Unitarianism and early American interest in Hinduism

Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Essays | 1.18.03

The early history of American interest in Hinduism is closely tied, surprisingly, to the early intellectual history of a small, liberal sect of American Christians known as Unitarians. In the fifty- to sixty-year period following American independence, almost the only American writers to show serious, sustained interest in the religious ideas and texts of India belonged to the social and religious world of New England Unitarianism, which itself coalesced as a uniquely American religious movement during that period.1 When I first began examining the early history of American reception of Hindu texts, I knew only that some of the Transcendentalist writers of the 1840s and 1850s had commented on Hindu texts. I had no idea that the Transcendentalists — who were considered radical by the larger Unitarian community from which they emerged — were not alone in their interest in Hinduism. They shared an interest in Hinduism with a modest tradition of earlier Unitarian writers who had been studying the latest books of European scholarship on India as early as the 1790s. According to Carl Jackson, Unitarians made the most important of the decisive American transactions with Oriental thought in the early 19th century (The Oriental Religions and American Thought, 25).

What can this mean for Unitarian historians as well as for students of Hinduism in America? Distinctive features of early Unitarianism made certain aspects of Hinduism especially appealing to Unitarian readers. Consequently some of the early American studies of Hinduism written by Unitarians have introduced or amplified certain biases in the general American perception of Indian religiosity. Furthermore, early students of Hinduism entirely overlooked or radically missed certain aspects of Hinduism, perpetuating a range of misperceptions within the American Unitarian tradition as well as in the larger society. In this paper, I will highlight features of the early Unitarian responses to Hinduism as found in the writings of Joseph Priestley, John Adams, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, showing how their responses to Indian texts set the stage for some contemporary Unitarian Universalist responses to Hinduism, and posing questions about the adequacy of traditional Unitarian modes of response to religious diversity. I argue throughout this paper that the Unitarians showed an unusually intense interest in Hinduism, highlighting ethical, philosophical, and literary aspects in the Hindu traditions while generally minimizing the significance of ritual practice and cultural context. While Priestley and Adams may be thought of as forerunners of the study of comparative religion in America, Emerson inaugurated another strain of American religious thought: the universalist impulse to disregard cultural dimensions of religion in a quest for the Infinite. The early Unitarians, in other words, helped initiate two ongoing American traditions of response to religious pluralism.

Early American encounters

New England appears to have encountered India for the first time in the 1720s through Cotton Mather's correspondence with Danish missionaries in Southern India. Mather, the famous Boston Puritan, received tracts and a copy of the New Testament translated into Tamil from the missionaries. Carl Jackson writes that these texts were "perhaps the first Asian publications to reach America" (4). European translations of Indian texts, however, would not arrive for several decades. The first American book on India, Mather's India Christiana (1721), involved only the most limited knowledge of Indian religion: it contains instead Mather's proposals of methods for the conversion of Hindus to Christianity. In spite of Mather's enthusiasm for missionary work, however, American missions to India were not established for another century (Jackson 4).2

Several decades before American missionaries began exporting American Christianity to India, Americans began importing Indian goods. The first American ships arrived in Canton, China, and off the coast of Pondicherry on the Indian subcontinent in 1784 or 1787.3 Although commercial interests in Asia did not translate immediately into religious interest, the arrival of goods from India and other parts of Asia provoked considerable initial curiosity. Until the War of 1812, American trade with India was concentrated in the New England port town of Salem, Massachusetts, where the liberal minister of the Second Congregational Church took a particular interest in the Far East. The Rev. William Bentley, an early Unitarian, read more than twenty languages, including Arabic and Persian. In 1799, he encouraged the formation of the East India Marine Society, to be made up of seamen who had sailed in Asian waters. The Society collected works of art and other cultural artifacts which Bentley described in his diaries between 1794 and 1818 (see Riepe 8-10). Bentley drafted the articles of association for the Society, in which he directed "sea captains to collect books and to take notes on the customs of the peoples they contacted" (Jackson 8). Bentley did not learn to read Indian languages, and may not have seen texts from India, although he showed great interest in travel accounts. He did express his low opinion of the first English and American missionaries, whom he found intellectually and morally unprepared to "inform the 'heathen'," in Jackson's words (9).

These early encounters were superficial at best. Until the 1790s, the American reception of Hinduism involved only the accounts of sailors and unusual specimens brought back by trading ships. (The rarest specimens brought to America from India were human: one ship brought an Indian boy to Philadelphia in 1785; the Rev. Bentley also writes of seeing "a native of the Indies" in 1790. See Jackson 9; Riepe 8.) The emphasis in this earliest period was on the exoticism of the East — a theme celebrated especially in the genre of the "Oriental tale," which became especially popular in American magazines in the final decades of the eighteenth century. The "Oriental tale" was usually set in vaguely Middle Eastern settings, although a number were set in Chinese or Indian contexts. Most tales were devoid of authentic detail, although one — Samuel Lorenzo Knapp's Letters of Shahcoolen, a Hindu Philosopher Residing in Philadelphia to his Friend El Hassan an Inhabitant of Delhi (Boston, 1802) — included mention of the "veda" and "Brumma" and a "sympathetic discussion of Jayadeva's Gitagovinda," according to Carl Jackson (4-5).

