Trade and Transcendentalism

Trade and Transcendentalism

The Pluralism Project | Harvard University

The ideas and culture of Hindu India have had an impact on America for nearly two centuries. The history of relations between India and America probably begins with the trading ships that sailed back and forth from Salem and Boston to India in the early nineteenth century, carrying “missionaries and ice” and returning with textiles and spices. In 1841, for example, one John Christian Frederick Heyer and three missionary couples left Boston bound for the East on a freighter with a cargo of 260 tons of ice packed in sawdust. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were reports of Hindus participating in Salem’s Fourth of July parade. Today, the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem houses a large collection of Indian arts and artifacts expressive of this rich period of commerce between India and New England.

In the nineteenth century, Hindu texts and ideas also became an active part of the intellectual life of New England’s most famous literary figures, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As early as the 1820s Emerson wrote of India in his journals. By the 1830s he had copies of Hindu sacred texts—the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Laws of Manu. He was especially attracted to the teachings of the Upanishads and the Vedanta, which speak of the unity of spirit linking the human soul and the Transcendent, the “unbounded, unboundable empire.” Emerson and his circle came to be called Transcendentalists, because of their emphasis on this transcendent oneness of spirit. By the 1840s, Emerson began to publish excerpts from what he called the “Ethnical Scriptures” in the transcendentalist journal, The Dial.

Hindu influence in the United States likely started with trading ships that traveled between ports in India and New England in the early 19th century. Prominent transcendentalist writers and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were also influenced by Hindu teachings and sacred texts.

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