Swans Commentary » swans.com July 2, 2012  



The Roots Of Theosophy
Part II


by Michael Barker



[Read the first part of this essay.]


(Swans - July 2, 2012)   Despite the increase in her popularity in some circles, when Blavatsky returned to Madras in December 1884, she was "savaged by the press" when the full Society for Psychical Research report was released -- and was effectively forced by Olcott to leave her own Society, thereby ending their friendship. She traveled back to Europe in March 1885, eventually settling in London (in the spring of 1887). Here, cut off from the Adyar she was "supported by the rich and aristocratic friends who helped to sustain her last years," and they "helped to set up her journal, Lucifer, and to found an exclusive arm of the Society in London, the Blavatsky Lodge." (1)

Determined to make a comeback, Blavatsky continued working on the second installment of her Theosophical bible, The Secret Doctrine, with the source of ancient wisdom now emanating from India, not Egypt. Two of Blavatsky's friends then acted as her editors on the text of this seminal book, which they extracted from a "pile of scribbled papers three feet high... in no discernible order." From this pile of disjointed mumbo jumbo they somehow "divided the chaotic manuscript into four sections" and decided to only publish the first two of these in 1888 as The Secret Doctrine. (2) Here it is significant to observe that the "most enthusiastic" review of this new occult classic was published by Annie Besant (1847-1933) in the Review of Reviews. (3) At the time Besant had been a member of the Fabian Society Executive, but not long after completing the review she followed her friend Herbert Burrows in joining the Theosophical Society, soon becoming president of the Blavatsky Lodge. (4)

Besant visited India for the first time in 1893, and her oratory tour was an especially big hit with Hindu nationalists, with her lectures drawing crowds of up to six thousand people. Contrary to the largely apolitical Blavatsky, Besant's political experience meant that she could influence "old friends who were now senior figures in the British Liberal Party," and so she was considered to be a serious threat to the established imperial order in India, as the "last thing the government needed in the permanently volatile atmosphere of Indian politics was a white Home Rule crusader." Evidently Olcott, who still ran the Theosophical Society, was not best pleased with Besant's vocal political activism, and so Besant chose to settle at Benares instead of Adyar. Besant's "genius for raising money and attracting rich benefactors" then enabled her to purchase her first house and would prove to "be crucial in her domination of the Society." (5)

One individual whose visions would soon saturate Theosophical literature in the coming decades was the aristocratic Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), who had first met Besant in 1890 and soon "became the Society's star lecturer and writer." (6) Together...

Leadbeater and Besant rewrote the geology and history of the world, investigating by occult means the continents of Atlantis and Lemuria and the ancient races of mankind. They expounded the true history of Christianity, revealing Christ to be an Egyptian Initiate born in AD 105. In Occult Chemistry they penetrated the secret of the atom, describing the structure of each molecule. It was not easy work. Though the authors made several of their chemical discoveries while sitting on a bench in the Finchley Road, as so often in scientific research the right materials were not always to hand and Leadbeater had to make several astral visits to glass cases in museums where the rarer metals and minerals were housed. (p.120)

Leadbeater's apparent ability to perceive auras also led to his discovering the future leader (or World Teacher) of the Theosophical Society in the guise of a fourteen-year-old Indian boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). As fate would have it, when Leadbeater placed his hand on the head to investigate his past lives (another of his numerous magical abilities) he discovered that Krishnamurti had been the past child of Besant and himself, in 40,000 BC no less. (7) The boy's (most recent) mother was dead, and so the father, who had been a high ranking Theosophist (being a member since 1882), was reluctantly persuaded to give Besant custody of both Krishnamurti and his younger brother (Nitya). But several years later when their father had a change of heart and tried to revoke the agreement, he met strong resistance from Besant and was forced to sue for repossession of his own children, whereupon tragically, he was defeated in the courts. (8) Thus the two boy's spent the rest of childhood in England gaining the best imperial education money could buy -- being brought up by Besant, Lady Emily Lutyens, "the estranged wife of Lord De La Warr," Lady Muriel Brassey, and Miss Mary Hoadley Dodge (who lived with Lady Brassey). (9)

