The Theosophical Society
Talk given on Foundation Day at Adyar, 17 November 2005
I am delighted and honoured to be in this venerable institution to mark its Foundation Day. It was in these hallowed precincts that the great founding figures, Madame Blavatsky and Col Henry Steel Olcott, continued their quest for total harmony, drawing together people of diverse faiths, committed to the motto: ‘There is no Religion higher than Truth.’ The moving spirit behind Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, was a remarkable figure of vast learning, enormous energy, commitment, and great spiritual accomplishment. Her works, notably The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence show remarkable intellectual breadth. The idea that inaction could be a sin at a time when one can help by acting, for instance, comes out forcefully in her explanation of the ethics of brotherhood in The Voice of the Silence: ‘Sow kindly acts and thou shalt reap their fruition. Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.’ Col Olcott who spoke of her ‘sparkling talents’ was also struck by ‘her insight into problems of philosophy, racial origins, fundamental bases of religions, and keys to old mysteries and symbols’.
Looking back at the life of Col Olcott himself, one cannot but be struck by the enormous transformative effect that one man’s life and struggle had on the lives and well-being of so many. His contribution to this institution of which he was elected President for life, his foresight in establishing the school nearby to admit children without distinction of caste or religion at a time when prejudice was rampant, and his tremendous personal sacrifice and effort were truly ennobling. A Mahatma said of him: ‘Him we can trust under all circumstances, and his faithful service is pledged to us come well, come ill. Where can we find an equal devotion?’ Another of the great pioneers, Annie Besant, was also to become famous as the President of the Indian National Congress Party. Her life and work were extra- ordinary, with brilliant flashes of insight. In an article titled ‘The Place of Peace’ published in the magazine The Path in September 1892, she wrote:
The truth, turmoil and hurry of modern life are in everybody’s mouth as matter of complaint. ‘I have no time’ is the commonest of excuses. Reviews serve for books, leading articles for political treatises, lectures for investigation. More and more the attention of men and women is fastened on the superficial things of life; small prizes of business success, petty crowns of social supremacy, momentary notoriety in the world of politics or of letters — for these things men and women toil, intrigue, and strive. Their work must show immediate results, else it is regarded as failure; the winning post must always be in sight, to be passed by a swift, brief effort with the roar of the applauding crowd hailing the winner.
Since these words were written, the world has changed enormously, and, if anything, the tendencies she has spoken of have only been accentuated. It is indeed striking how remarkably fresh and relevant these words ring even today.
It is not just the history, the glory of the immediate past, that is noteworthy. As one reads through the Theosophical Society’s aims, what is indeed striking is their continued relevance to this day and age. For instance, its first object of forming a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour is all the more important now when the world is riven by all these differences. This universalizing, world-encompassing spirit is behind international efforts to get all peoples together to tackle problems as varied as poverty, ethnic conflict, human rights violations, protecting the rights of women and children, care of the disabled, ill health, and illiteracy. It is this spirit that should ideally encompass the work of world bodies such as the United Nations, UNESCO and even the World Bank. The second, which is to ‘encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science’ is essential for the spread of understanding and tolerance. If only people were to study and understand one another’s faith and ways of life, the varied philosophies, and the sciences, there would be a greater appreciation and broadening of the outlook. It is indeed the surest antidote to the narrow- mindedness and bigotry that one finds too often all over the country and even the globe.
The third object, ‘to investigate the laws of Nature and the powers latent in man’ seeks to promote continuing inquiry in the true scientific spirit. To be satisfied with what one knows, to consider any knowledge or doctrine static and fixed for all time would be a recipe for stagnation. Continuing enquiry of the kind sought to be promoted by the Society is essential for progress.
There are other facets of Theosophy that are strikingly relevant to this day. For instance, the integrated view of the universe, the notion that human beings and all life are part of the same Nature expressed in Madame Blavatsky’s statement: ‘Everything in Nature is bound in solidarity.’ This fosters an overall view of not just the environment in a locality or country or even the earth but of the universe as a whole.
Second, there is the strong sense of free will and responsibility for one’s actions and state of being. Human beings are not just pushed along by chance or fate; rather, they make themselves what they are. It is up to them to use their free will wisely. This central notion places the responsibility for actions squarely on each individual rather than on external forces. The importance of these notions in the twenty-first century cannot be overstated. The immediate past has been the age of rapid scientific progress. Scientific advance, gaining an understanding of the laws of science, technological developments, developments in medicine, have all taken mankind beyond the life that was nasty, brutish, and short. Yet, social, political and economic organizations have not developed the wisdom to make the best of science. As Aldous Huxley points out in his Brave New World, any sug- gestion of a scientific utopia would be misplaced, given the social, economic, and political order of the time.
