Emerson and Sankara
by Robert C. Gordon, PhD
At the time he composed his first book Nature in 1836,
Ralph Waldo Emerson was a committed Idealist. This Idealism had been inspired
by two primary resources, George Berkeley and Emanuel Swedenborg. From
his boyhood reading in Berkeley, Emerson came to believe that the world
was not merely material, but was in fact an "idea" in the mind
of the Creator. Emerson learned Idealism from Swedenborg, too, but of
a different sort. Swedenborg emphasized humanity's entire dependence upon
the influx of Spirit, and according to his Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation,
the world was a divine projection through the consciousness of the individual.
Thus both of the ontological sources inspiring Nature
Berkeley and Swedenborg were Idealists, but different in type.
According to Nature's more objective Berkeleian element,
the world of name and form was an idea in the Mind of God that served
as the theater of individual "becoming." But there was also
the element of subjective Idealism drawn from Swedenborg's Neoplatonic
emanationism, which held that the world was projected through the individual.
Whereas Berkeley was an objective Idealist, Swedenborg was a subjective
Idealist, almost a solipsist, with the result that Emerson's Idealism,
early in his philosophical career, was a confusion of both. This admixture
occasioned conceptual problems in Nature, problems of which
Emerson was well aware. As he was struggling to finish writing it, he
wrote his brother William that "The book of Nature
still lies on the table. There is, as always, one crack in it not easy
to be soldered or welded."1 Emerson did not get this crack
welded by the time he wrote Nature, and indeed his philosophical
confusion was to bedevil Emerson's thinking for nearly ten years. He resolved
it at last through his close study of Indian philosophy, and especially
the concept of maya.
If matter was really Spirit, then it was incumbent upon the reflective
Idealist to provide a coherent account of how it came to pass that, as
Emerson put it, "Be makes Seem." Nature presented Emerson's
patched together and faulty explanation, one he proved unable to sort
out until his readings in Indian philosophy converted him to the mayavada
of the celebrated Indian philosopher and saint Sri Sankaracarya. In understanding
how the concept of maya influenced Emerson, and why it was so important,
it will help to learn something about the origins of this crucial doctrine
in Sankara. Studying him in some detail will be amply rewarded, because
Emerson's mature philosophy is very like Sankara's Advaita Vedanta, but
with one signal exception Emerson accepted the scientific principle
of evolution. Also, Emerson's philosophy carried him further toward the
Tantric end of the metaphysical spectrum that even Sankara's sakta
origins permitted. Despite these differences, Emerson and Sankara are
very close philosophically, a proximity that increased when the former
accepted the latter's mayavada explanation of how "Be
Sankara hammered out the concept of maya in his great debates
with the schools of thought contending in his own day. Sankara's central
problem was to uphold non-dualism, and at the same time provide a coherent
account of his conception of Brahman, the nature of Its causal power,
Its relation with illusion or maya and the cosmos, and finally
the connection between Brahman and the individual. Sankara composed his
famed exposition and defense of non-dualism during a period of great religious
and intellectual ferment. Influential during his life (788-820 C.E.) were
several competing metaphysical formulations: the Sunyavada school of Buddhism
descended from Nagarjuna; the Vijñanavada school of Buddhism descended
from Asanga and Vasubandhu; the Samkhya system as developed by Kapila;
Karma mimamsa, then enjoying a revival as a result of the work of Kumarila;
bhakti cults devoted to the worship of Kali-Durga; the non-dualist
strain of Vedanta founded by Gaudapada; and finally the cults of sakta,
to which Sankara himself belonged.
The Sunyavadins and Vijñanavadins were the most powerful of the
Buddhist schools against which Sankara contended. His chief disagreement
was with their denial of the existence of a discrete and identifiable
self perduring through experience. Rather, they held, individuals were
a nexus of tendencies (dharmas) whose extinction terminated the
suffering (and at death the existence) of the Realized individual. Against
the Buddhists, Sankara argued that experience necessitates an experiencer
an enduring self whose goal was to realize its identity
with the final ground of all existence. He also took issue with Buddhist
accounts of the nature of manifest creation. The Vijñanavadins
were subjective Idealists who maintained that the world of experience
was a production of individual consciousness, the Sunyavadins that the
world was ultimately non-existent, a complete void. Sankara rejected the
Buddhist doctrines of subjective Idealism and the ultimate "voidness"
of empirical experience.
Sankara's chief dispute with the Samkhyas centered on their metaphysical
duality and their theory of causation. They asserted a duality of matter
(prakrti) and souls (purushas), believing that the soul's
duty to was to free itself from the entanglements of matter. Conceiving
the material world to be real, the Samkhyas held that causes underwent
real transformations in producing their effects. Against the Samkhyas,
Sankara contended that matter was ultimately nothing other than Brahman,
identical in character to the soul. The cosmos was not self-existent
and controlled by its own material laws of production and change. Matter's
ultimate cause, Brahman, only appeared to be transformed into diverse
effects. This was Sankara's vivartavada explanation of the phenomenal
world the world "appeared" only, leaving Brahman unaffected.
A power within Brahman gave rise to the world of name and form, a world
which was taken to be real by souls in ignorance but which eventually
came to be known as the unreal product of wrong knowledge merely. In truth,
both souls and matter were resolvable into the changeless and radically
Kumarila rooted his interpretation of Karma mimamsa in a duality not
too dissimilar from that of Samkhya, and duality, as noted previously,
Sankara denied. The more important argument with the Mimamsakas centered
on ritualism. They looked to the Veda as a description of mandatory ritual
action and not as the articulation of a coherent philosophy. Kumarila
believed that ritual practice, as described in the Veda, annulled the
karma of the individual and freed him/her eventually from samsara.
Sankara rejected ritual as a final means to truth. For him, only the Vedicly
revealed knowledge of the identity of the soul and Brahman could truly
set one free.
The great bhakti cults of Sankara's day believed that total devotion
to a chosen deity offered the soul the only hope out of the world's weal
and woe. Devotion brought the soul into an ever more perfect relation
with deity, until it found repose in contemplation of the divine. Sankara
agreed with the Bhaktas that devotion occupied a place of particular importance
in the quest for final truth. He demurred only at the use of the word
"final" in conjunction with worship. Because devotion implied
at least the duality of devotee and the divine object of devotion, a theistic
formulation could not be finally true for the non-dualist Sankara. Even
God/dess in a personal form must be finally sublated by knowledge of the
If the Buddhists, the Samkhyas, the Mimamsakas, and the Bhaktas constituted
the negative inspiration for Sankara's philosophy, Gaudapada's karika
on the Mandukya Upanishad provided the positive. To him must be credited
the first use of the concept of maya in a way that proved helpful
to all Vedantic development. That Gaudapada was himself a Buddhist convert
or was at least strongly influenced by Buddhist doctrine is evidenced
by his liberal borrowings from Madhyamika as expounded by Nagarjuna, and
Vijñanavada as found in the Lankavatara Sutra. That the mayavada
of Vedanta can be traced to Buddhist origins should come as no surprise
since Sankara himself, on more than one occasion, was accused of being
a crypto-Buddhist. But Buddhist he was not, and, as will become evident,
for the same reasons Emerson found Buddhism metaphysically chilling.
