The Emperor's New Chakras
Originally published at Imbolc 2003
A certain supposition has, over the course of the last century, become common belief amongst the occult and new age movements. It is threefold and runs like this: all people have chakras, chakras can be activated, and special powers are awakened when this chakra activation takes place. One would be hard pressed indeed to find a magical order, neopagan community or Eclectic Magical Belief SystemT that did not accept this supposition at least tacitly. One would have to look still further to find one which actively denied it. Given that neither the naked eye nor any other technical apparatus available to man can supply any evidence even for the existence of chakras, let alone for any powers one might attribute to them, this universality of acceptance is quite impressive.
It is clear enough why the idea that chakras exist should have been so widely accepted. Since the days of the collapse of the Golden Dawn, occultists and their ilk have been increasingly eclectic, selecting material with which to create their own personal collage of beliefs. Like belief in 'the astral', belief in chakras adds to the panoply of available material without restricting its use in any way. One does not lose anything by accepting that chakras exist, so one might as well believe in them. After all, it is not as if one were choosing to believe in a specific God whose existence would place limits on the worshipper's moral conduct.
The other benefits of accepting the chakra system as understood in the West are a) once can henceforth refer to an extremely simple 'astral anatomy' when dealing with mental and physical upsets, psychic attacks and other such common hazards; and b) one now has a quantifiable model of 'spiritual advancement', in which the seven chakras are 'activated' one after another from the base up, each one presenting its own Psychic Power, rather like the mounting bonus lights in an old game of pinball. This is particularly useful, given that the rewards of following an occult path tend to be rather vaguely defined.
It is perhaps for this reason that the chakra model - or, to be more exact, one grossly simplified version of it - has gained such prominence over other attempts to map the subtle body, whatever that term may actually mean. Other systems tend to be static. One does not read of acupuncture meridians becoming 'activated' in the course of a transformative mystic experience, nor does one's sekhu 'awaken' and bestow upon one the power of telepathy. As for the bodily organs themselves, their contribution to physical health is barely acknowledged. (A pity: one wonders what powers would attend a person whose intestines had awoken or who had activated his gall bladder.)
We may also trace the popularity of the chakra model to the legacy of British Colonialism and the upsurge of interest in Indian mysticism for which it was ultimately responsible. As is well known, the Chakra system has its origins in India, where the seven chakras and their nadis (subtle nerves) are part of the ground theory of Yoga. From there it would seem that such Victorian pioneers as Arthur Avalon, aka Sir John Woodroffe, introduced it to the West around the turn of the last century, when it was eagerly swallowed up by occult students who were mad for the mystic East and its doctrines. The chakras, or cakkrams as they were more usually known at that time, were described in detail by Blavatsky and her Theosophists, became part of the teachings of the Golden Dawn and were already a staple of occultism by the time Aleister Crowley came to the fore.
Subtle anatomy was, like physical anatomy, the subject of taboos in the Victorian era. One possible reason for the popularity of the Chakra system was the whispered suggestion amongst respectable occultists that it could be abused as well as used. The lower chakras, those closest to the base of the spine, were piously dismissed by one commentator of the time as 'not used in white magic'. This, with tiresome predictability, led to the notion that sexual forces of a dark and mysterious nature could be unleashed by working with the lower chakras in the right way.
The pious occultists of the time had a field day coming up with ways in which a person could be shown to be astrally corrupt, which lent a welcome note of objectivity to their accusations of moral corruption. A person may or may not be bad; it is impossible to tell merely by looking; but say that their aura is the colour of dirty blood, or that their base chakras appear distended and gross, and you condemn them beyond argument. You may not be able to judge a book by looking at its cover, but apparently you can judge a book by looking at its chakras. A colour plate from a book on the subtle body by C W Leadbetter, entitled 'Black Magician', shows a glowering and instantly recognisable Crowley look-alike (complete with Scarlet Woman cowering in the background) resplendent in bogey-coloured aura and out-of-whack chakras.
It is not just the likes of Crowley who were accused of having 'wrong' or 'corrupt' subtle bodies by those who credited themselves with having 'eyes to see'. No less a servant of the light than Violet Firth - later to achieve fame as Dion Fortune - was condemned by Mina Mathers, her occult teacher and superior, because 'certain symbols had failed to appear in her aura' following a Golden Dawn style initiation. Firth, to her credit, dismisses this as 'an utterly unanswerable charge' and she is quite right. All such charges are unanswerable.
