Sacrificing the Self

(Symposium Talk, Convention, Adyar, 28 December 2003)

Paul Zwollo – the Netherlands

The word “altruism” is derived from the Latin “alter”, meaning “other”, and in general means recognition of the care we should take for the interests of others; to let one's course of action in word, thought and deed, be determined by the interests of others. Altruism is therefore a synonym for unselfishness. It denotes a certain inclination, a tendency to self-forgetfulness, and a sacrificing of oneself for the good of mankind.

It is evident that altruism, if practiced by us, determines the kind of society we live in, and that its archetype is parental love. In Theosophical literature we come across many synonyms and equivalents for the word “altruism.”

Is not Universal Brotherhood, as mentioned in the First Object of the Theosophical Society, an aspect of altruism? Both are facets of the Oneness of Life. The latter I like to equate with the Diamond Truth, which has numerous facets, all of which we have to pay attention to, in order to come to an all-round development. On a photograph of one of the first International Conventions here at Adyar, in the 1880s, we see a group of delegates seated under a large banner with the words 'The Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood'. So from the very start of our Theosophical Society, the concept of Universal Brotherhood was emphasized and regarded as the essence of the work our Society had to carry out.


Philanthropy might be another equivalent for the word “altruism”, and it is this word that has been frequently used by the Mahatmas and HPB. In one of the first Mahatma Letters it is explained to Mr Sinnett that the chief object of the Theosophical Society is not so much to gratify individual aspirations, as to serve our fellow men. The Mahatma continues to say that in his view, the highest aspira­tions for the welfare of humanity become tainted with selfishness, if in the mind of the philanthropist there lurks the shadow of desire for self-benefit. The Mahatma deemed it necessary to make clear for what reason the Society was founded, and correct some wrong views of Mr. Sinnett, who had put down the idea of Universal Brotherhood, questioned its usefulness, and had advised the Master to remodel the Theosophical Society on the principle of a college for the special study of occultism. The Master replied: “This my respected and esteemed friend and brother, will never do.”

Strangely enough, we do not come across the word “altruism” in the index of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, notwithstanding the fact that the teachings the Masters tried to propagate had altruism as their keynote.

To quote the Maha Chohan's Letter, certainly the most important letter ever received from the Adept Teachers: “It is not the individual and determined purpose of attaining oneself Nirvana ... but the self-sacrificing pursuit of the best means to lead on the right path our neighbor, to cause as many of our fellow-creatures as we possibly can to benefit by it, which constitutes the true Theosophist.”

Who among us does not want to become a true Theosophist, irrespective of from which country we are and for how many years we have been a member of the Society? One of our former Presidents, Mr. Sri Ram, once said that there are more theosophists outside the Theosophical Society than there are members! And does the number of years of our membership really count? What really matters is: Are we prepared “to stretch out the hand of fellowship”, as the Maha Chohan instructed us to do?

To counteract the negative influences which follow in the wake of what is called “the struggle for life” in which we are all involved, we need ”he soothing influence of a Universal Brotherhood made practical.” Mere words will not do.

The meaning of the word 'altruism' has been defined as follows: a theory of conduct that regards the good of others as the end of moral action. The word 'altruism' was coined in the nineteenth century by Auguste Comte, the founder of Positivism, and was adapted generally as a convenient antithesis to Egoism.

Egoism, from the Latin “ego”, is in philosophy an ethical theory, holding that the good is based on the pursuit of self- interest. An egoist doctrine sees perfection sought through the furthering of a man's own welfare and profit. It stands to reason that such a view is contrary to and incompatible with the Theosophical concept of philanthropy and Universal Brotherhood.

Altruism refers to: benevolence and kindness; affection and goodwill; charity and philanthropy; sympathy and appreciation.

As the choice is always ours, we have to choose between altruism and egoism; between following the insatiable wishes and desires of the lower self, or listen to the intimations of the higher self.

Whereas the Mahatmas did not use the word 'altruism' in their letters to Mr. Sinnett, they quite often made use of the word “philanthropy”: a word that is derived from Greek and means ”love to mankind.” ”t denotes a practical benevolence towards men in general; the disposition or active effort to promote the happiness and well- being of one's fellowmen.”

