Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Transcendentalism and Theosophy (1840–1900)

The first major influx of Eastern teachings began in the 1840s and 1850s, when Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau read Hindu scriptures in English translations of German adaptations from the Sanskrit! While Thoreau, whose ideas on civil disobedience were influenced by Eastern philosophy, withdrew to Walden Pond to meditate in nature, his good friend Emerson was blending German idealism, Yankee optimism, and Indian spirituality to formulate his version of the Transcendentalist credo. In the process, he transformed the Hindu Brahman (the divine ground of being) into a more universal concept that he called the Oversoul.

Later in the century, the Theosophists — members of a largely Western movement, led by the Russian-born Madame Blavatsky, who adapted and popularized Indian spiritual thought — made Hindu meditation texts available to the ordinary reader, and followers of the New Thought movement practiced guided visualizations and mantra meditations adapted from Eastern sources. But the landmark meditation event of the 19th century turned out to be the World Parliament of Religions, an international gathering of religious leaders and teachers held in Chicago in 1893. For the first time, Asian masters presented their teachings directly to Westerners on American soil. Following the conference, several of the masters (including the Indian sage Swami Vivekananda and the Japanese Zen teacher Soyen Shaku) toured the United States lecturing to interested audiences.

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