T.S. Solidarity and Ideals

H.S. Olcott

From The Theosophist, November 1894.

The time seems to have come for me to say a word or two about the constitution and ideals of the Theosophical Society, so that they may be made perfectly plain to the thousands of new colleagues who have entered our membership within the past five years. The American public, out of whose bosom the Society evolved, is entitled to the first word on this subject from their compatriot; whose love for India and absorption in the Society’s life have never quenched his patriotic feeling for the land of his forefathers.

After the lapse of nineteen years, the small group of friends who casually met in the drawing-room of H.P. Blavatsky, in Irving Place, New York City, has expanded into a Society with nearly four hundred chartered Branches in the four quarters of the globe; known of all men; discussed, complimented, reviled and misrepresented in almost all languages; denounced usually, but sometimes praised in the pulpit and the press; satirized in literature, and grossly lampooned on the stage. In short, an important factor in modern thought and the inspiring cause of some high ideals. Like every other great movement, it has its centres of intensest activity which have developed amidst favouring environments, and, as in other cases, the evolutionary force tends to shift its swirl from place to place as these conditions change. Thus, for instance, India was the first centre where the thought-engendering power accumulated, and our movement overspread the Great Peninsula from North to South, from East to West, before it flowed westward. What was done at New York was but the making of the nucleus, the bare launching of the idea. When the Founders sailed away to Bombay, in December 1878, they left little more than the name of the Society behind them; all else was chaotic and unmanifested. The breath of life entered its infant body in India. From the great, inexhaustible store of spiritual power garnered up there by the Ancient Sages, it came into this movement and made it the beneficent potentiality it has become. It must be centuries before any other country can take its place. A Theosophical Society with its base outside India would be an anomaly; that is why we went there.

The first of the outflowing ebb went from India to America in 1885-6. Ceylon came into line six years earlier, but I count Ceylon as but an extension of India. After America came Europe. Then our movement reached Burma, Japan and Australasia. Last of all, it has got to South Africa, South America and the West Indies.

What is the secret of this immense development, this self-sowing of Branches in all lands? It is the Constitution and proclaimed ideals of the Society; it is the elastic tie that binds the parts together; and the platform which gives standing room to all men of all creeds and races. The simplicity of our aims attracts all good, broad-minded, philanthropic people alike. They are equally acceptable to all of that class. Untainted by sectarianism, divested of all dogmatic offensiveness, they repel none who examine them impartially. While identified with no one creed, they affirm the necessity and grandeur of the religious aspiration, and so bid for the sympathy of every religious-minded person. The Society is the open opponent of religious nihilism and materialistic unbelief. It has fought them from the first and won many victories among the best educated class. The Indian press testifies to its having stopped the tendency towards materialism, which was so strong among the college graduates before our advent. This fact is incontestable, the proofs are overwhelming. And another fact is, that a drawing together in mutual good-will has begun between the Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi and Mussulman Fellows of the Theosophical Society; their behaviour towards each other at the Annual Conventions and in the local Branches, shows that. It is a different India from what it was prior to 1879, and the late tour of Mrs. Besant lightened up the sky with prophetic brightness.

Some wholly superficial critics say that Theosophy suits only the most cultured class, that they alone can understand its terminology. No greater mistake could have been made; the humblest labourer and the average child of seven years can be taught its basic ideas within an hour. Nay, I have often proved to adult audiences in Ceylon that any ordinary child in the school I might be examining or giving the prizes to, could, without preparatory coaching, be got to answer on the spur of the moment my questions, so as to show that the idea of Karma is innate. I will undertake to do the same with any child of average cleverness in America or Europe. He will not know the meaning of the word, but instinct will tell him the idea it embodies. It all depends on the way the questions are put to him. And I may add that the value of our public lectures and our writings on Theosophy follows the same rule. If we fail with an audience, it is because we do too much “tall talking”, make our meaning too obscure, indulge in too stilted language, confuse the ideas of our hearers, choose subjects too deep for a mixed public, and send our listeners away no wiser than they were before we began. They came for spiritual nourishment and got dry bran without sauce. This is because we do not think clearly ourselves, do not master our subjects properly, and being actually unfit to teach, and knowing it, wander about through jungles of words to hide our incompetency. What we most need is the use of common sense in discussing our Theosophy, plain, clear exposition in plain language of our fundamental ideas. No one need try to persuade me that it cannot be done, for I know the contrary.

One reason for our too general confusion of ideas, is that we are prone to regard Theosophy as a sort of far-away sunrise that we must try to clutch, instead of seeing that it is a lamp to light our feet about the house and in our daily walks. It is worth nothing if it is but word-spinning, it is priceless if it is the best rule and ideal of life. We want religion to live by, day by day, not merely to die by at the last gasp. And Theosophy is the divine soul of religion, the one key to all bibles, the riddle-reader of all mysteries, the consoler of the heart-weary, the benign comforter in sorrow, the alleviator of social miseries. You can preach its lesson before any audience in the world, being careful to avoid all sectarian phrases, and each hearer will say that is his religion. It is the one Pentecostal voice that all can understand. Preaching only simple Theosophy, I have been claimed as a Mussulman by the followers of Islam, as a Hindu by Vaishnavas and Shaivites, as a Buddhist by the two sections of Buddhism, been asked to draft a Parsi catechism, and at Edinburgh given God-speed by the leading local clergyman, for expressing the identical views that he was giving out from his pulpit every Sunday! So I know, what many others only suspect, that Theosophy is the informing life of all religions throughout the world. The one thing absolutely necessary, then, is to cast out as a loathsome thing every idea, every teaching which tends to sectarianize the Theosophical Society. We want no new sect, no new church, no infallible leader, no attack upon the private intellectual rights of our members. Of course, this is reiteration, but all the same necessary; it ought to replace a “Scripture text” on the wall of every Theosophist’s house.

