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Book Reviews - Holy Madness - Mystery of Light


Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2003.

Holy Madness. 

Arkana: Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014, 1992 [1991 edition by Paragon House], 296 pages, ISBN 0-14-019.370-7 (pbk.).

Mystery of Light. 

Integral Publishing, P.O. Box 1030, Lower Lake, CA 95457, 1998, 246 pages, ISBN 0-941255-51-4 (pbk.)

Fuerstein, Georg. 


Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart


This review of Holy Madness has lingered in my mind for ten years after I first read the 1992 Arkana edition by Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D.. My interest renewed recently when a client asked me about an obscure, Bulgarian spiritual teacher, Omraam Mikhaёl Aïvanhov (1900-1984). In my research I discovered that Feuerstein wrote a promotional biography about Aïvanhov published in 1998 by a company founded by the author. Feuerstein is an internationally known researcher and promoter of Yoga as well as an historian of religion with thirty books to his credit. He runs his Yoga Research and Education Center recently relocated to the Mt. Lassen area of Northern California (http://www.yrec.org). His interest in gurus goes further than merely academic—he indicates a youthful pattern of serious seeking for a teacher in his own right. His connection with Aïvanhov stems from his chance encounter with a book he read by the deceased Bulgarian in 1989 and liked very much. As a result of Feuerstein’s quest for more books he met one of Aïvanhov’s disciples, Therese Boni, who helped guide the biography, The Mystery of Light, and became his “spiritual friend.”

During 1984 Aïvanhov was on a speaking tour around the USA. Feuerstein had heard nothing of him at that time, but had he known, he says, “I would gladly have journeyed from my home in Northern California to see him.” (Mystery, xv). In 1984 I had heard nothing of Aïvanhov either, but I had seen posters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, my home at the time, advertising his lecture tour. Santa Fe then, as it has been for a century, was a Mecca for artists as well as for a polyglot of spiritual seekers, traveling gurus, and New Age groups. When I arrived there in 1975 fresh out of art school, I became one of Santa Fe’s seekers, looking especially into the Theosophy schools that had influenced many pioneer modern artists. Subsequently I read works from the Philosophical Research Society, the Agni Yoga Society, the “I AM” Activity, the Rosicrucians, the Summit Lighthouse and other schools that claimed to represent the teachings of the arcane White Brotherhood. After some years of hopeful if problematic involvement, I became a critic of the entire Theosophical cult of Masters by 1981. Meeting the living Aïvanhov, a “living master” from that same system (one that he named Fraternité Blanche Universelle (FBU) after his master’s group, Byalo Bratstvo (Bulgarian), a.k.a. the Universal White Brotherhood, impressed me quite differently than it might have Feuerstein. I was curious about Aïvanhov’s view and that he established L’École Divine around 1948 as belonging to his FBU (Mystery, 45).*

Feuerstein wrote Holy Madness around eight years before his publication of The Mystery of Light. In the former effort he critically explores a host of cult leaders, crazy-wise adepts and gurus while examining the whys and wherefores of their influence. His knowledge of this fringe world is impressive—few religious scholars have bothered to take the recent rascal guru movements seriously, as they represent a kind of carnival sideshow in the history of religions. Due to my odd profession as a deprogrammer and cult specialist that spans over two decades, I have observed this sideshow as much out of career necessity as personal curiosity. I was very familiar with nearly every one of the main characters in his discussion, among them Gurdjieff, Da Love Ananda, Aleister Crowley, Bhagwan Rajneesh/Osho, and Chögyam Trungpa, but I was not familiar with Lee Lozowick. Feuerstein mentions dozens of other characters from eastern and western traditions, and he has a facility to support his arguments, quoting from the likes of K. Wilber, E. Underhill, E. Vaughn, W.B. Yeats, R.C. Zaehner, Plato, and St. Paul. His text examines issues of cultism and brainwashing, but questions the accuracy of certain anti-cult groups that see only harm in the tactics of rascal gurus.