Were not the spiritual instructors of Madame Blavatsky, the Mahatmas, outstanding examples of philanthropy? And do not we feel obliged to follow in their footsteps?

In the Maha Chohan's Letter, philanthropy is regarded as a necessary condition for all seekers after truth. The Mahatmas call themselves “devoted followers of that spirit incarnate of absolute self-sacrifice, of philanthropy and divine kindness, Gautama Buddha.”

In The Key to Theosophy, HPB reminds us that the Buddhist and Christian gospels were preached with the same object in view. As reformers, both Buddha and Christ were ardent philanthropists and practical altruists, preaching self- sacrifice to the end.

Tradition has it that the Buddha said: “Let the sins of the whole world fall upon me, that I may relieve man's misery and suffering. I would not let one cry whom I could save.” In the same spirit the Christ spoke: “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavily laden and I will give you rest.” I am sure that in the text of all great religions, words of similar content can be found.

Every spiritual movement that deserves the name “religion”, has the well – being of all those in mind, to whom it tries to pass on its teachings. The methods employed are adapted to place, time and circumstances. With time and altered circumstances, the methods should also change. We cannot put new wine in old bottles.

According to HPB, only the noble ideas of religion, duty and philanthropy can help the Theosophical Society to live on through the next century and break the iron fetters of creeds and dogmas, of social and caste prejudices.

Altruism throws him, who practices it, out of calculation of the ranks of the living altogether, according to the occult rules as expounded by HPB in Practical Occultism.Not for himself, but for the world he lives, as soon as he has pledged himself to the work.'

If we were really serious and sincere, the moment we became members of the Theosophical Society, and I suppose we all were, I wonder whether we still exhibit the same enthusiasm and ardour to work for the Theosophical Society and its Three Declared Objects. And if not, what might be the reason? We are all different and unique, and our contribution to the Great Cause, Theosophy, will depend on our temperaments, capacities and inclinations. Our individual uniqueness is not a hindrance to work together, and cooperate in the many activities our Lodges and Sections organize. The more we differ, the better for the work. But if we let our differences prevail, and stress our own point of view too much, then problems might arise. Let us not be too convinced that we are always right; let us give way to others in small things.

Altruism does not mean we have to give up everything, however lofty our ideals may be. Common sense is certainly important, not in the least for Theosophists and Occultists in the making. The secret of a balanced and real spiritual life lies in treading the Middle Way, and avoid­ing the extremes. I think that for the average man, the Middle Way is the most appropriate one. But there are always exceptions. Whether we belong to these exceptions, each of us has to find out for himself.

In the Mahatma Letters we read the following advice: “You have to leave your world and come into ours.” On that sentence we should all meditate. What could that advice mean for each of us individually? In what way are we bound to worldly obligations? Or rather, in what way do we think we are bound by our worldly obligations? Let us not hide ourselves behind so-called obligations and duties, as an excuse not to get involved in work which is really important. We are very clever in inventing excuses to keep ourselves aloof from work which needs to be done, whether in our private life or for the Theosophical Society.

Let us be courageous and not afraid of losing some of our privileges and securities, and regard life as an adventure with incredible possibilities.

However, we like to play safe. But what about our secret longings and endeavors for perfection and liberation? Are these just fabrications of the mind, made-up theories, dreams or figments of our im­agination? Were the Mahatmas, HPB and others all wrong, when they pointed to such a way of living?

One of the Mahatma Letters speaks of “a new continent of thought.” As is the case with a new continent in the geographical sense, a new continent of thought has also to be discovered. For discoveries to be made, discoverers are needed!

Could we, as members of the Theosophical Society, form such a band of discoverers? Are we willing to prepare ourselves for the task? As with the discoverers of unknown continents, spiritual discoverers will be accompanied by unexpected risks, fatigue and other inconveniences.

The human pilgrimage leading to altruism means all that and perhaps more. Can we work up the necessary dedication, belief and energy? Wonderful panoramas await us, and “a peace that passes all understanding.” But the thorny path has to be trodden. Let us not forget HPB's encouraging words, that “there is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer; no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through; no difficulty that strong intellect cannot surmount. And that there is a reward past all telling. The power to bless and save humanity.”

In order to reach that state of consciousness, we need the salutary influence of altruism.

[The article was published previously in The Theosophist, y2004, v125, April p259]

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