CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

"Domestic Hinduism", Culture of Print and the “New Religions”

by Milan Fujda (Department for the Study of Religions, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


In spite of its frequent use the term “new religions” or “new religious movements” was scarcely defined, and indeed, can be hardly used as a proper concept. To refer to 1950s or 1960s in a search for historical delimitation of phenomenon is hardly coherent with an inclusion of great number of much older movements under the category.1 Furthermore, to differentiate between one group of contemporary religions and another group of contemporary religions simply by setting apart those, which were established up to certain date, and those established after the date, still does not explain what kind of novelty was brought with the date in question, and why this novelty affected only the new born bodies and not the old ones.

John Gordon Melton tried to define “new religions” with reference to the fact that these religious bodies occupy a highly contested social space and form “a set of religions assigned an outsider status by the dominant religious culture and then by elements within the secular culture” (Melton 2004). This is definitely a step forward since such a definition enables us to grasp one of important aspects of contemporary religious dynamics. Yet heuristic usability of such a definition is limited precisely to this particular feature of new religiosity and prevents us from dealing with a scope of another important issues. Whole range of important theoretical questions concerning relations between new religiosity and more general development trends in modern societies can be asked only indirectly and accidentally in this framework.

On following pages I will therefore try to clarify some issues related to “new religions” with reference to a broader social and cultural context of its origins and developments. In specific way I will follow recommendation of an important Czech methodologist in the Study of Religions Břetislav Horyna. In his older article he suggested that the term “new” - as classifying certain religions - needs to be understood with reference to a new context of their activities, i.e. context of modern society (Horyna 1994: 16-17). Using data from my research on acculturation of Hinduism in Czech occultism, I will point out that this new context was largely provided by the possibilities of mediated communication and interaction through (at first) printed media, and that this factor plays significant role in modernization of religions in general – “new” as well as “old”. One of reasons why this aspect of modernization of religions is seldom recognized, according to me, is a habit of juxtaposing the “old”, seemingly traditional, and the “new” religions. This division, however, seems to me to be only a seemingly value neutral reflection of main positions in cult controversy. Another reason for the omission of interaction and communication in the study of new religions seems to be the fact the this factor was neglected by classics of sociology who were partly mislead by the notion of rationalization and the story behind it (Thompson 2004: 8-9). I will show that when contrasting new religiosity with traditional one while dwelling on a more conservative understanding of “traditional”, the difference between “new” and “old” religions will largely vanish while new possibilities of understanding changes of religion in modern societies will emerge.


Acculturation of Hinduism in Czech occultism: An overview

Indian notions and practices began to be acculturated among Czech occultists during the last decade of 19th century and widespread more generally during the 1920s when publishing of occult literature became a business concern of publishing houses either specialized on publishing of occult literature in particular (like Zmatlík a Palička) or on edifying2 literature in general (Cyril M. Höchl, Hejda a Tuček etc.).

There were various reasons why some of elements of Hindu religions became interesting and useful for Czech occultists since the turn of 19th and 20th centuries. One of them was the need to search for a “new” tradition capable of providing rational, yet ultimately grounded, means for orientation in the new “fluid”3 world, and to satisfy the romantic need for unity in the age of differentiation. Hinduism, or to be precise, some elements of it, was capable of providing this because in its modern forms it was a (re)construction created by Indian neo-Hindus and Western scholars to satisfy various demands of modernity in European as well as in colonial Indian contexts. Thus a tradition capable of satisfying specific needs of modern intellectual middle classes was established and occultists could develop it along their own lines.

Here, however, I am not interested in the question why Hinduism suited particular needs of occultists, but in the way how they utilized it. I need to identify some crucial features of "orientalized" occultism and to clarify their relation to the changes brought by new printed media. First of all I must therefore provide a short overview of acculturation of Hinduism in Czech occultism.

Occultism utilized “Hindu traditions” very freely. Basically occultists interpreted Hindu religions as an „Oriental magic“ or as an „Oriental mysticism“. In both cases interpretations were much indebted to theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, yet not exclusively to it. The most important occult societies which largely used Indian notions and symbols were Czech branches of Theosophical Society, the Liberal School of Hermetic Sciences4 (henceforth LSHS) and the club Psyche (or the Czech school of Christian Mysticism) led by Karel Weinfurter.

