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

For this second post on the subject of Rama Prasad’s 1890 book Nature’s Finer Forces and its relevance to the development of contemporary discourses regarding chakras, kundalini and related subjects, I’m going to examine the “controversy” over Rama Prasad’s work that I mentioned in the previous post.

Madame Blavatsky’s comments concerning Rama Prasad’s work appear in her instructions to the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society was founded in 1888, with Blavatsky as its ‘Outer Head’ and the Mahatmas themselves as the ‘Inner Heads’. The Esoteric Section was deemed to be a seperate, private organisation to the main body of the Society, and was formed, in the words of Colonel Olcott, “To promote the esoteric interests of the Theosophical Society by the deeper study of esoteric philosophy”. Blavatsky, in a letter to John Ransom Bridge (September, 1888) wrote: “I am organizing…a special centre…of exclusively occult students, willing to accept…the teachings of which I am the channel and which I cannot impart except to pledged members….”. The E.S. was announced in the Theosophical Journal Lucifer in October, 1888 (a four-page “Pledge Folder” which contained the rules that Esoteric Section members agreed to uphold can be viewed here).

Blavatsky’s expanded Rules for the Esoteric Section make it very clear that all potential communications from (inner-plane) Masters had to be vetted by Madame Blavatsky and that any public disclosure of such communications was an offense which could lead to expulsion. Nor should members boast of, or pretend to have acquired psychic powers, and members were not permitted to be members of any other occult or mystical fraternity oriented towards training or study (other than the Masons or Odd Fellows).

One of the Esoteric Section’s more notable members was William Butler Yeats, who joined the Esoteric Section in December 1888. In his Esoteric Section Journal, Yeats comments that “The pledges gave me no trouble except two – promise to work for Theosophy and promise of obedience to HPB in all theosophical matters”. 1 According to Richard Ellman, Yeats tried to press Mme Blavatsky towards agreeing to undertake practical experiments, and although, apparently, a few experiments were tried – such as evoking dreams by placing esoteric symbols under the pillows of participants, or an attempt to “raise” the ghost of a flower, under the aegis of a “Research Committee” with Yeats as the Secretary; these forays into practical occultism were too much for Mme Blavatsky, and Yeats was asked to resign in August 1890.

The “controversy” over Nature’s Finer Forces appears to have been sparked over Rama Prasad’s translation of The Science of Breath & The Philosophy of the Tatwas in Nature’s Finer Forces. In the first of his series of articles which appeared in The Theosophist (November 1887) he opens his essay with the following sentence:

“In a small book containing the ninth chapter of an ancient Sanskrit work called “Sivagama,” we find facts and theories which coincide in a remarkable way with the theories and discoveries of certain modern scientific men”.

However, it seems that Rama Prasad’s identification of his source text as belonging to a work known as “Sivagama” was erroneus – as is generally known now, the term Āgama refers to a particular class of scriptural literature – of which there is a vast body. According to Kurt Leland (2016, p152-153) the source text that Rama Prasad translated and based his essays on was actually the Śiva-Svarodaya (“Śiva on the sound of breath”) which he dates to between the fifteenth and sixteenth century. From the translations of the Śiva-Svarodaya that I’ve seen, I would concur with Leland’s view that this is indeed the text which Rama Prasad translated. As to it’s dating however, I’d be interested if anyone could provide more information.

Whatever the provenance of the source, the text itself seems to have aroused Mme Blavasky’s ire. Her remarks can be read online: Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society under the heading “Is the Practice of Concentration Beneficient? (1888), she states:

“In the Book of Rules I advice students to get certain works, as I shall have to refer to and quote from them repeatedly. I reiterate the advice and ask them to turn to The Theosophist [Vol. IX] of November, 1887. On page 98 they will find the beginning of an excellent article by Mr. Rama Prasad on “Nature’s Finer Forces.”* The value of this work is not so much in its literary merit, though it gained its author the gold medal of The Theosophist – as in its exposition of tenets hitherto concealed in a rare and ancient Sanskrit work on Occultism. But Mr. Rama Prasad is not an Occultist, only an excellent Sanskrit scholar, a university graduate and a man of remarkable intelligence. His Essays are almost entirely based on Tantra works, which, if read indiscriminately by a tyro in Occultism, will lead to the practice of most unmitigated Black Magic.

Now, since the difference of primary importance between Black and White Magic is simply the object with which it is practiced, and that of secondary importance, the nature of the agents and ingredients used for the production of phenomenal results, the line of demarcation between the two is very, very thin. The danger is lessened only by the fact that every occult book, so called, is occult only in a certain sense; that is, the text is occult merely by reason of its blinds. The symbolism has to be thoroughly understood before the reader can get at the correct sense of the teaching. Moreover, it is never complete, its several portions each being under a different title and each containing a portion of some other work; so that without a key to these no such work divulges the whole truth. Even the famous Saivagama, on which “Nature’s Finer Forces” is based, “is nowhere to be found in complete form,” as the author tells us. Thus, like all others, it treats of only five Tattvas instead of the seven in esoteric teachings.”

