The Living Tradition: Historical Review of the TS Since 1907

Pedro Oliveira

This text was originally published in the May 1996 issue of The Theosophist.

The word ‘tradition’ etymologically admits of two meanings. It comes from the Latin verb tradere, ‘to hand on’; its other meaning is ‘to betray’. Every culture, every age, every institution embodies certain traditions which are not only handed on from generation to generation, but which may also betray the original impulse, the freshness of approach that was there in the beginning. A Brazilian theologian has written that most of the existing religions, for example, are like fossils of a spiritual experience that has disappeared long ago. Does the Theosophical Society embody a living tradition?

Annie Besant became the second International President of the TS at a time when a widespread controversy was raging in several Sections. This controversy had as its epicentre the advice C.W. Leadbeater had been giving to boys about to reach puberty. In view of the strong reaction in many quarters and following the meeting of the Advisory Board in London in May 1906, CWL resigned his TS membership, devoting his time fully to furthering his clairvoyant investigations in different parts of Europe into the unseen world. As Colonel Olcott was quite ill, he first ‘appointed’, and then constitutionally nominated Annie Besant as his successor. Voting took place in July 1907 and was overwhelmingly in her favour. She was the only candidate. Col. Olcott passed away at Adyar in February 1907 after a long illness.

Writing in The Theosophist in February 1907 on ‘The Basis of the Theosophical Society’, Annie Besant said:

Does the TS enforce on its members a moral code, the transgression of which is punishable with expulsion? I do not consider that the TS has any moral code binding on its members. That such a code does not exist in fact is clear, for no written nor printed copy thereof can be produced. …We have no code: we hold up lofty ideals, inspiring examples, and we trust to these for the compelling power to lift our members to a high moral level, but we have no code with penalties for the infringement of its provisions.

The first, and perhaps we may find the only fitness and propriety necessary to membership is a recognition of the Truth of Brotherhood, the wish to help it to emerge from latency into activity. The desire to help in bringing about the general realization of Universal Brotherhood is the primary fitness and propriety which are sought. This makes a man a vehicle through which can work the forces that make for the realization of Brotherhood. The Love-force in him makes him one through whom the Love-forces without him can play. And I think that this desire to help, evidenced by work which does help others towards the realization of Brotherhood, is the only fitness and propriety that our Society can rightly demand.

At its meeting in December 1908 the General Council decided to invite CWL to resume his membership in the Society.

The TS experienced tremendous growth during Dr Besant’s Presidency. The Adyar estate, for example, was enlarged from 27 to 253 acres when Blavatsky, Olcott, and Besant Gardens, as well as Alsace Grove were purchased. She started the Vasanta Press in 1908 and the TPH in 1913. The membership worldwide also grew since more and more people were attracted to the Society by an ever-expanding Theosophical literature and the inspiring example of its leaders.

Soon after his arrival at Adyar in 1909, CWL was struck by a thin and vacant-looking boy, J. Krishnamurti, whom he met in the company of other children on Adyar beach. That meeting, as we all know today, had far-reaching consequences for the Society’s life and work. From the moment she met Krishnamurti, Annie Besant poured on him her unconditional motherly affection, giving him full freedom to blossom into the unique teacher he became. Until his last days Krishnaji nurtured unqualified admiration and love for ‘Amma’.

Amidst her constant travels, meetings, and writing, Annie Besant also had to devote time and attention to a court case brought against her in 1912 by Krishnamurti’s father, Narayaniah. Although she had lost the case in the High Court of Madras, she appealed to the Privy Council in England and won the guardianship of the two brothers, Krishnaji and Nityananda. She had to face opposition from several other sources: the Christian missionaries, back-to-Blavatsky groups in the USA and Europe and, as usual, a cynical cross-section of the press. Disgruntled members and other individuals fed negative propaganda against the Society, Annie Besant, and CWL. To all these Annie Besant’s wise leadership responded with renewed determination to carry on the Society’s lofty mission.

Writing about the prevailing criticism of Theosophy (The Theosophist, July 1911), Johan van Manen mentioned Schopenhauer’s view of the three stages through which any new thought has to pass when presented to the world: 1) it is absolutely ignored; 2) the world shouts ‘It is a lie’; 3) the world declares ‘That is what we have always said!’. Van Manen also mentions a passage in a critical book entitled Sinful Spiritualism Tested by God’s Word, which declared that the TS was founded by ‘a certain Col. Olkoff and that it propagated the doctrine of the seven principles, of which the fourth was the coccyx!’

