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Indian Nation and Western Esotericism

Indian Nation and Western Esotericism in the Late 19th Century

Ulrich Harlass

The Theosophical Society (TS) had a significant influence on the 19th century global discourse on religion. On a semantic and infrastructural plane the TS greatly contributed to the content and popularity of that discourse. The Theosophists´ strong leanings towards the „Mystic East“ (Orientalism) and attempts to reconcile science and religion set the tone for discussions up to the present day. In spite of numerous publications on the TS, there are only few conducting research into its vivid activities in India. Furthermore, scholars seem unable to go in for the connections of political and religious implications of their subject matter and to so analyse the entanglement of the two. Studies normally provide an exclusive focus on one aspect – mostly the „religious“ – thus implicitely suggesting an independence of these two „spheres“.

The intercultural exchange between „western“ and „eastern“ Theosophists has been crucial for conceptions of religion, Hinduism and esotericism at that time. What is more, these conceptions met with a variety of Indian self-understandings drawing on topics like Hinduism and India – particularly embracing notions of India as one country or nation. Political claims, such as demands for freedom from colonial rule, were one result of these endeavours. Political activities of Theosophists can be found, for example, in A.O. Hume´s commitment to the Indian National Congress (INC), which he was a founder of, or Annie Besant´s TS and INC presidencies. Numerous Indian political activists had Theosophical connections and it was in this context that Indian identity would be discussed. Self-representations as „Indian“ met with Theosophical narratives about the „spiritual East“ or „universal wisdom“ (philosophia perennis) as preserved in Indian philosophy and religion, e.g. the spiritual nature of India or its non-violent „scientific“ religion and philosophy.

A.P. Sinnett (1840-1921) played a pivotal, yet widely neglected role for these developments. He had moved to India in 1872, seven years prior to the arrival of the first Theosophists, and worked as the editor for India´s „most important newspaper“: The Pioneer. Early Theosophy profited largely from his hospitality and Indian acquaintances, and the developing pan-Indian Theosophical network partly relied on Sinnett´s work. Owing to an abundancy of publications, speeches and lectures, Sinnett can be considered a central figure in fin de siècle Theosophy in both East and West. Our aim will be to further the understanding of his role for the TS and the Indian religio-political context as well. This target implies adopting a new perspective: an approach modifying the inquiries hitherto undertaken to correlate the religious and political „spheres“ attending to them as one discoursive unit. The doctoral thesis is set out to analyse these aspects drawing on the interdisciplinary methodological framework of the research group (Minicluster), exploring the debates about  the meaning, correlation and use of „religion“, „nation“ and „state“.