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Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – II

The Tantrists do not seem to go higher than the six visible and known plexuses, with each of which they connect the tattvas; and the great stress they place on the chief of these, the Muladhara Chakra (the sacral plexus) shows the material and selfish bent of their efforts towards the acquisition of powers.The Mahatma Letters (Letter CXIV, p480)

In the last post I reviewed how the notion of the “left-hand path” and much of the themes which relate to it emerged out of nineteenth century Indology. I will now turn to how the concept of the left-hand path” was used by Madame Blavatsky and other early Theosophists.

Blavatsky was certainly familiar with the work of scholars such as Ward, Wilson, and Monier-Williams (see previous post), and crossed swords with Max Muller (first holder of the Chair for Comparative Philology at Oxford, 1868) on matters of interpretation on more than one occasion. Throughout her writings she equates tantra with sorcery and black magic. She may have been influenced in this attitude by her contact with Dayananda Saraswati and his reformist Arya Samaj movement. One of the aims of the Arya Samaj was the reconstitution of the Vedas as scientific and the sole authority for all aspects of daily life. Astrology, for example, was viewed as superstition – and caused dependency on priests and other “professional hoodwinkers.” The Samaj also produced pamphlets lampooning the puranic myths. The alliance between Blavatsky and Saraswati had been initially promising – she and Olcott had named Saraswati as the titular head of the “Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of India” – and both had moved to India in 1879. The alliance did much to help popularise the TS in India. On his arrival in India, Olcott gave several lectures in Bombay where his open criticism of western culture and Christianity – and his praise of Indian culture won him some acclaim. However, by 1881, Dayananda Saraswati had broken away from Theosophy, publishing a pamphlet entitled Humbuggery of the Theosophists (1882). He particularly objected to Blavatsky’s championing of “Hidden Masters” and would only accept Indians as Aryans – as opposed to Americans & Europeans. Relations between the TS and the Arya Samaj were acrimonious from that point on.

Blavatsky seems to have been well aware of anti-tantric feeling in India. In a letter to The Deccan Star in 1879, whilst refuting and discussing a letter from a member of the Arya Samaj who accused the TS of embracing “people who believe in magic” she mentions the Hindû Mahârâjahs of that shameless sect known as the Vallabhâchâryas… This is a reference to a libel case heard in the High Court in Bombay, 1862, whereby a newspaper editor had printed accusations that A Maharaja of the Vaishnava Vallabhacharya sect had abused his authority as a guru – specifically of having “indulged” himself (sexually) with the wives and daughters of devotees. The Maharaja filed a libel suit, but the High Court ruled that the charge of libel was unfounded, and and the Vallabhacharyas received wide publicity, and there was a great deal of adverse comment from both both Indian and western observers.

Terms such as the “left path” and the “Brothers of the left”, “Left Hand” and “Right Hand Adepts” are scattered throughout Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine and her many articles in journals such as Lucifer and The Theosophist. The picture which emerges in The Secret Doctrine is that of a long struggle between Right and Left Hand adepts – with the Right Hand Adepts transmitting and seeking to preserve the ancient wisdom tradition, and the Left Hand Adepts seeking to pervert and corrupt it. This feud or war, she asserts, has been going on since the close of the period of the “Fourth Race” – the Atlanteans, who apparently, through the misuse of sex were responsible for the “worship of the human body and finally of the sex-principle itself”. Giving the initiated interpretation, Blavatsky shows how the record of this war has been allegorised in texts such as the Bible and the Ramayana. Central to her schema of the evolution of humanity (she was opposed to the Darwinian view that man was descended from apes) is the concept that our antedeluvian ancestors descended from a purely spiritual existence into matter, over the course of vast epochs of time. These early races reproduced themselves by a variety of spiritual means as they gradually became less spiritual and more material. Needless to say, in order for contemporary mankind (the Fifth race) to evolve, the lower emotions or “animal passions” must be discarded.

Blavatsky throughout much of her writings, is keen to distinguish true Occultism from magic (sorcery, hypnotism, etc.) and also from Spiritualism. She makes a distinction throughout her writings between “true occultism” and “magic”. The latter, which can easily become “black magic” or sorcery – that is to say, used for selfish ends (such as acquiring money or influence). In an article titled Lodges of magic for example, which appeared in the Theosophical journal Lucifer in 1888 she asserts:

“those kabbalists who dabble in ceremonial magic as described and taught by Eliphas Levi, are as full blown Tantrikas as those of Bengal.”

