Hinduism in American Literature

America took notice of Hinduism in 1893 with Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Vivekananda and Raja Ram Mohan Roy spread awareness about Hindu philosophy and brought about spiritual bonding between India and America. Great American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, William James and Ralph Waldo Emerson found inspiration in the Bhagavad Gita, upanishads and vedas.

These great writers were troubled by the seeming difference between man’s earthly and spiritual endeavors. They found their answer in the Bhagavad Gita which says meditation expands the mind and helps it realize the divine spirit in every creation. Meditation thus lifts us from mundane earthly existence and helps us attain our true self, which is a manifestation of the divine consciousness.

Emerson’s oversoul

Emerson coined the term ‘oversoul’ for the Divine self. Every human soul is a part of this oversoul. To realize the divine spirit within, man has to look inside. Emerson wrote, “Be true to thyself. Because every man has within him somewhat really divine”.


Emerson’s friend Thoreau was also well-versed in Hindu scriptures. Thoreau suggested that to realize one’s divinity, one had to first create an idea of one’s ideal self. Then, one should go about making this ideal come true. He wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost;/ that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them”.

Melville and Whitman

Herman Melville in his great epic Moby Dick, refers to Vishnu’s incarnation as a whale, which he took to rescue sacred books from the bottom of the sea. Walt Whitman, in his poem ‘Passage to India’, moved away from European conventions and refers to Sanskrit and the vedas.

1 response to Hinduism in American Literature

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