general of Bengal, still very much "a wide and unexplored field of fruitful knowledge."
Colonial administrators and British missionaries were among the first to sally forth into this intellectual wilderness. But they were hobbled by the usual barriers that confront anyone trying to translate elements of one culture into another. There was the problem of language, of course. There was also the presumption, shared by clergymen and colonizers alike, that the Enlightenment had left India behind.
For those who could find ways around the first two, more slippery problems awaited them. The first was the temptation to refer to a wide variety of practices and beliefs as a coherent, defined religion. Many missionaries succumbed, and most described what they saw as either heathenism or, more respectfully, Brahmanism or Hinduism.
Another problem, related to this, was the belief that if you could rightly point to something called Brahmanism, it would function much like Christianity and Judaism did in Western society: it was textually based, was geared toward salvation, and made claims to universal truth.
This was an understandable but grave error.
To assimilate something is to conform it to your own worldview.
To see the varied beliefs and practices of India through the prism of "world religion" was to assimilate these activities before even describing them.
As for yoga, early interlocutors who considered it at all tended to dismiss it as uncouth.
Take the Reverend William Ward. Unlike most of his peers, he did extensive firsthand research in addition to consulting with native pundits and English Sanskritists. He refrained from using the word heathenism or heathens to describe his subject.
Still, he was dismissive of their practices.
"A most singular ceremony, called yog ," he writes in the introduction to his widely read, three-volume exposition of the history, literature, and mythology of the Hindus, "is said to have been practiced by ascetics to prepare them for absorption" into Brahman. Several pages later he added, "The absurdity and impiety of the opinions upon which the practices of these yog s are founded, need not be exposed: the doctrine which destroys all accountability to the Creator, and removes all that is criminal in immortality, must be condemned by every good man."
* * *
When they read books about the Orient, the Emersons favored travel tales or extracts from Orientalist tracts. As a boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson also read translations of "Hindoo" scriptures, pressed upon him by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson.
Mary Moody, the Reverend William Emerson's sister, was a voracious and intrepid reader, who took the Emerson brothers' education seriously. Emerson considered her something of a visionary.
She directed him to Rammohun Roy's translation of the Ishopanishad and indulged his early dismissals of Roy and his religion.
At Harvard, Emerson also read a variety of Oriental texts. No professorships in Sanskrit or Asian religions existed yet in America, but the output of European Orientalists, most famously the philologists William Jones, H. T. Colebrooke, and Charles Wilkins, had substantially increased since the turn of the nineteenth century. These experts, who lived in India and by day worked as British civil servants, had a more sympathetic relationship to the country and its traditions — textual, spiritual, ritual — than the missionaries had. They strived to present Indian thought in context, and to do so, they learned to read Sanskrit (which, at least in Jones's case, they'd translate into Latin before rendering it into English). They quickly disseminated their knowledge via the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Emerson read Sir William Jones's memoirs as well as scores of articles on Indian culture and history in journals such as the Edinburgh Review. One was a review of William Ward's book, which struck Emerson with its descriptions of India's "immense 'goddery'" and the "squalid and desperate ignorance" of Asians, as he remarked in his journal. He also rather viciously denigrated "Yoguees of Hindostan" in these pages. Having never encountered one, he deemed them morally and mentally diseased and unrivaled "in their extravagancies and practices of self-torture."
After graduation, Emerson's journal entries related to Hinduism multiplied, and his reading list on the subject slowly grew. Eventually, Emerson, who was by then going by the name Waldo, warmed up to some of the books that had fascinated his aunt, including Roy's translation of the Ishopanishad.
Rammohun Roy, a Bengali of Brahmin caste, was one of the few Indians publishing works in English in the early nineteenth century, but he was hardly a dispassionate translator; he was deeply troubled by "Hindoo idolatry" as well as the temples built and ceremonies performed to propitiate "innumerable gods and goddesses" and believed his countrymen had lost sight of the true meaning of the Vedas, the scriptural bedrock of "Hinduism."
He was also probably the first "Hindu" to have used the word Hinduism (in 1816), and the term gained in popularity over the nineteenth century. Like Brahmanism, Hinduism elides all sorts of philosophical, theological, and metaphysical disputes, not to mention diverse rituals. As noted above, that Hinduism might be encapsulated in its scriptures is already an imposition of Western conceptions of religion.
This approach served Roy's broader argument that the Upanishads, which together constitute Vedanta, espoused a gospel of monotheism. Roy assigned himself the task of demonstrating this to the world, which made him popular with New England's liberal Christians. (He also helped set up the first Unitarian Mission in Calcutta, in 1821; this and his pamphlet "The Principles of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness" incited controversy amid India's Trinitarians, which further endeared him to American Unitarians.)
The Ishopanishad, in Roy's view, was a particularly powerful counterweight to descriptions such as Ward's, which detailed the objects of Hindu worship: besides 333 million gods and goddesses, there were "beings in strange shapes," "beasts," "birds," "rivers," and "a log of wood."
The bulk of the Ishopanishad circles around the Supreme Spirit, heaping adjectives and qualities upon him even though he supposedly defies apprehension. "He pervades the internal and external parts of the whole universe"; and he is "one unchangeable" who seems "to move every where, although he in reality has no motion. ... He overspreads all creatures. ... He is pure, perfect, omniscient, the ruler of the intellect, omnipresent, and the self-existent."
This is Brahman, a God transcendent — it's both everything at once and yet completely independent of all that it's supposed to be.
With any idea of the divine as one and unified, questions arise: If everything is God and it's all the same stuff, why do we see the world as made up of all sorts of different objects and beings? To which Vedanta answers, the world isn't really separate and distinct. We just see it that way. Vast cataracts of ignorance cloud our vision. Ultimately, there is no difference between the pitch pine and the sumac, the rhododendron and the bulrushes, the copperhead and the pickerel, your neighbor and yourself. All mask the infinite, eternal, immutable soul of the universe. As for Jesus Christ, he also partakes of the Supreme Being; however, to say that the Supreme Being was a man, even a divine one, and not everything else at the same time would be to limit the infinite, which is like trying to pour the ocean into a cup.
The Katha Upanishad (at least as translated by Roy) expresses a similar unitary conception of the divine: "As fire, although one in essence, on becoming visible in the world appears in various forms and shapes, according to its different locations, so God, the soul of the universe, though one, appears in various modes ... and like space, extends over all." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Subtle Body by Stefanie Syman. Copyright © 2010 Stefanie Syman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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