Sri Aurobindo warns against obscurantism in Theosophy

Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), born Aurobindo Ghose in Calcutta, is the Indian spiritual teacher of greatest relevance to the Church of Light due to his long partnership with Mirra Alfassa Richard (1878-1973), “the Mother,” who had been a disciple and student of Max Theon. As a Frenchwoman of Jewish ethnicity and roots in the Islamic world (Turkish-born father, Egyptian-born mother) she was complementary to Aurobindo in developing a philosophy and movement of global reach and significance. Although there was tremendous antagonism between some early Theosophists and some early leaders of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the writings of C.C. Zain evidence respect for those of H.P. Blavatsky despite disagreements. Likewise, Aurobindo was basically respectful of Theosophy, but he took strong exception to the authoritarian tendencies he witnessed in the early 20th century. Around 1911 he wrote a commentary that remained in manuscript form until published in 1997. The entire text of The Claims of Theosophy is now available online. I reproduce below the passages that seem especially relevant to the issue most crucial to the future of Theosophy.

I wish to write in no narrow and intolerant spirit about Theosophy. There can be nothing more contemptibly ignorant than the vulgar prejudice which ridicules Theosophy because it concerns itself with marvels. From that point of view the whole world is a marvel; every operation of thought, speech or action is a miracle, a thing wonderful, obscure, occult and unknown… Nevertheless if men claim to be the pioneers of a new kind of Science, they must substantiate their claims. And if foreigners come to the people of India and demand to be accepted as instructors in our own special department of knowledge, they must prove that they have a prodigious superiority. Has the claim been substantiated? Has the superiority been proved?…

What Indians see is a body which is professedly and hospitably open to all enquiry at the base but entrenches itself in a Papal or mystic infallibility at the top. To be admitted into the society it is enough to believe in the freest investigation and the brotherhood of mankind, but everyone who is admitted must feel, if he is honest with himself, that he is joining a body which stands for certain well-known dogmas, a definite and very elaborate cosmogony and philosophy and a peculiar organisation, the spirit, if not the open practice in which seems to be theocratic rather than liberal…One sees also a steady avoidance of the demand for substantiation, a withdrawal into mystic secrecy, a continual reference to the infallible knowledge of the male and female Popes of Theosophy or, when that seems to need bolstering, to the divine authority of invisible and inaccessible Mahatmas. We in India admit the Guru and accept the Avatar. But still the Guru is only a vessel of the infinite Knowledge, the Avatar is only a particular manifestation of the Divine Personality. It is shocking to our spiritual notions to find cosmic Demiurges of a vague semi-divine character put between us and the All-Powerful and All-Loving and Kutthumi and Maurya taking the place of God…

It is not that Theosophy is false; it is that Theosophists are weak and human. I am glad to believe that there is much truth in Theosophy. There are also considerable errors… We must accept the Theosophists as enquirers; as hierophants and theocrats I think we must reject them…If Theosophy is to survive, it must first change itself. It must learn that mental rectitude to which it is now a stranger and improve its moral basis. It must become clear, straightforward, rigidly self-searching, sceptical in the nobler sense of the word. It must keep the Mahatmas in the background and put God and Truth in the front. Its Popes must dethrone themselves and enthrone the intellectual conscience of mankind.

In a word, the tendency against which Aurobindo warned more than a century ago was obscurantism, defined in one online dictionary as 1.opposition to the increase and spread of knowledge. 2. deliberate obscurity or evasion of clarity. My experience of disdainful rejection by TS leaders of the very notion of any historian trying to identify the Theosophical Mahatmas showed that the end of the twentieth century was no better than its beginning; Aurobindo’s commentary rings truer than ever. Wikipedia provides some further background on the practice:

Obscurantism (French: obscurantisme, from the Latin obscurans, “darkening”) is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known. There are two common historical and intellectual denotations to Obscurantism: (1) deliberately restricting knowledge—opposition to the spread of knowledge, a policy of withholding knowledge from the public; and, (2) deliberate obscurity—an abstruse style (as in literature and art) characterized by deliberate vagueness.…in restricting knowledge to an élite ruling class of “the few”, obscurantism is fundamentally anti-democratic, because its component anti-intellectualism and elitism exclude the people as intellectually unworthy of knowing the facts and truth about the government of their City-State.

These passages are especially relevant at the present moment, as the Theosophical Society awaits results of an election for its eighth president. Vociferous complaints from Theosophists have resulted from what is justifiably called a “news blackout” in which neither of the two candidates nor any other TS official will make any public comment about the election. Whether the knowledge forbidden to the masses, including the membership of the TS, involves a 21st century presidential election or the organization’s hidden 19th century history, it seems to illustrate a warning issued to Annie Besant in a mysterious 1900 letter allegedly from the Master Koot Hoomi:

The best corrective of error is an honest and open-minded examination of all facts subjective and objective. Misleading secrecy has given the death blow to numerous organizations. The cant about “Masters” must be silently but firmly put down. Let the devotion and service be to that Supreme Spirit alone of which one is a part.

Whichever candidate emerges as the winner and next president of the TS would do well to consider seriously the warnings against obscurantism written in the early 20th century by Sri Aurobindo and “Koot Hoomi” (regardless of who used that signature in this instance.)

Disclaimer: This blog is not the website of the Church of Light although linked to it and sponsored by the CofL. No one in the CofL has any prior knowledge or approval of anything I post, or has ever tried to influence the content in any way. So in hopes of preventing their being blamed, I have been very discreet about the contemporary Theosophical Society heretofore. The authorial voice of Sri Aurobindo in this passage moved me to comment on lasting issues he raises. I’m an independent historian and don’t presuppose agreement or disagreement from any group; just want to offer relevant evidence to all interested individuals. Aurobindo’s remarks are relevant to the present circumstances.

History of the Adepts is focused on the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, hence the pre-history of the CofL. The present state of “misleading secrecy” in the Theosophical Society is very much rooted in the 1880s reaction therein to the perceived threat of an independent secret society poaching its leading US members. Blavatsky created the Esoteric Section as suggested by William Q Judge and others concerned about the success of the HBofL and its offers of practical occult study. Aurobindo’s commentary above strikes me as the wisest summary of the problems Theosophy was creating for itself more than a century ago, and eerily prescient of the current situation. -KPJ