Priestley and Adams: the first scholarly engagement

The first serious American study of Hinduism appeared in the last year of the eighteenth century. Joseph Priestley, the British Unitarian minister and emigre celebrated today as the discoverer of the chemical element oxygen, settled in Pennsylvania in the 1790s and turned his attention to comparative religion. In 1799 he published A Comparison of the Institutions of Moses with those of the Hindoos and other Ancient Nations after his public lectures in Philadelphia on the subject in 1796 had generated considerable interest.4 Priestley's interest in Asian religion was prompted by his desire to defend Christianity from its more radical Enlightenment critics, to whom he wished to demonstrate Christianity's superiority to the "heathen" religions.5 Because French philosophes had condemned Christianity by comparing its doctrines and practices to those of the Oriental religions, Priestley turned his attention to questions of Hinduism's age, influence on Hebrew religion, and similarity to Hebrew and Christian teaching in an attempt to re-establish the superior claims of Christianity.6 In his book he identifies common features of Hebrew and Hindu religion, including certain statements about the nature of God, common stories about a universal flood, and "moral maxims" similar to those of Christ. He writes in the introductory chapter: "The institutions of the Hindoos, civil and religious, are the most respectable for their antiquity of any that now subsist, at least of any that are extant in writing. The fundamental principles of these were probably prior to those of Moses" (quoted in Riepe 16). Priestley concludes, however, that an objective comparison of the beliefs, practices, and origins of the two religions clearly demonstrates the superior claims of Christianity. The following statements are Carl T. Jackson's summary of Priestley's conclusions: "If Hindus had once worshiped one Supreme Being, they were now polytheists and idolaters. [Priestley] denied the claim that Hinduism was mild and tolerant, and he denounced it for its humiliation of women — a dominant theme in nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions of Indian society" (29).

Priestley had read the earliest serious European scholarship on Asian religions, including the publications of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and his work suffers from the often severe misrepresentations of this early scholarship. His sources included books like Sketches Chiefly Relating to the History, Religion, Learning and Manners of the Hindoos (1792), Sir William Jones's Institutes of Hindu Law; or, The Ordinances of Menu (1796), and Ezourvedam, or ancien commentaire du Vedam (1778).7 Priestley inaugurated the genre of American comparative religion with the clear assumption that a comparative study would reveal Christianity's superiority. The significant point, however, is that Priestley actually engaged in a comparative study that involved considerable research in the leading European studies on India.8

Carl Jackson observes that Priestley's influence was limited partly by his isolation in rural Pennsylvania and partly by a change of religious climate in the United States in the early years of the nineteenth century. He did attract one notable student, though. Priestley's books provoked the former President of the United States, John Adams, to study Hinduism rather intensively between 1812 and 1817. Thomas Jefferson had recommended Priestley's writings to Adams when Adams asked if there were not books comparing Christianity's moral principles to those of other religions. Jackson writes that Adams "fumed at Priestley's unevenness and catalogued numerous instances of omission, unfairness, and distortion; nevertheless, he learned a great deal" (30); his objections may have had to do especially with Priestley's own materialist argument, however (see Riepe 7). Like Priestley, Adams was a Unitarian, but they held different philosophical views representative of the differences between English and American Unitarianism at the time. For five years Adams read widely and deeply on India and Persia, beginning with Priestley's books and continuing through all twelve volumes of Charles Dupuis's Origine de tous les cultes and the entirety of Sir William Jones's Works, among others (Jackson 30-31). He wrote to Jefferson in 1817 that his respect for ancient Indian civilization had increased:

We find that Materialists and Immaterialists existed in India and that they accused each other of Atheism, before Berkly or Priestley, or Dupuis, or Plato, or Pythagoras were born. Indeed Neuton himself, appears to have discovered nothing that was not known to the Antient Indians. He has only furnished more ample demonstrations of the doctrines they taught. (quoted in Jackson 31)

Adams was impressed.9 He insisted that his religious loyalties had not been affected by his study of Hinduism, but he was excited by the discovery of philosophical sophistication to rival if not to exceed that of the West. In fact, he admitted to Jefferson that if he were a younger man, he would have changed vocations and become a scholar (Jackson 31). As it was, Adams became a student of Asia in his retirement and never published his observations on Hinduism. The earliest American studies of Hinduism remained confined to the Pennsylvania publications of a transplanted British preacher-scientist and to the correspondence of two former presidents musing on philosophy.

Before turning to the more consequential legacy of the Hindu studies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is worth considering the following question: Does the Unitarianism of Priestley and Adams — or, at a greater remove, the Unitarianism of Salem's Reverend Bentley — merit attention in relation to their interest in Hinduism? The significance of Unitarianism to the emergence of Transcendentalism is obvious: as Dale Riepe notes, "American Unitarianism was the soil that nourished Transcendentalism; German idealism was its sun" (The Philosophy of India and Its Impact On American Thought, 1970, 23). Could one similarly argue that Unitarianism is crucial to an understanding of the early American reception of Hinduism? One could easily argue, as Riepe argues, that Priestley and Adams held opposed philosophical views in spite of their common religious identification, and that they looked to non-Western texts for different philosophical resources.10 Such an argument leads one to concentrate on the philosophical concerns of individual students of Hinduism, paying much less attention to the shared religious loyalty of those students. One sees a difference of philosophical temper rather than a shared religious perspective.

One could also identify these early Unitarian students of Hinduism as elites whose interest in exotic subjects was simply a consequence of their socio-economic position in early American society. By this line of reasoning, the sort of people who could be interested in Hinduism between 1790 and 1820 were already likely to be Unitarians for strictly socio-economic reasons. Because other groups of Americans began to show interest in Hinduism by the mid-nineteenth century — including especially the formation of the scholarly American Oriental Society in 1842, or the voyages of the eclectic Theosophists to India in the 1870s — one could also argue that the influence of Unitarians on American perceptions of Hinduism was limited to a brief and relatively insignificant early chapter of the American interest in Hinduism. While it is true that the mercantilism of Bentley, the materialist polemics of Priestley and the ethical Christianity of Adams illustrate a variety of intellectual priorities, and while it is true that the Unitarians enjoyed several decades of unusual prominence in American society, one will miss something crucial to the intellectual and religious outlook of these early students of Hinduism if one disregards their Unitarianism. Let us consider how Unitarianism shaped early serious study of Hinduism by Americans.

