Revelation or Realization: The Conflict in Theosophy

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J. J. van der Leeuw – The Netherlands

Preface by Jerry Hejka-Ekins – USA

As part of regular discussion in the Theosophy list on the Internet, it was suggested that I might recommend a book or article that we might focus upon.

In response to this suggestion, I uploaded the scanned text of a very scarce Theosophical pamphlet written by J.J. van der Leeuw and published in 1930. The subject concerns the conflict between revelation and realization that has existed in the Theosophical Society since the beginning, which van der Leeuw (and I) believe is at the root of the failure of the Theosophical Society. For those who are part of the ULT and Point Loma traditions, I would suggest that the issues in this pamphlet also apply to these organizations, though he is only addressing Adyar theosophical history here.

To give a little background, the Adyar Theosophical Society was undergoing a crisis at the time this pamphlet was published. Krishnamurti had been for some time contradicting the Master's revelations and orders as given through Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, and by the end of 1929 Krishnamurti ordered the dissolution of the Order of the Star and resigned from the Theosophical Society. The text I am posting was originally a talk given by J.J. van der Leeuw, where he analyzes the Theosophical Society in order to discover what went wrong. Though this pamphlet is over sixty years old, (in 1995) I believe that van de Leeuw's insights continue to be as relevant today as they were then, because the underlying problems that plagued the TS in 1930 are the same today.

Johannes Jacobus (Koos) van der Leeuw (1893-1934) joined the TS in 1914 and quickly became a valued member of the inner circle. By 1921 he became a Priest of the Liberal Catholic Church and won the Subba Row Medal for The Fire of Creation, a Theosophical classic that I believe is still in print. He also published A Dramatic History of the Christian Faith; The Conquest of Illusion; and Gods in Exile.

Tragically, like many before him who questioned the actions of the wrong people, J.J. van der Leeuw lost his standing in the inner circle after privately publishing this pamphlet. Of course, this pamphlet has never been reprinted and has become very scarce. This lack is now remedied.

I believe this pamphlet to be the most important Theosophical document published at the time, and certainly one of the most important Theosophical documents ever to be published - especially for these times. Here, like no one else, van der Leeuw struggles with the issue of revelations and realization in the TS and how this conflict brought about a crisis, which is still with us today, and is, I believe, primarily responsible for the poor state of affairs of not only the Adyar TS, but for all Theosophical Organizations. I submit that it is only when the Theosophical Organizations are able to come to grips with this issue that they will ever have a chance to take their position as an important movement in the world.

Jerry Hejka-Ekins, September, 1995.

Revelation or Realization: The Conflict in Theosophy

J.J. van der Leeuw

(Amsterdam: N.V. Theosofische Vereeniging  Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1930)

Author "Koos" van der Leeuw in the middle, with on the left his brother Cees and on the right his brother Dick

There was a time when no doubt seemed possible about the future of the T.S. We had been told that the Masters of the Wisdom had founded it and that it was to be the keystone of the religions of the future. Consequently the possibility of its failure hardly occurred to members; empires might crumble, churches might cease to be, but the Theosophical Society would continue throughout the ages.

Of late, however, very serious doubts have arisen in the minds of many concerning this future. The world at large is no longer as interested in theosophy or the theosophical movement as it was forty years ago. Then the Society was opposed as a dangerous pioneer movement, now it is regarded with indifference and looked upon as a relic of the past rather than a promise of the future. In almost every Section there is a serious falling off of book sales showing that the literature which once appealed to the public is no longer desired.

More serious even than the indifference of the modern world with regard to the movement is the conflict within it. I am not speaking about a conflict between personalities; these do not matter. The conflict is one between different standpoints, views of life. I would define these as the conflict between revelation and realization. This conflict has been inherent in the theosophical movement from its inception, and has become acute since 1925. It was then that on the one hand revelation became fantastic and thereby questionable and on the other hand realization was emphasized by Krishnamurti as the way of life.

