Race and Literary Nationalism

Theosophy’s emerging spiritual trends proclaiming "a universal brotherhood of man" are concurrent with theories of racial hierarchy in nineteenth-century culture.


Annie Besant's attraction to theosophy may well have been a fascination for the racial theories of Madame Blavatsky and other occultists like Colonel Olcott, A. P. Sinnett, and Charles Leadbeater.


Theories of racial separation and the dominance of some races over others fed into a reading of history that was partly informed by Fabian socialism, but it produced a strange admixture of dialectical materialism, Darwinian science, and metaphysics, in which the progression toward syncretic realization followed the route of territorial expansion, conquest, and imperial rule.


As George Bemard Shaw remarked, it was no secret that Besant's turn toward theosophy was dramatically quickened by her chance reading of Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, a book full of extravagant accounts of the evolution of races, which is narrated alongside an equally tendentious account of geological formation.


But however powerful the work's influence, Besant kept a notably aloof perspective on Blavatsky's racial classification and adapted it to her own developing millenarian vision. In her reconstruction, the positivist legacy of secularism and socialism overrode pure metaphysical abstractions. This is particularly evident in Besant's reading of the historical spread of empires as a function of racial and biological differentiation. Observing that the evolution of races goes through cycles of growth, maturity and decay, Besant contended that you must look at the life of races as you look at the life of persons. Looking at the history of races in the past may guide us in our forecast as to the role of a race in the present.


Each great division of the human race, each strongly marked type of racial character, has its own growth and development, its time of widespread empire, and then again its time of slow and gradual decay. 1)


Besant describes colonial expansion and territorial conquest as a migration of races for the ultimate enrichment of the "Fifth Race." This sweep of time, measured in aeons and evolving land-masses, dissolves the political immediacy of imperialism. Besant remarks that the race of Teutons, who are classified in her scheme as the fifth sub-race of the Fifth Race, is now spreading over the world, [and] has occupied the greater part of North America, driving before it the old Atlantean stock; it has seized Australia and New Zealand, the remnants of still more ancient Lemuria, and the poor relics of that dying Race are vanishing before it. High is it rearing its proud head over the countries of the globe, destined to build a world-wide Empire, and to sway the destinies of the civilization.2)


The intricate mythology of the five root-races and their various sub-races (the sixth is yet to come, or so say the theosophists) is heavily influenced by Blavatsky's commentary on The Stanzas of Dzyan in The Secret Doctrine.


Despite individual differences between theosophists, there is remarkably little divergence in the evolutionary scheme they present. In fact, the impression of a lack of originality evoked by their common discourse works eerily on the reader, who is made to feel that this new mythology is virtually interchangeable with science, so strongly is its content fixed and closed to interpretation.


Theosophist Geoffrey Barborka's  update of theosophical wisdom, The Story of Human Evolution (1979), follows Voltaire and specifically invokes Genesis in the preface to claim a biblical precedent for describing human evolution in inflated terms:


"There were giants in die earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown" (Genesis 6:4).


 To recapitulate the evolutionary scheme briefly as presented in theosophy: the first two races are distinguished from the succeeding three in that they are self-born and sexless, their evolution being coterminous with the formation of land masses and oceans. Sexuality, differentiation, and identity commence with the third root-race. The disclaimer that the term root-race ,,has no connection with the ideas associated with ethnic groups or racial strains" is immediately nullified by the very language of classification and hierarchy. 3)


Even without further detail, the admission that each race is associated with a particular homeland makes a mockery of the disclaimer.


The First Race is described as having inhabited the never-changing North Pole; the Second Race, as arising in die Hyperborean or northern Asia; the third Race, as subdivided between the areas called Southern Lemuria, which embrace Africa, southern Asia, and the Pacific islands, and Northern Lemuria, which consists largely of Europe; the Fourth Race, or the first real members of the ,,human species" who, in the seventh sub-race, inhabited the areas between China and Indonesia; and the Fifth Race, which is dispersed across the seven continents and each sub-race of which has inaugurated a settled civilization in each continent. According to modern theosophy, the Sixth Race is yet to come, and when it does, it is expected to appear first in  southern California ! 4)


The last sub-race of each root-race constitutes the first sub-race of the next root-race, so that the contributions of Chinese civilization (the seventh sub-race of the Fourth Race) provide the foundations for die variegated civilizations of all sub-races in the Fifth Race. Furthermore, each race is associated with a particular color, the surviving ones, expectedly, being yellow, brown, black, and red. Most compromising of all, though this esoteric mythology claims not to refer to ethnicity or racial strains, historical development is nonetheless accounted for in polygenetic terms.