Another important development which took place under Dr Besant’s stewardship was the establishment of three strong spiritual centres consecrated to the great ideals of Theosophy and their practical realization: Krotona (first in Hollywood, then in Ojai), the Manor in Sydney, and St Michael’s in Holland, now known as the International Theosophical Centre in Naarden. She viewed these three centres as linked to Adyar by threads of sympathy and common aspiration, and as channels for the great Powers of Goodness and Wisdom in their compassionate work for suffering humanity.

Annie Besant’s convention lecture themes reflected her deep concern to make Theosophy a practical force in society. They included ‘The Ideals of Theosophy’, ‘Indian Social Reform’, ‘Theosophy and Life’s Deeper Problems’, ‘The Great Plan’, ‘Theosophy as the Interpreter of Religion’, and ‘The Real and the Unreal in a Nation’s Life’.

Educational work was accorded paramount importance throughout Annie Besant’s Presidency: the creation of the Central Hindu College in Varanasi, which gave birth to the Banaras Hindu University; ‘Sons and Daughters of India’; The Theosophical Education Trust; Young Men’s Indian Association; League of Parents and Teachers; Women’s Indian Association; and Brahmavidya Asrama. In 1915 the Madanapalle College was opened and it is still in existence. The National School and College originally established near Adyar in 1918 was later shifted to Rishi Valley, near Madanapalle, becoming the nucleus for Krishnamurti’s later educational work as the still flourishing Rishi Valley Education Centre. In 1921, in grateful homage for her many services to Indian education, the Banaras Hindu University conferred on Annie Besant the title of Doctor of Letters, and by a special act of the Indian Legislature she was made a member of its governing body, although not a born Hindu.

In February 1908 Annie Besant formed the Theosophical Order of Service inspired by an article written by one of the Masters and printed by HPB in an early number of Lucifer which stressed that:

The problem of true theosophy and its great mission is the working out of clear, unequivocal conceptions of ethical ideas and duties which would satisfy most and best the altruistic and right feeling in us: and the modelling of these conceptions for their adaptation into such forms of daily life where they may be applied with most equitableness… Theosophy must not represent merely a collection of moral verities, a bundle of metaphysical ethics epitomized in theoretical dissertations. Theosophy must be made practical, and has, therefore, to be disencumbered of useless discussion. It has to find objective expression in an all-embracing code of life thoroughly impregnated with its spirit – the spirit of mutual tolerance, charity and love.

Several TOS Leagues were created: Social Brotherhood, National Education, and Abolition of Child Parentage (in India); Abolition of Capital Punishment, Extension of Cooperative Movements and Hospital Visits (Australia); Prison Reform (USA); Child Welfare, Work among the Blind, Anti-Vivisection, and Healing (England). Members of the Order were also very active in animal welfare.

Work for children was also emphasized. The Round Table, founded in London in 1898 largely as a result of a weekly Lotus Circle held by CWL at the TS headquarters, had as its aim ‘to gather together the young folk to train them to become, when grown up, helpers of the world’. The Round Table later became a league of the TOS. Children in many countries were united daily in saying the Golden Chain Prayer written by Annie Besant:

I am a link in the Golden Chain of love that stretches around the world, and must keep my link bright and strong. So I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing I meet and to protect and help all who are weaker than myself. And I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, and to do pure and beautiful actions. May every link in the Golden Chain become bright and strong.

In addition, educational work was going on in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), England, Java, Australia and New Zealand. In 1917 the Women’s Indian Association was founded at Adyar by Dorothy Jinarajadasa and Margaret Cousins. Its objectives were: 1) to show women their responsibility as daughters of India; 2) to help them to realize that the future of India lies largely in their hands, for as wives and mothers they have the task of training, and guiding and forming the character of the future rulers of India; 3) to band women into groups for self-development, education, and the service of others. Later the Association campaigned for voting rights for women.

In July 1924 in Queen’s Hall London, the Golden Jubilee of Annie Besant’s public work was celebrated. C. Jinarajadasa quoted from a letter he received for the occasion which said: ‘I am amazed… this is no narrow Jubilee; it is the history of the past fifty years.’ Many of her former colleagues in the social and political struggle came to pay her homage, including the well-known member of parliament, George Lansbury. Five hundred delegates representing almost every branch of progressive work attended. Dr Marion Phillips in her speech said:

Her presence, her work, her spirit belongs to the ages of heroism in the world’s history. …She has made it possible for us to believe in and to put into practice today ideas that were regarded with horror when first put before the world.

Mr Ben Tillet, M.P., said: ‘Her work should live not in monuments of stone but in the monumental progress she has helped to bring.’

The attacks, slanders, and misrepresetations about Annie Besant and CWL were many during their lifetime, and some still continue, but their contribution to the Society and to the world is inestimable. C Jinarajadasa wrote in The Golden Book of the TS:

The generation which comes after Dr Besant and Bishop Leadbeater voices with unbounded gratitude the priceless boons received from them of that inner consecration, that heart of Truth, which makes life a living flame of sacrifice.

About CWL he writes:

His writings recording clairvoyant researches into the invisible have been full of illumination and comfort to thousands of Theosophists, for they have made real the underlying principles of Theosophy enunciated by HPB.

Problems were created due to the overlapping of activities between the TS and the Order of the Star, which was started in order to prepare the world for Krishnamurti’s work. Although Dr Besant never proclaimed him as the World Teacher, misunderstandings were cropping up in many quarters, including several newspapers all over the world. In The Theosophist of November 1925 she stated:

Last summer in Holland I mentioned to a large audience that J. Krishnamurti was the chosen vehicle… I suppose this was the basis for the inaccurate statements made subsequently in the London papers. I have never had any idea ‘proclaiming him as a Messiah’.

But in August 1925 a number of statements were made during the Order of the Star’s Ommen Camp with reference to the supposed occult status of several Theosophical leaders, which, with hindsight, made it clear that the Society was becoming a belief-based community. One can fully understand Krishnamurti’s later decision to dissolve the Order of the Star in order to avoid spiritual authority being built around him. There is no doubt that his action, although shocking and upsetting to many, proved to be of fundamental significance for the Society’s life and work, because it helped the members worldwide to realize that the TS was never meant to be a community of believers, but a fellowship of seekers after Truth. Although in 1928 the Society reached the peak of its membership with over 45,000 members on its rolls, the events of 1929 provoked a drop of roughly 15,000.

Dr Besant passed away in September 1933 at Adyar and was succeeded in the Presidency by Dr G.S. Arundale. At the very inception of his term as President, Dr Arundale made his motto "Together, though differently", and encouraged wide dissemination of Theosophy throughout Section and Lodges in what was called the ‘Straight Theosophy Campaign’. The Young Theosophists movement received much attention from Dr Arundale, Rukmini Devi Arundale being elected President of their Federation. Many future leaders of the movement were also inspired by him, like Felix Layton, John Coats, Helen Zahara, Joy Mills, and Rohit Mehta.

In 1935 a young member in America wrote to Dr Arundale about coming to Adyar as a worker. This was his reply:

I think you had better run the risk, so as possibly to be seizing an opportunity. It is a risk, but you can’t get opportunities without running them. Borrow the fare, beg it or steal it — we will see what we can do to help if you have only borrowed. But, if with beating heart and asthmatic breath, you decide to take the plunge, ‘hop it’ as soon as you can.

Sixty years later, in spite of her advanced age, Norma Shastry is still working full time for the TS as the Accommodation Officer at Adyar.

During the Second World War years Dr Arundale urged the members to radiate peace from their own individual lives and Lodges throughout the world. A memorable event during his Presidency took place in Italy, which was already under Fascist rule. Under intense pressure from the Government, the General Secretary proposed, before the assembly of Italian members to suppress the Society’s first object from the Italian Section Rules to conform to Fascist law. But the members assembled, in impressive demonstration of courage and devotion to the Society’s ideals, refused to adopt the proposal, and the TS in Italy was soon after closed down, in January 1939.

Arundale and Rukmini Devi visited many countries, consolidating the Society’s work against many odds. He was a warm-hearted person with a strong sense of humour and deep devotion to Theosophy. He passed away in August 1945 just as the World War ended. Mr C. Jinarajadasa, who had been the Vice-President under Annie Besant, was elected President, and N. Sri Ram, who was the Vice-President under Arundale, took charge of the affairs of the Society during the transition.

C.J. was a very cultured man, a scholar in his won right, with a deep knowledge of Theosophy and also of TS history. He was very interested in art and literature, and his books reflect the breadth of his knowledge. He was one of the Society’s most outstanding travelling lecturers for several decades. His command of languages made it possible for him, for example, to address Spanish and Portuguese- speaking audiences in their own languages. He suffered the attacks of the Roman Catholic church in different countries. The Archbishops of both Lima in Peru and Mexico City, for example, declared that those Catholics who attended his lectures would be immediately excommunicated. They even printed notices to this effect in newspapers before lectures, but C.J.’s compelling and inspiring presence attracted thousands.