It was in 1989 that another prophecy was put forward:
What we are witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
This was Francis Fukuyama in an article in the American magazine National Interest, which he later elaborated in his book, The End of History and the Last Man. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War prompted this thesis, but a decade-and-a-half later we are nowhere near the universal triumph of liberal democracy and the end to conflicts.
Fukuyama’s was just one vision prompted by the end of the Cold War. Other predictions included the revival of rivalries among nation states and even the breakdown of nation states because of the pulls of regionalism, ethnicism, tribalism on the one hand and globalism on the other. The one that was striking, however, was the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis put out by Samuel Huntington in 1993. In the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, he wrote: It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. Huntington’s thesis elaborated in his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order seemed to explain the spurt in religious and ethnic conflict soon after the end of the Cold War. Among the civilizations divided by religion, history, language, and tradition he spoke of were the Christian, the Islamic, the Hindu and the Chinese and concluded that in the ultimate analysis, ‘all civil- izations will have to learn to tolerate one another’. His thesis was, however, often interpreted as saying that conflict was inevitable along religious divides and was offered as an explanation for the United States’ problematical relations with the Islamic world.
Be that as it may, religious and ethnic conflicts have now come to be widespread across different regions, including India. In a multi-religious society where the state stays neutral among the different religions, efforts to keep the peace and prevent conflict often prove extremely complex. Ideally, religion should be confined to the personal sphere and not allowed to intrude into the political sphere. This does not mean that the state is anti-religion or that politicians do not follow any faith. As pointed out by Dr Radhakrishnan: Secularism does not mean irreligion or atheism or even stress on material com- forts. It proclaims that it lays stress on the universality of spiritual values which may be attained by a variety of ways. On the other hand, the rights of all religious institutions are protected by the Indian Constitution and the state does not support any one religion as against another. Mahatma Gandhi based his secularism on the brotherhood of religious communities that had to live in harmony and peace.
Nehru’s secularism was based on a commitment to scientific humanism but he himself had no ‘desire to interfere with any person’s belief’. To him, the secular state was one ‘that protects all religions but does not favour one at the expense of others, and does not itself adopt any religion as the state religion’. Nehru was firm in his conviction that ‘the government of a country like India with many religions can never function satisfactorily in the modern age except on a secular basis’.
The secular approach to maintaining harmony in a multi-religious country would be based on citizenship and nation- hood as the organizing principles rather than religion or ethnicity. As John Rawls puts it:
The problem of political liberalism is to work out a political conception of political justice for a constitutional democratic regime that a plurality of reasonable doctrines, both religious and non-religious, liberal and non-liberal, may freely endorse and so freely live by and come to understand its virtues. More often than not, however, it is not possible to keep religion out of politics or governance. Parties organized on religious or ethnic lines, religious partisans seeking political power and political appeals on the basis of religion are all too common. And rivalry fuels conflict and violence. In such a situation, is it the responsibility of the state alone to preserve harmony? Can the state by appeals to the virtues of citizenship restore peace? Some part of the responsibility of course vests with religious leaders. Too often we find that religious leaders adopt a partisan stand, supporting activists of their faith however indefensible their actions. When their basic commitment must be to brotherhood, friendship, harmony, and peace, they let their religious fervour cloud their judgement. They either look the other way when followers of the faith indulge in violence, or even encourage them in their violent ways. It is time religious leaders showed moral courage and adopted a firm line against violence by their followers without being led by a false sense of solidarity with people of their religion even when they resort to violence. The example of Mahatma Gandhi calling off the non- cooperation movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura is illustrative of the moral courage that is needed in trying times when one’s own followers get out of line and unreasonable and violent. The ideals proclaimed by the founders of the Theosophical Society and inscribed into its principles would be invaluable in promoting harmony and preventing conflict in a society divided along so many lines — religious, caste, linguistic, and cultural. The ideal of universal brotherhood, promoting understanding of one another’s ways through study, and the spirit of continuing enquiry that the Theosophical Society stands for would go a long way in creating a truly harmonious society, where peace and tranquillity will prevail.
I am indeed thankful and honoured to participate in this occasion to mark the founding day of this great institution.
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Mr N. Ravi is Editor of The Hindu, a prestigious Indian newspaper with a wide circulation.