Three dimensions of the earliest Unitarian responses to Hinduism have important implications for us as students of Hinduism or of Unitarianism. First, Joseph Priestley and John Adams assumed that Hinduism and Christianity could be compared. Their comparative approach is especially important because Priestley and Adams believed that a genuinely objective comparison was not only possible, but was also the approach they should take as Christians. The champion of early American Unitarians, William Ellery Channing, argued that because the Bible is "written for men, in the language of men, . . . its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books."11 (The Unitarian approach to the Bible tended to make all scriptures at least textually comparable; it comes as no surprise that the Unitarians were among the earliest American enthusiasts for German historical-critical scholarship.12) Although Priestley and Adams assumed and argued that Christianity was superior to other religions, they also assumed and argued that one could demonstrate Christianity's superiority — just as they believed they could demonstrate the superiority of Unitarianism or "pure Christianity" over orthodox Christianity. Their comparative approach set Christianity as a religion among other religions, even as they assumed Christianity would prove more equal than others. This comparative approach has obviously persisted as a leading secular model for understanding religion — although presumptions of Christian or Western superiority are widely criticized — but it also persists as the religious model used by contemporary Unitarian Universalists seeking to understand other religions. As I will show at the end of this paper, there are complex and difficult implications of this Unitarian Universalist tradition of religious "comparativism."

Second, the Unitarians assumed that the most important aspects of a religion were to be found in its doctrines, especially in its philosophical and ethical doctrines. Adams began his study of Hinduism in order to answer a question about the superiority of Christian moral teachings. Priestley began his study in order to refute Christianity's philosophical critics. We shall see that the Bhagavad-Gita impressed Ralph Waldo Emerson with its discussion of karma yoga and jnana yoga — but bhakti yoga appears to have made no impression on him at all. Action and thought he could understand, but not devotion. Emerson may have read the Gita many times, but one of its central concerns seems not to have caught his notice. The Unitarian emphasis on the intellectual and ethical dimensions of religion continues today, leading its critics to observe an ongoing blindness to the ritual, communal, and visceral dimensions of religion. The early Unitarians were not alone in emphasizing Vedanta and the "Laws of Manu" (more accurately known today as the Manu Smrti or Manava Dharma Shastra), for they depended on European scholars who shared a similar bias. "To a large extent, the Western admirer has always identified Hinduism with the lofty ideals embodied in the Upanishads," Carl Jackson writes, "while the detractor has associated it with its popular forms and aberrations" (89).

Finally, the text-based nature of the early investigations into Hinduism is worth noticing. It is worth asking why the Unitarians remained so content to absorb the "lofty ideals" and showed so little interest in the religion as it was practiced. Part of the answer, of course, is that books travel much more easily than people. But the Unitarians were already bookish. To a large extent, the Unitarians tended to view "lofty ideals" as the original or inspired aspect of a religion and tended to view traditional practices as the debased or superstitious aspect of a religion. (The radical Transcendentalist-Unitarian Theodore Parker extended this line of thinking to Christianity, arguing that "pure Christianity" would exist even if Jesus had never lived. The spiritual truths of Christianity are permanent, he argued; all else is transient.13) As a consequence of their preference for abstract and spiritual ideals, the Unitarians identified with the Hindu reform efforts of Rammohun Roy and the Brahmo Samaj, which they saw as analogous to their own "reform" of Christianity. In addition, as "Protestants of Protestants,"14 the Unitarians tended to treat each individual as an autonomous interpreter of scripture, leading in its most extreme form eventually to the Transcendentalists' "literary religion" which Arthur Versluis defines as "religious scripture divorced from their cultural and ritual context, used piecemeal, and assimilated into essentially literary works like Emerson's essays or Thoreau's Walden" (105 n.7). The contemporary Unitarian Universalist view of scripture fits Versluis's definition, following a pattern established in the early encounter with Hinduism.

Emerson: the first religious engagement

Each of these Unitarian tendencies is fully apparent in the Transcendentalist response to Hinduism. In the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the early works of Henry David Thoreau — the two most significant Transcendentalist students of Hinduism — we find the first religious appropriation of Hindu texts in America. Unlike Joseph Priestley or John Adams, Emerson and Thoreau read Hindu texts and texts about Hinduism not in order to identify the superior credentials of one religion over another, but in order to develop their own religious thoughts and practices.15 In the 1830s, after the death of his first wife, Emerson resigned his pastorate at the Second Church in Boston and took up the role of essayist and lecturer. His journals demonstrate that Emerson came to be passionately interested in Hinduism sometime in the mid-1830s.16 Eric Sharpe and others believe that Emerson's imagination was first fully engaged by Hinduism in Victor Cousin's Cours de philosophie, translated into English in 1832, which impressed Emerson with its description of the "Dialogue between Krishna and Arjoon" (in Sharpe, The Universal Gita, 21).17 Arthur Versluis writes that by the time Emerson published his first book, Nature, in 1836, he had read "the Zendavesta, various translations by Sir William Jones, unspecified works relating to Zoroaster, a number of articles in the Edinburgh Review, and selections from the Mahabharata, the works of Confucius, the Arabian Nights, the Arabian Proverbs, and the Laws of Manu" (54). By 1843, Emerson especially prized Charles Wilkins's translation of the Vishnu Sarma and Horace Wilson's translation of the Vishnu Puruna, and his journals refer to and quote the Rig-Veda, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavata Purana (Jackson 49).18 Although Emerson rarely mentions specific Hindu texts in his published works, his journals reveal a thinker profoundly engaged in a dialogue with texts ranging from contemporary German and English Romanticism to classical neo-Platonism to Confucianism to Vedantic Hinduism.

