The Original Aim and Present Direction of The Theosophical Society
Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia—March 2006
When I joined the Theosophical Society in 1978 it might as well have been 1875, for although H.P. Blavatsky and the other Founders were no longer living, I was attracted to the original aims and direction of the TS, which to me seemed alive and well. I now sometimes wonder whether the Theosophical Society to which I belong exists only in my imagination, and whether other members have joined quite a different organisation.
The conclusion I tend to come to at the end of such ruminations is that the original Theosophical Society now exists in tandem with the ghost of its former self, and that it is up to concerned members of the original body to revivify the original intent. As it is not possible to impart to another the wisdom you yourself do not possess, I am generally left to ponder the sad fact that where once this task would have fallen to the likes of H.P.B., Colonel Olcott and Annie Besant (and surely they would know just what to do?), the vitality of the TS now seems to be left to people like myself, a very poor third best. So I write down these thoughts in the hope that they may strike a chord with others of like mind, perhaps there to gain strength in number.
In The Key to Theosophy published in 1889, H.P. Blavatsky set out a number of ideas about Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, which, coming from the pen of one of its Founders, could be taken as embodying the original intent and flavour of the TS. Three of those key ideas follow.
First, having stated that the TS holds to no religion or philosophy in particular — culling the good found in each — Madame Blavatsky then went on to say:
The Fellows may be Christians or Mussalmen, Jews or Parsees, Buddhists or Brahmins, Spiritualists or Materialists, it does not matter; but every member must be either a philanthropist, or a scholar, a searcher into Aryan and other old literature, or a psychic student … Otherwise he has no reason for becoming a “Fellow” (p19).
The Aryan philosophy is the Sanâtana Dharma — the eternal teaching or eternal Way also known as the perennial philosophy, or Ancient Wisdom. The earliest literary record of this tradition is contained in the Vedas and many feel that it has reached its fullest expression in the Upanishads. What HPB called the Aryan philosophy is the esoteric philosophy of the Indo-European race, and is as much the European as South Asian heritage; but at the time the TS was founded, modern western science and Enlightenment ideology threatened to sweep away every spiritually inclined system under the sun. The early Theosophists took a stand in favour of this philosophy which they intended to study in depth and vigorously promote.
Second, in reply to the question what is the incentive to join the TS when Theosophy is not the sole possession of the Society, HPB answered:
None except the advantage of getting esoteric instructions, the genuine doctrines of the “Wisdom-Religion”, and if the real programme is carried out, deriving much help from mutual aid and sympathy. Union is strength and harmony, and well-regulated simultaneous efforts produce wonders. This has been the secret of all associations and communities since mankind existed (p21).
In my reading, the meaning of “esoteric instructions” need not be restricted to instructions in the occult sciences, but should primarily be regarded as instruction into ‘the genuine doctrines of the Wisdom Religion’. A close reading of Blavatsky’s works shows that her use of the term occult is quite eccentric and that she generally equated occultism with Râja Yoga a spiritual philosophy disinclined towards magic; and with an enlightened form of altruism.
Finally, in response to a question about the prospects of the Theosophical Society she said:
Its future will depend almost entirely upon the degree of selflessness, earnestness, devotion, and last, but not least, on the amount of knowledge and wisdom possessed by those members, on whom it will fall to carry on the work, and to direct the Society after the death of the Founders… (p.304).
From all this I take it that the TS is supposed to be composed of seekers after truth, philanthropists, scholars, and students of the Aryan or Wisdom tradition, practicing practical rather than theoretical brotherhood (her emphasis), who find in the Society mutual aid in gaining instruction, and who have not succumbed either to the lure of sectarianism or the trap of merely following in their predecessors footsteps. Whilst I find that all this certainly exists as an element within the Theosophical Society; it is equally true that we are not a ‘numerous and united body of people’ as had been hoped for on p.307 of The Key to Theosophy.
One reason that we are neither numerous nor united may be that, to an extent, we have ‘lost by imperceptible degrees that vitality which living truth alone can impart’: not surprising in an organisation more than one and a quarter centuries old. Perhaps we have strayed from the genuine doctrines of the Wisdom Religion. On the other hand, I am not alone in having been attracted to the sense of purpose at the heart of the TS, and the lofty aims pursued continuously for over one hundred years. But questioning our present direction might help further the work in ways appropriate to the need of the present hour.
The Theosophical Society has continued through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first: but is it the original spirit or the ghost of its former self? As I said earlier, I believe that the two co-exist. There are a number of scholars, philanthropists and earnest seekers after truth in the ranks of the TS; but this, the true nature of the organisation, is not as clear as it might be: it is not undeniably the public face of the Theosophical Society. We could make it much clearer that the TS is intended to be a body of students of the perennial philosophy, a philosophy which being the true heritage of the Indo-European civilisation will inevitably attract interest. Instead Theosophy has become almost synonymous with a panoply of New Age interests and concerns. Our programmes are often as not filled with shamanic journeys, New Age therapies of one kind or another, lectures on the tarot, runes and astrology — not all of which represent the Society’s original intent as clearly as one might wish. True, these can all be interesting and beneficial: but are they likely to attract scholars, scientists, philanthropists and students of perennial philosophy? I don’t think so. For one thing, all of these side-issues are treated elsewhere: we do not need the Theosophical Society to provide instruction into colour therapy and the like.
As I and others have remarked before, there was a time when the TS provided Buddhists, Vedantists, Jungian therapists, various healers, and practitioners of Yoga with the only platform from which they could expound their views. In those days, the TS provided an invaluable service in being the platform for the New Age. But that time has long passed.
It strikes me that, to an extent, the Theosophical Society is coasting along in the wake of its Founders, whilst not seeking what they sought, or doing what they did. Are we the scientific and philanthropic body of HPB’s description? A scientific body is engaged in collective research, but the collective nature of the theosophical enterprise has been compromised over the years by a lack of brotherly feeling, and a lack of definition.
How is it possible to do anything collectively if we have not agreed on basic principles? What is Theosophy? What are the aims of the Theosophical Society? These are questions that are easy to answer glibly, perhaps referring to the Objects (and then ignoring them); but is there a collective, united understanding of those Objects and their meaning today? Are we in fact all members of the same organisation, engaged in the same enterprise? Theosophists in the 20th century made explicit the Freedom of Thought Resolution and the complete lack of dogma that is fundamental in the Society, both laudable: but where is the substance which they protect?
The original Theosophical Society still exists, and continues to invite philanthropists, scholars, students of the esoteric philosophy and seekers of divine wisdom to join its ranks as fellows. Members of the Theosophical Society are united by a free and fearless search for truth and the meaning of existence. The original policy was that everyone willing to study and to aim high was to be welcomed as a member; but it rested with the member to become a true Theosophist. If the Theosophical Society is not as numerous or united in its membership as some of us would like, then perhaps we should go back, not to Blavatsky, but to the original impetus behind the Society’s formation: and create a robust organisation of enquirers into the truths of the Wisdom Religion. We would then be taking up the eternal challenge of the perennial philosophy in the new context of the 21st century.
These are just a few thoughts presented with all the usual caveats such as this is only my opinion etc.
Blavatsky, H.P. The Key to Theosophy. Los Angeles, California: The Theosophy Company, 1889/1987.