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Religious Harmony and Cooperation from a Theosophical Point of View

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Part I

Theosophical efforts towards reconciliation and brotherhood


The modern spiritual organization known as The Theosophical Society was founded in New York by an Ukrainian lady, Mme Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. After a few years she and her American co-founder and President-for-life, Henry Steel Olcott came to India, first to Bombay, and then, when they had discovered Adyar, then outside Madras, they definitely established the International Headquarters of The Theosophical Society here. As you know, the organization and its various dependent and independent branches is now a world-wide and very active movement with important Centers in India (and elsewhere in Asia) the America’s, Africa, Australia and Europe.

The Theosophical effort has, from its very beginning and no less today, exerted very great influence in the mental and spiritual atmosphere of the world. I think it is safe to say that there is no religious or social viewpoint in the world of today which has not in smaller or larger degree benefited and been positively influenced. Every existing initiative for the well-being of humankind and other living beings, through that influence has enhanced its inner quality as well as self-esteem. Moreover innumerable initiatives in the field of welfare, science, religious tolerance, and international cooperation have been begun by Theosophists.

In the political field we need but to mention A.O. Hume, Founder of the Congress Party, Annie Besant, who has at the time been called ‘Mother of India’ and gave great impetus towards Indian independence, and enhancement of India’s self-esteem by greatly re-establishing and teaching the value of the Indian philosophical heritage to India itself as well as the rest of the world – the foundation of which was laid by Mme Blavatsky, and Katherine Tingley who fought against capital punishment, against the habit of regarding criminals as incurable evil souls, and has done much in the field of social work.

Mohandas Gandhi was inspired by his search of truth and justice by theosophists,. He met Mme Blavatsky herself, and studied scriptures, mainly during his period in London. Before that time he describes himself as quite a naughty boy2. His strict vegetarian way of life was greatly inspired by another great Theosophist of these days in England, Anna Kingsford. The President of the TS, Col. Olcott, worked greatly for the revival of Buddhism in colonial Ceylon and other Asian countries, and worked to help the Sinhalese escape from under the Christian yoke. His statue is still taking the most prominent place in Sri Lanka in front of the main railway station of Colombo, on Olcott Avenue. Also in other countries, like Dutch India (now Indonesia) political influence was exerted by Theosophists.

Theosophy has exerted considerable influence on scientific thinking, and today science, unknown to itself, is more and more picking up the sacred message. The same can be said of art, and what we nowadays know as ‘abstract art,’ in which the inner, spiritual message is more important than the outer form. We thank this greatly to the stimulation if not invention by some of the great men of the early twentieth century of ‘modern art’ such as Kandinsky and Mondrian and a symbolic spiritual painter like Roerich. The same applies to poetry, literature and music – a very famous Theosophical composer was the Russian Alexander Skriabin. In the field of literature famous names are the Irish poet AE (Russell) and the Welsh poet and mystical writer Kenneth Morris. In the country were I was born, The Netherlands, Theosophy had a wide influence on architects, and almost all architects of the first part of the 20th century in that country were theosophists, united in the Vahana Lodge. Dance and theater were greatly stimulated, notably through Theosophist Rukmini Devi, and, on the other side of the Ocean, Katerine Tingley inspirited groups of children to perfom the high arts of theatre and music performance. The most outstanding philosopher working for all cultures in the world within the Theosophical sphere of influence was Jiddu Krishmamurti from Tamil Nadu – even though this philosopher rejected Theosophy as an institution and as a system.

In the field of religions it was Evans-Wentz who published the Tibetan Book of the Dead for the first time translated from Tibetan – and the same author wrote about the genuine sacredness of sacred mountains, among which Arunachala, and about the unseen spirits of nature. William Quan Judge made the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra’s of Patañjali known in the western world, Annie Besant wrote extensively about Hinduism or the Sanatana Dharma, and also wrote a small, heart-felt and sympathetic books about Jainism, Islam and other religions. Theosophical magazines were the first to publish English translations of the Popol Vuh, the sacred occult wisdom of the Mayas of Guatemala – a work which could justifiably be called a Purana of pre-Colombian America. Theosophists held direct contacts with Tibetan, Indian and Sri Lankan mystics and occultists, as well Native Americans, Chinese adepts, Druids, Egyptians and those of other countries. On the property of the TS in Adyar one can find small religious buildings as well as sculptures of most world religions: Islam, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Christian and others. In the main lecture hall in Adyar every religion and religious founder is represented by a wall relief. By their very activities, leading theosophists showed their friendship, intimate knowledge and deep respect for Hinduism (e.g. Annie Besant), Buddhism (Blavatsky, Olcott, Leadbeater) Christianity (Leadbeater) and other religions. These are just a few examples.

