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Education and Theosophy

During the first half of the period of existence of the modern Theosophical Movement considerable emphasis was placed on the establishment of theosophical schools in various parts of the world.

The importance of education was given emphasis by Helena P. Blavatsky in her Key to Theosophy. She strongly criticized the present system of education that prevails in the world which results in “an overflooding of the market with money-making machines, with heartless selfish men — animals — who have been most carefully trained to prey on their fellows and take advantage of the ignorance of their weaker brethren!” She outlined the principles of theosophical education in these words:

If we had money, we would found schools which would turn out something else than reading and writing candidates for starvation. Children should above all be taught self-reliance, love for all men, altruism, mutual charity, and more than anything else, to think and reason for themselves. We would reduce the purely mechanical work of the memory to an absolute minimum, and devote the time to the development and training of the inner senses, faculties and latent capacities. We would endeavour to deal with each child as a unit, and to educate it so as to produce the most harmonious and equal unfoldment of its powers, in order that its special aptitudes should find their full natural development. We should aim at creating free men and women, free intellectually, free morally, unprejudiced in all respects, and above all things, unselfish. And we believe that much if not all of this could be obtained by proper and truly theosophical education. (Key, Sect. 13)

The Theosophical Society’s role in education can be categorized in two parts: those educational establishments directly managed and funded in whole or part by the Society and those educational establishments undertaken by its members without a direct connection to the Theosophical Society itself. To undertake a totally inclusive or comprehensive review of this subject would be, on the one hand, beyond the scope of an article of this nature, and on the other almost impossible due to the paucity of continuous records. In some countries the trauma of war, revolution, or government policy resulted in the destruction of records; this, particularly in some countries occupied by German forces during World War II. It is interesting to note that the Theosophical Society was far from popular with many totalitarian regimes. Sadly, many notable educational enterprises were not, at the time, thought sufficiently important to document in any sort of continuous detail.

The role that the Theosophical Society could play in the education of the child was set forth very clearly by the second president of the (Adyar) Society, Annie BESANT. She maintained that to view the child as either a blank page at birth on which the environment wrote his or her character or that the child was simply the product of heredity was gross error. The conventional picture of the child entertained by those who held a Christian view was based, she wrote, on the assumption that it was a soul newly created at birth. Theosophy on the other hand suggests that each individual is the result of a long series of incarnations all of which shape the individual’s character and degree of wisdom. This being so, Besant wrote, “To the theosophist each child is a study and (the teacher) instead of imposing his or her own will on him (her), tries to discover the indwelling owner of the body. He (she) tries to aid the indwelling Ruler, not to usurp his throne, to be an adviser, a councillor, not a master” (Adyar Pamphlet No. 16). This approach to education was endorsed by a number of educationists in succeeding years, notably among them, Maria MONTESSORI (1870-1952), a member of the Theosophical Society, who was given accommodation at the Adyar headquarters during World War II (see The Montessori Method, English trans. 1912).

Educational work in India. One of the earliest schools established by a theosophist was inaugurated in 1894 by the first President of the Theosophical Society, Henry OLCOTT. His aim was to provide free education for some of India’s “untouchables” of which there were at that time some 60 million. The children were given primary education in Tamil and the curriculum included instruction in the English language. The Olcott School began in a humble mud hut located on the Adyar estate with 45 pupils. This school has been in continuous operation down to the present day, although of course the accommodation has been greatly improved. In 1898 another school was commenced at Kodambakem about seven and a half miles from Adyar. This school was named the HPB School after one of the founders, Helena P. BLAVATSKY. Yet a third school, with 27 children, was started on October 2, 1899, at Teynampet named the Damodar School after an early worker for the Society, Damodar K. MAVALANKAR. A fourth school was opened in September 1901 at Mylapore named after the Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar. In 1905 all the schools were brought under the management of a Board of eight members and it was decided to call the schools “Olcott Panchama Free Schools.” A fifth school, the Annie Besant School, was opened at Krishnampet in May 1906 at the request of the Madras (now Chennai) Municipality.

