Why Did Thoreau Take the Bhagavad Gita to Walden Pond?

September 21, 2015    BY Barbara Stoler Miller

The ascetic, mystical love of nature that brought Thoreau to Walden Pond gave him access to the central teaching of the Gita. He perceived the discipline of living in nature as a path leading toward self-knowledge and spiritual realization.

Among the many works of Asian literature that were studied in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century, none was more influential than the Bhagavad Gita. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of it in his journal of 1845:

"I owed—my friend and I owed—a magnificent day to the Bhagavat Geeta. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us."

References to the Gita are found throughout Emerson’s journals and letters, where he frequently quotes from the 1785 translation of Charles Wilkins’s, on which Thoreau’s readings are also based. Emerson is chiefly interested in Krishna’s teaching that works must be done without thought of reward and that a person may have a tranquil mind even in activity.

The Asian texts that Thoreau and Emerson were reading presented ideas that strengthened their critique of eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century materialism.

The fascination that the Gita held for Thoreau and Emerson is, of course, only one component of their work, but it is the component most likely to perplex students of Western thought. By attempting to penetrate the levels at which they deliberately incorporated the “exotic” concepts and images of Hindu literature into their life and work, one can gain fresh insights into their thought and the thought of the ancient Indian sages with whom they felt such strong affinities. The Asian texts that Thoreau and Emerson were reading presented ideas that strengthened their critique of eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century materialism, while providing a new set of images, myths, and concepts expressive of man’s spiritual energy.

In Walden, the book named for the pond in Concord where Thoreau lived from 1845 to 1847, he expresses his profound response to the Gita as he observes ice being cut from Walden Pond to be transported to India by New England merchants:

"Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. 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. I lay down my book and go to my well for water, 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. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."

Thoreau offers a commentary on the Gita in his first major work, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. In the chapter “Monday,” he says:

"The wisest conservatism is that of the Hindoos. 'Immemorial custom is transcendent law,' says Manu. That is, it was the custom of the gods before men used it. The fault of our New England custom is that it is memorial. What is morality but immemorial custom? Conscience is the chief of conservatives. 'Perform the settled functions,' says Kreeshna in the Bhagvat Geeta, 'action is preferable to inaction. The journey of thy mortal frame may not succeed from inaction.'—'A man’s own calling with all its faults, ought not to be forsaken. Every undertaking is involved in its faults as the fire in its smoke.'—'The man who is acquainted with the whole, should not drive those from their works who are slow of comprehension, and less experienced than himself.'—'Wherefore, O Arjoon, resolve to fight,'—is the advice of the God to the irresolute soldier who fears to slay his best friends. It is a sublime conservatism; as wide as the world, and as unwearied as time; preserving the universe with Asiatic anxiety, in that state in which it appeared to their minds. . . .

"The end is an immense consolation, eternal absorption in Brahma."

Thoreau is clearly impressed by Krishna’s critique of inaction, but he is reluctant to accept the morality of Krishna’s argument, despite its being what he calls the “wisest conservatism.” On one level the Gita does appear to justify violence. Arjuna is urged by Krishna to go to war against his kinsmen-enemies because war is his duty as a warrior and because death is inevitable. But the Gita is not a justification of war, nor does it propound a war-making mystique, as men of peace such as Mahatma Gandhi and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton knew when they read it. Merton argues that point with clarity in his essay “The Significance of the Bhagavad Gita”:

"Arjuna has an instinctive repugnance for war, and that is the chief reason why war is chosen as the example of the most repellent kind of duty. The Gita is saying that even in what appears to be the most 'unspiritual,' one can act with pure intentions and thus be guided by Krishna consciousness. This consciousness itself will impose the most strict limitations on one’s own use of violence because that use will not be directed by one’s own selfish interests, still less by cruelty, sadism, and blood-lust."

Another sympathetic modern reader of the Gita, E. M. Forster, writing about it in the Cambridge Review in 1920, during the period he was working on A Passage to India, deals with the issues of action and war in similar terms. Forster points to three of Krishna’s reasons why Arjuna must fight. The first assumes that death is negligible; the second that duty is sacred. Krishna’s third reason is the most profound: it takes up the problem of renunciation and attempts to harmonize the needs of life with eternal truth. Forster interprets it this way:

"The saint may renounce action, but the soldier, the citizen, the practical man generally—they should renounce, not action, but its fruits. It is wrong for them to be idle; it is equally wrong to desire a reward for industry. It is wrong to shirk destroying civilization and one’s kindred and friends, equally wrong to hope for dominion afterwards. When all such hopes and desires are dead fear dies also, and freed from all attachments the 'dweller in the body' will remain calm while the body performs its daily duty, and will be unstained by sin, as is the lotus leaf by the water of the tank. It will attain to the eternal peace that is offered to the practical man as well as to the devotee. It will have abjured the wages of action, which are spiritual death, and gained in their place a vision of the Divine."

