Transcendentalists and the Smoke Monster of Religion

I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.

But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and  much less exciting.

The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.)  There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive AgesCompare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?

So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.

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