“The New Age movement is not entirely “New!” Its philosophy is rooted in ancient traditions, often based on mystical experiences, each within a different context. There have always been people within “primitive” societies who were looked upon as possessing special knowledge and power. Medicine men, or shamans, had undergone a spontaneous catharsis, or were initiated and felt called upon to maintain contact with the spirit world for the clan.
The occult tradition seems so tremendously powerful that it cannot be suppressed. It develops in cycles of flourishing and decline – each renaissance with a fresh approach, adapted to the spirit of the times. Renewed interest in these spiritual, religious and magical traditions had a tremendous impact on the minds of man. The latest revival in a popularized form is that of the New Age movement in the late sixties. But this movement is really the inheritor of ideas fostered and passed down through numerous esoteric traditions including the Grecian mystery schools and philosophy, the Christian mystics, Gnosticism, Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah, Alchemy, Freemasonry, the Rosicrucians and other mystical orders not to mention several schools of eastern thought and mysticism.
The Oriental Renaissance of the 19th century
The philosophers of the 18th century were disenchanted with the state of civilization they saw around them. The study of other cultures became popular. The fascination with the Orient gathered momentum in the late 18th century. Western scholars had begun to study Sanskrit in the 17th century. But it was not until the 19th century that translations of Indian scriptures became available in the West.
For the first time Oriental religious philosophy became generally accessible. It led to a veritable Oriental Renaissance. The philosophy and way of thought contained in the Eastern scriptures astounded the Western cultural elite towards the middle of the 19th century and influenced such philosophers and writers as Schopenhauer, Goethe, Heine, Nietzsche, Shelley, Emerson, Baudelaire and de Balzac.
A greater respect grew for Eastern religions now that their great works appeared in print. In 1785 Wilkins published the Bhagavad Gita. Translations of the Rig Veda, Mahabharata, Upanishads, Vishnu Purana and Lotus sutra followed, along with an “Introduction à l’Histoire du Buddhisme Indien” by Burnouf. The spiritual approach of the re-discovered religions was felt as a relief from the prevalent Christian dogmatism. The idea emerged of the unity behind all religions. Some of these ideas found their way in the Christian Science and New Thought movements as well as the spiritualism movement of 19th century.
It was Madame H.P.Blavatsky (HPB for insiders) who forged the European esoteric tradition, Spiritualism and the Oriental Renaissance into one coherent system that took on aspects of a religion. She provided it with a secret doctrine, a martyr (herself), a mysterious origin and finally, but not in the least, she gave it the form of a (semi-religious) fraternity… Thus she presented a remarkable and revolutionary concept of life in the universe.
Mme Blavatsky gave mankind a grand vision of the universe as opposed to the corset of the narrow-minded dogmatic outlook of Christianity at the time. It was generally believed then that creation took place some six thousand years ago. She countered by postulating that it was billions of years ago and that mankind lived for millions of years on Earth. She introduced also the concept of a holistic universe. The popularity of present-day ideas of reincarnation and karma – now household words – can be traced back to her.
She found a worthy successor in Annie Besant in 1889, a woman of extraordinary talent and a great orator. Historian Arthur Nethercott writes: “During her eighty-five years Annie Besant lived many lives, some of them so incredible that it seems impossible they were lived at all.” Besides giving fresh impetuous to Theosophy, she was also to give India back its respect for its own culture. She was a powerful force in the campaign for Indian Home Rule before Gandhi and later Nehru took over. She is also known to have taken care of the education of a very special Indian boy Jiddu Krishnamurti .
Jiddu Krishnamurti (May 11, 1895 – February 17, 1986) was an Indian writer and speaker on philosophical and spiritual subjects. His subject matter included: psychological revolution, the nature of the mind, meditation, human relationships, and bringing aboutpositive change in society. He constantly stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being and emphasized that such revolution cannot be brought about by any external entity, be it religious, political, or social. Krishnamurti was born into a Brahmin family in what was then colonial India. In early adolescence, he had a chance encounter with prominent occultist and high-ranking theosophist Charles Leadbeater in the grounds of the Theosophical Society headquarters at Advarin Madras.
He was subsequently raised under the tutelage of Annie Bessant and Leadbeater, leaders of the Society at the time, who believed him to be a “vehicle” for an expected World Teacher. As a young man, he disavowed this idea and dissolved the worldwide organization (the Order of the Star) established to support it. He claimed allegiance to no nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy, and spent the rest of his life traveling the world, speaking to large and small groups and individuals. He authored many books, among them The First and Last Freedom, The Only Revolution, and Krishnamurti’s Notebook.
According to Krishnamurti, many problems in the world such as poverty, war, the nuclear threat, and other unfortunate circumstances, have their roots in our thinking. In his view, as we live and behave according to our thinking so wars and governments are a result of that thinking. We each have our own beliefs, conclusions and experiences, to which we cling, thereby isolating ourselves from others. Self-centered activity is expressed outwardly as nationalism and religious intolerance, creating a divided world, in which we are willing to kill for the sake of belief. Understanding our relationship with the world crisis is necessary to understand ourselves.
Krishnamurti has come to be seen as an exemplar of those spiritual teachers who disavow formal rituals and dogma. His conception of truth as a “pathless land,” with the possibility of immediate liberation, is mirrored in teachings as diverse as those of EST, Bruce Lee, and the Dalai Lama. Krishnamurti was acquainted with, and (by their admission) influenced the works of, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, artists Jackson Pollock and Beatrice Wood, and counter-culture author Allan Watts. Eckhart Tolle, author and speaker on spiritual subjects, and well-known self-help lecturer/author Deepak Chopra, both claimed Krishnamurti as one of their influences.
New Age in America
As we have seen Oriental religion and the European occult traditions had made a great impact on the intellectual elite of America in the nineteenth century. The leaders who stood at the craddle of the birth of the nation were influenced by Masonic, Spiritualistic and Rosicrucian thought. “A New Order of the Age begins” proclaims the reverse side of the Great Seal of the United States. Eight signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, amongst whom Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, as were sixteen subsequent presidents.
Prominent American writers, who became known as the Transcendentalists, were deeply influenced by Eastern thought. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was one of the great admirers of Oriental religious classics, notably the Bhagavad Gita. His secretary, Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, a source of inspiration for hippies a century later.
New Age was primarily a movement amongst the younger generation in the late sixties that demanded to play a greater part in all aspects of society. Traditional religious concepts of God and Love were too narrow to accommodate the overwhelming experiences they had on their psychedelic trips. Transcendence, self-realization, yoga, meditation, all part of existing traditions, were being rediscovered and practiced.
Originally it had been given the name: the Age of Aquarius to signify the new era of spiritual enfoldment as foretold in astrology. In the early seventies, when the movement was well on its way, the name New Age was adopted.”
For more on New Age thinking see the Understanding Reality Course.