Sunday, March 24, 2013

Blavatsky in Village India

The blog, Even Monks Carry Cell Phones, carries a March 22 post on “The Theosophy of Indian Villages,” detailing the level of saturation Theosophy has achieved in rural India based on encountering it there. The writer tells of her experience:  

“There’s a Theosophy meeting at 9:30 every Sunday in this town.”
 “In this small village?” I implore amazed. 

“Theosophy?!” I stare at him in disbelief. 

 “It’s been going on for 50 years,” is his reply.  

Attending a meeting of the Theosophical Society, she says: 

I’m greeted by one of the younger members and sit in the short meeting. Shelves of hundred year old books in English and Gujarati line the back. I take a few books, again, astounded that this small village in Gujarat has been so greatly influenced by the teachings of a Russian and Britisher [sic] (Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott respectively). 

 Chuni Kaka tells me that Vasant Dada used to come to the meetings back when they used to discuss Sarvodaya (upliftment of all). The Theosophy meetings were used to encourage moral empowerment, economic self-sufficiency, and proper utilization of resources. 

Chuni Kaka and Prachi at Khardoli Theosophical Society

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Blavatsky News

* A March 18 post on Michael D. Sellers’ blog The John Carter Files essays Blavatsky’s influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950), creator of Tarzan and the Mars adventurer John Carter.

There are also strong, albeit disputed, indications that Burroughs had at least been exposed to the writings of the theosophists, particular Helena Blavatsky, whose various postulations regarding lost races and cultures including Atlantis and Lemuria included a variety of features that would match a great deal of what Burroughs would offer when he conjured Barsoom.  Fritz Leiber wrote of this in his 1959 treatise “Burroughs and the Sword of Theosophy”, as did L. Sprague de Camp.

Neither Leiber nor de Camp postulates that Burroughs actually believed what Blavatsky was peddling; only that the correlations are too great to be mere coincidence, suggesting that Burroughs found in them a certain attractive mythic force which he harnessed to his “pure entertainment” purposes.

* Ronnie Pontiac continues his delineation of the development of the interest in Plato in America outside of academia in the March 19 issue of Newtopia Magazine. In this installment he details the life and passions of Missouri classical scholar, Thomas Moore Johnson (1851-1919) of Osceola, in “Thomas Johnson: Platonism Meets Sex Magic on the Prairie.”

Johnson visited fellow Neoplatonic enthusiast Alexander Wilder in New Jersey in 1876, during the time Wilder was working with Madame Blavatsky on Isis Unveiled.  Wilder became one of Johnson’s steadiest supporters, his most important collaborator, and Wilder contributed many essays and two translations to The Platonist.  On his trip east Johnson also stopped in Concord to meet with Alcott and his daughter, Louisa, the famous author who had published Little Women seven years earlier.

Part of Johnson’s library survives at the University of Missouri’s Thomas Moore Johnson Collection of Philosophy. “The collection spans the centuries from the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century philosophers, but the emphasis is on the classical authors, augmented by modern philosophy and criticism. The medieval Christian philosophers are also represented. Since the collector was a Platonist, it is expected that the collection of works of Plato and the critical works would be large.” The catalog is available online.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sources of Tibetan Tradition

For over fifty years Columbia University Press has been issuing a number of source books as part of its Introduction to Asian Civilizations series. To date sixteen volumes have been published covering India, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and now Tibet. According to the publisher’s notice:

The most comprehensive collection of Tibetan works in a Western language, this volume illuminates the complex historical, intellectual, and social development of Tibetan civilization from its earliest beginnings to the modern period. Including more than 180 representative writings, Sources of Tibetan Tradition spans Tibet’s vast geography and long history, presenting for the first time a diversity of works by religious and political leaders; scholastic philosophers and contemplative hermits; monks and nuns; poets and artists; and aristocrats and commoners. The selected readings reflect the profound role of Buddhist sources in shaping Tibetan culture while illustrating other major areas of knowledge. Thematically varied, they address history and historiography; political and social theory; law; medicine; divination; rhetoric; aesthetic theory; narrative; travel and geography; folksong; and philosophical and religious learning, all in relation to the unique trajectories of Tibetan civil and scholarly discourse. The editors begin each chapter with a survey of broader social and cultural contexts and introduce each translated text with a concise explanation. Concluding with writings that extend into the early twentieth century, this volume offers an expansive encounter with Tibet’s exceptional intellectual heritage.