Annie Besant was particularly interested in promoting a better system of education for Indian children and in 1898 a school was started by her in the city of Benares (now Varanasi). A year after this school was commenced the Maharaja of Benares donated a big block of buildings and a piece of land to the value of Rs.50,000 and the school was moved on to this property. The fame of the Central Hindu College, as it was then called, soon spread and students flocked to attend it. In 1903 George Arundale, who was later to become President of the Theosophical Society, joined the staff and eventually became Principal. It subsequently became Benares Hindu University and is today one of the most prestigious universities in India.

In 1913 the Theosophical Educational Trust was established as a registered body with Annie Besant as first President. Its purpose was to encourage and administer the education work of the Society which had now grown to be a large and complex enterprise.

Over the years many of the schools established, financed and run by the Theosophical Society have been taken over by local authorities, but the Olcott school is still functioning at Adyar. The Besant Memorial School, situated in Besant Gardens, was established in 1934 and by 1938 had 140 students and 20 teachers. (See also INDIA, THEOSOPHY IN.)

Educational work in India is currently (2016) pursued by independent trusts or groups such as the Olcott Educational Society, Besant Educational Fellowship and various branches of the Theosophical Order of Service in India. There are more than ten such schools in India.

Educational work in Sri Lanka. Upon reaching Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in 1880, H. S. Olcott was shocked to find that only two schools were managed by the Buddhists, one at Dodanduwa and the other at Panadura, with a total of 246 students and receiving an annual grant of 523 Rupees from the British-run government. By contrast, there were 805 schools managed by Christian missionaries, with 78,086 students and receiving Rs. 174,420 in government grants. Furthermore, the books on Buddhism were written by Christians and gave a highly distorted version of the teachings of the Buddha. It was little wonder that educated citizens, and others under their influence, were turning away from their ancient faith. Olcott immediately saw the need to deal with the problem of education as part of his effort to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

Possibly the single most important contribution by Olcott to Sri Lanka was starting a series of schools, which were managed by Buddhists and members of The Theosophical Society. The first one was started on June 17, 1880, exactly one month after he landed on that island. For this purpose, he founded a Branch of the TS named the Buddhist Theosophical Society and started the school in a house called “Red Cliff” in Slave Island. Its object was “the promotion of Buddhism by guarding it and strengthening Buddhists in their faith; in the practice of Buddhist morals; the spreading and teaching of Buddhist doctrines.” This same object describes his purpose for starting educational institutions throughout Sri Lanka.

Since government financial support was meager and because Olcott wanted to maintain independence from the government, he established a National Education Fund to which wealthy Buddhists as well as theosophists around the world contributed liberally. However, he also noted that even when he was taken in long processions with flags, banners, and cheers, “there was much glory but little cash for the Fund.” At one place only Rs. 42.77 were subscribed, at another Rs. 50.00. This shows the odds against which he struggled. Yet, as he went from village to village inspiring the poor to follow the Dharma, these people contributed to his cause as generously as their meager financial means permitted.

A landmark event was the purchase of a property at Maliban Street, Colombo, and in 1885 an English High School was started there with Charles W. Leadbeater as the Headmaster, in which position Leadbeater continued until 1889. This school has now become Ananda College, said to be the most prestigious educational institution in Sri Lanka. In 1992, six of the 21 members of the Sri Lankan Parliament were its former students. Even to this day, the theosophical ideals of education are maintained and the school day begins with offering flowers to the Buddha and chanting the Pañca-sila (P), the Trisarana (P), and selected verses from the Dhammapada. C. JINARAJADASA, fourth President of the TS, was a student in its charter class and later, in 1900, became its Vice-Principal. Another noted theosophist, Fritz KUNZ from America, became its Principal in 1914.

