In this episode we welcome back Keith Cantú for a wide ranging conversation on the history of the Theosophical Society and in particular its unique relationship with the modern history of yoga. We discuss the influence of figures like Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, as well as lesser-known South Asian Theosophists and Theosophy-adjacent authors and scholars. We discuss the impact of Theosophical publications on the global dissemination of yoga in English-print books and journals, a legacy still felt today in modern yoga circles. We conclude the conversation by previewing Keith's upcoming online course, YS 126 | Theosophy and Yoga.
Dr. Keith Edward Cantú is a historian of religions whose interdisciplinary research especially focuses on South Asian yoga, tantra, and the interface between Sanskrit and Indic vernacular languages like Bengali, Tamil, and Hindi, and on modern occult movements in Europe and North America such as Thelema and the Theosophical Society. He is currently both Research Affiliate at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, where he will begin a full-time postdoctoral fellowship in Asian Religious Traditions next June as part of the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative, and Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University. He previously was a research fellow at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg in the “Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences: Esoteric Practices and Alternative Rationalities from a Global Perspective” and Assistant Professor (postdoc) at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland in the project “Cultures of Patronage: India 1674–1890,” and received his doctoral degree in Religious Studies (South Asian religions) in 2021 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Keith’s first monograph, Like a Tree Universally Spread: Sri Sabhapati Swami and Śivarājayoga, has been published this year by Oxford University Press (Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism series), and he is actively engaged in reprinting and translating several previously unknown or largely forgotten Tamil and Hindi works of Sri Sabhapati Swami and of his gurus. In addition to work on the swami, he is the author of numerous chapters and articles as varied as an ethnography of Tantric songs and sādhana or “practice” in Bengali, Indological research on south Indian mantra and yoga practices at tumuli and temples and on the Sanskrit alchemical mythology of Srisailam, modern yoga and discourses of Orientalism and cultural authenticity, haṭhayoga as “black magic” in Theosophy, and Islamic esotericism in the songs of the Bāuls and Fakirs of Bengal.
A scholar-musician, Keith regularly sings and performs the Bāul songs of the nineteenth-century Bengali humanist poet Lalon Fakir (Lālan Phakir, d. 1890) as well as Śyāmāsaṅgīt or “music for the dark Goddess,” which he learned directly from sadhus and sadhikas during immersive stays in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India over the past twelve years, and regularly co-teaches a course on Tantric meditation and its connection with this music at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, California. English versions of many of Lalon’s songs as translated by the late Carol Salomon can be found in City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan Sā̃i, published in 2017 with Oxford's South Asia Research series, which Keith co-edited together with Dr. Saymon Zakaria.