Theosophical Society

The founder of organized theosophy in Czech lands was baron Adolf Leonhardi from Stráž nad Nežárkou (Stráž on river Nežárka). He founded the lodge called By the Blue Star in Prague in 1891 by introducing to theosophy an established group of men practising regularly spiritualism. After a rupture and change of its membership the lodge transformed into the Theosophical Club in 1897 (with affiliation to Internationale Theosophische Verbrüderung in Leipzig), Czech Theosophical Society in 1908 (with affiliation to the mother organization in Adyar) and Society for Mystic Studies in 1927 (without exclusive affiliation to any other TS5) (Emanuel z Lešehradu 1935: 199-200). The activity of the Society for Mystic Studies stopped during the time of real socialism in 1956. The Psyche club was dissolved already in 1951 as a “religious sect”, “which endangers the peoples' democratic regime” (Psyche, AHMP). The LSHS did not even recover after the World War II.

Since the time of Theosophical Club (1897) Czech theosophy had more Christian than Oriental orientation. In spite of this an influence of advaita-vedanta was apparent since the beginning of the movement, the doctrine of reincarnation was hardly opposed, and later on, as the lists of lectures organized by the Society inform us (TS, AHMP), Paul Brunton and his guru Ramana Maharishi, Vivekananda's gurubhai Abhedananda, Rabindranath Tagore and even Swami Shivananda were received well by theosophists in their quest for “universal wisdom”. Bhagavadgita played important role in Czech theosophy and was published by theosophists in two Czech translations (Procházka 1900, Maternová 1921), both displaying characteristic theosophical tendencies towards allegorical interpretations. Needless to say, however, that Therese of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Kempis as well as Annie Besant and Leadbeater and others played also significant role in this religion which refused to depend on any a priori limited body of textual sources.

With reference to above mentioned division between “mystic” and “magic” interpretations of Hinduism or particularly yoga, Czech theosophy had rather a mystical leanings, i.e. preferred unio mystica to a search for occult powers often called by a Sanskrit term siddhi(s). These could have manifest themselves as a direct consequence of spiritual progress of an individual even in the case of a theosophist, but it was not recommended to work directly on their development. This attitude was shared by Karel Weinfurter and his school. The LSHS, in contrast, emphasised the development of siddhis as a central aim of yogic training.

In fact, Karel Weinfurter, the later founder of the Czech School of Christian Mysticism and the most active mediator of yoga and the tradition of Ramakrishna Mission in Czech was a member of above mentioned lodge By the Blue Star. The group of his friends headed by a banker and later writer Gustav Meyrink, many of whom were members of Besant's Esoteric Section, turned away from theosophy in 1894/95 and began to practise meditation according to Patanjali's Yogasutras and later also Bhagavadgita, and according to the book Nature's Finer Forces (1889) by Rama Prasad - a work seemingly tantric (Weinfurter 1999: 73, 80), yet in fact theosophical by origin though referring to unspecified tantric scriptures.

The Psyche Club

The Psyche Club was established in 1929 but, as indicated above, its founder Karel Weinfurter was engaged in Czech-German occultism already before 1891. His first published book Miracles and Magic of Indian Faquirs (Divy a kouzla indických fakirů, 1913) was an exposition of Indian ascetism according to J. C. Oman's The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India (1903), it retold some stories from Blavatsky's From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan (1892), and contained the story of Sri Ramakrishna and his sayings according to Max Müller's Râmakrishna: His Life and Sayings (1898). Original parts of Weinfurter's book explained teaching of yoga according to Patanjali, Gherandasanhita, Shivasanhita, Hathayogapradipika, Yogasarasangraha with minor dependence on Richard Schmidt's Fakire un fakirtum im alten un modernen Indien (1907). Already there, anyway, his teaching was strongly influenced by Bhagavadgita. Later on Hathayogapradipika and Bhagavadgita, as well as Vivekanada's lectures collected in Rajayoga together with his translation and exposition of Patanjali were translated by Weinfurter into Czech and provided with detailed commentaries.

Weinfurter even got in touch with Vivekananda's gurubhai and American missionary of Ramakrishna Mission Swami Abhedananda already before 1920. Thus some influence of this tradition was mediated by Weinfurter's translations and finally again through two volume book Master Ramakrishna and His Teaching (Mistr Ramakrišna a jeho učení, 1933). The important turn occurred during the half of 1930s. Weinfurter started to popularize yoga-vedanta of Paul Brunton and his guru Ramana Maharishi. The visit of Brunton in Prague led to a split in the Psyche Club since some Weinfurter's followers moved from his Christian mysticism inspired by Eastern sources to more strictly Maharishian yoga-vedanta. At this point specific tradition of Czech yoga-vedanta was founded by Weinfurter's former colleagues and friends Arnošt Čapek and Josef Hoznourek etc. Thanks to personalities like photographer František Drtikol, Jaroslav Kočí, Květoslav Minařík, Jiří Vacek (still alive) and the married couple of Míla and Eduard Tomáš this tradition was carried on silently through the period of real socialism into the times of newly acquired freedom in 1990s when it outburst as differentiated movement with ability to mobilize thousands6.

