Thoreau was likely the first American to entertain seriously the possibility of identifying himself as a yogi. “Depend upon it that rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully,” he wrote to his friend Harrison Blake in 1849: “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogin.” But what did he mean in saying so? Thoreau’s understanding of the term yoga derived entirely from ancient Indian texts. In the 1840s, he read avidly and empathetically in key Indic works such as the Laws of Manu and the Bhagavad Gita. Drawing on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of “one mind” as a hermeneutical principle, Thoreau sought to overcome temporal and spatial distance in his reading and to integrate ideas and practices of these Hindu texts from ancient India selectively within his own life. Listening to the voices of Indic sages reinforced Thoreau’s own inclinations toward austerity and equanimity. They gave him a foundation for his life experiments in voluntary simplification and yogic contemplation at Walden Pond. This essay, which is a contribution to the Common Knowledge symposium on xenophilia, traces Thoreau’s engagement with ancient Indian works during the 1840s and contrasts his way of reading with those of other scholars during the period. The hermeneutic of “one mind” was the foundation of his xenophilic reading.
Richard H. Davis; Henry David Thoreau, Yogi. Common Knowledge 1 January 2018; 24 (1): 56–89. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0961754X-4253822
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