Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoreau the Yogi

It's not surprising that a copy of the Bhagavad Gita was in that hut at Walden. Thoreau was one of my first spiritual teachers, although I wasn’t aware of that fact. I knew him to be telling truths that were irrefutable although impractical in the real world. Of course, now I understand why. It turns out the world as I knew it wasn’t real at all. Or myself, for that matter. In a way, he was transmitting the truths of Yoga, and I was struggling with the beginnings of self-inquiry.
The ascetic mystical love of nature that brought Thoreau to Walden Pond gave him access to the central teaching of the Gita. He perceived the discipline of living in nature as a path leading toward self-knowledge and spiritual realization. He writes in his journal in 1841:
One may discover the root of a Hindoo religion in his own private history when in the silent intervals of the day or night, he does sometimes inflict on himself like austerities with stern satisfaction.
In Walden he emphatically states "My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.” Walden was for Thoreau a spiritual retreat where he strove to deepen his understanding of his existence and through this understanding to gain release from the terrible bondage of life's compelling illusions. In Indian terms it was the retreat of a yogi who carefully practiced spiritual discipline. In a letter of 1849 to his friend H.G.O. Blake, he wrote about yoga and its private meaning for him:
"Free in this world as the birds in the air disengaged from every kind of chains those who practice the yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruits of their works.

Depend upon it that rude and careless as I am I would fain practice the yoga faithfully.

"The yogi absorbed in contemplation contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him with- out tearing him and united to the nature which is proper to him he goes, he acts, as animating original matter"

To some extent and at rare intervals
even I am a yogi.
~Barbara Stoler Miller from 'Why Did Henry David Thoreau Take the Bhagavad-Gita to Walden Pond'

1 comment:

Brian said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?