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The Ethics of Oneness: Reading Democracy Alongside the American Transcendentalists and the Bhagavad Gita


· Jeremy Engels Penn State University (University Park, Pennsylvania, United States of America)


07/26 | 16:10-16:30 UTC+2/CEST


What does it mean to live a life committed to oneness?

It might be surprising, given that Americans are rightly known the world over as a people committed to values of rugged individualism, autonomy, and self-reliance, but for a small but influential band of American thinkers during the 1800s, this was the central philosophical question, the riddle of all riddles, the knot that had to be untied in order to determine what it meant to behave ethically—and democratically.

Inspired by the appearance of early translations of Indian philosophical and religious texts in the United States during the 1800s—including, especially, the Bhagavad Gita—both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman reminded their readers of the ontological truth of oneness and wrestled with the practical implications of this truth. In this presentation, I recount how Emerson and Whitman read the Gita as a concrete, practical, ethical challenge to live a life of oneness (ekatvam). I focus, in particular, on how Emerson translated Krishna’s directive to Arjuna to “see the divine self in all creatures, and all creatures in the divine self” (6.29) into a call for a new kind of communication as yoga. Emerson democratized the divine avatar of the Gita by arguing that all people are gods walking on earth, and he encouraged his readers to address the divine part of their interlocutors whenever speaking to them. Whitman, in turn, further democratized Emerson’s philosophy of oneness by explicitly arguing for the divinity of the body (and not just the soul). For both, living a life committed to oneness demanded rhetorical devotion.