Two Emerging Perspectives on Theosophical Orientalism

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Keith E. Cantú University of California USA Santa Barbara, CA

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Hans Martin Krämer and Julian Strube, eds., Theosophy across Boundaries: Transcultural and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Modern Esoteric Movement (Albany: SUNY Press, 2020). 978-1-4384-8041-1

Erik Sand and Tim Rudbøg, eds., Imagining the East: The Early Theosophical Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). 978-0-1908-5388-4

The past five years have been especially fruitful for the study of the Theosophical Society in relation to its connection with India and Asia more broadly. The two works I am reviewing in this article, Theosophy across Boundaries and Imagining the East, augment the work of other edited volumes that have appeared, perhaps most notably Theosophical Appropriations,1 as well as independent monographs and articles on specific topics or figures, such as Recycled Lives.2 This flood of new scholarship on Theosophy and its engagement with Asia and other parts of the world, taken collectively, reframes and challenges conventional narratives on the forms and scope of “Theosophical Orientalism,” a phrase that in an academic sense was probably first coined by Karl Baier.3 Moreover, fresh attention to such topics has expanded the contours of colonial-era Indian religious history prior to the country’s independence in 1947 to finally include the notable contributions of authors studied today in the contemporary academic field of Western esotericism yet still all-too-often neglected in the disciplines of Indology or religions of South Asia. Despite this wealth of new scholarly attention given to these historical “East-West” connections, however, perspectives on the legacy of this exchange are far from monolithic. Despite certain similarities and even one author shared between them, Theosophy across Boundaries and Imagining the East each reflect opposite starting points from which to begin engaging with this history; they are, as a result, perhaps best reviewed together. In this review I will first briefly summarize the contents of each book before proceeding to examine the approaches of some of the chapters more directly in conversation with each other based on their approach to their topic.

While both were in print around the same time, Imagining the East was published first, between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The book consists of an introduction, fifteen chapters, and an afterword by the editors, and is divided into three parts or “major themes,” including ‘Approaches to the East,’ ‘Representations of the East,’ and ‘Interactions with the East.’ The title relates to the playful “imaginative faculty” that maps our perceptions of the unknown “Other” in a Saidian sense, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively, but always—and perhaps most importantly—within a discourse of power-relations.4 The aim of the work as a whole, while certainly taking into account the post-Orientalist turn in scholarship in the past forty years, is nevertheless to offer a ‘more unified picture of the multifaceted role of the early Theosophical Society in relation to the East,’ and in-so-doing to nuance prevailing conceptions dating to the nineteenth century that depict Theosophy as little more than a “distorted” image of the Orient.5 The authors of the various chapters, most of whom are established or senior scholars, accordingly offer a fairly diverse set of historical perspectives and opinions on the merits of this ‘multifaceted role.’

The second book, Theosophy across Boundaries, was in print at the same time as Imagining the East but published later, towards the end of 2020, and widely available by the beginning of 2021. The book consists of an introduction and thirteen chapters, and is divided into two parts: ‘New Perspectives on Theosophy’ and ‘Theosophy in Literature, the Arts, and Politics.’ The title reflects a perceived need to address a neglect of the ‘global dimension of Theosophy,’ a corrective measure that necessitates moving beyond rigid conceptions of “East” and “West.” An overarching aim of the volume is to specifically take into account the ‘ambiguities and contradictions of the agency of the colonized in the light of Orientalist knowledge’ while still engaging with post-colonial (and by extension post-Orientalist) theory.6 To this end many of the topics treated offer valuable analyses of local Theosophical bodies throughout Asia. The contributors selected accordingly come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds, ranging from sociology to religious studies to comparative literature, among other fields, with several based at universities in Japan or otherwise specializing in the religions and literatures of East Asia.