Although a few scholars, such as S. P. Das, consider Emerson's central ideas essentially Occidental in their derivation,19 most accord Hinduism a prominent place in his thought.20 Emerson presents no small difficulty for a historian of ideas. His famous journals include passages from a remarkable range of books and ideas. Each of his essays and lectures is made of pieces gathered out of his journals and reshaped to meet the rhetorical needs of each work. Emerson's lack of concern for historical and intellectual context when quoting passages can especially frustrate contemporary readers, leading one to suspect that Emerson strews references through his work simply as a kind of decoration. Carl Jackson dismisses critics of Emerson's "superficial" quotation from Oriental sources by noting the purpose they serve in his thought:

Examining the references, it becomes clear that they serve one purpose again and again: to universalize a point under discussion . . . As an idealist and Transcendentalist, he believed that Reality was spiritual and that this spirituality permeated all peoples . . . Further, he believed that this universal spirit appeared in purest form in highly developed geniuses who from time to time emerged to renew the divine element. (51)

Emerson universalizes in order to point out a unity of spiritual insight to be found in sources as distant in time and space as neo-Platonic philosophy, German Romantic poetry, the Bhagavat Purana, or the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg.

His universalizing clearly belongs to the Idealist and Romantic spirit of his times. It also expresses what the historian Peter Williams has identified as a continuing alternative tradition in American religious thought that differs fundamentally from the "distinctively Western religions" Judaism and Christianity. Williams mentions Aldous Huxley's term "philosophia perennis" as one characterization of this alternative tradition. Huxley's "perennial philosophy" highlights the tendency of this alternative tradition to reject "the historical realm as transient and illusory, devoid of enduring or ultimately significant reality." Williams also mentions Sydney Ahlstrom's characterization of this alternative tradition as "harmonialism":

Harmonialism in its myriad of shifting forms is based on the premise that this-worldly phenomena are in correspondence with higher truths in other realms of being, which are ultimate objects of our ongoing quest. . . . What is sought after, fundamentally, is a state of harmony with the ultimate principles that underlie the universe. (America's Religions: Traditions and Cultures, 1998, 309)

Emerson's universalizing is not simply a literary sensibility that incorporates sentences from various texts in order to make a point. His universalizing expresses the first fully-developed expression of Huxley's philosophia perennis in America — an expression that takes shape through Emerson's religious engagement with Hindu texts.

In July 1842, Emerson inaugurated a series in the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial that featured extracts from non-Western scriptures. Calling the series "Ethnical Scriptures," Emerson writes:

Each nation has its bible more or less pure; none has yet been willing or able in a wise and devout spirit to collate its own with those of other nations, and sinking the civil-historical and ritual portions to bring together the grand expressions of the moral sentiment in different ages and races, the rules for the guidance of life, the bursts of piety and of abandonment to the Invisible and Eternal;— a work inevitable sooner or later, and which we hope is to be done by religion and not by literature. (The Dial, III, July 1842, 82; quoted in R. K. Dhawan, Henry David Thoreau, a Study in Indian Influence, 1985, 27-28)

Several themes are apparent. The "collation" of sacred books from diverse cultures is both wise and devout. "Grand expressions of the moral sentiment" are ageless; the "civil-historical" and "ritual" dimensions of religion, however, must be discarded. Religious devotion is characterized as "abandonment" to the "Invisible and Eternal" — a clear expression of Romantic Idealism. Finally, Emerson here identifies the process of collation as, ideally, a religious rather than literary task. In my discussion of the import of Unitarianism for understanding the earliest American responses to Hinduism, I suggested that Unitarians regarded religions as comparable; that they valued the philosophical and the ethical over the devotional or behavioral aspects of religion; and that they especially valued the textual dimension of religion. Emerson's "Ethnical Scriptures" continues this tradition of response.

One example from Emerson's writing will suffice to illustrate the complexity of Emerson's engagement with Hindu ideas. Many scholars have looked closely at Emerson's 1841 essay "The Over-Soul" for indications of Hindu influence. Arthur Christy, somewhat overstating the case, writes that "just as all Emerson's work seems but a variation of the fundamental doctrine of the Over-Soul, so the philosophic literature of India repeats similar variations on the doctrine of the Supreme Cosmic Brahma" (20). When Emerson writes that "within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One" ("The Over-Soul," Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Richard Poirier, 153), he is probably treating the relationship of the soul to the Over-Soul in much the same way that Sankara treats the relationship of atman to brahman — as differentiated only by a failure to perceive an essential unity.