In India, Annie Besant and Olcott greatly stimulated education, from Kindergarten (Olcott schools) to Academic level (Varanasi Hindu University), and at the other side of the ocean – almost mirroring the location of Adyar, against the west coast at the Pacific, Katherine Tingly initiated a competing theosophical Headquarters known as Point Loma. From both the centers in Adyar and Point Loma went a strong influence on, music, performing arts, dance science, social issues as well as theosophical teaching. Both spread their influence all over the world. Both inspired artists and seekers from east and west.

Though Theosophists form but a small group in the total world population, they have always, wherever they could, stimulated and mentally supported welfare work and spiritual upliftment – have fought against cruelties such as capital punishment, caste inequality, child marriage and social and religious injustice, cruelty towards animals and nature – never and never giving impulses to religious and political strive and ever trying to bring people closer together in understanding and respect.

If I say all this, it might seem somewhat haughty. Yet I think it is not exaggerated. And I’ll explain why I think that this is so.

First of all ‘Theosophy’ is as old as thinking humanity – indeed older, because present day humans are not the first thinkers in the universe ever. There have been an infinitude of humanities in an infinitude of kalpas before present. This is taught by Jainism, Buddhism, the Vedic tradition and others. Theosophy is not bound to any system, nor to any teacher or founder or initiator of a movement. Theosophy is the wisdom of the gods – those beings who in the evolution of consciousness have already gone through the human stage long ago. There have been such divine souls of various kinds always, and together they form the eternal ‘hierarchy of compassion’ or sangha of wisdom and compassion guiding the Earth. It has always been their task to support the evolution of humankind and nature in harmony with the spiritual laws of nature. This, throughout the ages, has been done by numerous efforts to awaken men and women to spiritual values and by stimulating them to live according to these values. There have been many peoples, races, cultures in a long succession of time cycles – smaller cycles and larger cycles, indeed cycles within cycles. Every individual or association of individuals has its own characteristics, its own nature or svabhāva, and its own stage of evolution. Of course an adult needs spiritual food in a different quality and quantity than a child, and the same applies to younger and more adult or elderly cultures and races. Such compassionate Workers and Thinkers have been called gods, theoi, devas, prehistoric buddhas etc., etc, and they had and have the great overview over human and cosmic development. All beings are there to help each other – and that has always been done within the endless and bright cloud of compassion encompassing all life. We have been helped, and it is our task to help others. The gods or their messengers of whatever names have been given to them, have always (more of less) successfully stimulated humanity in the right direction, and supported its path to understanding of imperishable and eternal truths. Time after time such Theosophists have appeared to give us a foundation for ethics and for the organization of a society conducive to spiritual evolution. There have been times that such beings, during ‘downward’ or involving cycles helped us to develop the skills and wisdom to use in ever more material worlds – never forgetting the larger universal values en larger purpose of the human yatra or pilgrimage in the cycles of necessity, and there have been times when they were helping us to ascend from the mire of materialism and misery and ignorance concerning spiritual matters. The cycle of necessity exists not just by karma, but because the innate soul of each being strives to self-conscious, full self-conscious spiritual bloom – not merely consciousness as we already have.

In our days – looking from the perspective of a total life of Brahmā – as the resultant of many upward and downward cycles (like the present kali-yuga) all forms of life move ‘spirally’ into a spiritual direction. This is the great message of hope. That is why all modern religions teach spiritual development and upliftment, high ethics and strive for the well-being for all beings, human and other as much as possible, and try to lead us away from further descend into matter. Though we often think that humanity and the very Earth are going to succumb under a load of pollution and evil, in reality we make progress, and are destined for a great future. We – the people present in this hall, belong to those who lead humanity with more or less great strength and courage in the right direction within divine nature. If not, you wouldn’t have attended this meeting.