Weinfurter was not happy with this turn of his followers towards yoga since according to him yoga was foreign to Westerners who should be satisfied with their domestic traditions. It meant an adherence to Christianity. But Weinfurter's Christianity was based on Boehmian theosophy, which was mediated to him by German Christian theosophist Aloys Meiländer (Sanitrák 2006: 94-95). Crucial for Weinfurter's system of thought was rosicrucian-alchemic interpretation of death and resurrection of Christ as the alchemical transmutation which must be repeated in the body of every mystic. Such a resurrection of Christ, however, could be interpreted in many ways and practical means for attaining it were hardly systematically developed in those “domestic traditions”. For these reason Weinfurter could turn to above mentioned Indian scriptures, classical and new, and indeed make yogic-tantric concept of kundalini (according to interpretations of John Woodroffe), sankhya-theosophical anthropology, yogic meditation and Vivekananda's notion of the Self as the only true guru the stepping stones of his “Christian mysticism”.

The Liberal School of Hermetic Sciences

The founder of LSHS Otokar Griese, in contrast to Weinfurter who earned successfully his livelihood from his books and translations, attracted many people by his public lectures7, and even had to book one day a week to serve people demanding healing services (Sanitrák 2006: 223), did not have mass appeal and his publishing enterprises repeatedly brought him into financial troubles. The reasons may have been (a) that he started his activities more than a decade sooner then the kind of magical occultism he represented became popular in Czech, (b) that in spite of popularizing a kind of practical magical occultism, which later proved suitable for mass consumption, he insisted on certain intellectual level of discussion and preferred publishing of older and newer classics instead of more reader-friendly popular handbooks. He published authors like Papus, P. B. Randolph, Eliphas Lévi, Paul Sédir, even Cornelius Aggripa and Sefer Yecirah, also Patanjali's Jogasutras with a commentary of W. Q. Judge and Frantz Hartmann's translation of parts of advaita-vedantic Vivekacudamani.

Similarly as the H. B. of L., but also as Weinfurter, yet in different way, LSHS emphasised practical occultism leading to the acquirement of occult powers over the seemingly helpless theosophical purification. Central to his occult-magic attitude to yoga was the idea of development of unlimited power of will. All the Indian techniques of meditation served in this context as a pattern for the development of various practices of mind control and of strengthening the will power. The idea that the unconscious needs to be controlled because of its ambivalent (empowering and destructive) nature and the belief that through correctly directed thought energy one can attain more than by physical manipulation with matter was in the background.

One of interesting features which all these movements shared was the idea that the world of spirit is governed by the unbreakable set of rules analogical to rules governing the world of matter, and hence that everybody can achieve the highest realizations through proper knowledge, training and determination. This was related to some other features of this kind of occultism worth of being mentioned here.

Scientific claims

As Joscelin Godwin (1994) emphasized, occultism was much indebted to enlightenment. Hartmut Zinser (1994) had shown some reasons why occultists claimed scientific legitimation for their teachings and enterprises. The clubs of occultists claimed to do in fact science, and the propagation of their attitudes and notions they understood as the edifying activity. Certain connection with science was inherited from renaissance esotericism, which, as A. Faivre (1994: 8) pointed out, established itself on the discursive field between theology and new science with the aim to bridge the sharp divide between god and nature by studying nature in order to know god, its architect and life principle.

Occultism was based on experiment or direct experience, was critical to church religions from the rationalistic points of view, and tried to keep in touch with science proper. One of reasons why Indian Swami Vivekananda was able to touch the heart of American and European occultists and liberal Christians was that he interpreted Hinduism, or yoga-vedanta, as a universal teaching without dogmas, as a systematic method for attaining the repeatable experience of truth behind the constraints of time and space, the true scientific foundation of all religions (CWSV I: 16). Apart from being an expression of the will for scientific religion this was an apparent expression of relocation of religious authority from pre-established socially grounded one to individually8 grounded experiental one. All the mentioned movements operated with the concept of guru or mahatma. Yet the guru was hardly a man in flesh and his instructions ought to come in the form of intuition, it means from within and not from without oneself (Hermes 1908: 86, Besant 1920: 213-214, 286 etc.). Especially Weinfurter repeatedly emphasized that a proper guru is rarely a person, and that the real and the only necessary guru dwells in our hearts (Weinfurter 1927: 92).

