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Chakras into the west: Rama Prasad’s Nature’s Finer Forces – I

As promised at the end of the last post in this series, for this next part I’m going to take a look at the work of Rama Prasad – in particular his 1890 book, Nature’s Finer Forces, first published in Lahore under the title of Occult Science: The Science of Breath in 1884.

Why this particular book? I find Nature’s Finer Forces interesting for a number of reasons. Although it does not have a great deal to say about chakras/kundalini – what it does say – and how Rama Prasad presents an explanation of the subjects covered using the scientific terminology of the time is of value. It is frequently assumed that scientific interpretations of chakras, etc., are a western or ‘colonial’ overlay or imposition on indigenous, premodern representations of the transmaterial body. That Rama Prasad and a number of other Indian authors of this period (some of whom I’ll be examining in future installments) did so, raises interesting questions regarding cultural intersections and the formation of knowledge. Also, Nature’s Finer Forces was to some extent, the cause of controversy within the Theosophical Society – prompting Madame Blavatsky to make some fairly unequivocal statements on the subject of Tantra.

For now, I’m going to focus on some of the themes in the text itself, and come onto some of the wider issues – and the controversy it sparked over the appropriateness of tantric material within the Theosophical Society in the next post.

Not much seems to be known about Rama Prasad. He is known to have been active in the Theosophical movement at least from 1883 and was President of the Meerut Theosophical Society in Uttar Pradesh. He was university educated, with a Master of Arts degree, and worked as a lawyer. He contributed a series of articles to the premier Theosophical journal, The Theosophist between 1887-1889, under the title Nature’s Finer Forces: Their Influence on Human Health and Destiny. In 1890 these essays were published, together with a translation from Sanskrit of a manual of pranayama as The Science of Breath and the Philosophy of the Tattwas: Translated from the Sanskrit with Fifteen Introductory and Explanatory Essays on Nature’s Finer Forces. It can be read online here. 1

So, then, to some of the themes dealt with in Nature’s Finer Forces. As one might guess from the full title, a central theme of this work is the “Philosophy of the Tattwas”. Much of the discussion focuses on the text that Rama Prasad has translated, with the title The Science of Breath & The Philosophy of the Tatwas (accessible here).

Tattvas and Ether
Right from the start, it can be seen that Rama Prasad is framing his discussion of the Tattvas within a scientific discourse which would have been familiar to his readers at the time, when he states that “The Tejas Tattva of the ancients is then exactly the luminiferous ether of the moderns, so far as the nature of the vibration is concerned.” The term “luminiferous ether” is of course a term familiar from 19th century physics 2 although the concept of ether as one of the five elements begins with Aristotle. It’s easy to see how the Indian concept of Âkâsha quickly became identified with ether – although Rama Prasad says this is a mistake. By the middle of the 19th century, the concept of the ether was widely accepted by physicists and, perhaps more importantly for the present discussion, was also important for anyone – including both theologically-inclined scientists and occultists as a medium of cosmic reconciliation between the visible and the invisible; a way of understanding the interconnectivity of all phenomena. Ether came to signify a universe operating under natural laws and that all phenomena are subject to the same natural laws – even economics. 3

Much of the first three chapters of Nature’s Finer Forces is concerned with an interpretation of natural and subtle principles – material and non-material within a scientific discourse.

Centres of Prâna
In Chapter 4, Rama Prasad moves into a somewhat technical discussion of “The centres of prâna; the nâdis; the Tattvice Centres of life…”

What I find interesting in his discussion is how the various elements of this rather convoluted system are already anatomicalised, for example:

The nervous system represents the sun, the system of blood-vessels the moon. Hence the real force, of life dwells in the nerves. … To pass out of technicalities, it is nervous force which manifests itself in various forms, in the system of blood-vessels. The blood-vessels are only the receptacles of nervous force. Hence, in the nervous system, the real life of the gross body are the true Ida, Pingalâ, and Sushumnâ. These are, in such a case, the spinal column, and the right and left sympathetics, with all their ramifications throughout the body.

It’s worth noting that Rama Prasad cites both the Uttara Gita and the “Shatachakra Niûpana” – that is to say, the Ṣaṭ-Cakra-Nirupaṇa – in passing, reinforcing the point which has been made in previous posts that this latter text was circulating in Indian Theosophical circles long before Woodroffe’s translation appeared.

