“All is One” – Advaita Vedanta and Emerson’s Swedenborgianism

Rev. Thom Muller

Transcendentalism has taken its place in the history of Western thought as an early expression of the global philosophical and theological pluralism and syncretism that would become characteristic of 19th-and 20th century discourse. Springing out of New England Unitarianism, which had recently gained the status of an established and prevalent status quo in Boston and Cambridge, Transcendentalist figures such as Emerson and Thoreau approached the metaphysical and philosophical thought world with an arguably unprecedented interest in a broad inclusion of the works available to them. One influence which has been addressed increasingly by scholars is that of Hinduism, particularly in the form of Advaita Vedanta.

The evident influence of this philosophy on the formation of Transcendentalism is often credited with the Transcendentalists’ deep engagement with topics such as theological non-dualism, panentheism and relative epistemology. While this is certainly a correct observation, the influence of Western mysticism and esotericism, particularly in the form of the metaphysical works of the 18th century Swedish scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, contributed substantially to the Transcendentalist’s distinct thought world, in a creative, mutually supplemental  philosophical syncretism.

Exposure to Vedic Thought

The history of the American reception of Vedic thought, culture and literature is deeply connected with New England. While the Transcendentalists are inarguably the first major American thinkers who brought it to broad public attention, and constructively incorporated it into their religious, spiritual, philosophical, and practical framework, Indian culture, literature and religion had begun to travel to New England, which had become an increasingly vital trade location in the New World. Diana Eck, in her work On Common Ground: World Religions in America, points out that

“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. […]By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were reports of Hindus participating in Salem’s Fourth of July parade. The Peabody Museum in Salem houses a rich collection of Indian arts and artifacts expressive of this rich period of commerce between India and New England.” (1)

Of the major Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is the most well-known and arguably first to show a substantial spiritual interest in Vedic thought, mentioning the sub-continent and his fascination therewith, in his journals throughout the 1820. By the mid-1830’s, he most definitely owned and extensively studied the Baghavad Gita, the Laws of Manu, as well as the Katha Upanishad. Evidently, he became fascinated with the depth of Vedic mythology, as well as the philosophical commentary the tradition provided, most notably through Vedic saint, philosopher and commentator Sri Adi Shankara.  

The presence of concepts similar to those explored and promoted by the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, as well as direct, concrete references to Vedic mythology and scripture pervades Emerson’s work. His poems “Hamatreya” and “Brahma”,  deal directly with the themes from the Katha Upanishad the Baghavad Gita and Vishnu Purana. His essay “Immortality” concludes with a retelling of the narrative of Yama, the Vedic god of Death.

It is essential in gaining an understanding of the development of Emerson’s thought world, to acknowledge the importance of a progressive, syncretic, and universalist approach in the context of Transcendentalism. His intent was not to discover and adopt, but rather to observe and expose himself, endowed with the proper intellect, sincerity and funds, the diversity of religious perspective and experience, shaping his perceptions into a distinct and uniquely American world view.

Swami Paramananda, in his book Emerson and Vedanta, asserts that

 “[…] We cannot doubt that Emerson fully recognized the loftiness and beauty of the Eastern teaching. He also possessed an unusual grasp of Indian Philosophy and picked out here and there its fairest thoughts to mingle with his own.” (2)

Non-Dualism and Panentheism

Throughout his life, Emerson cannot appropriately be called an Advaitin, a Swedenborgian, a Unitarian, or any of the other labels which have been attached to him posthumously. His emphasis remained on the whole, with no interest to bind himself spiritually or intellectually to either perspective.

Emerson’s essay Nature, published in 1835, and seen by many as one of his most essential and fundamental works, serves of a manifestation of the significant influence of Vedic thought on Emerson’s world view. In it, her expounds on his view of reality, with clear emphasis on Gnosis, or individual intellectual as well as experiential attainment as a means of “enlightenment”, as well as the non-duality and interconnectedness within the divine-human relationship. Later works, such as The Over-Soul, as well as analysis of Emerson’s personal notes, confirm his continuous engagement with Vedic thought.

Daniel Thottachara, in his study Emerson, the Advaitin, points out the immense significance of Emerson’s engagement with the subject of non-dualism, arguably his deepest and most elemental agreement with Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta :

 “The content of the vision of both Shankara and Emerson is the identity of being in which the separation between me and not me is apprehended. […] Being is one only, secondless, unchanging and unchanged, without parts and multiplicity. Being is advaitam, non-dual.” (3)

While this is clearly the case, Emerson’s non-dualism differs substantially from that of Shankara and other theologians and philosohpers of the Advaita Vedanta tradition. While the emphasis lies on the union and connectedness of Nature under one divine reality, presence and order, its parts do possess at least some kind of essential autonomy, creatively and producticely maintaining and  building the actual one by means of an apparent plurality. In his famous poetic summary of Nature, he writes:

“Man is all symmetry,

Full of proportions, one limb to another,

And to all the world besides.

Each part may call the farthest, brother;


Herbs gladly cure our flesh, because that they

Find their acquaintance there. “ (4)

Emerson’s monism, his panentheism, as expressed in his works, clearly owes major intellectual debt to the Vedic thought he had become familiar with and passionate about. Yet much of his engagement with these issues is distinctly Swedenborgian.