Gaudapada was the teacher of Govinda, Sankara's own philosophical master.
Pivotal to Sankara was Gaudapada's assertion that maya was the
source of the world, and maya was the key concept that enabled
Sankara to bring order and coherence to the mass of Vedic scripture. Gaudapada,
however, revealing his close ties to Buddhism, considered earthly experience
to be unreal, in the same way that dreams are unreal. The world of earthly
experience was neither really produced nor was it destroyed. Nothing really
came into being, in the same way that in a dream nothing really exists.
According to Gaudapada, there was only one unchanging Reality upon which
duality was imposed by the illusion-producing nescience or power of maya.
While Sankara appreciated Gaudapada's theory of maya, he found
Gaudapada's illusionistic theory too extreme. He modified Gaudapada by
articulating a much more world-affirmative position, influenced in this
shift no doubt by his sakta origins. Earthly experience was not
an illusion in the same sense as a dream. Rather, it represented a lower
order of knowledge and experience that had its own reality and soteriological
How to maintain a strict philosophical non-duality and yet at the same
time to uphold a belief in the existence of objects and individuals
this was the central problem for both Sankara and Emerson. Both needed
somehow to establish that the realm of name and form depended immediately
upon the power of Brahman or the Oversoul, that it was not self-existent
and controlled by its own laws of production and change. Sankara's solution
turned upon the concept of maya, which he defined as a sakti
or power of Brahman. Brahman, through this creative power, produced multiplicity,
making Brahman ultimately both the material and efficient cause of the
By describing maya as such a power, Sankara both denied its independence
of Brahman and avoided predicating qualities of Brahman. Thus the essence
of Sankara's theory was to argue that a power within Brahman gave rise
to the world of name and form, a world which was taken to be real by souls
in ignorance but which eventually came to be known essentially as the
unreal product of wrong knowledge. Sankara then used the concept of maya
in crucial ways: to develop his cosmology and ontology, and then to apply
it to individual soteriology. In this way he deployed maya to explain
the universe, individual ignorance and suffering, and their final transcendence
Sankara founded his philosophy on the a priori assumption of the
absolute truth of Hindu scripture, which he read as expressing two levels
of knowledge. On the one hand were those passages of scripture which describe
Brahman as creator, as possessed of qualities, while on the other hand
were those passages which characterized Brahman as a qualityless non-duality.
According to Sankara, the former passages constituted apara vidya,
an exoteric doctrine of lower knowledge which represented Brahman as saguna
or possessed of qualities. The latter passages were para vidya,
an esoteric doctrine of higher knowledge which portrayed Brahman as nirguna
or changeless and completely without qualities.
Sankara argued that there must be these two levels of scripture because
individuals were at different stages of spiritual development. Persons
of simpler mind were at best capable of devotion, and required an object
of devotion that had qualities. More advanced seekers of truth benefited
from thinking in terms of the nirguna Brahman that underwent
no change of it no qualities could be predicated. Thus human experience
was not uniform, but was rather conditioned by the individual's level
of spiritual progress. What was true for an individual at one stage of
consciousness would become known to have been but "conditional reality"
in the light of a still higher state, and scripture of necessity had to
take account of both of these levels of experience.
Considered from the level of apara vidya, the level of saguna
Brahman, there were four distinct kinds of things that could be taken
to be real. The first was the material and efficient cause of the world,
the personal God/dess, the Isvara, who created through the sakti
power of maya. The second was the Veda, the eternal formal cause
of the universe according to whose pattern Isvara creates. The third was
the empirical world produced from the interaction of one and two, and
the fourth was the class of innumerable individual souls or jivas
which were anadi (beginningless) and caught in the endless cycle
of transmigration or samsara. From a common-sense point of view,
Sankara considered all of these entities real.
For Sankara, existence at the level of saguna Brahman can be characterized
in the following way: individual jivas experienced a public
world of empirical objects produced in and through the consciousness of
the Isvara by virtue of His/Her sakti of maya. In other
words, individual selves experienced an objective world that had been
created for them through the power of a personal God/dess. Such a formulation
makes clear Sankara's belief in the existence of the empirical world.
He was not, therefore, as many have accused him of being, a crypto-Buddhist
subjective Idealist. Individual selves experienced a real world that had
been created for them by the sakti of maya, a power that
was weilded by a personal God/dess, and external objects had a reality
independent of the perceiver. At this level, existence was an ordered
universe created by an intelligent, all-knowing God/dess, as a kind of
play (lila) or sport.
There thus existed a real empirical world created by God/dess for the
purpose of rewarding, according to their actions, the individual jivas.
The empirical world was, then, a moral order through which the individual
jivas progressed, stimulated by Isvara to action and rewarded
or punished, according to the nature of their behavior, by the laws of
karma. Existence at the level of saguna Brahman consisted
of individual jivas seeking moral perfection through virtue,
obedience to the laws of the Veda, and the performance of the sacrificial
rites. The empirical world was the setting in which this process of perfection
occurred. By means of right action and devotion the soul transmigrated
through ever-higher material forms, through assuming progressively more
evolved physical bodies.
Thus the jiva was dependent upon the existence of an empirical
world in which to act, a physical body with which to act, and a code of
conduct by which to act. Through countless lives the jiva progressed
spiritually and, as Sankara said, "owing to the gradual rise in excellence
of the physical conditions limiting it, the Self . . . . manifests itself
in higher and higher forms in respect of power and splendor."2
The important consideration for the level of saguna Brahman was
the necessity for a real personal God/dess, an "actual" world,
and distinct individual souls. Each of these must really exist for the
progress of the soul to be at all possible. Brahman produced the empirical
world through Its power of maya in order that the individual jivas
might use it as a path of spiritual perfection.
Sankara's deliberate emphasis upon subject-object interaction clearly
demarcated his position from the subjective Idealism of the Vijñanavadins.
The material world must be in some sense real because of its soteriological
function the jiva must ascend through certain worldly stages
of moral perfection before it could reach the knowledge of non-duality.
And the important lesson at the level of saguna Brahman was that,
yes, the world was an illusion, an illusion that was one day to be transcended,
but it was a purposive illusion. By means of the world jivas
were freed from samsara. For this reason, Sankara as a sakta
venerated the world. It was the entrapping delusion, true, but more importantly
it was the soul's only means to Freedom.