Further down we get a rather interesting series of passages. Firstly:

Centres of moral and intellectual powers also exist in the system. Thus we read in the Vishramopanishad:

1. “While the minds rests in the eastern portion [or petal], which is white in colour, then it is inclined towards patience, generosity, and reverence.

2. “While the mind rests in the south-eastern portion, which is red in colour, then it is inclined towards sleep, torpor, and evil inclination.

3. “While the mind rests in the southern portion, which is black in colour, then it is inclined towards anger, melancholy, and bad tendencies.

4. “While the mind rests in the south-western portion, which is blue in colour, then it is inclined towards jealousy and cunning.

5.”While the mind rests in the western portion, which is brown in colour, then it is inclined towards smiles, amorousness, and jocoseness.

6. “While the mind rests in the north-western portion, which is indigo in colour, then it is inclined towards anxiety, restless dissatisfaction, and apathy.

7. “While the mind rests in the northern portion, which is yellow in colour, then it is inclined towards love and enjoyment and adornment.

8. “While the mind rests in the north-eastern portion, which is white in colour, then it is inclined towards pity, forgiveness, reflection and religion.

9. “While the mind rests in the Sandhis [conjunctions] of these portions, then arise disease and confusion in body and home, and the mind inclines towards the three humours.

10. “While the mind rests in the middle portion, which is violet in colour, then consciousness goes beyond the qualities [the three qualities of Maya) and it inclines towards intelligence.”

What is being described here is not a series of centres – as might be inferred by Rama Prasad’s prefacing remarks, but the affects one might say, assigned to the petals of a particular chakra – most likely the heart chakra. Here’s a very similar passage from the Kubjikā Upaniṣad 4 (7:63):

(“When the Haṃsa-self resides) on the eastern petal (of the heart-lotus) he is of good intentions. In the Southeast, sleep and drowsiness prevail. In the South he is of cruel intentions. When the Haṃsa, the supreme Self, resides in the Southwest, then he is of evil intentions and commits the five great sins. When the Haṃsa goes towards the western direction, then he is of erotic (intention), embracing, kissing, etc. He also wishes to commit himself to various amusements, such as singing, music or dancing. In the Northwest, his mind will be set upon movement and so on. In the North, love, and sympathy (prevail). In the Northeast, he wishes to perform recitation, worship, and liberality. When the Haṃsa approaches the centre, then total indifference arises (in him). (He considers:) only (the ground of being) truly exists (just like) clay (as the basic stuff of earthen pots). 5

What is given here is a practice sometimes described as “bowing to the eight directions” where the deities of the eight directions -sometimes called lokesvaras are honoured 6. But this practice is not merely that of ritual bowing, but an engaged meditation on the powers and potentials assigned to each petal. For example, the text tells us that “In the Southeast, sleep and drowsiness prevail”. In some of these directional arrays (such as that found in some Sri Vidya texts – see the table for the eight world-protectors in this post) the presiding deity for the Southeast is Agni – the fire of awakening. So the aim of this practice is a kind of self-recognition of what we might think of the excesses and potentials of the body and its powers in order to achieve a sense of equipoise. The translated “total indifference” which “arises” given in the text above shouldn’t I think, be read as a kind of abstracted non-attachment, rather, the recognition that one is Haṃsa and that the ground of being is all-pervasive.

This is quite a startling passage, in view of the rest of the book, but as far as I can make out, Rama Prasad does not elaborate on it, and as far as I can tell, it does not seem to have been to have been of much interest to later theosophical authors. Leadbeater, in his hugely influential book The Chakras, is somewhat dismissive of any notion that there is a relationship between the petals of the “force-centres” and “moral qualities”.

Continuing then with Rama Prasad:

When any one of these centres is in action, the mind is conscious of the same kind of feeling, and inclines towards it Mesmeric passes serve only to excite these centres.

These centres are located in the head as well as in the chest, and also in the abdominal region and the loins, etc.