Holy Madness is written in three parts: In “The Phenomenon” the author introduces the reader to these teachers with enough description to give the novice at least some idea of the crazy territory. In this book Feuerstein does not hold back when reporting on the abuse of sex, drugs, and power by these adepts. His references are many and solid. In “Part Two: The Context” he takes us into more difficult territory as he looks into the spiritual practices with chapter headings that include: “The Guru: The License to Kill”, “Discipleship: Spiritual Cloning or Brainwashing?” and “God, Enlightenment, and Ego-Death.” In Part Three he examines “The Significance” and enters into a more personal reflection in which he gropes quite eloquently for meaning in all this mess. Feuerstein states on page 188: “Few of the groups or cults that have sprung up since the 1960s, which purport to break away from the mediocrity of mainstream religion and culture, are truly the alternative altars they claim to be. In most cases, it is a matter of old wine in new, sometimes quite weirdly shaped bottles.” Perhaps he meant wineskins, but his intent is nevertheless well taken.

Feuerstein is interested in the phenomena of “real self-transformation” as represented both by the western (Jewish/Christian/Muslim) mystical traditions and, what appears to be his personal leaning, the enlightenment process that pervades Buddhism, and more so the Sanatana Dharma of the Hindu-Vedic tradition. He is, after all, a teacher and researcher of Yoga. He represents a few of these odd teachers in a positive light, among them Meher Baba, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, and Aïvanhov. The latter he quotes once: “Everyone has his own path, his mission, and even if you take your Master as a model, you must always develop in a way that suits your own nature” (Holy Madness, 144). Feuerstein very much wants the reader to grasp that despite the wicked behavior of some of these crazy-wise gurus, they are onto something—they are after all “wise.” If nothing else, teachers like Da Love Ananda and Gurdjieff (who are pathological in their abusive teaching methods both from his description and their history) still serve a valuable function, according to the author. “Crazy-wise adepts and eccentric masters in this book.…still serve a useful societal function: to act as mirrors of the “insanity” of consensus reality and as beacons of that larger Reality [sic] that we habitually tend to exclude from our lives” (Holy Madness, 259). Herein the author hints loudly as to his adopted philosophy, which explains how and why he finds value where I do not—my weltanschauung differs from his.

Let me try to briefly elaborate. This difference goes beyond the social psychological approach differences, say, between sociologists of religion who study these groups “objectively” and mental health workers or therapists who assist former members of abusive teachers. To say that there are different narratives between the anthropological model and the medical model is another way to state the above. But Feuerstein is after something more radical and spiritual. Persons as well as whole cultures adopt world views that become essential operating mythologies or cosmologies—frameworks that guide their thoughts about life experience, birth, death, and afterlife. When he talks about “that larger Reality,” he specifically accepts the grand scheme of Advaita philosophy, the one that sees the essential “self” as Atman, which is identical with the ground of being, Brahman. In other words, the human life force in its essence is uncreated and co-exists in eternity, albeit trapped in a “fallen” or corrupted form—in “ignorance.” Enlightenment is that state of awareness, not unlike gnosis, that mystically absorbs us in that consciousness of That.

Once absorbed or identified with the divine state (atman/brahman), the yogi is said to tap paranormal abilities or siddhis. Though warnings about the pursuit of psychic powers, magick, siddhis, and rituals to create miracles abound in every sophisticated religion, the temptation is great to “prove” that someone is enlightened or sanctified because they demonstrate paranormal abilities. Both oral and written narratives about nearly all the crazy adepts mentioned by Feuerstein in Holy Madness and in Mystery of Light flaunt the miraculous powers of the masters. I am not ignoring the Jewish stories about Moses or the miracle stories about Jesus. But let’s go on.

Another world view, one that infuses mainline Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophy, holds that persons are created in time and can be lifted by God into a co-eternal state through submission to the divine will and acceptance of God’s great gift of life. This is commonly known as theism, the “Western” alternative to Feuerstein’s monism. To proclaim the kind of Self-realization a yogi claims would be blasphemy to a theist: the creature cannot claim to be the Creator. Herein lies much of the contention between Theists and Monists—the theist might argue that if God wills the disciple or saint to have miraculous power, he or she will demonstrate it. The monist might argue that there are steps or initiations one can take to attain the siddhis, that in fact we already have these powers but our ignorance is in the way. The skeptic might argue that they are both full of idealistic claptrap. There are other world views, however we will ignore protestations by neo-Gnostics or the New Age argument that Jesus really wanted each of us to proclaim to be God. We will also ignore the overworked, naïve belief of the liberal seeker who blathers that all paths eventually lead to the same goal. Feuerstein is not naïve, but he does appreciate philosophical kinsmen and that is why, I believe, he wrote such a kind biography promoting Omraam Mikhaёl Aïvanhov in The Mystery of Light.