While souls were in the entrapping illusion, there were, according to
Sankara, certain rules and requirements. In the quest for final Illumination,
Sankara urged that there were definite things the individual could and
must do to accelerate the soul's progress to moksa. Like Emerson, he believed
that Liberation could be attained only when the soul had first adopted
the proper attitudes and engaged in the proper practices. To do these
things was simultaneously to be in ever-greater harmony with the Benevolent
Intelligence manifesting creation, and to deepen in consciousness. The
performance of good works moral, social and sacrificial
prepared the soul for the highest path of knowledge. While these did not
themselves produce Liberation, they were essential preparation for the
breakthrough into highest truth. They were the very means by which the
jiva annulled fate and achieved final Freedom. Thus Sankara emphasized
the importance of a moral and spiritual life as a precondition for Enlightenment.
That there were definite means and rules at the level of saguna
Brahman further underscores the seriousness with which Sankara regarded
the purposive "reality" of the world of name and form.
Given Sankara's position that the non-dual nirguna Brahman was
that which is ultimately Real, he had to give some account of the individual's
perception of the diversity which pervaded the empirical universe. This
led him to develop his argument of superimposition (adhyasabhasya).
Because of avidya or individual ignorance, the self superimposed
one level of reality on another, fell prey to the cosmic delusion of maya
and saw materiality where in truth there was only Brahman. To make this
clearer, Sankara distinguished different types of individual perception,
each truer than the previous.
The lowest level of individual perception he called pratibhasika,
and it meant essentially misperception. The term denoted the kind of errors
made during the course of everyday experience, as when coming upon a coiled
rope and momentarily taking it for a snake. Higher than actual misperception
was the next level of reality, the vyavaharika or empirical level,
the level of experience manifested through maya by the Isvara,
the level that coud be publicly corroborated. While illusory objects at
the pratibhasika level were privately perceived and came to be
sublated through more careful attention (or through a discussion with
others of the public properties of the object in question), empirical
objects at the vyavaharika level were more veritable precisely
because they were public, and because they were not sublated by subsequent
empirical experience. Finally, there was what Sankara took to be the highest
level of individual knowledge, the paramarthika. In this
state, the soul had transcended the power of maya and "saw"
Sankara's epistomology was, then, tripartite: lowest was the pratibhasika
level of genuine illusions; then the vyavaharika level of empirical
public objects produced by the Isvara through the maya of Brahman
and, because of individual avidya or ignorance, misperceived
through superimposition to be material/real, and finally the paramarthika
or nirguna Brahman level of Absolute non-dual Reality, when self,
and world, and Brahman were known to be an identity. Just as knowledge
of pratibhasika objects was sublated by the level of vyavaharika,
so was vyavaharika sublated by the paramarthika level
of true "knowing," when nirguna Brahman became a direct
The notion of sublatability, of less real knowledge being superceded
by knowledge which was more real, was the key to Sankara's concept of
nirguna Brahman and its relation to the individual. It is important
to understand that for Sankara, the individual jiva had always
been Brahman. This identity had been obscured, however, by the soul's
ignorance or avidya. Avidya was the individual nescience
that caused the jiva to see the mayic realm of name and
form as a material reality. Through avidya, the individual was
deluded by the cosmic power of maya. To eliminate individual avidya
was to "see through" cosmic maya, to be freed from its
deluding power. When the individual realized his/her true identity as
the unchanging Atman, liberation ensued. Atman is
the term used in Vedanta to denote the soul's true nature as Brahman.
Thus Atman = Brahman, and to "know" this truth was to
have pure consciousness, undefiled by multiplicity, as a direct experience.
Illumination, then, did not "add" something new to the soul.
Rather, it removed ignorance of the soul's true nature.
Enlightenment did not contribute a new fact to the mind, or a new property
to the soul it abolished the nescience that obscured the soul's
true Reality. For this reason, Sankara emphasized the unchanging nature
of the Self. The Self was always Brahman whether rightly understood as
such or not. avidya or ignorance was found solely in the individual
jiva; its cause was wrong perception or wrong conception rooted
in transferring to or superimposing upon qualities of one order of being
qualities which belonged to another order. Just as "snake" was
imposed upon "rope" at the pratibhasika level, so were
names and forms imposed upon nirguna Brahman at the vyavaharika
level. That was precisely the deluding power of maya. It caused
the jiva to transfer the quality of reality from the nirguna
level to the saguna level, and to transfer qualities of limitation
from the saguna level to the nirguna level. The task of
the jiva was to terminate this superimposition, to realize that
the world of maya was in reality 'the Self of all,' was nothing
more than an apparent transformation of the unchanging Brahman.
Through Enlightenment, the jiva realized the truth "tat
tvam asi," or "that thou art," came to experience directly
(anubhava) the identification of its true Atman-nature with
the changeless Brahman. The jiva reached the paramarthika
level of knowledge, knew that he/she was Brahman, that there was only
Brahman, and that his/her perception of multiplicity had been only an
illusion, a conjuring trick produced by the maya of Brahman, which
caused the realm of name and form while Itself remaining changeless. This
experience could not be known through reason or discursive thought. It
was itself its own validation. Once the jiva realized its true
nature as the Atman, identical with Brahman, once it realized that
the world of name and form was but a conditional reality superimposed
upon pure consciousness, no further knowledge was possible. The purpose
of human existence had been fulfilled.
When the jiva experienced moksa, however, the world was
not destroyed. Realization was not like waking up from a dream, which
then disappeared. What was abolished was only the individual relationship
of ignorance to the world. The realized person the jivan-mukta
continued to experience the world, yet was no longer deluded by
it, knowing now that the self and the world were the unchanging Brahman.
Sankara accounted for the world's persistence, even for the Enlightened,
by means of Prarabdha karma.
Sankara identified different kinds of karma: the Sanchita karma
which was the accumulated fruit or reflexive influence of all past action;
the Agami karma defined as the consequences of action generated
in the present life (and which would be added to the Sanchita karma
at the individual's death); and the Prarabdha karma represented
as that portion of the Sanchita karma structuring and conditioning
the present incarnation. While the attainment of moksa destroyed
all relation to the Sanchita and Agami karmas, the
Prarabdha karma persisted, maintaining the body in existence.
Although the jivan-mukta no longer superimposed the Prarabdha
karma on its true Atman-nature, nor was he/she at all attached
to events in the empirical realm, worldly experience persisted through
an enduring metaphysical kinetic impetus. Sankara likened the jivan-mukta's
existence to the continued turning of the potter's wheel, under its own
momentum, even though force was no longer exerted to keep it in motion.
Though not deluded by the world, the jivan-mukta continued to experience
a world as present. This clearly demarcated Sankara's thinking from the
solipsism of the Vijñanavadins, and militates strongly for the
view that Sankara predicated objectivity and (however qualified) reality
of the world of name and form.