Another prestigious educational institution is Mahinda College, founded by Olcott on September 15, 1880. It began as the Galle Buddhist Theosophical Society School with over 500 pupils. But, to counteract its influence, wealthy missionaries abolished fees at their schools and the Buddhist public lost interest, so its strength dwindled rapidly and it had to be closed. On September 1, 1891, Bowlers Daly, a Christian clergyman and theosophist from London, revived the school. He took Pansil from the Ven. H. Sumangala on March 1, 1892, and also gave the school its present name. But after he relinquished the Principalship in 1893 on account of lack of support from the Buddhist public, the school began to deteriorate to such an extent that M. T. Amarasurya sent an urgent request to Olcott for help. Olcott issued a call for a volunteer which was answered by Francis Lee Woodward, a noted Pali scholar who took charge as Principal with great enthusiasm. He too soon became disheartened. Olcott then visited the college in 1904 and 1906 to encourage him and suggest new ideas. Subsequently, a new hall was built in Olcott’s memory and a boarding house and several other buildings were erected. The reinvigoration of the college was greater than expected and a Vice-Principal was requested; in 1913, Annie Besant sent another theosophist, F. Gordan Pearce, to fill that position. Perhaps the most noted Principal, however, was Edgar A. Wyesuriya who served in that capacity for 32 years. So, despite a history of ups and downs, Mahinda College, is another success story due to persistent efforts of the TS and some of its members.

In the field of the education of girls, the work of the theosophist Marie Musaeus Higgins, is significant. Assisted by Peter de Abrew and the elderly Elsie Pickett of Australia, she started the Sanghamitta Girls’ School in 1891, later named after her as Musaeus Buddhist Girls’ School. In addition to a formal education and instruction in Buddhism, Higgins, trained the girls in stitching, knitting, embroidery, and various household tasks in an effort to save them from a life of unhappy subservience and to make them intelligent, as well as exemplary, wives.

During his last extensive tour of Sri Lanka in 1896, Olcott visited not only the above mentioned schools, but several other Buddhist schools, some run by theosophists, as he notes in his Old Diary Leaves (vol. 6, pp. 6-18). The boys’ school in Beruela started by TS members had 60 students; in Ambalangoda there were two boys’ and two girls’ schools with a total of 860 students housed in “buildings that were highly creditable to the local promoters of Buddhist education” (ODL, vol. 6, p. 7); the suburban areas of Galle — Dangedera North, Dangedera South, Miripenna, and Habaraduwa — had four schools, and Ahangama had two “excellent” schools with 221 and 259 pupils, for one of which Olcott had himself laid the cornerstone in 1888. In Kandy, Olcott visited the college which TS members had started as a boys’ high school as well as separate boys’ and girls’ schools; in suburban Kandy he visited two schools each in the villages of Peredeniya and Ampitiya; in Matale he found its boys’ school “prospering greatly” (ibid., p. 9) and raised money to start a girls’ school as well; in Rattota, accompanied by its chief patron, Dr. Goonesekara, he visited the girls’ school started by local TS members; in Wattegama he inspected “our boys’ and girls’ schools” (ibid., p. 10); and in the small mountain village of Panuela, he learned that all the students in its girls’ school had recently passed a government certification examination “perfect in every subject” (idem.). In Gompola he found the school housed in an “unnecessarily big” building erected by its patron, “the late Muhandiram” (ibid., p. 12) but doing well; in nearby Nawalapitiya the school had been started just four months earlier but had already “pretty well emptied the Christian school of its pupils” (idem.); and in the mountain town of Hatton, he noted that the school founded by the theosophist C. F. Powell had 60 students and “not a single Buddhist boy was now in the Christian school” there (ibid., p. 13). In Kadannawa, Olcott visited the girls’ school and in nearby Gardaladeniya a “mixed school” (ibid., p. 15), both started by TS members. He also mentions visits to schools in Pattallagedera, Nedimale, Kirulapane, Moritumulle, and Indepette. In all these places he gave talks and raised money for the schools.

Olcott was careful to point out, however, that “the educational work in Ceylon . . . is not, properly speaking, an activity of the Theosophical Society as such, but merely an undertaking by the Ceylon Branches, which are composed of Buddhists. . . . All the same, it is one of the most important and successful results of our movement as achieved by our Buddhist colleagues . . .” (ibid., p. 11). Nonetheless, the High Priest of Adam’s Peak, the Ven. H. Sumangala, in a letter to Olcott dated December 2, 1896, expressed the extreme gratitude of the Buddhist community in Sri Lanka to Olcott personally “for inaugurating and encouraging the spread of education, secular and religious, among the Buddhist boys and girls in Ceylon, and for securing for the Buddhist that toleration and freedom from persecution which they did not enjoy before your first arrival in 1880” (ibid., p. 95).

