The Theosophical Society and Transnational Cultures of Print

Theosophy in India

Lori Lee Oates
Memorial University of Newfoundland

It has long been established by historians such as Christopher Bayly and scholars of post-colonialism such as Leela Gandhi that theosophy was an important nineteenth-century intellectual current. Bayly, for example, credits theosophy with diffusing the Bhavagad Gita throughout India and bringing it to the attention of the wider world. However, what has been less well-established is how those ideas were moving across international lines or the links between theosophy and empire.

My recently published article in The International History Review drew on new primary sources to demonstrate that the Theosophical Society was actively building print networks to expand and move their occult philosophies across the globe. The article paid closer attention to how theosophical texts were moving internationally than previous research. It also demonstrated how Theosophical Society leaders were using expanding imperial networks such as steam ships, telegraphs, and international banking to grow the society across the globe.

Continue reading “The Theosophical Society and Transnational Cultures of Print”

How Empires Globalized New Age Religion


Lori Lee Oates
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @LoriLeeOates

In 2015, the print and online Yoga Journal celebrated its 40th anniversary. It currently claims a readership of 2.1 million people and receives more than 5 million online page views per month. Lululemon, the famous retailer of women’s yoga wear, has started opening stores for men. The Maharishi Foundation website reports that it has established Transcendental Meditation Centres in 108 countries across the globe. Some of the best selling books of recent decades have focused on themes and practices traditionally found in Eastern Religion. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now (1997) has been translated into 33 languages and is estimated to have sold 3 million copies. The book is described as a New Age reworking of Zen. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love (2006) spent 187 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List and sent women across the globe running toward the ashrams of India. Clearly, alternative religion is big business in the twenty-first century.

This global mass consumption of alternative religion has long been regarded as a manifestation of the increasing commercialization of, well, everything since the 1980s. It is true that religion, like everything else, has reached new heights of sales in the age of mass marketing. French scholar Frédéric Lenoir has provocatively argued in Les Métamorphoses de Dieu (2004) that secular societies are more religious than at any previous time in history. However, what is less frequently spoken of is the role that imperialism played in the expansion of interest in Eastern religions in the West. Continue reading “How Empires Globalized New Age Religion”