Sunday, March 21, 2010

When Academics get it Wrong

Here is a sampling of references to Blavatsky in a few recently published books by people who make their living teaching at American colleges.

* Mark Singleton’s thesis in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, February 10, 2010. 272 p. hardback, $99.00) is that “yoga as it is popularly practiced today owes a greater debt to modern Indian nationalism and, even more surprisingly, to the spiritual aspirations of European bodybuilding and early 20th-century women's gymnastic movements of Europe and America, than it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition.”

Blavatsky (and Swami Vivekananda) are held up as the authorities who helped fuel the initial “distain and distrust” for hatha yoga practices. Page 77 briefly explores HPB’s views on the subject. “Baleful propaganda such as this from the doyenne of late nineteenth-century Asian esoterica substantially contributed to shaping the attitudes that show up in contemporaneous translations of hatha texts…” There is an interesting bit of information about Dr. N.C. Paul (Navīna Candra Pāla), whose 1850 A Treatise on Yoga Philosophy was reprinted in 1888 as part of Tukaram Tatya’s theosophical series, and whom HPB cites, but not much else for readers of this site to pay $99.00 for.

Mark Singleton teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

* In chapter 2, “Laying the Foundation for American-Style Hinduism,” of Lola Williamson’s Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion (New York: NYU Press, January 1, 2010. 272 p. hardback, $75.00, paper, $23.00) there is mention of the contribution of the Theosophical Society, along with Emerson and New Thought, preparing Americans for “Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements”. Williamson’s statement that Blavatsky “claimed to have received written communications from two dead Tibetan mahatmas (p. 29) is simply misinformation, as Blavatsky claimed no such thing.

Lola Williamson is assistant professor of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

* “A self-christened ‘countess,’ Blavatsky began her career as a Spiritualist medium and esoteric omnivore.…Blavatsky’s writing is generally divided into two periods, the so-called ‘Egyptian’ period and the Buddhist one”, writes Cathy Gutierrez in Plato's Ghost: Spiritualism in the American Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, September 3, 2009. 232 p. hardback, $55.00). Gutierrez gives no sources for these claims, and it is left to the reader to accept her imaginative interpretation as fact.

“[Isis Unveiled] is perhaps America’s greatest conspiracy theory and is characterized by Blavatsky’s paranoid tone.” What can one say after this but that Cathy Gutierrez is an associate professor of religion at Sweet Briar College, Virginia.

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