Sunday, 13 March 2016

Gauri Viswanathan on the Mahatma Letters

Sometimes it’s good to look at what’s being written about theosophy in academic circles and reflect upon the diversity of opinions thereof. The selected quotations that I propose to present are from the pioneering “The Ordinary Business of Occultism”, by Gauri Viswanathan (Vol. 27, No. 1 (Critical Inquiry, Autumn, 2000), pp. 1-20 University of Chicago Press) Professor Viswanathan specializes in the field of literary historiography and has written several award-winning books in the field. I propose to focus on her views of The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett.
Basically, I think the paper succeeds in describing the underlying dramatic historical reality of the Mahatma Letters, with their eloquent descriptions of the socio-political tensions of colonial India and the significant cultural and spiritual dynamics between Hindu (and South East Asian) and Western societies, thus successfully arguing for its literary distinctiveness and historical importance. Yes, the Mahatma Letters have gained a respectable position in academia – who would have imagined it? Although the position is, of course, not without considerable perplexity and skepticism, and so, much more research would be required to attempt to solve the many unanswered questions.

Just to clarify, of course A.P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism is almost completely based on letters from the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett; and obviously, reincarnation is a central aspect of both works, and was the first major exposition of the theosophical ideas on this question and remains a classic exposition thereof - even Blavatsky's exposition on reincarnation in Key to Theosophy seems based mainly on the Mahatma Letters.

“Reading Theosophy-as one among many so-called fringe spiritual movements of the nineteenth century-poses the sorts of challenges to critical thinking that secular intellectuals would prefer not to contemplate. A cosmopolitan movement that acquired worldwide adherents, Theosophy developed in reaction to orthodox Christianity, as it sought the roots of spiritual life not in dogma but in an experiential religion recapturing a non-deity-centered, pantheistic theology. Its appeal lay in finding a common ground between many world religions, without necessarily subscribing to the tenets of any one particular religion. Although it is sometimes grouped along with other spiritualist cults, it is necessary to distinguish it from the more plebian movements with which spiritualism was often identified.” (p. 4)  
“The Mahatma Letters to A. P Sinnett is an extraordinary work. Marvelously constructed and richly textured, it justly deserves much closer attention than it has received, particularly since it sheds valuable light on the complex dynamics of colonial relations, as well as on the institutionalization of Eastern thought and the disenchantment of religion in the modern world.” (p.12)  
“At once prophetic and cautionary, the Mahatmas' communications are designed not so much to disrupt the secular moment as to pry it open in order to salvage a past that exceeds the past of European sectarianism. Agents of a new secularism, the Mahatmas conceive of their role as a tearing away of the mask of legal tolerance to show the "religious dogmatism [that] lingers in the hearts of the multitudes" (ML, p. 4). For the Mahatmas it is essential to recognize this as a starting point for reconstructing a nondogmatic world order. But in opening up sectarian history to new, frightening contemplation, they succeed in drawing attention to a long view of history that would otherwise not be visible. For instance, in a series of letters Koot Hoomi uncovers the evolution of life forms whose progressive differentiation results in the fragmentation of a uniform world consciousness. Even as he shows that such fragmentation is the essence of sectarianism, he also points to a much larger biological process that is integrative in its impulses. The revelation of occult secrets thus becomes a mechanism for imagining a future in which a world consciousness might be recaptured from its moments of rupture.” (p.16 )
“On another level, however, an alternative culture of governance is imagined, which would draw upon the insights of spiritual teachers to cultivate an expansive secularism, a secularism open to its past. Indeed, the role of the Theosophical Society is proposed as a narrowing of the chasm between rational secularity and occult knowledge. This allows the Anglo- Indian officers of the society to project their organization as oppositional while appropriating the teachings of the truly anti-colonial masters to construct their own self-serving version of a secular society, less opposed to religion than to a present-minded, ahistorical view of life. 
Finally, I realize how complicated it is to write about the Tibetan Masters in The Mahatma Letters as if they had a reality independent of their interlocutors and authors. And perhaps that is the whole point of the work, as it challenges its readers to imagine whose world is being imagined, whose perspective dominates the disenthralment of the modern world, whose viewpoint ultimately prevails in the reception of astral secrets, and, most of all, whose personae the masters assume. Whatever the answers to these questions, it seems clear the masters are intended to function as agents of a new secularism that is less present-minded and more open to a long view of time, as evident in the Theosophists' fondness for genealogies beginning with primordial matter. The expansiveness of the temporal framework is also designed to allow for a displacement of religious teleology by evolutionary history, which by the nineteenth century had begun to yield new units of scientific analysis such as race and ethnicity.” (p.20) 

for an example of further research that has since been done on this question, see:
Mriganka Mukhopadhyay. The Occult and the Orient: The Theosophical Society and the Socio-Religious Space in Colonial India - Presidency Historical Review

varia: upcoming lecture on theosophy at McGill University