As mentioned above, the chapters in each book are divided into thematic sections, many of which are useful to consider in conversation with each other, even if there are sometimes divergences in perspectives. For example, I found that Christopher Partridge’s ‘Adventures in “Wisdom-Land” ’ and Donald S. Lopez’s ‘Orientalist vs. Theosophist,’ which together comprise the first section of Imagining the East, read especially well along with Wouter Hanegraaff’s ‘Western Esotericism and the Orient in the First Theosophical Society.’ Despite differences in the selected aspects of Theosophy that each author wishes to emphasize, I would argue that at least two common points emerge from these and other chapters that treat on broader historical questions and conceptual themes: 1) it remains, in-so-far as possible, important to rigorously consider those roots of Theosophy that were developed outside of India while still treating the Indic side of the exchange; and 2) complicated tensions between the Theosophical Society and the academic world are not just a contemporary issue on account of the complicated legacy of Theosophical Orientalism, but were already present for different reasons from the society’s formation in 1875.

As to the first point, Partridge points out that the source of many of the ideas of the Theosophical Founders and their associates is a kind of “Romantic Orientalism,” that is, a gaze upon the Orient as the well-spring of a fanciful and mystic “other” that has in fact more to do with the Western imagination than any real ideas of Indian origin.7 Lopez for his part does not tackle this question in detail but does highlight the presence of North American and European spiritualism in the background of an interest in “esoteric Buddhism” on the part of A.P. Sinnett (1840–1921), which is a point for future scholars to explore in more detail.8 Hanegraaff’s own masterful contribution on this point is notable for taking into account the books Art Magic and Ghost Land, attributed to one “Chevalier Louis de B---” but believed to be by Emma Hardinge Britten (1823–1899); his perspective clarifies on a deeper level just what this “Romantic Orientalism” was predicated upon. Hanegraaff convincingly demonstrates that many of the interests of the “First Theosophical Society,” that is, the Theosophical Society as it was prior to the visit of Henry Olcott (1832–1907) and Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) to India in 1879, were already predicated upon an interest in a different set of Oriental mysteries that should be considered historically distinct from their interest in Hinduism and Buddhism. These included, among others, an interest in Egyptian hermetists, Jewish kabbalah, and Neoplatonic theurgy.9

As to the second point, Lopez’s skillful juxtaposition of the Indological scholar Max Müller (1823–1900) on the one hand and of Olcott and Sinnett on the other deserves special recognition. Their differences heralded a tension that sometimes persists today between the priorities of “serious” academic scholars of South Asia and those of spiritual (or in those times “theosophical”) practitioners who claim to personally represent a given religious teaching or current and are not always interested in the analysis of texts or traditions from a detached academic standpoint.10 What emerges from this juxtaposition is a portrait of a complicated symbiotic relationship of sorts between nineteenth-century scholarship and Theosophical literature. For example, as much as Müller wanted to distance himself from Theosophical interest in his Sacred Books of the East and to instead promote the popular but now-problematic image of a “Protestant Buddha” predicated on the Pali canon, he could not ignore the fact that some of his most dedicated readers were in fact Theosophists who had different agendas. In the end, as we know in hindsight, both camps had distorted visions of Buddhism, not just the Theosophists. The surviving records of Gandharan Buddhism have since eclipsed the Pali sources of Buddhism as some of the earliest sources for Buddhist teachings, the idea of a Protestant Buddha is widely considered problematic,11 and the wealth of new scholarship produced on Mahayana Buddhism (including later Vajrayana forms) renders Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism a wild and erratic read, even if his work was notable at the time for not dismissing later forms of Buddhism outright as corruptions of the perceived “purity” of Theravada as practiced in what is today Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The other authors likewise make arguments that resonate with academic debates more broadly: Partridge draws a sharp contrast between post-Orientalist critiques and the objectifying conceptions of the Theosophists,12 while Hanegraaff alludes to Theosophical engagement with the ‘deeply ethnocentric Orientalist imagination typical of nineteenth-century European scholarship and popular literature.’13

Both the second and third parts of Imagining the East include many important chapters that treat relatively discrete topics. In the second part, James Santucci tackles the question of Blavatsky’s acquaintance (or lack thereof) with Sanskrit, while Tim Rudbøg examines the discourse of esoteric Buddhism in Theosophy and Erik Sand examines Blavatsky’s reception of Hindu philosophy. Joscelyn Godwin gives a well-researched account of the controversial Mahatma Letters that also includes insights he gleaned from examining extant copies held by the British Library. Patrick Bowen shows how yoga in the early Theosophical Society, including the English literature of the Tamil yogi Sri Sabhapati Swami (1828–1923/4), was received by the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.14 Finally, Gillian McCann analyzes representations of the East in the dizzying and variegated universe of Theosophical periodicals, and David Weir examines links between Theosophy and Modernism as an artistic and literary movement.

