Emerson, the Dream of America and Vedanta – Book review, Interview

"Emerson and the Dream of America: Finding our Way in a New and Exceptional Age" by Richard Geldard

Emerson on Consciousness:
“We are in it. It is not in us.”

Truth is not subjective. Modern science seeks to observe and understand our world and it’s truths, investigating our perceptions, inferences and assumptions about the world. Truth is not culturally specific, nor time dependent; laws of nature are not cultural, nor subjective. We don’t talk about French gravity, Venezuelan gravity, American gravity and so on. And whether or not I understand gravity, or choose to not believe in gravity, I am still subject to it’s laws; as we are all subject to laws in Nature, laws not of our creation, laws beyond our control. Ecological order, biological order, psychological order, order in chemistry and physics and so on are all pervasive truth, no matter the label, our model or degree of understanding; in essence the nature of creation.

Truth is perennial, cuts across time and culture, and the thinkers and systems of knowledge that reveal truth are perennial. Vedanta is such a system; Emerson is such a thinker; and as a practitioner of yoga and Vedanta I see Emerson’s language and conclusions as a rich means to understand the relevance of Vedanta across time and culture, and want to share that with you.

In Emerson & the Dream of America: Finding our Way to a New and Exceptional Age (2010) Richard Geldard is responding to recent trends in American values made manifest in electing President Obama in 2008. Geldard’s book is a compelling, hopeful and urgent call to bring Emerson’s thread of uniquely American, and perennial, thinking into contemporary American values, social fabric, personal growth and politics.

I recently interviewed Dr. Richard Geldard, on 4/30/2012, the interview is 24 minutes, on Youtube, see below.

Emerson and Vedanta share a foundational approach in seeking to understand and observe the world as it is and ourselves in it, beyond unverifiable subjective views, beyond unverifiable belief. And they each include the nature of my Self, of “I” in the study of world, or universe, and its perennial, universal laws. Both use methods of negation to understand that which is not accessible to sense perception; meaning we can prove what pervasive Beingness and Truth are not in order to grasp the essence. Many systems of philosophy assert that we cannot name truth; Vedanta concludes the only thing that holds up to scrutiny is that which is true, persistent, perennial, sat; or that whose existence does not depend on any thing else for being. All else in the realm of name and form falls apart under scrutiny, resolving to its component parts or mithya, that whose existence is dependent on something other than itself.

“Inquiry into the nature of the world and the Creator without the inquiry into the nature of yourself may produce various philosophical systems (speculative, theoretical, explanations for the creation and creator). Only a discriminative inquiry that takes oneself into account prepares oneself to inquire into the essential nature of the world and the Creator. 

Thus Vedanta starts like this: arrive at yourself, at what you are: then when you inquire into the world and it’s creator, you will understand better what you discover.” Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati, on “Why Study Vedanta?”
3.5 minutes.

Vedanta is the body of knowledge in the Vedas, Upanisads and encapsulated in the Bhagavad Gita, specifically the body of knowledge, and means of knowledge, pertaining to inquiry into the nature of “I” and creation.

I recently read Richard Geldard’s book “Emerson & the Dream of America: Finding our Way to a New and Exceptional Age” (2010), and last year I read Geldard’s “God in Concord,” also about Emerson; and I see the thread of truth from Vedanta through to Emerson’s insights (see more on Richard Geldard’s books). Geldard is writing about Emerson and America today, not Vedanta, I am bringing in this comparison. As a student of yoga and Vedanta, largely with Swami Dayananda Saraswati since 1997, I am writing (I assume) largely for others integrating Yoga into daily life. I am invigorated and inspired to see the shared understanding in Emerson and Vedanta because this universality reveals the perennial nature of the knowledge and truth in both. We can then see that the knowledge in Vedanta is pertinent to America and Americans today, cutting across culture and time to reveal not only our own essential nature, but truths about the world in which we live, and how we are to live in this world, and this country – now, today.

Sadly, Emerson’s rich and thorough thinking is often reduced to superficial truncated quotable snippets popping up on Facebook with no context and thus subject to personal interpretations largely missing the heart of his message, so smooth even in its grandiose language, and yet so elusive in its forthrightness, often radical and challenging.

Swami Dayananda Saraswati points out that Vedanta is a matter of understanding, not unverifiable belief or blind faith. Nor is Vedanta a religion as we see religion manifest throughout the world, the method of study, the means of knowledge is more akin to science and philosophy, meaning methods of inquiry, observation and deduction. However, this study of self and Nature is distinct from science and philosophy in that the topic of study is not an object available for observation, inference and study; the topic is the study of the subject itself… the “I” who is conscious of the world and who is self-aware. That I am is the only thing self-evident to me, all else in world of name and form becomes evident to me and is available for study as an object of perception or inference. That is why we need our own internal assumptions challenged by external teachings and teachers; such is the method of Vedanta.

