CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Revelation and Experience in the Theosophical Tradition

by Reender Kranenborg
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

1. Introduction

A central concern in religious experiences is experience of another reality or of the world beyond. This world beyond is home not only to God (or Being, or the divine force) but also to other ‘inhabitants’. There are, accordingly, angels, spirits, saints, blessed ones, etc. Experiences of such creatures from the world beyond properly belong to the category of religious experiences. Among the creatures inhabiting the World Beyond ‘according to the esoteric tradition’ are the Masters, beings who, according to this conviction, have attained a high spiritual level, are arranged according to a hierarchy, and are quite intent on guiding the people on earth. We could characterize experiences with these beings or masters as religious experiences.

The first to have had such an experience of the Masters is Helena Blavatsky. She identified many of the details associated with such experiences. We can ascertain that a substantial number of religious experiences with the Masters have occurred within the esoteric tradition since then; by means of such experiences others thus share in the religious experiences of Blavatsky. Since Blavatsky had her first experiences, the Masters have constituted an integral component of all subsequent religious experiences attained within the esoteric tradition. The question which arises is: How are these religious experiences with the masters transmitted and how do people share in them? It is important to see that trance plays a central role here.

2. Recent appearance of the Master

At the end of 1974 a Dutch women fell into a trance, during which, according to her eaccount, a male person appeared to her, dressed in glittering clothes en enveloped by an iridescent green light. He introduced himself as Hazrat Inayat Khan and passed messages on to her from the spheres. In 1977 another person, Master Morya, appeared to her and passed knowledge of occult teachings on to her. In 1979 the third – and last – voice, that of Master Jesus, came ot her in trance. He appeared to be the leader of a hierarchy of ‘Masters of love and wisdom’ and had selected her to relay the messages of his ‘heavenly brotherhood’. Master Jesus, in turn, was the mouthpiece of a higher being: the Christ. According to this Dutch women, the Christ had manifested himself in Gautama the Buddha, had united later with Jesus of Nazareth, and would return to earth as Maitreya the Christ.

Regarding the Dutch woman, she claimed that until the first trance-experience, she did not know anything of the esoteric tradition and had never heard of the Masters. So we have the question: what was the origin of her experiences and how did she acquire this religious knowledge? And: what was the source of the concept of the Masters (especially that of Jesus as Master)?

3. Blavatsky and the Masters

The esoteric tradition in Europe is centuries old, though it often operated underground (cf. the alchemists, Boehme, 1575-1624). At the beginning of the eighteenth century many non-christian groups arose which appealed to a clandestine occult tradition. Of important in this regard are the Freemasons (since 1717) and the Swedenborg cult (1688-1772). The nineteenth century witnessed the rise of spiritualism, which displayed great interest in trances and hypnotism, alongside of romanticism. Since those involved in spiritualism seek contact with the other world trhough such extraordinary experiences, trances and the like became an important component of the Western esoteric tradition.

Blavatsky played a prominent role in this tradition in the nineteenth century (1831-1891). Much remains obscure about the period of her life preceding her appearance in New York in 1874. She appears to have been paranormally gifted; she was able to fell in trances and had spiritualistic abilities (suc as apport, telekinesis, etc.). She related first having met a Master in 1843, after a fall of a runaway horse in Asiatic Russia. There she was cared for by an extraordinary man who suddenly appeared and who disappeared just as suddenly. She afterwards saw him sporadically in visions. In 1851 she saw Master Morya in the company of some Hindu princes and from that time he maintained contact with her. In 1860 she met Master Hilarion. In 1868 Morya directed her to go to Tibet and she reports actually having gone, receiving instruction in Morya’s teaching in Shigatse for two years while living in thenhouse of Master Kuthumi, along with Djwal Khul, a fellow pupil. While in Egypt she met Master Serapis Bey and his brother Tituït Bey in 1870. She also encountered Master P. or the Venetian. According to her account, these Masters not only appeared in trance to her, but they actually materialized in her presence. In 1874 she met H.S.Olcott (1832-1907) and together they founded the Theosophical Society. In 1875 she wrote Isis Unveiled, most of it while in trance, aided therein by persons from the other world such as Master Narayan and Master Rakoczi (also known as the Count of Saint Germain). In 1879 she left for India, meeting A.P.Sinnett in 1880. After some time Sinnett started to receive letters from the Masters, later published as the Mahatma-letters. Several other figures, such as W.Q.Judge (1851-1896) and W.Hubbe-Schleiden (1846-1916), received similarly paranormal letters from the Masters. Others (H.S.Olcott, C.W.Leadbeater, K.Damodar, S.R.Iyer, W.T.Brown and A.Besant) were even granted the privilege to meet a Master in material form. A scandal erupted in 1884 in connection with Blavatsky’s contacts with the Masters and the letters. A report by Hodgson of the Society for psychic research proved to be devastating. Whatever the case may have been, no further letters were received from the Masters after 1884. But Blavatsky remained in contact with the two most important Masters, Morya and Kuthumi. In 1888 she wrote The Secret Doctrine, ordered and inspired to do so by the Masters.