In the same article, she says:

To gain the divine knowledge, like the prize in a classical tripos, by a system of coaching and cramming, is the ideal of the average beginner in occult study. The refusal of the originators of the Theosophical Society to encourage such false hopes, has led to the formation of bogus Brotherhoods of Luxor and (and Armley Jail ?) as speculations on human credulity. … If rumour be true, some of the English rural districts, especially Yorkshire, are overrun with fraudulent astrologers and fortune-tellers, who pretend to be Theosophists, the better to swindle a higher class of patrons than their legitimate prey, the servant-maid and callow youth.

This is an obvious dig at the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, founded in 1884 by Thomas Burgoyne and Peter Davidson. Burgoyne had been convicted of mail fraud, and Blavatsky was keen to point this out as proof that the HBL – no relation to her own “Brotherhood of Luxor” – was an immoral organisation.

For some theosophists, “ceremonial magic” was inexorably linked to black magic: “The entrance into real black magic may be made by ceremony. Into white magic, never.” (Josef B Widen, Lucifer 1889).

Blavatsky’s Occultism was emimently rational and scientific (although it was naturally superior to mere materialistic science). In a letter to a Mrs. Corson (1878) HPB says:

“…we go dead against idolatry in every shape and colour, whether in the heathen or Christian religions. You must admit, dear friend, that the saints of the Greek and Latin Churches are all as much idols as those of the Indian Pantheon.” Some Unpublished Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, By Helene Petrovna Blavatsky, Eugene Rollin Corson, (Kessinger Publishing Co 2003, p201)

So Blavatsky is generally opposed to what she views as the worship of idols, to ritual (either religious or ceremonial magic) and to any magical act which appears to be used for self-serving ends – although she qualifies this latter point by insisting, repeatedly, that for virtually anyone in the modern world, it is impossible for them not to act in such a way. Blavatsky makes it very clear that she considers it almost impossible for any contemporary person to become a “true” occult adept – which requires a superhuman cultivation of selflessness which is incompatible with modern life – certainly one can not even aspire to becoming an adept whilst one has a family, is married, or has “material interests”. Sexual intercourse is of course, forbidden to students of practical Occultism. In her papers written for the Esoteric Section of the TS, Blavatsky says:

“it is quite true that ever since the days of Pythagarus and Plato the exoteric cults began to deteriorate, until they debased the symbolism into the most
shameful practices of our worship. Hence the horror and contempt with which every true Occultist regards the so-called “personal God,” and the exoteric ritualistic worship of the Churches – be they heathen or Christian.

And even in the days of Plato it was so. It was the persecution of the true Hierophants and the final supression of those mysteries which alone purified man’s thoughts, and led to Tantrike (sexual worship) and through the forgetting of Divine Truth, to Black Magic, whether conscious or otherwise.”

Although Blavatsky seems to have been familiar with the writings of Payne Knight and Hargrave Jennings on phallic religion – she most definitely disagrees with their conclusions. In a review entitled Buddhism, Christianity And Phallicism she writes:

Later on, when mankind fell, in the natural course of its evolution “into generation,” i.e., into human creation and procreation, and carrying down the subjective process of Nature from the plane of spirituality to that of matter–made in its selfish and animal adoration of self a God of the human organism, and worshipped self in this objective personal Deity, then was black magic initiated. This magic or sorcery is based upon, springs from, and has the very life and soul of selfish impulse; and thus was gradually developed the idea of a personal God. … Anthropomorphism in religion is the direct generator of and stimulus to the exercise of black, left-hand magic.

In Practical Occultism (Lucifer, 1888) she states:

Occultism is not magic. It is comparatively easy to learn the trick of spells and the methods of using the subtler, but still material, forces of physical nature; the powers of the animal soul in man are soon awakened; the forces which his love, his hate, his passion, can call into operation, are readily developed. But this is Black Magic – Sorcery. For it is the motive, and the motive alone, which makes any exercise of power become black, malignant, or white, beneficent Magic. It is impossible to employ spiritual forces if there is the slightest tinge of selfishness remaining in the operator. For, unless the intention is entirely unalloyed, the spiritual will transform itself into the psychic, act on the astral plane, and dire results may be produced by it. The powers and forces of animal nature can equally be used by the selfish and revengeful, as by the unselfish and the all-forgiving; the powers and forces of spirit lend themselves only to the perfectly pure in heart–and this is DIVINE MAGIC .

