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  1. On Beauty: the human, the divine – II

    In the first post in this series I introduced the concept of alaṅkāra – ‘ornamentation’ – an extremely wide-ranging social category which remains tremendously important in Indian culture to this day. Ornamentation is intensely communicative and relational – it is as much about looking good in order to be seen in a particular way as it is about feeling good about oneself. Continue reading »

  2. A Phallic Knight – III

    In the previous post in this series I outlined the publishing of Richard Payne Knight’s A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and the ensuing scandal. For this post I’m going to look at some of Knight’s other works -and his later life – post-Discourse. My aim here is to highlight the wide range of Knight’s interests and show how he continued to express, in various ways, his antipathy to Christianity. I’ll get around to examining some of the background politics and social context in the next post. Continue reading »

  3. Chakras into the west: Early Theosophical Sources – II

    Continuing from the previous post examining early sources for western chakra models, I’m examining the influence that Indian Theosophists had on shaping early Theosophical discourse concerning the Chakras, drawing primarily on the work of Karl Baier. Continue reading »

  4. Chakras into the west: Early Theosophical Sources – I

    In the first post in this occasional series I took a brief look at the rather novel mapping of the chakras on to the Book of Revelation as done by Theosophist James Morgan Pryse. Prsyse’s book The Apocalypse Unsealed was first published in 1910 – the same year as C.W. Leadbeater’s The Inner Life within which is Leadbeater’s first treatment of the ‘force-centres’ or ‘chakrams’. I’ll take a closer look at both The Inner Life and Leadbeater’s 1927 book The Chakras another time, but for now I want to highlight two key questions that have been bothering me for some time. Firstly, what were the sources for the Theosophical treatments of the chakras, and secondly, at what point (and by who) did the chakras first become identified with nerve plexuses and so forth?

    I have, up until recently, been eyeing up two possibilities for source texts for Theosophical discourse regarding chakras. Firstly, there is Babu Siris Chandra Basu’s 1887 translation of the Shiva Sanhita, and secondly, Pandit Rama Prasad Kasyapa’s 1889 work Occult Science, the science of breath. This latter text I am particularly interested in. Originally published as a series of articles under the name Nature’s Finer Forces between 1887-1889. Rama Prasad’s work was somewhat controversial due to his drawing on tantric sources – which Madame Blavatsky was not reticent to show her disapproval of. This text is also widely regarded as the means through which the Indian concept of Tattvas made its way into western occultism.

    So I thought I had pretty much nailed down the origins of chakras into Theosophy. I was wrong. Continue reading »

  5. Bringing the gods to mind: on visualisation – I

    Seeing is one thing,
    looking is another.
    If both come together,
    that is god.

    If you look for an elephant,
    he comes as an elephant.
    If you look for a tree,
    he’s a tree.
    If you look for a mountain,
    he’ll be a mountain.
    God is what you have in your mind.
    Annamayya

    Reflecting on the theme of beauty back in May reminded me that I wanted to start a series of posts on the subject of visualisation – particularly with respect to tantra sadhana which – together with gesture and utterance – is one of its central practices. Continue reading »

  6. A Phallic Knight – II

    As I hope the treatise may be forgotten I shall not name the author, but observe, that all the ordure and filfth, all the antique pictures, and all the representations of the generative organs, in their most odious and degrading profusion, have been raked together, and copulated (for no other idea seems to be in the mind of the author) and copulated, I say, with a new species of blasphemy. Such are, what we would call, the records of the stews and bordellos of Grecian and Roman antiquity, exhibited for the recreation of antiquaries, and the obscene revellings of Greek Scholars in their private studies. Surely this is to dwell mentally in lust and darkness in the loathsome and polluted chamber at Capreae.”
    Thomas James Mathias

    Given that I’m going to give a lecture on Richard Payne Knight for the London Fortean Society in October, I thought I’d better get on with the series of posts on Knight I started last June. Continue reading »

  7. 2016 Lectures in London

    A quick post to announce two forthcoming lectures:

    Firstly, On Monday October 24, I will be presenting A Phallic (K)night for the London Fortean Society at Conway Hall (7.30-9.30pm).

    Richard Payne Knight by Thomas LawrenceA Phallic (K)night: will examine the life of Richard Payne Knight – collector, arbiter of taste and gentleman scholar whose book A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus proposes that all mythology and religion (including Christianity) is derived from primitive fertility cults. In such cults, he asserted, the male and female genitalia symbolise procreative power, and the primal life force is worshipped through this seemingly obscene imagery. “Priapus” caused scandal in the eighteenth century, but cast an influence that is still with us today – from psychoanalysis to contemporary Paganism. I will explore the key themes of “A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus” and its republication in the nineteenth century as both erotic and ethnographic text.

    Tickets available here: via Eventbrite and for more information about the London Fortean Society visit their website or the event’s Facebook page.

    My second lecture for 2016 is entitled Yogis Behaving Badly and will be held at Treadwells Bookshop on Monday November 21 (7.30-9.15pm). For more information and booking visit the Treadwells Bookshop website.

    Yogis Behaving Badly will examine the case of Raja Man Singh who, in the early nineteenth century, shared his kingdom with a group of Nath ascetics, to the extent that they became, effectively, “state-sponsored holy men”. It is not only a tale of political intrigue, assassination and poison, but also one which destabilises popular representations of Indian Yogis as being detached from the world and the state.

    Event Facebook Page

  8. Recollections of an occasional pagan activist

    Scene: meeting of Leeds Anti-Fascist-Action, some time in 1986:

    “Okay, I’ve been asked to come and facilitate a magical action. I know some of you are very skeptical about this, which is okay by me. Feel free not to participate. You might think it’s all a bit silly. You could just think of it like some of the Agit-Prop stuff Danbert and co. did in the town centre a couple of years back. A lark, nothing more.

    So … you won’t mind then when I ask you to meditate on the swastika….” Continue reading »

  9. On Beauty: the human, the divine – I

    What comes to mind when an Indian text tells us, for example, that the goddess Tripura is beautiful? To be sure, from the perspective of practice at least, we cannot help but associate such statements with our own culturally-based conceptions of what constitutes beauty. But it helps, I feel, to know something of the social milieu from which these works sprang forth – its ethos, its ideals and aspirations, its cultural mores. What follows is the first in a series of posts in which I will try and explore Indian concepts of beauty, and how they relate to tantra practice and in particular, to the Saundaryalahari. This opening post is very much a general introduction, outlining some of the key concepts. Continue reading »

  10. Book Review: Fanny & Stella

    The arrest of Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park in drag, at London’s Strand Theatre on 28th April 1870 led to one of the most sensational trials of the Nineteenth century. Charged with not only “the abominable crime of buggery” but also conspiracy to commit “said crime” and – “to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals.” The arrest of Fanny & Stella is the opening act in Neil McKenna’s uproarious account of the affair in Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England (Faber & Faber, 2014). Continue reading »