The third part shifts more specifically to “interactions” or engagement between Theosophy and the East, and includes a chapter by K. Paul Johnson on the Bengal Renaissance, Erik Sand on the relationship between the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj, Tim Rudbøg on Blavatsky’s fascinating and influential concept of “Universal Brotherhood,” Isaac Lubelsky on Allan Hume and the formation of Indian National Congress, Mark Bevir on cultural nationalism and India’s “Home Rule,” and Michael Bergunder on Mohandas Gandhi, esotericism, and religious history in a global context. The social and political implications of Theosophy’s presence are featured in this part, as is evident from the topics covered in this section, making it of principal interest to social historians of India’s colonial period leading up to Independence.

Several of the above chapters intersect with contributions in both parts of Theosophy across Boundaries. In addition to Hanegraaff’s chapter mentioned above, Part I, on new perspectives, contains a highly informative chapter by Michael Bergunder (who contributed to both volumes) on Theosophy and the legacy of the Bhagavadgītā, a contribution by Jérémy Jammes on Theosophy in southern Vietnam, an analysis of Theosophical movements in modern China by Chuang Chienhui, an analysis of history and historiography by Ulrich Harlass, a contribution by Perry Myers on Theosophy in Germany and India during the colonial period, and a treatment on a specific association of Judaism in Theosophy by Boaz Huss. Part II, on literature, the arts, and politics, includes a contribution by Laurence Cox and Alicia Turner on the Maha-Bodhi Society in Arakan (a region that today is divided between southeastern Bangladesh and northwest Myanmar), a chapter by Hans Martin Krämer on the activist Paul Richard, a piece by Hashimoto Yorimitsu on James Cousins and Gurcharan Singh, a chapter on the Golconde Dormitory in Puducherry (a.k.a. Pondicherry) by Helena Capkova, a chapter by Yan Suarsana on Theosophy in Bali, and lastly a chapter by Björn Seidel-Dreffke on Theosophy and Russian cultural history. All these regional contexts of Theosophy greatly augment our understanding of the movement as it was received and lived in contexts outside Western Europe and North America which, up to the present, have received the most scholarly attention.

What becomes clear from the outset in comparing these two books is that the Theosophical Society remains a contested site in which two general approaches start to become salient. The first approach, which for the sake of comparison could be exemplified by Imagining the East, begins from the understandable assumption that Theosophical authors and actors helped reify Western esoteric projections of Romantic Orientalism on a relatively passive—and largely misunderstood—canvas of a “mystical East.” There is accordingly a discernible preference among many of the volume’s authors toward centering the analysis on members of the Theosophical Society of North American and European descent and then expanding this analysis to include their relations with the “East” so construed. However, there are also notable exceptions (especially in Part Three) to this tendency such as Johnson’s chapter on the Bengali Renaissance that treats Peary Chand Mittra (1813–1883) and Mohini Chatterji (1858–1936),15 Sand’s chapter that treats the Arya Samaj founder Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883), and Bergunder’s treatment of Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948). In any event, the volume’s overall focus on the Theosophical “Founders” H.P. Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, other Theosophical authors of early prominence such as William Judge (1851–1896) and Annie Besant (1847–1933), and their Western interlocutors does make perfect sense, of course, given Theosophy’s roots in modern Western occultism and the movement’s tendency to operate as a mediator of sorts between fin de siécle fascination with the mystic Orient in Europe and North America, a point that was clearly demonstrated in Part One of the volume. At the same time, local Theosophical authors in India and elsewhere throughout Asia are sometimes depicted as reacting to the transcultural (or in other terminology, “translocal”) discourse of the Founders rather than the other way around (i.e., local perspectives having an effect on the transcultural). This approach naturally creates an opportunity for scholarship of a corrective nature to determine what is incorrect, inauthentic, or innovative about Theosophical perspectives on Asian wisdom, which several of the pieces in the volume—particularly the contributions by Partridge and Bowen—attempt to address.