By 1935 there were 407,904 children, or 65% of the children in Sri Lanka, receiving an education in Buddhist schools of which 229 schools were directly administered by the Theosophical Society. As is so often the case, after Sri Lanka gained independent status in 1947, the various educational facilities were taken over by the government.

Educational work in England and Scotland. Two bodies were formed in England in 1915 to promote theosophical education; these were the Theosophical Educational Trust and Theosophical Fraternity in Education. The Trust began by opening two schools, the Garden City Co-Educational School at Letchworth (later called the Arundale School) and Brackenhill School at Bromley in Kent. These schools were dedicated to children who were homeless or destitute. Various other schools came under the care of the Trust and in 1918 the King Arthur Co-Educational Boarding School near Edinburgh and Morey School in Glasgow were started. The school at Letchworth grew very quickly and a new school, St. Christopher, opened in 1919. In 1922 it was decided to centralize the work of the Trust at Letchworth and build a school community around the St. Christopher. A training college for teachers was established about 1924.

Educational work in Indonesia. In 1913 an influential educational institution was begun in Java called the Gunung Sari Training College for Teachers. Its Board and staff were all members of the Theosophical Society. By 1925 the college had enrolled 120 students and about 20 teachers graduated each year. This College became a major center from which nationalist ideas were spread. The college was moved to Lembang in 1927 and closed in 1937 due to the withdrawal of Government subsidy (Iskandar P. Nugroho, The Theosophical Educational Movement in Colonial Indonesia [1900-1947]).

The following schools were established under theosophical influence: Arjuna Primary School (1920), Taman Siswa Primary School (1922), and Ksatriaan Institute (established by theosophist Douwes Dekker, 1924). In April 1920 at the convention of the Indonesian Section the Nederlandsche Indische Theosofische Bond voor Opvoeding en Onderwijs was set up and over succeeding years was instrumental in establishing a number of elementary schools. By 1925 under the Ned. Ind. League for Education we find one training college for teachers (Dalton System); nine Ardjoena Schools; two Montessori Schools; and one Abimanjoe School.

A very large number of prominent Indonesians owed their education either directly or indirectly to the Theosophical Society. The former President Sukarno’s father, R. Sukemi, was a lifelong theosophist and Sukarno spent many hours studying in the Lodge’s library (op. cit.).

According to Nugroho, the role of the Theosophical Society in education in Indonesia can be divided into four phases:

1. 1900-1912. During this period, the Theosophical Education Movement was one of the crucial factors in the growth of Javanese nationalism.

2. 1912-1920. During this period the Theosophical Movement (the NITV) played an important role in stimulating the idea of Indisch nationalism.

3. 1920 and early 1930s. “The Theosophical Education Movement particularly through the establishment of Arjuna schools across Java, was responsible for the emergence of the idea of producing nationalists with ‘satria’ qualities which influenced the idea of creating counter-institutions and led to the growth of a non-cooperative nationalist movement” (op. cit.).

4. “Graduates of theosophical schools, theosophical scholarship holders, ex-members of the Order van Dienaren van Indie, and the Young Theosophist movement became active in Indonesian political and public life. . . . After independence theosophical schools and other educational institutions were absorbed into the national system of education” (op. cit.).

In 1926 fifteen theosophical schools were in existence, staffed by 15 Europeans, 42 Javanese teachers and with 2,000 pupils. Most privately run schools were, from about 1942, progressively taken over by the Government, except the Arjuna Secondary School in Surakarta which still functions although it is reported that it no longer embraces theosophical ideals to the same extent.

Educational work in America. The earliest theosophical school, called School of the Golden Gate, was started in California, United States, in 1916. It ceased work in 1924 due to lack of funds.

Possibly one of the most significant theosophical educational experiments was that of the Raja Yoga School started in 1900 at the Theosophical Society at Point Loma. It began humbly with only five students, but grew rapidly. The Leader of the Point Loma community, Katherine Tingley, in an address in Amsterdam, Holland, stated her view of the education of the child; first commenting on the prevailing Calvinism she went on to state, “Theosophy teaches the very antithesis of this. It declares that we are dual in nature; that we were born for a high purpose; that our souls and our spiritual natures are splendid with all the infinite possibilities of human life; the soul is the Knower, the Inspirer; that the soul is immortal and the physical mortal; so the physical has its weaknesses, its passions, its greed, its deceit, its imperfections; it is on this plane for the purpose of self-evolution; it is not evil, it is only undeveloped good. And so we have the soul the Inspirer, the protector; and the mind the vehicle, receiving the inspiration from this higher source, as far as it is able to” (quoted by Greenwalt, California Utopia, p. 77). (See also THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, PASADENA.)

