Throughout the twentieth-century, increasing numbers of western men and women have turned to India for spiritual fulfilment. The image of meditation centres and Indian gurus thriving in California and elsewhere now has become an integral part of our understanding of western culture. The sources of this western interest in the mystical East stretch back at least as far as the romantics and liberal Christians of the early nineteenth-century (Christy; Lavan).
In this article, I will concentrate on one neglected source of this popular orientalism, namely, occultism. More particularly, I will examine, first, the way in which Madame Blavatsky transformed the occult tradition in response to the Victorian crisis of faith, and second, how she thereby encouraged the West to turn to India for spiritual enlightenment.
The romantic tradition certainly played an important role in shaping a popular fascination with Indian religions. Beginning with Emerson, and moving on in the United States of America to Walt Whitman, and in the United Kingdom to Edward Carpenter and Edward Morgan Forster, the romantics portrayed the Indians as a people who shunned the material luxuries produced by industrialisation for a simple life centred on self-realisation and religious understanding; a people concerned with the eternal soul, not the transitory pleasures of this world (Emerson, 1903-4b; Carpenter, 1892). Nonetheless, the romantics paid little attention to what we might call the dogmatics of eastern religions. They generally came from literary and religious backgrounds that eschewed scholastic debates about doctrine. For example, Emerson had been a Unitarian minister and Edward Carpenter an Anglican priest of the Broad Church school, two of the most liberal varieties of nineteenth-century Christianity.
The Romantics argued that the religions of India contained profound insights that reinforced the philosophy they had derived from German idealism, but they generally identified these insights with a loose pantheism, not with specific doctrines such as reincarnation or the law of karma.
Madame Blavatsky, in contrast, had a background in the occult tradition which historically had linked religious doctrines to cosmological theories, and she, therefore, paid rather more attention to the dogmatics of eastern religions. In particular, she interpreted Indian religions so as to suggest that they contained answers to the dilemmas then confronting religious believers in the west. She argued, for example, that Indian religions incorporated both an evolutionary cosmology that met the challenge of Darwinism and a law of karma that met the moral qualms many of her contemporaries felt about doctrines such as the vicarious atonement. As an occultist, Madame Blavatsky also differed from the romantics in her profound interest in questions of magic. Here she argued that India had a practical, as well as a spiritual, knowledge that the West sorely needed.
Madame Blavatsky, therefore, had a dual impact on western conceptions of Indian religions. First, she gave occultism an eastward orientation akin to that already found in some romantic writing. Second, she introduced new elements to this popular interest in Indian religions, notably, an interest in Buddhist and Hindu dogmatics, a concern with Indian cosmologies as anticipatory of modern science, and a belief in an eastern lore concerning the occult properties of substances.
The mysterious Madame Blavatsky (nee. Hahn) was born in 1831 to an aristocratic family from Ekaterinoslav in Southern Russia (Fuller; Williams). She married General Blavatsky at the age of seventeen, but three months later returned to her grandparents, and then ran away to Constantinople because she was afraid that her family would send her back to General Blavatsky. Quite what she did for the next seventeen years remains far from clear: some people say that she visited spiritual Masters in Tibet, whilst others say that she had an illegitimate child, worked in a circus, and earned a living as a medium in Paris. Most accounts, however, agree that she went to Egypt where she met the Coptic magician Paulos Metamon. It also seems clear that some of the first phenomena associated with Madame Blavatsky were the raps that accompanied her around Russia when she returned there in 1859.
Such raps became increasingly common in the middle of the nineteenth-century as the spiritualist movement spread across the western world. Spiritualism itself, however, was but the most prominent and most recent expression of an occult tradition dating back to the hermetic philosophy of the Renaissance (Yates; Podmore). Several Renaissance thinkers, notably Filippo Bruno, believed in an ancient wisdom tradition deriving from the Egyptians. These occultists thought that the Egyptians had possessed esoteric knowledge that had enabled them both to perform magic and to apprehend the divine.
Occult cosmologies typically divided the universe into various planes such as the material plane of bodies, the divine plane of souls, and the spiritual plane which linked these two other planes together. The universe, therefore, was a single, divine whole governed by the motions of the planets which effected events on earth by acting upon the spiritual plane.
Occult magic rested on the possibility of individuals influencing the actions of the planets: magicians knew the links by which the motions of the planets determined events on earth, and so they could use suitable substances, images, names, and numbers to manipulate these links and thereby modify events. Similarly, occult mysticism rested on the possibility of individuals recognising themselves to be part of a single, divine whole: mystics practised an inner contemplation that led them to recognise their essential unity with the whole and so ascend through the stars directly to apprehend the divine in all things.
In the middle of the nineteenth-century, a North American called Andrew Davis went into a series of trances during which he gave numerous lectures which his friends duly noted down. His doctrines belong within the occult tradition, being indebted directly to the work of both Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer and Emanuel Swedenborg. Andrew Davis taught that the universe formed a single spiritual whole that had begun as a limitless liquid fire before dividing into different systems of stars containing both divine spirit and coarse matter. After this division, each star progressed from a largely material state to a purely spiritual state. As an illustration of such progress, Andrew Davis said that Mars had reached a more spiritual state than earth so that the people on Mars now could communicate with spirits. Finally, Andrew Davis predicted that people here on earth soon would reach the point where they too could receive messages from spirits.
Sure enough, the spiritualist movement took off soon after Andrew Davis’ prediction. In 1848, visitors to the Fox family in Arcadia, Wayne County heard a series of raps, and these raps then followed the Fox family on their visits to Rochester and Auburn. The raps seemed to come from an intelligent being since they could count out the number of children in the different families of the local community. People on earth seemed to be communicating with spirits. Before long, an epidemic of raps broke out all down the Eastern Seaboard and then throughout the United States of America.
In 1874, Henry Steel Olcott read of spirits that purportedly had materialised in a farmstead in Chittenden, Vermont. He went to investigate these spirits, writing reports on what he found for The Sunday Chronicle. When Madame Blavatsky read Henry Steel Olcott’s reports, she too set off for Chittenden. On her arrival, the spirits became more spectacular than ever before. Henry Steel Olcott was impressed. He began to write about her, and she, therefore, became a prominent figure in the spiritualist movement, soon afterwards defending first the authenticity of the Chittenden phenomena against a sceptical Dr Beard and then the authenticity of the similar manifestations of John and Katie King in Philadelphia (Blavatsky, 1977: I,30-4 & 56-72).