True to its blurb the book covers a wide array of writings produced in Tibet over the centuries covering aspects of Tibetan culture. Even at 800 pages, Sources of Tibetan Tradition can only supply snippets of texts and the majority of material seems to slant to the secular. So what is left out? Obviously lots of oral material. Prayers. Guides to Shambhala that were so popular. And of course, anything from Mme. Blavatsky. No Book of the Golden Precepts. And certainly no Book of Dzyan. The inclusion of a chapter on Writings attributed to come from Tibetan Sources would have made an interesting addition.

A concluding section on “Early Twentieth-Century Tibetan Encounters with the West” gives Tibetan impressions on encounters outside the country. The work of Gendün Chöpel, (1903-1951), described as “one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century, renowned as a scholar, translator, historian, essayist, poet, and painter,” is duly noted. Omitted is reference to his writings about Blavatsky, one of the few Tibetan accounts we have of her. Luckily this material has been published in the journal Theosophical History Volume VII/2, April 1998, pp. 84-88, as “A Tibetan Description of HPB” by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Edited by Kurtis R. Schaeffer, Matthew T. Kapstein, and Gray Tuttle, Sources of Tibetan Tradition covers a period from the seventh to the early twentieth century, has a useful chronology of key events, a number of maps, and is available in paper ($40.00 / £27.50) and hard cover ($120.00 / £83.00).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Theosophy and the Arts

Dr Sarah Turner from the Department of History of Art, University of York, will be giving a presentation on Theosophy and the Arts at London’s Treadwell’s Books on Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at 7:15 pm. According to the notice for the event:

Theosophy, the esoteric order founded c. 1885 [sic] by Madame Blavatsky, influenced the arts more than has been appreciated: Wassily Kandinsky, for example, was deeply influenced. Art historian Dr. Sarah Turner opens up a key strand in esoteric art: Theosophical ideas in 19th and 20th-century visual artists in Britain, relating it to international currents and a continued interest in Theosophy by contemporary artists. Sarah Turner is a lively and accomplished speaker who is a world leader in this field; she recently received a Levehulme grant and heads the Enchanted Modernities project.

So far more than 70 proposals have been received for the Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy and the arts in the modern world Conference to be held at the University of Amsterdam in September.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How to slant an argument

The March 8 release of the Disney film Oz the Great and Powerful triggers an extended rant on the online website The Times of Israel. Under the heading “Lions and tigers and genocide? Oh yes L. Frank Baum, the creator of Dorothy and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’—opening Friday in the US—also dabbled in murderous racism,” the writer cites an editorial Baum had penned for a South Dakota newspaper he owned before writing his book on Oz. According to a sentence given, he called for the removal of Native American tribes from the areas in South Dakota that were being opened up to settlers. This gives the writer the opportunity to hint at something even worse:

Born a Methodist, Baum and his wife, Maud Gage, “converted” to Theosophy three years before “Oz” hit bookstands.

Modern Theosophy formed in 16th century Germany, as practitioners drew on ancient myths and occult sciences to create symbolic meanings. The universe could be unveiled and fully understood, adherents believed, if only people learned to read its hieroglyphs.

Theosophical Society leader Helena Blavatsky organized a ritual and communal infrastructure into which Baum and his wife entered in 1897. Blavatsky preached about a world filled with interracial struggle, where a superior Aryan race toiled against “semi-human” Jews.

“Judaism is a religion of hate and malice toward everyone and everything outside itself,” wrote Blavatsky in her “Secret Doctrine.” Decades later, this and other Blavatsky teachings resurfaced in Nazi racial doctrine.

Notice how adroitly the argument is developed: Baum accused of inciting genocide for his comments about Native Americans (made only in one editorial), his bigotry reinforced by his acceptance of Theosophy (“formed in 16th century Germany”), its leader H.P. Blavatsky “preached about a world filled with interracial struggle, where a superior Aryan race toiled against ‘semi-human’ Jews,” and then the coup de grâce, “this and other Blavatsky teachings resurfaced in Nazi racial doctrine.” Ergo: Baum was bad, and, possibly worse, as shown by his having Blavatsky as a mentor.

That Theosophists, who are always ready to criticize each other in the name of Blavatsky, should allow this charge go unanswered, is a shameful commentary on the state of their movement.

The full quote from The Secret Doctrine (2:471) reads: Judaism, built solely on Phallic worship, has become one of the latest creeds in Asia, and theologically a religion of hate and malice toward everyone and everything outside themselves.