When I met Aïvanhov in 1984 I did not speak with him. I spoke with some of his disciples and I heard him lecture. He struck me at first as an elegant character attired in a white suit, sporting long white hair and beard, and carrying an ornamental cane. He wore large gold rings on his pinky fingers. He appeared short to me (I’m 5’ 10 “), but he definitely seemed larger than life to his devotees. His English was poor and he apologized for that. Nevertheless, after a devotee gave a proud introduction and a small choir sang two Bulgarian folk songs, Aïvanhov pontificated for nearly three hours. I left after one hour to get some coffee and to peruse one of his books. I returned for the final half-hour or so. By the time I returned, fully 80% of the several hundred members of the audience had vacated the auditorium, many of whom had given the requested $2 donation. In a word Aïvanhov was boring. Despite his pedantic style and thickly accented English I managed to grasp much of what I heard as he reiterated arcane ideas common to the Theosophical theater of teachings resembling those of Rudolf Steiner and Rosicrucianism.

I purchased and read two of his more popular (among devotees) books, but I have since thrown them away. All I have is a few sheets of notes I took after the lecture and from the books. I did write that Aïvanhov teaches that honey bees were a gift from the planet Venus (Aïvanhov, Vol.1, p.48), and that he believed in an extensive and ancient underground civilization: “the center of the Earth is the home of the extraordinary culture of the Agarthians” (Aïvanhov, Vol.1, p.xviii). Within the Theosophical milieu, these are not unusual beliefs. Feuerstein traces the roots of the Agarthian myth in a section describing some of Aïvanhov’s troubles with the law—in 1947 he was accused of espionage in France and served two years of a four-year sentence. The incident was bizarre; a Cuban occultist who called himself “The King of the World” and who was an Aïvanhov adversary, Cherenzi Lind, allegedly started a campaign against Aïvanhov. Women filed complaints of sexual impropriety against Aïvanhov, thus preciptating his arrest. Feuerstein reports the group version that Aïvanhov was framed. Later a 1950 French news article exonerated Aïvanhov, and his name was officially cleared in 1962. Feuerstein gingerly insinuates that Agartha is a real place and reports that Lind claimed to be from there.

I mention this because Feuerstein seems to me to bend and twist page after page to make Aïvanhov into a sage and heroic figure and not appear delusional and racist. Then again maybe I bend and twist to try to adjust my impression of Aïvanhov, one I formed nearly two decades ago. Aïvanhov was born in 1900 in Macedonia; his home village was burned by Greeks in 1907; his father died when he was nine; and he had his first spiritual ecstasy at age 16. He experimented with color effects on his psyche and with trance states. He claimed his room once flooded with a mystical, purple light. He discovered that he had psychic abilities: At one of his talks he apparently crippled a friend by psychic power, then released him from the affliction. As if these were supernatural powers, Feuerstein mentions a few other demonstrations of Aïvanhov’s magic, but in every case I found alternative, more prosaic explanations: Stage magic, autosuggestion, hypnosis, and plain delusional memories both in guru and disciple.

Do I believe that these psychic powers or miracle workers exist? I can tell you that I have known and counseled several individuals who told me of even more profound shamanic powers than anything I read about Aïvanhov. Some of their stories were inexplicable and I had no reason to doubt them. However, psychic powers, if real, are fickle at best and there is no reason to believe that shamans who supposedly demonstrate these powers are holy, dependable, or sane. In any case, Aïvanhov did resort to the same mantra magic used by most Theosophical cults, particularly the “I AM” Activity and Church Universal and Triumphant, whose students and former devotees will easily recognize the following example:

“Sixth Exercise: Kneeling down on one knee, bring both hands up to your face and then move them away from you in a movement similar to the breast stroke, saying, “May all the enemies of the Universal White Brotherhood be routed, defeated and dispersed, for the Glory of God!” (6 times). The enemies of the Universal White Brotherhood are not human beings but are dark forces, ill-intentioned spirits that invade humans in order to destroy the divine work. You have every right to chase them, you can even say, “may they be struck down, ground to bits, annihilated!” They have no right to undermine the Light.” (Aïvanhov, 1982. A New Earth, Vol. XIII, 198-199)

There are pages of these magic mantra exercises, most of them for healing and good fortune.

