Theosophy

The Public Work of the Theosophical Society (Part one)

Pablo Sender – USA

Theosophy The Public Work of the TS 2
Statues of HPB and Henry S. Olcott in Headquarters Building, Adyar

In an article by Cristian Conen, published in The Theosophist in December 2014, he began to examine the work of the Theosophical Society (TS) based on ideas expressed by the late International President, Radha Burnier. Continuing this inquiry, particularly in connection with work in the field of spiritual education, we may ask: what kind of public programmes should TS offer in order to help the spiritual growth of humanity?

TWO EXTREMES

My work for the Society has provided the opportunity to present programmes in different countries and cities, interacting with members from many Theosophical branches. In doing so, I have seen a variety of approaches to TS work and different ways in which members are responding to the challenges they encounter. To illustrate, there are two attitudes representing the opposite ends of the spectrum of responses I have observed. Different groups tend to lean towards one direction or the other, some of them actually getting quite close to either of the extremes. When we are too close to an extreme, we are in danger of getting too far off-track, thus losing our way. If we are going to accomplish the aims of our organisation, it is important to strive to find the highly desired, though equally elusive, middle path.

At one end of the spectrum lies the idea that the success of the work can be judged by the number of people attracted to TS activities. When the primary goal is to draw as large an audience as possible, the choice of public programmes offered begins to be based on what can be more palatable to the public at large. Chosen subjects tend towards the fashionable, exciting, flattering, or pleasing. Often we hear that the Theosophical teachings are too difficult, demanding, or antiquated. As members lean more in this direction, the typical effect is that programmes promoting core Theosophy get progressively pushed to the periphery until they all but disappear. In this approach the depth of the message provided and its potential to change people’s lives is generally overlooked and the result is a gradual movement from spiritual education towards a kind of spiritual entertainment.

The other end of the spectrum places modern Theosophy as the last word of the esoteric philosophy, labelling all other teachings as “exoteric”, and giving them little value. These members tend to emphasise the exclusive study of traditional Theosophical literature and the use of technical words and terminology. They are generally not very sensitive to what the general public may need nor too interested in finding effective ways to share their understanding with newcomers. They work under the assumption that only the few are called to the TS and those who want to join TS have to make the effort to understand the language and concepts. This leads to the existence of groups proficient in a certain specialised knowledge, which, although satisfying for these few members, is of little relevance to the world at large.

Two metaphors illustrate the two approaches. The first is like a person lacking self-confidence, always looking at those around him or her and deciding his behaviour according to what will make him liked by his peers. The second approach is like a self-centred person, absorbed in the contemplation of his or her own ideas and interests, expecting others to come to his way of thinking and recognise its grandeur.

These two extremes bring with them different sets of problems. The first approach produces a large but loose membership, where people are not committed to the Society or united in endeavour. There is an open and all-embracing attitude, accompanied by a lack of clarity or direction. The second approach generates a small and compact membership composed of active and devoted people. These members tend to have strong ideas and lean towards dogmatism, with the conflict that normally accompanies rigid interpretations.

It seems apparent that a healthy Theosophical organisation must find a balanced attitude that embraces the positive features of the two extremes while avoiding their flaws. This article is an exploration in that direction.

THE ORIGINAL EXPERIMENT

An outsider reading this description of the different approaches existing within the Society could naturally ask — how can these two opposite attitudes find room in a single organisation? This is due to a rather unique feature of the Theosophical Society, which, according to one of its Inner Founders, was established as an “experiment” for which most of the Mahatmas seemed to think humanity was not yet prepared. Before the founding of the TS in 1875, the model followed by most spiritual traditions was to develop around a central figure or figures, and the purpose of the movement was to spread a particular body of teachings. For example, Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha and Christianity on what Jesus preached. Many of the organisations that were introduced after the TS also follow this pattern: the Anthroposophical Society studies follow the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, the Krishnamurti Foundation those of J. Krishnamurti, and so forth. The Theosophical Society was founded under a different plan. Even though Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, one of its Co-Founders, disseminated a definite body of teachings, the TS was never meant to be a “Blavatskyan Society.” In time, a rather large number of Theosophists contributed to form a rich and diverse body of teachings that we call “modern Theosophy.” However, our Society was not founded to restrict its activity to the spreading of this world-view. The TS was, in fact, the first organisation in modern times to promote a systematic study of the various spiritual, philosophical and scientific teachings available, both ancient and modern.