Philip Goldberg, in his recent treatment on the influence of Vedic spirituality on American culture throughout history, entitled American Veda, asserts that

 “Emerson may have been the first leading American to articulate a viable spirituality apart from traditional Christianity, and also among the first to recognize that religion is compatible with science. The publication of  Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859 drew the battle lies between science and religious dogma in stark terms. Emerson managed to transcend both, he saw evolutin as an expression of spirit, and the evolution of consciousness as part of the narrative.” (5)

Emerson and Swedenborg

The apparent paradox between the growing rationality and skepticism of the increasingly developed natural sciences, and established religious doctrine had been at the heart of intellectual debates throughout the Western world since the Age of Enlightenment, of whose thinkers Emerson was deeply familiar with. At his day, the works of the Swedish natural scientist turned theosophist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, had gained popularity in virtually all aspects of alternative and radical intellectualism in Europe and America. While it is unclear when he was first exposed to Swedenborg, Emerson indicates that it was initially his “Science of Correspondences”, the notion of an “archetypal” manifestation of divine reality through natural dynamics, and his application thereof to an esoteric, allegorical exegesis of biblical mythology in line with empirical, rational and scientific thinking. In Emerson’s own words:

“Having adopted the belief that certain books of the Old and New Testaments were exact allegories, or written in the angelic and ecstatic mode, [Swedenborg] employed his remaining years in extricating from the literal, the universal sense. He had borrowed from Plato the fine fable of ‘a most ancient people, men better than we and dwelling nigher to the gods’; and Swedenborg added that they used the earth symbolically; that these, when they saw terrestrial objects, did not think at all about them, but only about those which they signified.” (6)

Emerson found in Swedenborg a theologian, mystic and philosopher who provided him with a (distinctly Western) theological approach which attempted to reconcile empirical science and reason, and transcendent spiritual and religious faith. Both Swedenborg and Emerson conclude that this interrelation and inter-representation, all part of one divine existence, call for a cosmological dynamic which is both non-dualistic in its absolute, but at the same time dependent on the creative interplay of perceived spiritual individuality. Devin Zuber, in his essay The Sage and His Mystic: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emanuel Swedenborg, asserts that

 “In Emerson’s and Swedenborg’s cosmos, the spiritual and the natural are interdependent, forever intertwined, and cannot exist without each other. A recurring trope in Swedenborg’s spiritual writings is that they are based “on things seen and heard,” that his texts are composed of empirical evidence gathered from the heights of heaven and the depths of hell.” (7)

What Emerson, Swedenborg, and Vedantins like Shankara clearly have in common is their challenge of theological dualism, as well as an empirical approach which views divine law as evident both in the observation of natural phenomena, and transcendent spiritual experience. At the same time, both Swedenborg and Emerson stress the spiritual interdependence as well as necessity of the natural, in a collaborative, panentheistic divine dynamic, while Shankara appears to favor an absolute, quasi-pantheistic monism (the latter clearly being superceded by the insistence on absolute non-dualism).

Consequently, another major theme which illustrates the commonalities as well as difference between the three philosophies is the question of attainment, salvation, or enlightenment, and the means toward it.

Katha Upanishad Chapter 4, verse 2 illustrate the vedantic tendency towards mastery of, and interdependence from the human urge to pursue life based on natural senses and desires:

“The ignorant pursue external objects of desire, they get into the meshes of widespread death: but the intelligent, knowing sure immortality, do not covet the uncertain things here.”

Shankara’s commentary affirms the position, stating

“The natural tendency to see external objects which are not atman is the cause of the obstacle, i.e., ignorance, to the realization of the atman. […] By that cause, they get into the meshes of widespread, i.e. omnipresent death, the combination of ignorance, desire and karma meshes that which binds, consisting in the possession and the deprivation of the body, the senses, etc.” (8)

Shankara, Swedenborg and Emerson would agree that the union and identification, as well as epistemological absoluteness of the divine oneness. Yet while Advaita Vedanta traditionally advocates for a spiritual and emotional removal from, or discipline of the natural, particularly the natural senses, leaning towards a kind of asceticism as an ideal form of spiritual practice, both Swedenborg and the Transcendentalists would have favored quite the opposite, namely, the realization of oneness my means of an intensive and immersive engagement and observation of the natural, including the sense, and human world.

Eastern vs. Western Non-Duality?

The substantial, direct influence of Vedic religious thought, and particularly the mysticism and metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta and the teachings of Sri Adi Shankara  on Emerson is undisputable, and historically unprecedented as a sophisticated earnest, devotional American engagement with Hinduism. Yet it is very much within the trend of Western scholarship to underestimate the immense influence of the Western mystery traditions on the thought of such figures as the Transcendentalists. It appears that Emerson’s deep personal interest in Swedenborgianism contributed significantly to the pluralist and non-dualist approach which enabled this new kind of interreligious philosophical syncretism.

(1) Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. New York, NY: Columbia     University Press, 1997.

(2) Swami Paramananda. Emerson and Vedanta,. 2d ed. Boston, Mass.: Vedanta Centre;, 1918. 20-    21.

(3) Thottackara, Daniel J. Emerson, the Advaitin: A Study of the Parallels between Emerson and Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta. Bangalore: Distributed by Asian Trading, 1986. 25.

(4) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Hoboken, N.J.: BiblioBytes, 199. 36.

(5) Goldberg, Philip. American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. New York: Harmony Books, 2010. 34-35.

(6) Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Representative Men. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Library, 2008.  41-42.

(7) Zuber, Devin. The Sage and His Mystic: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emanuel Swedenborg. http://www.newchurchhistory.org/articles/dz2002. Accessed Nov. 5, 2014

(8) Sastri, S. The Upanishad and Sri Sankara’s Commentary. Madras: V.C. Seshacharri, 1898. 61.

Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at the Swedenborgian Society of the East Bay at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary, in El Cerrito, CA, as well as senior editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of spirituality and psychology, interfaith theology, and the Western esoteric tradition. A native of Germany, Rev. Muller was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College and the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA.

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