The Great Game: the Geopolitics of Secret Knowledge

Gauri Viswanathan has previously commented insightfully on the Mahatma Letters received by A.P. Sinnett, in an article published in the Autumn 2000 issue of Critical Inquiry, “The Ordinary Business of Occultism.” She characterized the Mahatma Letters as “an extraordinary work” that is “marvelously constructed and richly textured” and “justly deserves much closer attention than it has received, particularly since it sheds valuable light on the complex dynamics of colonial relations, as well as on the institutionalization of Eastern thought and the disenchantment of religion in the modern world.” In the 2010 collection published by Routledge, Locating Transnational Ideals, she contributes chapter 12 which pursues the discussion further. About three fourths of the chapter is readable on Google Books. Two excerpts provided below illustrate the specialized knowledge and unique insights of the author, Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University:

These letters, in turn, defied British surveillance methods authorizing the interception of mail by her claim that she had perfected a form of communication beyond interception because it was telepathic, clairvoyant, and astral. In a dynamic of concealment and revelation that informed much of Blavatsky’s writing, letters were a crucial site for the selective use of secrecy to create both imperviousness to state surveillance and epistemological uncertainty in those monitoring her movements…(p. 192)

Playing a critical role in the Great Game, the maharajas of Kashmir and Indore staged an encounter between Russia and England drawing on the help of the Theosophists as they resisted incursions by the British into the princely native states. The Great Game, in other words, does not simply concern the struggle between Russia and England for control of Central Asia but represents a significant moment in the Indian movement of resistance to British rule originating in the native states outside British control, in alliance with the Theosophical Society.(195)

This line of inquiry is of personal interest to me, since it is the first scholarly investigation to delve deeper into the political aspects of the arrival of Theosophy in India. But it is also relevant to the Church of Light, in that an Indian whistle-blower about secret identities and letters promoted by the Theosophists helped inspire the establishment of its parent group the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. (The role of this man, Hurrychund Chintamon, is explored in my chapter of the forthcoming Con Artists, Enthusiasts, and True Believers.) I hope that that Viswanathan will develop this examination of the letters into an entire book. She is far better qualified to shed new light on this subject than any previous commentator, as indicated by these excerpts from her biography on Columbia University’s website:

Gauri Viswanathan is Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She has published widely on education, religion, and culture; nineteenth-century British and colonial cultural studies; and the history of modern disciplines….Prof. Viswanathan’s current work is on modern occultism and the writing of alternative religious histories. She has held numerous visiting chairs, among them the Beckman Professorship at Berkeley, and was most recently an affiliated fellow at the American Academy in Rome. She has received Guggenheim, NEH, and Mellon fellowships, and was a fellow at various international research institutes.