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27th October 1996




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Encountering Aleister Crowley

The Yogic Quest

By Richard Boyle

World famous magician Aleister Crowley's life was drastically changed when he visited Ceylon in 1901. In this, the first of a three part series Richard Boyle writes on Crowley;s extraordinary experiences here...

In the early years of the twentieth century, Ceylon was visited twice by the most famous and infamous magician of modern times Aleister Crowley, or the "Great Beast 666Ó as he called himself. As a magician, Crowley was in direct line of descent from such luminaries as Cagliostro, the Comte de Saint Germain, Eliphas Levi, and Madame Blavatsky. But he was also a poet, novelist, mountaineer, eccentric and womanizer. It is of interest that Crowley the womanizer came into abrasive contact, some years after his visit to Ceylon, with one of the island's greatest sons, the savant Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Crowley was born in 1875, a year significant to occultists as it was the year that Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society and that Eliphas Levi died. Crowley's father was a successful brewer, yet who spent much time traversing the English countryside preaching the doctrines of the Christian sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. After he died, the younger Crowley grew up to detest the faith in which he had been brought up and, without knowing why, went over to the side of Satan.

He was educated at Malvern and Tonbridge, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge. However, as his biographer John Symonds has pointed out, "his real seat of learning" was the magical society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the leading light of which was a man of considerable potential, MacGregor Mathers. The Golden Dawn taught and practised ceremonial magic, as opposed to magic which used aids such as drugs and sex. Its constitution was not derived from its governing body, but from superior intelligences called Secret Chiefs. Mathers claimed to have met the Secret Chiefs one night in Paris.

Crowley joined the Golden Dawn in 1898 taking the title of Perdurabo (I will endure to the end). As he was ambitious it was not surprising that he quarrelled with not only Mathers, but also with the rank and file, including W.B. Yeats, whom he accused of being jealous of his superior talent as a poet. In the end Crowley was virtually expelled from the Order. He retaliated by denying that Mathers had met the Secret Chiefs. His greatest need was to make his own link with the Secret Chiefs. Without such a link he remained a negligible force.

One person in the Golden Dawn who Crowley did like and respect was Allan Bennett, a very effective practitioner of magic. Bennett had studied the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures as well, not only as a scholar, but with the insight that comes from inborn sympathetic understanding", as Crowley writes in his autobiography, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley. Unfortunately Bennett was a chronic asthmatic and Crowley came to the conclusion that his friend would die unless he went to live in a warmer climate. Crowley procured £100 from his current mistress which paid for Bennett's passage to Ceylon and saved for humanity one of the most valuable lives of our generation, as he claims.

The reason why Crowley first travelled to Ceylon in 1901 was a curious one. He was still pre- occupied with the question of whether or not Mathers had authority over the Golden Dawn. "I could think of only one way of putting him to the test", explains Crowley. "It concerned an episode at which Allan Bennett was present. Allan, and he alone, could confirm the account which Mathers had given me. If he did so, Mathers was vindicated; if not, it was fatal to his claims. It seems absurd to travel 8,000 miles to ask one question, but that was what I did."

The outspoken Crowley conveys an ambivalent, slightly Schizophrenic attitude towards Ceylon throughout his account of the island and its inhabitants, vacillating between racist abuse and romantic reverie. Take his description of Colombo, for example: "I love it and loathe it with nicely balanced enthusiasm. Its climate is chronic; its architecture is an unhappy accident; its natives are nasty; its English are exhausted and enervated. The riff raff of rascality endemic in all parts is here exceptionally repulsive. The high water mark of social tone, moral elevation, manners and refinement is attained by the Japanese ladies of pleasure."

A few paragraphs later Crowley continues: "But then, how rich, how soft, how peaceful is Colombo! One feels that one needs never do anything any more. It invites one to dream deliciously of deciduous joys. The palms, the flowers, the swooning song of the surf, the dim and delicate atmosphere heavy with sensuous scents, the idle irresponsible people, purring with placid pleasure; they seem musicians in an orchestra, playing a nocturne by some oriental Chopin unconscious of disquieting realities." Crowley also suggests that Colombo is "the place where four winds meet",, the cross roads of the civilized world.

Crowley soon met up with Allan Bennett. By this time, several years after he had arrived in Ceylon, Bennett had been through various adventures. Already at heart a Buddhist, he initially resisted the urge to take up the Yellow Robe because, according to Crowley, he was "disappointed by the degeneracy of the Singalese bhikkhus." Instead he had been engaged by Ponnambalam Ramanathan, then Solicitor General, as a private tutor to his younger sons. Ramanathan was of course a man of profound religious knowledge; a yogi and commentator on the gospels of Matthew and John. From him Bennett learnt a great deal about the theory and practice of Yoga.

When Crowley asked Bennett the vital question he had travelled so far to hear the answer to, he must have been relieved, for it was obvious from Bennett's reply that Mathers had been at fault. From that time onwards both men dismissed from their minds the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was back to first principles. Crowley proposed that Bennett obtain leave from Ramanathan and that they go to live in Kandy and devote themselves to Yoga. Bennett accepted without hesitation and they rented a bungalow called Marlborough which overlooked the temple and lake. There they devoted themselves with "diabolical determination and saintly simplicity to the search for a spiritual solution to the material muddle.'