A system of revelation is only possible when there is one oracle, or channel of revelation, the authority of which is not to be questioned. A plurality of oracles is death to revelation. When in 1925 it was announced that the World Teacher would have twelve apostles as before in Palestine and when Krishnamurti himself denied having any apostles or disciples at all it was inevitable that members should begin to ask whether this revelation as well as previous ones was to be trusted or not.

Previously the ceremonial movements had gained their adherents largely because they were announced as a preparation of the work of the coming teacher. In his name and on his authority were they launched forth and those who took part in them felt they were doing the teacher's work. When he began his teaching and denied the value of ceremonial, calling it an obstacle to liberation, there were again many who asked themselves how this contradiction could be explained. Many and ingenious were the explanations put forward, but the fact remained that the faith in revelation had been shaken forever. The consequence of this has been that the work and self-sacrifice of members in so far as these were based on such faith in revelations, has fallen off considerably. In the hearts of many doubt and despair have taken the place of unquestioning belief. The inevitable result is a process of disintegration, in which many of the most serious members leave a movement in which they no longer have confidence.

It is my intention in this lecture to seek out the causes of this disintegration and, if possible, to find a cure. I shall therefore criticize quite frankly. Now criticism has always been exceedingly unpopular in the Theosophical Society. In theory our platform is free, but in practice one who thinks differently from the rest, though perfectly free to do so, will find no platform to express his thoughts. There has always been fear of any idea that might disturb the harmony among the members. Criticism, however kindly expressed, was immediately branded as "cruel and unjust attacks," as "unbrotherly" and in the last resort as being under the influence of the Dark Powers. It is the mediaeval attitude of mind where the sulphur smell of satanic activity is detected whenever an opinion is expressed different from its own.

I speak for love of truth, not to attack theosophy. The one thing I should like to ask you is to credit me at least with the sincere desire of helping our members in the present state of confusion and not to suspect me of sinister intentions. I feel like a doctor at a patient's bedside; he must look for the organs that are diseased and can only help the patient by seeking out every cause of ill health. When a doctor says that the patient's heart is diseased we do not call him unbrotherly or say that he is attacking the patient most cruelly; we do not tell him that he should look only for the good in the patient and not for the evil, and that he should rather emphasize the sound state of the lungs than the diseased condition of the heart. I have to speak of the unhealthy symptoms in the theosophical movement and it is only by a thorough criticism that we can hope to analyze them.

In criticizing theosophy we must first of all ask: which theosophy? Historically the word means the experience of the divine, in distinction to theology which is discussion about God. This experience of the ultimate, of reality, of life, of truth, is beyond all discussion. It exists wherever a man has it and cannot be criticized or denied. Secondly, the word has been used in an early theosophical manifesto as "the archaic system of esoteric wisdom in the keeping of the brotherhood of adepts."

I shall refer to this conception later on, but at present I am not dealing with it. Thirdly, theosophy is taken to mean the system of doctrines put forward in literature or lectures since the beginning of the Theosophical Society. This is what the world at large knows as theosophy. Finally, there is the practice in important centres of theosophical work, where, in the work actually done and in the aims held before people, we can see what is looked upon as valuable. At the moment I am speaking only about these last two forms of theosophy, that is to say, about that which has been presented to the world in books or lectures or can be seen in centres of theosophical work.
This theosophy was born in the Victorian Era. The end of the nineteenth century was a period divorced from life. Man had lost the sense of vital relations and had made objective absolutes out of things which have meaning only as living relations. Thus he looked upon the world surrounding him as an objective universe standing opposite him, independent of his consciousness. Actually what we call the world surrounding us is the way in which we interpret the reality that affects our consciousness. This interpretation in terms of our consciousness is our world-image which is real only with relation to the consciousness of which it forms part. As long as this relation is recognized all is well; life or reality affects man and through him is externalized as a world-image in his consciousness. Man is the focus through which this process takes place, and there is an unimpeded flow of life reality affecting him and, through him, becoming world-image.

