Book Review: Rainbow Body
Earlier this year I started a series of posts examining some of the early ‘influencers’ of the modern chakra system as it tends to be represented in the west. I’d been interested in writing about this subject for some time, and had started to think that it would make an interesting book project – examining the development of the western chakra system within the larger context of biomedical discourses. However, I must admit that I baulked somewhat at the prospect of having to read through acres and acres of ‘new age’ material. Now I don’t have to, as Kurt Leland’s Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan (Ibis Press, 2016, 516pp, Paperback) is the definitive history of the evolution of the chakra system as it is known in the West today.
Beginning with a chakra-critical essay by one Bipin Behari Shom in 1849, and ending, more-or-less with Barbara Brennan’s Hands of Light in 1986, Leland has done an amazing job of bringing together the various concepts and personalities which have contributed in various ways, towards contemporary Western representations of the chakras. All the major Theosophical figures are here – from Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, Charles Leadbeater, and less well-known personages such as James Morgan Pryse (see this post). I was particularly pleased to see that Leland examines the contributions of Aleister Crowley and the Golden Dawn – as western occultism, all too often I find, gets ignored from those examining the cultural passage of ideas from East to West. So too, Leland brings forth many minor figures who have nowadays dropped from view as influencers on representations of the chakras. Leland does an excellent job of showing who borrowed from who, and how much western representations of chakras had been, to a great extent, routinised and regularised before the turn of the twentieth century.
Rainbow Body is divided into 6 parts. The first part deals with Indian developments of chakra systems, a summary of the developmental milestones in western representations of chakras, issues such as “source amnesia” (pace Olaf Hammer 1) and Leland’s own positionality vis-a-vis the material. Part two for the most part, focuses on what Madame Blavatsky had to see about chakras and related concepts – including a discussion of her “Inner Group” teachings. Part Three – “Whirling Wheels: Theosophical Clairvoyance (1890s-1920s)” examines the contributions of later Theosophists, the mapping of chakras onto the Tree of Life by Crowley and others, as well as the influence of Vivekananda, and Sir John Woodroffe’s translation of the Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirūpaṇa. Part four focuses on “Chromotherapy” – and relates how both the endocrine glands and rainbow colours became part of Western chakra schemas – and here Leland introduces a range of authors – such as the ‘American Yogini’ Cajzoran Ali – who mostly seem to have been forgotten. Part five – “Scholars and Swamis and Shrinks, Oh My! (1930s-1970s) considers the growing ‘psychologisation’ of chakras via Jung, Joseph Campbell and Maslow, the influence of the Esalen Institute and its founder Michael Murphy, and twentieth-century gurus such as Ramakrishna and Sri Aurobindu. Finally, Part six examines a variety of figures in the 1980s – ranging from Christopher Hills to Barbara Brennan – and ends with some thoughts on how a future chakra schema for the west might look – what Leland terms the “multidimensional rainbow body”. By his own admission, the author, in focusing on the history and development of the Western chakra systems has had to leave much related literature out – so there is relatively little said, for example, on the subject of kundalini yoga. There’s plenty of room for development here, as doubtless much more could be said regarding the influence of Wilhelm Reich or Gopi Krishna.
I do have a few quibbles, albeit minor ones. Firstly, in the brief discussion of chakras in relation to Yoga (chapter 3), Leland follows the popular, but now contested view that Matsyandranātha and Goraksanātha (circa 12th century, according to Leland) were responsible for the formulation of what is now called “hatha yoga” – yoga scholars such as James Mallinson have demonstrated that there was no “nath” influence on the early corpus of hatha yoga texts, and in fact, that many of the concepts that are found in hatha yoga manuals cannot be traced back to the earlier tantric yoga texts. But to be fair, Rainbow Body is a history of the Western Chakras – getting into a thorough discussion of the chakras within their original tantric contexts would be a herculean task and another book entirely. Leland does attempt an overview (chapters 2-3 and a chronology) of salient features of the chakras in relation to Tantra and yoga – beginning with an overview of the Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirūpaṇa made famous from Woodroffe’s 1919 translation. It’s sketchy though, to say the least, and the distinction made between Mantra Yoga, Nada Yoga and Laya Yoga as different branches of yoga could leave readers with the impression that these practices are seperate to each other, rather than, as we know from Tantric yoga texts- particularly in relation to chakra vinyāsa – that mantra, unstruck sound and visualisation of deities were procedures that were enacted simultaneously by practitioners.
The elephant in the room which inevitably manifests to some degree in any extended discussion of the chakras of course, is to what extent they are considered to be ‘real’ – the idea that the chakras are ‘universal’ regardless of tradition or culture, and that anyone ‘has’ them 2 (regardless of whether they are aware of them) in the same way that one has ‘exoteric’ organs in the body. This, I would say, is the major difference between how chakras are described in the tantric prescriptive literature – as lineage-specific schema for use in ritualised yoga practice (bringing together breath practice, visualisation and mantra) – and the absolute factiticity of the existence of chakras that is frequently asserted in western literature. Leland skirts this often contentious issue by adopting an argument that is familiar – that despite cultural differences, there nonetheless exists a universality of experience which can only be recognised by looking beneath the “surface-level differences produced by cultural and personal symbol systems”: “thus a center of vital energy clairvoyantly perceived as a portion of the human subtle body might appear like an opening flower, pink in colour, to one individual or cultural group and like a circular vortex of violet-coloured electricity to another. These observations do not necessarily invalidate each other. We might have to look into cultural or individual meanings of pink versus violet and flower versus electricity to understand any similarity of function underlying these observations”. 3
Ever wondered where the ideas of ‘blocked chakras’ or ‘balanced chakras’ came from? Where did the association of rainbow colours with chakras first emerge? If these kinds of questions interest you, then Rainbow Body is the book that will provide an answer. With an extensive bibliography, notes, eight colour plates and many charts and illustrations, Rainbow Body will be of immense value to anyone interested in the transmission of Indian esoteric concepts into the West, or anyone who wants to push past the routinised descriptions of chakras found online and in contemporary new age, yoga, and occult texts.