Odisha to United States : The renaissance of Emerson and Bhima Bhoi

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By Bibhuti Pati

Bhima Bhoi says, ‘The sorrow and agonies of all beings are immeasurable, and who can tolerate seeing them? Let my soul be condemned to hell but let the universe be redeemed’, He wielded his voice against the prevailing social injustice, religious bigotry and caste discrimination. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, and to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well. The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” In the nineteenth century these clarion calls of Bhima Bhoi and R.W. Emerson, brought a renaissance from Odisha to US, and the world history captured a new page for the upcoming centuries!

The nineteenth century was a period of emancipation from exploitation, of freedom from bondage and of groundbreaking ideas leaving lasting impacts on society, religion and literature.  Slave trade was abolished in different parts of the world. The Slavery Abolition Act, 1833 was passed by the United Kingdom Parliament abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, with the exceptions “of the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company”, Ceylon, and St. Helena; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843. In America, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln in 1863. In India, the native people tried to vent their resentment against their colonial masters. While history books record 1857 as the year of India’s First War of Independence, the Paikas of Khurda, under the inspiring leadership of Buxi Jagabandhu, launched an armed rebellion against the British East India Company as early as in 1817. The Khond Uprising led by Chakra Biosi took place in 1846 and 1855. In 1854-55, Rhendo Majhi, who also hailed from the Khond tribe, one of the most underprivileged communities, fought for the inalienable rights of forest dwelling communities over their natural resources. Tribal leaders fought forceful battles against the invaders and died heroic deaths.

New economic and political ideas heralded a new era in the nineteenth century. German philosopher and economist Karl Marx, in collaboration with Freiedrich Engels, published several works, the most well-known being the 1848 pamphlet titled The Communist Manifesto. His work left an enduring influence on subsequent intellectual, economic, and political history. His seminal work, Das Kapital, formed the basis on which political philosophy and economy of nations were shaped for years.

The beginning of the nineteenth century marked the commencement of a poetic movement in Britain. The Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was published in AD 1798; its second edition which was brought out in AD 1800 carried a Preface written by Wordsworth. The Preface, which serves as a sort of Romantic Manifesto, describes how the language of poetry is “a selection of language really spoken by men and women in a state of vivid sensation.” The English Romantic Poetry is characterised by the call of Back to Nature. Nature, in fact, forms the most characteristic feature of the Romantic Poetry in the nineteenth century. The Great Romantics varied in their treatment of Nature; but Nature occupied a significant part of the poetry of each of them.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the emergence of new ideas and thoughts. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 –1882), an American essayist, poet and scholar, led the transcendentalist movement in the 1830s in the eastern United States. He believed in the inherent goodness of humans and nature. He also believed that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual, who can be at his best when he is free from the artificial and corrupting influence of the society.  As an adherent of transcendentalism, he believed that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters. A champion of individualism and a critic of the pressures of society, he disseminated his thoughts in dozens of published essays and more than 1,500 public lectures which he delivered across the United States.

Emerson belonged to a family of ministers that had served Boston and Concord from the earliest colonial days. As a minister of the Unitarian Church, he was trained to seek values rather than facts. However, “when commitment to the creed and ritual of his own church seemed too demanding, he resigned his charge and became a professional lecturer from a public platform” (Spillers 1954, rpt. JLS, 1). He became a free thinking social reformer and came to represent liberation of the moral conscience, “A Protestantism without a church, a spiritual communication launched on the open air for the ears of all” (Paul 1906, 347). He has recorded in his journal, “I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry. The profession is antiquated. In an altered age, we worship in the dead forms of our forefathers” (Sullivan 6). His disagreements with church officials over the administration of the Communion service and misgivings about public prayer eventually led to his resignation in 1832. He wrote, “This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it” (Packer 39; Emerson 1832: Uncollected Essays)

He had an abiding faith in individuality, steadfastness and love of truth. This firm faith sustained him to remain free from all formal, oppressive ideas and not to admit allegiance to any formal school.

Emerson’s readings ranged from literatures from the Continent—French, Italian and German—as well as from Persian and Indian literatures. He held Persian poets Hafiz and Saadi in high esteem. He had read the Hindu books of wisdom and there is a strong influence of Oriental mysticism in his works.

Emerson moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay titled “Nature”. The essay comprises eight sections: Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects. Each section takes a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature. In the essay, Emerson explains that to experience the “wholeness” with nature for which humans are naturally suited, they must separate themselves from the flaws and distractions imposed on them by society. He believed that solitude is the single mechanism through which human beings can be fully engaged in the world of nature. The opening lines of Chapter I of “Nature” read: “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”

When a person experiences true solitude in nature, he is free from the shackles of artificial bondage. Society, he says, destroys wholeness, whereas “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.” In nature a person finds its spirit and accepts it as the Universal Being. He writes: “Nature is not fixed but fluid; to a pure spirit, nature is everything” (“Nature”)

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