Summing up, scripture, reason, and experience were the grounds on which
Sankara took his metaphysical stand. He argued that his conception of
the Self was true because reason established it as such, scripture established
it as such, but finally and most importantly, the direct experience of
the individual established it as such. Through immediate mystical experience,
the soul came to know these words of Sankara to be highest truth:
I am verily that Brahman, the One without a second, which is the support
of all, which illumines all things, which has infinite forms, is omnipresent,
devoid of multiplicity, eternal, pure, unmoved, and absolute. I am verily
that Brahman, the One without a second, which transcends the endless
differentiations of Maya, is the in-most essence of all, beyond
the range of consciousness, which is Truth, Knowledge, Infinitude,
and Bliss Absolute.3
Just as Sankara based his entire philosophy on a radical non-dualism,
so too Emerson was a non-dualist, his early Idealism having taught him
that matter was in truth ultimately Spirit. And just as Sankara had his
opponents, Emerson had his as well, and without pushing the equation too
far, analogies can nonetheless be drawn between those with whom Sankara
and Emerson joined issue. Though their opponents had very different names,
they advanced similar competing cosmologies, all rejected by Emerson and
Sankara on parallel non-dual grounds. In the case of Emerson, his primary
metaphysical opponents were the religions of the book, the traditions
of Abraham Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all of which
held a spirit-matter dichotomy in keeping with the dualism of the Samkhyas.
The Swedenborgians were like the Vijñanavada Buddhists, both teaching
a subjective form of Idealism. The ritualistic Mimamsakas could be likened
to the Catholics of Emerson's day, growing rapidly in numbers and influence.
And finally, the devotional Bhaktas represented the Protestants, and especially
the "New Divinity" with its revivalistic techniques that swept
thousands into the Christian fold during Emerson's lifetime. Against all
of these Emerson advanced a new world form of non-dualism in harmony with
Sankara's Advaita Vedanta.
Emerson also shared with Sankara the foundational and unchanging belief
that the purpose of the spiritual life was Emancipation or Enlightenment,
a position fixed from the time he summed up his early Idealist speculations
in 1822 with the Hindu poem "Hymn to Narayana." It was this
very idea that inspired Emerson's break with Christianity. He observed
that Calvinism was "narrow, ignorant & revengeful, yet devout,"
and "that the opposite pole of theology was the Hindoo Buddhism."4
Emerson conflated Hinduism and Buddhism just because he was well aware
that both agreed on karma, reincarnation, and the fundamental purpose
of human life to reach Enlightenment a belief at the opposite
pole of theology from Christian doctrine. "Nature," he
observed, "creates in the East the uncontrollable yearning to escape
from limitation into the vast and boundless. . . .inculcates the tenet
of a beatitude to be found in escape from all organization and all personality,
and makes ecstasy an institution."5 His own views were
in accord with the "wise east-Indian" who "seeks Nirwana
or reabsorption, as felicity."6
While Emerson understood that Hindus and Buddhists both sought Enlightenment,
he was also clear that they had very different ideas on what reaching
it meant. He felt little sympathy with the Buddhist explanation, because
its spiritual goal was presented to him as annihilation, the complete
cessation of the individual. This understanding lay behind his comment
that "this remorseless Buddhism lies all around, threatening with
death and night."7 By contrast, he was sympathetic with
the Hindu explanation of Enlightenment, because it was in strict accord
with the non-dualist ontology that began to take shape in boyhood, when
he read Berkeley and became a philosophical Idealist. From "Narayana"
he then learned that the purpose of human life was to "know"
this philosophical truth through direct experience.
Although both were non-dualists, Emerson and Sankara nonetheless ascribed
reality and value to the world of name and form as the path to spiritual
perfection. Both agreed that the cosmos must in some sense be real
because of its soteriological function. They understood it as the theater
of "becoming," the realm in which souls progressed towards Enlightenment.
Although Emerson and Sankara advanced different specific means to Liberation,
both concurred that there were certain right attitudes and right practices
that were essential to spiritual progress, and both held that souls were
at different stages of development, with a knowledge appropriate for each
stage. For both philosophers, the purpose of life was to progress spiritually
through these stages, finally achieving direct experience of non-duality
through Illumination. Thus both Emerson and Sankara ascribed a purposive
character to earthly experience to bring souls to Enlightenment.
For this reason, the philosophy of both required an objectively existing
world that could not be a mere projection of the individual, as in Swedenborg
and the Vijñanavadins.
What confounded Emerson, however, was the precise relationship between
Spirit and the purposive cosmos. He was unclear on how he could
maintain a strict philosophical non-duality and yet at the same time uphold
a belief in the existence of objects and individuals. At the time he composed
Nature, and for some years after, his thinking was confused. In
rejecting Christian/Samkhya dualism, he patched together an ontology not
unlike Advaita Vedanta with the subjective Idealism of Swedenborg/Vijñanavada
Buddhism mutually contradictory hypotheses. Indian scripture resolved
this problem during the 1840s, and brought Emerson finally into Sankara's
philosophical camp. It was then that he made the concept of maya
his own, and came to stand squarely in the tradition of Sankara.
As Emerson sat down in his study to solve his problems in Nature,
he turned to the ancients for an answer. Initially, he sought help from
some of his oldest philosophical friends, his mentors from early Greece.
Their wisdom prepared him for his crucial studies in 1845 of Hindu scripture,
and one of the most important things to understand about Emerson during
the early 1840s was the close interplay between Greek and Indian philosophy.
He turned to the venerable authors of both countries in search of a primordial
religious teaching, an ancient form of truth that had been eclipsed, for
fifteen centuries, by what Emerson called the Christian parvenues.
In 1841, Emerson read deeply in and quoted frequently from Thomas Taylor's
translations of Plato,8 as well as from Taylor's translations
of the neo-Platonists.9 His quotations reveal his preoccupation
with the question of how, exactly, "Be makes Seem," and it is
clear he felt that the importance of these ancient authors lay in their
focus on the "One" as the direct and continuous source of the
"many." He recorded in his journal his positive to response
to their wisdom,10 a response which he then published in his
chapter "Intellect" in Essays: First Series. Referring
to these ancient authors as the "Trismegisti" or "the
high-priesthood of pure reason," he mused,
wonderful seems the calm and grand air of these few, these great spiritual
lords who have walked in the world, these of the old religion,
dwelling in a worship which makes the sanctities of Christianity
look parvenues and popular. . . .This band of grandees, Hermes, Heraclitus,
Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, Synesisus and the
rest, have somewhat so vast in their logic, so primary in their thinking
that it seems antecedent to all the ordinary distinctions. . . . I am
present at the sowing of the seed of the world.11
His journals for 1843 have a number of additional references to the neo-Platonic
tradition,12 where again, his central concern was with the
relationship between the One and the many. That there was only a One,
which somehow gave immediate rise to the apparent many, Emerson took to
be the central teaching of "the old religion" of the Trismegisti.
