The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans, by Henry David Thoreau, , at sacred-texts.com
The editor has made no changes in the antiquated form of spelling Anglicized Sanskrit words used by Thoreau. In his own discussion the modern form is followed.
THE fascination which the Orientals possessed for Thoreau is perfectly evident to the reader who skipped no pages in Walden and the Week. The sacred scriptures of the East held his attention through all his creative years, and their effect on his work is so patent that even those who have no eye for inner significance have noticed how interfused is his prose with imported quotations and figures. F. B. Sanborn writes in his biography of Thoreau that it was Emerson who first introduced him to the Orientals. The date is recorded as 1837. Thoreau's Journals indicate that in August, 1838, he had been reading the Persian Zendavesta and Confucius, a fact which corroborates Sanborn. But the extravagant outpouring of praise for the Orientals does not fully commence until 1841. Between 1841 and 1843, it will be remembered, Thoreau lived with the Emersons and assisted his elder friend in the household tasks. There can be no doubt that he made free use of the library. The Journals for these years tell eloquently of the impression made by Emerson's Oriental books. After reading The Laws of Menu, he writes, "They are the laws of you and me, a fragrance wafted down from those old times, and no more to be refuted than the wind . . . I remember the book as an hour before sunrise." And in another instance he confides, "I cannot read a sentence in the book of the Hindoos without being elevated as upon the table land of the Ghauts."
There was no diminution in Thoreau's ardor for these mysterious books through the rest of his life. The joy he found in them during his last years was even greater than that of his first youthful discovery. The most important story connected with this Oriental interestthat of the Cholmondeley collectionshould be better known. Because of its immediate importance it may be related here.
In September, 1854, Thomas Cholmondeley, a friend of Arthur Hugh Clough at Oxford, came to Concord with letters which introduced him to Emerson. He wished to remain in Concord for a short period, but the Emersons were not able to accommodate him and he was sent to Mrs. John Thoreau, who took lodgers. The young Englishman was warmly welcomed by Thoreau's mother and an intimate friendship arose between the men. The visit was only too short. It was the time of the Crimean War; Cholmondeley went home to enlist. Just before sailing with his regiment he sent the following letter to his Concord friend:
October 3, 1855.
* * *
Adieu, dear Thoreau, and immense affluence to you.
Sanborn records that the books arrived in Concord on November 3o, 1855, when he saw them, in the attic chamber where Thoreau kept his small library, in cases made by his own hands, not failing to mention that upon receiving the first announcement of their coming Thoreau had "fashioned for these treasures a new case, out of drift wood that he had brought home in his voyages along the Musketaquid, thus giving Oriental wisdom an Occidental shrine."
On December 9, 1855, writing to his friend H. G. O. Blake, Thoreau described the books in brief:
But by Christmas he had made out the significance of his godsend, for on that day he wrote to the Quaker Daniel Ricketson of New Bedford that he had received
These books Thoreau cherished until the day of his death. After his decease, they passed into the hands of his friendsprincipally Emerson and Alcott.
IN the Widener Memorial Collection at the Harvard College Library is a large sheaf of miscellaneous manuscript pages in Thoreau's handwriting. There is neither beginning nor end to this material; it is a disorganized mass that would require much labor to collate. One gathers the impression that at one time these pages lay unprotected from a sudden gust of wind which entered the room and scattered them into confusion, only to be subsequently picked up haphazardly by a person utterly ignorant
of their worth. In this material I found the manuscript of Thoreau's The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans, kept intact by a pin which had been inserted in the margin.
