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Aleister Crowley in India

The Secret Influence of Eastern Mysticism on Magic and the Occult

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
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About The Book

Follow Aleister Crowley through his mystical travels in India, which profoundly influenced his magical system as well as the larger occult world

• Shares excerpts from Crowley’s unpublished diaries and details his travels in India, Burma, and Sri Lanka from 1901 to 1906

• Reveals how Crowley incorporated what he learned in India--jnana yoga, Vedantist, Tantric, and Buddhist philosophy--into his own school of Magick

• Explores the world of Theosophy, yogis, Hindu traditions, and the first Buddhist sangha to the West as well as the first pioneering expeditions to K2 and Kangchenjunga in 1901 and 1905

Early in life, Aleister Crowley’s dissociation from fundamentalist Christianity led him toward esoteric and magical spirituality. In 1901, he made the first of three voyages to the Indian subcontinent, searching for deeper knowledge and experience. His religious and magical system, Thelema, shows clear influence of his thorough experimental absorption in Indian mystical practices.

Sharing excerpts from Crowley’s unpublished diaries, Tobias Churton tells the true story of Crowley’s adventures in India from 1901 to 1906, culminating in his first experience of the supreme trance of jnana (“gnostic”) yoga, Samadhi: divine union. Churton shows how Vedantist and Advaitist philosophies, Hindu religious practices, yoga, and Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism informed Crowley’s spiritual system and reveals how he built on Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott’s prior work in India. Churton illuminates links between these beliefs and ancient Gnostic systems and shows how they informed the O.T.O. system through Franz Hartmann and Theodor Reuss.

Churton explores Crowley’s early breakthrough in consciousness research with a Dhyana trance in Sri Lanka, becoming a devotee of Shiva and Bhavani, fierce avatar of the goddess Parvati. Recounting Crowley’s travels to the temples of Madurai, Anuradhapura, and Benares, Churton looks at the gurus of yoga and astrology Crowley met, while revealing his adventures with British architect, Edward Thornton. Churton also details Crowley’s mountaineering feats in India, including the record-breaking attempt on Chogo Ri (K2) in 1902 and the Kangchenjunga disaster of 1905.

Revealing how Crowley incorporated what he learned in India into his own school of Magick, including an extensive look at his theory of correspondences, the symbology of 777, and the Thelemic synthesis, Churton sheds light on one of the most profoundly mystical periods in Crowley’s life as well as how it influenced the larger occult world.


Chapter Six. The Aim Is Being: Calcutta

For leisure in Calcutta, Crowley felt it best to follow the line of least resistance and attend the races, something which interested him little, though, as in Mexico, he did take interest in the psychology of the swindler. A horse had arrived in the city tipped to be a surefire winner. Of course it attracted bets, but lost race after race, until the odds of success duly declined. Crowley calculated that having been pulled by its owners to such a degree, the time had come to bet on it. Needless to say, he won a pocketful of rupees, but obtained no satisfaction. Fathoming the bestial mind of the criminal was no joy and the winnings did not compensate.

My cynical disgust with the corrupt pettiness of humanity, far from being assuaged by the consciousness of my ability to outmanoeuvre it, saddened me. I loved mankind; I wanted everybody to be an enthusiastic aspirant to the absolute. I expected everybody to be as sensitive about honour as I was myself. My disillusionment drove me more and more to determine that the only thing worth doing was to save humanity from the horror of its own ignorant heartlessness. But I was still innocent to the point of imbecility. I had not analysed human conduct: I did not understand in the least the springs of human action. Its blind bestiality was a puzzle which appalled me, yet I could not even begin to estimate its elements.

His health did not help matters. Down with malaria since leaving Ceylon, ever since New Year he’d suffered from ague, fever, indigestion, and mental depression. He sought comfort in Deussen’s account of Vedanta, the flower of Hinduism, which, while it was certainly a progressive step from what Crowley called the “crude animism” of the Vedas, seemed still to push him back toward Buddhism. His diary reveals the depth of thought going on in his questing mind.

Jan. 13

Early morning walk--deep meditation. Developed a sort of inverted Manichaeism. Nature as evil and fatal force developing within itself (unwittingly) a suicidal will called Buddha or Christ.

The entry shows up the apparent paradox, or indeed contradiction, within Darwinian theory when applied to the human mind and experience. If Nature evolves solely through selection of traits necessary for rude survival, and the “mind” is deemed a “part” of Nature, how is it that the human mind can thoroughly entertain the idea that Nature itself is a negative, or evil aspect, which, in Manichaeism, for example, is regarded in its materiality as an evil to be fled from? As for Buddhist doctrine, Nature is regarded, when we perceive it, as the home of sorrow and corruption.

Jan. 15.

It is a fallacy that the Absolute must be All-Good, etc. There is not an Intelligence directing law=line of least resistance. Its own selfishness has not even the wit to prevent Buddha arising.

Jan. 16.

We cannot call nature evil. ‘Fatal’ is the exact word [certainly in the Buddhist perspective]. Necessity implies stupidity--this the chief attribute of Nature. As to “Supreme Intelligence,” consider how many billion years were required to develop even so low a thing as emotion.

