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The Theosophical Masters

Nov 21, 2000 04:19 PM
by Dr Gregory Tillett

Recent discussion in this group has devolved upon the physical existence ofthe Theosophical Masters. Arthur Gregory, Peter Merriott, Daniel (Caldwell?), Nick Weeks, Bart Lidofsky, and Dallas have each made contributions. Although I have not previously taken part in any exchanges on this site, I thought in this matter I might add one or two thoughts of my own.

In the first place I should note that I have recently completed a Ph.D on the subject of the Masters. The thesis (2 vols; 850 pp) is entitled: 'The Theosophical Masters: An Investigation into the Conceptual Domains of H. P. Blavatsky and C. W. Leadbeater'. Thus it is that you can intuit my interest in your discussion. I should note further that I am not a member of the Theosophical Society but a scholar with a longstanding interest in esotericism and methodologies for the study of religionist belief.

Early in my researches it became clear that all discourse related to the Masters was predicated on their physical ontology; that is, their existence in time and space. Predictably, perhaps, claims such as those made by Blavatsky and Leadbeater (and their numerous disciples and continuators) have almost without exception been dismissed by commentators on the basis of evidential facticity. Unless the doubting Didymuses can put their Œhands in the sideı of the Masters, then the latter ipso facto cannot be considered to exist. Such an epistemological attitude tends to establish opposing camps of those who believe and those who do not, with any ground in between considered a "No Manıs Land". This position (which amounts to an academic "stand-off") has led to a deep divide which I would consider to be a species of the religionist versus reductionist duel which characterises much religious discussion.

Inevitably, then, the terrain of Theosophical studies has been made barren for generations of scholars because of faulty methodology. It is simply the case that meta-empirical faith claims are beyond the purview of the scholar, who possesses no methodological tools with which to falsify (or, indeed, prove) such assertions. A study of the Masters, after all, is a study ofreligious belief. As such, the data may be examined phenomenologically, but the meta-empirical truth claims which inhere in such belief are beyond enquiry. Yet the nostrum that religious credal formulae can be dispelled bythe glare of science, philosophy, or even phenomenology persists to some degree in the Academy, and it has been this attitude which has stultified the study of Theosophy - and relegated it to a most unsatisfactory context: the sociology of deviance (or ³flight from reason²).

For my own work I adopted an empirical methodology predicated upon a perspective of informed agnosticism. There was never any hope - nor any desire -on my part to prove or to disprove the historical existence of beings identified by Theosophists as Masters. This statement should not be taken as an early capitulation or as courteous even-handedness. Rather, it is crucial to recognise that the Masters may or may not exist, but for any author topresent a thesis as an attempt to demonstrate ³scientifically² a personal metaphysic (an approach which entirely belies his scholarly capacity) would be to pan knowingly for foolıs gold. It is my contention that the Œrealityı of the Masters and their function within the discourse of Theosophy remain separate concerns, and the latter question (in my opinion) isby far the more interesting enquiry. Here are some of my conclusions.

The Masters are a prime phenomenon of the occult. This latter has tended to be dismissed by scholars as a function of the sociology of irrationalism or, at best, a reactionary revolt against modernity. Yet close observationreveals that occultism is by no means a retreat from modernist paradigms, but a close engagement with the new epistemologies. Occultism, it seems, is a special form of critique in which the motifs of esotericism are deliberately refracted through the prism of secularism. Both Blavatsky and Leadbeater provide paradigmatic examples of the rhetoric of occultism; in their individual ways they each enthusiastically adopted the discourses of modernity in order to argue against what they perceived to be its more pernicious qualities.

Blavatsky attempted to remythify a universe she believed had been denuded of its numinosity. Neither Church nor Academy offered sustenance to a worldwhose protective divinities were being undermined by materialist science and Positivist philosophy. Indeed, Blavatsky felt that the Churches and secularist philosophers more or less cancelled each other out: Biblical criticism and comparative mythology had dispelled Christianityıs assertion of uniqueness and dogmatic truth, while the mute and mechanistic cosmos, as proposed by materialism and naturalistic evolutionism, left the world bereft of purpose, design, and contingency. In order to reconsecrate the cosmos - for that was her intention - Blavatsky required a new mythos, but one whichwould be acceptable to a society grown wary of deity. The aspirational figure she sought would not be able to occupy the undifferentiated mesocosm of myth, but would be required to tread the ground of fact.

The Theosophical Master was Blavatskyıs riposte to the successive philosophical and scientific exorcisms which had removed divinity from its hallowsand, as an unexpected if ironical consequence, led to the ³deanthropomorphisation² of the world. The Master as a living man could indicate that human life - even human evolution - need not be under the authority of a blind determinism. The possibility of attaining physical, spiritual, moral, and sapiential perfection - which had grown dim in the years since the Enlightenment - was literally newly incarnated in the person of the Master, whose position of evolutionary preeminence was entirely won through individualeffort. The anthropos, in danger of being relegated to accidental status in the universal processus, became in Blavatskyıs vision the centrepiece of the great cosmic telos; indeed, he was installed once more as the spiritual axis mundi.

>From esotericism Blavatsky absorbed the idea of an hierarchised cosmos leading from the mundane sphere to the supracelestial. As part of her occult dynamic, she reconstrued this hierarchy as a schematised progressivist evolutionism. Thus it was that she could co-opt much of the evolutionist idiom of her day, and reconfigure an otherwise teleologically bereft material dynamic as a divine cosmic process. Such progressivism also underscored the gnosticism of her system, for the trajectory of evolution was deemed to ascend from the material to the spiritual, with absorption into Absolute Spirit(whence the human Monad came in the first place) as the ultimate eschatological objective.