Emperor's New Clothes, anybody? Whether or not there was ever any objective validity to the chakra model, or any truth to the assertion that it depicted a set of energy centres which though invisible were as real as an arm or leg, it is undeniable that the claims of various individuals to be able to perceive the chakras and the aura were at best unreliable and at worst a license for one set of occultists to pronounce whatever moral judgements they liked upon another set of occultists, while pretending all the while that they were documenting a fascinating and objective psychic phenomenon.
Despite the near-universal acceptance among occultists of the first part of our supposition, 'all people have chakras', we will not get very far if we attempt to prove it. Chakras were unknown outside the Indian subcontinent until people were told about them, which of course is the primary argument against their objective existence. Chakras were not discovered, they had to be described. Chinese medicine, which has mapped the various meridians of the body in exacting detail and has several centuries of clinical use to its credit, does not correspond to the chakra system at all. Even within India, various different chakra diagrams are in use. No other culture has ever discovered the chakras independently. From this, we might conclude either that chakras do not exist, or that the western world has seriously misinterpreted what chakras are all about. Given the persistent western confusion regarding Tantra, a similar confusion regarding chakras is easily conceivable.
In their original context of Yoga practice, the chakras are awakened one by one in the course of deep meditation. This awakening is the consequence, not the object, of Yoga. Psychic powers or 'siddhis' are indeed developed by this practice, but in Yoga they are seen as a distraction from the true goal of Union and are not to be indulged.
The unfolding of each particular chakra corresponds to the achievement of a particular trance state, the perfection of one part of the sheaths of the self. In that sense, the chakras are symbols, metaphors of the interaction between the attention of the mystic and the object of his meditation, and not nodes of invisible energy. They are, in any case, purely internal; or as Crowley happily says, 'mythical'. They are of the nature of thought, not of invisible matter. Your chakras are real to you and not to anyone else in exactly the same way that a thought of yours is real to you and not to anyone else. They seem to have a bodily location because they were 'discovered' by generations of Yogis after meditation on various parts of the body. This does not mean, as the new agers seem to think, that chakras exist in the astral body.
Here's a practical way to illustrate the point. Stand on one leg. You will probably wobble slightly. Now, imagine that there is an invisible cord connecting the top of your head with the ceiling. You will find -that this helps you balance. The technique works. The reader will appreciate that there is but the shortest of conceptual steps between experiencing this and being asked to pay five hundred quid to attend an Invisible Balancing Cord Initiation, during which an experienced balancing cord initiator will awaken your inner cord and lead you to the ways of true balance.
The original sources for the chakra model thus had a completely different notion of what the chakras actually were. They were not astral or etheric. They were part of the process of Yoga, a disciplined and inwardly directed set of practices. Given that the original sources (at least, those that I have been able to consult) do not depict nor refer to any Yogi working with any other chakras than his own, we may conclude that the western tradition of cleansing, activating, balancing or otherwise messing about with another person's chakras is completely bogus and has no basis in the original system whatsoever.
Where did Western occultists ever get the idea that chakras could be activated from outside the individual? The present writer's theory is that it is all Lobsang Rampa's fault. The fraudulent Tibetan Lama (he was actually an English plumber, as the Fortean Times has documented in great detail and with considerable glee) wrote in his spurious account 'The Third Eye' of a practice in which the third eye was forcibly opened by inserting wooden splinters into the forehead. This may well have suggested to the readers that it was possible to affect a chakra through physical means, or at least through external ones. As far as my research has been able to tell, this conceit is entirely his invention.
Whatever the source of the error may be, we are met with the evidence that certain individuals have put two and two together and made twenty-two. The rationale goes something like this:
In the course of Yogic practice, an exalted spiritual state accompanies (or is symbolised by) the opening of a given chakra. Ergo, if the chakra can be awakened from outside - say, by a suitably impressive sounding initiatory figure - the corresponding spiritual state will result.
This is clearly ridiculous and yet is believed in occult circles all across the world. Why is it that so many people today believe that occult initiation must involve the activation of chakras? It was not always so. As we have seen, Mina Mathers referred to a different yet equally untestable result of initiation, namely the appearance of certain symbols in the aura. We should perhaps look even further back and ask the more general question: whence came the idea that initiation works changes upon the subtle body, be that the 'aura', the 'chakras' or whatever else?
