January 24, 2014

National Spiritualism—Annie Besant in India

[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]

In 1909, noted Theosophist (and alleged pedophile) Charles Webster Leadbeater discovered the teenager Krishnamurti on the banks of the Adyar River in a wealthy Madras suburb. Convinced that here was the future “world teacher”—a vehicle for the messiah, in Theosophist lore—Leadbeater’s colleague Annie Besant became Krishnamurti’s guardian. Theosophy is a form of esoteric thought that seeks to understand human-divine connections through a mystical synthesis between ideas of Eastern and Western spiritualism. Besant became head of the Theosophical Society in Madras, British India and created the Order of the Star of the East (1911-1927) to prepare the world for Krishnamurti’s future teachings. During the same period, she co-founded the Indian Home Rule League (1916-1920), which advocated for Indian self-rule and status as a British Dominion. Part of her platform included national education programs to uncover a notion of pre-modern Indian, Hindu civilization beloved of the Theosophists, and to prepare Indian peoples for some form of self-government within what was then an informal British Commonwealth arrangement.


March 14, 2013

How do You Know God's Talking to You?

Tanya Luhrmann continues to set the pace for understanding and respecting the many ways that people are religious, as Steven Barrie-Anthony’s Reverberations interview with Luhrmann makes clear. I was first amazed by her work years ago in her book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. I was writing my own book, Not In Kansas Anymore, about the spread of magical ideas in America. I was interviewing people who call themselves Otherkin, and believe themselves to be elves and werewolves and fairies. I was struggling to understand young people who identify as vampires. Among these witches, pagans, and hoodoo docs were some of the smartest, most well-read people I’d ever met. They were dead serious about their religion, and a surprising number of their beliefs were being picked up by suburbanites all over the country, most of whom had no idea how far from their Christian roots they were venturing.

The stars of Not in Kansas Anymore were truly strange. Strange enough to delight a journalist’s heart. But I despaired of ever being able to do them full justice.  

For much of my career as a reporter, we journalists simply set our pencils aside whenever a source started talking about religion. Nobody ever said so, but we knew that this kind of talk didn’t belong in the mainstream media. We would cover religion, sure, but only as an event. If the Pope came to town, we’d make a big, reverential fuss. If a tent revival came to town, we’d treat it like a freak show. But if a mother whose child had died told us that Jesus came to comfort her, we did her the favor of not letting the rest of the world know that she was so unhinged as to be talking like that.