Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire

Morton Dilkes — USA

The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (Cornell University Press, 2008) is a study of the cultural interchange between Buddhism and Victorian Britain. The author refers to this interchange as “hybridity,” which has an “unavoidable reference to miscegenation” (p. 8). The core of this 273-page book consists of four long chapters on “The Life of the Buddha in Victorian England,” “Buddhism and the Emergence of Late Victorian Hybrid Religions,” “Romances of Reincarnation, Karma, and Desire,” and “Buddhism and the Empire of the Self in Kipling’s Kim.” Theosophy and Theosophists are mention throughout the volume, but their central treatment is on pages 63-87 of the second chapter, on “Late Victorian Hybrid Religions.” Theosophy is the major subject of that chapter, the rest being background material on Spiritualism and a definition of the term “hybrid religion.”

The prominence given to Theosophy in this book is indicative of Theosophy’s importance as an intellectual and spiritual link between India and the West. Among the acknowledgments of that importance is the following statement:

“Blavatsky blazed the trail that would be followed by Sir James Frazer, Jessie Weston, and Joseph Campbell, though they might not choose to acknowledge her” (p. 65).

James Frazer authored a highly influential study of comparative mythology, The Golden Bough, first published in 1890, a year before HPB’s death, and by its third edition in 1906-15 expanded to 12 volumes. Jessie Weston’s 1920 book, From Ritual to Romance (treating Arthurian legend and the Grail) was cited by T. S. Eliot in his major poem The Waste Land, which (according to Wikipedia) “caused her [Weston] to be dismissed as a theosophist . . . in a hostile review of Eliot’s poem.” Joseph Campbell, who is much admired by many Theosophists, is best known for his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, whose preface includes a quotation from the Vedas: “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Another testimonial in the book is this:

“The international Theosophical movement . . . not only was shaped by Buddhism but then became a vehicle for a certain construction of Buddhism that disseminated throughout Western culture” (p. 86).

The author of this book, J. Jeffrey Franklin, is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, specializing in modern British literature, and a self-acknowledged Buddhist. Like some others who have written about Buddhism and Theosophy, Franklin is unsympathetic to the Theosophical interpretation of Buddhism, which he (like many of those others) does not fully understand. When Blavatsky and Olcott talk about Buddhism, it is often not obvious whether they are referring to the historical teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (as academics tend to suppose) or to the Ancient Wisdom, which HPB sometimes distinguishes as “Budhism,” a term which she says (CW 9:282) “would mean ‘Wisdom’.” Discrimination is needed to identify the referent of the term.

Although Franklin acknowledges the importance of Theosophy in disseminating information about Buddhism in the West (even if he thinks it is mistaken information), he is himself sometimes mistaken about particular facts. Thus the following sentence and a half include four factual errors (identifying italics added):

“. . . in 1882 they [Blavatsky and Olcott] built the current headquarters of the Theosophical Society International in Adyar (now Chennai). Judge, who became the president of the American branch, broke with Blavatsky and the International in 1895″ (p. 64).

These are the errors: (1) In 1882-3, HPB and HSO moved the Society’s headquarters from Bombay to an existing building on the Adyar property they had bought; additional building came later. (2) Franklin regularly refers to the Adyar-headquartered Society as “the Theosophical Society International,” as though that were its proper name; it is not. It might be called “the international Theosophical Society,” except that the Pasadena-headquartered Society is also international, so the pseudo name is neither correct nor adequate identification. (3) Adyar is a still existing area in Madras (now called Chennai); the name “Adyar” has never changed. (4) Judge broke with the international Adyar headquarters in 1895, but hardly with Blavatsky, who had died in 1891.

Franklin relies heavily on secondary authorities, so the extent of his direct knowledge of Theosophical matters is unclear. He often cites Isis Unveiled, but largely ignores The Secret Doctrine, with which he demonstrates scant familiarity. He mentions Olcott’s work with Buddhism only incidentally, although it might be supposed as of central importance to the theme of his book. Even though Colonel Olcott was an American, he persuaded the British government to ensure the fair treatment of the Buddhists of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and his writings on historical Buddhism have been internationally influential and are still used.

On the whole, then, this book is notable for recognizing a significant role played by the Theosophical Society in mediating between the East (including Buddhism of the historical kind) and the West (specifically Victorian England). If I were a full professor grading this associate professor, I would give him a B for that recognition. But then I would tell him what I once heard a teacher of mine, an Oxford professor, advise his students: When we do research, we use primary materials. And for the work as a whole, I would give this author an E for Effort.