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You Say You Want a Revolution—in Consciousness?

Martin Luther King tapped into a mystical East-West lineage, one that can guide us in divisive times

It really boils down to this: all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. -Martin Luther King, “A Christmas Sermon for Peace” ‘67

Martin Luther King’s words could have easily been influenced by an 18th century Deist. Or a 19th-century Transcendentalist. Perhaps by a 20th-century quantum physics scientist. Or maybe all of the above.

The freemason inspired E Pluribus Unum — out of many, one — speaks to the deistic roots of our Founders. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Oversoul states “we live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE.” Albert Einstein said “a human being is a part of a whole called by us ‘the universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”

To MLK, these metaphysical truths were self-evident.

East-West Mysticism: a Symbiotic Relationship

King’s words and actions sprung from this platform of awareness. But for all of his spiritual instincts, he was as much inspired by sacred activism as by creed. With his essay Civil Disobedience in 1846, Henry David Thoreau altered American protest and reform, setting a new standard that would impact the world. Sitting in a Birmingham jail in 1963, Rev. King wrote a letter to the nation inspired by Thoreau’s revolutionary concept of non-violent protest. “During my early college days, I read Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience for the first time,” King remembered, “I became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”[1]

But in order for Thoreau’s theory of non-violence to take root, it literally had to go around the world before returning to the United States in the person of King. There is an extraordinary thread connecting Thoreau, the Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky, Mahatmas Gandhi and MLK — a fascinating symbiotic relationship between East and West.

Thoreau’s spirituality can best be described as a unique blend of esoteric, New Thought Unitarianism and the eastern concepts he came to adopt in the late 19th century. While Emerson read Eastern texts as essays of spiritual philosophy, Thoreau turned to them as models of spiritual practice and moral action. Thoreau was also quick to seize upon the lofty ethical teachings of The Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu text whose moral principles were consistent with his own tenet of nonviolent civil disobedience. As one of the editors of the Transcendentalist publication The Dial, Thoreau published translations of several eastern classics. Among his colleagues, Eastern religion had a strong pull. In 1871, James Freeman Clarke wrote Ten Great Religions and Walt Whitman sprinkled references to mysticism and Asian religions throughout his works including Leaves of Grass and Passage to India. [2]

Blavatsky, Theosophy, Gandhi and MLK

Around the same time, Madame Helena P. Blavatsky a Russian immigrant living in the United States, formed the Theosophical Society with respected American corporate lawyer Henry Steele Olcott. Theosophy sought to uncover the “secret” workings of the Divine, tracing current philosophies and religions back to their supposed “common origins” in the Ancient East. Theosophists drew their inspiration from the Neo-Platonic and Gnostic writings of the first three Christian centuries in the West and from recently published Buddhist, Hindu, and Chinese texts.[3] Theosophy may have had the greater influence on the way Americans appropriated Eastern religious philosophies. While Transcendentalism was largely a movement of the upper-class literary elite, Theosophy was a middle-class movement that transformed esoteric traditions into a philosophy geared to everyday spiritual concerns.[4]

As Eastern-based Theosophy influenced the West, Transcendentalism reciprocated.

For all of her Eastern occult leanings, Blavatsky, too, was greatly inspired by the Transcendentalists. It was Emerson’s “magnanimous eclecticism” that drew Blavatsky in, lauding his revelations in The Oversoul: “It is such men as these who knew of no other Deity but that which dwelt in them as they felt themselves inseparable from it.” Religious scholar Alvin Boyd Kuhn in his 1930 study Theosophy says “it may seem ludicrous to suggest that Emerson was the chief forerunner of Madame Blavatsky, her John the Baptist… yet seriously, without Emerson, Madame Blavatsky could hardly have launched her gospel when she did with equal hope of success.”[5] Though influenced by American esoteric thinking and becoming an American citizen herself, Blavatsky eventually felt led to leave the country. She and Olcott set up shop in India where they established the next iteration of the Theosophical Society. There, it would play a critical role in setting civil rights in motion, in both India and America, through the person of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

Gandhi, an Indian lawyer, grew up in relatively secular surroundings. While attending college in England he encountered two Theosophists who asked him if he had read the Bhagavad Gita. Sheepishly, he replied no. They invited him to read a copy, as it held a central place within Theosophy. Gandhi began to read the Gita and attended Theosophical classes. In a biographical essay about Gandhi in The New Yorker, Indian writer Ved Mehta relates, “It was actually thanks to his Theosophist friends that Gandhi started learning about his own religion, by reading the Bhagavad Gita, which he was ashamed of never having read, either in the original Sanskrit or in a Gujarati translation, and which he now tackled eagerly in Sir Edwin Arnold’s popular English translation. In time the Bhagavad Gita became the most important book in his life.” At one point Gandhi met with Madame Blavatsky and they discussed Theosophical doctrine and Hinduism. Gandhi also read Theosophical literature such as The Key to Theosophy, and maintained contact with the Theosophical Society throughout much of his life.[6]

