Getting Real with East-West Spirituality Part 2: The War of the Dharmas

In the last episode we cracked open a vault, opened an old haunted attic, and finally decided to start the long overdo cleanup of the mess inside. We began to ask those obvious questions that have been so strangely subdued in the last 150 year history of East-meets-West spirituality. We considered how the narrative of “great perfected masters sharing their pure, timeless wisdom teachings with total compassion” does a rather poor job of describing many incidents during this time. We need a better narrative — one that accounts for the abuses and other anomalies — whilst also not throwing the babies out with the bathwater.

In the domain of spirituality, I contend to you that there is a war going on — perhaps there always has been — and that we are caught up in its tides. We are bloodied on its fronts. We waste precious lifeforce rallying behind its party slogans: “We are all one!”, “It’s all divine perfection”, “Elevate your consciousness!” that will be such obvious, barely masked propagandic half-truths to our great great grand children.

This war is a war between two very old kingdoms, between two ideologies, two archetypal spirits that battle in the heavens as we undergo calamities on Earth. The daily grind of gurus and techniques and philosophical frameworks merely are the supplies fuelling the battle front. We are the unwitting foot soldiers.

Some might object: “How can this be? The Western world is so divided. Isn’t this about bringing us all together?”

Precisely. We are in reaction. Our painful struggle to find a better ideology to live by than our current one of hyper-consumerism has made us a little desperate, understandably so. In that desperation though, we stumble towards clumsy conclusions. We are a little too eager to throw all of our chips into something that vaguely resembles what we yearn for, any momentarily inspiring thing that promises a release from our collective suffering. These reactions happen before we have a proper chance to survey the field and take all into account.

Right now we can observe how this propaganda element of spirituality fuels agendas in the media. Take these typical New Age views for instance, which, though perhaps naive, are generally innocent, at least amongst my friend! Now watch how they are Judo-flipped right into the hands of the media’s. divisive. narratives.

It’s worth taking a quick peak at those links before proceeding. Here we can begin to see the great cultural and historical tides in which we are tossed about, whilst we believe we are living a free life of “consciousness,” of liberating ourselves from the nefarious agendas of powerful agents. But what if the opposite were true — that in our naivety, our blissful ignorance we are just being “pwned” (a useful hacker word), controlled by forces of which we are unaware?

This leads to an important new premise to consider:

There is no such thing as spirituality separate from politics. There likely never has been.

The implication here is important: If you don’t know about the politics, then you won’t understand the spirituality. And, even more importantly if you don’t know about the politics then your spirituality is likely involving you in a political agenda of which you are unaware and the values of which you would quite possibly not agree with. We’ll unpack that more later but for now, let’s return to the hidden conflict, The Great Mind War.

Dramatic presentation aside, the important thing here to realise is that our current framework of “wise teachers, sharing great healing and liberating wisdoms” does not fully equip us to understand much of what has happened in the last century and half of the East-meets-West saga. Let me be very clear. It’s not that I’m saying that notion is “wrong”, not entirely at least, just that it is inadequate, insufficient given what we know. We can do better.

By reconsidering this period of time in the framework of a war of cultures we then can make sense of all of the peculiarities we’ve witnessed: exploitation, corruption, territorialism, shadow/ego scenarios playing out — while also validating that there still was a great transmission of knowledge and praxis (wars generally do result in a proliferation of ideas and technologies). In order words, this way of thinking fits more of the “data points” than the narrative of a “pure transmission from the wise, kind, motherland”.

It’s an interesting and very relevant sidenote that the world’s oldest epic on spirituality, the Mahabharata is also about a great big war.

Accepting this as a more accurate description of reality frees us from the total-acceptance / total-rejection, polarisation that happens around spiritual practices especially when abuses come to light. We need not reject anything in order to redeem ourselves. Rather we are called to get more saavy.

To do this, I believe we need to shift away from the narrative of a spiritual tradition as a “great ship that will take us to the promised land”, to considering it a more of a salvage mission — where we recognise spiritual teachings as a ship run aground, and we consider what we might use from it to strengthen our own little raft, and leave behind what doesn’t look useful or that we don’t have the capacity to carry forth.

In this war we need to cease to be the naive foot soldier, and instead in our saaviness, to become the spymaster…and a double agent one at that! There is a reason why the 007 symbol was coined by Queen Elizabeth’s famous court sorcerer, John Dee, the English “yogi” of his time.

Bloody Foreigners

“This is a religious war masquerading as a money war masquerading as a religious war” — Anon.

The lands that make up the Indian subcontinent have been conquered many times. Long before it became a unified nation and prior to the Moghul invasion, it was a series of kingdoms, which spent a fair bit of time conquering each other or fending off foreign invaders. Then in the middle ages, the Middle Eastern Islamic Moghuls invaded and established their empire. After centuries of their rule, often brutal, the English took over. Eventually they were ousted but not before Western Commercialism had laid its roots.

Being frequently invaded by different foreign powers leaves deep imprints on the cultural psyche. For instance, it creates a lot of “cross-pollination” — not just of people but also of ideas, of culture, of spiritual beliefs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Trade does this too. But it does say something about whether any system of teachings can accurately claim to be a “pure line of transmission”. Both “pure” and “line” tend to lose their sharp focus when viewed through the lens of actual history.

There are also traumas induced by frequent and brutal invaders. For instance, the invaded culture may tend to keep its most precious ideas — the ones through which it defines itself — as closely guarded secrets. They might even create a facsimile, a false front, of those treasures, a watered-down version or even one that is purposely “off” as a kind of information warfare tactic, or just so those in-the-know can have a bit of a laugh, so that they can reclaim some of their dignity that has been so damaged under the subjugation.

