Very few historical persons have exercised as deep an influence on Indian thought and spiritual life as Adi Shankara (AD 788 – 820). He established four seats of spiritual learning in India, the principle being at Sringeri in the South of India. To this day, it has had an unbroken line of succession. The thirty second Acharya of Sringeri, Jagadguru Sri Narasimha Bharati VIII, was Pontiff from 1817 until 1879. He was a great yogi through intense meditation and spent over forty years traveling through India.
One of Sri Narasimha Bharati’s disciples was Paramahansa Krishnananda Swami. As an elderly man, this disciple attended a remarkable gathering of Rishis (Holy men) in the Himalayas in 1855. The event is described in the preface to the book, The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching, by Hari Prasad Shastri. It was said that for the previous 150 years (ie from about 1800), Europe had been gradually awakening to the spiritual thought of India through the work of scholars from France, Germany, and Great Britain. However none of these scholars had actually practised the yoga necessary to confirm from their own personal experience the release from the sufferings and anxiety of life and the attainment of the everlasting bliss of spiritual illumination pledged by the Holy Rishis.
The prologue went on to elucidate further that in the year 1855 a group of Rishis, spiritually perfect beings, had gathered together in the Himalayas. They waited for the arrival of two great sages, Rishi Vyasa and Paramahansa Krishnananda Swami. One of the Rishis then stated:
Holy Guardians of Dharma! Illustrious Rishis! A new sub-cycle in this Yuga is ending. A new light of the torch of Eternal Truth is to be ushered into the world. The West has to live according to the Law which the Lord gave her nearly 2,000 years ago. Optimism and activity, ambition and love of power have stifled the growth of the spirit of the West. Now let a new era open. A tributary of the holy Ganga of the Gita is winding its way to Angala Desha (England). Thus it has been decreed. This holy and venerable Sage, this representative of the great Shankara, this saint is undertaking the great task. Give your blessings, holy Sages.
Although the scene is described at one level, a true understanding of what took place is not really known except by looking at the effect. The analogy of the river Ganges is understandable. In the Advaita Vedanta tradition it is said that the Ganges begins its journey in the causal world and comes through the subtle to its physical manifestation. It carries the Truth. In stating that a tributary of the Ganges is winding its way to Angala Desha, the Sages were speaking of the Advaita Vedanta Philosophy being made available to the West. So what happened, and how did this impetus play out? Did the impulse put out by Paramhansa Krishnananda Swami and the other assembled Rishis take place?
About this time England saw the rise of the period known as the start of modern spiritualism. There was a great interest in séances, connecting with the dead and manifesting ectoplasm etc. The Society for Psychical Research was formed in 1882.
But already the next step was taking place with the emergence on the scene of Madam H P Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. “Theosophia” was a term used by the Neoplatonists which literally meant “knowledge of the divine”. As with the statement in The Heart of the Eastern Mystical Teaching, Madam Blavatsky also maintained that the Wise, who she referred to as the Masters of Theosophy had been searching for a century for the next messenger to preserve and extend the ancient wisdom and finally in the 1800’s they chose her. She saw the master who would be her teacher in her dreams as a child. She said she met him in Hyde Park in London when she was 20. Apparently Madam Blavatsky entered Tibet and according to her, was trained by these masters from 1868 to 1870. She spread this teaching around the world from 1875 until her death in 1891.
This was done through the formation of the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. The founders were Madam Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge. The initial objective was the study of mediumistic phenomena, but Madam Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India and began studying Eastern religions. These were included in the Society’s agenda. In 1889 when Blavatsky wrote Key to Theosophy, the Society’s objectives had evolved into
1. To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, colour, or creed.
2. To promote the study of Aryan and other Scriptures, of the World’s religion and sciences, and to vindicate the importance of old Asiatic literature, namely, of the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophies.
3. To investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature under every aspect possible, and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man especially. (p. 39, Key to Theosophy)
Blavatsky died in 1891. Initially it appeared the Society’s leaders worked together peacefully in her memory. This did not last long. By this time Annie Besant had become a prominent member of the Society. She and Olcott accused Judge of forging letters from the Mahatmas. Judge ended his association with them in 1895 and set up his own faction taking most of the American section with him. Today it is known as the Theosophical Society and has its headquarters in Pasadena California. The faction headed by Olcott and Besant is still based in India and known as the Theosophical Society – Adyar. A third organisation split off from Judge’s group in 1909 and became known as the United Lodge of Theosophists or ULT. Many believe that in some sense the original society ceased to exist after the 1895 schism – perhaps it in fact ceased to exist following the death of Madam Blavatsky. Detractors regard Blavatsky as a charleton, but it would appear she made quite a spiritual journey from her early interest in mediumship to the investigation into Eastern, and particularly Indian philosophy.
J Krishnamurti was born in 1895. His father wrote to Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society seeking employment. He was taken on as a clerk by the Society in 1909. Krishnamurti came to the attention of Leadbeater and others who thought he would be the next World Leader. In 1911 the Theosophical leadership formed an organisation called the Order of the Star with the young Krishnamurti as its head. This caused controversy in the Theosophical Society, in Hindu circles and the Indian press.
Another major figure to emerge was G I Gurdjieff, an interesting man born about 1866. Not a lot about his early life is known, except that he was a member of a group who called themselves The Seekers of the Truth. They traveled widely through the Near and Far East looking for the Ancient Tradition. He was the real pioneer of the Schools of the Fourth Way and his exploits would put many present day seekers to shame, making them look like armchair philosophers. He emerged from Russia fleeing the Bolshevik revolution with a few followers including Thomas and Olga de Hartmann. Olga kept a diary of this period. She used this diary as the basis for her book Our Life With Mr. Gurdjieff. Thomas wrote the music under Gurdjieff’s direction to accompany the “movements” that Gurdjieff devised. Gurdjieff is credited with coining the phrase “The Fourth Way”. The Fourth Way is the way of the Householder. The other three ways were known as the ways of the Yogi, Fakir and Monk. The Fourth Way was the way a householder could follow a spiritual path while living in the world.