In 1845, he recorded in his journals his numerous reflections on the neo-Platonic
tradition, which he summed up succinctly as, "Deity rushing into
distribution in Timaeus."13
Immediately after his penetrating study of the old religion of Greece,
Emerson began reading, in 1845, Charles Wilkins' translation of The
Bhagvat Geeta, Horace Hayman Wilson's translation of The Vishnu
Purána, and Henry Thomas Colebrook's Miscellaneous Essays
on Indian philosophy. By the end of 1845, Emerson had come to this conclusion:
In 2,500 B.C.E., at the sowing of the seed of the world, the ancient rishis
of India cognized some fundamental truths about human spirituality. These
were handed down to the West through the Greeks, who made pilgrimages
to India to learn them. The "old religion" of India came to
fruition in the writings of the Trismegisti, the most pre-eminent
of whom was Plato. According to Emerson's thinking, it was this old religion
that needed to be revived, having of course been first adapted to modern
conditions with the philosophies of Pragmatism and Process.
Now convinced by his readings in 1845 that Hindu scripture contained
ancient and essential truths, Emerson quoted pages and pages from these
important texts on the subject of "illusion"and non-duality.14
Indeed, Emerson transcribed into his journal for 1845 more quotations
from these works than he had ever copied from previous sources or would
every copy from any source again (with the possible exception of the extensive
Upanishadic quotations which appear in the journal of 1856). Pages and
pages of his journal for this crucial year were simply reproductions of
long passages from the Gita, the Vishnu Purána, and
Colebrook's Miscellaneous Essays. Moreover, Emerson mined nearly
all of these Oriental gems for published use. Through careful attention
to the passages which called forth Emerson's response, and through a diligent
tracing of the uses made by him of these provocative passages, will come
a better understanding of the way in which the hoary wisdom of India extricated
the Concord seer from his philosophical perplexities.
In order to appreciate the effect of Indian philosophy on Emerson in
1845, it should be emphasized that when he started reading the Geeta,
the Vishnu Purána, and Colebrook's Essays, he was
struggling with his ontological problems in Nature, and believed
he was close to a solution in the works of the Trismegisti. He
spent considerable time, from 1841 to 1845, studying Hermes, Heraclitus,
Empedocles, Plato, Plotinus, Olympiodorus, Proclus, and Synesisus. He
understood their central teaching to be that there was only the One, which
Itself rushed into distribution as the many. Then, in 1845, he was able
to obtain the scriptures of India, which he believed to be the ultimate
source of the Trismegisti's wisdom. Now he could read the ultimate
source for himself, and he found it confirmed the neo-Platonic tradition.
Indian philosophy, however, went beyond the neo-Platonists. Whereas they
merely asserted that the many was reducible to the One, Indian
philosophy, through mayavada, explained the mechanics
by which the One appeared as many. It was this explanation that enabled
Emerson to break through his metaphysical problems. Thus in 1845, mayavada
not only confirmed his basic ontological principles, it also set forth
a coherent teaching that made sense of exactly how "Be makes Seem."
For this reason, Emerson's extensive reading of Indian philosophy, in
the crucial year 1845, resolved at last his ontological dilemma, a dilemma
he could have been spared had he not gotten confused by Swedenborg, and
had he simply advanced the Indian concept of maya which he had
learned of as early as his Harvard days.
Again, maya's importance lay in the fact that it gave him
a cogent philosophical explanation of the phenomenal realm as the illusory
but purposive manifestation of the Over-soul. The result: it expunged,
finally, the befogging influence of Swedenborgian subjective Idealism,
which made it last appearance in Emerson's 1844 essay "Experience":
Do you see that kitten chasing so prettily her own tail? If you could
look with her eyes you might see her surrounded with hundreds of figures
performing complex dramas, with tragic and comic issues, long conversations,
many characters, many ups and downs of fate, -- and meantime it is only
puss and her tail. How long before our masquerade will end its noise
of tambourines, laughter and shouting, and we shall find it was a solitary
That Emerson sailed this close to subjective Idealism in 1844 dramatizes
in every way the fact that nothing more is heard of solipsism after 1845,
a disappearance that can be traced to Emerson's acceptance of Sankara's
concept of maya with all of its objectively Idealistic implications.
His conversion to mayavada through the religious texts
of India then inspired Emerson to begin thinking about Plato. Shortly
after all of his quotations from Indian philosophy, he took up the question
of the One and the many with the intention of demonstrating Plato's reconciliation
of these apparent opposites. Emerson's voluminous journal quotations from
Indian philosophy16 were almost immediately followed by the
basic outline of ideas that were to provide the basis for his chapter
on "Plato.17 It is not unimportant that he returned to
thinking about Plato's explanation of how "Be makes Seem" only
after Indian philosophy had already given him what was to be his own final
answer in its doctrine of "illusion." Emerson then secured his
new ontological position by ascribing to Plato himself belief in the Hindu
theory of mayavada, an explanation that Emerson would embrace
for the duration of his life.
Of the figures discussed in Representative Men, there can
be no doubt as to Plato's pre-eminence. This is to be expected, given
the fact that the Plato in Emerson's pages is, philosophically considered,
very close in spirit to his own Transcendental Pragmatism. Indeed, the
"Plato" Emerson presents is none other than the Concord seer
himself. Emerson's respect for Plato turned upon that philosopher's balanced
perception of the claims of the relative and Absolute, the pragmatic and
Plato, in Egypt and in Eastern pilgrimages, imbibed the idea of one
Deity, in which all things are absorbed. The unity of Asia and the detail
of Europe; the infinitude of the Asiatic soul and the defining, result-loving,
machine-making, surface-seeking, opera-going Europe, Plato came
to join, and, by contact, to enhance the energy of each. The excellence
of Europe and Asia are in his brain. Metaphysics and natural philosophy
expressed the genius of Europe; he substructs the religion of Asia,
as the base. In short, a balanced soul was born, perceptive of the two
And Emerson believed that just this balance between the pragmatic and
Transcendental accounted for Plato's enduring influence: "this command
of the two elements must explain the power and charm of Plato."19
His great value was to have united the Humanistic and world-centered wisdom
of Greek areté or excellence (and now exemplified by European
civilization), with the old religion of the Vedas.
