ATG Quirkies: Did Thoreau Do Yoga?

by | Oct 10, 2021 | 0 comments

Did Thoreau Do Yoga? by Livia Gershon, a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire, appeared in JSTOR Daily on Oct 2, 2021

Henry David Thoreau via Wikimedia Commons

Yoga, mediation, and other practices derived from Asian traditions have become increasingly mainstream among Americans in recent decades. But as religion scholar Alan D. Hodder writes, these kinds of influences were also important to nineteenth-century American thinkers, notably Henry David Thoreau.

Asian thought reached Thoreau by way of Great Britain. Europeans had been studying Indian thought since the days of Alexander the Great, but British colonialism brought a new interest in the subject. In 1784, two magistrates in the British colonial government, William Jones and Charles Wilkins, helped form the Asiatic Society of Bengal. They translated sacred texts from Sanskrit into English.

The texts, and philosophical work from other parts of Asia, began trickling into the United States in the 1830s, Hodder writes. Among the first Americans to begin studying them were New England transcendentalists, including Thoreau.

Thoreau’s 1849 book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was filled with commentary on Asian texts, including Wilkins’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Thoreau mixed his thoughts on Christianity and other religions in a way he recognized would annoy some readers...”

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