Miss Dodge was exceptionally generous, as she could well afford to be. It was whispered that she had an income of over £1,000,000 per annum inherited from her father [William Earl Dodge, Jr.], a railroad and real-estate king. Even a tenth of this sum would have been vast riches at the time. Miss Dodge supported theosophical publications, contributed to the Society's building projects and made personal gifts to Krishnamurti, including an annual income, which made him independent of the Society. (pp.136-7)

During Krishnamurti's education in England, the World Teacher in preparation proved to be a star attraction to Blavatsky's spiritual mission, enabling membership of the Theosophical Society to grow from sixteen thousand in 1911 to thirty-six thousand in 1920, and to a peak of forty-five thousand in 1928. "Despite this impressive growth, many older Theosophists watched with alarm as Annie, prompted by Leadbeater, transformed the Society into an elaborate series of theatrical performances disguised as complex rituals and prettified with costly uniforms and shoddy trinkets." But nevertheless Krishnamurti grew to be a genuine charismatic, which was amply demonstrated in 1921 when he was given the "magnificent opportunity to show off his talents to a world audience when Baron Philip van Pallandt, a Dutch aristocrat, offered the Society his property at Ommen in the Netherlands." (10)

Whatever the explanation, it was clear that, without specifically addressing individuals, he persuaded each listener that the talk was especially relevant to him or her. As a result, many of Krishna's most enthusiastic followers thought they heard him say exactly the opposite of what he had said. Perhaps this is the definition of charisma: that each person can so easily invest its object with his own dreams. For, in a curious way, the beautiful young man who insisted so fervently on the necessity of sincerity, transparency and honesty was just as much a creature of theatrical illusion as Annie Besant herself. Though his acting was involuntary where hers was calculated, this made it all the more potent. (p.214)

The following year Krishnamurti and his entourage ended up in California, a state that was "important in theosophical mythology as the home of the future southern Pacific root race which was to replace the currently dominant European/Aryan root race." However, the reason for their visit owed more to his brother's ill health than any spiritual concerns, as they intended to rest for while before continuing their draining journey from Australia to Switzerland, where Nitya was to receive his ongoing treatment for TB. It had been arranged that the brothers would stay in the Ojai Valley, a perfect location for their recuperation well away from the hustle and bustle of the Theosophical lecture circuit, tucked away in the solitude of the hills just beyond Los Angeles. Here they met nineteen-year-old Rosalind Williams who helped look after both Nitya and Krishnamurti (who soon developed what appears to have been a stress-related psychosomatic illness), and over the next year at Ojai she developed a deep friendship with both brothers. Besant subsequently visited the brothers and proceeded to purchase land in this new religious haven such that "an estate was acquired at Ojai (largely with help from Miss Dodge) which was to become a spiritual centre to rival and even surpass Adyar"; extending over some five hundred acres by 1927. (11)

Krishnamurti, however, had been showing serious resistance to Theosophical doctrines throughout the 1920s, but his first major "rebellion against the Society's accelerating ceremonialism and triumphalism" took place in July 1925. His younger brother then passed away later that year, which only served to increase his suffering, and in 1930 he finally left the Society, breaking free from his predetermined role as Theosophical World Teacher. Contrary to the focus of other his predecessors who engaged in an endless search for an esoteric tradition, Krishnamurti "believed it was up to individuals to find their own way forward," preferably unhindered by tradition and doctrine. (12) Whether he allowed this to happen in practice is debatable.

With the threat of Nazi aggression growing by the day, Krishnamurti took a highly public stance as a pacifist, an unpopular position that meant that he found himself allied with Aldous Huxley (who had moved to California from France in 1937). As fate would have it they had first met in the winter of 1937/8, just "at the moment when their [spiritual] philosophies were converging." (13)

Their relationship was facilitated by the close friendship that developed between Rosalind Rajagopal and Huxley's saintly Belgian wife, Maria. The house at Ojai became a second home to the itinerant Huxleys, and parts of several books by Aldous, including After Many a Summer, in which one of the characters is based on Rosalind and another (partly) on Ouspensky, were bashed out on an old typewriter as he sat on the lawn outside Arya Vihara.