When however, man forgets that he is only a focus of reality and feels himself as a separate being, a soul or a spirit, all changes. Instead of recognizing that what he calls the world is his interpretation, in terms of consciousness, of the reality that affects him, he objectivates that world-image and makes it into an absolute, opposite him: the world of matter. In a similar way he separates himself from that life which creates the world-image in him, he objectivates that too and calls it God or Spirit. Thus he finds himself isolated between two worlds: a world of gross matter outside and a world of subtle spirit within. This duality henceforth rules his life and in practice he has to choose between its two elements. This choice is one between materialism and idealism.

In the 19th century this antithesis was a very real one, and theosophy, based on that dualism, identified itself with the idealistic world-view as against the materialistic. It fought the materialism of its day and was frankly idealistic or spiritual in its philosophy. It still is; in theosophical doctrine the spiritual world is looked upon as the real world in which man, the higher Self has his true home. From that world he descends into these lower worlds of matter where through his "lower bodies" he gathers experience. When, through this experience his Self has become perfected, it returns to that world beyond, whence it came. Thus theosophy is a philosophy of the Beyond; its ultimate reality is not this physical world but a world removed from it by several stages, its fulfillment is not in the present but at a future time when perfection shall be reached. Thus, in space and time, it is a philosophy of the Beyond.

The world has changed considerably since the 19th century. The greatest change has been that it has rediscovered life and thereby re-established the vital relations which were lost in a period of dualism. Thus modern man no longer recognizes a duality of spirit and matter or, in scientific terms, force and mass, but sees these two as convertible quantities which appear as one or the other according to the position of the observer. A new outlook on life has been born which is neither idealistic nor materialistic, still less a compromise between the two. We can define it as a new realism in the light of which idealism appears as outworn as materialism. Its reality is not a world or worlds beyond, but the meaning of this world as of any other world, man being as near to reality in the physical world as in any other world in which he might live. Similarly the fulfillment of life is not seen as a far off apotheosis of ultimate perfection but in the realization of life here and now.

Man himself is the open door to reality, he is the focus through which reality becomes world-image and in his own actual experience of the moment he can therefore find the open door to all life. This is no mystic state, no "merging into the absolute," if such a thing were possible; it is a process taking place in the actual common experience of the actual present moment at the actual place where man finds himself. The experience you have at this actual moment at this place is the open door to reality - nothing else. It is in the here and the now that the way of life is to be found.

The men and women of the new age have therefore no time for a dualistic philosophy which preaches an outworn idealism, they have no interest in a philosophy of the Beyond. And such, in their eyes, is theosophy. It was born in an age of dualism, it allied itself with one of its two elements, the spiritual, its reality in a world beyond and its perfection at a future date and is in that respect a relic of the past rather than a promise of the future.

Unless its philosophy becomes one of the here and the now, recognizing that reality or life can only be approached through the actual experience of the moment, and nowhere else, there is no future for it and it will cease to have other than a historical interest.
Another characteristic of the 19th century was its fear of life. Where man has disconnected himself from life he is afraid of it and seeks a shelter or refuge. He looks for a final certainty, a system which will solve all problems of life so that Life, which he dreads, shall not be able to take him unawares or upset his comfortable existence. A system of philosophy therefore which claims to solve the problems of life and to be able to explain all that happens has a very strong appeal for such a man.

Theosophy was such a philosophy; it claimed to have an answer to the problems of life, to have solved its riddles. Even its enemies must acknowledge that theosophists are unequaled in explaining all that happens, however contradictory. With a true virtuosity they perform the mental acrobatics by means of which they can assert or believe one thing and yet find an explanation when the facts of life contradict it.