At the time Bennett was 18, he had accidentally discovered the state of Shivadarshana, in which the universe, having been perceived in its totality, is then annihilated. It seems his sole objective in life was regaining that state. Crowley comments that Ramanathan "showed him a rational practical method of achieving this". During their retirement at Kandy, Bennett taught Crowley the principles of Yoga. Crowley witnessed some extraordinary sights. One day Bennett entered Pranayama and the mysterious forces generated by this state of consciousness had thrown him across the room, so that he came to rest upside down in a corner, like an overturned Buddha image. On another occasion, Bennett demonstrated how he could prevent leeches from biting him by adopting certain breathing exercises.

During their stay in Kandy, Crowley and Bennett had the privilege of being present at the annual inspection of the Tooth Relic and the good fortune of witnessing the Esala Perahera. Crowley, predictably, was not impressed by the holiness of the Perahera, but its spectacle certainly had an effect on him: "The scene was wild and somewhat sinister. The darkness, the palms, the mountainous background, the silent lake below, the impenetrable canopy of space, studded with secretive and significant stars, formed a stupendous setting for the savage noise and blaze of the ceremony."

Crowley goes on to suggest that the Perahera communicates a "sort of magnificent madness to the mind". Although he was not sure of the meaning of this madness, he "felt a tense, tremendous impulse to do something demoniac". He admits, "it was almost a torture to feel so intensely, and desire so deliriously, such unintelligible irritation. Hours passed in this intoxicating excitement."

Crowley admits that in writing his autobiography he was much influenced by Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious. So it is not surprising that the mass psychological state induced by the spectacle of the Perahera was of special interest to him. "One can understand perfectly the popular enthusiasm," he states. "It was the release of the subconscious desires of the original animal." But that was not all, for he continues: "The whole of Eastern ceremonies, from the evolution of dancing girls to the austerities of ascetics, have all been devised with the intention of inducing the right medium for the right sort of subconscious to arise, move and appear."

A few months later, Crowley claims to have attained the state of Dhyana. Curiously, though, he did not feel encouraged to proceed any further for another two years, and "the immediate current being thus exhausted, we decided to go on a pilgrimage to the ruined sacred cities of Buddhism". Crowley embarked on this journey in a worldly frame of mind, admitting that his interests were in "aesthetic, historical and ethnological matters, and in incidents of travel amid new scenes". For Bennett, however, this was a real pilgrimage, because he had become more and more convinced that he ought to take the Yellow Robe. In fact he was ordained later on in Rangoon, and became the founder of the Buddhist Sangha in the West.

While he was in Kandy, Crowley had signed an agreement with the climber Oscar Eckenstein to make an attempt on Chogo Ri the following year: at that time all the great peaks in the Himalayas were unconquered. In preparation for the climb Crowley had begun to grow a beard and on the visit to the ruined cities he was often mistaken by the local inhabitants for a Boer prisoner of war.

Crowley considered Dambulla "ne of the most extraordinary works of human skill, energy and enthusiasm in the world", although he complained bitterly about the "thick coats of gamboge" he felt concealed the "delicacy of the modeling". Sigiriya he found "startling". He hung about the place for a few days in order to circumnavigate the base of the rock and find a way up, but found the scheme impractical because of the surrounding thick jungle.

That he was unable to ascend Sigiriya seems extraordinary, given his prowess as a mountaineer and the fact that since the first recorded ascent in 1853 some half dozen Europeans had achieved this feat. Moreover, the Public Works Department had erected a permanent ladder for the final part of the ascent of the rock in 1894, and H.C.P Bell had undertaken considerable excavations at the base and had cleared much of the jungle thereabouts.

The last stop of this pilgrimage was Anuradhapura, whose ruins Crowley thought "incomparably greater as monuments than even those of Egypt. They are not so sympathetic spiritually; they lack the appeal of geometry and aesthetics which makes the land of Khem my spiritual fatherland. But one has to grant the gargantuan grandeur of the old Singalese civilization. Their idea, even of so pedestrian a project as a tank, was simply colossal. They thought in acres where others think in square yards."

Crowley was one of those people who show tremendous initial enthusiasm for things, but whose interest often wanes thereafter. As he confesses, "I was fed up with marvels". So he travelled alone to South India, where he bumped into Colonel Olcott on a train. "The psychological change from Ceylon is very sudden, startling and complete," he observes. "What is there about an Island which differentiates it so absolutely from the adjoining mainland? No amount of similarity of race, customs and culture gets rid of insularity."

Like many visitors to Ceylon, Crowley could not resist commenting on the reference to the island in Bishop Herber's hymn, "Greenland's Icy Mountains. Crowley objected to accepting Ceylon as the penultimate, "But certainly every prospect is remarkably pleasing and, as far as I saw, every man is vile",, he remarks in typically acerbic fashion. "There seems to be something in the climate of the island that stupefies the finer parts of a man if he lives there too long."

To Crowley, the flavour of Ceylon tea, so pleasing to so many, somehow seemed to symbolize what he felt. He remembers how he once pleaded with a shopkeeper to procure him some Chinese tea. "It chanced that the owner of a neighbouring plantation was in the shop. He butted in, remarking superciliously that he could put in the Chinese flavour for me! "Yes," replied Crowley, "but can you take out the Ceylon flavour?

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