Unveiling the Subaltern Theosophical and Occult Foundation of Buddhism within the West
The history of Buddhism in the West, particularly Buddhism in America, is one in which Buddhist immigrants and American converts lay the foundations for Buddhism’s flowering, especially in the 20th century. Yet the histories rarely give significant notice to the fact that for almost two decades before the World Parliament of Religions, in 1893, Theosophists had traversed North America innumerable times, promoting Eastern religious ideas, particularly reincarnation, karma, yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and cremation, through extensive lecture circuits. Additionally, they were prolific in their publishing efforts of both books and journals, and were also keen in promoting their ideas within the nation’s newspapers. These efforts at promoting Eastern ideas, legitimizing them through the language of science, and using Western methods of mass communication, resulted in widespread dissemination of Eastern ideas to the point where they became ubiquitous and disconnected from their earliest sponsors, The Theosophical Society.
While scholars of Buddhism readily admit some Theosophical influence, there is considerable resistance within Buddhist studies to recognize the widespread influence of Theosophy and occultism regarding the Western adoption of Buddhism. At most, Theosophy gets mentioned in the context of its deployment of scientific discourses of Buddhism, but little else. As of today, there is no single article, essay, anthology chapter, or monograph that traces the widespread influence of Theosophy on Buddhism in the West. Within the last few years, more scholars of Buddhism in Europe have come to acknowledge the influence of Theosophy. In 2015 the University of Heidelberg hosted a conference titled, “Theosophy Across Boundaries.” Part of the program description states, “Dealing with theosophy may challenge our way of looking at things – such as the division of religion and science – because it challenged them. One challenge lies in recognizing theosophy as a crucial agent of global transfers of religion and transfers of Western knowledge. Indeed, it is perhaps the most overlooked agent in this latter transfer.”
One of the challenges to this research is that the evidence is widely distributed between thousands of periodicals, each giving small pieces of the overall picture. Assembling these fragments to demonstrate a comprehensive influence of Theosophy is daunting. To facilitate this research, I have employed the use of digital humanities technologies and methodologies, including the creation and programming of a web platform with which to facilitate the collection, organization, transcription, linking, tagging, and visualization of various types of data including journal, magazine, and newspaper articles, lecture and meeting locations and topics, personal correspondence, photographs, and other documents all of which can be combined and visualized through charts, diagrams, and timelines, as well as on maps using geographic information systems (GIS) techniques. Currently the platform is still being developed and data is being collected. Nevertheless, it has already facilitated the dynamic mapping and listing of Annie Besant’s eight American tours undertaken between 1891 and 1929. An early, non-dynamic version was produced in 2014 which looks at the tours in comparison to US census data. Once enough of the platform is complete and sufficient data is collected to convincingly make the case, a monograph will be the immediate end result of this research, although the platform will present opportunities for additional research.