Eastern Religion and Philosophy in Literature Introduction


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

American writers, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were strongly influenced by Asian and Indian texts. The influence of Asian and Indian thought on American literature was perhaps first manifested in the eighteenth century, when the rational philosophy of Confucius helped shape the thinking of the Framers of the Constitution. As would often be the case, Eastern thought came by way of European thinkers, particularly the French philosophers of the Enlightenment, who were influential in the era’s neo-Confucianism. As was the case in later revivals of interest in Confucius, Western thinkers saw ideas in Confucius that paralleled their own prevalent Deistic emphasis on reason and benevolence. Thomas Jefferson’s writings, for example, demonstrate his wide reading of such philosophers, notably Voltaire, and fellow Deist Benjamin Franklin advocated reading Chinese literature in his essays for the American Philosophic Society.

Eastern influence is more direct in the works of authors who participated in four major literary movements or groups in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first group is the New England Transcendentalists of the 1830’s and 1840’s and writers influenced by them in the American Romantic period that occurred in the three decades before the Civil War (1861-1865). The most notable Transcendentalists who read such Hindu works as the widely circulated Bhagavad Gita (first transcribed first or second centuries c.e.) and the works of Confucius (c. 551-c. 479 b.c.e.) in translation were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Allcott. Margaret Fuller, editor of the Transcendental journal The Dial, published Elizabeth Peabody’s translation of The Lotus Sutra as “The Teaching of Buddha” in 1844, the first known translation of a Buddhist text in America. These writers and thinkers integrated their reading of Eastern works with that of English, German, and Swedish philosophers, creating a synthesis of ideas that was not systematic but eclectic in its approaches. The entire intellectual and religious community of New England was influenced by Transcendentalist ideas, which fostered a popular vogue for Hindu and Chinese books. Poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, while not members of the Transcendentalist circle, became influenced both by their own occasional readings in Eastern writings and by Emerson’s widely influential use of Eastern thought in his philosophical...

(The entire section is 1035 words.)