Universal Brotherhood in Practice

Luke Michael Ironside – The Philippines

Theosophy U B P 2

The first object of the Theosophical Society is “To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.” As the first objective upon which our Society was founded, we must consider this as the core work of our organisation in its relation to society and the issues of such – indeed, it is this object of Universal Brotherhood that is the foundation pillar of Theosophy in practice, as distinguished from mere metaphysics and theory.

What, though, is Universal Brotherhood, and how may we, as Theosophists, traverse beyond the realms of mere ideality to carry forth the flame of altruistic service to those of our brothers and sisters in society who are most in need? Simply stated, Universal Brotherhood refers to our spiritual interconnectedness. It is the principal focus of Theosophy for the reason that we are all related at a fundamental level. When we speak of the One Life, this is not merely a poetic phrase or symbol. It refers to the fact that we are all essentially that one same Life, as expressed in the diversity of form that constitutes our being. When this idea is properly understood, the relevance of Karma to our day-to-day lives becomes increasingly clearer. Because of our interconnectedness, every action (or lack thereof) has an effect on every other aspect of nature. Like a pebble, thrown into a body of water, our actions ripple out, beyond the spheres of our immediate influence. When considered at a deeper level, Universal Brotherhood may be understood as being at the heart of the Theosophical worldview, because of how practical it is to us in all aspects of our lives, not only as individuals, but also collectively, as humankind.

The inner founders of the Theosophical Society, recognising the significant role the organisation was to play as the custodian of Ageless Wisdom, emphasised the necessity of the practical application of Brotherhood. Rather than being a merely intellectual school for esoteric studies, the Theosophical Society was founded with the main purpose of forming a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of humanity, acknowledging a single spiritual family, to which we all – regardless of culture or faith – inherently belong.

Universal Brotherhood, as an ideal – as a noble aspiration of utopian philosophy – may be recognised and yearned for by the poet, the philosopher, the politician, and the priest alike. It is – or, at least, is claimed to be – the principle on which countless religious philosophies, social service departments, and charitable organisations are founded. It is the dream that transcends the very pinnacle of our conceptions of ethics and morality and the firm ground underlying the swiftly progressive development and evolution of the civilised world. It is, further, at the very heart of spirituality and at the core of all religion, when the outward sheaths of such are cast aside. Why is it, then, that the present state of affairs is one pervaded by the shadows of oppression and adversity? Where is to be found the spirit of Brotherhood in a world where suffering and animosity so flagrantly abound?

In answering these questions, we may shed some light on what practical Theosophy really means and the role that we, as Theosophists, have to play in the grand drama of life. For it is for us who are Theosophists to pave the way for realisation of peace, brotherhood, the bringing together of cultures, faiths, and nations, the ending of conflict, and the recognition of our shared responsibility to our fellow humanity and the world we each of us inhabit. Thus must we prepare, each and all, for the coming trials ahead. The discovery of our role – of our dharma in the cosmic play – is the duty of every Theosophist; we are each of us suited to those methods whereby we may have the most beneficent impact on the progress of our society.

The proclamation of this message of Brotherhood is therefore the key and central work of each and all who endeavour to live the Theosophic life. And yet, we must promulgate this call to unity not merely as an ideal, not merely as a noble though quixotic vision of a paradisal future world, but rather as an actuality; a realisation of that law of nature that so proclaims the unity of life. It is in such a recognition – in a conscious and practical awareness of our underlying oneness – that we may truly transcend the boundaries that brother has constructed against brother, sister against sister, race against race, and nation against nation. By fact of this supreme and virtuous task – the realisation of each and all as sharing in that same fundamental ocean of Divinity – we may at last attain freedom from those self-inflicted chains that serve to bind and restrict our better natures. Freedom in love and freedom in harmony – this is what awaits us at the summit of the mountain of Brotherhood.

And thus, whilst the Theosophical Society has Three Objects – each noble and significant in kind – we find a single underlying purpose pervading the entirety of our work – that is, in the words of our late President, Radha Burnier, “to uplift humanity from the moral and spiritual point of view”. As she further elaborates, in her excellent lecture on Human Regeneration, this “uplifting of humanity” must not be supposed to be identical to progress, but rather, as being that spiritual and moral force around which progress must be centred.