I’ve written before on the subject of Madame Blavatsky’s general antipathy towards Tantra (see Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – II for example). Here, she reiterates not only this view, but also the notion that books alone cannot provide the full account of a subject and that, moreover, the esoteric teachings – to which of course, she was the sole channel – were superior to any exoteric information, no matter its source.

She continues:

“Now, the Tattvas being simply the substratum of the seven forces of nature, how can this be? There are seven forms of Prakriti, as Kapila’s Sankhya, [the] Vishnu Purana and other works teach. Prakriti is nature, matter (primordial and elemental); therefore logic demands that the Tattvas should also be seven. For, whether Tattvas mean, as Occultism teaches, “forces of nature” or, as the learned Rama Prasad explains, “the substance out of which the universe is formed” and “the power by which it is sustained,” it is all the same; they are force and matter, Prakriti. And if the forms, or rather planes, of the latter are seven, then its forces must be seven also; that is, the degrees of the solidity of matter and the degrees of the power that ensouls it must go hand in hand. “The Universe is made out of the Tattva, it is sustained by the Tattva, and it disappears into the Tattva,” says Siva, as quoted from the Saivagama in “Nature’s Finer Forces.” This settles the question; if Prakriti is septenary, then the Tattvas must be seven, for, as said, they are both substance and force, or atomic matter and the spirit that ensouls it.

This is explained here to enable the student to read between the lines of the so-called occult Sanskrit philosophy, by which they must not be misled. Every Esotericist who reads The Theosophist must remember how bitterly Subba Row, a learned Vedantin Brahman, arose against the septenary principles in man. He knew well I had no right to and dared not explain in The Theosophist, a public magazine, the real numeration, and simply took advantage of my enforced silence. The doctrine of the seven Tattvas (the principles on the universe as in man) was held in great sacredness, and therefore secrecy, by the Brahmans in days of old, by whom now the teachings is almost forgotten. Yet it is taught to this day in the schools beyond the Himalayan Range, but it is now hardly remembered or heard of in India except through rare Initiates. The policy has been changed gradually; Chelas began to be taught the broad outlines of it, and at the advent of the T.S. in India, in 1879, I was ordered to teach it in its exoteric form to one or two, and obeyed. To you who are pledged, I give it out esoterically.”

This reference to an earlier spat between Mme Blavatsky and Subba Row requires some explanation. Subba Row (1856-1890) played a key role in establishing the Theosophical Society in India, and was a frequent contributor to Theosophical publications. However, he seems to have become increasingly critical of Mme Blavatsky’s interpretations of Hindu philosophy. Matters came to a head when, in the February 1886 issue of The Theosophist, Subba Row contributed an article on the Bhagavad Gita, which was somewhat critical of the Theosophical Doctrine of the Septenary constitution of the universe and human beings. Blavatsky’s response – an article entitled “Classification of Principles” came in the April, 1887 edition of the same journal. Her lengthy discussion of the inevitability and indeed, scientific nature of the septenary principles is preceded by this admonition:

“This apparent disagreement with one whose views are rightly held as almost decisive on occult matters in our Society is certainly a dangerous handle to give to opponents who are ever on the alert to detect and blazon forth contradictions and inconsistencies in our philosophy. Hence I feel it my duty to show that there is in reality no inconsistency between Mr. Subba Row’s views and and our own in the question of the septenary division;…”

Subba Row responded to this challenge in the May 1887 edition of The Theosophist, and the lengthy debate continued until Subba Row resigned from the Theosophical Society in 1888.

What’s common to Blavatsky’s criticism of both Subba Row and Rama Prasad is her insistence that Theosophical Esoteric Doctrine is both superior and unquestionable – that when Indian authors quoted from their own learned texts, these texts were either incomplete or lacked the esoteric keys which had been lost – and were now only known to the ‘Masters’ and those few that they chose to communicate with. Throughout the 1880s, there had been a number of positively-inclined articles on the subject of the tantras written by Indian contributors to The Theosophist – beginning with Baradā Kānta Majumdār’s “Tantric Philosophy” in April 1880 (see this post). I cannot help but wonder if Blavatsky felt it was time to take a firm grip on the situation – if only to the members of the Esoteric Section – those who sincerely desired to prepare themselves for occult training.

“Knowing that some of the members of the E.S.T. try to follow a system of Yoga in their own fashion, guided in this only by the rare hints they find in Theosophical books and magazines, which must naturally be incomplete, I chose one of the best expositions ever written upon ancient occult works, “Nature’s Finer Forces,” in order to point out how easily one can be misled by their blinds.