The modern Theosophical Movement in its present form is extremely young within the larger framework of evolution – just becoming 137 years old (in 2012). But the initiative was not taken by the outer founders Blavatsky and Olcott. It was just one of the thousands of initiatives throughout historic and prehistoric times by the gods themselves – in Theosophy often referred to as mahatmas of various degrees – great souls of wisdom and compassion. These mahatmas knew when it was the right time to try an effort and of what nature that effort should be. One of the facts is that in the past many great religions have been founded by them, by one of their representatives, and originally each religion had an esoteric core. They are now known as Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, Daoism, the various ‘Red-Indian’ or Native American religions, Zoroastrism, and very many more of which we today have no more memory.

It was written by these mahatmas that the Theosophical Society is the corner stone of the future religion of humanity. The religion of humanity is not one particular religion, also not ‘Theosophy’ or ‘Blavatskyism’, nor anything opposed or cynical about any existing religion, nor is it meant that Adyar or any other place is meant to become the future Vatican or Potala. If we would understand this remark of a mahatma in this way, we would render a very evil service to humanity. The future is unknown to us, and we know little about how humanity will think and act in the 22nd or 23rd or 30th century. It will unfold itself naturally, and we all are responsible for the tones set for the future and the seeds sown. Every time when the lodge of mahatma’s or the ever working universal sangha – to phrase a term – will show itself on the surface, its impulses lead to great cultural explosions, ethical and philosophical widening, deepening understanding of the essential questions of the human heart. Every time such efforts started with a very small group of disciples – those incarnated human beings of their times of the greatest power of understanding the message. And every time religion was dispersed, reached wider circles, and subsequently the masses at large. And every time religion was deteriorated by power hungry priest or the military, by growing dogmatism due to non-readiness or unwillingness of the human mind at large, and often ended in suppression and intolerance and limitation of mental freedom – the very opposites of the Great Teacher’s intentions. Ultimately everyone will have past through the ‘school’ which fits him best. Then the time has come for a new spiritual impulse. I don’t think there has been any great teacher not emphasizing the values of kindness and non-violence and devotion of the human being towards the spiritual in whatever form applicable for his time and culture and character.

The modern theosophical movement was and is one of such efforts – such as Gautama’s Buddhism or Adinath’s Jainism were many centuries or millennia ago in a very great sense. Modern theosophy is not a replacement of these, but a revival and extension, and were necessary Theosophy makes corrections where dogmatism is already having its sway. In the more abstruse modern theosophical literature (specifically The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett), it is declared that the mahatmas, the Founders behind the founders, regarded the Buddha as their great teacher, and it is well known that Blavatsky and Olcott formally became Buddhists by taking Pañchaśila during their visit to Sri Lanka. As to Jainism I may mention Blavatsky’s remark that former tīrthaṅkaras were the same as former buddhas. And she mentions that Buddha himself knew and studied the secret Upanishads – though he rejected the exoteric ritualism and interpretation of the Vedas.

Yet the form in which theosophy presents itself nowadays is very different from that of Buddhism or Jainism. There are no theosophical monasteries, rituals, prescription of behavior or eating habits as in the exoteric religions, no theosophical temples apart from one’s own inner heart – but in its deeper teachings Theosophy and Gautama’s Buddhism and, for example, Shankara’s Advaita Vedānta are identical, however different they may appear on the surface.

