This essay is chapter 17 of L’Arco and la Clava by Julius Evola. It will be published in two parts; the first part deals with general considerations and the second with Tibet.
There are several things to ponder. For example, what is the “symbolic dimension” to consider, and how is it related to the historical? Is there really any historical evidence, in the current academic sense, for these centers? How can such centers be recognized? What are the higher states of consciousness? Why were the centers unable to prevent the current decline, a topic Evola brings up, blaming the fall on man’s freedom? Are the current pan-Islamic movements really an attempt to restore Tradition to those lands? If so, have the Sufi centers played any role in those movements?
Given the confusions that abound in this area, it is opportune to clarify first what we mean, in general, by “initiatic centers” and “initiatic organizations”.
We treated initiation in an earlier chapter [The Concept of Initiation], so here we will limit ourselves to recall that, in its authentic and integral meaning, initiation consists in an opening of consciousness beyond human and individual conditionalities, entailing a modification of the subject (of his “ontological status”), who then participates in a higher freedom and a higher consciousness. That is tied in the grafting in the individual of an influence in a certain transcendental, or not simply human, way. In general such an influence is transmitted, and the transmission is an essential function of an initiatic center. What arises from it is the idea of an uninterrupted “chain” (the term used in Islam is exactly silsila) whose origins are remote and mysterious, in parallel with a “tradition”. According to the Guenonian school, the various initiatic centers, if they are authentic and regular, would be connected to a unique center and would even draw its origins from it. A similar assumption confronts us however with difficult problems, if it must be validated in some way.
For the topic that we intend to discuss here, the question arises about that aspect of spiritual influences that do not solely concern “knowledge”, a spiritual illumination, the attainment of gnosis, but also a power. This power could even be considered by some—and not incorrectly—as a positive sign because, as long as it is only about a knowledge regarding higher spheres, but if it remains in a purely interior domain, it could also create illusions. The coexistence of a power, that as such is verifiable, is an indirect, but sufficiently positive, proof, for the solidity and the reality of the same knowledge which is considered to having been attained by means of an initiation.
Titus Burckhardt, moreover, was able to speak, in terms of initiation centers, of spiritual influences “whose action, if not always apparent, passes incommensurably beyond everything that is in the power of men”. Let’s move now into the area of reality and history. We had a friendly debate with Burckhardt about the existence and the state of initiatic organization in the world of today. It is not that we assert that they no longer exist, but rather that they have become ever more rare and difficult to access (the assumption is always that it is about authentic initiatic organizations, and not of spurious groups that claim to have such a character). It seems that a progressive withdrawal of such organizations, and therefore of the forces that are manifested in them and of which they were the bearers, has been verified. Moreover, to refer to some traditions worthy of note, this phenomenon would not even be recent. We will limit ourselves to mention those texts in which it is said that the search for the Graal was brought to an end, but through a divine order, the Templars of the Graal would have abandoned the West and moved, together with the mystical and magical object that no longer remained “among the sinful peoples”, to a mysterious region, sometimes identified as where “Prester John” reigned. And there, magically, the castle of the Graal, Montsalvat would also have been relocated. Naturally, the symbolic dimension must be considered in all this.
A second, more recent tradition concerns the Rosicrucians. After causing a commotion, especially with their Manifestos in which they made known their “invisible and visible presence” and with their project of the restoration of a general higher order, the Rosicrucians also withdree, going back to the beginning of the 18th century; for this reason, we consider that certain groups who subsequently self-qualified themselves as “Rosicrucian” were without authorization and lacking every regular traditional filiation or continuity.
We could add an Islamic testimony of the Ismailist initiatic stream and in particular by that of the so-called Twelvers. The corresponding view is that the Imam, the supreme head of the Order, the manifestation of a power from above the also the beginning of initiations, has likewise withdrawn. They instead await those who will manifest again, but the current epoch would be that of an “absence”.
Nevertheless, that, in our opinion, does not imply that initiatic centers in the strict sense do not currently exist. Without doubt, they still exist, even if in that respect the West barely comes in question and needs to advert to other areas, both in the Islamic world and in the Orient. That established, the problem is the following: if, as Burckhardt asserts, such centers were deposits of the spiritual influences by definition, were deposited, apart from the initiatory use, we have to attribute the beginning of a possible action to something external that “if not always apparent, passes incommensurably beyond everything that is in the power of men”, how must we conceive the relationship between such still existent centers (if existing not as mere survivals) and the course of recent history?
From the traditional point of view, this course has, in general, an absolutely involutive and dissolutive character. Now, in the face of forces that are at work in these developments, what is the position of initiatic centers? If they always have had those influences as is claimed, must one think of a type of order received from them, but not using them, and not preventing the process of involution, or must one hold that the general process of “solidification” and impermeability of the environment to the supersensible, provoking a type of rift now renders relative every action that goes beyond the initiatic field in the purely spiritual and interior direction?
It is good to clarify and to put aside the cases in which historically are only the harvested fruits which had been sown earlier. Men have a fundamental freedom. If they have used it for their ruin, the responsibility falls on them and there is no reason to intervene. Now, we can say that for the West, which has been taking the path of the anti-tradition for some time and that through a chain of cause and effect, sometimes quite visible, sometimes hidden to a superficial glance, fatally proceeded to find itself in its current state, that resembles the kali yuga, the “dark age” prophesied by ancient traditions.
But in other cases, things do not remain in the same way. There are civilizations that by not having followed the same path, by not having chosen mistaken vocations, but finding themselves subjected to external influences, would have to be defended. But that seems to not be observed. For example, in the case of Islam there are certainly existing initiatic Sufi centers, but their presence has not actually prevented the evolution of Arabic countries in an anti-traditional, progressive, and modernist direction, with all the inevitable consequences.