Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, kept in her New York apartment in the 1870s a stuffed baboon with a copy of The Origin of Species under its arm, along with a platonically infatuated colonel, a golden Buddha, and piles of esoteric books. The baboon represented the science and materialism which were creeping up on the late 19th century and which Blavatsky and many others felt to be threatening and arid. At the end of his survey of a century of cults and gurus, of sincerity and fraudulence, of hopes and disappointments, Peter Washington detects the faint sound of Blavatsky’s baboon having the last laugh.
Washington presents his subject as the rise of the Western guru: in fact, charisma, faith, leader and follower, have never been absent from religion or from history. In the period when Theosophy was founded, though, conditions were right for a really grand outburst. Washington outlines the background: the slow bombshell of Darwinism, the undermining of Christianity by Biblical scholarship, decades of growing interest in the underpinnings of psychology, the beginnings of psychical research.
Blavatsky was an odd figure to step into the gap, but Theosophy prospered and became very influential. Nor was she really a Western guru. Daughter of Russian aristocrats, she ran away at 17 from a middle-aged husband and spent years (she said) travelling in the East and amassing wisdom. ‘A sort of old Irish peasant woman, with an air of humour, and audacious power’, Yeats called her, as he did the rounds of occult groups; Chesterton called her ‘a coarse, witty, vigorous, scandalous old scallywag’. She was in her forties when she washed up in New York, where the platonic military flatmate, Colonel Olcott, had been drawn to her by her psychic tricks part genuine, perhaps, part conjuring. Together they founded the Theosophical Society, acquired Indian connections, produced a journal, set up London premises, and attracted respectable aspiring members. Blavatsky wrote Theosophical texts, astrally dictated to her, she said, by Tibetan masters. They told tales of universal electricity (Fohat) and a secret language (Senzar), the seven Dhyan-Chohans and seven subraces, the Grand White Brotherhood and the Lords of Karma, the Hyperboreans, Lemurians and Atlanteans. Theosophists did not read this part, but were attracted by the society’s benign general aims of uniting religions and promoting brotherhood.
As Theosophy prospered and spread, two important cults diverged from the main stream. In 1913, the German branch, led by Rudolf Steiner, broke away and renamed itself Anthroposophy. (In his diary Kafka reports, deadpan, a visit to Sterner: he tells Steiner of his passion for writing, his dead-end insurance job, his attraction to Theosophy; Steiner nods, sniffs, his nose runs, he works his handkerchief ‘deep into his nose, one finger in each nostril’. End of anecdote.) Anthroposophy survives today remarkably efficiently, here and on the Continent, running schools, colleges, nursing-homes, shops, training courses, homes for the handicapped. Washington traces its history through the building of the great Goetheanum in Switzerland, its burning down and Steiner’s death of heartbreak, up to its present-day success.
The second offshoot, the Krishnamurti branch, is less Germanically worthy and more extraordinary. Washington recapitulates the story as told in the books of Lady Emily Lutyens and her daughter Mary, both deeply involved in it, to the dismay of Lady Emily’s husband, the architect Edwin Lutyens. Krishnamurti, son of an Indian Theosophist hangeron, was picked up on a Madras beach by the evil genius of Theosophy, the shady Charles Leadbeater. Leadbeater claimed the child had a specially spiritual aura. Krishnamurti was certainly beautiful, as a child, as an adult and even as a very old man – which was perhaps his bad luck. Under Annie Besant’s leadership, the Theosophists adopted him and decided he was to be the new World Leader predicted by Theosophical theory. The boy was dressed by London tailors, coached (unsuccessfully) for Oxford, and fostered to manhood in a bewildering mixture of adulation and racial snubs. He had the courage to throw off the whole Theosophical madness in adulthood and, being trained only for gurudom, went freelance. Though surprised by quite intelligent people’s affection for his books and lectures, I had always thought of Krishnamurti as gentle, sad and virtuous, and was sorry to read here of a recent book which accuses him of a long affair with a married woman who befriended him, and of his ordering her to have abortions.
The other main cultist stream followed through in Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon is that of the Greek-Armenian Georgei Gurdjieff, born near the Russian-Turkish border and, like Blavatsky, only a Western guru perforce, since he had to flee the Russian Revolution. Like Blavatsky, he too was outrageous, joky and disconcerting, leaving his followers suspended between adoration and shock. He looked and sounded rather like Hercule Poirot (could Agatha Christie have heard of him?), but for little grey cells substituted planetary forces, sevenfold rays, the three bodies of man. Chiefly, though, he was a direct teacher, by talks and example, of the disciples he gathered round him; anyone who knows the encounter groups of the Seventies or has read about brainwashing techniques will recognise the instinctive skills he used to draw and hold people. Reading about Gurdjieff and his communities can become addictive, and so evidently can writing about him – there are a number of books by intelligent followers, and the movement has been extensively documented by James Webb.
Washington also traces the career of P.D. Ouspensky, a clever and melancholy Russian disciple who adopted Gurdjieff’s system, but broke away from him because he disliked his morals (Gurdjieff had several children by followers, and there must be dark-eyed grandsons and granddaughters of the magus living in France now). Ouspensky was an original and a scholar; before he ever met Gurdjieff he had experimented with two techniques now fashionable, ‘lucid’ dreaming and consciousness-expansion by drugs. For many years he led an earnest and secretive group of mind-improvers in England; after his death it became the School of Economic Science, which advertises meditation classes on the London Underground. According to Washington, the SES amalgamated with the Maharishi (the Maharishi, of Transcendental Meditation), opened its own schools here and abroad, and developed a repressive fringe group which was ‘exposed’ by the Evening Standard in the Eighties.
