Theosophy across Boundaries
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Theosophy across Boundaries

Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Modern Esoteric Movement

Hans Martin Krämer, Julian Strube, Hans Martin Krämer, Julian Strube

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eBook - ePub

Theosophy across Boundaries

Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Modern Esoteric Movement

Hans Martin Krämer, Julian Strube, Hans Martin Krämer, Julian Strube

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Theosophy across Boundaries brings a global history approach to the study of esotericism, highlighting the important role of Theosophy in the general histories of religion, science, philosophy, art, and politics. The first half of the book consists of seven perspectives on the activities of the Theosophical Society in very different regional contexts, ranging from India, Vietnam, China, and Japan to Victorian Britain and Israel, shedding new light on the entanglement of "Western" and "Oriental" ideas around 1900. The second half explores specific cultural influences that Theosophy exerted in the spheres of literature, art, and politics, using case studies from Sri Lanka, Burma, India, Japan, Ireland, Germany, and Russia. The examples clearly show that Theosophy was part of a truly global movement, thus providing an outstanding example of the complex entanglements of the global religious history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Informazioni

Editore
SUNY Press
Anno
2020
ISBN
9781438480435
Categoria
Religion
PART I
NEW PERSPECTIVES ON THEOSOPHY
Chapter 1
Western Esotericism and the Orient in the First Theosophical Society
Wouter J. Hanegraaff
Almost everybody knows that the Theosophical Society was founded in Helena P. Blavatsky’s apartment in New York in 1875, but few people are aware of how little this original society resembled the international organization that began to operate from India in 1879.1 My argument in this chapter is that Theosophy began as a specifically Western2 esoteric current that became “entangled”3 with Indian religions only after Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Bombay on February 16, 1879. Prior to that event, Theosophical understandings of India and its religious traditions were dominated by the deeply ethnocentric Orientalist imagination typical of nineteenth-century European scholarship and popular literature.4 This means that if we wish to “disentangle” the global history of Theosophy, we must first of all obtain a clear picture of what it looked like prior to 1879.
None of the above is meant to suggest that the arrival of Olcott and Blavatsky in Bombay caused them simply to move from a Western and merely “imaginary” vision of the Orient toward an “authentic” understanding of Indian religion.5 Not only did they bring their Orientalist perspectives with them to India, but perspectives and assumptions quite similar to their own were already present among colonial elites and educated Indians well before their arrival. As far as their own ideas are concerned, there is no doubt that in their sincere efforts to give a voice to Buddhism, the founders ended up promoting what they believed Buddhism should be all about—whether Buddhists agreed or not. As formulated by Stephen Prothero,
When it came to constructing his understanding of Buddhism, […] Olcott relied not on the living example of Asian Buddhists but on the scholarly works of academic Orientalists, most of whom were committed Christians. This key decision to attend to the bookish Buddhism of Orientalists rather than the lived Buddhism of Buddhists tilted Olcott’s imaginative construction of Buddhism in a decidedly Protestant direction.6
It has been noted that Blavatsky’s and Olcott’s Theosophy reflected “a never-before-seen degree of admiration of non-Western culture and religion,”7 and this is correct at least as far as Western Theosophists are concerned. However, what they found so admirable in India was largely what they had already been admiring before they ever arrived there. The “positive Orientalism” to which they adhered is a European invention with roots that reach far back in history;8 and while this perspective highlighted certain dimensions of “the Orient” as emblematic of a “universal” ancient mystical wisdom,9 such idealizations required the simultaneous suppression or marginalization of everything that did not fit the picture—notably the traditional bête noire of “idolatry.”10
But Theosophy was more than just another example of colonialist “encompassment”11 of Indian religion within a Western framework, for the lines of influence went in both directions. The Theosophical Society grew with stunning rapidity (as early as 1891, it had 258 branches on six continents12), and as more and more Indians joined its ranks, it was inevitable that they would begin to interpret Theosophy from their own perspectives. The result was a great variety of local variations and interpretations, all participating in a movement that may have been unified in theory, but was bound to become far more complex than anything Olcott or Blavatsky had in mind. Because of its great importance both from a historical and a theoretical perspective, I find it important to clarify my position on this point. In some of my earlier work, Theosophy is described as an “essentially Western movement” rooted in Western-esoteric rather than Eastern traditions;13 and more recently I wrote about the larger context of esotericism as “an inherently Western domain of research.”14 These statements have received some criticism,15 as the formulations could seem to suggest a residual East/West essentialism and a refusal to acknowledge esotericism as a global reality. Nothing could be further from my intentions, so I have tried to sharpen my formulations and clarify my position in a recent publication.16 Interestingly, my critics seem to have overlooked a much more problematic statement that I made in 1996: “To my knowledge, there is no evidence to support the […] idea that modern theosophy eventually came to interpret esotericism, occultism or western science from perspectives that are distinctly oriental and have no precedent in the west.”17 That statement was certainly mistaken! Today I realize that there is plenty of evidence indeed, but one will have to look for it in the writings and activities of Theosophists with non-European/American cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds.18 It is in this regard that I expect the present volume will be able to break new ground and contribute to a truly global understanding of Theosophy.