Wouter J. Hanegraaff (1998: 407) pointed out that interpretation of esoteric cosmologies in terms of modern sciences operating with the principle of causality is a hallmark, which distinguishes occultism from older forms of esotericism exploring correspondences. From a different point of view, whereas the renaissance esotericism is grounded in the symbolic language, in which knowledge, as M. Foucault described it, operates as a hermeneutics of similarities, occultism is a clear manifestation of knowledge as a mirror-representation of reality in the same sense as a science of what Foucault (2000: 33-59) called classical period. Indeed, Czech occultists had never used the symbolic language of earlier esotericism. They were providing definite explanations of the meanings of texts instead of symbolic interpretations of the universe, hence allegory – so typical for occult translations and interpretations of Bhagavadgita - played crucial role in this discourse. Allegory was used to explain symbolic meaning, not to convey the meaning in a symbolic language.

Remarkable trait of occultism is also that it shared particular modern concept of religion with the Studies of Religions, Oriental Studies, modern philosophies and protestant traditions in Christianity. In this concept the aspect of doctrine was greatly emphasised over the aspect of ritual practise without “deep meanings”, and a necessarily systematic nature of teachings was beyond queries. In a systematic doctrine the essence of religion ought to be manifested and this was to be searched for through the study of documents. Hence occultism was a kind of living history of cultures and philosophies re-actualising the universal systematic teaching of philosophia perennis.


Syncretic and scripturalist nature of the teachings


From previous remarks it is clear that a notion of authoritative canon was foreign to occultists. Philosophia perennis could have been manifested in various, even apparently contradictory teachings. The search for universal eternal teaching in the documents of various origins resulted in consciously syncretic systems, in which elements from various religions and philosophies were arranged in some kind of order of hierarchies and analogies usually built upon the logic of one particular system which served as key for composition/understanding of all other elements. The Indian notions, terms and practices were not used otherwise than more or less fundamental parts of such systems based on principles of, say, Christian alchemy like in the case of Karel Weinfurter or another system of thoughts.

This feature was further manifested in the organization of occult clubs. These clubs were, indeed, communities of readers and experimenters, who during their meetings and lectures exchanged the information on literature, literature itself, and personal experiences with prescriptions found in texts. A particular genre of religious literature, i.e. textbooks for self-teaching, were designed for satisfaction of this reading public. Hence also a suitable label “the secrete religion of educated classes” (provided by Ernest Troeltsch, see Campbell 1978: 156)9 well trained in reading and socialized into thinking based on possibility of personal silent reading of texts.


Liberalism and humanism


These people shared in great deal the liberal political outlooks, especially the notion that people are born free, have the same rights and no body has right to impose any constraints on their liberty of thinking and its public expression. Restrictions on this right imposed by Catholic church were target of continuous critique from the side of occultists.


In spite of sharing liberal ideas some traces of cultural nationalism can be found in works of Czech occultists. Their nationalism was partly based on the idea of Indo-European language-ethnic unity and thus directly related to Oriental studies, partly on the idea of a special spiritual ability of Czech nation which ought to be manifested in Czech reformation and the tradition of Czech Brethren. This cultural nationalism of occultists was hardly conflicting with their universal humanism in their attempts to elevate the nation to a higher level of culture.


Considerations for the Concept of New Religions

From the presented overview it is clear that the acculturation of Hinduism in Czech occultism cannot be treated as a conversion. It was rather a consequence of inner development of modern cultures during last three or four centuries. This, I think, should be kept in mind while studying even contemporary East-oriented religiosity (apart from the cases of immigrant communities). Even Swami Vivekananda, as indicated above, Paramhansa Yogananda or later on Swami Prabhupada and many others could have exercised certain influence in modern West only due to a new receptivity for their traditions, which was preconditioned by cultural and social changes related to modernization process. Furthermore, as I showed elsewhere (Fujda 2007), these Indian traditions were prepared well for preaching in the west by the fact that they themselves were representatives of radically transformed-modernized “Hinduism”. The crucial factor of this modern development of religions, according to me, was a radical transformation of forms of communication and social interaction caused by extensive use of new technologies and services like post, telegraph, telephone, but more than anything else by printing press.

Printing press proved to be an effective means of subversion of traditional forms of religious authority already during the reformation period. During the turn of 19th and 20th centuries the printed media were commonly circulated in Czech lands. The edifying literature was one of the most widespread kinds of literature. Already in 1881 T. G. Masaryk (1926: 183-184) pointed out in his habilitation Der Selbstmord als sociale Massenerscheinung der modernen Civilisation that it was popular spread of science mediated by printed materials what caused an erosion of traditional beliefs and lead to uncertainty typical, according to him, for modern societies. Yet new ways of reconnecting the daily life with the general structure of meaning, i.e. new sources of certainty, started to be searched for on a more individual basis. In this search for new “traditions” occultist utilized the esoteric heritage, which contained the patterns of individual search through self study of religious and philosophical scriptures, and connected the study of nature with the study of divinity immanent in it. Now, due to general dispersion of education focused on the knowledge of reading (and counting) and due to dispersion of printed editions of esoteric as well as Orientalist literature, the elitist esotericism could have been transformed into a relatively mass occultism at least among middle-classes, and could also broaden its scope to cover not only the Western “wisdom tradition” but also the Eastern one.

