EVERY generation manufactures its cults, gurus and devotees; what is interesting is the pattern of recurrence rather than the antics of the dotty and fraudulent. Peter Washington's chatty and populist book stresses the latter, but takes an occasional cool look at the underlying repetitions. It is based on an impressive quantity of appalling stuff: as Mark Twain remarked, what was miraculous about the Mormon sacred books was not Joseph Smith having written them, but the fact that he stayed awake to do so.
Over the 100-odd years he surveys, one keeps wondering - why are so many gurus Russian or Indian? Why are some self-invented histories so inexplicably plausible? Why do so many spiritual leaders get away for so long with embezzling from their patrons and sodomising their acolytes? There will be plenty of liberal relativists, not to mention irate devotees, who will say this is a partial view; but the circumstantial evidence of this survey is rather against them.
Meeting the needs of the credulous in America and Britain from the 1870s, theosophy 'reconciled' all the leading world religions, and rationalised doubt by means of secret languages, levels of initiation and lurches towards the occult. The founders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, set the tone for alternative religion in the new age: Secret Knowledge from 'Masters' to whom only the gurus had access; esoteric or 'hermetic' traditions, loftily invoking Neo- Platonism and Rosicrucianism; rejection of 'rational' logic while preaching a reconciliation of science and mysticism: a smorgasbord approach to other revealed religions and 'teachers'; and a final opt-out to the 'inner self' when the going got sticky. Equally significant was the need for lots of money (which was duly forthcoming), and the way that exposure of fraud and scandal perversely strengthened the authority of the most unlikely people, often through their manipulation of paranoia and conspiracy theory.
Who was attracted to this kind of thing? Autodidacts; imperial misfits; products of art colleges (not, usually, universities); writers looking for insights: unhappily married women; proselytisers among the young. Occasionally Washington adds psychoanalysis to his alternative religions and cults spawned in the theosophic mould, but it might just as reasonably be seen as a necessary tool for probing this murky subject. Certainly, his approach - a sequential group biography - highlights sexual drives, repressions and disappointments as the dominant music behind the libretto.
It is a marvellous ensemble. Blavatsky, a wisecracking mixture of Russian grande dame and country-cute Kalmuck; her 'chum', the lugubrious old soldier Colonel Olcott, straight from Anthony Powell; the unspeakable C W Leadbeater, writing hectic letters to small boys encouraging masturbation as a path to spirituality; James Wedgwood, the same but more so (caught cottaging by the police - 18 lavatories in two hours - he said with hauteur that he was searching for a friend known in a previous life); the elusive Krishnamurti, man made god; the brilliant spoofer Gurdjieff, inventor of the ashram as high-fashion labour camp; the literal- minded Ouspensky, dervish-dancing to a 'higher' plane of consciousness; A R Orage, coiner of the 'New Age' slogan.
Washington ends with a rather haphazard glance at the flotsam that bobbed in the wake of theosophy up to the 1960s and beyond. Certain patterns are suspiciously recurrent. From Mormonism to Moral Rearmament, the teaching and revelations adapt the easy bits of Judaeo-Christian tradition, Hinduism and Buddhism. To the sceptic, the familiarity of the pattern has its obvious derivations and uses; to the initiate, it simply confirms that on one hand all religions are one, and on the other that their particular cult is the climax or apotheosis of a preordained momentum.
The larger contexts are more interesting than the self-fulfilling prophecies; in fact, analysing the appetite for alternative religion can help illuminate what Clifford Geertz called 'thick' cultural history (though it is pretty thick in other senses too). Millennarianism was deeply rooted in late 19th-century Russia and America, ready for news of a coming New World Order; but when a more traditional kind of apocalypse presented itself in 1914, theosophists (like socialists and suffragettes) merged their alternative Utopias into the devouring image of nationalism. There is also a late- imperial dimension to the British middle-class mind's obsession with spiritual rescue from India - strongly spiked with eroticism, as Blavatsky found to her cost when she introduced the doe-eyed Mohini Chatterjee to the faithful.
The story of Krishnamurti sums it all up: from juvenile sex-object to inspiration of a million-dollar guru-business in 1920s California. He then repudiated the formal structures that had given him the demigod (or monster) status which was all he knew, and withdrew into introspection as an independent guru with access to a huge cash-flow and the ear of world leaders, living on to overlap with the age of the Beatles' Maharishi.
Throughout, of course, there was financial controversy and sexual scandal. But unlike Blavatsky or Gurdjieff, who controlled their own pasts through self-invention, Krishnamurti can be traced from his origins as a creation of theosophy. Who was exploiting whom? It is a tragic biography: it resembles an unwritten play by George Bernard Shaw. And an unanswered question here is the way that cultism ministers to literary inspiration: Aldous Huxley flits in and out, Doris Lessing comes to mind (though she refused to talk to Washington), and Yeats is firmly located in early theosophy. He left it for more thoroughgoing occultism, and Washington generally adheres to the important distinction between mysticism and magic, sparing himself a full immersion in the Order of the Golden Dawn. Others did not keep these areas as rigorously apart, and Yeats alternated extremely specific magical beliefs with soothing reassurances that he was simply seeking 'metaphors for poetry'.
It is not Washington's fault that one ends this entertaining survey similarly unsatisfied. It suggests a Spenglerian view of Western civilisation thrashing around as the shades descend, rather than a Jungian image of parting veils back to a common wisdom. Such a quest may be real enough; the depressing thing is that human abilities are apparently not up to the task. Yet the appetite remains. Towards the end of this book, I was reminded of a certifiably manic acquaintance of mine, who pursued the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (an inheritor of the full fraudulent tradition) to Poona. With indecent speed, he reappeared in 1970s Hampstead, to general dismay, announcing that the Master had given him a magical message: 'The West needs you.'
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