The Indo-Western Mind and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor

Yesterday I heard a fascinating interview with a Unitarian minister from Maryland who is also a practicing Hindu. His family background in the Brahmo Samaj is mentioned only briefly, but relates to my current research about 19th century Indian interest in Western spirituality.

When I joined the Church of Light nine years ago, it was with a sense that it provided an opportunity to embrace what I had found to be constructive and valuable in esoteric traditions without having to engage with more destructive or distracting elements. And such has indeed been the case. But I also believed that my investigations into 19th century Indian history, which had brought so much encouragement from the scholarly world and so much discouragement from a few Theosophists, were all in the past and that the CofL’s roots were purely in the “Western Esoteric Traditions.” The latter expectation has been confounded many times over.

Elbert Benjamine names only four individuals as authors who are his precursors in giving “Brotherhood of Light” teachings; two English and two American. And nine years of historical investigations confirm that these four indeed represent the major writers whose teachings he incorporated into his systematic exposition of esotericism: Thomas H. Burgoyne, Emma Hardinge Britten, Genevieve Stebbins, and Sarah Stanley Grimke. Burgoyne, an Englishman, wrote mainly about astrology and also about Tarot. Britten was a Spiritualist historian with a background in earlier European occultism. Stebbins, a native Californian, was one of the first Americans to seek instruction in Yoga from qualified experts in the 19th century, and also wrote about physical culture and Tarot. Grimke, rooted in the Transcendentalist Unitarianism she embraced in her student years, became a Mind Cure author and then delved into astrology. These four Western authors are indeed the most important background for Benjamine’s thinking. But as it turns out, I cannot explore their influences without returning to Indian history.

As a young astrologer and medium in England, Burgoyne met not only the mysterious Max Theon, but the equally mysterious Hurrychund Chintamon. The latter was a crucial catalyst in the transfer of the Theosophical Society to India in 1879, and later became a whistleblower to the Society for Psychical Research in 1884-5. To some extent he instigated the formation of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and thus we cannot escape the question of what was real and what was fraudulent in the Theosophical Society in India, as an element in the origins of the HBofL. Emma Hardinge Britten’s books Art Magic and Ghost Land were almost entirely about the European occult brotherhoods of the 19th century, and were unquestionably source material for the HBofL, acknowledged as such by Benjamine. But Ghost Land included a substantial subplot in India, revealing not Britten’s first hand knowledge but rather her involvement with others who did have such knowledge.

On the American side of the ledger, Sarah Stanley Grimke would seem to have nothing to do with Indian history. Except, that is, for the fact that her education and ideas place her in the stream of Unitarian Transcendentalism– which was deeply influenced by New England intellectuals’ encounter with Indian spiritual classics. Genevieve Stebbins, a Californian who pursued enlightenment in France and England in the 1880s, was profoundly influenced by her encounter with yogic breathing instruction from an Indian she met in England. So here again, an Indian connection is found in someone who seems squarely in the mainstream of Western occultism. Finally, although not an influence on Benjamine, it is relevant that the best known disciple of Max Theon, original Master figure of the HBofL, was Mirra Alfassa, a Frenchwoman with Jewish parents from Egypt and Turkey. Her decades-long partnership with Sri Aurobindo was clearly an example of a merging of Indic and Western esoteric streams.

Three of the four Typhon Press publications on which I’ve been working have been announced. So without any breach of confidence, I can say that Ghost Land entails an inquiry in the sources for Britten’s treatment of India, Grimke’s Esoteric Lessons requires looking into her Transcendentalist roots in New England, and my chapter for Con Artists, Enthusiasts and True Believers delves primarily into the influence of Hurrychund Chintamon on Col. Henry Olcott. A chapter of a yet unannounced project with another publisher includes Aurobindo among other Bengali individuals of interest. For the latter, I have enjoyed reading Subrata Dasgupta’s book Awakening on the Bengal Renaissance, which coins the phrase “Indo-Western mind” to describe a “cross-cultural mentality” that defined the great flowering of Bengali literary productivity that lasted through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

The overall direction of my own recent projects has been to see the Indo-Western mental fusion that involved all these players in the late 19th century as very much a two way street. While the mythology of the Great White Lodge has emphasized the unidirectional enlightenment project of Asian Mahatmas to teach their wisdom to the West, the history of the period is one of tremendous cultural exchange. The Indian participants in this exchange gave and received in equal measure, embracing Freemasonry, Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Platonism as well as honoring their own traditions. A recent discovery that I announced at the end of my conference paper will be explained in detail in next month’s edition of the PsyPioneer in an article Leslie Price is now editing. Here I will just reproduce the bare bones announcement as given on September 20, and comment briefly that it reveals people who had been portrayed as Asian missionaries to the West to have been coming to America to learn and to promote economic cooperation, rather than to preach Hinduism.

Hurrychund Chintamon, subject of the first half of the chapter from which this paper was excerpted, was the second Indian entered in the Adyar Membership records now available online from The Art Archive. The first, Toolsidas Jadarjee, #120 in the entries, precedes #123 Chintamon and has been considerably more elusive. In Old Diary Leaves, Col. Olcott describes a transatlantic passage in wihich he encountered Moolji Thackersey in 1870, with another unnamed Indian gentleman with whom he was photographed. Years later, in 1877, an unnamed Western visitor noticed the picture on the wall of the Lamasery and told Olcott he knew both men, which led to correspondence with Chintamon and the ill-starred alliance between the TS and the Arya Samaj. TS founder Herbert Monachesi, in an 1875 article “Proselyters from India,” had claimed that Thackersey and his travel companion Tulsidas Jadarjee had been on a missionary journey to the West, but no evidence had ever appeared in support of this claim.

Early this month, I found a reference to Thackersey and Jadarjee in the November 20, 1869 Louisville Daily Express, describing two men on a business journey that had brought them to Chicago, where they were as of the date of the story. It reported that they were heading to St. Louis, New Orleans, and Boston. I immediately alerted Patrick Bowen and Marc Demarest, requesting that they pursue the story in databases to which they had access. They found more than a dozen articles and documents confirming the journey and providing more details. A news item will appear in the forthcoming issue of PsyPioneer describing the highlights of this press coverage. The mission was clearly a business journey involving their interest in the cotton trade, and it took them to Mobile, Charleston, and Savannah in addition to the above-named destinations.

At this point I would just like to announce the name of the ship and the date of passage for their departure from New York en route back to India. The New York Times for January 13, 1870 included the names “Moolja Thackersy, Toolsidas Jadarzee,” and “Colonel. Hy. S. Olcott” as having departed the previous day on the steamship Java, bound from New York to Liverpool.