It is not possible to examine Blavatsky’s teachings here. For my purpose the only element that bears fuller explication is the notion of the Masters. These, according to Blavatsky, are adepts who once lived on earth and could have chosen to retire to eternal bliss upon attaining the highest level of enlightenment and degree of perfection, but who instead remained in this world, directing their concern towards humanity. The Masters attempt to guide human beings on the evolutionary path, spurring them forward on the road towards unity. They live on the astral plane and are capable of doing extraordinary things, such as materializing in the form of earthly bodies. Ever since the time that Blavatsky encountered them in trance and spoke out about them they have been a central element in the esoteric tradition. The Masters mentioned above are the ones with whom Blavatsky was acquainted . It is worth noting that Jesus is not among them. Although Jesus plays an important role in occult thought, he is not a Master like the others, according to Blavatsky. With Blavatsky there is not yet mention of an organized hierarchy of higher beings in the spheres or of Christ as one of these personalities. Nonetheless, her discussion of the Masters furnished the fundamental basis for all further reflections about these beings. She thereby amply augmented the esoteric tradition.

4. C.W. Leadbeater and the Masters

Leadbeater spoke much about the Masters but did not meet them in trance.

5. Krishnamurti and the Masters

In the beginning Krishnamurti spoke about the Masters. He did not know the trance.

6. Rudolf Steiner and the Masters

Steiner knew of trance and of meeting Masters.

7. A.A.Bailey and the Masters

Alice Bailey had many contacts in trance with the Masters; the result was a conflict with the Theosophists.

8. Trance Experiences and the Cumulative Tradition

In view of the above it is clear that the trance or ‘half-trance’ plays an essential role in transmitting the religious experiences involving the Masters, During trance one’personality is changed; one ‘loses’ one’s own consciousness and ‘another consciousness’ comes into play. Often the voice, language and expressions of the medium change. Other physical reactions can also occur. While entranced, one is (a) highly susceptible and (b) very open to suggestions. One might speak her of ‘clairvoyance’ by which is meant that one feels, sees , or articulates the thoughts, wishes, and desires of others present. Also, (c) the creativity of the medium is greatly enhanced. In many cases the medium has no conscious memory of what he has said while in trance.

In most trances a certain amount of information surfaces and some substantial knowledge is passed on. The trance experience is always a full one; ‘empty’ trance experiences are very rare. The content of the trance experience is old as well as new. It is, on one had, old insofar as the medium and his followers stand in a particular cultural tradition or a movement within that tradition. The content of the trance owes its specificity to this background. In other words, knowledge is already present in the medium and in the people around him. The medium and his followers are not blank slates.

On the other hand, the knowledge that is passed on is also new. No medium exclusively reproduces something that has already known, but rather shapes the available material in his own fashion, changing, reorganizing, or merging it with new elements, thus gradually expanding it.

Revelation received by the medium thus represents elaboration of the knowledge that already exists within the tradition concerned, allowing us to speak of a ‘cumulative tradition’. This cumulative tradition forms the foundational material from which a subsequent medium can begin. During the trance experience the medium can be said to seek – unconsciously – for answers (or messages) based on the expectations of his environment. Through the agency of the aforementioned susceptibility, suggestibility, and creativity, he ‘discovers’ material that can be used. This material can only be an extension of what is at hand, that is, the knowledge present in himself or in those around him. This is due to the fact that the medium comes into intensive contact with the cumulative tradition while in trance. From this cumulative tradition the medium derives the elements which he seeks; these are passed on to those in the medium’s circle. The latter consider such communications received via trance as originating in the other world and, accordingly, as new revelations.’ Al already intimated, the medium draws upon cumulative tradition selectively. The medium cannot, after all, grasp everything; his knowledge and that of those around him is limited.

The medium’s knowledge derives from the past. It items of current knowledge are revealed, its source is experienced as lying in the existing stock of cumulative knowledge. Revelations concerning the future are not found in trance experiences. Cumulative esoteric tradition does not originate exclusively through nor is limited to what occurs in trance. It is the whole of that knowledge which comes into existence within a specific movement by means of discourse, written works, novels, preaching, etc.

What is experienced in trance is seem as authoritative. It is felt that in the trance experience something or someone other than the medium is the source of the message and that this agent provides information which those present are unacquainted. Such information is seen as ‘new revelation’.