The second camp, best represented by Theosophy across Boundaries, starts instead with an assumption that Asian adaptations and reactions to the spread of Theosophy played a significant role in the movement and were re-projected back onto the transcultural levels of the Theosophical Society, its later schisms or branches, and its wide range of literatures. Rather than bracket Asian and/or global adaptations and reception histories of Theosophy as marginal or tangential, many of the volume’s contributors contextualize such histories as reflecting both active communities and individual actors in a global and decentralized network of Theosophy ranging from Japan to Vietnam and from India to Germany. These communities and individuals were certainly connected to various transcultural centers (whether Adyar or elsewhere) through letters, periodicals, and physical movement but were not always immediately answerable to any centralized Theosophical authority. As a result, these groups and individuals often possessed much more agency to reframe and reformulate Theosophical teachings in ways that often would be considered idiosyncratic either to the Founders’ original vision or to the academic field of Western esotericism as presently delineated. For example, Jammes shows how Buddhist messianic beliefs about Maitreya were adapted to the figure of Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) in Vietnam, Myers shows how politics and domestic concerns converged in the “complex web” of German transcultural Theosophy from Franz Hartmann (1838–1912) to Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), and Suarsana shows how traditional healing practices and Theosophy converged in Bali. However, as each of the contributors makes clear in their own way, such entanglements do not make these subjects any less relevant to the study of Theosophy, but rather point to prevailing academic boundaries that make it difficult to firmly distinguish between “Western esotericism” and “traditional religion” or even between an internally-focused spirituality and an externally-driven politics.

I would argue that one minor deficiency, more salient to Imagining the East than Theosophy across Boundaries, is the relative lack of attention paid to how global Theosophical actors were also inspired by local religious specialists who operated outside of Theosophy yet were still prominent in their respective social contexts. For example, I found Bowen’s aforementioned chapter quite excellent for its treatment of Theosophical yoga in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, although it otherwise neglects to seriously consider the contributions of religious actors who came from backgrounds or guru-lineages (paramparās) that were quite outside the aegis of Theosophy yet still informed it. One of these figures mentioned by Bowen was Sabhapati Swami, who had brief contact with but never formally joined the Theosophical Society or Arya Samaj, and whose works in English were edited by the Indian Theosophical author Shrish Chandra Basu (1861–1918). Yet Sabhapati’s works in English are only one portion of his literature; Sabhapati’s sizeable corpus of literature in Indian vernacular languages (especially Tamil and a Sanskritic form of Hindustani), not considered by Bowen, at least equally reflect the teachings of his gurus in a sect of Tamil Śaivism called Vīraśaivism, also present in the Tamil landscape surrounding Adyar.16 This vernacular layer complicates the primacy of Bowen’s “first level” of yoga instructions for the Theosophist public by positing an additional level that operated parallel to but outside Theosophy in the realm of vernacular religious discourse.17

Regardless of whether such local religious actors were Jewish kabbalists, Tamil yogis, or Balinese healers, it cannot be doubted that their encounters with elite authors in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries not only radically reshaped these actors’ opinions and priorities but also affected the very fabric of the transcultural levels of Theosophy that many scholars still often take for granted as an integral part of Western esotericism today. More precise treatment of these webs of interaction between Theosophists and local, non-Theosophical religious actors could help show how, on the one hand, non-Theosophical religious beliefs were specifically mediated and incorporated or subsumed into Theosophical discourses. On the other hand, it could help scholars who specialize in premodern aspects of religions like Hinduism or Buddhism more readily consider the impact of Theosophy and other alternative occult movements on these religions’ modern formulations, as well as more readily discern the limits of Theosophy’s reach.

