Getting Real with East-West Spirituality Part 3: The Big Bang
Last time we took a broad, top level tour through the tumultuous history of the Indian subcontinent. We considered how the unsavoury influence of Western imperialism, laid a cultural foundation that would later return to seed the West through trends such as the yoga explosive of the 20th century, events which thus formed the terrain of our modern spiritual landscape.
But there is still a missing piece, a big hole in our map. To fill it, we’ll need to zoom in on the timeline, and take a look at the most critical period and even single watershed moment that would define much of what we today take for granted as “spirituality”. And — by now maybe you’ve guessed it — it has at least as much to do with politics as it does with Truth.
Let us recast the whole British Imperialism episode as a metaphor. How would the following scenario make you feel?
One sunny day, someone visits your home pretending to be a friendly salesman. But after you welcome them in, they suddenly refuse to leave and proceed to steal all of your most valuable heirlooms. They make your mother their maid servant. They put your siblings to work in the fields growing foreign crops on your land to sell back in their homeland. They re-educate your children to make them believe they are inferior to their overlords. Plus they are crude, disconnected from nature (full wool suits in 40˚ heat!?), but carry a sharp air of superiority and condescension which they parade as frequently as possible often with a whip or a pistol. And you can’t manage to get rid of them for a few generations!
Fortunately you managed to hide the library books. Maybe one day you will use them to reclaim the minds of your children, only it’s been so long now that no one remembers exactly what most of those authors were banging on about!
Well eventually you do get rid of those arseholes, but one generation before you do, some of their relatives who have been assigned to boss you around, start getting interested in the stories you tell, and also, not-just-a-little, impressed by great-grandad, the mystic, sitting silently in the corner.
Then their children, who grew up with stories about your amazing family, start feeling a little sorry for what their great-great-great-grandparents did, breaking into your home and all. Of course they are still living off of the spoils…
They start visiting and you eventually give them access to some of your library, from the part that hasn’t been eaten by the mice, and they start translating them and sending it back home.
Eventually they invite you over for a talk at a big gathering of influential people. Meanwhile they are still pilaging your home, and things are getting a bit violent with your relatives working in the back fields. Oh and they also sent in some of their more fanatical religious zealots to teach your children they are all condemned to an eternal fire pit unless they worship a blond haired blue eyed, white guy. Fortunately you knew Jesus, or rather Isha, long before they did so you know most of their stories are bogus.
Hook, Line, and Mala
Pretty messed up stuff right? Yet this is pretty much the context that existed when yogic mysticism and Indian spiritual philosophy made its big debut in the West in 1893 — a watershed moment which we will discuss in detail below…
What then followed for the next 100 years was a series of import gurus, self proclaimed spiritual masters. They were exotic and impressive characters, very debonaire. They lacked the low self-esteem, people-pleasing complexes that plague most of us Westerners. They seemed like people who had achieved the “right” way to live, in peace and harmony with themselves and others.
We were primed to buy into it. Our religion had lost credibility and had a shameful record of violence, oppression, and control. It taught us little of value about ourselves and had only incredulous stories to tell about the universe around us.
Then came these charismatic gurus with their gentle manners, who spoke intelligently in philosophies we had never heard and shared techniques that promised to give us sublime experiences, lofty states of perception — the spiritual ecstasy that, in our discarded religion, was the kind only reserved for rare saints.
We were so eager that we swallowed it all up without a second thought. Some 70 years later, many of us were changing our names, how we dress, even how we say “hello”. We began to speak in new lofty spiritual euphemisms. In essence we became alien to our own culture. After all, who wanted it — with all of its exploitative commercialism and power politics? We were now free…
Except we weren’t. Those new communities over time frequently recreated, in the language of the foreign spiritual philosophy, the same restrictive self-deprecating belief patterns. We may not have been born in original sin but we were definitely clouded by the illusion of “maya”, unable to see our true nature, thus we error, or rather “create karma” — which by the way we are also born with — and this delays our emergence into T̶h̶e̶ ̶P̶r̶o̶m̶i̶s̶e̶d̶ ̶L̶a̶n̶d̶ Nirvana. (See this point made so well, and funny, by JP Sears )
Many of those Gurus instinctually took advantage of this. They spared no moment to remind us how precious this life was and how we were wasting it. They taught us that our only salvation was in conforming to their newly established moral and cultural code, trusting them absolutely while we simultaneously watched them progress down a curious path of exploitation and physical, mental and sexual abuse.