The author seems to have been himself deceived. The Tantras read esoterically are as full of wisdom as the noblest occult works. Studied without a guide and applied to practice, they may lead to the production of various phenomenal results, on the moral and physiological planes. But let anyone accept their dead-letter rules and practices, let him try with some selfish motive in view to carry out the rites prescribed therein, and – he is lost. Followed with pure heart and unselfish devotion merely for the sake of the latter, either no result will follow, or such as can only throw back the performer. Woe, then, to the selfish man who seeks to develop occult powers only to attain earthly benefits or revenge, or to satisfy his ambition; the separation of the Higher from the Lower Principles and the severing of Buddhi-Manas from the Tantrist’s Personality will speedily follow, the terrible Karmic results of the dabbler in Magic.

In the East, in India and China, soulless men and women are as frequently met with as in the West, though vice is, in truth, far less developed than it is here.

It is Black Magic and oblivion of their ancestral wisdom that leads them thereunto. But of this I will speak later, now merely adding – you have to be warned and know the danger.

Meanwhile, in view of what follows, the real occult division of the Principles in their correspondences with the Tattvas and other minor forces has to be well studied.

*The reference to “Nature’s Finer Forces” which follow have respect to the eight articles which appeared in the pages of The Theosophist [Vol. IX, November 1887; February, May, June, August 1888; Vol. X, October, November 1888; March 1889], and not to the fifteen essays and the translation of a chapter of the Saivagama, which are contained in the book called Nature’s Finer Forces. The Saivagama in its details is purely Tantric, and nothing but harm can result from any practical following of its precepts. I would most strongly dissuade a member of the E.S. from attempting any of these Hatha-Yoga practices, for he will either ruin himself entirely, or throw himself so far back that it will be almost impossible to regain the lost ground in this incarnation. The translation referred to has been considerably expurgated, and even now is hardly fit for publication. It recommends Black Magic of the worst kind, and is the very antipodes of spiritual Raja-Yoga. Beware, I say.”

It seems likely that some of the “Black Magic” to which Blavatsky is referring to here are the sections dealing with topics such as “How To Produce Sexual Attachment” – which were excised from later versions of Nature’s Finer Forces: “241. Said the goddess: Great Lord! Thou hast given a description of the battle among men, and with Death; tell me now how to produce attachment between the sexes.
242. Said the god: It has been said by the Yogis that if one places himself in the sphere of prana, by drawing the moon with the sun, the female will be eternally attached.”

Again, Blavatsky’s antipathy to Hatha Yoga is coming to the fore. In this, Blavatsky seems to have shared the views of scholars such as Max Muller and Monier Monier-Williams, who viewed hatha yoga as a degeneration from its original philosophical basis. Blavatsky made the distinction between Raja Yoga – which was philosophical and meditation-oriented; and Hatha Yoga which was not only a lower practice but was “injurious to the health”. 2

Contemporary scholarship has often focused on Theosophy’s counter-cultural or counter-colonial aspects, but in many ways, I feel its nonetheless the case that Theosophical teachings upheld Orientalist tropes and attitudes to India as much as they might have challenged them. In her writings, Blavatsky held India to be not only the cradle of civilization and the wellspring Esoteric tradition, but she held firm to the belief that whilst the esoteric tradition may have come out of India, that contemporary Indians had – as much as anyone else – lost the true key to that wisdom. Whilst she criticised the activity of Christian missionaries in India, she was not shy about bringing her truths to India’s inhabitants and lecturing them on what they had lost – or, in the case of Rama Prasad it would seem – the limitations of their understanding. It was the Theosophist’s insistence on the superiority of their own wisdom-tradition which had led to the falling out between Blavatsky, Olcott and Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj in the 1870s.

At the same time, Blavatsky’s presentation of Esoteric Indian Wisdom was held to be rational, and any tendencies towards “idolatry” or “supernaturalism” were dismissed as of comparatively recent origin – in the same way, that Orientalists held to the view that India had “degenerated” from a golden age. Although Blavatsky was often critical of materialism and western perspectives, she seems to have shared the 19th-century view that all phenomena operated under the same laws – hence her unshakeable belief in the operation of the seven principles in terms of both the cosmos and the esoteric constitution of human beings.

Sources
Michael J. Altman Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford University Press, 2017)
Richard Ellman Yeats: The Man and the Masks (W.W. Norton and Company, 1960)
Olav Hammer, Mikael Rothstein (eds) Handbook of the Theosophical Current (Brill, 2013)
Andrea R. Jain Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015)
Kurt Leland Rainbow Body: A History of the Western Chakra System from Blavatsky to Brennan (Ibis Press, 2016)

Online
Index of the Theosophical Journal
Digital Archive of The Theosophist

Notes:

  1. quoted from Ellman, 1960, p67
  2. See Jain, Selling Yoga, p30.

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