The two couples were part of a close-knit social circle in California during the war years. Bertrand Russell (another [Peace Pledge Union] supporter), Christopher Isherwood and his boyfriends, the Brechts, the Thomas Manns, the Stravinskys, the Charles Chaplins, Anita Loos, Iris Tree and Greta Garbo all belonged more or less to this circle, whose centres were Huxley and Krishnamurti -- a fine irony given the detachment practised by both men. (p.317)

Like Huxley, whose work had paved the way in helping explore human consciousness through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, during the 1960s Krishnamurti "became a star of the New Age synthesis, which encompassed every alternative cause from drugs to astrology." (14) Yet, much like Huxley, who was primarily interested in promoting his ethereal ideas amongst elite circles, Krishnamurti was in fact disturbed by the rapid rise and misapplication of his ideas by the counterculture.

Far from being in conflict with the established order, Krishnamurti was now very much a part of it: the licensed guru of the wealthy classes who expressed his ascetic disapproval of all the self-indulgences that went with flower power.

He did, however, take part in public conversations with physicists, biologists, and psychologists sympathetic to the New Age synthesis -- which suggests an intriguing return to the spirit of Theosophy; but of other New Age figures, especially the new generation of Indian gurus, he was deeply suspicious. Traveling to Delhi by air in 1974, he found himself leaving a plane with the Maharishi, who rushed to greet the older man, clutching a flower. Krishnamurti rapidly made his apologies and left. He disliked the sentimentality of those who claim that 'Love is all you need.' He was also disdainful of those who walked in his own footsteps. Some time after this encounter he told friends that he would like to see the Maharishi's balance sheet. The Maharishi might well have said the same of him. (15)


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1.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.84, p.90. These rich supporters included Lady Caithness, Countess Wachtmeister, Miss Francesca Arundale, Bertram Keightley, and Archibald Keightley. (p.84) When Blavatsky first moved to London she initially lodged with the popular novelist Mabel Collins. (p.91)  (back)

2.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.91, p.92. "The Secret Doctrine is a difficult read. Supposedly based on stanzas from The Book of Dzyan, which was written in Senzar (a language unknown to any linguist), HPB's text explicates these stanzas and their commentaries. Corngenesis explains how and why the universe came into being. Anthropogenesis covers the history of Man -- though HPB is as ready as Darwin to concede that the ancestors of humanity are not themselves human. In fact the whole of the second volume is a commentary on Darwin. Mankind is shown to be descended from spiritual beings from another planet (the moon) who gradually took physical form through a series of what HPB calls 'root races'. Human history is one phase in spirit's attempt to rise up again through a vast series of rebirths moving through the cosmos from planet to planet." (p.92)  (back)

3.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.93. The review was commissioned by the magazine's editor, William T. Stead, the famed investigative journalist who counted "most of the early Fabians among his friends..." (p.93) Washington adds that "the ideals of Theosophy and Fabian socialism were that far apart. We have already seen how often radical politics went with a strong religious bent in this period. Robert Owen and his son were political radicals and spirituals. Laurence Oliphant's second wife, Rosamund Dale Owen, was a founder member of the group which gave birth to the Fabians. In later life [George Bernard] Shaw, too, enjoyed describing himself as a religious man." (p.96)  (back)

4.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.98, p.99.  (back)

5.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.105, p.106, p.107. One of Besant's more influential former friends in the British Liberal Party was the future Lord Chancellor, Viscount Haldane. It is noteworthy that another friend of Besant was the British Labour Party leader George Lansbury, who had joined the Theosophical Society in 1914 (for further details, see his 1928 autobiography My Life, Constable and Company, 1928).

It should be noted that by 1912 "extreme Hindu nationalists" had become "fiercely opposed to Theosophy, seeing it as little more than another means of white cultural repression. Many of them also took exception to Annie's political campaigns on their behalf, which they perceived as compromised and patronising." (pp.133-4)  (back)

6.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.118, p.119.  (back)

7.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.128, p.129. "[T]he doctrine of reincarnation appears in all major Theosophical writings after about 1880, but Isis Unveiled, which purports to present the same ancient, universal wisdom-religion and to be derived from the Masters, but which was published in 1877, does not teach incarnation." Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, p.60.  (back)

8.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.131, p.132, p.134.  (back)

