On a New England summer’s day in 1994 — sun piercing through the thick leaves, reflecting darkish green hue from the barking trees – my friend Arnaud pointed in the distance to the little log-cabin with a seasoned shingled roof, as we walked along the sandy dirt path with heavy undergrowth.
“There it is. See the cabin. That’s where Thoreau used to sit and meditate a century ago,” Arnaud said. I imagined how he might have survived in the bitter cold New England winters.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” Thoreau wrote.
While Thoreau did not practice Hatha Yoga, he understood Vedanta and non-dualism and tried to reduce the separation between the human spirit and the spirit of nature. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his mentor, Thoreau developed the philosophy of Transcendentalism.
My friend Arnaud was probably the purest type of American transcendentalist I had met. While I was a young graduate student at Harvard, I thought Arnaud was a proto-Hippie of sorts, who had discovered Vedanta philosophy in 1950s during a trip to India when he was backpacking as a young man. He then settled in San Diego, California, at the Ramakrishna Mission, and later in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Arnaud would say, ‘Thoreau was the first American yogi of the highest order, who had figured out in the mid-1800s that we as humans had to live in harmony with nature.’ May be that’s why Arnaud loved to swim in the Walden Pond; for him it was a sacred ritual, like taking a dip in the Ganges River.
A natural mystic and one of the heroes of the conservation movement today, Thoreau was bit of a hermit, living on the wooded preserve of his teacher, Emerson, who had asked his disciple to live in seclusion, to reflect and write. Thoreau found wisdom in the books on Indian philosophy at Harvard College Library and supplemented his readings with Emerson’s vast collection on Eastern thought.
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Thoreau wrote.
Just two years spent in meditation on Walden Pond had a huge impact on Thoreau’s life and probably changed the world in many ways. Much has been written about Thoreau’s Walden years.
In addition to the environmental movement, Thoreau impacted the civil disobedience movement. From Tolstoy, Gandhi, King to Mandela, all drew inspiration from his words and deeds. Thoreau was a well-known abolitionist, and protested the poll tax that supported the Mexican war and the institution of slavery. The individual, Thoreau insisted, must never surrender his conscience to the majority or to the state.
Now, as we celebrate the first International Yoga Day (June 21, 2015) at the UN and around the world, it would be appropriate to remember that Vedanta philosophy has a long track in North America. There is a direct linkage between Thoreau’s meditations in the woods at Walden Pond and American yogis today.
Thousands of Americans doing ‘downward dog’ in Time Square are inheritors of Thoreau’s legacy, who tried to bridge the gap between humans and nature at the onset of the industrialization of America.
Interestingly, now as Indians try to ‘leapfrog’ economic reforms, including massive urbanization, manufacturing and infrastructural development, they are being led by a leader in PM Modi, who is inspiring them to stay in touch with their own cultural traditions while deploying yoga as a tool for international diplomacy.
Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012. He also teaches on “UN and Global Leadership” at Fordham University, NYC.
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