For Thoreau, with his interest in the interpenetration of places and states of mind, the imagery of Arjuna’s heroic struggle to know himself on the spiritual battlefield of Kuru gave the Gita personal significance. There are clues to this in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, where he discusses the Gita in terms of what it means to be a hero. If one reads the parable of the artist of Kouroo in the conclusion of Walden from this perspective, it seems to be Thoreau’s translation of Krishna’s teaching into artistic terms. The artist’s skilled dedication to the perfect work is what Krishna means by spiritual discipline. It is in a state of total involvement that one finds liberation from time.

For Thoreau, with his interest in the interpenetration of places and states of mind, the imagery of Arjuna’s heroic struggle to know himself on the spiritual battlefield of Kuru gave the Gita personal significance.

"There was an artist in the city of Kouroo who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life. He proceeded instantly to the forest for wood, being resolved that it should not be made of unsuitable material; and as he searched for and rejected stick after stick, his friends gradually deserted him, for they grew old in their works and died, but he grew not older by a moment. His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth. As he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him. Before he had found a stick in all respects suitable the city of Kouroo was a hoary ruin, and he sat on one of its mounds to peel the stick. Before he had given it the proper shape the dynasty of the Candahars was at an end, and with the point of the stick he wrote the name of the last of that race in the sand, and then resumed his work. By the time he had smoothed and polished the staff Kalpa was no longer the pole-star; and ere he had put on the ferule and the head adorned with precious stones, Brahma had awoke and slumbered many times. But why do I stay to mention these things? When the finishing stroke was put to his work, it suddenly expanded before the eyes of the astonished artist into the fairest of all creations of Brahma. He had made a new system in making a staff, a world with full and fair proportions; in which, though the old cities and dynasties had passed away, fairer and more glorious ones had taken their places. And now he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion, and that no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain. The material was pure, and his art was pure; how could the result be other than wonderful?"

Thoreau was moved by his own observation that the mass of his fellow men led “lives of quiet desperation.” He sought to discover freedom from that desperation by refusing to be led by the senses and passions, by living deliberately, by simplifying his life in order to internalize the solitude of a place in nature. He lived at Walden for two years and two months, during which time he confined his desires and his actions in such a way that he strove to overcome the limitations of time and absorb himself in nature.

Thoreau was moved by his own observation that the mass of his fellow men led “lives of quiet desperation.”

Nature was for him the ground of religious life. In the section of Walden entitled “Higher Laws” he says:

"Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. Any nobleness begins at once to refine a man’s features, any meanness or sensuality to imbrute them.

"John Farmer sat at his door one September evening, after a hard day’s work, his mind still running on his labor more or less. Having bathed he sat down to recreate his intellectual man. It was a rather cool evening, and some of his neighbors were apprehending a frost. He had not attended to the train of his thoughts long when he heard someone playing on a flute, and that sound harmonized with his mood. Still he thought of his work; but the burden of his thought was, that though this kept running in his head, and he found himself planning and contriving it against his will, yet it concerned him very little. It was no more than the scurf of his skin, which was constantly shuffled off. But the notes of the flute came home to his ears out of a different sphere from that he worked in, and suggested work for certain faculties which slumbered in him. They gently did away with the street, and the village, and the state in which he lived. A voice said to him,—Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these.—But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practice some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever-increasing respect."

The ascetic, mystical love of nature that brought Thoreau to Walden Pond gave him access to the central teaching of the Gita. He perceived the discipline of living in nature as a path leading toward self-knowledge and spiritual realization. He writes in his journal in 1841:

"One may discover the root of a Hindoo religion in his own private history, when, in the silent intervals of the day or night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with stern satisfaction."

Walden was for Thoreau a spiritual retreat where he strove to deepen his understanding of his existence and through this understanding to gain release from the terrible bondage of life’s compelling illusions.

In Walden he emphatically states, “My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.” Walden was for Thoreau a spiritual retreat where he strove to deepen his understanding of his existence and through this understanding to gain release from the terrible bondage of life’s compelling illusions. In Indian terms it was the retreat of a yogi who carefully practiced spiritual discipline. In a letter of 1849 to his friend H. G. O. Blake, he wrote about yoga and its private meaning for him:

“'Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruits of their works.'

"Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully.

“'The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating original matter.'

"To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi." 

From The Bhagavad Gita by Barbara Stoler Miller. Translation copyright © 1986 by Barbara Stoler Miller. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

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