It is these centres, together with the heart itself, that bear the name of Padmas, or Kamalas (lotuses). Some of these are large, some small, very small. A tântrik lotus is of the type of a vegetable organism, a root with various branches. These centres are the reservoirs of various powers, and hence the roots of the Padmas; the Nadis ramifying from these centres are their various branches

The nervous plexuses of the modern anatomists coincide with these centres. From what has been said above it will appear that the centres are constituted by blood-vessels. But the only difference between the nerves and the blood-vessels is the difference between the vehicles of the positive and negative Prânas. The nerves are the positive, the blood-vessels the negative system of the body. Wherever there are nerves theft are corresponding blood-vessels. Both of them are indiscriminately called Nâdis. One set has for its centre the lotus of the heart, the other the thousand-petalled lotus of the brain. The system of blood-vessels is an exact picture of the nervous system, is, in fact, only its shadow. Like the heart the brain has its upper and lower divisions—the cerebrum and the cerebellum—and, as well, its right and left divisions. The nerves going to both sides of the body and coming back from thence, together with those going to the upper and lower portions, correspond to the four petals of the heart. This system too, then, has as many centres of energy as the former. Both these centres coincide in position. They are, in fact, the same — the nervous plexuses and ganglia of modem anatomy. Thus, in my opinion, the tântrik Padmas are not only the centres of nervous power of the positive northern Prâna, but as well and necessarily of the negative Prâna.

Again, from these passages, we can see already the close identification between the “centres” – that is to say, the chakras. and anatomy – their identification with nerve plexuses and blood vessels – an identification which which of course is further reified in later biomedical approaches to the chakras and kundalini. There is also the association with Mesmerism to consider. Mesmerism was of course highly popular in the nineteenth century and was particularly significant within Theosophical Discourse. As Karl Beier points out (2012, p151) Madame Blavatsky was a fervent believer in mesmerism, writing in Isis Unveiled (1877): “Mesmerism is the most important branch of magic; and its phenomena are the effects of that underlying agent which underlies all magic and has produced at all ages the so-called miracles.” According to Beier, both Blavatsky and Olcott sought to introduce Mesmerism as a modern counterpart to Yoga to their Indian brethren – and to use it as an explanatory framework for understanding Indian esoteric sciences. An editorial appearing in The Theosophist (June 1880) entitled “The Revival of Mesmerism” highlights the importance of mesmerism for theosophists:

For Asiatics this magnetic revival has a paramount interest. Every advance made by Western Science in this direction brings out more clearly the grandeur of Indian Philosophy … It cannot be denied that modern magnetism makes it easy to understand ancient Yoga Vidya.

Mesmerism was known in India however, largely thanks to James Esdaile, Principal of the prestigious Hooghly College in Calcutta (1839-1841) who pioneered the use of mesmeric principles in surgery and had several students, and briefly ran an experimental mesmeric hospital in the 1840s. Given the prominence of Mesmerism in Theosophical literature, and its place in Indian medical practice, it is no surprise that Rama Prasad pulls it into his discussion of the esoteric centres of the body.

To be continued…

Sources
David Arnold Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Karl Beier Mesmeric Yoga and the Development of Meditation within the Theosophical Society (Theosophical History, Vol. XVI, No. 3-4, July-Oct. 2012)
Bruce Clarke Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (University of Michigan Press, 2001)
Egbert Forsten The Kubjikā Upaniṣad (Groningen, 1994)
C.W. Leadbeater, The Chakras: A Monograph (Theosophical Publishing House, 1947)
Kurt Leland Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan (Ibis Press, 2016)
Ernst, Waltraud Colonial Psychiatry, magic and religion. The case of Mesmerism in British India (History of Psychiatry 15.1, pp57-71.)

Online
Index of the Theosophical Journal
Digital Archive of The Theosophist

Notes:

  1. A comprehensive list of Rama Prasad’s other works can be found on Wikipedia. He seems to have been actively writing for various Theosophical Journals until at least 1908.
  2. See The Luminiferous Ether for a brief overview.
  3. Both Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx use ‘ether’ in their works.
  4. “The Secret Teaching of Kubjikā” – Kubjikā being the goddess of this particular lineage.
  5. quoted from Forsten, 1994, p99
  6. Varuna in the East, and so forth – there is no standard sequence

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