Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Kandinsky and Theosophy

Catherine Wathen – USA
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the father of modern abstract painting, is arguably the most famous and influential artist of recent times. He was also deeply influenced by Theosophy. In 2009, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the chief repositories of his art, has staged a major exhibit of his work to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 opening of its building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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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.”

Read more: The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire

Theosophical Wizard of Oz

John Algeo - USA

The author of The Wizard of Oz was a Theosophist. And his book is full of Theosophical ideas and ideals. Those two facts were first established in the American Theosophist in 1986. The Theosophical background of the book and its author, Frank Baum, has been largely ignored by literary critics, many of whom believe that “children’s literature” (or “kid lit”) is not worthy of serious consideration. (Never mind that most of today’s Oz fans are almost certainly adults rather than children, even if they first encountered the story during childhood.) In addition, Oz fans for the most part do not understand the Theosophy of the story and may not be comfortable with the author’s subliminal adoption of Theosophical thought.

However, a new biography of L. Frank Baum establishes the centrality of Theosophy to both the author’s life and The Wizard of Oz. That biography is Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, by Evan I. Schwartz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). This book is a great read, a sort of mystery story leading from Baum’s failures and frustrations to his amazing success with Oz. It shows how early events in the author’s life are paralleled in the book and were doubtless sources from which he drew, perhaps unconsciously, in writing it. But it also forthrightly acknowledges the importance of Theosophy to both Baum and Oz.

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Crises of Faith or Doubt and Annie Besant

Catherine Wathen – USA

The nineteenth century, everybody knows, was an age when faith was lost and scientific skepticism came to the fore. It was, after all, the age of Darwin, the saint of faithless skeptics. Yet, what “everybody knows” has been challenged in a recent book by Timothy Larsen: Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2006). In this book, Larsen argues that the view of the century of Darwin as a time when faith was on the wane is wrong, or at least incomplete. He cites examples of skeptics who rediscovered faith in traditional religion and maintains that they represent a “crisis of doubt” in the secular values of skepticism.

It is relevant that Timothy Larsen took his first two academic degrees at Wheaton College, a nonsectarian but fundamentalist college in the same town that incongruously harbors the national center of the Theosophical Society in America. Furthermore, he currently holds the Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. Considering the author’s background, the thesis of his book is not much of a surprise.

What is something of a surprise is that one his “reconverts” (skeptics who rediscovered faith in religion) is Annie Besant. It is true that AB was early on an Anglo-Catholic who became a leader of the skeptic movement in England and then rediscovered religious values and practices. However, AB’s rediscovery was not the sort of most of Larsen’s other “reconverts”; she did not go back to conventional Christianity but became an advocate and leading exponent of Theosophy, which is hardly the kind of faith that “Wheaties” (i.e., students of Wheaton College) are encouraged to explore, much less adopt.

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A Politician and Theosophy

Called to our attention by Jeff Gresko – USA

Dennis Kucinich, former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Ohio. He was also a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the American presidency in both 2004 and 2008. In 2003 he received the Quaker-related Gandhi Peace Award, whose other recipients have included Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Spock, and U Thant. Kucinich’s autobiography, The Courage to Survive (Beverly Hills CA: Phoenix Books, 2007) has several references that will be of interest to Theosophists because they show a life-long familiarity with Blavatsky, Theosophy, and reincarnation:

[As a young boy:] “I was on my way to becoming a magician and, if I got good enough, maybe I could make this asthma disappear. Fat chance. I studied Houdini and Madame Blavatsky, and they didn’t know anything about getting rid of asthma” (p. 74).

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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).

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Notes By The Way: White Lotus Day

Leslie Price – UK

[The following is by Leslie Price, founder of the Psypioneer, an electronic periodical, and currently Review Editor for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Price wrote this study of H.P.B. and the S.P.R. some years ago, but it has just been republished in that electronic periodical (vol. 5, no. 4, April 2009, pp. 114-6) on the occasion of White Lotus Day in 2009.}

Not many psychic pioneers have a day in the calendar to mark to mark their memory - 31 March, Hydesville day for the Fox sisters, comes to mind. Another one is Madame Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophy Society in 1875, who is remembered on the day of her death, 8 May (1891), known as White Lotus Day.

For me the best of such days was in 1986. For many months I had followed Dr Vernon Harrison’s exposure of the Hodgson report, an exposure which had begun life as a Sunday evening lecture to the (Adyar) Theosophical Society in London (of which he was not a member). Now after numerous obstacles, it was ready for publication in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research of April 1986, which would be slightly late. I was asked by the SPR, for whom I had done some publicity work, to draft a press release about this and a second one about another major paper in their journal.

Read more: Notes By The Way: White Lotus Day

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