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  • Dusky Countenances:Ambivalent Bodies and Desires in the Theosophical Society
  • Rajbir Singh Judge (bio)

Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, Col. Henry Olcott, and William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society in New York City on 17 November 1875. In a circular drafted by Olcott with Blavatsky's assistance, the theosophists wrote that the goal of the members of the Theosophical Society was to acquire "an intimate knowledge of natural law, especially its occult manifestation," in order to develop the latent powers in man and reveal the hidden mysteries of nature. Theosophists argued that such a society was necessary because of the historical stagnation produced by "dogmatic theology" and the "materialism of science," which they claimed they countered by revealing to "Western nations the long-suppressed facts about Oriental religious philosophies, their ethics, chronology, esotericism and symbolism." Indeed, the Theosophical Society's mission was to create a universal and enlightened brotherhood that could overcome religious and racial divisions through, they continued, "a knowledge of the sublime teachings of that pure esoteric system of the archaic period, which are mirrored in the oldest Vedas, and in the philosophy of Gautama Buddha, Zoroaster, and Confucius."1

According to Blavatsky, secluded masters living in Tibet, called "Mahatmas," communicated these secret and hidden ancient precepts of the society to her and gave her the responsibility to disseminate their teachings to the uninitiated. In their travels from the United States to India in order [End Page 264] to spread this knowledge, Blavatsky and her entourage employed a spiritualist rhetoric that emphasized the importance of supernatural and hidden phenomena. However, Blavatsky argued that theosophy did not simply foreground spiritualism but revived ancient Indic traditions while remaining immune from the constraints of British colonial rule. At a time when the popularity of occult and paranormal phenomena such as spiritualism and mesmerism had grown across the globe and anticolonial sentiments had begun to emerge throughout the subcontinent, Blavatsky's teachings struck a chord, and the Theosophical Society quickly attracted large numbers of adherents, including numerous educated Indians.2

One such Indian devotee, Mohini Mohun Chatterji, a Bengali solicitor from Calcutta, began his theosophical career on 16 April 1882, when he was elected the assistant secretary of the Bengal charter of the Theosophical Society.3 He quickly rose to the upper echelons of the Theosophical Society, becoming one of the key Indian theosophists and a chela, or "disciple," of the Mahatmas. Chatterji's ability to enter this higher realm of the Theosophical Society, however, required that he evacuate his physical body and desires, which, in theosophical teachings, served as a hindrance in gaining a more superior esoteric knowledge. Following this spiritual prescription, Madame Blavatsky declared that Chatterji could become as great as the Mahatmas themselves because "he is a virgin, and never looks on women, he is an ascetic."4 Less than two years after his initial election, on 5 April 1884, Chatterji, who had become an exemplar of Blavatsky's call for disembodied spirituality, traveled across the English Channel along with Colonel Olcott, arriving in the metropole of an empire that considered itself to be at the peak of its imperial power in order to propagate knowledge from the East within the avowedly cosmopolitan milieu of the London Theosophical Society. [End Page 265] Yet this professed universal brotherhood and enchanted space of the Theosophical Society, which loosened boundaries between Indians and Europeans, also cultivated anxieties; theosophists were less successful at sublimating bodily life and desire than they claimed. This anxiety came to the fore on 9 October 1885, when Blavatsky wrote to Patience Sinnett, the wife of the English author Alfred Percy Sinnett, rigorously defending Chatterji against what Blavatsky deemed to be spurious accusations of sexual impropriety. Blavatsky argued that the accuser, Miss Leonard of the French Theosophical Society, had attempted to seduce the ascetic Chatterji in Paris and, when rejected, outright lied about the nature of her relationship with Chatterji. Blavatsky fumed that Miss Leonard was a temptress who inveigled Chatterji into the woods and then suddenly, when she realized that "her overtures in words were left without effect—slipped down her loose garment to the waist leaving her entirely nude before the boy."5 Blavatsky...


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