Here the desire for truth is not so great as the desire to make life fit in with a preconceived system. Man feels safe only when nothing that happens to him in daily life escapes the system of rational explanation which he has built up. When something happens to him he wants to explain why it happened and what it is "good for" ultimately. Thus he fits it in into his system of thought; he has rationalized the event. When Krishnamurti began his teaching the difficulty for most theosophists was not so much that they could not understand the teaching as that they could not fit it into their system of thought. The question was not: What does he mean? but: How can this be reconciled with what we have been taught before? Life, however, can never be reconciled to preconceived thoughts, neither can it be rationalized. Life is not an intelligence, therefore it is neither rational nor logical; it has no cause and no purpose. The attempt to rationalize the suffering that comes to us in life, to show that we have deserved it, and that it is "good for something" ultimately, is therefore doomed to failure; we cannot tame life in this way.

It is curious to see how man dreads the thought of life being beyond explanation. He wants consolation, a drug which will dull his suffering or a soothing sleeping draught which will give him an illusion of bliss. The theosophist had such consolation and such soporifics. No suffering could come to him, but he would soothe his outraged humanity by a rationalizing process in which he proved to himself that the suffering had to come to him, and that it would be good for him. These attempts at explanations, however, blind man to the true meaning of things that happen to him; they tempt his attention away from the event itself, which again is the here and the now, and lead it to some imaginary cause or result. Thus the meaning of the event which lies in the actual experience, escapes him and he is no richer, no wiser for his suffering.

In a similar way, theosophy claims to have an explanation of the great problems of life: why the world was created and how, what happens after death, why man lives and what he will become. Here again, the process of rationalizing leads the attention away from the mystery of life which can only be experienced in the present. Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced. It is the consummate ease with which theosophy explained all problems and all events that has ever made true artists and thinkers fight shy of it. They know too well that life cannot be contained in any system, and that the purpose of thought is not to explain life but to understand it, by experience.

A system of thought always brings about a state of mental certainty and repose in which there remains only one fear, that of being disturbed by doubt. That is why there has been no place for thinkers in the Theosophical Society; a thinker is always a disturbing influence. Theosophy, by claiming to offer a system of thought that would explain life and its problems, has not only scared away thinkers and artists, but has attracted the mediocre mind that seeks intellectual comfort and not truth. This explains why the theosophical movement, in the fifty years of its existence, has been so singularly lacking in creative or original thought; these were excluded automatically.

Once again, the great change that has taken place in the world has passed by the Theosophical Society completely. Modern man has rediscovered life and has consequently lost faith and interest in any systems of thought claiming to explain life or solve its riddles. He knows but too well that life can only be understood by the realization that comes through experience, not by any solutions or doctrines. Our modern age has emerged beyond that narrow conscious life which previously was all that man recognized in his speculations. He is now aware of the unconscious without which the conscious remains unintelligible.

He knows that life, not being consciousness, is irrational and neither logical nor just. It is therefore in vain to look for ethical explanations of its happenings or moral results of the sufferings it inflicts on us. These can neither explain nor justify the events that take place. The meaning of the event can only be approached through the actual experience of it, and all search for shelter, refuge or consolation leads man away from it. Modern man, therefore, has no interest in a system of thought, however ingenious and elaborate, that would allay his fears and offer him a false repose by its attempts at explaining life. He does not want to be protected; he does not seek the warm and drowsy comfort of the fireside, he would rather go out naked and alone into the storm of life than be safe in a shelter that excludes it. He would rather perish in that storm than live in a false security. He does not seek happiness, but life itself, reality. Therefore, a philosophy which offers him the supposed security of explanations and solutions has no appeal to him, it is no longer valid. He who in these modern days claims to have solved the problems of life only succeeds in compromising himself.

If there is to be any future for the Theosophical Society, it will have to renounce utterly its claim of having solved the riddles of life and being a repository of truth; instead it will have to unite those who search for truth and for reality whatever these may bring by way of suffering and discomfort. The seeker after truth welcomes disturbance and doubt, the very things which were and are feared most by theosophists.