It is easy to have fun with the ridiculous aspects of gurus and cults – too easy. But if they cover a spectrum, from the positively sinister at one end to the established religions at the other, it is worth asking what it is that makes a guru, and what it is that makes a disciple. A common denominator of discipleship as it appears here seems to be the wish to find, as Casaubon wished, a Key to All Mythologies – a scheme, a pattern of patterns, that makes everything fit together. It is a far from unreasonable wish. The disciple wants, too, that the Key should be embodied in a Teacher. The Teacher has the plan and the words and has done the thinking, and need only be followed implicitly. And third, if the Key and the Teacher involve Secrecy, so much the better. That the Key should simply be: be aware, be collected, think clearly, behave generously, is too ordinary. This is not to say that the gurus have not drawn on underground or secret traditions – Gnosticism, Cabalism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism and the rest – and these have great fascination; but where good sense is quoted here from the cults, it is usually reducible to simple precepts.
What on earth, then, does the guru want? ‘Fame, riches and the love of women’ – the goals that Freud ascribed to artists? To change the world, or to acquire 97 Rolls-Royces? Assuming a spectrum again, from fraudulence to sincerity, it would seem that most of these gurus had some mixture of the two. Some did not even claim to be gurus. Steiner was a quiet and earnest leader who did not aim to annex lives or hold crowds spellbound: Ouspensky led a serious movement without demanding star status; Krishnamurti never ceased saying that right living came from personal decision rather than from a teacher. Very little fraudulence there; but the trouble is that such people attract blind devotion, whether they want it or not.
Gurdjieff (who was certainly not simonpure) based his teaching on ‘waking up’ and taking control of one’s life – but his charismatic and capricious personality made him absolute dictator to his groups. He was, incidentally, the only really modern guru, in spite of his occultism, in that what he offered was not simple salvation, but a self, that 20th-century Grail. Ignore your ‘personality’, be taught and find your real self. His most famous follower (though not for long), Katherine Mansfield, wrote when she joined his community shortly before her death: ‘the question is always: Who Am I? ... If I were allowed one single cry to God, that cry would be I want to be REAL.’ Even Christ, though, did not say: ‘Come unto me, and I shall make you real.’ Gurdjieff could almost be seen as a kind of exotic anti-Freud, constructing his psychology out of some of the same materials; news of a subconscious self had reached as far as the town of Kars in Kurdistan, where he grew up reading everything he could lay hands on. Both men even had been hypnotists and given that up. What Freud, but not Gurdjieff, cracked was the problem of ‘transference’, which dogged Gurdjieff in the form of sheeplike followers.
On the fraudulence/sincerity spectrum Blavatsky herself could be put pretty near the fraudulent end, having invented her Tibetan Masters transmitting global commands, and being thenceforth bound to the production of missives out of the air at appropriate moments. The handwriting on them was suspiciously like her own. Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research, who was sent to investigate her claims, concluded in his report that she was ‘neither the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.’ He was so puzzled by the pointlessness of her frauds that he concluded she must be spying for Russia, which is unlikely. And yet, if all she needed was to keep afloat financially, there must have been easier ways to do so than by founding a new religion – giving Russian lessons, for instance. Some of what she proclaimed she probably believed, and, where she knew she told lies, was able to convince herself that, in a way, they were truth. At other times she knew they were not, and felt surrounded by dupes; which was lonely.
Her successor as leader of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, was at the other end of the spectrum – scrupulous and idealistic, though sometimes short on humour and imagination. She would not have had the audacity to write an explanation of the universe, or to claim to be under mystic instruction from Tibet, but, having inherited Theosophy, she had not the audacity either to challenge any of its eccentricities. When the dreadful Lead-beater described his astral trips to Mars or was pursued by the police for molesting boys, she turned a blind eye, and in her own way was blurring fact and fantasy, as Blavatsky did. Like Blavatsky, too, she suffered from the loneliness of the long-distance guru.
The good and bad effects of cults seem to be unpredictable. How is it that Steiner’s Anthroposophy has become so far-reaching and beneficent, while the enormously influential parent group, Theosophy, has dwindled? Anthroposophy’s particular success, its work with the mentally handicapped, is directly linked with the belief in karma and reincarnation that was picked up from Eastern sources by Blavatsky: for if handicapped people are souls going through a particular kind of incarnation, it is easier to treat them honourably than it is if they are just nature’s mistakes. Theosophy itself seems to have done no harm (except perhaps to the unfortunate Krishnamurti), but in its early days it could not have been expected that its best achievement would be its schools in India and Ceylon (there is an Olcott Street in the centre of Colombo) and perhaps a restoration to Westernised Indians of pride in their religious heritage, with Annie Besant being in 1917 the first white person and the first woman to be made president of the Indian National Congress. Gurdjieff’s and Ouspensky’s movements had their suicides and breakdowns, but also a large number of people claiming to have benefited greatly. Only those who hold that believing anything without rational backing is intrinsically wrong, or who are sure they can distinguish second-rate spiritual experience from the real thing, can take an austere view of the Western guru.