By 1905 other Raja Yoga schools were instituted in San Francisco, Roseville near the Point Loma estate and San Diego. The San Francisco school was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. These other schools were also very short-lived.

Educational work in the Philippines. The TS in the Philippines established its first elementary school sometime after it acquired its national headquarters building in 1947. It had up to 100 students. The school eventually closed after a few years, but the effort was revived in the 1980s and continues up to the present. The Philippine Section currently (2016) runs five schools, the largest of which is Golden Link College. All the schools gives emphasis on personality and character development, develop an open and free mind and minimizing harmful conditionings. Thus the schools do not have rankings, contests or competition; they do not use fear as a tool of motivation. The five schools are:

  • Golden Link College (Northern Caloocan City) -- with classes in preschool, elementary, high school and tertiary courses offering bachelor's degrees in education, information technology, psychology and business administration. It also offers a certificate program for teachers.
  • Golden Link College Bohol Campus (Cortes, Bohol) -- offers preschool and grade school classes.
  • Sunshine Learning Center (Quezon City) - a preschool established about 1985
  • TOS Learning Center (Northern Caloocan City) - a preschool for poor communities in Caloocan City
  • Lumen School (Bago City, Negros Occidental) - preschool, elementary and secondary levels.

Educational work in Australia. Interest in education in Australia focused at first on the “sub-normal” and “super-normal” children and enthusiastically supported the kindergarten movement. In 1918 a theosophical boarding school was opened at Morven garden, Sydney and by 1920 had enrolled 112 students; although it flourished for a while it was forced to close in 1923, due possibly to the troubles that overtook the Sydney Lodge about that time. The first Montessori School opened in Australia was commenced in Adelaide by theosophist Lucy Spence Morice about 1912. Lily Arnold and Jessie Macdonald offered a theosophical education to girls at Apsley House, Stanmore beginning in 1913. In 1915 another theosophical school was opened in Davenport, Tasmania. The depression of 1929 onwards saw the demise of most of the theosophical educational ventures in Australia and none now survive.

Educational work in New Zealand. The first theosophical educational venture in New Zealand was the Vasanta College, founded in 1919. This was probably one of the few such schools to survive until 1959. Theosophist Bertha Hazel Darroch, Principal of the Vasanta College, was elected to the committee of the seventh regional conference of New Education Fellowship in July 1937.

Educational work in Burma (Myanmar). In 1938 it was reported (1938 Year Book) that the Burma Educational Trust (a theosophical trust) was responsible for the administration of a girl’s, a boy’s and an adult night school with a total enrolment of 750 students.

Educational work in China. The Theosophist magazine for September 1925 contained a letter signed by Dorothy Arnold and Virginia Zee announcing their intention to open a girl’s school in China, but they omitted to disclose the location. However, the Theosophical Year Book, 1938, notes the existence of a Besant Girl’s School in Shanghai founded by Dorothy Arnold. All such institutions would have been closed by the communists when they came to power.

Krishnamurti Schools. J. KRISHNAMURTI was a protégé of Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant and was educated under the influence of the Theosophical Society from 1909 to 1929 when he severed connection with the Society. After he commenced his independent work a Krishnamurti Foundation was set up and through it a number of schools were established. While these schools were and are completely independent of the Theosophical Society, it is true that many of the ideals under which they operate reflect the early theosophical teaching that Krishnamurti received.

Waldorf Schools. The founder of the Waldorf Schools was Rudolf Steiner who was a prominent member of the Theosophical Society in Germany and served for some time as the General Secretary of the German Section 1902-12. After 1912 Steiner severed his connection with the Society. He saw significance in color and music for health and wholeness and developed theories of education involving eurhythmics and a seven year cycle of development. These are implemented by the respected Waldorf or Steiner schools around the world.


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