Ethnicized explanation clearly obviates theosophy's purported syncretic ambition of seeking oneness amidst diversity: While [esoteric philosophy] assigns to humanity a oneness of origin, in so far that its forefathers or "Creators" were all divine beings-though of different classes or degrees of perfection in their hierarchy-men were nevertheless born on seven different centers of the continent of that period.


Though all were of one common origin, yet for reasons given their potentialities and mental capabilities, outward or physical forms, and future characteristics, were very different. Some superior, others inferior, to suit the Karma of the various reincarnating Monads which could not be all of the same degree of purity in their last births in other worlds. This accounts for the difference of races, the inferiority of the savage, and other human varieties. 5)


But although the racial mythology of Madame Blavatsky and other theosophists was so wildly extravagant, Annie Besant's redescription of the same scheme was far more precise, recognizable, and perhaps even acceptable to those among her contemporaries who were familiar with Renan's work on racial typologies.


What is perhaps most striking about Besant's use of evolutionary science, was her systematic reading of the evolution of races in terms of a cultural science that undergirds political relations, affecting such things as, for instance, the ideal conditions for the rule of one people by another. 6)


The reason why England and Ireland cannot get on together is because England belongs to the Teutonic sub-race, in which the concrete mind is most developed, while the Kelts (the Irish are Kelts) belong to the fourth sub-race and emotion is strong in them. Because the English are not imaginative enough to understand them, because in them the concrete scientific mind is the dominant thing, they can never understand an emotional, impulsive people. So they try to keep them by force.... They have not the common sense to rule people according to their own type, and not according to a different type. 7)


In other words, colonial rule results when there is a lack of synchronicity between races, a failure of understanding that makes its effects felt in abiding differences of culture, language, and tradition. In the absence of racial unity, argues Besant, these cultural differences can only be negotiated by the exercise of force.


The language of evolutionary science permeates this statement, as the ultimate point of Besant's analysis is that the subordination of one group of people to another is racially constituted, since each belongs to "a different type." Only when a society is truly composed of one single race will it ever attain a condition of self-governability; until then, peoples all over the world are subject to control by others.


It is by thus falling back on inexorable historical (racial) evolution that Annie Besant provided a radically different twist to the construction of a nationalist narrative, which conventionally sees alien rule as a disruption- not fulfillment, as Besant does-of the imperatives of self-determination.


And so humanity progresses from competition to cooperation, and learns the lesson of Brotherhood. 8)


Besant establishes continuity between her socialist principles and her theosophical program of cultural advancement, despite the apparent esotericism of the latter.


Similarly, Besant's use of reincarnated souls traversing through world history and world empires functions as a rhetorical device to argue for the fulfillment of a racial plan by imperial conquest:


Now it is to us Theosophists significant and interesting that the bulk of the Souls to whom this offer is made have twice before builded an Empire and have carried its burden; for the majority of tile Souls that made the Egyptian Empire lived again upon earth in the Roman Republic and Empire, and have been and are being born into the Anglo-Saxon, and indeed into the whole Teutonic, race. Men who wrought in the Rome on the Tiber are working now in the Rome on the Thames, and are again Empire-building. 10)


The reappearance of the same racial traits in more dominant forms and in future historical moments is encoded in the language of reincarnation. 11)

1) Annie Besant, The Secret of Evolution (Harrogate: Theosophical Publishing Committee, 19?), p.5.


2) Annie Besant, The Pedigree of Man (Benares and London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1904), pp. 150-51.


3) Geoffrey Barborka, The Story of Human Evolution (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1979), p. 18.


4) See Charles Leadbeater, The Beginnings of the Sixth Root Race (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1920).


5) The Stanzas of Dzyan, II:249; quoted in Barborka, The Story of Human Evolution, p. 52. See also Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), for an overview of a wide assortment of theosophical themes, ranging from initiates to animal magnetism.


6) See Young, Colonial Desire, chap. 3, ,,The Complicity of Culture: Arnold's Ethnographic Politics," for a thoughtful reading of Arnold's idea of culture as racially composed.


7) Annie Besant, The Inner Government of the World (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1920), p. 47.


8) Besant, Pain, p. 13.


9) Besant, Theosophy and Imperialism, p. 7.


10) Ibid., p. 3.


11) Besant, The Inner Government of the World, p. 21.

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August 20, 2002