Thursday, July 19, 2012

Blavatsky and the Atheist

The Arts Section of Chennai’s English-language daily newspaper The Hindu (published continuously since 1878) in its July 19, 2012 edition draws our attention to three books recently published about Rangampalli Jagannathiah, an Indian theosophist who met Mme. Blavatsky in 1882. His great-granddaughter R.J Kalpana (pictured above) has penned his biography titled An Atheist Disciple—Biography of Rangampalli Jagannathiah (1852-1918) and compiled some of his writings in both English and Telugu, Rangampalli Jagannathiah - Collected Writings, in English and Shri Rangampalli Jagannathiah Rachanalu—Telugu Vyasa Samputi.

Initially, R. Jagannathiah had joined the National Secular Society of London and was elected its Vice President along with Annie Besant. “In 1882 he argued the tenets of Theosophy with Helena Blavatsky on a public platform. By the end of the week-long debate, he turned a believer of Theosophy,” informs Kalpana. R. Jagannathiah was also the founder of the Bellary Sanmarga Lodge and was associated with Adyar Theosophical Society. Getting the chronology of events right was important, his personal journals and correspondence which have been preserved helped in the process. “His correspondence with the founders of the Theosophical Society like Helena Blavatsky and H.S Olcott is well documented and sources of information. Gathering all the facts and cross referencing them took a lot of time,” explains Kalpana.

Jagannathiah, who wrote as“R.J.” and “Veritas” in The Philosophic Inquirer of Madras, was introduced to Blavatsky on December 27th, 1882. They spent three days in discussion and he says, “In three days she shattered my seven years’ knowledge of atheistic theories.” He became an ardent worker for Theosophy in India. He penned a memorandum about her in 1909, which can be read here. A biographical sketch, with the picture of him seated with his co-worker, T.S. Swaminatha Aiyar, is in the New York Path of December 1894.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Science of the Occult

“Occult Science and the Science of the Occult: Astral Projection and the Disenchantment of Fin-de-Si├Ęcle Britain,” Johnstone Metzger’s Bachelor of Arts (Honours) thesis submitted to The Faculty of Arts History Department, University of British Columbia, 2012, takes on a dual task: looking at the subject of astral projection through the lens of London’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn during the 1890s, and then comparing it with the attention given by Richard Hodgson in his 1885 report on the astral phenomena connected with Blavatsky. It is an ambitious undertaking but Metzger manages to provide a concise documented account of the evolution of the astral practices of the Golden Dawn.

More impressive is that Metzger has actually read Richard Hodgson’s report to the Committee appointed by Council of the Society for Psychical Research “to investigate the evidence for marvellous phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society.” This second part of the thesis examines the scientific response to the subject as provided by Hodgson’s 1885 report. No other sources seen to have been consulted, though the author’s argument would have benefited by the research of Walter A. Carrithers, Vernon Harrison, Leslie Price and J.P. Deveney. Metzger concludes that “Hodgson’s report had more in common with a legal trial than it did with a physics experiment,” and adds the interesting insight:

Though he does not make this explicit, Hodgson portrays himself following a two-step process. First, he determined which testimonies could be trusted, and which ones he discarded, based on his position as the expert observer. Then he used the viable testimony to create possible scenarios, and used them to judge, impartially and without prejudice, whether the reported phenomena were fraudulent or genuine. As these two positions are directly at odds with each other, there were some areas where they overlapped uncomfortably.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Find Yourself in Oz

The trailer for Oz: The Great and Powerful is out in the UK. The film is meant to be a prequel to well-known 1939 version, The Wizard of Oz. According to the press release from Walt Disney Pictures:

“Oz: The Great and Powerful” imagines the origins of L. Frank Baum’s beloved character, the Wizard of Oz. When Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a small-time circus magician with dubious ethics, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s hit the jackpot—fame and fortune are his for the taking—that is until he meets three witches, Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams), who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting. Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity—and even a bit of wizardry—Oscar transforms himself not only into the great and powerful Wizard of Oz but into a better man as well.

This will no doubt extend the Oz franchise to a new generation and bring about some discussion of the theosophical influence on L. Frank Baum’s story (according to John Algeo’s “A Notable Theosophist: L. Frank Baum,” published in The American Theosophist 1986, Baum and his wife became members of the Chicago branch of the Theosophical Society on September 4, 1892). The film is scheduled for release in March 2013.

Blavatsky News

* Kevin J. Brehony’s paper “To Letchworth via India: The Transformation of the Theosophical Educational Trust” presented at the Internationalization in the field of education Conference, held at the University of Geneva, June 27-30, 2012, examines the Theosophical Society’s educational theories and practices beginning first in India and subsequently in England until 1921. Only a small part is devoted to Blavatsky’s views on education, mainly seen through her Key to Theosophy, and best summed up by a quote from the book that children were taught to “believe in the miracles of the Bible on Sunday, while for the six other days of the week you teach them that such things are scientifically impossible.” The rest deals with Besant educational work in India and theosophical developments in England.

* The site Sects and Violence in the Ancient World: Musings on religion ancient and modern carries a color photograph of the “Lamasery,” Mme. Blavatsky’s apartment on Eight Avenue and West 47 Street in New York City, along with some musings on the subject of Theosophy. The two corner windows on the right above the storefront are where Blavatsky’s parlor was, and where she wrote Isis Unveiled, the window on the left let in on Col. Olcott’s bedroom. The exterior of the building is still much the same as when she lived there.