But such a scriptural religion based on silent reading of printed books has many specific features. First of all, such a religion does not need locally based community. Its “community” is established by the shared reading preferences, and though the personal bonds also develop, these are established on voluntary bases with no fatal implications for the life of an individual – in opposition to personal bonds in traditional locally based communities. In the urban environment therefore these “communities” are more likely to spread and prosper then in the countryside.

The printed-scriptural character of this religiosity, however, does not affect only its social organization. Writing and easy access to written documents has far reaching consequences on thinking as well. If the religion, I spoke of, strongly emphasised doctrinal aspect over the ritual, if it strongly tended to systematize teaching, searched for the essence in perennial philosophy, if it led its proponents to thing of themselves as having the godly nature and having in themselves the key to Truth and the source of authority, if it manifested strong tendencies towards anti-clericalism and liberalism, it was all thanks to fact that it was practised by people familiar with silent reading. To demonstrate this proposition more clearly I will now present some consequences of literacy and of print as they can be inferred from existing studies of the influence of literacy and print upon societies and individuals. The reason why consequences of literacy must be taken into account while studying the consequences of print is, I think, obvious: only thanks to print literacy could become general. Furthermore, the nature of literacy itself was significantly changed under the transition from the "age of scribes" to the "age of print"10. Certain basic features of thinking, which are encouraged by writing and print, can be summed up briefly under the four following categories: (1) idealism and textual community, (2) systematization, (3) criticism, and (4) interiorization of teaching, morality, and authority.

(1) Idealism and textual community

Ernest Gellner, as well as Walter Ong (1991: 103ff) pointed out that writing decontextualizes the language. Gellner furthermore demonstrated how important role this decontextualization of language played in the establishment of modern organization of work, in which "[f]or the first time in human history, explicit and reasonably precise communication becomes generally, pervasively used and important" (Gellner 1990: 33). Written language must be decontextalized because it must give proper sense while being read in different contexts. In other words, it must be intelligible in spite of the fact that non-spoken carriers of meaning cannot be mediated otherwise than by being transformed into words, or, from a different angle, the words must carry precise - decontextuaized - meaning because understanding cannot be supported by the context of the discourse. Due to this decontextualization of written language encourages distinction between the speaker and the spoken word and enables the meaning "to live" without the speaker, enables that emphasise on particular sentence can be now independent of the particular context of prescribed ritual and enables that one can honour the meaning rather than the ritual context. In other words, the script gives rise to Truth and even transcendence (Gellner 2001: 63-64). Jack Goody emphasises a trace of this aspect of written word saying that

the construction of the text, which is in any case something other then the transcription of discourse, can lead to its contemplation, to the development of thoughts about thoughts, to a metaphysics that may require its own metalanguage (Goody 1996: 38).

It is important to note that though these remarks are made with reference to appearances of the script, they are very significant with reference to print as well. The reason is that before the age of print literacy was rare and an access to written material very limited. Copying of manuscripts was very expensive, numbers of manuscript books were therefore small, and whatever manuscript could be easily spoiled or subjected to destruction. Printed editions, quite opposite, could hardly be altogether destroyed on one hand, and - thanks to the business character of the printing enterprises - have since the beginning tended to be dispersed as much as possible. This is one of reasons why the print has exercised so much influence on various cultures since it was once launched. The word of God, once issued by print and thus made available to an ordinary reader in vernacular brought a temple from the church to a household, transmitted to voice of authority from the hight of pulpit to the the conscience of the reader (see Eisenstein 1979: 424ff), encouraged in him personal pondering over it, and enabled him to feel community not with those with whom he lived, but with those who interpreted it in a similar manner.

Thus we are brought back to a "textual community". Jason D. Fuller demonstrated, on the case of Bhaktivinod Thakur's attempt to purify vaishnavism through his journal Sajjanatosani, how Bengal vaishnavism of the 19th century was transformed into a middle-class ideal of a pure vaishnavism instead of being a religion of the community of vaishnavas. Many of actual vaishnava practices had to be given up by those wishing to attest to this ideal, in which "Bhaktivinoda effectively excluded maybe three-quarters or more of the professed Vaiùõava population from the rank of true ‘Vaiùõavas’" (Fuller 2003: 193). The text-based idea of true or pure vaishnavism led to an exclusion of much of what used to be proper vaishnavism from the point of view of non-textual communities and of those who actually have not internalized reading habits and Victorian moral code. It led to establishment of a vaishnava community irrespective of the localization of its members on rather ideological principles. In this respect it was something new and non-traditional.

