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.
It turns out that the discussion of concepts such as the chakras, kundalini etc., into Theosophical discourse begins in the early 1880s. A recent paper by Karl Baier – ‘Theosophical Orientalism and the Structure of Intercultural Transfer: Annotations on the Appropriation of the Cakras in Early Theosophy’ (2016) gives the details. If you want to read the entire article, it is available on academia edu – the link is below.
For this post, I’m going to concentrate on two of the texts which Baier singles out as being influential on the development of Theosophical ideas regarding the chakras – the first being The Dream of Ravan.
The Dream of Ravan
Baier draws attention to a work called The Dream of Ravan: A Mystery – an anonymous work first serialised in the Dublin University Magazine between 1853-54 (a later published by Theosophy Co. (India) in 1895). Ravan is a creative retelling of a section of the Ramayana – the episode when Mandodari becomes grief-stricken on learning that she will – in the future – be replaced by another as Ravan’s wife. The Chorus of Rishis console her by explaining to her the three gunas and that her nature is that of tamas which complements the tamasic quality of Ravan; but that in a future birth he would require a companion of a higher quality than tamas to spur him on. G.R.S. Mead, in his preface to the 1895 edition, says of the anonymous author of Ravan: “there is no doubt that he was both a scholar and a mystic. That he had studied the “Ramayana” from the original texts and was a master of Vedantic psychology is amply manifested … In no other western publication, have the three “states” of man’s consciousness been so strikingly and so intelligibly set forth as by our author.”
Ravan also features some discussions of yoga practice, tantra, a list of the eight siddhis and an extensive list of various Astras defined by the author as ‘supernatural weapons’. Of these, the anonymous author says: “we are forced ultimately to conclude, that the whole armoury is spiritual, and is to be interpreted by three analogies in the European sphere of thought and experience – namely, magic, mesmerism. and the modern electro-biology.” 1
The author of Ravan also provides a translation of a section of Jnāneshvarī – a thirteenth-century tantric-inflected commentary on the Bhagavadgītā which deals with “the Power”:
“The bud of understanding is dissolved; the sense of smell no longer remains in the nostrils; but, together with the Power, retires into the middle chamber.
Then with a discharge from above, the resevoir of moon-fluid of immortality (contained in the brain), leaning over on one side, communicates into the mouth of the Power.
Thereby the tubes (nerves) are filled with the fluid: it penetrates into all the members; and in every direction the vital breath dissolves thereinto.” 2
In a footnote at the end of the entire passage, the author explains: “This extraordinary Power, who is termed elsewhere the ‘World Mother’—the ‘Casket of Supreme Spirit,’—is technically called Kundalini, which may be rendered serpentine, or annular. Some things related of it would make one imagine it to be electricity personified”.
This, Baier points out, could well be one of the earliest english references to kuṇḍalinī and that already, kuṇḍalinī (as well as other Indian concepts) are being approached from the perspective of the western electro-magnetic imaginary (nb: see my posts on polarity and thermodynamics for some related discussion).
Ravan seems to have excited the interests of Theosophists early on. In an 1880 article entitled “Yoga Philosophy” in the premier journal of the Society The Theosophist ‘Truthseeker’ quoted the footnote from Ravan and, addressing the ‘Eastern members’ of the Theosophical Society, requested more information about the Jnāneshvarī and “the best modes of soul-emancipation and will-culture”. 3 This call, Baier says, triggered a wave of input from Indian members of the Society to the journal. In March 1880, The Theosophist featured an article about the life of Sabhapaty Swami, an English-speaking yogi from Madras, and also advertising his forthcoming treatise on “Vedantic Raj Yoga Philosophy” which appeared in April 1880, published and edited by the theosophist Babu Siris Chandra Basu.
Enter Sabhapaty Swami
Sabhapaty’s book seems to have had a wide reception. Max Muller, for example, cites it approvingly in his 1899 The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy and according to Keith Cantú (2016) he appears to have been an influence on Aleister Crowley.
What is interesting about Sabhapaty Swami, according to Baier, is his chakra system, which is based on 12 chakras. The svādhiṣṭhānacakra is located at the navel, and there is no chakra in the genital region. Four centres are placed in the upper region of the head, and both the tip of the nose and tongue become chakras. Within the body Sabhapaty also has circular currents which not only move up-down and left-right but also backwards-forwards. I’m paraphrasing from Baier here, as I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Sabhapaty’s book.
Although Olcott and Blavatsky seem to have initially approved of Sabhapaty’s teachings, he quickly fell from grace after the two senior Theosophists met him in the flesh. According to Cantú, Sabhapaty treated Olcott and Blavatsky to an account of his experiences as a Yogi – including the claim that he had flown through the air to mount Kailash, where he had met Mahadeva.
In the next post I’ll take a look at another important Indian theosophist with tantric leanings – Baradā Kānta Majumdār.
Karl Baier, ‘Theosophical Orientalism and the Structure of Intercultural Transfer: Annotations on the Appropriation of the Cakras in Early Theosophy’Julie Chajes and Boaz Huss (eds) Theosophical Appropriations: Esotericism, Kabbalah, and the Transformation of Traditions (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Press, 2016)
Academia.edu (accessed 29/09/2016)
Keith Cantú, The Essential Image in Sabhapaty Swami’s Lifework and an Inquiry into its Resemblance to Bengali Yogic Practice on Academia.edu (accessed 28/09/2016)
The Dream of Ravan: A Mystery (Theosophy Co. (India) 1895)