Hypocrisy is another thing for us to purge ourselves of; there is too much of it, far too much among us. The sooner we are honest to ourselves the sooner we will be so to our neighbours. We must realize that the theosophical ideal of the perfect man is practically unattainable in one life, just as the Christ-idea of perfection is. Once realizing this, we become modest in self-estimate and therefore less inflated and didactic in our speech and writings. Nothing is more disagreeable than to see a colleague, who probably has not advanced ten steps on the way up the Himalayan slope towards the level of perfection where the great adepts stand and wait, going about with an air of mystery, Burleighan nods, and polysyllabic words implying that he is our pilot-bird and we should follow him. This is humbug, and, if not the result of auto-suggestion, rank hypocrisy. We have had enough of it, and more than enough. Let us all agree that perhaps none of us is now fit for spiritual leadership, since not one of us has reached the ideal. Judge not, that ye be not judged, is a good rule to observe, in this Society, especially; for the assumption of perfection or quasi-perfection, here and there, has deceived us into believing that the ideal can be reached, and that whoever does not show that he has reached it, is fair game for the critic and the (moral) torturer.

Those who fancy that a vegetable diet, or daily prayers, or celibacy, or neglect of family duties, or lip-professions of loyalty to the Masters, are signs of inward holiness and spiritual advancement, ought to read what the Gita, the Dhammapada, the Avesta, the Koran and the Bible say on the subject. One who in spiritual pride reproaches another for doing none of these things, is himself the slave of personal vanity, hence spiritually hemiplegic. Let us keep, cling to, defend, glory in the ideal as such; let nothing tempt us to debase it or belittle it; but let us have the manly honesty to admit that we do not embody it, that we are yet picking the shells on the beach of the unfathomed and uncrossed great ocean of wisdom; and that we, though celibates, vegetarians, “faithists”, psychics, spiritual peacocks, or what not, are not fit to condemn our neighbour for being a husband, an affectionate father, a useful public servant, an honest politician or a meat-eater. Perhaps his Karma has not yet fructified to the stage of spiritual evolution. Or who knows but that he may be a Muni, “even though he leads the domestic life.” We can’t tell. One of the curses of our times is superficial criticism. How true the saying of Ruskin that “any fool can criticize!”

One thing that will help our good resolutions is to throw more of our strength into the Theosophical Society, instead of giving it all to our personalities. By forgetting ourselves in building up the Society, we shall become better people in every respect. We shall be helpers of mankind a thousandfold more than by the other plan. When I say the Society I do not mean a branch or a section, that is to say, a small fragment or a large piece of it. I mean the Society as a whole – a great Federation, a large entity, which embraces us all and represents the totality of our intelligence, our good-will, our sacrifices, our unselfish work, our altruism; a fasces composed of many small rods that might be separately broken, but which, bound together, is unbreakable. The activity at the Headquarters of any given Section is apt to blind the eyes of new members and make them fancy that the Section is the chief thing, and the Federation but a distant mirage. From the office windows of Madison Avenue or Avenue Road, Adyar seems very far away, and the fact of its being the actual centre of the whole movement is sometimes apt to be forgotten. This is not due to ill-will, but to the complete autonomy which has been conceded to the sections. Perhaps the real state of the case may be best shown at a glance by the following simple diagram:

Picture of plan showing three fully-formed Sections, the Indian, American and European

The plan shows three fully-formed Sections, the Indian, American and European; the sizes of the segments indicating the respective numerical strength in Branches. The dotted lines show Ceylon and Australasia as inchoate Sections, and the broad field remains to be covered hereafter with sectional organizations. The periphery of the whole is the Theosophical Society, which contains all sections and territories and binds them together with its protecting rim. The heart, or evolutionary centre, is Adyar, or whatever other place may have the Executive Staff in residence; just as Washington is the heart of our American Union, London that of the British Empire, Paris that of France, and every other capital of any other nation, that of that particular government. The boast of all Americans is that the Federal Government lies like eiderdown upon the States in times of tranquillity, yet proves as strong as tempered steel at a great national crisis. So in the lesser degree is the federal constitution of the Theosophical Society, and in that sense have I ever tried to administer its business. We have passed through the recent crisis with ease and safety because of our Constitution, and it is due to that that we are today stronger and more united than ever before. Behind us is a wrack of storm-clouds, before us the sun of peace shines. I call upon every loyal member of the Society to do what he can to strengthen its solidarity. To do which he need not desert his household and flit away to some Headquarters; in doing the work that lies nearest to hand and creating a new centre of Theosophical activity about himself, he is furthering the cause which our Society represents probably better than if he went, uninvited, to join a staff where he might be but a supernumerary.