That Emerson believed Plato to have "imbibed," from Eastern
pilgrimages, "the idea of one Deity, in which all things are absorbed"
had at least this effect it encouraged and justified his own borrowings
from the same sources. And borrow he did, to an extraordinary and unprecedented
degree. The philosophical arguments which lie at the heart of "Plato"
were derived entirely from Indian philosophy. Through answers provided
by India, Emerson not only resolved finally his ontological ambiguity
but he also gained a new and deeper insight into the telos of the
spiritual process, propositions made self-evident by a careful analysis
In "Plato," Emerson defined philosophy as "the account
which the human mind gives to itself as the constitution of the world,"
and he identified "two cardinal facts" as the basis for this
account "Unity" or "Oneness" and "Variety"
or "otherness." He went on to say that it was a necessity of
the human mind to press causal explanations further and further back,
"self-assured that it shall arrive at an absolute and sufficient
one, a one that shall be all." To make his point he adduced
this Vedantic quotation, "'In the midst of the sun is the light,
in the midst of the light is truth, and in the midst of truth is the imperishable
being,' say the Vedas." Emerson then commented, "it is the problem
of thought to separate and reconcile" the "strictly-blended
elements" of the "one" and the "many"
the very problem which Nature's co-dependent originationism patched
over without truly solving.20 Having now made reconciliation
of the One and the many the problem of philosophy, Emerson identified
"the Vedas, the Bhagavat Geeta, and the Vishnu Purana" as the
most "pure and sublime" celebrations of "the conception
of the fundamental Unity."21 And he then quoted from these
Indian scriptures to explain the way in which he now believed the problem
of the One and the many to be capable of solution.
The core wisdom for both Indian philosophy and Plato Emerson found summarized
in two passages from the Vishnu Purána, both copied into
his journal in 1845. One refers to "The goddess Yoganidra, the great
illusory energy of Vishnu, by whom, as utter ignorance, the whole world
is beguiled."22 The other, copied under the heading Illusion,
reads in part, "Identity, identity! friend & foe are of one stuff,
and the stuff is such & so much that the variations of surface are
unimportant. All is for the soul, & the soul is Vishnu; & animals
& stars are transient paintings; & light is whitewash; & durations
are deceptive; and form is imprisonment and heaven itself a decoy."23
Emerson then returned to this very idea in 1848, when he wrote in his
journal that "God is reality & his method is illusion,"24
and in 1849 he noted once more that "great is the illusory energy
of Vishnu."25 That the world "is the illusory energy
of Vishnu" Emerson made his own metaphysical solution in Representative
Men, where he used passages on "illusion" twice, initially
in his Transcendental chapter on "Plato," and then again in
his Pragmatic chapter "Montaigne."
The key essay in Representative Men, Emerson's Transcendental
chapter on "Plato," is, for two pages running, a sustained quotation
from Indian scripture. The nature and extent of these quotations makes
self-evident the pervasive and transformative influence of Indian thought
on Emerson's newly emergent understanding of how "Be makes Seem."
Following the paragraph in which he celebrated the Vedas, the Gita,
and the Vishnu Purána, Emerson adduced this long tessalation
of passages drawn from those same sources:
The Same, the Same: friend and foe are of one stuff; the ploughman,
the plough and the furrow are of one stuff; and the stuff is such and
so much that the variations of form are unimportant. "You are fit"
(says the supreme Krishna to a sage) "to apprehend that you are
not distinct from me. That which I am, thou art, and that also is this
world, with its gods and heroes and mankind. Men contemplate distinctions,
because they are stupefied with ignorance." "The words I
and mine constitute ignorance. What is the great end of all,
you shall now learn from me. It is soul, one in all bodies, pervading,
uniform, perfect, pre-eminent over nature, exempt from birth, growth,
and decay, omnipresent, made up of true knowledge, independent, unconnected
with unrealities, with name, species and the rest, in time past, present
and to come. The knowledge that this spirit, which is essentially one,
is in one's own and in all other bodies, is the wisdom of one who knows
the unity of things. As one diffusive air, passing through the perforations
of a flute, is distinguished as the notes of a scale, so the nature
of the Great Spirit is single, though its forms be manifold, arising
from the consequences of acts. When the difference of the investing
form, as that of god or the rest, is destroyed, there is no distinction."
"The whole world is but a manifestation of Vishnu, who is identical
with all things, and is to be regarded by the wise as not differing
from, but as the same as themselves. I neither am going nor coming;
nor is my dwelling in any one place; nor art thou, thou; nor are others,
others; nor am I, I." As if he had said, 'All is for the soul,
and the soul is Vishnu; and animals and stars are transient paintings;
and light is whitewash; and durations are deceptive; and form is imprisonment;
and heaven itself a decoy.' That which the soul seeks is resolution
into being above form, out of Tartarus and out of heaven, liberation
As the foregoing passage makes unequivocal, the most important idea Emerson
borrowed from Indian philosophy was its explanation of the way in which
the non-dual Absolute produced a world of manifold variety. From India
Emerson learned that the world was but an illusory manifestation of Vishnu,
a transient painting ultimately identical with the Divine energy causing
its apparent existence. The purpose of life was for the soul to realize
that it was an identity with the Great Spirit, the Great Spirit giving
rise not only to the soul itself but also to the entire realm of apparent
distinctions. With this realization, the soul transcended the decoys of
heaven and hell (Tartarus) and achieved Liberation or "resolution
into being above form." This of course, is the very teaching of mayavada,
the sword with which Emerson finally cut the ontological knot that bound
him from Nature(1836) to Essays: Second Series(1844).
Mayavada allowed Emerson's belief in non-duality to retain
full force precisely because it explained the phenomenal world as the
"deception" of Vishnu, ever identical in nature to the Great
Spirit putting it forth. As he reinforced this idea in his chapter "Montaigne,"
We may come to accept it as the fixed rule and theory of our state
of education, that God is a substance, and his method is illusion. The
Eastern sages owned the goddess Yoganidra, the great illusory energy
of Vishnu, by whom, as utter ignorance, the whole world is beguiled.27
This explanation, that souls were beguiled by the illusory energy of
the goddess Yoganidra, Vishnu's mayic power, resolved finally Emerson's
patchwork solution in Nature, and by the time of Representative
Men, he had finally abandonded solipsism. The influence of Swedenborg
had evanesced once and for all, Emerson concluding that, "The mind
does not create what it perceives, any more than the eye creates the rose."28
Emerson not only converted to mayavada in 1845, and made it his
ontological answer in Representative Men five years later,
it remained a constant doctrine for the duration of his life. For example,
he copied the following passage on illusion from the Vishnu Purána
in 1845, and then used it in an important way in the essay "Illusions"
fifteen years later:
Thy illusion beguiles all who are ignorant of thy true nature, the
fools who imagine soul to be in that which is not spirit. The notions
that 'I am, this is mine,' which influence mankind, are but delusions
of the mother of the world, originating in thy active agency. Those
men who attentive to their spiritual duties, worship thee, traverse
all this illusion, & obtain spiritual freedom.
