Books & Literature

Book Review: Searching for the Spirit, by Jill Roe

HISTORY: Tracing the history of theosophy from its rise in the 1870s through its heyday in the 1920s to its relative decline in the 1930s.

Scholarly, but eminently readable history of theosophy in Australia.

Jill Roe was Professor Emerita in Modern History at Macquarie University and this book is a revised reprint of the late author’s 1986 book Beyond Belief. She has been acknowledged as one of Australia’s greatest historians and this highly readable academic text has been described as her masterpiece, detailing the seemingly strange and unusual tenets of theosophy.

The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 and sought to find spiritual and religious meaning from both the past and the future – using modern science to delve into ‘esoteric philosophies of ancient times’ (page 9). The latter part of the Victorian era was awash with new, often radical religions and firmly held spiritualist views. Given that Australia was home to many immigrants who had fled religious upheavals in their homelands, it is not surprising, as Roe argues, that this new religion found fertile ground in Australia, finding its first recruit, Gilbert Elliott, just four years later.

Co-founders of the Theosophical Society, American Henry Olcott and Madam Helena Blavatsky, a Russian émigré, struggled to maintain and expand the society in America in spite of her well known ‘drawing room performances’ – actually seances (page 17). Unexpected assistance arrived in the form of a proposal from India when the Arya Samaj, a reforming Hindu group proposed a merger and an Indian headquarters was established. Roe notes India at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was geopolitically closer to Australia than it is today. Both were British colonies and colonists in both countries were loyal to Britain; there was substantial trade links between the two; and it was also ‘on the way home’ as UK bound ships stopped off in Bombay.

Although Melbourne probably boasted the most independent-minded and liberal thinkers of the time, the Theosophical Society made little headway there or in Sydney, but Brisbane embraced theosophy which taught that all persons were equal – regardless of gender, colour or race. This was attractive to many women as were the female leaders, the mysticism of Madam Blavatsky and the writings and preaching of Annie Besant who was the second President of the Society. Influential Australians who were influenced by theosophical ideas included politician Alfred Deakin, the writer Miles Franklin, and the education theories of Rudolph Steiner.

The Society believed in a World Teacher identified as Jiddu Krishnamurti, born around 1895 in India, and adopted by Annie Besant and fellow theosophist Charles Leadbeater. The hopes of the arrival of the messiah reached their peak in the 1920s, the high point of theosophy in Australia. By the 1930s the World Teacher Krishnamurti had rejected theosophy himself and the society never recovered from the continuing decline.

Roe has argued it is a failing in Australian history that religious ideas and behaviour have not been taken seriously. When looking at what she called zany and way-out ideas, she believed these can provide greater insights than might be at first expected. In the sub-continent and in Indonesia, theosophy played a role in nationalist movements – even influencing the education of President Sukarno.

While definitely a scholarly book, this edition is an informative and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: May 2020
RRP: $39.95

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