In yet another respect does the Theosophical Society breathe the atmosphere of last century. It is in the desire to unite in one brotherhood all who think or feel alike. Thus the Theosophical Society aimed at forming a nucleus of brotherhood. Such a nucleus however always defeats its own ends. It cannot escape becoming a brotherhood with the exclusion of less desirable brethren. The moment we unite a number of people in such a nucleus we have created a sect, a separate group walled off from the rest of the world and thereby from life.

We show the truth of this each time we speak, as we so often do, of the "outside world". The words imply that we ourselves are inside something. Inside what? Inside something that keeps that "outside world" outside that same something! Inside a barrier which we have erected around us and by means of which we have shut out those who think differently. That barrier of elaborate beliefs and doctrines has so efficiently shut out the dreaded "outside world" that no fresh air from that world has succeeded in penetrating its inner fastnesses, and the Society has breathed for fifty years nothing but the atmosphere of its own thoughts and beliefs. At its meetings it was always theosophists who told other theosophists about the theosophical doctrines which they all knew already. The one thing that was prevented unanimously was the introduction of foreign ideas which might challenge or doubt the established doctrines. This exclusion of the outside world has been most manifest in the lodge life. It was in the snug and stuffy intimacy of lodge life that theosophical orthodoxy could breed; there, in a small circle of mediocre minds, all thinking and believing alike, a warm brotherliness could arise, uniting all in the delightful certainty of possessing the esoteric truth while the outside world lived on in darkness.

On my last lecture tour I visited a lodge, the president of which told me that his lodge was "just one happy family." This roused my misgivings, for I know what such happy families are like. Then he continued saying that a few years back there had been a member who was always questioning and challenging everything, causing disturbance at their otherwise harmonious meetings. But now that member had left their lodge, and all was harmony again. He meant, of course, that the blissful drowsiness of their intellectual slumbers which had for a while been disturbed by the one member who happened to be alive had been re-established.

It is quite true that, theoretically, our platform is free, that we have no dogmas, and that everyone is free to criticize. But if he does, he will suffer a silent excommunication which will effectually cold-shoulder him out of the nucleus of brotherhood. He will be made to feel that his conduct is scandalous and unbrotherly, that he is in the throes of the lower mind, that he is attacking theosophy, and laying himself open to the influence of the Dark Powers. And this attitude holds good not only among groups of ignorant members; I have found it right up to the highest authorities. Therefore, the talk about a free platform and the perfect freedom of thought does not impress me; I know that there is no such freedom, but rather an unconscious orthodoxy that has almost succeeded in killing out the critical faculty among theosophists altogether.

If the Society, in its pride, had not been so certain that it walked in the light and had been called to bring this light to a world in darkness, it might have noticed that the barriers, which it built up between itself and the outside world, prevented the light of life from coming in, so that it lived in darkness, while in the outside world a new and great light had arisen. That world has rediscovered the life about which theosophists talked, and consequently, it will not suffer any more barriers. Therefore truly modern men and women will no longer become members of any Society, so long as they feel that its brotherhood is a sect and its freedom of thought an orthodoxy. The "outsider" feels that, by entering the Theosophical Society, or any other spiritual movement, he subscribes to a creed which excludes him from the rest of the world, and enters a brotherhood which will make him different from all who do not belong to it.

If the Theosophical Society is to survive, if it is to attract those whom it has always endeavored, and generally failed, to attract, it will have to change its ways entirely. Above all, the traditional lodge with its traditional meetings should be abolished. There is no more dreadful mutual burden than that of the lodge which has to meet every Tuesday night and then think of something to do. The result must be a burden or an artificial semblance of life.

Once again, if the Theosophical Society is to continue, the old form of membership which implies the silent acceptance of a creed must go, and a loose organization take its place in which membership no more makes a man part of a sect than would, for instance, membership of the National Geographic Society. Modern man will suffer no barriers that shut life out in a supposed "outside world"; he seeks the free and unimpeded contact with life.


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