Universal Brotherhood may therefore be considered as a state of consciousness in which all illusions of separation as brought about by the poisons of prejudice are cast away by the bright rays of realisation. It is in this illumined condition that the fact of the unity of life is understood as the truth underlying the nature of all things. Why then, one might ask, is it that diversity and inequality are so clearly embodied not only in the fabric of our society, but even in the evolutionary process itself? Is not unity in diversity, so fundamental a concept to the Theosophical worldview, itself an oxymoron of terms?

It is an undeniable fact of nature that inequality is inherent in all existence. From the amoeba to the nebula – none is perfectly equal or alike. Differentiation and variance are the tendencies of everything that has its existence in the world of form. In the Theosophical understanding of cosmogony and evolution, we find a clear procession from the One to the Many. From No-Thing comes forth the One; - “the One Number issued from No-Number” - the One divides to create Two – this, by necessity, bringing about Three, the Third being the relationship between the One and the Two. The Three become Seven and the Seven, by gradual multiplication, become the Many – the seemingly limitless diversities of form that so pervade our present existence. And thus, the process continues – in evolution is to found evidence of greater and vaster diversifications of being to such extent that no two persons, no two trees, no two stars are identically alike. Each is an individual expression of the evolutionary process.

A helpful analogy by which to better comprehend the nature of the evolutionary process is that of a ladder with many rungs. We are, each of us, ascending the evolutionary ladder through the various kingdoms of nature – we have arrived, here in our current human stage, through a long and perilous journey along the evolutionary trail. We may here appropriately quote the Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, in which we may find the essence of Universal Brotherhood as expressed in the grand words of H. P. Blavatsky:

“The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul – a spark of the former – through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term.”

At the fundamental level, all life is one. We are all Sparks from the Divine Flame, Rays from the Divine Sun. This Spark is our Higher Self – that which is the highest Principle of Man – that which Hinduism calls the Atman. There is no true separation – we are each of us pearls upon the golden chain of Spirit, and thus at one with all of life, with everything that exists. In the words of the Upanishads, “this Atman is Brahman”.

We are all on a cyclic journey upon the road of Karma – this is our pilgrimage along the path of return from the Many back to the One. Along this path we become increasingly conscious of our oneness with all that is, and of the reality of the Divine Spark within, our Higher Self, that immortal and eternal principle which is fundamentally indivisible from the Universal Spirit from which it emanates, and to which it will, in time, return.

And so, we find that all beings are ascending this one same ladder, only on different rungs. Hence, diversity in unity. One ladder – one journey – and yet many rungs upon which the diversities of life may find their footing, for a time, before continuing to higher and yet ever higher summits. One being – one essence – amid an infinitude of diversity as brought into manifestation by the exuberant creative energy of evolution. Outwardly, equality and unity are but the ephemeral shadows of ideality that evanesce and fade like the visions of the poet. But secreted within the essence of all life, and pervading all the diversities of form, there is ever to be found a fundamental spark of unity that reveals our underlying oneness. For each is a drop from the one same universal ocean of being that is both our Alpha and our Omega.

On the surface of things, diversity and inequality are manifested as obvious facts of life. It is only by passing beyond the outward point of view – to those inner depths in which the limitations of mayaic forms are transcended – that one may discover experientially the profound unity – the One Life – that exists at the heart of the Kosmos. And lest this be misunderstood as a mere abstraction of terms, let it be remembered that it is this same One Life that has its sanctuary and shrine in the heart of each and every individual throughout the entirety of manifested existence. It is this Divine Presence in Man that is the pure eternal Spirit at the core of every being – our Higher Self – the One Universal Self of all. It is THAT which exists beyond the temporary vehicles we each of us, for a time, inhabit. The discovery of this inner essence, and our subsequent identity which such, is the ultimate goal for every pilgrimage along the path. When one’s consciousness expands to embrace the entirety of all that is, it is Universal Brotherhood that results.

It becomes clear, then, that the paradox aforementioned – that of diversity in unity – is paradoxical only insofar as it is looked upon from a lower point of view. From the perspective of higher consciousness, Universal Brotherhood is in every sense a reality – a fact of being – fundamental to all aspects of life. We may here consider the perennial experience of the mystic who, transcending those barriers of illusionary separation, emerges into an evolving awareness of oneness with all that is. This deeper awareness of Brotherhood is no ordinary experience, but is indeed a great attainment of consciousness, a necessary stage of development for the seeker after Truth, without which the esoteric philosophy is but a mere miscellany of metaphysical musings. When viewed from that lower – or ordinary – perspective, it is quite understandable how Universal Brotherhood may be misconstrued as a fanciful and outworn ideal, having no practical implications to the current condition of things. The sceptic may question the very relevance of Theosophical work, when compared and contrasted with that of organisations such as the United Nations and numerous other charitable movements across the globe. As Theosophists, we must be able to demonstrate – by our character and actions – exactly how it is that the Theosophical Society and the Theosophical Order of Service strive to exemplify this spirit of Universal Brotherhood, on a practical and meaningful level. We must also examine, and seek to befriend, those organisations and individuals who share in this ideal, and together endeavour to diffuse the light of unity wherever we may go.

It is, however, too painfully clear – when examining the present condition of our world – that this ideal of Brotherhood has not been truly put into practice. In all sectors of our society we are faced with the brutish realities of violence, lawlessness, and disorder – the unholy and chaotic trinity that so permeates even the very foundations of our communities, nations, governments – and indeed, our world itself. The realisation of this First Object of the Theosophical Society requires more than mere lip-service or the conceptualising of utopian ideals – it required, in fact, a revolution of our human consciousness as regards our perceptions of self-identity that are rooted in our psychological conditionings. The realisation of Universal Brotherhood – as a fact, and not only an ideal – must therefore be brought about by a “breaking of the bonds” of separation and limiting identification with such barriers as nationality, religion, race, caste, or creed. In order for Brotherhood to be realised, it must be truly universal in its reach, embracing and encompassing all, without limitation. It is only by this change in consciousness that such an ideal world of liberty, beauty, tolerance, and morality may be brought into actualisation.

The Theosophical Society was founded with the intention of forming a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of humanity. From the perspective of Theosophical teachings, it is clear that this can only be achieved when the nucleus – the members who constitute the Theosophical Society – sense and actively recognise that the Divinity inherent within themselves is that same Divinity inherent in all others. It is this sense of an underlying unity that brings together the members of the Society, regardless of whatever cultural or religious background they may have. Universal Brotherhood is the multifaceted bridge that unites us all as a single humanity, journeying together along the very same evolutionary trail. Why is it, then, that we find so many gaps and potholes along this bridge of unity, hindering our progress towards the realisation of Brotherhood in practice?

The issue boils down to one of identity. It is our human tendency to crave identification, with one thing or another. To a significant extent, this may be understood from the perspective of evolution. In tribal times, identification with one’s community was not only a matter of comfort, but of survival. An “us against them” mentality was rooted in the necessity of survival. Even now, our identity with such physical needs as shelter, clothing, food and water, and so on, stem from this very same instinct of survival. But we can understand this – these are rational and necessary needs, that must be fulfilled in order to live. And yet there exists another category of identification, that of our group, our culture, our people, our tradition. And this, too, whilst seemingly harmless on the surface of things, is rooted in that same “us against them”mentality. Krishnamurti expresses this succinctly in his statement that:

“The self can never be anonymous; it may take on a new robe, assume a different name, but identity is its very substance. This identifying process prevents the awareness of its own nature. The cumulative process of identification builds up the self, positively or negatively; and its activity is always self-enclosing, however wide the enclosure. Every effort of the self to be or not to be is a movement away from what it is. Apart from its name, attributes, idiosyncrasies, possessions, what is the self? Is there the "I," the self, when its qualities are taken away? It is this fear of being nothing that drives the self into activity; but it is nothing, it is an emptiness.”

We are conditioned – by the fact of our tendency towards identification – to fear the concept of nothingness. Nothingness and emptiness are associated, in our subconscious perception, with loneliness and death. We may understand, then, from the psychological point of view, our propensity for community – with culture, region, nation, creed – and our desire for identification with such. There is a sense of security in identification, a sense of safety and comfort towards which we feel naturally and necessarily inclined. We are, in fact, inclined to take comfort in many kinds of illusions. We are afraid of reality – illusion seems so much simpler, so much easier to mould and shape according to our wishes and dreams. And thus we clothe ourselves in the mantles of illusion in an attempt to construct an enduring identity – a permanence out of the ephemeral.

And indeed, on deeper analysis, all these identifications are illusive. None of them describe who we truly are, in essence. The labels by which we attempt to understand ourselves and our relationship to those around us serve only to describe our beliefs, our cultural backgrounds, our childhood conditionings, our tendencies towards one philosophy of life or another. It is easy, from the intellectual standpoint, to appreciate and respect those who are labelled differently from ourselves – those of other cultures, religions, and backgrounds. And yet the barrier – the wall of identification that we have constructed between us and them – remains standing.

I have been asked many times by inquirers about the requisites for joining the Theosophical Society. Most organisations – whether spiritual or secular – have certain requirements of the applicant, such as an admission of faith or an acceptance of a particular set of tenets as put forth by the organisation. The Theosophical Society is unique, in that the only thing asked of its Fellows is that they are in sympathy with its First Object – that of Universal Brotherhood. As Theosophists, however, we have a responsibility to “practice what we preach”, so to speak. In the words of Annie Besant, it better to “remain silent, betternot even think, if you are not prepared to act.” It is easy to pay lip service to this ideal of Universal Brotherhood, but if we then proceed in our discrimination and judgement of those who are different from ourselves, the ideal becomes a meaningless shadow of its deeper truth.

There is no suggestion, in the practice of Universal Brotherhood, that we should ignore the faults of others. Nor need we feel a close bond of affinity to every person we encounter. It is an inescapable fact of our human nature that we will sometimes come across people whom we dislike, or whose actions upset or disappoint us. Universal Brotherhood does not mean being a friend to all. It does not necessitate naivety. But what it does mean, is recognising that spark of the Divine within every human soul, regardless of who they are, or what they have done.

Altruistic action by the means of selfless service is the natural result of Universal Brotherhood in practice. From an evolutionary perspective, we can catch some glimpses of the unfolding of this spirit of Brotherhood throughout the history of our human race. Gradually, our instinctual tendencies towards self-preservation for merely survivalistic purposes have extended to embrace broader horizons. At first, in the distant aeons of our tribal past, this applied merely to those of our immediate surroundings – our family, and later, our tribe or clan. Over the long periods of civilisational developments, we can trace this extension through the identity of the individual with his or her race, religion, nation and so on. Evolution, in leading us ever closer to the realisation of the One Life, has awoken in us, through incremental stages, a unifying sense of an underlying oneness – a Universal Brotherhood. It is through this evolutionary expansion of consciousness that such evils as the bonds of slavery have been (at least, in the civilised world) largely cast aside, and charitable institutions have sprung up to address and seek to right the sufferings of people in all sectors of society.

Madame Blavatsky, in her letter to the Second Convention of the Theosophical Society in America, expressed the importance of Brotherhood in practice in the following words:

“[There are those] among us who realize intuitionally that the recognition of pure Theosophy - the philosophy of the rational explanation of things and not the tenets - is of the most vital importance in the Society, inasmuch as it alone can furnish the beacon-light needed to guide humanity on its true path. This should never be forgotten, nor should the following fact be overlooked. On the day when Theosophy will have accomplished its most holy and most important mission - namely, to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labour with selfish motives - on that day only will Theosophy become higher than any nominal brotherhood of man.”

When these words are properly comprehended, then the core objective of the Theosophical Society becomes clear. In truly living the Theosophic life, we necessarily dedicate ourselves to the truth of Universal Brotherhood. And yet, the uniqueness of the Theosophical Society lies in the fact of its emphasis on individualism and freedom of thought among its Fellows – so that whilst we are indeed united in in this spirit of friendship and cooperation, we have liberty to express our own viewpoints without any pressure to accept one particular teaching or another. And thus we find that there exists a unity without uniformity – in which the bonds of Brotherhood prevail over differences of opinion.

Imagine if such an attitude were to be adopted not only by the Theosophical Society, but by the world at large. Truly, we could state without hyperbole that this truth of Universal Brotherhood could be the key to the solution of all the many predicaments of human interaction – whether social, political, or religious in nature. Imagine if such a sincere sense of Brotherhood could be instilled in the heart of every governmental system, every educational institution, every religious organisation. Such would bring about a transformation of our world – a “kingdom of heaven” on earth, in place of the present state of cascading chaos and disorder.

It is the tendency of our use of language that words with profound meaning become worn and clichéd over time. Possessed in its essence of a noble and sublime significance, this is often lost sight of beneath the shrouds of symbolism and conventionality. Thus is the fate of many a magnificent conception, when brought into the blinding light of popular admiration. This applies not only to language, but further to all conceptions of our understanding of the nature of reality. So do religions, also, become corrupted, when the outward symbols and rituals of such are placed upon the altars of our attention, and the inner message – the essence – is cast into the mire of meaningless tokenism. Even charity – when practiced for the means of self-elevation and respectability, suffers from this same venomous subversion.