For Blavatsky, the practice of magic is “fraught with dangers and perils” – and, whilst it can bring results of various kinds, it is fairly clear from her writings that she is concerned with the “moral dangers” of practice – one of which is the inability for the unprepared to distinguish between the Right and the Left path.

Blavatsky’s negative view of magical activity was not unusual for the period. Edward Burnett Tylor, viewed the “occult arts” (witchcraft, etc.) as barbarous survivals from man’s primitive past – at best a kind of pseudo-science and one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind.

It’s clear, I think, that within Blavatsky’s writings there is a distinct strain of what might be termed somatophobia – fear of the body. Self-control, discipline and moral probity were of course highly thought of in the period. There was a strong link made between health and the necessity of moral restraint. There was a common belief that “respectable people” (in particular, the urban middle classes) should be able restrain their passions and desires – particularly through the exercise of willpower. There is a strong emphasis on the necessity of the will in Blavatsky’s writing – and at least one element of her disdain for spiritualist mediums was the idea that mediums allowed themselves to become “passive” (see Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England for further discussion of mediums & passivity). As I noted earlier, in Blavatsky’s evolutionary schema, humanity spiritual evolution is related to a movement upwards towards the planes of spirit – and away from the body, worldly commitments, and “lower appetites”. Given this, its understandable that she, like many of her contemporaries – both Indian and European – viewed “tantrika” with disgust .She equated Hatha Yoga with tantra too – and occasionally gave anecdotal warnings about those who had “fallen” by unwisely practising it, as she did for those who turned to “black magic”.

Whilst providing an alternative history of the evolution of humanity, Blavatsky’s “ancient wisdom tradition” (or philosophia perennis) can be seen to draw on orientalist tropes of the period – in particular the idea that contemporary culture (India, for example) had degenerated from its pristine beginnings, and a “corrective” interpretation of ancient texts (such as the Vedas) was required. The social Darwinism of orientalist scholars such as Monier-Williams is still present in The Secret Doctrine, albeit stretched out over aeons of time. Although her “affirmative orientalism” (and openly anti-Christian polemics) initially played well in India (and Sri Lanka) the tendency to privilege Theosophical interpretations of the Vedas and other sacred texts over any others soon led to to a parting of the ways between Theosophists and Indian reformists:

But we may find worse opponents than even the Western Scientists and Orientalists. If, on the question of figures, Brahmins may agree with our teaching, we are not so sure that some of them, orthodox conservatives, may not raise objections to the modes of procreation attributed to their Pitar Devatas. We shall be called upon to produce the works from which we quote, while they will be invited by us to read their own Puranas a little more carefully and with an eye to the esoteric meaning. And then, we repeat again, they will find, under the veil of more or less transparent allegories, every statement made herein corroborated by their own works. The Secret Doctrine Vol 2 p148

The belief that there was a shadowy fraternity of Left-hand Adepts attempting to thwart the Theosophical mission became increasingly important after Blavaksky’s death – during the reign of Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater for instance, there is a continual pointing of fingers in the direction of various “enemies” both inside and outside the Theosophical movement who were said to be inspired, or working for, “the lords of the dark face” or similar epithets. This kind of accusation was even levelled against Krishnamurti at one point.


  1. Steve Davies
    Posted June 27th 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks again Phil for a great overview- amazing to see the hold that Blavatsky’s views still have over Theosophy- I was involved in a co-masonic lodge for a few years as an outworking of my interest in Hermeticism- it quickly became apparent that the “evils” of Witchcraft were still not viewed in a more moderate light!

  2. Gypsy Lantern
    Posted July 8th 2010 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Until reading the above, I’d never noticed quite how much Blavatsky and Lovecraft have in common, with their shared notions of unknown aeons of sci-fi evolutionary history and their obvious squeamishness about the body and physical nature. Do you know if Lovecraft was influenced by Theosophy to any extent, or did this just arise independently?

  3. Phil Hine
    Posted July 8th 2010 at 7:50 pm | Permalink


    There has certainly been some speculation that Lovecraft was familiar with Blavastky’s writing although to what extent is difficult to say. See this Fortean Times article for example. It’s been established that Lovecraft read the Theosophist W. Scott-Elliot’s books The Story of Atlantis and The Lost Lemuria. I believe he also makes reference to various Theosophical ideas in his correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith.