The Theosophical Forum – June 1936

THEOSOPHY, THE ORIENT, AND RUDYARD KIPLING — Madeline Savage

In an Appendix to the first edition of H. P. Blavatsky's The Key to Theosophy (1889), occurs the following paragraph:

The Theosophical Society was formed at New York, November 17, 187S. Its founders believed that the best interests of Religion and Science would be promoted by the revival of Sanskrit, Pali, Zend, and other ancient literature, in which the Sages and Initiates had preserved for the use of mankind truths of the highest value respecting man and nature. A Society of an absolutely unsectarian character, whose work should be amicably prosecuted by the learned of all races, in a spirit of unselfish devotion to the research of truth, and with the purpose of disseminating it impartially, seemed likely to do much to check materialism, and strengthen the waning religious spirit. The simplest expression of the objects of the Society is the following:

First: — To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.

Second — To promote the study of Aryan and other Eastern literatures, religions, and sciences. . . . etc.

From the very outset, then, it is plain that in the judgment of the Foundress herself, a large part of the success of the Society which was to bring the Ancient Wisdom back to the Western peoples, was to depend upon newly-forged links of learning and culture between East and West; and secondarily, we may infer, upon a greater measure of understanding on the part of the West of the true nature of the Oriental peoples and nations. Mme. Blavatsky herself chose India for the main treasure-house, as being the nation that had preserved the ancient knowledge in the form most suitable to be given to the West in this modern age.

Perhaps not least among the factors that have opened Western minds to the influences of Eastern thought has been the work of Rudyard Kipling, who, in the many obituary notices that have appeared on the occasion of his recent death, has been awarded the laurels due to a literary genius, an architect of Empire, a bold adventurer in the field of thought, and so on. But one phase of his achievement, a phase that is of peculiar interest to Theosophists, has not been greatly stressed. Yet is it not a fact that in bringing to the consciousness of the West even a tithe of the treasures of the mysterious East, Kipling indirectly and quite unconsciously served the cause of Theosophy?

His life coincided in time with the inception of the modern Theosophical Movement, and the general trend of his work put him in touch with the currents that were beginning to stir in the East and to find their way westward. There was of course a cyclic timeliness in this westward movement of Eastern influences, but many and various are the agents that bring about such cyclic changes.

Born in 1865, in Bombay, spending early years in Lahore, going to England for his education, returning to India, traveling to and marrying in the States, engaged in journalistic work that carried him round the globe, Kipling had ample opportunity, if ever man had, to interpret the East to the West. But unlike Lafcadio Hearn and the Fenellosas, Kipling can hardly be said to have interpreted the Oriental life and mind to the Western world. Perhaps 'revealed' would be a better word, and that only in a limited sense. For Kipling was to the last an Occidental of the Occidentals. We say this because the predominant element in his work reflected so faithfully the stiff-necked pride of race of the English in India; and yet we say it with reservations, because there are other portions of his work which do give us scattered gleams from the ancient wisdom. But whatever may have been his perceptions of the soul of the East, there is not apparent in his writings as a whole more than a comparatively superficial understanding of the Oriental genius — superficial from the standpoint of Theosophy, which recognises in the East the still pervading atmosphere, the outworn fabric, of a culture beside which that of the West seems puerile and inadequate.

Having said this much, we can turn now and justly appreciate the genius that painted India for us with all the vividness of life itself. As children we were there in spirit, following Mowgli through the enchanted world of the Jungle Books. To be sure, the tales that we read in our maturer years were written chiefly from the standpoint of a proudly conquering race: "Governors and Lieutenant-Governors, Commissioners and Deputy-Commissioners, Colonels and Captains and the Subalterns." The Indian natives were described as one would describe a quaint race of indulgently regarded children; but enough of the charmed atmosphere seeped through to keep alive our sympathies and our imagination. When we came to read his Letters of Marque and other journalistic correspondence to the Allahabad Pioneer and the Civil and Military Gazette, we found revealed much more of Kipling's real feeling for the true India. A few words of quotation taken at random from these letters will show this better than we can tell it.