Gandhi, Blavatsky and King shared a common root: Transcendentalism. Gandhi admitted that “Thoreau’s ideas greatly influenced [his] movement in India.”[7] In April 1959, Reverend King made a long-awaited pilgrimage to that country where he hoped to learn more about Mahatma Gandhi’s use of non-violence in his own civil rights battle against the British Empire. After leaving India, King’s interest in this kind of revolution became an irrepressible passion. His clear decision to employ “non-violent resistance to oppression” would not only keep him emotionally nurtured during the personal struggles that followed, but also lay a crystal clear guideline for the hundreds of thousands of informal followers he would attract.[8] This became the hallmark of his movement from Birmingham to Selma to the Lincoln Memorial “I Have a Dream” speech, up until his death in Memphis.

MLK’s Intuitive Perception: In Death, as In Life

On April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the night before his assassination, King gave a speech relating to the Memphis Sanitation Strike. He called for unity, economic actions, boycotts and non-violent protest while challenging the United States to live up to its ideals. Listen to his short “Mountaintop” speech keeping the context in mind, given the hour and what would happen next:

King’s words: ”Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live — a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[9]

King, as if speaking from the Moses archetype, knew he would never see The Promised Land. God would “allow him to look over” and know the destiny of his flock, but he himself would never set foot there. His premonition is as stark a demonstration of intuitive prescience as we have likely seen in American history, the science of which we are only beginning to understand.

Two 21st century scientific investigations, too detailed to go into here, shed light on the way King lived and died. That is, that all life is interrelated and, as Emerson suggested, intuition is the most direct connection to the Divine. Dean Radin’s series of studies in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s at the Institute of Noetic Sciences tested precognition and intuition using both calming and disconcerting photos in double-blind study conditions, suggesting we know something before it occurs.[10] Princeton University’s Global Consciousness Project, especially after the 9/11 attack, using Random Number Generators (RNGs) throughout the world, suggests the possibility that humans not only access a collective consciousness, but possess some degree of precognition. Though the findings have aroused some controversy, the project’s director Roger Nelson explains in this video “We do interconnect, we interact, we’re not isolated. My consciousness…and yours, extend out into the world, and they intermix. We’re a little like neurons, in a giant brain….”[11]

Sounds a lot like Dr. King’s “interrelated structure of all reality” in “A Christmas Sermon for Peace.” Or the metaphysical insights offered by our deistic Founders, or an Emerson, Blavatsky, Thoreau, Gandhi or Einstein. The inspiration of Martin Luther King, Jr., is both innate and universal. Tapping into the core of mystical Eastern and Western wisdom, King reminds us of what it means to take right action based on that wisdom, especially in divisive, polarized times.

______________

[1] Henry David Thoreau, MLK Jr. and the American Tradition of Protest, Brent Powell, OAH Magazine of History, Winter 1995, p.26

[2] Spiritual But Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Robert C. Fuller, Oxford University Press (2001), p. 80.

[3] “Alternative Altars,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, http://pluralism.org/encounter/historical-perspectives/alternative-altars/.

[4] Spiritual But Not Religious, op. cit., p. 80.

[5]Occult America, The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, Mitch Horowitz, Tarcher/Penguin, New York (2008), p. 50

[6] The Strange Theosophical Connection to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, John L. Crow, Religion in American History (2013) http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-strange-theosophical-connection-to.html

[7]Henry David Thoreau, MLK Jr. and the American Tradition of Protest, op. cit., p.26

[8] Four Intriguing Decisions From Martin Luther King— Success lessons from the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nick Tasler, Psychology Today (2014). https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/strategic-thinking/201401/4-intriguing-decisions-martin-luther-king

[9]King’s Mountaintop Speech, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27ve_Been_to_the_Mountaintop#cite_note-AmerRet-1

[10] Electrodermal Presentiments of Future Emotions, Dean Radin, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 18, №2, pp. 253–273, 2004.

[11] 9/11 and Global Consciousness, Patrick J. Kiger NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY NEWSROOM, Sept 6, 2011

is an Emmy® Award winning producer/host of The American Law Journal, New World Radio, opines on history, the Constitution & spirituality christophernaughton.com

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