9.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.136. Lady Emily Lutyens was the wife of "the famous architect" Edwin Lutyens, and the "granddaughter of Bulwer Lytton, whose novels had supplied Madame Blavatsky with so much of her inspiration." (p.135) Despite their best attempts to provide Krishnamurti with the "academic and social education of a European gentlemen" he struggled with his work and could not pass all his examinations, "so the idea of university had to be given up altogether." (p.138)  (back)

10.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.139, p.213. By way of contrast, Rudolf Steiner's "reaction against Theosophy pinpointed everything wrong with the Society. And although he produced a body of occult literature whose fantastic claims rival or even exceed Leadbeater's, there could be no greater contrast to the fin-de-siecle frivolity and decadence of the Leadbeater-Wedgwood circle than Steiner's high-minded, plain-living heterosexuality, his lofty philosophy and dedication to work." (p.146) "The other would-be savant in the period who tried to build a new religious synthesis on theosophical foundations was Peter Damien Ouspensky." To this day, Ouspensky's "books still sell over forty thousand copies each year in English alone, and there is every indication that sales are on the increase." (p.157)

"For a brief, glorious decade from 1919 to 1928 [the Theosophical Society] flourished among the world's youth as a sort of junior League of Nations. For what appealed to young people was not Theosophy's ceremonial and the psychic mumbo-jumbo but its humanitarian, pacifist and internationalist ideals, embodied in the summer camps and in the fetching person of Krishnamurti himself. His quiet, improvised talks about the need for peace and the conquest of egotism and desire contrasted sharply with the noisy formal rhetoric of conventional political and religious leaders." (p.270)  (back)

11.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.216, p.217, p.218, p.220, p.276.  (back)

12.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.266, p.229. "As well as being a rebel against his background, Krishnamurti is a fulfullment of it. His deep individualism and his antipathy to institutions are both quintessentially Theosophical. Another factor, however, perhaps best explains his continued popularity among Theosophists. Krishnamurti offers the mystical intuition into self of which Theosophy speaks, but which its verbal and intellectual emphases often inhibit." "The experience that Krishnamurti aims to help create in his listeners and readers requires not only the rejection of outer authorities but also the transcending of one's own past experience." Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, p.148, p.149.  (back)

13.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.311, p.312, p.317. "Though Huxley and [his close friend Gerald] Heard were immediately impressed by Krishnamurti, they were already followers of another, more orthodox Indian guru, Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Ramakrishna Order in Los Angeles." (p.320)

In 1946, "when the Happy Valley School was established on the Ojai land Mrs Besant had bought twenty years before," Huxley and Krishnamurti were countered among the schools founding trustees. (p.355) Krishnamurti visited all the schools he founded "regularly, leading discussions with the students and teachers and talking privately with individuals. And even as he was insisting on the vital importance of individual discovery, the transcripts of his conversations with pupils reveal a man who mercilessly bullied his interlocutors into accepting his point of view." (p.360)

As a "longstanding friend" of Krishnamurti's, when Radha Burnier became president of the Theosophical Society in 1980 "she invited him to the compound at Adyar, which he visited for the first time in forty-seven years. The Society once more began to distribute his books and advertise talks by and about him, as they still do. Krishnamurti is now once again a member -- albeit honorary -- of the theosophical pantheon." (p.361, p.362)  (back)

14.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, pp.360-1."From 1945 to his death at the age of ninety-one in 1986, he travelled the world as a spiritual teacher. The public talks and private interviews continued as they had since the early 1920s, punctuated by an endless round of luxurious holidays. Krishnamurti continued to commute between India, Europe and America, often staying with wealthy friends. There are times when his list of engagements reads more like Jennifer's Diary than a guru's. He also continued to rely for support on strong, rich women." "He also spent more time with the powerful in finance and politics, regularly conferring with Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, who succeeded her father as Prime Minister of India in 1966. The Krishnamurti foundations received substantial backing from tycoons: Gerard Blitz, founder of Club Mediterranee, was his financial adviser for a while." (p.353)  (back)

15.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.361. It is notable that Washington's reference for the point about Krishnamurti's "public conversations with physicists, biologists and psychologists sympathetic to the New Age synthesis" actually "bore fruit in the influential work of David Bohm [1917-1992], Professor of Theoretical Physics in the University of London..." He adds that Bohm's book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), "makes frequent reference to Krishnamurti's view." (p.433)  (back)


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Published July 2, 2012