Gandhi as Thelemite

It is a strange thing to revere a person. A thousand small cults have sprung up around different personalities, some with justification, some by sheer force of that individual’s ego. It would seem more appropriate to admire what someone has done, based on how it benefitted the world at large, than it would to arbitrarily assign holiness to someone based on their own assertions.

Which brings us to one Edward Alexander Crowley, poet, mystic, mountain climber, and modern expounder of the religion of Thelema. A number of things have been said about this man, most of them wrong or wrongheaded. What is certain is that he was a talented self-promoter, and managed to gather around himself people who were enamored of his message and willing to further that message after his death. Over time, that message has been conflated with the man himself, so that many Thelemites strive to live up to his example and model their views on what they take to be his.

But the question remains: what did Crowley actually do to deserve this adulation? The material products of his life are the Holy Books of Thelema (admittedly a treasure for which we must thank him) along with a million or so other volumes of mediocre poetry, and a billion pages of self aggrandizing bombast. Within these are, admittedly, some of the most valuable instructions on magick in the modern world. He also took over an esoteric society, rewrote its rituals, and transformed it into a tool for disseminating his “new” doctrine. These are impressive, but any sales representative with an eye for opportunity could do much the same.

In the end, people idolize Crowley because he told them to, bullying, browbeating, and cajoling their adoration at nearly every turn. Crowley’s occult knowledge was second hand. His contribution to society outside of his small group of initiates was minimal, and continues to be so.

At about the same time in history, another man revered by a sizable group of human beings was busy trying to kick Crowley’s countrymen out of his homeland. This was, of course, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a small and soft spoken lawyer. His ideas share a number of points of agreement with Crowley (as well as more than a few direct disagreements). For instance, Gandhi’s belief that the individual conscious act was the most important aspect of any change or lack thereof. His entire life’s work could be considered an act of Love Under Will. Gandhi set about to do something, had purity of will and purpose, and did it.

Crowley died nearly penniless, with only a few eccentrics supporting and caring for him. His “revolution” according to his version of Thelemic principles never came to pass. The “reasons” for this are irrelevant. The simple fact is that, by his own terms, Crowley failed.

It is for these reasons that I submit that Gandhi was an effective Thelemite, and Crowley was not. Gandhi was able to drive an empire from his backyard using only sheer force of will. Crowley used the same force to mainly gather around himself a group of people who admired him. Today, many Thelemites follow suit, doing little more than developing networks of mutual admiration and intellectual incest.

Success is your proof…

My purpose is not to promote Gandhi as a hero. I only mean to point out something about the nature of a doctrine with individual excellence at its core. It’s fulfillment is, almost by definition, a subjective matter. If the individual is the only measure, or the opinion of those with almost identical content in their heads the only standard, we will end up with blatant contradictions with reality. Like a Great Prophet whose cult never grows above three thousand.

There is a point at which ones Will has to meet with the greater context in which one lives. This requires both the ability to see that context, and the willingness to abandon a priori assumptions and ideologies that may not be applicable. A lack of these two things creates little more than “a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

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3 comments
  1. It’s a fascinating comparison. And I am quite sure that Crowley would completely agree that a national liberation movement is and act of Will, and that a successful movement is an example of bringing about change in accordance with Will.

    But how are we to assess Gandhi’s “success”? He was a pacifist who led an independence movement, the “success” of which led directly to a fratricidal religious bloodbath, and indirectly to nuclear proliferation.

    And how are we to assess Crowley’s “failure”? He is still to this day the single most important and influential occultist in the English speaking world for the last 200 years – maybe ever. He contributed a great deal to Wicca, by far the most successful of the modern Pagan sects. His Thoth Tarot by itself is a monumental achievement – and it will likely still be studied and used centuries from now. And for all of their shortcomings, many of his contemporary disciples are doing productive work, such as regular performance of the Gnostic Mass, continuing to publish Crowley’s writings, and generally messing with people’s heads.

    Personally I admire both Gandhi and Crowley and each man had many successes and many failures. Did Socrates “succeed”? He ended his life impoverished and hated – put on trial and condemned by those he had lived among for 70 years.

    • Fair enough. But what is the value of being an important occultist, even a foundational one? It’s a rather specialized pursuit that seems doomed to obscurity and a lack of relevance outside an extremely small circle of influence.

  2. That’s a very important question, and one that really highlights one of the great deficiencies of modern western society. In the Renaissance and the beginning of the Early Modern period, occultism was far more influential and even in some sense “mainstream”. In the Renaissance the most important occultists were numbered among the most influential intellectuals of the day. Even into the 17th century Kepler and Newton were strongly influenced by Pythagoreanism, Hermeticism. Since then there has been a precipitous “Esoteric Brain Drain”. But I think if anything this makes someone like Crowley all the more important, not less, because he bucks this trend. He knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew, studied Chinese and Indian philosophy, was at least moderately well acquainted with the science of his day, knew his history and his calculus, etc.

    And how “influential” is Gandhi? I think that is far from clear.

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