It is the sport of thy fascinations that induces men to glorify thee,
to obtain the continuance of their race, or the annihilation of their
enemies, instead of eternal liberation. Dispel, o lord of all creatures,
the conceit of knowledge which proceeds from ignorance.29
In 1851, he recorded in his journal the following Hindu fable, which
he made important use of in his essay "Fate" in The Conduct
As Vishnu in the Vedas pursues maya in all forms, when, to avoid
him, she changes herself into a cow, then he into a bull; she into doe,
he into a buck; she into a mare, he into a stallion; she into a hen,
he into a cock, & so forth.; so our metaphysics should be able to
follow the flying force through all transformations, & name the
new pair, identical thro' all variety.30
Emerson referred to these progressively higher incarnations as "the
successive Maias of Vishnu,"31 and eight years later,
as if to confirm the original impetus for his non-dualism, Emerson wrote
"Illusions" in his journal, and underneath the names of Berkeley
and Viasa.32 In 1861, he copied into his journal33
precisely the mayic theory expressed in Representative Men,
which he then published in the 1872 essay "Poetry and Imagination,"
where he noted that the "Hindoos," "following Buddha, have
made it the central doctrine of their religion that what we call Nature,
the external world, has no real existence, is only phenomenal.
Youth, age, property, condition, events, persons, self, even,
are successive maias (deceptions) through which Vishnu mocks and
instructs the soul."34 In 1866, Emerson quoted extensively
from Le Bhâgavata Purâna, his primary focus the subject
of maya. One of the best quotations was from a prayer of Brighu:
O thou of whom Brahma & the other beings clothed with a body, turned
from the knowledge of the Spirit by the impenetrable maya, &
sleeping in the darkness, know not even today to recognize the essence,
although they carry it in themselves, befriend me, thou Soul & friend
of those who venerate thee!35
While the foregoing evidence makes clear Emerson's enduring commitment
to mayavada, his genius was to wed it to his Process philosophy
as the basis for his mature cosmic optimism. The world illusion was a
purposive illusion, the product of an intelligent Great Spirit
that manifested the world of illusion only to teach every individual bound
to the material realm of his/her infinite spiritual identity. "The
day of days," Emerson avowed, "the great day of the feast of
life, is that in which the inward eye opens to the Unity in things."36
The purpose of the world illusion was to bring the soul to Liberation,
to the resolution into being above form that transcended the petty conceptions
of heaven or hell as the soul's final resting place. Rejecting this Christian
conception, Emerson adopted the Hindu purpose for human life. Rather than
entrance into Heaven, it was Illumination, because Heaven and Hell were
themselves a part of the duality of name and form. To make this point,
Emerson quoted from George Small's A Handbook of Sanskrit Literature,
"As to Heaven & Hell, they are inventions of maya, &
are therefore both imaginary."37
When Emerson combined Process with mayavada, he agreed
with Sankara that the world was a projection of the Divine for purposes
of the moral and spiritual cultivation of souls trapped in submission
to a materialistic view. The illusions with which it sported revealed
the soul's true nature and led it to the direct experience of non-duality:
What a force of illusion begins life with us and attends us to the
end! We are coaxed, flattered and duped from morn to eve, from birth
to death; and where is the old eye that ever saw through the deception?
The Hindoos represent Maia, the illusory energy of Vishnu, as one of
his principal attributes. As if, in this gale of warring elements which
life is, it was necessary to bind souls to human life as mariners in
a tempest lash themselves to the mast and bulwarks of a ship, and Nature
employed certain illusions as her ties and straps, a rattle,
a doll, an apple, for a child; skates, a river, a boat, a horse, a gun,
for the growing boy; and I will not begin to name those of the youth
and adult, for they are numberless. Seldom and slowly the mask falls
and the pupil is permitted to see that all is one stuff, cooked and
painted under many counterfeit appearances.38
Nature insured the soul's spiritual development by making the
experiences which performed that office so attractive that the soul could
not but pursue them. As Emerson posited of Nature in the essay
of that same name:
She has tasked every faculty, and has secured the symmetrical growth
of the bodily frame by all these attitudes and exertions, an
end of the first importance, which could not be trusted to any care
less perfect than her own. This glitter, this opaline lustre plays round
the top of every toy to his eye to insure his fidelity, and he is deceived
to his good.39
"Deceived to his good" captures the essence of Emerson's thinking
on the world illusion. It deceived the soul only that this process might
lead it to the final good the realization "that all is one
stuff, cooked and painted under may counterfeit appearances." The
world was a Divinely projected phantasm whose purpose was to teach souls
of the greater reality giving rise to the illusory realm of name and form,
exactly the teaching of Sankara's mayavada.
Another common metaphysical ground shared by Emerson and Sankara concerns
the relationship between Fate and mayavada. Recall Sankara's
words on this important point, earlier quoted: "owing to the gradual
rise in excellence of the physical conditions limiting it, the Self .
. . . manifests itself in higher and higher forms in respect of power
and splendor." In his chapter "Fate" in The Conduct
of Life, Emerson elucidated his agreement with Sankara:
Whatever limits us we call Fate. If we are brute and barbarous, the
fate takes a brute and dreadful shape. As we refine, our checks become
finer. If we rise to spiritual culture, the antagonism takes a spiritual
form. In the Hindoo fables, Vishnu follows maya through all her
ascending changes, from insect and crawfish up to elephant; whatever
form she took, he took the male form of that kind, until she became
at last woman and goddess, and he a man and a god. The limitations refine
as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at
While it is true that souls were limited by fate as long as they were
deluded by maya, there was an optimism intrinsic to this Process:
the soul's fated limitations refined as it purified. When totally
pure, the soul rent the veil of maya and escaped the limitations
of fate through the final Freedom of Liberation. Thus human life was a
progressive Process in which the soul's limitations refined as it purified
until it transcended all limitation.
Emerson reinforced the optimism intrinsic to mayavada in
his essay on "Illusions," the final chapter in The Conduct
of Life. At the heart of this essay he expounded not only his teaching
on the doctrine of illusion but also the optimism of refinement intrinsic
Children, youths, adults and old men, all are led by one bawble or
another, Yoganidra, the goddess of illusion. . . .is stronger than the
Titans, stronger than Apollo. Few have overheard the gods or surprised
their secret. Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to
be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle.
There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snowstorm. We wake
from one dream into another dream. The toys to be sure are various,
and are graduated in refinement to the quality of the dupe.41
That life was a succession of lessons, that humanity's toys were graduated
in refinement to the quality of the dupe, makes explicit the close interrelationship
between maya and Process philosophy.
