Theosophy, Religion and the Body

In 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City. Though emerging out of the Spiritualist movement, by the mid-1880s the Theosophical Society began to promote an understanding of the body informed by its Spiritualist legacy, combined with occult and eastern understandings of the body, particularly Hindu. These new Theosophical teachings about the body articulated a unique set of principles regarding the constitutions, malleability, and future evolution of the human body. These teachings, these Theosophical informed biological notions, first begun by H.P. Blavatsky and then elaborated by Charles Webster Leadbeater and Annie Besant, developed into a sophisticated system connecting the body to almost every aspect of life and society. As a site for research, the human body, as conceived from within Theosophy, opens up opportunities to examine how the nineteenth century sciences were used both to bolster religious claims, as well as refute them. For instance, how did western religions negotiate the large scale importation of eastern traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism? How have Theosophical constructs of the body influenced other traditions, new and old? These influences include views of the evolving soul, common in New Age traditions, and the widespread acceptable of reincarnation, astrology, and other esoteric beliefs by a large religious cross section, including Protestant Christians. Thus, how has Theosophy and its construction of the human body influenced and been influenced by other traditions, past and present? (An example of the pervasiveness of these esoteric beliefs can be found in a recent Pew Research poll which demonstrates that as many as one-fifth of Christians believe in ghosts, reincarnation and astrology.)

The Study of Religion and the Body

Because the social sciences have so frequently abstracted the human body to a point it loses its materiality, and because of the dominant position of Cartesian dualism, separating mind from body, new methods of research must be developed to analyze the body. These new methods must be non-reductive, non-dualistic, open spaces for engaged analysis, and also leaves room for actors, both current and historical, to contribute their interpretations and experiences. Currently these interdisciplinary methodologies achieve their goals through the integration of biological and neurological sciences, philosophy, especially phenomenology, and historical readings that pay close attention to statements regarding the regulation, articulation, and cosmological speculations regarding the body. As body and embodiment studies continue to develop, the physical body will become more present and its materiality, physical needs and its being-in-the-world will have a greater impact on religious studies research.

The Body, Cyberspace and Esoteric Religion

One example of how this knowledge of the body can help understandings of modern religion can be found in my contribution to the volume, Contemporary Esotericism. In the essay, “Accessing the Astral with a Monitor and Mouse: Esoteric Religion and the Astral located in Three-Dimensional Virtual Realms” I examine how older notions of astral travel, coming out of Theosophy and other esoteric and occult traditions, have been modified to characterize three-dimensional cyber realms on the Internet. Focusing specifically on Second Life, a 3D virtual world, the essay examines how those who claim to be traveling within cyberspace can simultaneously understand themselves within the virtual world while also being physically situated behind the computer and monitor. Using both phenomenology and studies regarding the malleability of bodily limits, particularly amputee studies, I demonstrate how some esoteric religious practitioners come to experience themselves as both present and embodied within the virtual world and the physical world simultaneously. In doing so, they adopt the language, terminology, and metaphors originally created regarding astral travel in Theosophy and other esoteric groups, and apply the language to their experiences in the virtual world.

Centennial Celebration for 100 Years of Buddhism in the U.K. September 28, 2008, Brent Town Hall, England.

Buddhism in the West

In the Nineteenth century, the existence of Buddhism became common knowledge in both Europe and America. However this knowledge was constructed primarily through European and American academics, government officials, Christian missionaries, and esoterically influenced organizations like the Theosophical Society. Another important avenue for understanding Buddhism was the conversion of Europeans and Americans to Buddhism and their attempts to spread knowledge about the tradition. One early figure in this dissemination of Buddhist information was an Englishman named Charles Henry Allan Bennett, also known as Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya. Bennett was previously in two esoteric organizations, including the Theosophical Society, but converted to Theravada Buddhism in 1902 and attempted to bring the tradition to Europe as a living religion. By looking at the life of Bennett, we can learn much about the ways Buddhism was first understood by Europeans and Americans. Early on Christian polemics caused certain representations of the Buddha to emerge as well as assertions of the compatibility of Buddhism and science. These constructions of Buddhism, along with books, lectures and spiritual centers presented various native Buddhist and Euro-American converts, have colored the way Buddhism has come to be known and practiced in the west. It also provides a foundation for comparing the approaches to Buddhism practiced by those of European descent and that of immigrant and immigrant descent that often practice Buddhism in very divergent ways from their co-religionists. Being attentive to these differences and their historical origins better enables society to understand and negotiate interactions between different religions as well as those between Buddhists of different nationalities and lineages.

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