During C.J.’s Presidency Sri Ram began to tour several Sections ans therefore became widely known in the Theosophical world. Due to ill health C.J. did not want to stand for another term as President, which paved the way for the nomination and subsequent election of Sri Ram as International President on 17 February 1953. In a roof talk given soon after on 13 March 1953, Sri Ram said:

Some people think that as President I will unfold my ideas, my policy, the word ‘my’ being underlined. I want to say that I have no ideas, apart from being open-minded and considering all ideas in relation to the work we have to do. I have no particular ideas to which I am attached. I may express certain ideas, but for what they are worth, and I am open to any other ideas that may be propounded. I have no particular ideas or policies which I feel I must carry out: no ideas have been handed to me from on high, to be carried out. If one is just open-minded, considers everything, I am sure one will find one’s way through the life of earthly existence.

With Sri Ram a new era began and all personal references to the Masters and individuals’ occult status came to an end. The keynote of his message as President was ‘Theosophy, the Living Wisdom’, and his several books illustrate the depth and inspiring nature of his theosophical perceptions.

Sri Ram travelled extensively, visiting places as far apart as Vietnam and Argentina, and impressed thousands throughout the world with his unassuming character and self-effacing attitude. His notes in ‘On the Watch-Tower’ in The Theosophist evidenced his keen and lucid perception of contemporary affairs, from the arms race to the invasion of Tibet, and from modern psychology to internationalism. Sri Ram presented Theosophy in an idiom suited to the changing times.

After his passing in April 1973 the election process was set in motion, culminating in the election of John Coats as the sixth International President. He took office in November 1973 and appointed Joy Mills as his Vice-President. A former Chairman of the European Federation of the TS, he had travelled and lectured extensively for the TS in many countries. His keynote was that every member should become an ‘ambassador of Brotherhood’. He also encouraged youth to take an active part in the Society’s work, and several countries in Latin America, for example, have a devoted band of workers who were very much inspired by him.

On 26 December 1979 John Coats died in Madras, and the many delegates to the convention paid him homage before his body was cremated in the Garden of Remembrance at Adyar. Two candidates qualified to be on the voting list for the ensuing election: Radha Sri Ram Burnier and Rukmini Devi Arundale. The votes were overwhelmingly in favour of Mrs Burnier, who took office as the seventh International President on 17 July 1980. She has, since then, been re-elected twice to that office. She brings to the work a sound scholarly training and administrative experience gathered during two decades as General Secretary of the Indian Section. She was also Director of the Adyar Library for many years.

Adyar holds a special place in Radhaji’s heart, for she was not only born here, but has a very intimate knowledge of the whole compound, and sees to it that it is kept beautiful and well cared for. She works tirelessly, and her working week has seven days. She has sounded the keynote of the need for the worldwide membership to become aware of the Society’s essential aim — human regeneration, and the need for us to find out the practical dimension and relevance of every fundamental Theosophical principle. She has travelled extensively and conducts seminars and study camps throughout the world. As an animal lover she is encouraging awareness of our younger brothers’ horrible plight and of the need for appropriate action. Radhaji had the privilege of a close association with J. Krishnamurti and on her invitation he again visited Adyar in 1980 after an interval of almost fifty years.

Does the TS embody a living tradition? Who is responsible for keeping it alive? In The Key to Theosophy, speaking about the future of the TS, HPB wrote:

You must remember that all our members have been bred and born in some creed or religion, that all are more or less of their generation both physically and mentally, and consequently that their judgement is but too likely to be warped and unconsciously biased by some or all of these influences. If, then, they cannot be freed from such inherent bias, or at least taught to recognize it instantly and so avoid being led away by it, the result can only be that the Society will drift off on to some sandbank of thought or another, and there remain a stranded carcass to moulder and die.

We shall help the Society in its great mission by realizing with the totality of our understanding, with our hearts and minds in
unison, that Theosophy is not only an inspiring teaching or another philosophical tradition, but that it is indeed the hope of the world, ‘the true light which gives truth, and nothing but the truth’.

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Pedro Oliveira was President of the Indo-Pacific Federation of the TS and Education Coordinator of the TS in Australia. He is a former International Secretary of the Society (1992-1996).