Process gave to the illusion of maya purposiveness, making Liberation
from ignorance through the direct experience of non-duality the final
human beatitude. That was the very reason why the Absolute manifested
the universe. The Over-soul was "a devouring unity" that "changes
all into that which changes not."42 This ultimate human
experience was reached through immersion in the mayic realm of
name and form. "Everything is prospective," Emerson proclaimed
in "Immortality," "and man is to live hereafter. That the
world is for his education is the only sane solution of the enigma."43
Experience, though illusory in some ultimate sense, was yet the means
by which the soul soul was cultured, that it might come finally to know
that its experiences were ultimately illusory. Emerson understood Indian
philosophy to be teaching this very wisdom. "The Indian teachers
of the Maia," he noted, "deal with Nature and history
as means and symbols, and not as ends."44 Nature was a
means the soul transcended experience by means of experience
the essence of Process philosophy and the heart of Emerson's Transcendental
Pragmatism. As he worked this out in his journals,
Life is a game between God & man. The One disparts himself &
feigns to divide into individuals. He puts part in a pomegranate, part
in a king's crown, part in a person. Instantly man sees the beautiful
things & goes to procure them. As he takes down each one the Lord
smiles & says It is yourself; and when he has them all, it will
be yourself. We love & die for a beauty which we wronged
ourselves in thinking alien.45
The Over-soul "disparted" Itself as all of the particularities
of experience, and these experiences unfolded the soul ontologically.
As the soul progressed, it encountered ever more refined or "spiritualized
experiences: "Since our tuition is through emblems and indirections,
it is well to know that there is method in it, a fixed scale and rank
above rank in the phantasms. We begin low with coarse masks and rise to
the most subtle and beautiful."46 This was, of course,
exactly Sankara's wisdom on the subject: "owing to the gradual rise
in excellence of the physical conditions limiting it, the Self . . . .
manifests itself in higher and higher forms in respect of power and splendor."
As Emerson said in words suggestive of Sankara:
The youth puts off the illusions of the child, the man puts off the
ignorance and tumultuous passions of youth; proceeding thence puts off
the egotism of manhood, and becomes at last a public and universal soul.
He is rising to greater heights, but also rising to realities; the outer
relations and circumstances dying out, he entering deeper into God,
God into him, until the last garment of egotism falls, and he is with
God, shares the will and immensity of the First Cause.47
The foregoing passage is from Emerson's powerful essay "Immortality,"
published at the very end of his life. As if to underscore his decades-long
fascination with Indian wisdom, he concluded "Immortality" with
the beautiful and moving story of the encounter between Nachiketas, a
devoted seeker of truth, and Yama, the god of death. Yama granted Nachiketas
three boons, and for his last boon Nachiketas asked to know what happened
to the soul after death. Yama tried to persuade him to ask another boon,
and tempted Nachiketas with the world's treasures and pleasures. But Nachiketas
was unswayed, and finally Yama relented. This narrative was the prelude
to Yama's revelation of highest truth. The soul's disposition after death
depended upon what was sought in life. Those who, deluded by maya
and "believing this world exits," pursued worldly ends remained
under the sway of Yama and death. They would be reborn only to die again.
But those who were wiser sought a higher truth and obtained a different
goal. Yama's description of that goal concludes the essay "Immortality,"
and his are the final words in Emerson's last book:
The wise, by means of the union of the intellect with the soul, thinking
him whom it is hard to behold, leaves both grief and joy. Thee, O Nachiketas!
I believe a house whose door is open to Brahma. Brahma the supreme,
whoever knows him obtains whatever he wishes. The soul is not born;
it does not die; it was not produced from any one. Nor was any produced
from it. Unborn, eternal, it is not slain, though the body is slain;
subtler than what is subtle, greater than what is great, sitting it
goes far, sleeping it goes everywhere. Thinking the soul as unbodily
among bodies, firm among fleeting things, the wise man casts off all
grief. The soul cannot be gained by knowledge; not by understanding,
not by manifold science. It can be obtained by the soul by which it
is desired. It reveals its own truths.48
Summing up, 1845 was the crucial year in Emerson's philosophical maturation.
He underwent a paradigm shift, which began with his final conversion to
Sankara's mayavada. Mayavada not only resolved
the ontological problems left over from Nature, it also inspired
him to take other dimensions of Indian philosophy that much more seriously.
This started Emerson thinking in a whole new way about human origins,
and laid the basis for his acceptance of evolution and transmigration.
For this reason, 1845 represents a pivotal period in Emerson's growth,
and mayavada was the adamant on which he founded this new
In accordance with the conventions of Emersonian scholarship, the following
abbreviations are used to identify often cited sources:
J: The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson
and Waldo Emerson Forbes. 10 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin,
JMN: The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
ed. William H. Gilman, Alfred R. Ferguson, George P. Clark, Merrell
R. Davis, Merton M. Sealts, Harrison Hayford, Ralph H. Orth, J.E. Parsons,
A.W. Plumstead, Linda Allardt, and Susan Sutton Smith, et al. 16 vols.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960 1982.
L: The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk. 6
vols. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1939.
LC: The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher,
Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1959, 1964, 1972.
W: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Edition. 12 vols.
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.
1 L II 32.
2 V.M. Apte, Brahma Sutra Shankara Bhashya (Bombay, Popular Book
Depot, 1960), p. I, 1, ll.
3 Sankaracarya, Vivekachudamani, (Almora, Advaita Ashrama, 1932),
4 JMN XVI 111.
5 W X 176-177.
6 JMN XIV 337.
7 JMN VII 474.
8 Thomas Taylor, Trans., The Cratylus, Phaedo., Parmenides, and Timaeus
of Plato, (London, 1836); and Plato, Works, trans. Floyer Sydenham
and Thomas Taylor, 5 vols. (London, 1804).
9 Plotinus, "Enneades," Select Works of Plotinus, trans.
Thomas Taylor (London, 1817).
10 JMN VII 413.
11 W II 345-346.
12 See JMN VIII 364-365.
13 JMN IX 317.
14 See JMN IX 318-322 for quotes on Indian philosophy where Emerson is
clearly fascinated by the concept of "illusion."
15 W III 80.
16 JMN IX 318-322.
17 See JMN IX 331-333.
18 W IV 53.
19 W IV 56.
20 All references in paragraph are to W IV 47-48.
21 W IV 49.
22 JMN IX 322.
24 JMN X 355.
25 JMN XI 174.
26 W IV 49-51.
27 JMN X 355-W IV 178.
28 W IV 82.
29 JMN IX 320-W VI 324.
30 JMN XI 417.
31 JMN XV 106.
32 JMN XIV 301
33 JMN XV 106
34 W VIII 14-15.
35 JMN XVI 30.
36 W VI 25.
37 George Small, A Handbook of Sanskrit Literature, (London, 1866),
p. 183. JMN XVI 45.
38 JMN XIII 467 W VII 172-173.
39 W III 186.
40 W VI 20.
41 W VI 313.
42 W VIII 18.
43 W VIII 334.
44 W VIII 38.
45 JMN IX 207.
46 W VI 318
47 W VIII 348-349.
48 JMN XIV 105-106 W VIII 351-352.