Thoreau ‘bathes’ in the Gita

1. A curious (but also characteristic) thing happens in the final paragraph of ‘The Pond in Winter’, the 16th section of Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). In the preceding five paragraphs, Thoreau describes the working practices of a hundred Irish labourers who arrive to cut large slabs of ice from the frozen Walden Pond in the winter of 1846-47 as part of what was by then a burgeoning international ice trade. Started in 1806 by the New England businessman Frederic Tudor, this extraordinary local enterprise had become a major export business by the 1840s, extending not just to the southern United States but to England, South America, India, China, and Australia. ‘Thus it appears’, Thoreau comments, marvelling at the interconnectedness of things, ‘that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well.’ He then makes the following, seemingly surrealistic leap:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its 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.

This is not the first time Thoreau references the Gita admiringly in Walden. In the first section, entitled ‘Economy’, he describes the ancient Hindu epic, which formed part of the larger Mahabharata, as a powerful expression of ‘abstract thought’, holding it up as a counter to the ‘insane ambition’ of ‘nations’, the United States included, for whom material achievements are all. Yet, tangled as it is in the description of the ice trade, this second reference is the strangest. 

2. Having abruptly switched from the fine art of ice cutting to reading the Gita, Thoreau then develops the allusion, extending the chain of implicit metaphors — the Gita as a Walden Pond of the intellect, reading as mind-cleansing — describing how, after putting the book down, he goes to the pond for a drink: ‘and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.’ After thus quenching his thirst and his imagination, he notes, ‘the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges’. This opens another associative chain: Thoreau as a modern American equivalent of the ancient Hindu priest, Walden as a new kind of Gita, even the ice trade as an intimation of a more profound intercultural trade in thought. Hence the final lyric sentence of the paragraph (and so ‘The Pond in Winter’ section), which follows the Walden ice on a sea route around the coast of Africa to an India Alexander the Great never saw (i.e. east of the Indus river):

With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and is landed in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Given the endless play on the literal and the figural, Thoreau may also have been imagining this voyage as a future for his own book. If so, he was not far off the mark. Gandhi would count ‘Civil Disobedience‘ (1849), the essay often paired with Walden, among his key influences, and Sreekrishna Sarma speculates about Thoreau’s connections to Tagore. 

Ice trade
Extent of the New England ice trade by the 1850s. Source: Wikipedia

3. Thoreau was not exactly ‘bathing’ in ‘the Gita.’ He was reading Charles Wilkins’s 1785 English translation entitled the Bhagvat-geeta, or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon, the first full rendering of the Sanskrit original into a European language. Tellingly, in his translator’s preface, Wilkins framed the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna (in modern spelling), which is ostensibly about war, as an argument against the polytheism of the even more ancient Vedas in favour of what he called the ‘unity of the Godhead’ (24). ‘The most learned Brahmans of the present time,’ he adds, ‘are Unitarians according to the doctrines of Kreeshna’ (24). This made his ‘Geeta’ less alien for English readers versed in the Christian tradition, especially those, like Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who played a leading part in the Unitarian movement that emerged in New England in the late-18th century — the copy of the Wilkins Gita Thoreau read at Walden in fact belonged to Emerson. 

4. What did Thoreau make of it? The fullest answer to this question appears not in Walden but in his first, post-Walden book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Though wary of what he there called the Gita’s ‘sublime conservatism’ — he rejected its justification of the caste system — he recommends it to American readers as, among other things, an antidote to European writers who presume to be ‘speaking for the world’ despite the ‘limited range’ of their ‘own sympathies and studies’, and as an unmatched guide to ‘spiritual discipline’. To illustrate the latter, he cites ‘Lecture V: Of the Forsaking of Works’, where Krishna details various aspects of yogic practice:

Wise men call him a Pandeet, whose every undertaking is free from the idea of desire, and whose actions are consumed by the fire of wisdom. He abandoneth the desire of a reward of his actions; he is always contented and independent; and although he may be engaged in a work, he, as it were, doeth nothing. (53)

Thoreau underscores this with a further quotation from ‘Lecture VI’:

He is both a Yogee and a Sannyasee who performeth that which he hath to do independent of the fruit thereof; not he who liveth without the sacrificial fire and without action. (62)

This idea of thought or action performed without worldly reward, combined with inner contentment, independence, and disinterested devotion, resurfaces in the parable of the ‘artist in the city of Kourou’ (i.e. the ancient Kingdom of Kuru where the Gita is set) with which Walden concludes. Like a Yogi, the artist devotes himself single-mindedly and without thought for any reward (e.g. selling ice for profit) or extrinsic goal to the task of carving a perfect wooden staff, in the process of which he escapes the ravages of time and discovers Brahma. The result, according to Thoreau? He finds ‘he had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions.’ Thoreau no doubt intends this as a commentary not just on his own period of yogic seclusion on Walden Pond but on the writing and reading of his new updated American Gita as well. 

5. Coincidentally, on the other side of the Atlantic, another reader was responding to the Gita’s lessons in yogic discipline with equal enthusiasm. ‘The Indians distinguish between meditation or absorption—and knowledge,’ Matthew Arnold wrote in a letter to his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hugh Clough in March 1848, ‘and between abandoning practice, and abandoning the fruits of action and all respect thereto. This last is a supreme step, and dilated on throughout the Poem.’ Besides the passages Thoreau cited, he probably had the following sentence from ‘Lecture XII’ in mind: 

Knowledge is better than practice, meditation is distinguished from knowledge, forsaking the fruit of action from meditation, for happiness hereafter is derived from such forsaking. (99)

Clough was not impressed, but Wilkins’s Gita left its mark on Arnold, explicitly in early poems like ‘Resignation‘ and implicitly in the non-partisan, anti-sectarian concept of culture he developed in Culture and Anarchy (1869). Though the latter is now chiefly associated with the easily and routinely derided phrase ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world’ (see webnote d), there are many other senses Arnold gives his key term over the course of the book as a whole, some of which recall his comments on the Gita and reflect his broader critique of mid-nineteenth-century liberalism, which he saw as too preoccupied with narrow, self-interested, and overly rationalistic calculation. ‘Culture is the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection’, he says at one point, echoing the perfectionism of Thoreau’s artist; or, recalling the Gita on ‘forsaking the fruits of action’, ‘the free spontaneous play of consciousness with which culture tries to float our stock habits of thinking and acting, is by its very nature, as has been said, disinterested.’ Culture not as a canon of great books, in other words, but as a modernized yogic path of the kind Thoreau attempted to cut for himself and his readers in Walden.

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