ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
East was almost the only translation available to the English reader. After Müller came other scholars who translated the Persian scriptures, and, during the early years of the twentieth century, a number of American Protestant missionaries in China translated some of the texts of the Chinese into English and other Western languages. The scholars were primarily interested in the academic study of religious texts, in the same way that they studied the hieroglyphic texts of ancient Egypt and Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform. But in this way, Western readers became aware of religious alternatives other than their own.
The World Congress of Religions of 1893, which occurred as a part of the Chicago World’s Fair, introduced the eastern religions to many Americans. Swamis appeared; robed and bearded Hindus like Vivekananda who founded societies in major American cities. Vedanta Societies were founded by wealthy patrons. In these, Westerners who were fascinated with the East could learn meditation techniques such as yoga. The usual approach in the Vedanta society was to study Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu doctrines, emphasizing the moral parallels as well as the spiritual. In the same way, the Brahmo Somaj in India, founded by Unitarian missionaries, was and is an eclectic blend of Christianity and Hinduism. All such movements, as mentioned, emphasize the similarities among the religions. In actuality, however, Vedanta in America, like Theosophy, is essentially a subtle adaptation Eastern to Western forms with superficial Hindu ceremonial and symbolic features to give the blend its exotic flavor. These movements chiefly appeal to the wealthy leisure class.
In recent years, various self-proclaimed Chinese masters of Feng Shui have appeared, particularly in California, where they have applied traditional Chinese ideas to interior decoration and landscape design. These ideas are based on the Chinese concept of Ch’i , an occult power which provides rhythm and flow. Feng Shui (“Wind and Water”) is actually a popular form of Taoist mysticism which plays an important role in Chinese popular relgion.
The various forms of Eastern mysticism which have been introduced to the West, beginning with Blavatsky’s Theosophy, which will be discussed in more detail later, share a number of basic features. All of them resemble Gnosticism and other Late Classical philosophies in their esotericism. Only the initiated are introduced to the mysteries, which are characteristically monistic or pantheistic. The universe and all souls within it are held to be of one underlying mystical reality. There is therefore a complex metaphysics. Those who become initiates progress into higher stages of their esoteric knowledge by practising the prescribed disciplines. By so doing, they attain the status which Blavatsky assigned to the adepts. Most of these new religions are based on the Indian doctrine of reincarnation, though not usually the transmigration of souls. Blavatsky also introduced the West to such concepts as the Hindu- Buddhist law of karma, or cause and effect.
Another characteristic of the new imports from the East is the existence of the guru. The latter is simply a teacher. Beginning with Vivekananda, there has been a constant stream of incoming gurus, especially to the United States. All have certain characteristics in common. They usually assume an air of mystery,