Friday, May 29, 2020

Cracked on Krishnamurti

When I was kid I read Cracked magazine and found it pretty hilarious. Sure, it was kind of a knockoff of Mad magazine, but it did have some very funny writers and good bits. And for whatever reason, I didn't find Mad quite as funny - though I think I was a bit of an oddball there among my friends. In the Internet age, Cracked has reinvented itself as a site for articles that are funny, but often also educational. Today they have a piece up about Jiddu Krishnamurti and the efforts of the Theosophical Society to promote him as "world teacher" - until he got fed up with the whole thing and walked away from it.

Theosophy had tens of thousands of adherents, ranging from serious devotees to celebrity dabblers like Thomas Edison. Blavatsky argued that every major religion contained some element of truth, and she made that argument in books that were based on her invented travels to Tibet and that liberally stole from earlier occult works.

For today, all you need to know about is her idea of a World Teacher, a supposed being from a higher plane of existence that routinely takes human form to guide the development of our species. Blavatsky speculated that our Teacher previously popped down in guises that included Confucius, Plato, Seneca, and Jesus, and in 1909 the Theosophical Society claimed to have found Jesus 2.0.

One of the most damning points regarding the "Tibetan" teachings of Theosophy is that once Tibetan Buddhism made its way to the West, it became clear that the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism did not really resemble the teachings of Theosophy in any way. I will say the idea that "there is no religion higher than truth" is a good one, but if your "truth" is something you're just making up as you go along it undermines your argument entirely.

Let's provide some more context, because otherwise claiming to have found the reincarnated Christ just sounds weird. In 1880, Blavatsky moved to India to establish a new Theosophical lodge. And while "White woman explains India's own religious beliefs to the locals" is normally just the basis of an obnoxious spring break, she attracted supporters who appreciated her interest in Hinduism at a time when British authorities were trying to suppress local beliefs to spread Christendom.

Blavatsky eventually returned to Europe and died in 1891, but between Theosophy's charity work and their advocacy for Indian independence they became part of the local landscape. So it wasn't entirely insane when one of Theosophy's top leaders saw a boy hanging around the beach near their compound and declared "Whoa, check out the aura on that kid! We've got the guy who's going to usher in a golden age right here, folks."

The teenage messiah was Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the man making that declaration was Charles Webster Leadbeater. Leadbeater had been a well-respected Anglican priest who, in 1883, learned about Theosophy and eventually left the Church of England to join the Society. There he wrote, taught, lectured, and handled much of the administrative work, which was no small task. Maybe his self-proclaimed clairvoyance helped.

I'm not going to summarize the rest of the post - I recommend you read it for yourself. The facts in the article are rendered snarkily (this is Cracked, after all) but as far as I can tell they are correct. Star in the East by Roland Vernon tells the whole story, and it's pretty much how the article lays it out. The Theosophical society basically exploited him until he split from them, and he was entirely justified in doing so.

Personally I find Krishnamurti to be a frustrating spiritual thinker. If you are in the position of breaking away from a dogmatic and/or oppressive religion, his works are great. His message is basically that you shouldn't trust anyone who claims to be a spiritual authority or enlightened master or representative of God or whatever, and instead you should only trust yourself. Which is good advice. Krishnamurti also is consistent - he tells people they shouldn't follow him either.

My issue is that the message doesn't go much further than that. As I mentioned yesterday, I think of "real religion" as a system designed to produce spiritual awakenings and experiences. The point of having a system in the first place is to put together a collection of practices that many people have found workable, so every student starting out on the path doesn't need to reinvent the wheel. Of course groups that grow up around teaching those practices can be more or less functional, and more or less controlling.

But I don't see that as a reason to abandon the whole concept of a time-tested spiritual system. The fact is that if you aren't doing spiritual practices of any kind, any spiritual experiences you have will just be luck, and you probably won't be able to repeat them. Also most spiritual practices require some study in order to do them effectively. You don't necessarily need to do this under the tutelage of a teacher, but you do need to have some idea where to start. And "only trust yourself" doesn't give you any direction there.

The way I teach is that I present the rituals of the Thelemic tradition and explain how to perform them. Then I invite my students to try them out over a period of time. If something works, keep doing it. If something doesn't work, drop it. This is largely how I developed my own practice without a formal magical teacher, and it's pretty effective - as long as you have a place to start and put in the time to develop your level of skill.

Success should be your proof - if it works, it works and if you are getting good results, you are succeeding. That's where it's up to you to trust in yourself, and never let some expert or guru tell you that you're doing it wrong when your practice is working for you. I expect that there is advice Krishnamurti would have endorsed.

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