Emerson's emphasis on unity resembles the approach of the advaita schools. But did Emerson arrive at his view through acquaintance with the Vedanta advaitists? Emerson wrote "The Over-Soul" in 1841. He mentions his encounter with the Hindu doctrine tat tvam asi for the first time in his journal in 1845, when he read Colebrooke's Miscellaneous Essays. Quoting Colebrooke on Vedanta, Emerson writes, "He who eternally restrains this and the other world, and all beings therein; who, standing in the earth, is other than the earth; whom the earth knows not, whose body the earth is, who interiorly restrains the earth, the same is thy soul, and the Internal Check immortal" (Journal, VII, 110, quoted in Christy 288). Emerson immediately noticed the similarities, and began to explore them. Could his doctrine of the Over-Soul have Hindu influences prior to his first direct encounter with Vedanta? Probably, as several scholars have argued, but the essay itself owes its language to mystical and idealist trains of thought in the Western tradition, not to philosophical thought in India. Emerson had already read Victor Cousin, however, from whose comments on Hinduism he had learned that "nothing exists but the eternal principle, being itself" (in Sharpe, The Universal Gita, 21). Twenty years later, after considerable exploration in Hindu texts, Emerson does explicitly link his terms to the Sanskrit terms atman and paramatman:

The highest object of their [the Hindus'] religion [is] to restore that bond by which their own self (atman) [is] linked to the Eternal Self (paramatman) i.e. Over-Soul; to recover that unity which had been clouded and obscured by the magical illusions of reality, by the so called Maia of Creation. (Quoted in Versluis 66)

Emerson also writes that "there is no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins" ("The Over-Soul" 154). Is this really an advaita view? Although emphasizing an essential unity between the soul and Over-Soul, Emerson also treats this unity as the unity — or perhaps the continuum — of God and man. The "bond" between the self and the eternal self, however, may also express a doctrine similar to Ramanuja's visisthadvaita, that jiva [localized atman] is eternally individuated while also being eternally united with brahman. Emerson is not systematic, nor is he ever clear about what he means by "God," and so it is not clear how extreme his monism may be.

As this discussion illustrates, however, Emerson's engagement with Hindu ideas and texts is much more intense than that of his predecessors John Adams or Joseph Priestley. I have said that Emerson's engagement with Hindu texts is a religious engagement. This is not necessarily obvious. Arthur Versluis, for example, would disagree: "Emerson drew from many traditions but was beholden to none. He wanted to enter the heart of all traditions, and occasionally, as in [his poem] 'Brahma,' he may well have succeeded — but only, finally, in a literary sense" (76). Identifying Emerson's approach as "literary religion" Versluis explains that "when religion is stripped of its cultural and practical implications, rendered as merely ethical strictures and 'abandonment to the Invisible,' it becomes 'literary religion'" (78). Is literary religion actually religious? Emerson left the Unitarian ministry in 1832 because he considered the use of bread and wine in the celebration of the Lord's Supper to be barbaric; he scandalized conservative Unitarians in 1838 with his proclamation that everything is miracle and that "churches are not built on [Christ's] principles, but on his tropes"; he refused to say what kind of God he believed in.21 His religious views were hardly conventional, and his own religiosity is obviously literary rather than communal or traditional. However, the Unitarian movement in the United States also gradually developed characteristics of "literary religion" in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, until one 20th-century scholar identified it as a "post-traditional religion" in the 1970s.22 An emphasis on philosophical and ethical principles, the efficacy of reason in discerning religious truth (apparent in the assumption of comparability in Priestley and Adams "objective" comparison of Christianity and Hinduism), and the textual nature of religious insight have characterized Unitarianism for two centuries. In the last century, Unitarianism has fully re-appropriated the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, leading William Channing Gannett to regard Emerson himself as a prophet in a popular Unitarian hymn titled "The Word of God," written in the late 19th century:

From Sinai's cliffs it echoed,
            It breathed from Buddha's tree,
It charmed in Athens' market,
            It gladdened Galilee;
The hammer-stroke of Luther,
            The Pilgrim's sea-side prayer,
The oracles of Concord,
            One holy Word declare.23 (my emphasis)

Versluis's criticism poses a problem not just for Emerson's "literary religion" but for the larger Unitarian tradition as well.

The continuing Unitarian Universalist response

I conclude this exploration of early American encounters with Hinduism on a contemporary note. The features I have identified in the Unitarian responses to Hinduism from the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries persist in modified form today. Eric Sharpe immediately identifies one of the dilemmas of the Unitarian response when he comments more generally on the Western response to the Bhagavad-Gita:

In the post-Enlightenment period there arose an almost universal conviction that in matters of religion words and texts are of supreme importance . . . [T]he underlying assumption was that the world as a whole ought to read its own sacred scriptures; that these could be understood, more or less as they stand, by anyone who cared to read them; and that their having originally had a far different religious and cultural setting than that of the modern West need not be a barrier to their appropriation. (The Universal Gita, xiii)

When an entire religious tradition makes these assumptions, seeking far and wide for the ethical and philosophical Truth expressed in the diverse scriptures of every culture, that tradition runs the considerable risk of misunderstanding the significance of genuine cultural and religious diversity. The modern Unitarian Universalist Association (founded in 1964) has officially identified as a primary source of religious truth "direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life" (Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1984). A persistent feature of Unitarian Universalist denominational life has been a debate about the propriety of adopting or adapting texts and practices of other religions for use by Unitarian Universalists; in these debates, all sides agree that Unitarian Universalists are currently engaged in such syncretism. Let us look at a few samples of late-twentieth-century Unitarian Universalist appropriation.