This internalised cognitive dissonance is our current legacy and at we’re still wasting huge amounts of time and energy trying to figure out what was real and dealing with a whole new layer of traumas. It still goes on, but now yoga has become a health-oriented, mechanical, wellbeing practice and the mystically inclined have moved on to Shamans in South America and back to hallucinogens. What could possibly go wrong?
Thinking back again to our exploration of brutal history: Do you think that those centuries of geo-political subjugation were somehow erased from the minds of those teachers the moment they became enlightened? Might the generations of unacknowledged pain and resentment still lie deep within the hearts of those mystics? What subtle (and not so subtle) effects might that have on their relationship with their Western students?
The most obvious answer is likely the correct one here, and the data supports it. Yet in these subcultures it sometimes takes great effort to get people to acknowledge the obvious, see the “wood for the trees”.
In this case, if you start with a notion of “Master as a perfectly compassionate being, free from worldly concerns” you are hard pressed to understand their behaviour when it turns abusive, predatory, greedy, power hungry, horny. Since your model of spiritual reality says that these qualities should not exist in a “master”, then we have no choice but to bend over backwards with strained theories to explain why things are not what they seem. Or we will accept the abuses, inconsistencies, and even blatantly obvious lies, believing, “the problem must be with me…somewhere”.
Then when things finally burst, we’ll have no choice but to do a complete 180˚ and condemn them as a fraud, not “enlightened” at all but corrupted by personal shadow. We then are faced with the precarious task of using the Cancel Culture machête to perform delicate surgery to separate the malignant parts of the teachings from the genuine ones. In doing so without truly understanding what happened, precious babies will go out with the bath water and even worse, some of that malignant tissue will remain.
In the end the thing most damaged is our sense of self-trust. How could following our instinct, our intuition, have let us down so badly?
But this is all insanity — and its source is not the corrupt gurus, but rather us. Our original model — our understanding of exactly what is “spirituality”, “mastery”, “enlightenment” — was simply inaccurate. It is a model formed in ignorance of the broader cultural waves that colluded and collided to bring us to meet those teachers and those teachings.
What if, instead of the perfect-guru narrative, you include the knowledge of the Great Mind War discussed above and its effects? Then you can know from the outset, that said teacher comes through those aforementioned centuries of pain and strife. Perhaps they lost family members in those conflicts. Perhaps their communities were subjugated under its forceful hand. Perhaps that suffering has indeed made a deep impression that their “enlightenment” cannot fully efface. It still lies dormant, like a poisonous seed, waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
They very well may be full of compassion, and genuinely serviceful and wise, but the Cultural Egregore of a denigrated people is still waiting for its chance to avenge the centuries of cruel colonisation. This is how you can have a Swami whose yogic power was measured and proven by scientists in 1970, a decade later going around with his American female disciples on dog leashes kicking them in the bum, yelling at them.
It’s time we learned what is going on with us, lest we repeat the same mistakes again and again. It’s time to get more savvy about the history of our own thoughts.
The Big Bang
Let us go now to this seminal moment in 1893, Sept 11th to be precise, where we can begin to see clearly this mix of the spiritual and the political, the genuine and the manipulative, subtly at play.
It was the World’s Fair in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda was the guest. He was a swami, a mystic ( — it’s technically incorrect but you can think of him as a yogi). He was a well spoken and well educated man mentored by the Who’s Who of Indian spiritual and philosophical societies.
He was also highly politically connected and his seemingly innocuous speech had encoded within it a number of subtle messages of a political intent. These messages were seeds aimed to take root in the naive prevailing attitudes amongst the Amero-European audience. Academics now refer to this attitude as “Indian Exceptionalism”. It is the belief narrative that runs as follows:
- Our Judeo-Christian religion and its spiritual views has long been corrupted by greed, power and abuse
- The Indian philosophy and practice is the pure, uncorrupted spirituality. It is the motherland of all things Divine, the true origin of our degenerate religion. Its language is the mother tongue, and its knowledge predates, and may even exceed our latest and greatest in science and philosophy.
- We only need to humble ourselves and seek knowledge from their great, enlightened sages in order to reclaim our spiritual heritage.
