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Re: Theos-World The Theosophical Masters

Nov 21, 2000 11:25 PM
by ramadoss

Brendan French's scholarly msg is interesting and timely. Could he, for the
sake of less educated and those less fluent in the English language,
summarize his views and conclusions in a simpler language and a shorter
posting. Everyone will be benefited by it.


At 11:22 AM 11/22/2000 +1100, you wrote:
>Recent discussion in this group has devolved upon the physical existence
of the 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 of religious 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 by the 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
>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 to present 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) is by far the more interesting enquiry. Here are some of my
>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 observation
reveals 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
world whose 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 which would 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
hallows and, 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 individual effort. 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
end of 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
>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, such preparation itself enacted a form of initiatory
transformation which would obviate 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,
is in 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
macrohistorical programme sufficient of the worldıs mythologems to present
her Theosophy as 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 suggest not 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 comfortably contend 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 fracture
into competing factions. With Blavatsky gone, the revelatory and oracular
power 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 first place.
>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 was that 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
ultimately of less value than the profundity of the gnosis which he
³conferred² upon the aspiring chelas. Blavatsky, of course, remains the
key mediator of the 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 also
the 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.
Perhaps most 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 existence
of 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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