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Steiner & Krishnamurti

By Peter Staudenmaier

Posted to the Waldorf Critics discussion list January 23, 2009

Pete and Stephen had an interesting exchange on Steiner's reaction to the Theosophical Society's anointment of Krishnamurti as the new World Teacher and reincarnation of Christ. There is ample evidence that race did play a role in the affair, though I agree with Stephen that Steiner rejected the very possibility of another incarnation of Christ in the physical realm, in any kind of body. But the standard anthroposophical position that Krishnamurti's "racial" background played no role in Steiner's rejection of his status as the next messiah is historically naïve.

The fact that Krishnamurti was not white was a stumbling block for many people at the time who took theosophical race theory at face value; for very revealing background on precisely this question, see Jill Roe's study Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939. Steiner's own stated position on the racial-spiritual status of Asians, including South Asians, explains much about his own stance, though his rivalry with Annie Besant and the India-based leadership of the Theosophical Society played a crucial role as well. Making sense of Steiner's indignant attitude toward the Krishnamurti affair requires taking seriously Steiner's statements about the racial character of Asians, the future direction of racial evolution, the spiritual significance of skin color, the obsolete and inferior nature of Eastern spiritual traditions, and other factors.

While Steiner did hold that no living person could be the reincarnation of Christ, he did not leave the matter at that. He pointedly ridiculed the notion that this "Hindu lad," as Steiner called Krishnamurti, could embody the Christ. According to Steiner, Hindus had long since played out their evolutionary function and were now leftovers of former spiritual grandeur, an anachronism trapped in decline. Krishnamurti was neither white, European, nor Christian, and thus failed Steiner's test of adequacy for cosmic leadership. At the same time, according to reports from his theosophical associates, Steiner may have encouraged his own followers to think of Steiner himself as the new appearance of Christ.

More important still, the Krishnamurti affair was the occasion for Steiner's final break from the mainstream theosophical movement, which was headquartered in India, and this break, the founding moment of the anthroposophical movement as such, did indeed involve racial ideology. In the midst of the acrimonious split, in 1911, a close colleague of Steiner, anthroposophist Günther Wagner, wrote that both Steiner himself and his followers believed that ìsince we are the most advanced race, we have the most advanced religionî (1911 letter fom Wagner quoted in Norbert Klatt, Theosophie und Anthroposophie: Neue Aspekte zu ihrer Geschichte, 102). That is an important part of why it was such an affront to the anthroposophist mindset when the rest of the theosophical movement cast its lot with Krishnamurti, who was neither racially nor religiously suited to the role, in their eyes.

Steiner's general statements on the significance of race can also help illuminate the incident. His basic stance was straightforward enough: "One can only understand history and all of social life, including today's social life, if one pays attention to people's racial characteristics. And one can only understand all that is spiritual in the correct sense if one first examines how this spiritual element operates within people precisely through the color of their skin." (Steiner, Vom Leben des Menschen und der Erde, 52) This criterion was of particular importance when Steiner addressed the ostensible spiritual-racial contrast between Europeans and Asians.

Steiner claimed that it was the special destiny of the Germanic peoples to fulfill the "mission of white humanity" by integrating the spiritual and the physical, and that this integration of the physical and spiritual is what accounts for white skin. This integration has failed in non-white peoples, Steiner explained, referring specifically to "the Asian peoples." In Asians and other non-whites, according to Steiner, the spirit "takes a demonic character and does not completely permeate the flesh, there white skin does not appear. Atavistic forces are present which do not let the spirit come into complete harmony with the flesh." (Steiner, The Christ-Impulse as Bearer of the Union of the Spiritual and the Bodily, 8)

Steiner was explicit about this fundamental contrast: "How could one fail to be struck by the profound differences in spiritual culture between, let us say, the peoples of Europe and Asia! How indeed could one not be struck by the differences connected with the colour of the skin?" The purportedly different levels of development were central to this contrast: "How can we fail to realise that the Asiatic peoples have retained certain cultural impulses of past earthly epochs, whereas the Euro-American peoples have advanced beyond them?" (ibid., 6)

Steiner further held that it is the task of "the German people" to spread "spiritual life," which "the Oriental" has lost; the Oriental must now receive spiritual guidance from the Germans (Steiner, Gedankenfreiheit und soziale Kräfte, 141). Steiner taught that "the soul life of the Orient" is not fully part of "normal human life," explicitly equating "normal human life" with "our own, in the West"; the spirituality of the East in contrast is "decadent" and "certainly in decline" (126). He faulted English-speaking Theosophists for looking to India for "ancient oriental wisdom" and for "borrowing completely from the oriental Indians," whose springs of wisdom had long since run dry (130).