Liturgical materials in particular have been developed for use in Unitarian Universalist congregations from Hindu sources as well as from the Brahmo Samaj, the Hindu reform movement with which American and British Unitarians have had close and continuing relationships, and from the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, the grandson of one of the founders of the Brahmo Samaj and the "father of modern India."24 The 1964 Unitarian Universalist hymnal Hymns for the Celebration of Life includes a variety of Hindu materials, including the following hymn adapted from Swami Prabhavanda and Christopher Isherwood's translation of the Bhagavad-Gita:

Give me your whole heart,
Love and adore me,
Worship me always,
Bow to me only,
            and you shall find me:
This is my promise,
Who love you dearly.
Fear no longer
For I will save you
            from sin and bondage. (Hymn 134)

The musical setting of the hymn deserves mention for its use of a seven-beat rhythm — a common feature of much Indian music — together with Western four-part harmony.25 Several other features of this hymn merit attention. This text is the only example I have found of bhakti yoga in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, although Krishna is not named in the hymn. The passage appears to be from the ninth teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, which describes bhakti as the highest discipline. The first verse of the hymn is verse 9.34 of the Gita; the last three lines of verse two may be a paraphrase of verse 9.28, which describes release from karma and samsara through devotion. The line "This is my promise, / Who love you dearly" seems to be a Christianization of what appears in the Gita, however. Compare verse 9.29 of the Gita:

I am impartial to all creatures,
and no one is hateful or dear to me;
but men devoted to me are in me,
and I am within them.

This hymn has fallen out of use and does not appear in the more recent hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (1993), probably because of its emphasis on devotion over the more familiar ethical and intellectual patterns of worship in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

The more recent hymnal blends East and West in a more syncretistic and (to my mind) less successful way. A poem by Rabindranath Tagore, for example, is set to a very familiar tune from the Scottish Psalter, the source of many of the most "hymn-like" tunes in Protestant use (see Hymn 185). Singing the Living Tradition also includes a "traditional Hindu hymn" in Sanskrit, for which no translation is provided. The refrain is: "Raghupati, Raghava, Raja Ram. / Patita Paban, Seeta Ram" (Hymn 178).

Two responsive readings are taken from Hindu scriptures. The first adapts Krishna's speech about his divine powers from the tenth teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, and includes paraphrases of verses 20-41, stripped of Hindu vocabulary (Reading 611, "Brahman"). Compare Barbara Stoler Miller's translation of 10.38 with the verse appearing in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal:

I am the scepter of rulers, the morality of ambitious men; I am the silence of mysteries, what men of knowledge know. (Bhagavad-Gita)

I am the strength of the strong; I am the purity of the good. I am the knowledge of the knower. There is no limit to my divine manifestations. (Singing the Living Tradition)

The second reading in Singing the Living Tradition taken from Hindu scripture is a verse from the Chandogya Upanishad (apparently 8.3.2b followed by a rough paraphrase of 8.4.3): "You could have a golden treasure buried beneath your feet, and walk over it again and again, yet never find it because you don't realize it is there. Just so, all beings live every moment in the city of the Divine, but never find the Divine because it is hidden by the veil of illusion" (Reading 613). "City of the Divine" appears to be a translation of brahmaloka, although the translation sounds to Western ears like a version of the Christian "kingdom of God."

What religion are these various texts expressing? Are they adequate representatives of Hinduism? Are they expressions of a Western religion seeking Eastern vestments? Are "sin and bondage" in the hymn from the Bhagavad-Gita successful translations of karma and samsara? Let me suggest two considerations: Positively viewed, the Unitarian tradition of perceiving other religions as religiously meaningful has made possible the emergence of a new kind of religiosity with both Western and Eastern influences. The religious experience of Unitarian Universalists for whom a hymn from the Bhagavad-Gita becomes religiously significant alongside texts and prayers and hymns from Christian and Jewish sources is in itself a religious phenomenon worth notice. Viewed negatively, however, the Unitarian tradition mistakes certain aspects of each religion as invariably more significant than other aspects — emphasizing ethical dimensions over the liturgical, ritual, or cosmological dimensions — without regard for the evaluative views of practitioners of those religions. No tradition differentiates the features of its thought and practice in the same way as any other, which means that the comparative approach favored by Unitarians since the days of Joseph Priestley is likely to teach us less about what other religions are "really" like than it will teach us what we find valuable or meaningful to us. Serious engagement — if understanding is the goal — will likely require a desire to appreciate even those parts of a tradition which seem least appreciable.


The history of the Unitarian engagement with Hinduism is important. The earliest serious American responses to the texts on Hinduism were by Unitarians who saw in those texts an ancient civilization with a rich and sophisticated philosophical tradition worth serious attention. Even Joseph Priestley, who studied Hinduism in order to write polemically about its inferiority to Christianity, studied the emerging European scholarship closely and seriously. The serious engagement of these early Unitarians was not without its distortions, for sympathy as well as hostility can distort. When Emerson enthusiastically read the Bhagavad-Gita in 1845, for example, he recognized in its teachings only "beautiful necessity" (his term for karma) and "illumination" (jnana); he does not seem to have had any appreciation for bhakti, however significant it has been and continues to be in Hindu tradition, not to mention its explicit prominence in the Gita.26 Because he already believed in a universal Truth expressed in every age and culture, he seems to have discovered evidence for his belief whenever he discovered a text from another age and culture. As Eric Sharpe points out, these dilemmas are hardly unique to Unitarian readers, and have continued to make the European and American response to Hinduism complex. I find the continued Unitarian Universalist engagement with Hinduism both exciting and frustrating. The early engagements with Hinduism suggest that serious engagement tempered by caution about the biases one brings to the study of another religion will continue to yield fruitful, if never adequate, results.