Mystery school initiations throughout history, both fictional and real, have conferred mysterious benefits. These, however, have always been in the nature of information or privilege, e.g. possession of a Word believed to have special powers, possession of some terrible secret regarding the nature of the Gods, the status of manhood, the favour of the Devil, and so forth. It comes as quite a shock to reflect that initiations were not believed to change the subtle body of the individual until very recently indeed. For my part, I can trace this belief as far back as the Golden Dawn under Mathers and no further. It does not seem to be a part of Theosophy.
Much of the blame may lie with some of those who revived one of the lineages of Crowley's OTO. A marginal note written by Crowley in his own personal copy of The Equinox sketches a correspondence between the Man of Earth Degrees of the OTO and the 'Hindu Chakras'. The OTO revival referred to above did not take place until some decades after Crowley's death. Those who were working with the incomplete fragments of the OTO system left behind by Crowley began to believe the Man of Earth Degree Initiations not only corresponded to the Hindu Chakras but also awakened them. Unfortunately, Crowley was not around to tell them otherwise.
With this misreading a whole new purpose of Initiation arose. It supplanted the old concept of initiation, in which the rewards for enduring the ordeals were moral (the honour of counting oneself a member of a selective body) informational (knowing the secrets) and privilege-based (admission to secret gatherings, participation in the funny handshake network.) Instead, an acquisitive and progressive model of initiation was presented. One underwent the ceremony in order to get the power, to collect the next Chakra in the set. Unfortunately for those who tried to promote this idea, the OTO initiations do not contain any amazing nor unique chakra-activating technology, such as one might expect from the claims made by the Caliphate. They are essentially Masonic in style; and if activating chakras is as easy as running an expensive sword over them, someone should tell all those poor Yogis in India and save them the work. Yet, one still finds to this day that all sorts of quite mundane initiatory happenings - by which I mean the kind of goings-on which would not be out of place in a regular Masonic Lodge - are referred to by certain commentators as means whereby chakras are activated! A Mr. W. Heidrick, long-term member of the Caliphate OTO, is particularly culpable here. The bright flashes of light and loud noises that play a part in the Fourth Degree of OTO (as they do in the Masonic ceremony of Royal Arch upon which the Fourth Degree of OTO is very closely modelled) are deemed by Heidrick to be devices for 'activating certain chakras'. Would that it were that easy.Crowley himself never credited the initiation ceremonies of OTO with the power to activate chakras, neither in public writings nor in private. This misconception is a dogma exclusive to the Caliphate lineage of OTO; other less ignorant lineages have either avoided making the mistake in the first place or have reclassified the dogma as only one of many possible interpretations.
A rule of thumb for the future, then: any allegedly ancient, allegedly initiatory system which claims to activate or to awaken chakras is ipso facto modern, promising results which are impossible to prove and inconsistent with the original doctrines. This will prove useful should it become necessary, as I believe it will in the present climate of deception and woolly-headed thinking, to discern genuinely old systems from modern mock-ups.
It is simply not possible to equate the original chakra system of Yoga with that bastardised travesty which is so entrenched in the West, in which anything from a wiggled crystal to a laid-on hand to a loud bang seemingly has the potential to activate a chakra. Tradition has it that there is only one way to activate chakras: sustained, disciplined Yogic practice. Tradition has yet to be proven wrong. There are no short cuts; nobody can do it for you, not even if you pay them.
There is one more 'technique' deserving mention and any loyal readers whom I have managed somehow to retain will understand why I have saved it for last.
The Wiccan lineages, though their original rites were largely based upon OTO ritual, have been less prone to the chakra-activation concept of initiation. However, the somewhat more recently concocted fiction of 'Old Craft' is, it seems, embracing it wholesale. Some 'Old Crafters' equate the 'stang' with the route of the Kundalini and the chakras encountered en route. Most tellingly, in The Pickingill Papers by my jocular correspondent, E.W. Liddell, we find the suggestion that the osculum infame, or kiss upon the buttocks depicted in woodcuts supposed to represent witches undergoing initiation, may refer to an initiatory technique of breathing upon certain parts of the body in order to - you guessed it - activate chakras. (Though why the Devil needs his chakras activating escapes me - Ed)
Let the Yogis of India rejoice! All you need to do is put your lips together and blow. Anyone who does not mind going to the trouble of purchasing a simple length of rubber tubing, such as are used in fish tanks or home distillery, may experiment with this ancient Templar technique upon their own basal chakra and my hearty good wishes to them.