(2) Systematisation

Systematization can be hardly thought of without having possibility to write, check, reorganize thoughts, and rewrite. Ernest Gellner construes opposition between the oral societies using a kind of multi-source, not unified, sets of knowledge, and those dependent on unified (either metaphysical or scientific) consistent theories based on sets of concepts (Gellner 2001). Yet, despite the tendency of scribes of the age of manuscripts to systematize their knowledge, the first printers, as Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979: 88ff) reminded, were rather dissatisfied with the "chaotic" manuscript materials and were urged to reorganize and systematize them:

The earliest printed editions were faithful replicas of these ‘barbarous’ scribal compendia, to be sure; but the very act of duplication was a necessary preliminary to later rearrangement. A disorder previously concealed by oral presentation and piecemeal copying became more visible to copy-editors and indexers and more offensive to publishers who valued systematic routines. Classical criteria of unity, internal consistency and harmony were extended beyond orations, poems, and paintings to encompass the rearrangement of large compilations and of entire fields of study which were not within the early humanist domain (Eisenstein 1979: 101-102).

Furthermore, "[i]ncreasing familiarity with regularly numbered pages, punctuation marks, section breaks, running heads, indices, and so forth, helped to reorder the thought of all readres, whatever their profession or craft. Hence countless activities were subjected to a new ‘esprit de système’", sais Eisenstein (1978: 105-106).

One can hardly deny the urge to systematization among philosophers even of the age of Aristotle. One, however, cannot neglect that such a tendency is hardly imaginable without possibility of recording and reorganizing one's own thoughts with the help of these records, i.e. in a culture with exclusively oral transmission of knowledge11. One also cannot neglect that fully exhaustive systematic treating of subjects of instruction emerged with the print in ramist textbooks and in catechisms (see Ong 1991: 134-135). System demands possibility of creating, objectifying, checking and recreating, which writing enables and tiresome procedures of editing material for print further foster. On the other hand once we are familiar with presentation of thoughts in a systematic manner we feel certain discomfort with a material lacking our standard of systematization. I think that this is manifested clearly in the urge to systematization apparent in occult literature as much as in the doubtful endeavour to systematize pantheons exercised by (not exclusively) early modern historians of religions.

(3) Criticism

Walter Ong (1991: 52), following the Russian psychological school of Lev Vygotsky, spoke about direct influence of the alphabetic writing on the development of logical thinking as well as of another cognitive abilities. The researches of Jack Goody and his colleagues did not, however, prove this direct influence of writing. Goody in fact conceives this idea naive. Anyway, although people of oral cultures seem to be basically capable of the same mental operations as literates - like the use of syllogism -, they are not able to grasp these operations in general and formalize them. Their thinking – without having access to many cases documented in written form – can hardly escape particular situations and contexts (Goody 1993: 220-222). On the other hand, general inference, formalization of certain mental operations, and critical scepticism as well as systematic development of scientific approach is encouraged when data are stored in the written form, says Goody. Having access to written data one can easily see inconsistencies and contradictions in performing certain, say magical, acts or for example law decisions, on the other hand, one can more easily group different cases from different contexts and different situations into one category and formulate general rule. Even more, as much as one can see inconsistencies and contradiction, the other can carefully document particular cases and particular observations and develop a knowledge destined to serve manipulating with things of the world more systematically. This is how Goody (1996: 36-37; 1993: 70ff) explains the rise of sceptical as well as scientific thinking in ancient Greece as well is in another literate ancient civilizations.

As much as the documentation enables criticism with respect to knowledge, that much it enables criticism with respect to behaviour of religious experts. Indeed, it is difficult to recognize that monks or clerics do not behave as they ought to, or it is not an issue, when actual rules for them are not generally known or accessible through written documents. Quite the opposite, criticism of clergy and church among modern thinkers, philosophers of enlightenment as well as among protestants is very much in accordance with their access to Bible and documents of the church. The same, I would argue, is relevant with reference to anticlerical attitudes of occultists as well as with reference to their general criticism of the so called “folk superstitions”, and rethinking of what religion ought to be about. As Goody (1996: 6-8) pointed out, oral cultures/religions are very dynamic in spite of legitimizations emphasising traditionalism. One can hardly check “traditionality” of the practice if it is not documented. This kind of “liberty” is definitely lost when the data are stored and made generally accessible. How any church can escape criticism then that it does not resemble the original church after centuries of development?