Apropos of the transformation of Jeypore into a modern city with all conveniences, he writes: "It is difficult to write of a nickel-plated civilization set down under the immemorial Aravalis [mountains] in the first State of Rajputana." Elsewhere he says: "It was my destiny to avenge India upon nothing less than three-quarters of the world." And his attitude is still more strongly attested in the later letters from America, in which he describes the blatancy of Western civilization, as experienced by him there, in contrast with the life of even some of the simple natives of India, who, he avers, knew far more about the real values of life than these frantic Westerners.

Then there is Kim. In that best and most beloved of all his books, in his portrayal of the old Lama with his serene philosophy of the Wheel of Things, in the boy Kim's chelaship and beautiful relationship to the old man, Kipling perhaps shows us best what inklings he had of the more spiritual side of the old and fragrant habitude of the Orient, which surrounds like an untroubled sea the objective activities of the invading and conquering West.

One cannot but regard it as unfortunate that Kipling seems chiefly known in the West through what might be called the noisier of his works: the Barrack-Room Ballads, Mulvaney and his crew, and the ever ubiquitous Subalterns, products of genius as we must admit them to be. Of much more real moment, we think, are his tales of the 'supernatural,' The Phantom Rickshaw and a score of others, which point significantly to the existence of worlds beyond the visible, worlds that can be perfectly well accounted for in the Theosophical teachings, echoing the ancient Eastern wisdom. In the delicate fancies of The Brushwood Boy and in They, and in Puck of Pook's Hill and its sequel, these worlds are again suggested with a touch of elfin magic as sure as Barrie's or Walter de la Mare's.

Kipling was not without his intuitions. The Finest Story in the World is the finest story in the world for overwhelming the reader with a conviction of the truth of reincarnation: the commonplace London clerk recapturing in snatches, in a sort of waking dream, the unrecorded details of what could have been nothing but his own former life as a galley-slave in the days of old Greece. And what but reincarnation could he have meant in that L'Envoi where we find the lines:

We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew!

Whatever may have been his crudities, Kipling by the very fire and vividness of his every written word surely promoted that much-desired fellow-feeling between the two worlds of this planet, by turning millions of Western minds eastward, and without doubt many Oriental minds westward. He was a single factor: his work, and that of others in the same field, has had its fruition in a greater understanding between East and West than has ever obtained before. Witness the steady stream of Oriental literature that is flowing into our libraries, through translation and from original sources; our increasing interest in the study of Oriental languages, most of the leading colleges in the Western nations having now established Chairs of Sanskrit; witness even the ever-mounting number of Orientals, of greater or less intellectual quality, who are gaining a hearing, wisely or unwisely, among inquiring Western minds of a certain type. (It seems to be a law of Nature that we must always take some dross with the gold.) And let us not forget the splendid scientific achievements of eminent Hindus of today, whose work is recognised as being fully up to Western standards: Sir Jagadis Chunder Bose, Professor Raman, Sir Shah Sulaiman — to mention only three that come to mind.

There never was a more misleading slogan than the famous line:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

flung out as it was almost off-hand as a striking opening to the well-known Ballad of East and West. Without their qualifying context the words have been used as an epigram wherever English is spoken, and taken in their absolute meaning. In one sense they are utterly true, and Kipling was evidently expressing his awareness of the gulf that separates East and West in quality of consciousness and consequent adjustment to life. But just as the Ballad itself shows how the finest traits of both East and West are one and the same, and can blend the two into one, so both West and East have found that they can meet on common ground when the higher planes of thought, in science and philosophy, for example, are entered upon. And the West is only just discovering that it is already receiving from the East treasures of value not suspected before. It is simply the passing on to a younger and less developed civilization of the finest essence and fruitage of the old — and that is ever the way of Nature.


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