Kurt Leidecker (1902-1991)

A longtime professor of religion at Mary Washington College, Kurt Leidecker published a wealth of insightful books and scholarly essays on world religion during his life. He first arrived in the United States at the age of nineteen, in 1921, and became a U.S. citizen in 1927, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees from Oberlin College and his doctorate from the University of Chicago. In 1948, he came to Fredericksburg, becoming a professor of philosophy at Mary Washington College and beginning the long tradition of Asian studies that would enrich the institution. Much of the body of scholarly work he produced was focused on analyzing Buddhism, and many of his essays compare the principles of Buddhism to Western religion and philosophical thought. Throughout his life, he strived to promote a greater cultural understanding between the United States and Asian countries.

One of his interests was in how Western writers and philosophers were influenced by Asian culture and philosophical concepts. One of his books written on this topic is Walt Whitman-American Sadhu, an analysis of how themes relating to Indian and Hindu culture appeared in Whitman's work. In describing Whitman, Leidecker says, "He saw his world-that America he loved so much-he saw it enfolded in the mantle of the world spirit. In the kaleidoscopic scene he perceived a universal pattern and East and West blended in symphonic colors. To be sure, he sang of the world of maya or appearance, and he reveled in it" (American Sadhu 1). Leidecker goes on to explain the depth of Whitman's interest in Indian culture and religion:

No opportunity was lost by the poet to acquaint himself with India. Tomes, articles, and clipping from the newspapers littered his room. Sampling them, you wpuld have found that he had read in and about the Vedas, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Kamasutras, the Hitopadesa, Indian dramatic literature; had knowledge of Brahma, Siva, Vishnu, Yama, and the avataras, of Manu, Vyasa, Valmiki, Sankara, and Buddha with his nirvana; had informed himself about Indian history and the British empire in India (American Sadhu 4).

Leidecker goes on to analyze a number of Whitman's poems, searching for common themes in Whitman and Indian philosophy. He argues that Whitman's line "I am large, I contain multitude" from "Song of Myself" canto 51, "is the counterpart of the Upanishads. The "I" of Walt Whitman's is the atman vaisvanara of Chandogya Upanisad 5.11. Once having identified it we know the American to possess the identical insight of the greatest sages of ancient India" (American Sadhu 10). Leidecker also claims that Whitman's poems demonstrate a thorough understanding of Hindu concept of death; to Whitman, "death is rated beautiful, and all exists to him in a momentary presence" (American Sadhu 14). Walt Whitman-American Sadhu is an insightful and well-researched essay about the influence of Indian philosophy and religion on one of America's greatest poets.

In addition to researching the influence of Asian philosophy on individual authors, Leidecker was also focused on creating a cultural understanding between Eastern and Western countries. This is reflected in his essay Buddhism in a Democratic World, which discusses the virtues of Buddhism and how a Western audience can relate to its philosophical and ethical points. Leidecker makes the claim that "in Buddhism the real value is shifted from the material and worldly to the spiritual, but without denouncing wealth and prowess as an evil. There is a recognition, therefore, that all these things are necessary so long as we have not reached the highest level of thinking" (Buddhism in a Democratic World 4). He then explains the similarities between Buddhist and democratic philosophy;

The right to dissent is jealously guarded by all democratic nations. For man must realize that he does not possess the ultimate truth, that he is groping in opinion, however well founded, as long as he has his human limitations. The same right is implied in Buddhistic thinking. For the ultimate reality, nirvana, is indefinable and inexpressible. If, thus, either you or I start out in search of it, we do so to the best of our knowledge and intent. It would be illogical if not unethical to fight because of any differences (Buddhism in a Democratic World 8).

To Leidecker, the fundamentals of Buddhist society-true leadership, individual responsibility, tolerance, and teaching without domination-are also the basis of a functional democracy. He urges "all men of high purpose to unite with Buddhists in their aim to perfect the person, in order to make the world a better place to live in" (Buddhism in a Democratic World 9). Throughout his life, Leidecker advocated tolerance and understanding of all of the world's religions, and this is reflected in all his scholarly work, including Buddhism in a Democratic World.

Leidecker believed that a strong education was absolutely necessary in instilling the respect and scholarly curiosity necessary for an understanding of foreign cultures, and he considered teaching to be a very noble profession. Because of this, he wrote Yankee Teacher: The Life of William Torrey Harris, a biography of one of the most influential figures in establishing America's public school system. Leidecker says of him, "William Torrey Harris, mastermind in his profession, did not shoot across the American horizon like a comet. Slowly he rose, a satellite first, a sun later, making good each trust put in him and doing his full share of the duties attached to each station in his life" (Yankee Teacher vii). From the beginning of his college education to the end of his professional public speaking career, Leidecker charts the course of one of the great unsung heroes of American history, a man whose influence on the very ideas that American educators value is immeasurable. Of Harris' influence on the public school system, Leidecker says "What the Cairds, what T.H. Green and Hutchinson Sterling did for idealism in England, that Harris did for it in America, and more yet, in that he had access to the vast educational machinery of the country to drive idealism home. New England idealism became transcendental" (Yankee Teacher ix).

Kurt Leidecker wrote many other highly influential scholarly essays and books throughout his life, copies of which can be found today at the University of Mary Washington Library. He was a great scholar and thinker who left behind a legacy of insight and cultural understanding to whatever he applied his talents to.

Source: The Free Lance-Star article, dated April 24, 2004, by Barbara Crookshanks.

Most of Dr. Leidecker's writings are available in the collection of the Simpson Library of the University of Mary Washington. Contact our reference desk to request an interlibrary loan. The Central Rappahannock Regional Library also has articles by and about Dr. Leidecker available on microfilm and we have Churches and Religion in Fredericksburg, Virginia available for your perusal. Our reference staff will be happy to help you.