In modern times – especially during the last millennium of growing international contacts, travel and mixture of peoples and races, aided with the modern technical means of transportation and communication, religions and cultures have met each other more intensely than ever before in known history. For the younger generation there is but one county: the globe Earth – itself less than a grain of sand in larger astronomical structures. These contacts did and do not always go in complete harmony though, especially in the field of religions. For that reason the theosophical movement has, now more than in earlier times perhaps, emphasized the BROTHERHOOD of humanity and the Universal Source of all religions and culture. The difference between 2012 and say 1890 is tremendous: there are no more ‘lesser races’ or people (at least in our mental concepts). People of all races and countries move together, work together, and hardly pay attention anymore to their country of origin or skin color etc. Great cooperative organizations (the Theosophical Society itself is one of them) which stretch over the globe are normal nowadays: United Nations, Greenpeace, Doctors without Borders, the Peace Palace and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Gandhi’s struggle against caste-ism etc. just to mention a few examples. But, as it goes, people who have the power in religious matters, often going hand in hand with those who have power in worldly matters, whether the old Brahmins, Jain Āchāryas, or the popes and mullahs and so many others, lag behind out of fear of having to give up their rigid and rusted values and their pride and position – forgetting the essential universal values which were taught by their own First Teachers. Outer rules and regulations have become more important for them. And they carry large masses of innocent and ignorant believers in their wake. Then, finally, we have fanaticism (such as in some Christian sects), terrorism (at this moment Islamic terrorism is most known and feared – but not the only terrorism), isolationism, like we see in Jainism – rather keeping one’s values for oneself than publishing the high values and inspire the world at large, and so on.

There have been initiatives in the last decades, such as the Parliaments of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Cape Town, Australia, Barcelona, etc. where such individuals as the Dalai Lama and leaders of all religions, also theosophical leaders, and nature religions such as Wicca, shamanistic and magical groups as well as shramanistic (= pure ascetic) cultures sit and discuss together in peace. However from my point of view – from a theosophical point of view – one thing is missing. I have personally attended a few of these conferences, and I am happy with the mutual tolerance and friendship and the general awareness that religious have a task together for humanity in stead of quarreling and fighting each other. Still I found that many presentations were like preaching for their own church, with the co-intention to show the rest of the world how good they themselves are, while keeping themselves safely within there own territories.

As I see it, two important things have to happen:

  • Religions should seek their own deeper roots, their own universal and transcendental values, the heart of the teaching given by their original founders. Every religious founder was a great esotericist, and it was from this esoteric core that they composed the forms and expressions known as particular religions. In the Theosophical literature many hints and explanations of symbol can be found which can help to deepen the insight of the serious seeker – of whatever religious background he stems. The various religions, leaving aside their colorful cultural fringes, are different pathways to the same goal: to understand Reality beyond reality. To come closer to one’s inner divinity and to become real human beings – not the half-animals that we are now.

These universal Truths are found at the basis of each religion. However these can not be discovered even by the most learned pundits and āchāryas – and only partly by mystics – without keys to hidden meanings. Once these keys are found – and they are available today – and studied and deeply understood, one will recognize the unity of Religion – not of religions. These keys form the golden thread connecting each of them with the heart of Universal Truth and Universal Compassion – the Fact and Energy which have always been there, which stream forth from beyond mere mental speculation and philosophizing. It is indeed Mystic Truth. Someone who has understood this, or at least intuits it, can never have any bad feeling about others, or the thought systems of others.

  • Religions should try to seek their common source, the Root of all Religion, of all religions. This path to this source can be entered by esoteric studies, the teachings for the Heart-Mind of things rather than the exoteric, merely mental understanding of things.

So let us first put aside our peculiarities and pittinesses. Please let all religious people from whatever background understand and feel that Religion is greater than any religion or creed in particular. Religion is Truth, not a social event. It can not be emphasized enough that religion is meant to better the situation of humankind in every respect: social, psychological, scientific, philosophical and behavioral. This can never be reached by emphasizing distinctions, but only by trying to understand the inner side and source of such distinctions. If we understand, we will respect. If there are fringes which are not respectable, humanity will abandon them naturally, just as the evolution of nature abandons species which are no longer needed.

Theosophy has been given to humankind in this age, not to divide, but to unify, not to make wars, but peace, and to further the future, natural evolution of humankind in a noble and fine way.

To be continued in Part II: Bridging Unbridgeable Gaps Between Religions.

  1. This is part I of a paper titled ‘Religious Harmony and Cooperation from a Theosophical Point of View’ prepared by the Theosophical Study Center Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, for the International Seminar on Religious Harmony and Co-operation for Ensuring Social Justice: The Role of Buddhism, on 19. January 2012 organized by the Centre for Buddhist Studies of the Department of Jainology, University of Madras, Chennai -05. []
  2. In his early autobiography My Experiments with Truth Gandhi desribes his youthly ssins and struggles with an openness to which few authors can compare []