In “Emerson & the Dream of America” Richard Geldard eloquently delves into the richness of Emerson’s thinking on how we see our selves in the world, in concert with creation, and how that thinking is pertinent and indeed crucial for the health and vitality of our social fabric, body politic, individual freedom and happiness in America today. Because Emerson’s understanding of self, creation and creator illuminate the same truths illuminated in the body of knowledge that is Vedanta, Emerson’s insights serve as a bridge drawing the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta into relevance for modern Americans of all stripes, faiths, and tribes. Geldard places Emerson in context of the thinkers and theologians of his time and philosophers from previous centuries, showing us Emerson’s many inspirations, among the Greeks and Europeans, and also the Bhagavad Gita and other “eastern” texts.

A long time scholar of Emerson, Richard Geldard has mined Emerson’s writings over the years and can artfully weave threads of his thinking, showing us, with hope and urgency, how this uniquely American philosopher can be a beacon in these times:

“Today this struggle (for the soul of America, for values, science and faith – for truth) has once again emerged for a nation in crisis, with religious belief a major combatant in a struggle for the soul of the nation. This struggle is more than conflict over cultural values, about the content of entertainment, about lifestyles, and about instruction in our schools. It is ultimately about the nature of truth itself, and about the means of perceiving that truth.”

Geldard writes after Obama’s win in 2008, and saw in that win a sea change in the American social fabric, a backlash to the loss of credibility and integrity in the Bush administration. Geldard writes before the groundswell that is Occupy Wall Street, an affirmation of his prescient pulse on the body politic. “Emerson and the Dream of America” is a must read for anyone inspired to bring values of honest inquiry, collaboration, mutual respect, and conscious inquiry into social change and personal growth and understanding.

Truth and laws not of our own making, laws of nature, are recurring themes in both Emerson and Vedanta. How we see our Self, our human consciousness, in context in Nature and Creation, are also recurring themes. Vedanta understands laws of nature not as being of divine making, not made by something somehow outside of creation, but rather laws of nature are understood as the whole, as the essence of the Divine itself made manifest.  Laws of nature are Isvara, or that which sustains all and is self-sustaining, what we name Divine. I say this because the use of the term divine then is not at all the common interpretation. This is true also of Emerson’s understanding and in his writing. Swami Dayananda Saraswati says that Vedanta does not say there is one “god”, rather there is only Brahman, Atma; what is, is Brahman, Atma – terms which require unfolding and which have no translation and so must be understood in context of an unfolding proof. For Brahman or Atma read pervasive consciousness, or Conscious Beingness. Vedanta is not a matter of unverifiable belief or blind faith, but a matter for understanding through inquiry and deduction, through teachings that challenge our assumptions gained through inference and sense perceptions.

Yoga teaches us to settle accounts with our own self, as that will settle understanding of life the universe and everything. In understanding that the essential nature of our beingness is of that same whole, that same order, those same laws, not subject to the perceived attributes or limitations of the mind, body and sense perception, something fundamental changes about our self-image, our pursuit of happiness and how we rub up against the world, people, elements and law; how those rub us, and how we receive that constant interplay. Both Emerson and Vedanta have a radical conclusion about our very nature, a conclusion that is at odds with our perception, inference and experience, hence the need for inquiry and study – to challenge and seek to validate or disprove our inference and perception; a process of study and questioning, a task not for this article, a task to pursue with a sound, trained teacher like Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

By including our own nature in our pursuit for knowledge of the world, we can better see our place in society, in relationships and in our own works. Emerson uses the term “virtue” to open up our understanding in that “he asserts that it is virtue that subordinates the phenomenal world to the mind” (Geldard). In his “Divinity School Address” Emerson defines virtue not as behavior but as “a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws.” Geldard writes: “Therefore, virtue is not a “good behavior” as much as it is a living relationship to certain divine laws.” Vedanta teaches us that when we experience feeling whole, compassionate and content we are experiencing our own essential nature, our essential beingness; thus morality, values and right action are not external impositions, but rather a gateway to our essence, or to the Ground of Being, as Emerson says.

Ground of Being I associate with the nature of Atma, or indivisible consciousness, in Vedanta or our essential nature, the nature of wholeness, Purnam, and of truth, Satyam, meaning that which is not dependent on anything else for being; as opposed to Mithya, or that which is dependent on something else for it’s being or existence. In seeing that “I,” the self, is not separate from the whole, or as Emerson writes “Part and parcel of God,” all dualities fall away in our understanding. The dualities, the polarities we fabricate are at the heart of our confusion, separation, collective conflict and individual personal suffering. When Geldard gets to this principle toward the end of his book he gets to the crux of the relevance of Emerson, and the knowledge of Vedanta, in American today:

“What is the destiny of a country devoted to the dualism of good and evil, to see operating in every disaster the influence of some consciously malevolent force? Our former president [Bush] saw evil operating in the world, … evil as entity… This was the voice of a deluded fundamentalism.” Geldard covers the nature of various forms of fundamentalism earlier in the book.

Geldard’s book is a beautiful journey through the most glorious aspects of humanity, of the human mind and in turn of all creation, and of Creator. He skillfully takes us into thoughtful exploration of Emerson’s most insightful, misunderstood and significant thinking making it relevant to the present and our perception of terrorism, social responsibility, Fate, Truth, the nature of our subject-object relationship with the world, and ultimately the nature of the subject, of “I.” Enjoy. Read it and pass it on.

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2 Responses to “Emerson, the Dream of America and Vedanta – Book review, Interview”

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