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Written for An Introduction to Hinduism, Professor Edwin Bryant, Harvard University, January 14, 1999.
1. Unitarianism emerged as a distinctive religious tradition and denomination in the closing years of the eighteenth century and the opening decades of the nineteenth. Centered in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Unitarians were liberal Christians in their theology who rejected Calvinism, emphasizing instead the rationality of Christian doctrines, the moral capacity of human beings, and the dominance of ethical living over doctrinal orthodoxy. The Unitarians were also a distinctive social and cultural group. Daniel Walker Howe reports Harriet Beecher Stowe's complaint about the Unitarian dominance of Boston in 1825: "All the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarian. All the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarians. All the elite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches. The judges on the bench were Unitarian, giving decisions by which the peculiar features of church organization, so carefully ordained by the Pilgrim fathers, had been nullified [in favor of Unitarianism]" (The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, 1988, 8). Their prominence in the intellectual history of the United States can be traced in part to their status as an urban elite in the early days of the Republic. back
2. Dale Riepe notes that the earliest American missionaries to India arrived in 1812, but were expelled by the British (The Philosophy of India and Its Impact On American Thought, 1970, 3). The British allowed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send missionaries to India in 1813 (Riepe 6). back
3. Jackson gives the earlier date (6). Riepe reports the origins of American trade somewhat differently, noting that American trade with India prior to 1794 was considered illegitimate by the British. He dates the first voyage from Salem as 1787 (Riepe 7). back
4. Jackson identifies Priestley's work as the "first serious inquiry into the Oriental religions published in America" (25). Arthur Versluis names Priestley as "one of the first in America to give serious consideration to the East" (American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, 1993, 36). back
5. Jackson also examines discussions of Indian philosophy in Priestley's earlier writings, including Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1782), Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part II (1787), and Discourses Relating to the Evidences of Revealed Religion (written shortly after his arrival in America in 1794, but published in 1804). Although Priestley writes dismissively of "abominable and disgusting" rites and "absurd notions concerning the origin and constitution of the universe," Jackson writes that Priestley also "treated the Hindu achievement with respect, observing, 'This people was famed, in all ages, for their superior wisdom and civilization'" and that Egyptian and Greek mythology either derived from Hindu sources or to some other shared source (27). back
6. Priestley's investment in refuting the attacks of Deists and French free-thinkers must be understood as part of his controversial position as an early English Unitarian. Priestley had sympathized publicly with the French Revolution, and was effectively chased out of Britain for his political views. Because Unitarianism was frequently accused of leading directly to "atheism" by its theological opponents, Priestley and other early Unitarian polemicists took great pains to defend themselves as champions of "true" Christianity. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that Priestley turned his attention to Hinduism and to the emerging European scholarship on Hinduism in order to prove the Orientalist critics of Christianity wrong. For more on the rise of English Unitarianism, see Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: In Transylvania, England, and America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945, 1952). back
7. Arthur Versluis lists the first and third of these sources among six others in a sample of Priestley's reading in early European writings on Asian religion (American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions, 38-39). Carl Jackson also provides a sample of Priestley's sources, including Jones's work (Oriental Religions and American Thought, 28). back
8. A more widely-read but less thoroughly researched early work of American comparative religion is Hannah Adams's third edition of A View of Religions in Two Parts (1801). A compendium of extracts from other works, Adams's book includes a thirty-page sketch of Asian religions in which Hinduism is featured most prominently. Her approach, rather than her scholarship, has drawn the praise of contemporary scholars because she explicitly tried to let each "sect" speak for itself and tried to avoid passing judgment on the beliefs or practices of the religious groups she featured. (See Jackson 16-19.) back