This is a typical chip off the block of Crowley’s intuitive and analytical genius. Meanwhile, in quest of perfect detachment, Allan had taken his vows as a bhikkhu, donning the yellow robe at the Lamma Sayadaw “Kyoung” (or monastery) on Burma’s west coast, at Akyab (now Sittwe). Crowley thought it a good idea to cross the Bay of Bengal to visit him, and to combine that adventure with a greater one: to cross the Arakan Hills, the barrier between the Irrawaddy valley and the coast. Reputed to be all but impassable, even the north Burmese army, when fighting the British in 1825, were not expected to survive a march through the Arakans to the east. “I have always had this peculiar passion for putting myself in poisonous perils,” wrote Crowley of his motive. “Its source is presumably my congenital masochism, and the Travellers’ Tales of Paley Gardner had determined its form of expression.” So Crowley determined to follow the initial route taken by the first British military expeditions to Burma: sail to Rangoon, then follow the Irrawaddy to Thayetmyo, north of Prome. He would then hire a guide and head west across the Arakans to Akyab, where he would surprise his Buddhist friend somewhat in the manner of Stanley and Livingstone.

Edward Thornton

elected to join him on the adventure. Edward Thornton When Crowley averred to Thornton and himself sharing philosophical interests, he could have been thinking of a visit Crowley made in Calcutta, as Thornton’s guest, to the famous Asiatic Society of Bengal, in which Sir William Jones had first drawn attention to Sanskrit’s affinities with Greek and Latin, so launching the “Aryan” race fallacy. It was exciting for me to locate the printed “Proceedings” of the Society, which reveal its monthly General Meeting was held on Wednesday, January 8, 1902, at 9pm.

After the minutes were delivered, including proposals for disposing of present premises and acquiring a new site and building, the following papers were read: Rev. T. G. Bailey’s account of the secret language of a tribe of hereditary thieves and cattle poisoners in the Punjab; “On Trilokinatha (Shiva) in the Kalpa Valley,” by Dutch Sanskritist, Jean Philippe Vogel LL.D.-- who worked with the Archaeological Survey of India--concerning different representations and names for the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Chandrabhaga Valley, the southern side of the mid-Himalayan Range, and Patan, Nepal; and “On the Organisation of Caste by Ballala Sen,” by Mahamahopadhyaya Haraprasad Shastri, M.A. The latter paper drew on newly discovered ancient sources also used for a paper on the existence of the Ancient Magi in India, delivered at the previous General Meeting. Crowley would undoubtedly have found great interest in the latter gentleman’s researches, and in the rare, exotic and scientific character of the other papers.

About The Author

Tobias Churton is Britain’s leading scholar of Western Esotericism, a world authority on Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism. He is a filmmaker and the founding editor of the magazine Freemasonry Today. An Honorary Fellow of Exeter University, where he is faculty lecturer in Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, he holds a master’s degree in Theology from Brasenose College, Oxford, and created the award-winning documentary series and accompanying book The Gnostics, as well as several other films on Christian doctrine, mysticism, and magical folklore. The author of many books, including Gnostic Philosophy, The Invisible History of the Rosicrucians, and Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin, he lives in England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (December 3, 2019)
  • Length: 512 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620557969

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Raves and Reviews

“Relying to a large degree on unpublished documents, Churton’s narrative account demonstrates the extent of Crowley’s engagement with both the theoretical and practical dimensions of Hindu and Buddhist teachings and their enduring influence on his magical philosophy. Crowley’s efforts in conjoining the spiritual systems of the East and West have important implications for the study of comparative esotericism, and Churton deserves praise for his eloquent treatment of this fascinating subject.”

– Gordan Djurdjevic, Ph.D., author of India and the Occult

“The devil is in the details when it comes to the study of Aleister Crowley, and in this groundbreaking book Tobias Churton offers a compelling look at this all-too-overlooked period of Crowley’s sojourns in South Asia. Much praise and credit is due to Churton for revealing the many strands of Crowley’s life and relationships during this formative period--from his poetry to his mountaineering and from his interest in the yogi Sri Sabhapati Svami to his humorous and often purposely offensive social commentaries. Scholars of early modern Hinduism, Buddhism, and Western esotericism as well as general Crowley aficionados will all find much of interest here, especially given the wealth of historical context that Churton provides for the colonial-era history of India, for early Theosophy, and of course for Crowley right in the thick of it all with his mystical and magical aspirations.”

– Keith Cantú, Ph.D. candidate in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbar

“In this excellent book, Tobias Churton examines Crowley’s critically productive time as a student of yoga and Buddhism under his brilliant mentor Allan Bennett and sheds light on the wider context of the cultural push to bring Eastern mysticism to the West, a movement that has shaped both modern spirituality and world history itself.”

– Jason Louv, author of John Dee and the Empire of Angels

“Tobias Churton has once again uncovered--and more importantly, interpreted--some critical aspects of Aleister Crowley’s life and legacy. As with Aleister Crowley in America, he has leveraged his unprecedented access to long-hidden archival material by and about the Great Beast; with these records Churton fills in additional pieces of the grand puzzle that is Crowley, so the reader can see a more complete picture of the experiences that shaped the development and interpretation of his mandate to spread Thelema to the world.”

– Toby Chappell, author of Infernal Geometry and the Left-Hand Path

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