Trance experiences are of a religious nature because a transcendent reality is perceived in them which is allegedly indiscernible to others in the same way. Although other people do, to be sure, experience transcendent reality, the experience of those in trance is of a different order: it is more intensive and authoritative. Many of those in the medium’s presence never experiences trance themselves. For them there are two possibilities: either they accept what the medium has said as authoritative, believing the messages and embracing these as a guideline for their lives, or they reject such communications for any of variety of reasons.

Sometimes there are people in the medium’s circle who themselves undergo the psychic experience of trance. For them it is also possible tot come into contact with the transcendent world in this specific manner and to have someone from the spheres ‘speak’ through them. They will, consequently, no longer simply take the medium’s experiences for granted. At the very least they will view their own experience as equally valid. Since experiences are never wholly the same, differences are bound to arise between one medium and the other. In that event one of the following things can happen: (a) a split may occur. (b) The previous experiences and messages of the other medium are placed on a hierarchically lower level, one’s own revelation being portrayed as encompassing the preceding ones. Differences arise, it is then said, because the first medium did not fully understand the message, or because the knowledge given earlier can now be seen in terms of a greater whole. (c) The concepts of temporality or locality may be applied: experiences of other mediums are said to have been intended for a specific time period or group. It may on occasion even be said of one’s own experience that is ‘local’.

9. Conclusions

When we consider the experiences of the people mentioned in this paper in the light of the remarks made in the last paragraph, we can reach the following conclusions.

(a)   Ever since Blavatsky first encountered the Masters, they have formed a central element of the esoteric tradition. Time and again there are people who have experiences which feature these figures.

(b)  When people who are familiar with this tradition fall into trance they will, we may assume on the basis of what has been stated above, encounter the Masters.

The following question remains to be considered: is “sharing” in these specific religious experiences possible? The answers which people give diverge widely:

  1. People who do not have the gift of trance will be unable to share in the experiences of Blavatsky and others with regard to their visions of the Masters. They can either (a) accept what Blavatsky and the others state concerning these higher beings, or, (b) train themselves according to the precepts of anthroposophy, developing their senses and thus enabling them too, to experience such as encounters.
  2. People capable of going into trance who stand in the same tradition are indeed capable of sharing the experiences of Blavatsky and others. At the same time, however, these new experiences are so individually coloured that the differences between them and the older ones will dominate. This can have a variety of consequences. Depending upon their earlier knowledge and experiences these people will either land up being closer to or further from the experiences of Blavatsky. Steiner, who had already undergone a long process of development and who had had his own experiences, appeared to come into conflict with her. Krishnamurti, who did not in fact have any such experiences but underwent something entirely different, drew the obvious conclusion and broke with her. There are others who developed their trance experiences within the theosophical tradition but who later went their own way when they were bold enough to attribute more authority on their own experiences that to the experiences of others. For this group of people their own experience with the Masters was so authoritative that they were willing to risk a break with the others or did in fact go their separate way. In short, their own experience had priority over that of others. 

There are still many questions that remain unanswered, but two must in any event be addressed. Firs of all: How did the Dutch woman arrive at her experiences with the Masters/ Her experience with Inayat Khan is unique, so far as I can trace it. Nevertheless, her encounters with Master Morya and Master Jesus en the Christ show that she was familiar with the esoteric tradition (or that someone in her circle was). In connection with these Masters she took her the schemes of Leadbeater and of Bailey as her point of departure, rounded them out, and interpreted them in her own manner.

In the second place: What is the origin of Blavatsky’s experience of the Masters? No answer to this question is available at the present time. Webb states that the concept of the Masters is not derived from eastern religion, since such Masters are unknown to adherents of Hinduism and Buddhism, in spite of their (pseudo-)Eastern names. Also, the stories familiar to people in India concerning holy man are entirely different from those of Blavatsky regarding the Masters. Webb states that the idea of the Masters stems from Western occultism and refers in this connection to the order of Freemasons of Martinez de Pasqually (Order of Martinists, and later the “Improved Scottish Rite”) and of Karl Gotthelf von Hund (the “Strict Observance”) that arose in the eighteenth century. This material is nonetheless scanty. Von Hund did speak of a mysterious knight who helped him and sometimes mentions “mysterious leaders”, and “unknown superior beings”, but these ultimately prove to be no more that vague allusions and do not seem to be in any way linked to Blavatsky’s teachings. Blavatsky knew of the Martinists and her commentary on them I expressed in very negative terms. All in all there seems to be no reason to suppose that this movement was her source for the discovery of the idea of the Masters; Martinez’ world and life view differs too much from that of Blavatsky to make any such debt plausible. She supposedly conceived it herself during the unknown period in her spiritual past. She did indeed fundamentally expand the cumulative esoteric tradition with her experiences.

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