This piece was written by Michael Hall, with input from Jack Sheffield and photo taken by Greg Barr. Michael is a theology and religious studies major at the University of San Diego.
When I first heard the word “occultism,” my mind jumped to Dan Brown novels and bad Kool-Aid. In secular America, where we are taught to respect all religious viewpoints and ideas, perhaps occult practitioners are not the recipients of the same level of tolerance. Worse yet for occult practitioners, to many of us, occultism is no more than a synonym for devil worship — a dark, outdated ideology with no place in our modern world. However, after visiting the Theosophical Society in Pune, India this January, I had a complete change of heart.
Within modern-day popular culture, including movies, television shows, and novels, occultism is often portrayed as a sinister secret set of practices conjured by a more supernatural variety of villains, each of whom utilized the occult to manipulate unseen, yet extraordinary, malevolent forces and spirits.
In contradistinction to links to Satanism, most occult religious groups originally self-identified as being Christian-based in origin, with teachings rooted in ancient wisdom traditions allegedly suppressed by the Orthodox Church for centuries. To their practitioners, occult sects provided alternative readings of the life of Jesus, differing explanations regarding the nature of the divine, and doctrines purporting to profess the true teachings of Christianity. Some occult groups, such as the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica (E.G.C.), traced their roots to a Gnostic form of Catholicism, while the most popular occult movement, the Theosophical Society, combined Western and Eastern tantric traditions.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 to advance Theosophy, an esoteric religion based on the teachings of a group of secretive, spiritual adepts who Helena Blavatsky claimed were channeled through her.
Though the Theosophical Society began to lose steam in the United States, it found a home in India, where the foundation of many of Blavatsky’s ideas originated.
I entered the Theosophical Society’s center in Pune, a hill station in India, with Dr. Gruber and two fellow students. I was prepared to take their ideas with a grain of salt. But, as a life-long Catholic and a theology and religious studies major, I was fascinated in the organization, particularly because of its unique history.
The first thing that struck me was the inscription of the Society’s objectives on the center’s door: “To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color, to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science, [and] to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.” Once inside, the president of Pune’s chapter, Mr. Bhaskar Tendulkar, lectured on a number of topics related to the Society’s three unifying objectives.
Our host was extremely excited to meet us and talk about his beliefs, to the point that he drove several miles just to speak with four Americans about his religion. We all felt his passion as he spoke about religion being inseparable from every other aspect of his life. To him, religion pervaded all thoughts and actions at all times. While I expected to find this visit fascinating, I did not expect to hear what came next: one of the most clearly orated spiritual lectures of my life.
According to Mr. Tendulkar, all religions seek to understand the universe in a rational and spiritual way, while also attempting to explain the purpose of our existence. He argued that human beings naturally attempt to seek answers to explain our place in the world, and that desire to find answers is, in a way, the essence of religion. However, through self-interest, politics, and corruption, most religions eventually develop agendas that differ from their initial intent.
Mr. Tendulkar insisted that the greatest religious figures across history have preached unity and understanding, from Jesus’ “love your neighbor as your self” to the Buddha’s “be kind to all creatures.” This, our representative from the Theosophical Society explained, was the true purpose of religion, arguing that it was a means for people to come together to express their shared roots and spirituality, despite political, social, or economic differences.
The lecture became particularly compelling when Aidan, my friend and classmate, asked what practical advice Mr. Tendulkar had for incorporating this kind of thinking into our daily lives. The point that particularly resonated with us was our host’s claim that most people are "selectively conscious,” picking and choosing the objects of their attention, while remaining unconscious of the majority of things going on around them. While our host encouraged meditation as a helpful solution, he emphasized that being actively aware of one’s surroundings is key to a successful life. Perhaps it was the context, the clarity of the lecture, or the passion of our host, but regardless of the exact reasons, this advice really stuck with us.
As Jack Sheffield, the third student present, noted: “After he pointed this out, I have tried to expand the scope of things I focus on, trying to take more information into consideration before reacting and responding to certain situations. Rather than getting entrenched in my initial dump of emotion and reacting with a limited level of awareness, I try to take a step back and understand a larger number of variables than I typically consider. This acknowledgement helps me manage my emotions and my mental state. I can make more informed and rational decisions and maintain a levelheadedness that prevents me from panicking.”
Even though we had been meditating as a group since arriving in India, the practical benefits of controlling our attention had, until that point, remained in the abstract.
As we said our goodbyes to our pro tempore guru, it struck me how apprehensive I had initially been, wondering what kind of devil worship I might find waiting for me inside. For this reason, Mr. Tendulkar’s emphasis on awareness and seeking understanding really hit home. Despite all of my cultural hang-ups about the occult, I left the center with the feeling that I had just met one of the most spiritually aware people I ever will meet.
At least for a moment, it seemed we were all a small part of a West meets East, East meets West religious feedback loop, participants in a centuries-old, but still living, amalgamation of spiritual doctrine and practice that maybe, just maybe, ought to be considered a religious lineage of its own.
Three months later, I still reflect on the lecture quite often, and the visit to the Theosophical Society ended up being a highlight of our travels, helping the trip live up to the cliché of “searching for spirituality in India.”