Theosophy was a faith that grew out of experimental ideas in New York City with tendrils stretching all the way to India and China. The movement even bestowed upon Gandhi his famous epithet of Mahatma. The words inscribed on his Serbian monument would serve us all well to memorize: “non-violence is the essence of all religions.”

* This year the Emile G. Scholz Prize for best paper of the HIS 203 Research Seminar went to two graduate students at the University of California at Davis. Particularly fascinating is the title of Rajbir Judge’s: “Black Skin, White Breasts: Colonial Subjectivity, Miscegenation, and the Theosophical Society.” The prize is named in the memory of Emile George Scholz, who was born in 1893 in Bakersfield and died in Modesto, California in 1977. Established by one of his grandsons as a testament to his lifelong love of history, “it is the family’s hope that future ‘Scholz Prize’ winners will remain devoted to the study and appreciation of historical events and will convey to future generations their understanding of, and passion for, these events for the benefit of humankind.” Hopefully Rajbir Judge’s paper with the challenging title will be soon available.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Blavatsky in Canada

The National Post, a Canadian conservative newspaper, carries in its July 6th issue a fairly favorable review by Philip Marchand of Gillian McCann’s Vanguard of the New Age: the Toronto Theosophical Society. 1891-1945.

What future cultural historians may find of greatest interest in the story of Canadian Theosophy is its appeal to some of the foremost artistic figures of the day. Artist Lawren Harris is the best known of these figures, but other members of the Group of Seven followed his example, as did drama critic Roy Mitchell, who sought inspiration for a new Canadian drama and thought he found it in the Irish theatre of Theosophist William Butler Yeats. 

This situation reflected wider artistic trends in the English-speaking world of the early 20th century. The two most luminous English-language poets of the era, Yeats and Ezra Pound, were both deeply interested in the occult, if not — in Pound’s case — specifically the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. In the world of visual arts, Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky were committed Theosophists. Their story, and the story of Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, himself not an inconsiderable poet, is a reminder that the arts have a need for the otherworldly in the same way that plants need moisture. If they don’t get this need fulfilled by traditional religions, they will seek such fulfillment in enterprises such as the Theosophical Society.

McCann’s study is an easy read, being just over 160 pages of text, the rest being notes and index. For some reason McCann chose not to utilize the extensive work of Ted G. Davy charting the history of Theosophy in Canada. Mr. Davy’s efforts have been published in book form as Theosophy in Canada: ‘The Split’ and other Studies in Early Canadian Theosophical History and Some Early Canadian Theosophists (2011) and covers almost 400 pages. What Davy, McCann and her reviewers are all in agreement on is the influence of Blavatsky’s ideas on Canadian society during the first half of the twentieth century, special recognition being given to figure of Albert E.S. Smythe, who guided the movement in Canada during this time, and who helped foster the Back to the Blavatsky movement in the 1920s.

The cancelled envelope to A.E.S. Smythe mailed in 1926 from the Theosophical Society in Australia comes from Australian Postal History & Social Philately.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Easy Listening

* The Hermetic Hour for Thursday June 14, 2012, is given over to host Poke Runyon on the impact of Helena Blavatsky and Theosophy on western occultism and magick.

This a broad subject because Blavatsky’s impact on all areas of western esoteric theory and practiced is vast and pervasive…Her Egyptian connection with The Brotherhood of Luxor, and French Masonry, her mid-19th century connection with American Spiritualism, her first opus Isis Unveiled, which was essentially Hermetic, the meeting in England with her future Eastern Master “Mahatma Morya” (Ranbir Singh), the moving her Theosophical Society to India under the secret sponsorship of her “Mahatmas,” her professed Buddhist philosophy and the development of her universal religion featuring spiritual Darwinism and Aryan Solarism, “The Secret Doctrine” and “The Stanzas of Dyzan,” her anti-Biblical, anti-Christian bias, the German offshoots of Theosophy: Rudolph Steiner’s Christian Anthroposophy, and the proto-Nazi Ariosophy, the American cults: the Ballard’s “I AM,” Elizabeth Claire Prophet, the “New Age Movement,” and Richard Shaver’s “Mystery,” the Hermetic reaction to her successes which resulted in Anna Kingsford’s Hermetic Society, and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, are just some of the areas touched upon by Poke Runyon during the 59 min. and 20 sec. he holds forth.

Runyon, a leading American hermeticist, describes Blavatsky as an influential player in the occult revival of the 1880s, noting her stature among later occultists, such as Israel Regardie. He accepts Paul Johnson’s theory that one of the Mahatmas was based on a real life figure, Ranbir Singh, and works his facts to fit this view. Unfortunately he never tells what he thinks Blavatsky’s occultism contained or how it differed from what went before. Perhaps this will be done in a future episode.

* A number of talks from the recent Conference on Esoteric Traditions in the Ancient and Modern World in Athens are available online. Readers will be interested in “The Early Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor” by Paul Johnson, Marc Demarest’s study of Godfrey Higgins, “The Armchair Occultist: Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis and Modern Occultism,” and Brett Forray’s “Thorns and Roses: Approaching Difficult Theosophical History,” which looks at the controversy about W. Q. Judge. Some of these talks appear to have be given in absentia.