Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Theosophy, India, And the West

Morton Dilkes – USA

In Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language (Princeton University Press, 2006), the author, Srinivas Aravamudan, refers to Theosophy and Theosophists scores of times. Aravamudan is a Professor of English at Duke University who specializes in eighteenth-century British literature. He has, however, family connections with south India, and his education included a time at the Krishnamurti school Brockwood Park in England as well as a bachelor’s degree from Loyola College in Madras (now Chennai).

According to a publisher’s blurb, “Guru English analyzes writers and gurus, literary texts and religious movements, and the political uses of religion alongside the literary expressions of religious teachers, showing the cosmopolitan interconnections between the Indian subcontinent, the British Empire, and the American New Age.” It treats such figures as Sri Aurobindo, Deepak Chopra, Mahatma Gandhi, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Oppenheimer, Salman Rushdie, and Swami Vivekananda. It also highlights the role Theosophy has played as a mediator between India and the West.

Aravamudan is not sympathetic to Theosophy itself. However, he recognizes the considerable influence of Theosophy on popularizing Indic ideas in the West, both directly and through its influence on Western literature. He also points out that Theosophy helped to modernize Indian thought. These effects are pointed to in the following citations from the book:

‘    “The Brahmo Samaj, Theosophy, and the Ramakrishna Mission reinterpreted and modernized Hinduism in English” (17).

“It is worth noting that the Theosophists helped familiarize the anglophone world with the meaning of this divine attribute [mahatma] well before it ended up serving in the place of Gandhi’s given name” (232).

Theosophy initially stimulated the religious quest of the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who began studying law in London in the late 1880s. Gandhi also heard Annie Besant’s oratory on behalf of Theosophy. Personally introduced to Blavatsky and Besant in London, the Theosophical connection continued for Gandhi in South Africa with activities in the Johannesburg Lodge. . . .  In the manner of many of his compatriots, Gandhi was attracted by an Eastern twist given to Unitarianism by Theosophy. Theosophy offered the alternative to the Brahmo route adopted by Rammohun and Keshub. While the Brahmos reformed Hinduism under the pressures of Christian criticisms, Theosophy made a stronger claim to the religious priority of East over West. If all religious wisdom could be characterized as springing from the East, Western religious mysticism could then be accommodated to this framework, as for instance when Blavatsky juxtaposed texts such as Isaac Meyer’s Qabbalah and the Vedas in The Secret Doctrine” (235).

Among the Western literary works that were influenced by Theosophy are E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and William Butler Yeats’s poetry and A Vision.

There are, in fact, a good many others.

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