- India and the Occult: The Influence of South Asian Spirituality on Modern Western Occultism by Gordan Djurdjevic
The field of esotericism has long been marginalized in religious studies, and within esotericism the study of Asian religions has been even more marginalized. I remember a meeting of the Association for the Study of Esotericism in which the panels on magical traditions from Europe and the Ancient Near East were packed with people, while those that dealt with Asian concepts of magic and the supernatural were relatively deserted. This may perhaps be due to some visceral dislike of Asian religions, a response to the foreign that we see in some of our colleagues in theology. However, it may also be due to the lack of sources on Asian magical traditions and their influence on Western occultism; people may not know that there is a longstanding link between the esotericisms of the East and the West. Gordan Djurdjevic’s book deals directly with this little-studied area.
In this book, he discusses yoga and tantra as forms of esotericism, and shows the influence of yogic ideas in the works of several major figures of the modern British magical tradition: Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Kenneth Grant, and Dadaji Mahendranath. It is his argument that both Western and Eastern occultism are based on analogical thinking and correspondences, and that Western esotericists have not limited their spiritual seeking to Western sources. The use of South Asian ideas can be found in the writings of the British occultists who are the focus of this book.
When there are errors in understanding traditional Indian ideas, Djurdjevic argues that magicians are not Indologists, and do not have to know India’s languages and history to put these ideas into practice. They are entitled to make their own interpretations of traditions and use them. The obvious problem with this approach is that it can end up justifying errors as new forms of interpretation, losing track of the original idea in the process. Equating tantra and sexuality, for instance, has caused much confusion. Speaking as an Indologist, it is certainly the case that writers on religion can pick and choose [End Page 144] pieces of traditions as artists use pieces of tile to create mosaics, but they need to clarify what they are doing. If writers say that they are following an Indian tradition, but they are using ideas that are not traditional, then they are not being accurate to the tradition. Such writers claim the authority and status of an ancient religious tradition, but they are not bound by its constraints. This also brings in the problems of private language—can words mean whatever you want them to mean?
It gets yet more confusing when Western writers claim to have the ‘real’ essence of the religion, which native practitioners have overlooked. Can outsiders to a tradition know its spiritual practices better than insiders, especially when they do not know the tradition’s language and history? Many yogic and tantric texts refer to other texts, which the reader must know to understand the points that are being made. Some texts also use abbreviations, especially for mantras, and readers should know what sections to take literally and which aspects are intended as symbolism. The problem of symbolism is found in the sacred texts of most world religions, but it is particularly difficult when people do not know the languages involved.
Djurdjevic generally navigates these difficulties without creating more confusion than necessary. The aspects of Indian tradition that interested the esotericists in this book mostly dealt with occult powers, hidden aspects of mind, and various forms of sexual ritual. These are areas that were explored by the four British occultists described here: Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Kenneth Grant, and Dadaji Mahendranath.
Crowley referred to himself as the “Great Beast 666” and as a tantric hero, including yoga and tantra as part of his magical path. The “chambre des cauchemars” associated with his Abbey of...