Perhaps one of Gurdjieff’s best known pupils was P D Ouspensky. Ouspensky was in the Theosophical Society in St Petersburg. He had already written Tertium Organum by this time. According to Anna Butkovsky, whom he met in the Society, he left the Theosophical Society because he had ceased to believe in its effectiveness. She later wrote in her book With Gurdjieff in St Petersburg and Paris: (p 17)
He had been invited to join the inner circle which he had been told was very different from the meeting we had just attended. In the inner circle meetings, it was alleged, one experienced a degree of enlightenment not accessible to ordinary members. “These ordinary members are just sheep!” he told me scornfully. “But I feel there are even bigger sheep in the inner circles.”
Bob Hunter in his book P D Ouspensky: Pioneer of the Fourth Way (p 80) went further to comment about Ouspensky:
He was fond of joking about the three level cast system adopted there (in the Theosophical Society) with nondescript followers, hangers on and parasites confined to the ground floor; well to do well wishers entertained on the second floor; and initiates allowed to take their place at the top. What Ouspensky found especially worth remarking was that, although he had publicly criticized the Theosophy founder, Helena Blavatsky, he was immediately ushered up to the level of the inner circle.
When Gurdjieff and Ouspensky first met in 1915, Ouspensky was already a writer, thinker and philosopher. Ouspensky and Anna Butkovsky met Gurdjieff in St Petersburg and joined his small group which with them totaled six. They met almost daily. The reason for their subsequent falling out was Ouspensky’s belief that Gurdjieff went against his own principles. In 1924 Ouspensky made his final decision to part company with Gurdjieff, but it was not until 1931 that he started his own group meetings in London. In the early days Ouspensky’s groups could only be entered by way of introduction. One had to have read A New Model of The Universe, and Tertium Organum, showing a serious interest in the work before being invited to attend the meetings. By all accounts Ouspensky did not try to encourage all and sundry to attend his meetings, to the contrary he made things difficult to ensure only those genuinely committed to the work would attend. This is also the mark of a number of traditions which test the resolve of aspirants before they are taken on as disciples.
About 1960, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi started his mission incorporating transcendental meditation, and a little later the Hari Krishna’s started under the guidance of Sri Prabhu Pada. There were other Indian Teachers such as Swami Vivekananda who came to the West, but the aim of this essay is not to cover all of them. The offshoot was the whole hippy movement and meditation became fashionable.
The school Ouspensky headed ultimately became the Study Society after his death. Dr Roles who took over the leadership was a contemporary of Leon MacLaren.
Leon MacLaren was born in 1910. At the age of sixteen, he read the book Progress and Poverty by Henry George.
A little later, sitting by a lake, having read from the book, it became very clear to me that there was such a thing as Truth and there was such a thing as Justice and that they could be found and being found, could be taught. It seemed to me that that was the most valuable thing one could pursue. So I resolved to pursue this when I was twenty one.
He studied law and was admitted to the bar. In addition to the law he had a great interest in Economics inherited from his father, and with the aid of his father started the School of Economic Science (SES). This operated for a number of years but he came to the point of realizing that economics did not have all the answers. A quantum jump to philosophy had to be made. Mr MacLaren commenced studying the Fourth Way Teaching and attended the Study Society run by Dr Roles. He introduced philosophy into the SES and it quickly became the main area of study.
Dr Roles met the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and was invited by him to India to meet His Holiness Sri Shantanand Saraswati who at that stage was the Shankaracharya of the North of India. Dr Roles subsequently offered to take questions to His Holiness from Mr MacLaren but Mr MacLaren declined the offer and wrote directly to Shantanand himself. His Holiness Sri Shantanand Saraswati then invited Leon MacLaren to visit him.
Now comes an interesting sequel to the event that had taken place in the Himalayas in 1855. Paramahansa Krishnananda Swami (also known as Shri Swami Krishnananda Saraswati Maharaj) had as his chief disciple Guru Deva. Guru Deva was appointed as Shankaracharya of the Northern seat of Jyotirmath and given the title Shri Swami Brahmanand Saraswati Maharaj. His successor was the same Sri Shantanand Saraswati who began a long association with Dr Roles and Leon MacLaren.
Since that time, meditation, yoga and such things have flourished in the West with an abundance of workshops and self styled gurus and teachers.
You can pick up the alternative therapies directory and be overwhelmed by any number of options ranging from Chakra realignment and cleansing, crystals, massage etc to a myriad of other options. Virtually anything can be found. But what does this all mean really in terms of real spiritual development?
If the seed planted in the 1800’s by those Rishis in the Shankara Tradition in the Himalayas was to bring an appreciation of Eastern philosophy to the West, then it could be said that the flowering of that seed has been achieved. Their message of the East has certainly become widely available in the West, and so it would appear their aim has been fulfilled. From the initial impetus put into the creation by the Rishis in the Himalayas, the Teaching did come to the West through the agency of a few remarkable people. Indeed Dr Roles of the Study Society spoke to His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati about the Fourth Way Teaching asking if it was indeed the same as the Advaita Vedanta and was told that it was the same system.
Each of the people mentioned above brought the Teaching in their own particular way, but if this is looked at from a larger perspective, each brought aspects according to their own predisposition and understanding which has combined to give a good overall appreciation.
This is not the end of that story, though how it will continue to play out will be seen in its own good time.