ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
of being secretly aware of depths of wisdom known to but a few. They speak with authority, but often in obscure language. They also make use of esoteric and usually exotic rituals. There is much use of incense, for instance, and of symbols. Sometimes they do little more than parade robed before their rapt followers, wearing enigmatic smiles. They inspire confidence and, in many, complete compliance. They often exercise hypnotic power, and demand unquestioning and naïve obedience and regression to childlike attitudes. They discourage challenging thought and discussion. In return for obedience, they promise inner serenity and euphoria. The effects are not entirely different from those induced by tranquillizers.
As Joseph Campbell often reiterated in his lectures, Western enthusiasts for Buddhism and Hinduism do not grasp the impersonality inherent in these religious systems. This is well illustrated, as Campbell suggests, in the depictions of arhats or Buddhist saints who have attained nirvana. They all look alike. The Sanskrit word nirvana literally means to “snuff out” as one does a candle. The purpose of Buddhist disciplines such as dhyana or meditation is the extinction of all personal desires, and the Buddhist goal is the attainment of a state in which one transcends all individual characteristics. Buddhists believe that a living being is a bundle of attributes called skhandas which are attracted by the ongoing law of karma. This self-perpetuating energy is the basis of many forms, but they are all maya or illusion, and, at death, the skhandas disintegrate. Because of karma there is rebirth, but it is not of the same person, since the former one is not remembered. To all intents and purpose, that person’s death has been annihilation. The forms of Hindu and Buddhist teachings which have been adopted in the West are therefore eclectic doctrines which bare only superficial resemblance to the Eastern teachings.
During the late nineteenth century, there was much interest in the doctrines of a highly eccentric Russian aristocrat, Madame Helena Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy; Rudolf Steiner, a German disciple who founded Anthroposophy; and Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), called “the Beast,” one of the strangest persons in the occult world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Helena Blavatsky and Theosophy
During the late nineteenth century, a remarkable woman appeared who drew attention to Eastern religious texts from a spiritual viewpoint. Helena Blavatsky (1837-1891) was the daughter of a Russian aristocrat in military service who was sometimes stationed in Central Asia. She was the founder of Theosophy. Blavatsky was a voluminous writer (although her authorship of many of the works she claimed to have written has been challenged). Thanks to her writings, many people in the West became acquainted with the religions of India, albeit in distorted form.
Blavatsky’s approach was followed by many others, by people who were interested in Eastern religions from a spiritual perspective. She and others like her emphasized the parallels and similarities among the religions and tended