In 1917 Aïvanhov met his “master,” Peter Deunov (1864-1944), a guru he served and emulated all his life. Raised by a father who was an Orthodox priest with radical views, Deunov studied medicine and theology in the United States and in 1895 he returned to Bulgaria, where he published his dissertation on “Science and Education.” Steeped in Theosophy and Gnostic (Bogomil derivative) ideology, Deunov created his White Brotherhood movement in 1900. His theosophy was “Christ” centered echoing earlier Rosicrucian movements and the later Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. Most concurrent versions of theosophy emphasized a more oriental bias with foundation myths featuring Buddhist and Hindu masters. Deunov may have gathered up to 40,000 followers at the peak of his movement according to Feuerstein (Mystery, 25).

Aïvanhov became Deunov’s principle disciple by 1937 when he moved to France to extend the movement. In 1959 Mikhaёl Aïvanhov traveled to India, met with “various masters” and claimed he met the legendary (I say fictional) adept Babaji (This “god” was popularized in Swami Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi published long before Mikhaёl Aïvanhov’s India sojourn). One master Aïvanhov met apparently gave him his moniker Omraam, a combination of the mantra Om and the divine name Ram. This master was purportedly none other than Neemkaroli Baba, popularized later by the American guru of LSD fame, Dr. Richard “Ram Dass” Alpert. This represents a departure from his master, Deneuv. Feuerstein reports group estimates that Aïvanhov’s following (1998) approached 10,000 worldwide. That is a considerable loss from his master’s numbers in 1944.

The Fraternité Blanche Universelle (FBU) may be in decline, as movements that depend on charismatic leaders tend to go after the guru dies, but this does not prevent self-proclaimed upstarts from revitalizing and refining the cult. Currently I’m tracking one communal group out of Quebec, Cite Ecologique de l'Ere de Verseau (Ecological City of the Age of Aquarius), that recently relocated a few dozen followers to Florida. Unlike most FBU devotees, the Cite Ecologique group lives communally and it hawks standard New Age products through members and on a web site (http://www.kheopsinternational.com ) that makes no mention of the group. Another Michael, a Michel de Cornellier, leads and founded it around two decades ago. De Cornellier was a gym teacher. Its primary texts are the writings of Mikhaёl Aïvanhov in French. Controversy follows this sect regarding their strict parochial treatment of children, racist and elitist practices, and complaints from former members who allege undue influence to gain donations (The Gazette, May 26, 1990, Montreal). But that takes us off my topic.

Of the two books, I think Holy Madness would be a worthwhile read for any student of the new religions and cults whether or not you share the author’s valuation. The presentation on Omraam Mikhaёl Aïvanhov however is overly apologetic and leaves much back-stage information out. My one experience with Aïvanhov and his devotees is enough to convince me that the guru and his cult are more problematic than Feuerstein likes to imagine. One couple I interviewed after Omraam’s lecture is illustrative. The young lady, a devotee, was clearly smitten with the man, even saluting him with raised right hand as all devotees did during his final blessing. Her boy friend, like me, just stood there watching. We may have been the only two who did so among the thirty or so folks left, most of whom were Aïvanhov’s entourage and choir. I asked the young man what he thought of it: “Boring,” he said out of earshot of his smiling girl friend.

*For those readers unaware of this divine White Brotherhood, it is basically a heavenly or metaphysical hierarchy of “ascended” beings, angels, gods, and goddesses who guide the progress of the human race. White purportedly stands for the pure white light that these beings emanate both literally (in case you ever meet one!) and symbolically as a sign of their spiritual attainment. Each Theosophical group expresses its unique myth on the Brotherhood, a.k.a. the Masters or the Hierarchy.
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