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.
In the previous post I briefly outlined a 12-chakra system by Sabhapaty Swami, which had been published in April 1880. April also saw an article published in The Theosophist by Baradā Kānta Majumdār entitled Tantric Philosophy. Majumdār seems to have wanted to present a more positive view of tantra than it’s association with “all that is impure, ignoble and immoral” and instead, argued that “The Tantras are an invaluable treasure, embracing, besides religion and theology, law and medicine, cosmology. yoga, spiritualism, rules regarding the elementaries and almost all branches of transcendental philosophy”. Majumdār, according to Baier, devoted the main part of the article to a discussion of the concept of deity according to the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra and how deity could be experienced via yoga practice (nb: the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra was first published in 1879, by the Adi Brahmo Samaj). He describes kuṇḍalinī as: ““the grand pristine force which underlies organic and inorganic matter. Modern science also teaches us that heat, light, electricity, magnetism, &c., are but the modification of one great force”. 1
In July and October 1880, Majumdār followed up with a two-part article in The Theosophist: ‘A Glimpse of Tantric Occultism’ which featured translated sections from the Ṣatcakranirūpaṇa. Baier points out that several editions of Pūrnānda’s Ṣatcakranirūpaṇa (translated into English and released with the title The Serpent Power by Sir. John Woodroffe in 1918) had been published in Bengali from the late 1850s onwards. Majumdār praises the “Tantrik author” for his description of “the occult nerves and forces of the human body” and explained some of the Ṣatcakranirūpaṇa’s “allegories”:
“The six revolving wheels of force, mentioned in the sequel, are connected with one another and are further connected with the grand machinery of Máyá pervading the Universe. It is not to be supposed that there is in reality any wheel or lotus in the human body; the author means only to point out the active centres of certain forces.” 2
Perhaps even more interesting is a footnote supplied by Olcott:
“The significant feature of the present essay is that the Tantrik Yogi from whose work the extracts are translated, knew the great and mysterious law that there are within the human body a series of centres of force-evolution, the location of which becomes known to the ascetic in the course of his physical self-development, as well as the means which must be resorted to to bring the activities of these centres under the control of the will. To employ the Oriental figurative method, these points are so many outworks to be captured in succession before the very citadel can be taken.” 3
Baier points out that Olcott’s view of the ascent through the chakras as a kind of warfare is drawn from Sabhapaty, and also that both Majumdār and Olcott have accepted that the chakras represent a “physics of the subtle body”.
Majumdār’s final article for The Theosophist (again in 1880) concerned Indian Occultism in terms of yoga and the development of siddhis and how these could be interpreted in terms of Mesmerism. He seems to have been active in Theosophical circles up until 1883. Baier speculates that Majumdār may have left the Society in the wake of the Coulomb Affair in 1884. However, he reappears, some thirty years later, as a collaborator of Sir John Woodroffe – translating the Tantratattva of Sivacandra Vidyarnava (published by Woodroffe as Princples of Tantra in two volumes) and providing a long introduction to the second volume. In this introduction, Majumdār refers to electricity as one of the “physical powers” of Shakti, and of kuṇḍalinī says:
“As Kuṇḍala means the Coil (of the serpent) Kulakuṇḍalinī means the Spiritual Power (the Cosmic Mother) who Creates the universe of names and forms and coils up around it. She is Chit or consciousness vehicled by Prakṛiti. She is Sound, because the first manifestation of Prakṛiti is sound, which is withal Jnāna (knowledge) and Light Spiritual. She is the One Breath, One Life. She is universal Consciousness, all-pervading, not limited by time and space. She clothes herself with Prakṛiti when the hour of creation arrives.”
This passage begins a lengthy discussion of the relationship between Kulakuṇḍalinī, Sound, the Chakras and Mantras. From p672 (the ‘Introduction’ comprises of 158 pages in all) Majumdār outlines a schema of nine Padmas or “centres of conscious power”.
Some Closing Thoughts
Reading Karl Baier’s paper has been eye-popping for me on several levels – hence my liberal use of it. Firstly, we have evidence of a more positive attitude towards tantric works apparently circulating in the Theosophical Society. Having looked at Madame Blavatsky’s general antipathy to tantra in a previous post (see Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – II) I was aware that some tantric ideas had crept into Theosophical discourse, but not how strong the current was. Secondly, it’s interesting to note that the influence of authors such as Baradā Kānta Majumdār, Sabhapaty Swami, and Babu Siris Chandra Basu on both the transmission of tantric and yogic concepts from India to Europe has largely been overlooked by scholars researching the history of modern yoga and tantra. Thirdly, the question of the identification of the chakras with physics and anatomy is also more-or-less resolved as it can be seen as becoming increasingly accepted – even at this early stage – as Baier remarks – as “an ahistorical, culturally independent truth, albeit one that was discovered and handed down only within certain currents of the ancient wisdom religion”. 4 This process would continue in later publications of the Theosophical Society.
In the next post I’ll take a look at Rama Prasad Kasyapa’s 1889 work Occult Science, the science of breath. as well as Chandra Basu’s 1887 Shiva Sanhita.
Arthur Avalon (ed) Principles of Tantra (Ganesh & Co., 1952)
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)