It falls to us, then, to redeem the truth of Universal Brotherhood from the state of degradation misuse, and to once more elevate this most noble of conceptions to its proper place at the forefront of our actions and thinking. Freed from the bonds of false virtue, Brotherhood transforms from a mere concept into a reality of life – a practical application of altruism and toleration of those who differ from oneself, regardless of the externalities of culture, religion, social status, and so on. But Universal Brotherhood is more than just an indifferent acceptance of others – it is, rather, the result of a total transformation of the conception of self, in which is sense of “I” and “the other” as definite conceptions are eradicated, and one’s ocean of consciousness expands beyond the limits of our personhood to embrace the totality of all that is.

In The Secret Doctrine, a conversation is relayed in which a Master asks the pupil:

Lift thy head, oh Lanoo; dost thou see one, or countless lights above thee, burning in the dark midnight sky?”

I sense one Flame, oh Gurudeva, I see countless undetached sparks shining in it.”

Thou sayest well. And now look around and into thyself. That light which burns inside thee, dost thou feel it different in anywise from the light that shines in thy Brother-men?”

It is in no way different, though the prisoner is held in bondage by Karma, and though its outer garments delude the ignorant into saying, ‘Thy Soul and My Soul.’”

When Universal Brotherhood is considered – as a state of consciousness, and not merely as a conception – we can see why its deeper significance is necessarily misunderstood when it becomes an intellectual creed. Yet, when applied on a practical level, Brotherhood results in a transformation on all levels of being. From a psychological perspective, Brotherhood means an active consideration of, and interest in, other human beings – a genuine sense of empathy brought about by our understanding of our essential non-difference. On the practical plane of social action, Brotherhood is expressed in acts of sincere charity, fuelled by the ever-constant flame of love, directed towards all in need, without discrimination.

This capacity to understand and listen to others, and to help them when the need arises, lies at the heart of Brotherhood in practice. For Universal Brotherhood, when applied on a practical level, requires us to actuate the highest principles of genuine morality – those of compassion, chivalry, justice, cooperation, and tolerance. We find these principles expressed in the precepts of “The Golden Stairs”:

“… a clean life, an open mind, a pure heart, an eager intellect, an unveiled spiritual perception, a brotherliness for one's co-disciple …” and further: “… a courageous endurance of personal injustice, a brave declaration of principles, a valiant defence of those who are unjustly attacked, and a constant eye to the ideal of human progression and perfection which the secret science depicts—these are the golden stairs up the steps of which the learner may climb to the Temple of Divine Wisdom.

This fundamental unity – between not only each and every human being, but likewise between every star and atom, indeed, between the totality of existence – Blavatsky calls the “one fundamental law in Occult Science.” We can see a recognition of this fact in the increasingly global environment in which we live. With the development of electronic communication and the increased ease of long-distance transportation the walls that previous separated us are gradually being brought down, and bridges are being built to arch over the cultural chasms that have heretofore served to segregate us one from another.

Despite these developments, it is clear that the ideal of Universal Brotherhood – as a practicality – is still far from realised. Terrorism, violence, and racial hostilities are still unfortunately very much facts of life. Perhaps, however, the current surges of violence that are so afflicting our planet may result in an increased recognition of our fundamental unity. We may emerge, through the darkness of malevolence, into the bright light of Brotherhood that awaits us at the end of the tunnel. For indeed, it is often in times of greatest tribulation that the fires of nobility and virtue are kindled in the heart of humanity.

It falls to us – both as individuals and as a community – to work towards the achievement of this noble end. Transformation on an inner level will eventually result in transformation on a grander scale – and thus, As Above, So Below, As Within, So Without, as the Hermetic axiom goes. And this transformation may begin today, through the cultivation of the virtues of compassion, tolerance, and altruistic service.

We may conclude with a quote from the Master Koot Hoomi – one of the inner founders of the Theosophical Society – in a letter addressed to an English Theosophist, A. P. Sinnett:

The term ‘Universal Brotherhood’ is no idle phrase. Humanity in the mass has a paramount claim upon us. . . . It is the only secure foundation for universal morality. If it be a dream, it is at least a noble one for mankind: and it is the aspiration of the true adept.

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