Listen to the opening line of Vivekananda’s first speech and tell me that it doesn’t consciously play right up to that belief:
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
Well, first, there are many different religions and sects in India, followed by millions more people, casually written off by that last line. In fact, the notion what we consider a “Hindu” today, and even what Hindus consider a “Hindu” today was largely established here. Second, this claim of the “oldest” order, the “mother” of religions — it was music to Western ears and I’m pretty sure he knew it. Here, was the still-colonised India plotting to take the upper hand not on the physical battlefield, but on the one in the mind. The war hammer swings back…
Was it true though? Maybe India does have the mother religion? Or maybe Native South Americans do have the original magick? Here’s where we can practice existing comfortably in the grey area, not collapsing the quantum wave to a single black or white “truth”. There is definitely some truth in that opening statement, just as there are some legitimate benefits of yoga, physically and spiritually. But this fairytale attitude that many still have towards the purity of the “ancient wisdoms” of the East is demonstrably false. It’s quite certain that the collective knowledge of India have been subject to as much temporal and political distortion as those of anywhere else — particularly in that time period…
Vivekananda was part of a movement now refered to as Neo-Vedanta, Vedanta being the philosophy underpinning the Tantras so shy of 2000 years old in its recognisable form. Neo-Vedanta, however, was highly concerned with asserting Indian spirituality as a national political identity — one that could resist the ongoing erosion of their culture by Western imperialism (particularly those pernicious Christian missionaries). As a corollary of this goal, came a concern to re-position Indian spiritual philosophy in terms which demonstrated its equality and even pre-eminancy to Western knowledge.
In his book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, A Biography, David Gordon White delves into this topic:
Here, the founders of the leading Indian reform movement known as the Brahmo Samaj fused Nondualist Vedanta with the various currents of Western humanism, spiritualism, esotericism, and social reform that had been introduced there by Unitarian churchmen
The reason for this was very much about establishing political and cultural sovereignty in the face of British colonial indoctrination. And who can blame them? Yet it has implications for the pedigree of the so-called “ancient” spiritual knowledge we study today.
Amongst the mind “ops” that Neo-Vedanta sought to effect was to mount a pre-emptive strike against the threat of a new super weapon in the Great Mind War: “Science”…or rather objective scientific materialism which had almost completely eradicated Western spiritual life. The spiritual precepts of India were thus bent and stretched, and sometimes even broken, so that a compelling narrative could be constructed that claimed they were the very root of modern science, that they even predicted modern science many centuries before! How is that for a mind-war counterstrike?
Again White eloborates in his book:
Vivekananda grafted terminology and concepts from Western spiritualism and scientism onto Indian spirituality and NeoVedanta philosophy….Vivekananda’s lectures and writing have had their most lasting impact in the United States and Europe.
Today it is common to hear boasting that Indian philosophy described things like quantum mechanics centuries before. Again we might pause to ask “Is it true?” and in all likelihood there is some truth in — and some exaggeration as well — but this is beside the point. The important thing here is that the motivation was political, not philosophical. It was not about seeking truth.
In fact these spiritual philosophy tweaks, sometimes went sharply against the grain established by centuries of “commentaries” written by illustrious sages each of which carefully built upon the work of former commentators to further elucidate the truth of a pithy piece of wisdom like Patanjali’s Sutras or the tantra shastras. But in the 19th century that was all swept under the carpet for the “Big Picture” political agendas.
And the fact that those teachers and masters are so ready and willing to eschew the pursuit of truth in order to exert power over the shaping of the world while preaching the merits of renunciation, should tell us something about the nature of spiritual mastery, and probably also about the whole concept of “Truth” to being with.
Who knows, maybe their goals were truly noble, just, and worth some minor sacrifices in “truthfulness”. Again the moral judgement is irrelevant. What matters here is that we are left with a a bit of a messy spiritual heritage. Our inherited “ancient” teachings may share some similar vocabulary to the originals, but aren’t necessarily describing the same things at all.
We also have a vast modern spiritual community who are almost entirely ignorant of the several thousand years of documented intelligent spiritual discourse. IMO, reading some of that literature would give us a far greater claim to a “lineage” than does initiation into most of the spurious Teacher-Student lines in the last century.
In this time period also we also witness the origins of the yoga-as-medicine/therapy/wellbeing culture that dominates today.
Embracing Vivekananda’s NeoVedanta teachings on Yoga as an ancient Indian science, two of Aurobindo’s contemporaries established yoga research centers in western India: these were Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, the two yoga gurus most responsible for the early “medicalization” of yoga in India
– White, p206
Stepping back to think about this in terms of our War of Cultures, we see a fascinating turn of events. Indeed one might claim that this “medicalization” of yoga is large part of the reason why it is so socially accepted today, compared to say, Transcendental Meditation. Yet the rise of the science-backed yoga has caused a corresponding disinterest in yoga’s deeper commentary on life and reality, which was its primary concern prior to its focus-shift to health. Thus, we might say that the very tactic used to defend against the cold, subjugating hand of scientific materialism, 100 years later, has been Judo-flipped into affirming the very opposite notion — that Western Science is, indeed, the ultimate authority of what is real and valuable. What a battle scene!