In sum, both Imagining the East and Theosophy across Boundaries have their own distinct merits and, depending on which author or community is being treated or analyzed, contain enormous potential for deepening our understanding of the phenomenon of Theosophical Orientalism. The contributors each in their own way have managed particularly well to expand the scope of postcolonial critiques to finally encompass the activities of Theosophical actors, which is a significant scholarly achievement in and of itself. Much credit is due to the editors and contributors of both volumes for truly raising the bar on the treatment of these and related topics for decades to come.

I would like to conclude this review with an anecdote attesting to the importance of these two books to academic scholarship more broadly. When I was conducting field research at the Adyar Library & Research Centre between 2019 and 2020 for my dissertation project on Sri Sabhapati Swami and his yoga, I was struck by a certain phenomenon during my daily visits to the library reading room. In contrast to many other libraries across India, the Adyar Library has devoted a considerable amount of attention to the chemical preservation and archiving of rare Sanskrit and other Indic-language manuscripts. As a result, I met several scholars of Indology who came to the library from around the world to obtain manuscripts for various philological and/or historical projects. It was striking to me that these scholars continue to quietly obtain scans of their materials there for academic research on India and Asia more broadly while largely overlooking as irrelevant the large sculpture of Henry Olcott’s bust near the front door of the library and the watchful gaze of H.P. Blavatsky’s portrait in the reading room. In other words, while the library continues to be praised for its manuscript holdings, the occult movements that helped make this preservation possible are still often overlooked or treated as marginal to the more “serious” scholarship on South Asia conducted in academic departments around the world. In this respect the publication of volumes like Imagining the East and Theosophy across Boundaries also have an unintended benefit in that they reveal the hidden contributions of Theosophy even to contemporary scholarship on premodern India that has no other historical connections to it. I anticipate that such efforts will certainly invite future scholars to linger a bit longer as they drop by to collect their manuscripts while considering the multifaceted if complex occult interest in Asian religions that caused such treasures to be preserved in Adyar to begin with.


Karl Baier, Theosophical Appropriations: Esotericism, Kabbalah and the Transformation of Traditions, ed. Julie Chajes and Boaz Huss (Be’er Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2016).


Julie Chajes, Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).


Karl Baier, ‘Theosophical Orientalism and the Structures of Intercultural Transfer: Annotations on the Appropriations of the Cakras in Early Theosophy,’ in Theosophical Appropriations: Esotericism, Kabbalah and the Transformation of Traditions, ed. Julie Chajes and Boaz Huss (Be’er Sheva, Israel: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2016), 309–354.


Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Cultural Memory in the Present (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).


Imagining the East, 3, 10.


Theosophy across Boundaries, 2, 4.


Imagining the East, 22–25, cf. Ronald B. Inden, Imagining India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).


Ibid., 44.


Theosophy across Boundaries, 37.


Imagining the East, 37–57.


See especially the research of Richard Salomon, Mark Allon, and Joseph Marino for Gandharan Buddhism. For problems associated with “Protestant” Buddhism see Philip C. Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and the historical work of Johannes Bronkhorst in Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism (Leiden: Brill, 2011) and Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India (Leiden: Brill, 2007).


Imagining the East, 16.


Ibid., 29.


For more on Sri Sabhapati Swami see Keith Cantú, ‘Sri Sabhapati Swami: The Forgotten Yogi of Western Esotericism,’ in The Occult Nineteenth Century: Roots, Developments, and Impact on the Modern World, ed. Lukas Pokorny and Franz Winter (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 347–373; and Keith Cantú, ‘Sri Sabhapati Swami and the “Translocalization” of Śivarājayoga’ (PhD Dissertation, Santa Barbara, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2021).


See also the research of Mriganka Mukhopadhyay for more information on Mohini Chatterji.


For more on this sect and its own form of universalism see Elaine M. Fisher, “ ‘Remaking South Indian Śaivism: Greater Śaiva Advaita and the Legacy of the Śaktiviśiṣṭādvaita Vīraśaiva Tradition,’ International Journal of Hindu Studies 21, no. 3 (December 2017): 319–344; and Eric Steinschneider, ‘Beyond the Warring Sects: Universalism, Dissent, and Canon in Tamil Śaivism, ca. 1675–1994’ (PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 2016).


Imagining the East, 172–173.

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