The trouble is that it becomes harder over time, when the invader’s rule spans generations to maintain the potency of that hidden knowledge. There is no archived Wikipedia, and this isn’t just factual information we’re talking about here. When you are forced to practice in secret and to vet each new recruit with absolute certainty before revealing the existence of such treasures, the numbers fall short of the critical mass required to ensure that at least one student becomes a sage of enough calibre to carry on the potency. This is why traditions like Tantra thrived the most in the Middle Ages, when it was aligned to state power. It had funding from royal patronage. Imagine today’s government putting billions into the proliferation and development of spirituality! That is what it was like at times in the past…

Meanwhile the political tiers on both side, invaders and exiled aristocracy, use whatever tools they can to influence and control the masses. Religious belief has always been a favoured tool.

We know something like this from our own culture:

In 1736 Bishop Butler — one of the few Anglican clerics of high mental attainments — declared that most educated men had ceased to regard Christianity as even an object of inquiry, “its fictitious nature being so obvious”. The Church nevertheless was part of the system; it helped to keep the populace quiet; and therefore a degree of religious practice was a gentleman’s duty, and it was bad form to be outspokenly anti-Christian. — Geoffrey Ashe. “The Secret History of the Hell-Fire Clubs”

Yet, as we’ll see later, many of those early enthusiasts of the Eastern traditions in the West, truly believed it was only our culture whose spirituality had been corrupted by the unsavoury effects of political agendas. They believed that the Indian traditions represented “pure” spirituality. And the purveyors of those traditions did everything possible to prop up that spiritual belief, for reasons of….can you guess?….political power!

I suggest to you that their spiritual traditions were not so “pure” — that they were no less politically influenced than ours. Yes, their praxis component was perhaps stronger not having had a couple centuries of the Church Inquisition to kill it off, but it comes with the same political baggage. I remind us again of our premise:

There is no such things as spirituality separate from politics.

Saving the worst for last

The Moghul rule in the Indian Subcontinent lasted three centuries. The British first took serious interest in the 16th century under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.

London merchants presented a petition to Queen Elizabeth I for permission to sail to the Indian Ocean. The aim was to deliver a decisive blow to the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly of Far Eastern Trade. Elizabeth granted her permission and on 10 April 1591 — Wikipedia

This was the beginning of the British “invasion”, and its motives were political. This wasn’t to begin as a warring invasion, but rather an economic one, that gradually grew into a military one, which was “necessary” to defend the British property from the civil unrest (that was being stoked by the British prefects) and then eventually a full civilian one. India was liberated from British rule in 1947. Do the maths.

The cunning, ruthless and unscrupulous tactics of the British colonisation, should not be underestimated. It’s one thing to go into a new place and burn/blow up/steal everything. It is another to subvert the core fabric of the subjects’ culture in order to convince them to throw away their weapons, mine their own treasures for you, and make the chains to bind themselves!

Great Britain: We are talking about the nation here that sold opium to China, ruining its people. When the Chinese banned the opium to protect themselves, England waged war, won, and then forced them to buy the opium again…twice!

India was where Britain displayed it’s mastery of the “Divide and Rule” strategy of subjugation. Much of the erosion of the Moghul dynasty and segue into the British one, involved bribing, blackmailing and otherwise corrupting Moghul officials whilst also stoking unrest amongst their enemies and then coming in to restore the “peace” when violence ensued, eroding a bit of their sovereignty each time. Gosh, I’m glad those days are over, or….Hmm…

In the North, it took two Anglo-Sikh wars for England to finally emerge the victor. Despite their massive advantage in weaponry and numbers, they could not defeat the ferocious divinely inspired Sikh warriors. It took corrupting one of their generals at a decisive battle for them to final complete the conquering of India.

Then there were the missionaries. They were the first ones to take an interest in the spiritual customs of these Eastern nations. It is astounding to what lengths they’d dedicate themselves — not with a genuine passion to learn — but with an agenda to control. Take this paragraph, for instance, from the preface to the very first and still quite popular Sanskrit-English dictionary.

In explanation I must draw attention to the fact that I am only the second occupant of the Boden Chair, and that its Founder, Colonel Boden, stated most explicitly in his will (dated August 15, 1811) that the special object of his munificent bequest was to promote the translation of the Scriptures into Sanskṛit, so as “to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion” https://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/matherials/sansdikt/0001.htm#5

Sanskrit is no walk-in-the-park. This person spent decades of their life, learning and documenting the many detailed nuances of an ancient and sacred language, earning the trust of its pundits…in order to subvert their culture! Now that is ruthless dedication. That is a mind war.

Coming up next…

Maybe you are still wondering: “Just how does any of this affect me in my practice of modern yoga and spirituality?”

In short, it is the soil in which the seeds of the modern spiritual culture were planted. It is the backdrop to the collective consciousness that existed when the West was initiate into “Eastern spirituality”. These historical tides crashed onto your shores and are the very reason why and, more importantly, how you practice yoga, meditation, tantra, tai chi. You most likely have a whole slew of beliefs that you think are about the fundamentals of reality but are better described as a direct consequence of these political events. I think it is high time we refined some of these views, for our own sake and for the sake of our duty to carry forth the Torch of a higher truth.

We’ll delve into the details of this cultural tidal crash in the next post when we look at, amongst other things, the Great Grandmother of the New Age, that 19th century, enigmatic, Russian force-of-nature, who, in her youth, left her ship-captain husband to roam about India, Tibet and China on her own. She then came to Europe and America and introduced the West to Yoga, Tantra, Kundalini, Patanjali, Chakras, Oneness, Tibet, Ascended Masters and just about every other fascination in the modern New Age. And then she taught it to the Indians as well…

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Writing about ancient esoteric practices, modern culture, technology, and the future of it all…