The story is a translation from Langlois's French rendering of the Harivansa, a scholarly work of forbidding appearance that few men with only a superficial interest in Oriental legend and metaphysics would have tackled. The source was discovered solely through the labor of following all the dews the manuscript offered, and searching through every likely volume of Oriental literature to which I had access. There is no mention, so far as I am aware, of Langlois, the French Orientalist, in the works of any of the Concord writers. All dews as to the nature of the story were necessarily sought in internal evidence. The spelling of the Hindu proper names was in the French manner. This indicated that the source from which Thoreau procured these names was French. The second clew was the name Bharata, which indicated that the story was most likely allied in some way to the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The frequent and careful insertion of interlinear corrections by Thoreau, which can be readily discerned in the original long-hand draft of the story, leads to the question whether it might not have been an original composition. The content and the technical use of Sanskrit names, however, could scarcely have come from one uninitiated in the original language, unless he had undertaken laborious research in the work of European Orientalists. But Thoreau was a singular man and his manuscript baffled even
several Orientalists whom I consulted. I cannot deny that I hoped to prove it an original composition, solely for the valuable evidence it would have given of the Oriental tang in his mind. But the discovery that the story was a translation from the French, on second thought rather adds to its value. It is the first extensive evidence I have seen of Thoreau's proficiency in French. And its Oriental value, particularly as evidence of his interest in an extensive system of Hindu ascetic practicethe Yogabecomes the more significant in view of the confession he made to Blake of the true purpose of his life. The Walden years, also, may be viewed from another angle, for although Thoreau made his translation in 1849 or 185o, when he drew on the Harvard College Library for many Oriental volumes, among them being the Harivansa, he had long known of the Yoga way.
I FEEL. sure that Thoreau brought himself to the task of translating The Transmigration of the Seven Brahmans more because of the Yoga philosophy which it contained than because of the story itself, interesting as that is. I have already suggested that it throws new light on the Walden episode of his life. Various theories have been advanced to explain his living in a hermit's solitude for over two years. Some have argued that it was disappointed love; others have advanced the theory that Walden was a retreat from the smoke and noise of an encroaching industrialism. Again one hears that he bore a grudge against society and
withdrew, like a snail, into his shell; also, that he was an incarnation of another Rousseau, calling "Simplify! Simplify! Back to nature!" to his generation. I have no desire to cross swords with the defenders of these explanations. There may be truth in them all. I would, however, advance another theory of the reason Thoreau went to Walden and it is this: the retreat was a very natural gesture on the part of a man who was temperamentally an ascetic, particularly one so imbued with Orientalism. He was at all times conscious of an affinity between his own conduct and that of a Yogi.
In the correspondence between Thoreau and H. G. O. Blake appear these surprising words from the former's pen:
The italics are mine. They indicate a confession that cannot be ignored. But there is another self-revealing passage in the Journals:
Americans will probably be chary of admitting that a Concord Yankee, particularly a Yankee of Thoreau's independence and crispness, could in any way be a Yogi. With justice they may well ask, "What's in a name?" and argue that if Thoreau had written, "I would fain be a Hottentot," there would have been no more possibility of a change in the essential man and a realization of his aim. Thoreau belonged to the New England scene. In an Oriental shrine he would have been utterly incongruous. Such a contention is irrefutable. But there is the man's intellectual cosmopolitanism that must be taken into consideration. Moncure Conway, who knew both Thoreau and the Orientals writes thus in his volume Emerson At Home and Abroad:
[paragraph continues] Conway was writing specifically of his friend at Walden. The word of a contemporary observer bears out Thoreau's confession.
I have already indicated, however briefly, the spirit in which Thoreau read the Orientals. To appreciate his cosmopolitanism, one needs only to be reminded that he lived during, and was an
active figure in, the New England Renaissance, that period of intellectual fermentation commonly called the Transcendental Period. Concord combed the world for books during those decades. The Brahmans of this Massachusetts village knew intimately the currents in the thought-life of their time. So I, for one, cannot see the rustic and uninitiated Yankee in Thoreau. He wrote of that which he knew intimately when he wrote of the Yogi. When he applied the name to himself it may have been in a transient, whimsical mood; but in that case I find difficulty in understanding the following description of the manner in which he spent a day at the Walden hut:
There is a shadowy line between the things men sincerely believe and the things they use for artistic purposes. No one can
trace that line distinctly. The words of Thoreau which I have quotedand many others which may be had for the searching lead me to the conviction that his Puritan heritage and inherent sanity enabled him to strip the Yoga practice of all the superstition and inhuman self-torture native in India. He had no interest in the contemplation of the navel, the drawing of thread through the nostrils, the repetition of magic words, the bed of nails, and all the devices of hypnotism. He was profoundly interested in the means of finding the One Bottom of the universe. A mystic, he sensed his affinity with the sincere Yogi. But his home was Concord, Massachusetts, so instead of taking to the begging-bowl and the road, like his Hindu brethren, he chose Walden. I cannot but believe that as he translated the story which comprises this book, he thought of the waters of Walden in some ways as the waters of Manassa, where the seven Brahman brothers sought deliverance.
October 10, 1930.