The Master enfleshes Theosophical cosmology in so far as he stands on the cusp of reintegration with Spirit. Indeed, he occupies a unique position within the system as he alone inhabits the space which is situated at the endof human ontology and at the beginning of the infinite unknowable. Consequently, he is the ideal figure to enact a dialectical interchange between the discourses of transcendence and immanence. For the Theosophist, then, the Master is proof of the penetration of the divine into the human sphere, and an augury of the possibility of humanity transcending its physical limitations and communing fully with the divine presence. Thus it is that the Master stands at the interstices of the ascent/descent figuration which resides at the centre of the Blavatskian vision.

Blavatsky presented her Theosophical synthesis not as mythology, but as fact. This approach has caused even sympathetic scholars to suspect that her esotericism was diminished by contact with rationalist paradigms. Yet in an era characterised by an emphasis on facticity, Blavatsky was simply playing Hermesian games by exploring the transformative potential of mythic facts and factual myths. For in order to attract the attentions of a physical Master, the aspiring chela needed to be prepared by achieving a comprehensive knowledge of Theosophy via the Theosophical canon (Isis Unveiled, the Mahatma letters, and The Secret Doctrine). Yet in a classical artifice, suchpreparation itself enacted a form of initiatory transformation which wouldobviate the necessity for a Master. Thus it was that fact bred mythology,and mythology bred fact.

Based on the Mastersı teachings, Blavatsky posited an endless reticulating process of human Monads engaging in matter and then becoming progressively more spiritualised until they reintegrated with the Absolute. Such a cyclic process, although presented in the vocabulary of Hindu kalpa theory, isin fact an instantiation of a classic gnostic telos of a fall into matter and a concomitant ascent to Spirit. The adoption of this favourite leitmotif of esotericism allowed Blavatsky to incorporate into her macrohistoricalprogramme sufficient of the worldıs mythologems to present her Theosophyas both a pansophic synthesis and as the undiluted prisca theologia. Of prime importance, it also enabled her to absorb the new temporalities sponsored by palĉoanthropology and geology. Thus it was that she could suggestnot only that there had been Œchaptersı before Genesis (as Darwinıs theory so challengingly implied), but that there were whole Œbiblesı with self-contained eschatons and regenerations. Blavatskyıs cosmology - apparently unlike that of her nemesis, the Churches - could thus comfortablycontend with the immensity of prehistory, and the apparent fact that primordial homo was more simian than sapiens.

Following Blavatskyıs death, access to the Masters - and the charismatic authority such access implied - caused the Theosophical Society to fractureinto competing factions. With Blavatsky gone, the revelatory and oracularpower guaranteed by her position as mediator of the Mastersı teachings disappeared. Soon, however, Leadbeater rose to prominence in the Adyar Society, in part because the confidence of his assertions of contact with the Masters, and the clairvoyant method by which such communication was vouchsafed, seemed unassailable. His claims of being in constant psychic association with the Brotherhood calmed the collective fear that the Masters had abandoned the Society or, worse, that they had never been present in the firstplace.

Leadbeaterıs clairvoyant revelations remained for the most part within the pre-mapped Theosophical cosmos, thus bolstering the edifice from the inside. Yet he soon set about superimposing his own structure upon the Blavatskian model. He drastically truncated her cosmo-historical vision and, in so doing, exaggerated the incline of its progressivist dynamic. Thus it wasthat rather than taking many lifetimes of labour, Mastership was attainable in a very few. To further speed the process he introduced various forms of theurgy which he considered to be evolutionary accelerants. Masonic initiation and Christian sacrament were reconstrued as conduits of perfecting power, able to advance the Monad closer to the ultimate goal: transformation into a Master.

In sum, then, the Master is the ideal and the template for Theosophists. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that his physical ontology is ultimatelyof less value than the profundity of the gnosis which he ³conferred² upon the aspiring chelas. Blavatsky, of course, remains the key mediator ofthe Mastersı illuminated gnosticism, and it is from her that the Master gained his rich semiotic potential. Consequently, the Master operates on several hermeneutical levels simultaneously, and as such creates of Blavatskian Theosophy something akin to a grand polyphony. It was my task to discern some of the grand associations which Blavatsky consciously invested in her depiction of the Masters. Some examples of my conclusions can be ascertained from the following quotation from my thesis:

ŒThe Master is the Oriental sage who brings revelatory authority in his wake; he is also the monastic elder whose austerities and ³prayerfulness² have earned him Godıs ear. He is the personification of Enlightenment perfectibilism, and the ideal of human progress and evolution; he is alsothe inspired pĉdagogue who encourages his charges to penetrate through the text and thereby ascend to divinity. He is the Rosicrucian hero, the embodiment of the Ideal and the Real; he is also Enoch-Metatron, Godıs angelic lieutenant who once was human, and Melchizedek, Œhaving neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto a Son of Godı. Perhapsmost clearly - and yet characteristically elusively - he is Hermes, the daimon of both antithesis and synthesisı.

It is my hope that an empirical and comparative examination of the Masters will furnish further examples of Blavatskyıs genius for synthesis. Such researches must acknowledge, though, that the physical historical existenceof the Brotherhood lies beyond their expertise. Crucially, one suspects that reducing the vast potentialities of the Master topos to such limited (and banal) questions as ³Did they appear physically at such and such a time?² will only serve to deny Theosophy its proper place as a roaring tributary to the great stream of the history of ideas.

Brendan French
Sydney, Australia.

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