Let me tell you a story about your Great Grandma…
Neither modern Europe nor America had so much as heard [of yoga] until the Theosophists began to speak and write.
— Madame Blavatsky
It’s blows my mind how few people in modern Western yoga, Buddhism, channelled Atlanteans, or other New Age sub-genres are aware of the subject of this next section and it’s deep influence on much of their adopted beliefs. This influence is so engrained that even the import Indian Gurus from the mid 20th century, often professed “ancient” knowledge that provably originates with this “Western” organisation in the, barely dusty, late 19th century. Everything from yoga, to ascended masters, has its modern roots in this…mystic? …charlatan? …definitely “force-of-nature” Russian babushka and the society that she birthed. So without further ado…
Helena “Madame” Blavatsky was the “Matriarch of the New Age”. Her Theosophic Society was the first to translate many doctrines, including Patanjali’s Sutras, into English. She, along with Aleister Crowley, forged a bridge from the somewhat stale, magic and quasi-Egypt-oriented spirituality of the Western occult (that was popular amongst Anglo-European elite) into the Indian yogic systems. In doing so they opened up the doors for the Gurus of India to come and teach in the Americas and Europe.
Yet at the same time she was accused of a great deal of deception. She claimed to receive letters from hidden Tibetan masters that would materialise in a special box during a seance, but the box turned out to have a trap door in the back — the letters…in her handwriting. She was said likely to have plagiarised much of the writing in her two most seminal works — Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine — the very words that, she claimed, came directly channeled from two hidden semi-immortal Tibetan masters. Some loyal Theosophists have since claimed to disprove some of the allegations and find evidence of some of the previously obscure Tibetan canons she references. Yet this story — that curious mix of mastery and charlatanism — is one very familiar by now to the modern yoga aficionados.
Such complexity in a character reminds us again of the need to get away from short-sighted, black-and-white interpretations of reality. It is easy to call UFOs “swamp gas” if you don’t look too closely at the details. It is easy to label Blavatsky, and others like her, a hoax if you don’t look too deeply at their work and its long term effects. But if you do take that time, then it becomes quite hard to dismiss her as a mere hustler who tricked the naive and the gullible.
On a side note: To try to understand just what is going on with these sagacious characters who also have charlatanic qualities is effectively an initiation in itself. It is the very reason why this series has nothing to do with denigrating or denying certain spiritual teachings over others and has everything to do with creating a more profound and accurate map of the nebulous terrain of esoteric reality. This is a topic we’ll likely explore further in future articles.
The influence of Blavatsky’s Theosophic Society was far reaching. Many of the famous figures including scientists, statesmen, military officers and leaders of countries around the world were acquainted with her or her close associates.
Einstein is said to have kept a copy of her Secret Doctrine on his desk which was full of bent corners and scribbles in the margins. This is fascinating to consider when famous physicist Richard Feymann 50 years later would proclaim that he could “not understand how [Einstein] arrived at the intuition leading to E=mc², considering the level of scientific knowledge at the time”.
Blavatsky was also very well respected in India where the Theosophic Society and it’s message of spiritual universality (yup that’s where it comes from!) was received perhaps best in India.
In many respects, the Theosophists’ and Vivekananda’s projects were mirror images of each other. For whereas Madame Blavatsky had earlier grafted Indian terminology and concepts onto Western spiritualism and occultism, Vivekananda grafted terminology and concepts from Western spiritualism and scientism onto Indian spirituality and NeoVedanta philosophy. The Theosophical teachings turned out to be far more successful in India than in the West, while Vivekananda’s lectures and writing have had their most lasting impact in the United States and Europe. –p150 [*]> In many respects, the Theosophists’ and Vivekananda’s projects were mirror images of each other. For whereas Madame Blavatsky had earlier grafted Indian terminology and concepts onto Western spiritualism and occultism, Vivekananda grafted terminology and concepts from Western spiritualism and scientism onto Indian spirituality and NeoVedanta philosophy. The Theosophical teachings turned out to be far more successful in India than in the West, while Vivekananda’s lectures and writing have had their most lasting impact in the United States and Europe.