(4) Interiorization of teaching, morality, authority, and control

This aspect of "textualization" of religion is clearly related to the above mentioned tendency to idealization. The fact that when written down the idea becomes a norm for reality (Gellner 2001: 68) is very important. The ideal system of theory defines the vision and ethos of the particular society and is able to subject great populations in spite of their local differences. Such a system has only one aim: to define the unified charter of the social order (Gellner 2001: 67). This system, as Gellner further shows, is on the other hand capable of providing the salvation – or the sense of ultimate grounding – to isolated individuals in society, in which local ties are braking, and in which new cosmopolitan order is emerging (73). But such a new system, to serve its aim, needs to be grounded as a set of sacred rules (79), which must be internalized to be followed.

Another aspect of this issue was clearly expressed by Walter Ong (1991: 105):

By separating the knower from the known [...], writing makes possible increasingly articulate introspectivity, opening the psyche as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinctly from itself but also to the interior self against whom the objective world is set. Writing makes possible the great introspective religious traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Ong also points out the difficulty to articulate self-analysis among the illiterates interviewed by Russian psychologist A.R. Luria:

A 38-year-old man, illiterate, from a mountain pasture camp was asked [...], "What sort of person are you, what's your character like, what are your good qualities and shortcomings? How would you describe yourself?" "I came here from Uch-Kurgan, I was very poor, and now I'm married and have children." "Are you satisfied with yourself or would you like to be different?" "It would be good if I had a little more land and could sow more wheat." External command attention. "And what are your shortcomings?" "This year I sowed one pood of wheat, and we're gradually fixing the shortcomings." More external situations. "Well, people are different - calm, hot-tempered, or sometimes their memory is poor. What do you think of yourself?" "We behave well - if we were bad people, no one would respect us." (Ong 1991: 54-55).

The answers presented by the interviewed person apparently do not conform to what we – literate people – expect when asking the above questions because they are not grounded in internal feelings but rather in external evaluations of one's own life or behaviour. Literate answer would be based on evaluation of one's own feelings, attitudes and behaviour from an alter position reflecting on the internalized sets of rules or psychological standards. Such an attitude seems to be developed due to possibility of silent reading and is further fostered when one is confronted with the number of printed recommendations and regulations of personal behaviour. Elizabeth Eisenstein pointed out at least two important things with reference to this issue. First, she articulated the change carried by printed Bibles and prayer books: the Gospel did not come now from the priest above, but from within of the reader (Eisenstein 1979: 428). Authority was thus transferred into the conscience of the readers, and led them the first steps to emphasise their self-esteem and the right of self-government – aren't we all equal before the face of the Lord when having the same right to ponder over His Word? (424-426). The second point of her is even more important with reference to present discussion: printed books read in privacy created new – and more total – means of control over individuals. Number of books conveying impression about how one ought to behave and control himself was being issued.

In so far as they were internalized by silent and solitary reader, the voice of conscience was strengthened. But insofar as they were duplicated in standardized format, conveyed by an impersonal medium to a ‘lonely crowd’ of many readers, a collective morality was also simultaneously created (Eisenstein 1979: 429).

This new morality, of course, was encouraged by watching neighbours as well since the anonymous city dwelling is an issue of late industrial and post-industrial era. Things, however, started to changed much sooner and the religion became more the issue of personal believe and morality then of the communal life and ritual participation very much thanks to the print.

Since an emphasise on doctrine, moral coherence of a person and conscience, on personal study of religion, on personal psychological relation to divinity as well as the voluntary character of membership is not limited to occultism, but is rather typical for all forms of religiozity in modern societies, it is difficult to maintain the conceptual difference between “new” and “traditional” religions with reference to contemporary religious groups. Contemporary Christian churches have more in common with occultism or with the so called New Age then with the church of 15th century. The behaviour of a middle-age urban lay attendant of the mass who attends as many masses as possible to witness as many times as possible the miracle of transsubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (Gorski 2000: 149) is as foreign to contemporary urban member of Catholic church as to a member of whatever “new” religion. To distinguish between “traditional” contemporary religions and “new” contemporary religions is misleading and useless. All the contemporary religions are new in that sense that all are products of the culture shaped by mediated forms of written communication – whether mediated through print or digital and electronic media. This kind of communication shapes the organization as well as the beliefe in contemporary modes of religiozity. There is hardly any “traditional” church in which the believers do not emphasise doctrinal issues and do to understand morality as the core component of religion. Quite opposite, for a contemporary person - “traditional” or “new” believer alike – it is difficult to understand the sense of the ritual without meaning, the economic – non-ethical –, “loan for repay” relation to god or another non-human intelligent agents embedded in many ritual performances and magical operations.