Rather than framing the history of Theosophy in the simplistic terms of a confrontation between Western Orientalist “fantasies” and Indian “realities,” then, we should focus on the extremely complicated historical processes of imaginal construction and reconstruction that took place in a variety of specific local contexts and on all levels of the Theosophical hierarchy. Such a project should start at the very beginning and at the very place of origin, before the moment of “first contact” on Indian soil. In other words, we need to travel back to New York City in 1875.
The First Theosophical Society
In studying early Theosophical history, it is crucial to resist the temptation of reading earlier developments in the light of later ones. If we try to imagine for a moment that Blavatsky and Olcott had died tragically in 1878 and never embarked for India: how—if at all—would we then remember the “Theosophical Society” today? From surviving sources, we might discover that on the evening of September 7, 1875, about seventeen people19 gathered in the parlor at 46 Irving Place, the apartment of a recent immigrant from Russia, a certain Helena P. Blavatsky, where they established what some contemporary observers saw as “a school for sorcery” devoted to “the Practice of Witch-Craft.”20 Those who knew Blavatsky at the time were generally impressed by her mysterious and charismatic personality, but she was not yet famous as an occultist or writer. Since her arrival in the United States two years earlier, she had been sending letters to popular newspapers and Spiritualist magazines;21 and her first real article on occultism, “A Few Questions to ‘HIRAF,’ ” had appeared in one of those journals just a few months before.22 With her powerful, passionate, and somehow authoritative style of writing, she had begun to be noted in Spiritualist milieus, and the popular press was fascinated with her. Still, nobody could have predicted in September 1875 that she would soon produce a spectacular best seller and become the world’s most famous “occultist”—let alone that she would spearhead an international revival of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Blavatsky’s understanding of occultism at this time is evident from an important letter she wrote on February 16, 1875 to Professor Hiram Corson,23 who had contacted her about an article she had written in the Spiritualist paper Banner of Light.24 Blavatsky was still presenting herself as a Spiritualist at this time: she wrote that “for the sake of Spiritualism” she had left her home and “become a wanderer upon the face of the earth,” and when she sailed from France to the United States, she did so “with feelings not unlike those of a Mohammadan approaching the birth-place of his prophet.”25 But once having arrived in the Promised Land, she was sorely disappointed by what she found, and was soon lashing out at fraudulent practices and the “deplorable lack of accord between American spiritualists.”26 Clearly she had something different in mind: in her letter to Corson (the second one after an initial letter dated February 9, 1875), she explained that Spiritualism should be understood as part of a much larger tradition, unknown to most Spiritualists. The passage is of such importance to our concerns in this chapter that it must be quoted here in full:
When I became a spiritualist, it was not through the agency of the ever-lying, cheating mediums, miserable instruments of the undeveloped Spirits of the lower Sphere, the ancient Hades. My belief is based on something older than the Rochester knockings, and springs out from the same source of information that was used by Raymond Lully, Picus della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, et cetera, etc., all of whom have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the “deepest depths” of the Divine nature, and show them the real tie which binds all things together. I found at last, and many years ago, the cravings of my mind satisfied by this theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them that the protoplast might know it for the aid of the human destiny. The practical, however small knowledge of the Principle, Ain-Soph, or the Endless and the Boundless with its ten Sephiroths or Emanations, goes more towards opening your eyes than all the hypothetical teachings of the leaders of Spiritualism, let them be American or European. In my eyes, Allan Kardec and Flammarion, Andrew Jackson Davis and Judge Edmonds, are but schoolboys just trying to spell their A B C and sorely blundering sometimes. The relation between the two is in just proportion what were in the ancient ages the book called Sohar, based on the perfect knowledge of the Kabbala handed down by oral tradition from David and Solomon to Simon ben Jochai, the first man who dared write it down, and the Massorah, a book based on outside, not direct tradition, and which never vouchsafed the truth of what it taught.27
Note that Blavatsky already uses the term “theosophy” here, and clearly means it to refer to the classic traditions of Western esotericism or occult philosophy. Theosophy is supposed to have o...

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