The problem, in Steiner's eyes, was not merely an Asian lack of originality and creativity; for Steiner, "the Oriental thinker" is not at the same level of development as "European spiritual culture"; it is only in the West that the seeds of the future are to be found. (132) The decadent and declining features of Indian spiritual life, he insisted, are wholly inappropriate for Europeans. (133) "And it is an example of decadence in the West, of abandonment of all the good spirits of European humankind, that there are many people today who seek to shore up their European spiritual life by absorbing the Oriental essence." (137) Steiner attributed "the purest and cleanest form of thinking" to "the Germans," who are indeed the carriers of "the future of humanity" (142); but this future can only be realized by "our own spiritual striving, not by borrowing from the Oriental" (141).

Steiner sharply contrasted "the Eastern school" from his own "western school" of esotericism, presenting the difference in racial terms: "But this oriental form of truth is worthless for us western peoples. It could only obstruct us and hold us back from our goal. Here in the West are the peoples who shall constitute the core of the future races." (Steiner, Aus den Inhalten der esoterischen Schulen, 221) "The dying races of the East still need the Oriental school. The Western school is for the races of the future." (ibid. 227)

In his book Christus und die menschliche Seele, Steiner discusses the role of "racial evolution" at length, particularly the cosmic differentiation of humankind into racial groups representing varying stages of spiritual progress. The book's second chapter, a lecture from May 1912 (in the midst of the heated intra-theosophical dispute over Krishnamurti), includes a three-page disquisition on the relationship between "race development" and "soul development," explaining that more advanced souls incarnate in "higher races," while less developed souls incarnate in "subordinate races." This process of continual racial-spiritual progress eventually results in "the dying out of the worse elements in the population" (93). Steiner then segues into a comparison of Indian and European spiritual traditions, emphasizing the differences in the "physical incarnation" between these two streams; the "Christ impulse," he explains, played the central role in differentiating the European from the Indian orientation (98).

Then there's Steiner's lecture "The peoples of the earth in the light of spiritual science," published shortly after Steiner's death in the anthroposophical journal Die Drei, vol. 5 no. 9 (December 1925). Here Steiner has quite a bit to say about "the Oriental peoples" and their spiritual practices, which pale in comparison to the spiritual culture brought forth by "the German nation" (651). According to Steiner, the Germans already possess, as part of their "ordinary characteristics," those spiritual achievements that "the Indian strives toward as his ideal of the superhuman." Hence "the European," with his "natural endowment," stands "a stage higher" than "the Oriental" (652).

Taken together, such sources and the numerous others of comparable content carry a consistent message. This lengthy list of assumptions about Indian spiritual traditions, combined with the presumption of European superiority, helps explain anthroposophy's origins in the dispute concerning Krishnamurti and the proper direction of the worldwide theosophical movement. These teachings, which Steiner repeated many times, indicate that aside from his reservations about a physical reincarnation of Christ, he could not conceive of a new "World Teacher" who did not emerge from the German people, heralds of the new age.

In Steiner's view, Krishnamurti was racially, culturally, and spiritually ineligible for the role assigned to him by Besant et al. When it came to discerning the appropriate form for advancing the Christ Impulse, anthroposophical race doctrine was a decisive factor. For further examples of Steiner's negative assessment of Asian spiritual traditions in European contexts, see among others Steiner, Luzifer-Gnosis, 370-71, Steiner, Grundelemente der Esoterik, 108-115, and Steiner, Westliche und östliche Weltgegensätzlichkeit, 226-39.

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