About a century after the birth of the TS this new trend slowly began to be adopted by other organisations, and today there are many that offer lectures, retreats and workshops on a variety of “spiritual” subjects. These new centres, as a rule, do not have any teachings of their own. They have become popular as neutral “umbrella-organisations” for the promotion of various traditions, philosophies and movements.

The uniqueness of the Theosophical Society lies in the fact that it embraces, in one single organisation, two seemingly opposite natures. As in the case of traditional spiritual movements, the Society has a particular worldview to offer, represented by the Theosophical teachings. But its work does not stop there. The Society also encourages the study of other traditions, as is the case with the modern neutral centres of spirituality. The presence of these two aspects together is an essential and distinguishing feature of the TS. If the organisation were to exclude one of them, it would become either a Theosophical “church” with its own dogma, or a mere eclectic society with no voice of its own. Either fate would mean that the TS would have ceased to be what it was intended at the moment of its formation, and that the experiment initiated by the Mahatmas would have finally failed.

Recognising the value of these two sides and learning how to honour them both is not as difficult as it may first seem. When rightly understood, these aspects are not contradictory but rather complementary.

Committed members of the Society have before them a serious but inspiring responsibility, that of participating in a work designed by the Masters of the Wisdom to help humanity move in a new direction, to set an example that inspires other movements. As stated by the Mahachohan: “The Theosophical Society was chosen as the cornerstone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity.” 1

PUBLIC WORK

For many years after the Theosophical Society was founded, the TS was one of very few spiritual options to traditional religions, especially in the West. But today there are thousands of organisations promoting what we can loosely call “spirituality.” What is the role of the TS in the midst of this wealth of offerings? Is it still relevant? Does it have anything unique to offer?

Throughout the years, the Society has been influential in many ways and in several fields. It was pivotal in the promotion of esotericism in modern times. It was fundamental in reviving the Buddhist movement in the East. The TS helped India regain confidence in its ancient teachings, which, at the time, were generally seen as superstitions. Our organisation stimulated the translation, study and spreading of Sanskrit literature among the general public. In fact, it was essential in bringing the Eastern teachings to the West. The Society pointed out the connection between science and spirituality at a time when the two were seen as irreconcilable opposites. It also emphasised the need for the study of comparative religions and interfaith dialogue when the field was basically unknown, and even unthinkable, to most people. Members of the TS were central figures in spreading knowledge of Esoteric Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular, decades before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi codices. Theosophical teachings also influenced the fields of art, education, healing and others.

It is important to note that, in the past, if the TS did not organise programmes and produce literature on, for example, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Gnosticism, the general public in the West would have had practically no other sources to study. Today the situation is very different. In most countries there are many organisations working along each of these lines. Kabbalists, Sufis, Healers, and so on, each spread their own teachings quite effectively, lectures and books being easily accessible in most places. So the question naturally arises, what place should these subjects have in our public programmes?

Suppose there is a Theosophical group in which the programmes for the season consist mainly of inviting people to talk about modern religions, healing, angels, crystals, and so on. Although each of these subjects is valuable in itself, we must ask: how relevant are these programmes within the context of the Theosophical work? Of course, there are special cases to be considered. If we are talking about a group in a city where these subjects are difficult to access, then programmes along these lines may be a positive influence. Also, in the case of a religion that is misunderstood, like, perhaps, Islam is today, programmes about it can be an important part of the Theosophical work.

However, in normal circumstances, is it intelligent for a group to exhaust its time, money and resources to produce talks and publications on subjects that are widely available outside the TS?

Reference

  1. C. Jinarâjadâsa (ed.), Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series, No. 1 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), p. 4.

[This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of The Theosophist.]

To be continued

Photo with courtesy of Richard Dvořák.

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