Nothing is more fun than highlighting the oddities in History. Today, I bring to you the (fairly consequential) role played by Occultists in the nationalist struggle in India. Spiritualism/Occult was to the mid-19th c. what blogs are to the early 21st c. People getting together and talking into thin air. The interest in higher planes, spiritual guides and hidden knowledge played right into the exoticization of the Orient, especially India. From 1840s onwards, American and British spiritualists started travelling to India to learn from jogis and saddhus.
One such organization was the Theosophical Society which brought to India, along with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo, social networking, socio-political organization and the widespread use of pamphleteering. Read below the fold the story of these spirits who lived in the Himalayas and watched over the birth of Indian Nationalism.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York by Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, William Judge and Col. Henry Steel Olcott. Blavatsky was certainly the fountainhead of knowledge in the society. Theosophy was a unique understanding of Truth found in all wisdom-religions but corrupted by materialism. To get to this Truth, you start off by observing vegetarianism, believing in reincarnation, karma, multiple planes of existence, hierarchy of life forms and the uniqueness of Truth. Only in pristine enviornments like the Himalayas of India, the Yucatan peninsula and Luxor did the capabillity of pursuing this Truth exist. This knowledge was accessible to us through reading those texts and through the intercession of Mahatamas or Masters. These were human beings who had achieved a higher plane of spiritual and physical existence. They could survive without their physical bodies and travel through time and space. They had organized themselves into brotherhoods and worked to elevate the status of the rest of humanity. Blavatsky and the early theosophists were in close contact with the Mahatamas called the The Great White Brotherhood who lived in the Himalayas. Through her contact with these spirit-guides (Koot Humi Lal Singh or K.H. and Mooria or M.), Blavatsky was able to gleam understanding of theosophy and guidance to the Sanskrit texts that contained the Truth.
What did all this have to do with India? You may have heard of A.O.Hume who proposed the Indian National Congress in 1884. He was an early theosophist who wrote letters to the Mahatamas regarding the uplifting of the Indian nations. They concurred that it was a good idea because the political strength of India would guarantee safety of her ancient spirituality. Hume, however, soon fell out of favor with Madame Blavatsky whom he accused of making all this up.
The second figure of note in this narrative is Anne Besant. She gained notoriety as a London radical and pamphleteer in her work with the Fabians in the late 1880s. She came to India in 1893, having joined the cause of the Theosophists. She had met M. Blavatsky and saw the communion with Master Koot Hoomi. In time, Annie Besant would become the leader of the Theosophical Society and, herself, commune with the Mahatmas.
She came to India to sit at the feet of the Masters but her skills at political organization were too great to be idled away. She grasped education and women’s rights as her issues. In Benares, she founded the Central Hindu College and a schools for boys and girls. She continued to publish hundreds of pamphlets that extolled the virtues of tolerance, education and reincarnation.
her pamphlets carried the motto, “How long ere thou take station?How long ere thrall live free?” . Universal suffrage and universal education were her central demands for India. In 1916, she founded the Indian Home Rule League which intended to bring the INC and Muslim League together against British rule. In 1917, she was made president of INC. Annie Besant enjoyed great popularity among the Indian people who called her Annambai. However, the kookiness of the Theosophy never left her. She took up the cause of Krishnamurti, the young child who would be the vessel for the reincarnation of Christ, and had him moved to Oxford for education. The young man renounced all such nonsense in 1927.
More tellingly was her influence on the young Nehru. Motilal Nehru had joined the Theosophists earlier with M. Blavatsky. He continued to have a close relationship with Annambai. She recommended to him, a tutor for Jawaharlal when he was eleven years old. Ferdinand T. Brooks, another Theosophist, taught Nehru until he was fourteen. As Nehru wrote in Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru:
Apart from my studies, F.T. Brooks brought a new influence to bear upon me which affected me powerfully for a while. This was theosophy. He used to have weekly meetings of theosophists in his rooms and I attended them and gradually imbibed theosophical phraseology and ideas
Jawaharlal Nehru got initiated into the Society as a young adult but he distanced himself as he plunged deeper into Indian nationalism.
Mohandas K. Gandhi bumped into the Theosophists during his law education in London in 1889. They introduced him to the Bhagavad Gita – a fact of extreme shame for the young Hindu who confessed to have never read it in Sanskrit or Gujarati. He met M. Blavatsky and the newly-initiated Annie Besant in the Lodge in London. In 1891, he joined the Blatavsky Lodge. While in South Africa, he continued close alliances with the Theosophists and read the Upanishads published by the Society. Throughout the early 20th c., he continued his close relationship with Annie Besant, even when he disagreed withh her particular ideas for India’s future.
In 1963, the Indian government issued a commemorative stamp for Annie Besant.
This much is certain that M. Blavatsky cooked up most of the letters from the Mahatamas – as well as other seancÈs. The Society continued its brand of Orient spirituality and people continued to buy it. One can dismiss them as loonies but one cannot deny that it had a pivotal role to play in the history of Indian nationalism.