Blavatsky and Vivekananda were well acquainted with each other. The Theosophic Society in India was intertwined with the Neo-Vedanta movement. Theosophists would often be the ones to greet Swami V at the airport. Blavatsky’s Theosophists were very much part of the Neo-Vedanta movement.
For a time, one of Blavatsky’s closest associates was himself a Dandin ascetic. This was Dayananda Saraswati, the legendary founder of the reform movement known as the Arya Samaj, or “Society of Nobles,” with which the Theosophical Society had briefly merged to form the “Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj” –p133 [*]> For a time, one of Blavatsky’s closest associates was himself a Dandin ascetic. This was Dayananda Saras † wati, the legendary founder of the reform movement known as the Arya Samaj, or “Society of Nobles,” with which the Theosophical Society had briefly merged to form the “Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj”
Understand the deep implications of this. It annihilates the narrative told by most modern yogic traditions: that they are based on timeless/pure/truth teachings, unencumbered with Western religio-political influences. Those “Eastern” teachings, long before they came to you, and even before they came to the gurus your teacher’s teacher learned from, were cross-pollinating with an Amero-European corpus of knowledge and practice.
And here we come back to the complex intermingling of spiritual knowledge across the East-West divide and to the importance of knowing a little history along with your philosophy. And also once again we can see how those most deeply engaged the task of illuminating the world with spirituality were also deeply engaged in the political front, the battlefield of the Great Mind War.
Annie Besant became the most vocal and dynamic Western figure in India to support India, its culture and traditions. She was critical of the British effort, starting with Lord Macaulay, to anglicise Indian education and identity. She sought to create a new educational approach that honoured India’s spiritual and cultural traditions, but modernised them as well.
Another close associate of Blavatsky’s, her biggest and most influential supporter in the US was Henry Steel Olcott, who cofounded the Theosophic Society with her. He became the first American Buddhist convert and was seminal in birthing the Amero-European interest in Buddhism. He was instrumental in the movement for Sri Lankan independence which leveraged National Buddhist Identity in much the same way that Swami Vivekananda used Hindi identity for India. If you ever want a clear and often brutal example of the unsavoury alliance of spiritual philosophy and politics, you need look no further than Sri Lanka.
Did these great spiritual people all draw a strict line between their political beliefs and their spiritual ones? Hardly. And it while it may seem obvious that the spiritual beliefs would inform the political ones (hence why modern yogis tend to have similar views on politics), what is important here today is that the political aims also influence the spiritual beliefs.
Some might counter by saying this is a false dichotomy; that spirituality encompasses all things; that there is a “Universal Truth” and all else distills out of that, including political awareness, philosophy, lifestyle and other areas of knowledge. But in practice, this hierarchical map of arenas of knowledge does not fair well. It is based on a flawed understanding, a departmentalised model that is an unfortunate byproduct of machine-age thought: “physics trickles down to chemistry which trickles down to biology”.
Can you see the connection? How we are taught to think is how we perceive the world. Those great spiritual leaders of the last 150 years believed in an ontological hierarchy of knowledge. Consequently they misinterpreted their enhanced capacity to peer into a deeper truth, as giving them license to dictate how things should be in every other, “lower” domain, such as politics, business, lifestyle, how you raise your children, how you use your body. They saw Truth, so if the philosophical thinking of the previous 2000 years needed to be rewritten that day, then that would be a New Truth. If religion needed to be reconfigured to enable their geo-political vision then that must also be Truth, with a capital T! I marvel at the hubris! It’s impressive in the same unnerving way that nuclear bomb test videos are.
There’s even a phrase for this in Sanskrit, “Vach Siddhi”: the magical power that whatever one speaks will be true. I’ve heard at least a couple supposedly yoga masters say they have this power. Sometimes I think much of the insanity we’ve seen comes down to them over-estimating their ability here. Regardless, what a dangerous mind-hack it can be in irresponsible hands. If you decide to believe that someone has this absolute power, then there is literally nothing they can do which you will call “wrong” or “misguided”.
How are we mere mortals supposed to cope in the face of such potent characters and subversive politics? How are we to navigate the shark-infested seas of foreign spiritual teachings in order to get the goods and emerge with enough self-worth and self-authority to get on with our lives, our destinies and support our own communities? In the fourth and final part of this series, we’ll explore some methods approaching spiritual teachings in a way that better equips to go deep without getting lost.
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