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Christianity and Hinduism Throughout Walden

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Walden is a book of contrasts. Thoreau contrasts summer and winter, village and woods, the animal and spiritual natures that struggle within every human being, and many other pairs of opposites. One recurring and important contrast is that between Christianity—especially as taught and practiced in America at the time Thoreau was writing— and Hinduism. Like other New England transcendentalists, Thoreau was an avid reader of Hindu scriptures, and he quotes them and refers to them often in Walden. Like virtually all Americans of his time, he was also familiar with the Bible and with how the Christian denominations of his day interpreted it. What is particularly interesting is how he uses this dual knowledge. Most references to Christian scriptures, doctrines, and practices are either irreverent or disapproving, while Hindu scriptures and beliefs are presented with reverent appreciation.

Neither Thoreau’s disdain for contemporary Christianity nor his appreciation of Hinduism is surprising. The popularity of transcendentalist ideas in New England arose out of discontent with what some saw as the strict and uninspiring doctrines of the Unitarian Church, so there was a natural conflict between transcendentalists and organized Christianity. Further, a fundamental difference between transcendentalism and Christianity can be traced to Hinduism: While orthodox Christian doctrine holds that God is transcendent (existing beyond creation) but not immanent (existing within creation; i.e., present within all created things and beings, including humans), transcendentalism borrows the Hindu concept that God is both transcendent and immanent.

The difference is important. The Christian belief that God does not dwell in humans leads to the belief in the need for some kind of divinely appointed intermediary—such as a savior or a priest— to establish a relationship between people and God. In contrast, the Hindu and transcendentalist belief in the immanence of God leads to the doctrine that every person can, without the need for an intermediary, experience the divine within himself or herself.

The transcendentalist belief in every person’s ability to know God outside of institutional religion is a perfect complement to Thoreau’s individualism and his general dislike of institutions. He found in the scriptures and doctrines of Hinduism a religious teaching that was well suited to his personality and his philosophy of life. Everything about the Christianity of his time, with its emphasis on institutions, conformity, and obedience to church authorities, was in conflict with them.

Thus, Thoreau makes more than one mocking reference to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the ‘‘manual’’ of Christian doctrine that was used to teach young people in many churches. According to the catechism, the primary purpose of human life is ‘‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’’ In one reference to it, Thoreau writes, ‘‘Our hymn books resound with a melodious cursing of God and enduring him forever.’’

Thoreau denigrates a Methodist newspaper of his day, called Olive-Branches. He writes that people who want to read a newspaper should read the best one available rather than Olive-Branches or other ‘‘pap.’’

The comment that ‘‘Men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced’’ manages all at once to be jocular and disapproving (it was, of course, in the name of Christianity that the witches had been hung) and dismissive (neither Christianity itself nor its assaults on others had succeeded in freeing humanity from its age-old fears).

In a later passage, Thoreau takes aim at the exclusivism of the Christianity practiced in his society. He says that the local farm hand ‘‘who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience’’ may think that such experiences are limited to people who believe just as he does, but ‘‘Zoroaster,...

(The entire section is 10,116 words.)