Of course differences are here. But even these can be grasped more adequately when viewed on the common background shaped by new modes of communication. For example there is one difference between many old (and new) Christian churches, or, say, certain Islamic groups on one hand and occultism and New Age on the other. In case of the second group no canon of scriptures as well as of doctrines is binding, while such a constrain on one's personal creativity is imposed in the first group. This difference is very important since it has some other consequences. If the group indeed attempts to control the orthodoxy of its members in society with rich extra-group information networks, it needs to develop effective means of social control like intensive frequent face to face interaction and communication or the feeling of potential threat from the social environment. The group having strict canon - not in ideology but in practice - must tend to develop very closed organizational structure and secure its authority and the feeling of exclusivity and tension. This is one of reasons why such a general body like Catholic church cannot guarantee that the mass of its members will not practise a kind of “Christian New Age”, and therefore, why it is useless to divide between groups with longer and shorter history.

Maintaining such a distinction in the study of contemporary religiozity indicates that the discipline has not yet escaped the patterns of engaged discussion on one hand, and an obstacle to theoretically relevant understanding of transformations in contemporary religiozity on the other. To accept the fact that the social and religious landscape is continually being restructured as a whole – comprising newer and older institutions alike – and that the media and information flows play crucial role in this restructuring process represents the first step towards theoretically valid and useful study of the situation of religion in contemporary societies. I believe that many aspects of contemporary religion/spirituality, church/un-churched religion, church-religion/self-spirituality, church/sect and related debates can be clarified more easily after taking seriously the role and deep impact of media on the formation of religious landscape. Living with writing and among printed papers and electronic texts became so natural for us that we are hardly able to realize how deeply these common things once changed us.


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1 Only a brief, rather accidental list of examples would read as follows: Theosophy (1875), Anthroposophy (1913), Order of Golden Dawn (1887), Mormonism (1830), Seventh-day Adventists Church (1863, officially as a church), Jehovah's Witnesses (1881, establishment of Watch Tower Bibel and Tract Society), Ordo Templi Orientis (1895), Brahma Kumaris (1936), Rastafaraism (1st half of the 20th century), Subud (1932) ... and many more.

2 As I will mention later, occultists usually understood their activities as edifying activities. Their literature they published then as a kind of edifying literature.

3 By the term “fluid” I am freely referring to Bauman's notion of “fluid modernity” (Bauman 2000).

4 Svobodná škola věd hermetických, an analogy of Papus's Ecole supérieure Libre des Sciences Hermétiques. Its founder Otokar Griese obtained his degree from Papus' institution and his (unfulfilled) intention was to establish a similar one.

5 According to Emanuel z Lešehradu (1935: 201) the cause of disaffiliation of Czech TS from the Adyar headquarters and of the change of its name was an introduction of Jiddu Krishnamurti as a new prophet. "Disturbing disruptions" by "fanatical followers and proponents" of Krishnamurti's "messianism" "prevented any serious activities", writes Lešehrad. So the authority of Besant's and Leadbeater's prophet was refused by Czech theosophical leadership, yet the organization propagating Krishnamurti's teaching remained influential even after his split with TS and operated particularly in the town of Ostrava in northern Moravian region.

6 This held true especially in the case of Eduard Tomáš and his wife Míla. During last one and half decade of their lives (†2002 and †2001 respectively) they enjoyed great popularity and authority among people of all generations. The Lucerna palace in Prague used to be helplessly filled up to the last centimetre of space on every occasion of their lectures. One could say that every “spiritual seeker” was familiar with ideas of Tomášs during nineteen-nineties.

7 His first public lecture took place on 20th January 1932 in the palace of Radio in Prague. The capacity for 1200 was filled so that some people waited outside to see him at least afterwards (Sanitrák 2006: 261).

8 This “individually” does not mean the lack of social support. It is more an issue of ideology or the shared belief in personal experience. I am not proposing here that this personal experience is devoid of social patterns. Exactly opposite is the case according to me, yet it is not the issue here.

9 Some figures provides an official report of Theosophical society in Prague dated 1929. From the total of 281 members 83 passed academic training, 70 were officials, 29 businessmen, 15 teachers, 9 students, 14 workers, 12 craftsmen, 4 pesants, 4 soldiers and 42 „private persons“ (TS, AHMP).

10 This topic was carefully studied by Elizabeth Eisenstein in her book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Eisenstein 1979). I will follow some of her findings here.

11 Here I must agree with Jack Goody (1993: 115ff) that such a systems of knowledge like that presented by Patanjali's Sanskrit grammar must have been written first, however transmitted orally subsequently. The content, of course, can be learned by heart, but cannot be thought out without making things visualized and reorganized through writing.

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