9. While Carl Jackson presents Adams's reaction to Hinduism in a positive light, Dale Riepe emphasizes Adams's negative reaction to Priestley's materialism, and quotes Adams's more negative assessments of Hindu practice and belief. (See The Philosophy of India and Its Impact On American Thought, 17-18.) The extent and quality of Adams's reading on Hinduism seems more significant in the long run than the tone of his observations, and I think Jackson is right to emphasize that Priestley and Adams were unusual not for their disparaging comments about Hinduism, but instead for the thoroughness of their investigation of Hinduism. back
10. Unitarian historians would no doubt add that Priestley's English Socinianism — with its deistic tendencies and its human Jesus — was generally foreign to the outlook of most New England Unitarians, whose theology tended toward Arianism and its more divine Jesus. back
11. "Unitarian Christianity (1819)," in Conrad Wright, ed., Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, Second ed., 1986, 49. back
12. See especially Eugene Robert Chable, A Study of the Interpretation of the New Testament in New England Unitarianism, Dissertation, Columbia University, 1955. back
13. See especially Parker's sermon "The Permanent and Transient in Christianity," in Conrad Wright, ed., Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, second ed., 113-149. back
14. The term comes from Henry Whitney Bellows, The Suspense of Faith: An Address to the Alumni of the Divinity School of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., Given July 19, 1859, New York: C. S. Francis, 1859. back
15. This paper could easily extend to include Thoreau, but time and space impose their limits. See R. K. Dhawan, Henry David Thoreau, a Study in Indian Influence, 1985, and A. K. B. Pillai, Transcendental Self: a Comparative Study of Thoreau and the Psycho-Philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism, 1985, for especially interesting studies of Thoreau. back
16. Many scholars have identified Emerson's early interest in Hinduism in some of his college poems, written a decade earlier, and especially in a journal entry from 1822. Arthur Christy, for example, writes that Emerson "had been reading Sir William Jones" because he appended lines from Jones's "A Hymn to Narayena" to his own musings about God in his journal (The Orient in American Transcendentalism, 1932, 68-69). Later scholars believe that Emerson showed no especial interest in Hinduism at this early date. The publication of Mary Moody Emerson's letters in 1993 shows that Ralph Waldo Emerson had not read Jones yet, but instead copied the verses from his Aunt Mary, who wrote out the verses in a letter to her nephew June 26, 1822 (The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, 1993, 155-159).
Mary had a limited if sympathetic interest in Hinduism, which she conveyed in several extant letters. She sent him the verses from Jones in response to his statement: "I am curious to read your Hindoo mythologies. One is apt to lament over indolence and ignorance, when he reads some of these sanguine students of the Eastern antiquities, who seem to think that all the books of knowledge and all the wisdom of Europe twice-told lie hid in the treasures of the Bramins and the volumes of Zoroaster... Every man has a fairy-land just beyond the compass of his horizon... and it is very natural that literature at large should look for some fanciful stores of mind which surpassed example and possibility" (June 10, 1822, quoted in Versluis 53). A critic would notice immediately that Emerson himself would soon treat ancient India as a storehouse of wisdom, although he apparently did not recall the irony of his own early criticism of Orientalism. back
17. Cousin's work illustrates for Carl Jackson the ease with which Emerson and his contemporaries could arrive at distorted impressions of India: "Cousin offered a French philosopher's interpretation of an English scholar's translation of the extremely difficult texts of an ancient Indian civilization" (47-48). Emerson depended on such secondary accounts of the Bhagavad-Gita for a decade until he finally obtained a much-anticipated copy of Charles Wilkins's Bhagvat Geeta in 1845. back
18. Arthur Christy provides a helpful annotated bibliography of the Oriental books read by Emerson, Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott in The Orient in American Transcendentalism, 275-323. "Translations of the Sacred and Secular Literatures and Expositions of the Religions of India" takes up pages 283-301. back
19. See Emerson's Debt to Hindu Thought: A Reappraisal, Dissertation, Gurunanak University, Amritsar, 1977. Carl Jackson presents a helpful overview of the perspectives of those who see minimal Oriental influence in Emerson's thought; see Oriental Religions and American Thought, 1981, 50-51. back
20. I consulted Arthur Christy, The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932), who locates influence in doubtful places; Dale Riepe, The Philosophy of India and Its Impact On American Thought (1970); Carl T. Jackson, The Oriental Religions and American Thought (1981), who sees Emerson as a "prophet . . . who most fully realized the philosophical significance of Asian thought and the first to seek to reconcile Oriental ideas with Western thought" (57); and Upesh Patri, Hindu Scriptures and American Transcendentalists (1987), who tries to locate sources for an "implicitly Oriental" basis for Emerson's central ideas even where an Occidental basis is more likely. back
21. For an excellent assessment of Emerson's reasons for leaving the ministry, see David M. Robinson's introductory essay to The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Albert J. von Frank (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989). The criticism of miracles and the traditional churches appears in Emerson's Divinity School Address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School in 1838 (in Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. by Richard Poirier, 57). back
22. See Robert B. Tapp, Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfather's House, New York: Seminar Press, 1973. back

23. In Frederick L. Hosmer and William C. Gannett, The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems, Second Series, 1894, 48. The hymn appears in the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition (1993) as Hymn 187, "It Sounds Along the Ages." back
24. See Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India, second ed., 1984, for an especially interesting account of the relationship of British and American Unitarians to the beginnings of Unitarianism and the Brahmo Samaj in India. back
25. Kenneth Munson wrote the very appealing tune "Cole" for this text in 1961. back
26. See Versluis's discussion of Emerson's response to the Gita, 55-56; and especially 106 n.36. back


The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna's Counsel in Time of War. Trans. by Barbara Stoler Miller. New York: Bantam Classics, 1986.
Arthur Christy. The Orient in American Transcendentalism: a Study of Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1932.
S. P. Das. Emerson's Debt to Hindu Thought: A Reappraisal. Dissertation: Gurunanak University, Amritsar, 1977.
Rajinder Kumar Dhawan. Henry David Thoreau, a Study in Indian Influence. New Delhi: Classical Publishing, 1985.
Mary Moody Emerson. The Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson. Ed. by Nancy Craig Simmons. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Four volumes. Ed. by Albert J. von Frank. Intro. by David Robinson. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
———. Ralph Waldo Emerson [Selections]. Ed. by Richard Poirier. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
———. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Six volumes. Ed. by Ralph L. Rusk. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Daniel Walker Howe. The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861. Rev. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.
Carl T. Jackson. The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations. Contributions in American Studies, Number 55. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Spencer Lavan. Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response. Second ed. Intro. by Eugene Pickett. Boston: Skinner House, 1984.
Joel Myerson. The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial: a History of the Magazine and Its Contributors. Rutherford, Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1980.
Umesh Patri. Hindu Scriptures and American Transcendentalists. New Delhi: Intellectual Publishing House, 1987.
A. K. B. Pillai. Transcendental Self: a Comparative Study of Thoreau and the Psycho-Philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Robert D. Richardson, Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Dale Maurice Riepe. The Philosophy of India and Its Impact On American Thought. American Lecture Series, Publication No. 772. A Monograph in the Bannerstone Division of American Lectures in Philosophy. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1970.
Eric J. Sharpe. The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavad Gita, a Bicentenary Survey. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing Company, 1985.
Upanisads. Trans. by Patrick Olivelle. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Arthur Versluis. American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions. Religion in America Series. New York; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.
Peter W. Williams. America's Religions: Traditions and Cultures. Illini Books Edition. Urbana and Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

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Philocrites | Copyright © 1999, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton