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The influence of the Theosophical Society on World Thought

Bhupendra R. Vora – England

The author

[Currently residing in England, Bhupendra R. Vora is a long-standing member of the Theosophical Society. He is a former General Secretary of the East & Central African Section. Bhupendra writes regularly for The Theosophist and other international Theosophical journals. He has lectured extensively in Africa, Europe and India. He is a member of the General Council at the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India and a member of the Council of The International Theosophical Centre in Naarden, Holland]

Mrs. Radha Burnier showing Bhupendra Vora’s book, Healing the Planet, upon the occasion of its release by the East & Central Section of the TS in 2005. Others present, from left to right: Navin Shah, Lady Justice Kalpana Rawal, Bhupendra Vora (behind), Tom Davis and Claude Robertson Dunn.

In the Objects of the Theosophical Society, ‘Universal Brotherhood’ has been given precedence over the other two Objects. It is significant that in the various communications from the Mahatmas this question of Universal Brotherhood features again and again as the only true morality for the human race. In a message sent to the Jubilee Convention of the TS at Adyar in 1925 an Elder Brother said: “We say to you: within this next half-century you can make Brotherhood a living reality in the world. You can cause the warring classes, castes and nations to cease their quarrelling, the warring faiths to live once more in brotherhood, respect and understanding. Make Theosophy a living force in your lives, and through your example these class and caste distinctions, which for so long have bred hatred and misery, shall at no distant time come to be but distinctions of function in the common service of the nation-family and of the World-Brotherhood.”

The impact of the Theosophical Society in India

How far was this objective realized? In India the impact of the Theosophical movement was felt on the struggle for independence. A. O. Hume, who had been in correspondence with the Mahatmas, founded the Indian National Congress that attracted many nationalist leaders to its fold. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was tutored by F. Brooks, a Theosophist. Nehru mentions the impact of Theosophy on his life in his book The Discovery of India.  The influence of Theosophy was reflected in his secular approach to the country’s problems.

The father of the Indian Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, met Madame Blavatsky whilst studying in London for his law degree. After returning from South Africa, he worked for the freedom of India and the social upliftment of the downtrodden members of society. The role of Dr. Annie Besant, the second President of the Theosophical Society, in the regeneration of India is well known. She set up the Home Rule League for the liberation of India from colonial rule. She also joined forces with Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to found a Hindu University at Varanasi for the renaissance of Indian culture.

The Impact of the Theosophical Society in Africa

Whilst in South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi attended the Johannesburg Lodge of the Theosophical Society and gave several talks at that venue. In South Africa he carried out acts of civil disobedience to fight for the rights of the Indians settled there. His use of non-violent ‘Satyagraha’ to fight against the injustices suffered by them became a model that inspired many leaders. At the ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Durban he set up a community where people from different religious and racial backgrounds settled and lived in harmony. Gandhiji’s life and thoughts influenced many people throughout the world.The late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and the former President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, were amongst those who were greatly influenced by his life and works.  In the USA Martin Luther King Jr. used the tool of civil disobedience to fight racial segregation.

In The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Mahatma KH discusses the objective of setting up ‘A new continent of Thought’ (Letter no. 9, 3rd ed.) and asks the ‘elect of mankind’ to participate in this work. The influence of the Theosophical movement was felt far and wide and its principle of Universal Brotherhood had an impact on many people.

The History and Impact of the Theosophical Society in East and Central Africa

This section of the article focuses on the history of the Theosophical Society in Kenya in particular, and the East and Central African Section generally. The first Lodge in Kenya was formed in the year 1905 at the port city of Mombasa, by the famous Indian philanthropist Seth Abdul Rasul Allidina Visram and Mr Keshavlal Vajeram Dwivedi with others. Mr Dwivedi, a civil servant of the British Government, had come from India where he had joined the Theosophical Society.  During the First World War, the British Government convicted Mr Dwivedi of being a spy as he possessed a copy of H. P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. He was sentenced to death but by some miracle the train carrying him from Mombasa to Nairobi arrived late. In the meanwhile the judge for whom he worked as a court clerk investigated the charge of treason, found him innocent and had him released.  He was taken to the Governor and subsequently retired with honour and a pension from the British Government.

Mr. Russell Balfour Clarke formed the second Lodge in Nairobi in 1907. In June 1909 he left Kenya and went to Adyar where he played a significant role in the early development of J. Krishnamurti.  Between 1914 and 1917 Mr. Kahan Chand Kapoor made pioneering attempts to start study classes on Theosophical subjects. Finally an application to form a lodge was made by eleven members on 31 January 1918.  Dr. Annie Besant, the then International President, granted a charter to the Nairobi Lodge on 9 September 1918. The charter notes the names of eleven members with Pandit Dunichand Sharma as President and Mr Kahan Chand Kapoor as Secretary.

The Nairobi Lodge progressed well during the first three years of its foundation but owing to the social tensions prevailing in Kenya and the political movement in India, the membership of both European and Indian members fell considerably. At that time the indigenous people had not yet taken their place in public life.

The European settler community in Kenya (who were primarily in farming) had started their policy of racial segregation in all walks of life. One particular event was the restriction of Indians from a market that was built only for the use of Europeans with the reasoning that Indians were unhygienic and used dirty water!  In order to protect the interests of the Indians, the East African Indian National Congress was formed by the Indian businessmen and philanthrophists, A. M. Jivanjee and Allidina Visram, with other members of the community. This institution was connected to the Indian National Congress. The Indians in Kenya were emotionally and politically connected with the movement for greater rights and independence in India and aspired for the same rights in Kenya as well. In this political climate the membership of the Nairobi Lodge was affected adversely. In those early days of the Society’s history the tenacity of a group of dedicated members ensured its survival. If it had not been for their hard work the Society would not have survived. They poured their heart and soul into the work to give it a foundation for its existence.

The pioneer members of this early group of Theosophists were both European and Indian members. As this was a time when the races were segregated and there was very little social interaction between them, there were suggestions from some European members that there should be two separate Lodges for Europeans and Indians, but Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Best vehemently opposed the suggestion as they considered that this would defeat the whole object of the Society which is to realize the Brotherhood of the whole of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.

Pioneers of Nairobi Lodge in 1927

In the famous letter of the Mahachohan, the great Adept says: “The Theosophical Society was chosen as the corner-stone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity. To achieve the proposed object, a greater, wiser, and especially a more benevolent intermingling of the high and the low, of the Alpha and the Omega of society, was determined upon. The white race must be the first to stretch out the hands of fellowship to the dark nations, to call the poor despised ‘nigger’ brother. This prospect may not smile to all, but he is no Theosophist who objects to this principle.” (Letter No.1, Letters From The Masters Of the Wisdom, Series 1.)

Mr. and Mrs. Best’s contribution to the cause of Universal Brotherhood was immense, for they extended the hand of friendship to people of other races; not only was the Nairobi Lodge able to maintain its non-sectarian status but also its non-racial status in a racially biased colonial Kenya. The pioneers, faced with financial difficulties due to the reduction in membership, changed the meeting places often.

From the very inception of the Lodge, efforts were made to acquire a plot on which to build premises of its own, but time and again the Government of Kenya considered only the sectarian religious bodies for the grant of free land and consequently the Society suffered for not being a sectarian and racial institution.

The result was that at the end of the year 1929 Lodge meetings began to be held at the Railway Quarters of Mr Kahan Chand Kapoor and continued there until his death. Thereafter the meetings were transferred to the residences of other members who were also living at the Railway quarters. In colonial Kenya, housing quarters for Europeans, Asians and Africans were segregated but the members met at the Asian Quarters without any racial distinction.

A member of the Indian section, Mr. Sitaram Upadhyay, visited East Africa in 1937 and was instrumental in the revitalization of Theosophical activities. Due to his inspiration, guidance and propagation of Theosophy, the Society was able to spread its wings and Lodges were opened at Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania. Mombasa Lodge that had closed down earlier was reopened. In 1947 the East African Section was formed with an adequate number of Lodges. The Section was granted a charter signed by the President C. Jinarajadasa. The work of the Society spread to Uganda as well and at its peak the Section had more than 50 Lodges. In 1955, for the first time two Africans became members and started taking a keen interest in Theosophy. Thus the Nairobi Lodge was able to fulfil its dream of having all the races living in Kenya represented on its roll.

The idea of having its own Lodge premises was once again mooted in 1961 when Mr Rohit Mehta, a prominent lecturer from India, came on an East African tour. He gave a strong impetus and under his inspiration a prominent member of the Nairobi lodge who was also the General Secretary of the Section, Mr. R. H. Patel, donated a plot on which the Nairobi lodge built its premises. This was to become the centre from which the work of the Section was to progress. One more country came into the fold of the Section when Mr. A. V. Raval, a member of the Dar-es-Salaam Lodge, took up an assignment in Zambia as an Education Officer. Soon after arrival in January 1967, he started gathering together a few individuals and talking to them about Theosophy. In this manner he created considerable interest. At his request, a visiting speaker to the Section, Justice A. R. Bakshi from India, visited Zambia as well. In 1970 the first two Lodges were formed that eventually increased to seven and Zambia formally joined the Section. As a result, the name was changed to the East and Central African Section. The membership in Zambia consisted of all races. In the early 1970s, there were some 60 Lodges functioning in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

In 1980/81 the Nairobi Lodge added a two-bedroom flat and a conference hall to further facilitate its work. Mr. Reuben Thuku, an indigenous member who had been sent to Adyar to study Theosophy, was appointed National Lecturer by the East and Central African Section and given accommodation at the Nairobi Lodge. The appointment of Mr. Reuben Thuku as National Lecturer was of great significance. He lectured widely through the Section to spread the wisdom of Theosophy. He spoke regularly in secondary schools, teachers’ training colleges, nursing schools and community centres.

As part of his TOS work, Mr Reuben Thuku visited and spoke to the inmates and officers of a prison in Kitale. The fact that Reuben was blind was surely an encouragement to all he met to take their destiny in hand

The year 1982 was a milestone in the history of the Nairobi Lodge and the East and Central African Section. Nairobi Lodge was selected to host the 7th World Congress. This was the first time such a congress was held in Africa. The Congress, which was attended by many overseas delegates including the International President Radha Burnier and the International Vice-President Surendra Narayan, was a great success. A number of local dignitaries were invited to the various functions. This helped to create a favorable image of the Society in Kenya.

Over the years the membership in the Society has been from all the races and all religions residing in the countries of the Section. Lodge Presidents and General Secretaries have also been from all ethnicities and reflect the transformation of a once racially segregated country into a multiracial and multicultural society.

The Theosophical Society has worked hand in hand with the Theosophical Order of Service since the latter’s inception in Kenya. Through its humanitarian work, the Society has been able to demonstrate that it practices what it preaches. Over many decades, it has supported projects in the fields of education, the environment, animal welfare, child welfare, water supplies for needy villages, the fitting of artificial limbs to amputees, vocational training for women, etc.

In recognition of the great work done by the Society under the banner of the Theosophical Order of Service, the Kenyan Postal Authorities issued a postage stamp on 17 November 2008. On that day, the TOS’s international centenary was celebrated at a packed commemorative function in Nairobi.  A TOS centennial tree was planted on the TS’s premises by the Minister for Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Postmaster General.

In the other three countries of the Section, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda, the Theosophical Order of Service has been active as well, carrying out projects that have benefited the downtrodden members of society.  Currently, the TOS in Dar-es-Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, is doing particularly fine work for children.

The Impact of the Society in the World

As the Mahatmas desired, since its formation the Theosophical Society has been able to attract the highest minds of human society. These have included writers, poets, scientists and great reformers.  It is said that the famous scientist Albert Einstein used to have a copy of The Secret Doctrine on his desk that provided him with inspiration. Many of the ‘New Age Movements’ owe their origin to the Theosophical Society. In countless ways and in countless areas on the globe, its members have labored for a more brotherly planet.

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