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The Public Work Of The Theosophical Society by Pablo Sender

The Public Work of the Theosophical Society

Article by Pablo Sender.

In an article by Cristian Conen, published in The Theosophist in December 2014, he began to examine the work of the Theosophical Society (TS) based on ideas expressed by the late International President, Radha Burnier. Continuing this inquiry, particularly in connection with work in the field of spiritual education, we may ask: what kind of public programmes should TS offer in order to help the spiritual growth of humanity?

TWO EXTREMES

My work for the Society has provided the opportunity to present programmes in different countries and cities, interacting with members from many Theosophical branches. In doing so, I have seen a variety of approaches to TS work and different ways in which members are responding to the challenges they encounter. To illustrate, there are two attitudes representing the opposite ends of the spectrum of responses I have observed. Different groups tend to lean towards one direction or the other, some of them actually getting quite close to either of the extremes. When we are too close to an extreme, we are in danger of getting too far off-track, thus losing our way. If we are going to accomplish the aims of our organisation, it is important to strive to find the highly desired, though equally elusive, middle path.

At one end of the spectrum lies the idea that the success of the work can be judged by the number of people attracted to TS activities. When the primary goal is to draw as large an audience as possible, the choice of public programmes offered begins to be based on what can be more palatable to the public at large. Chosen subjects tend towards the fashionable, exciting, flattering, or pleasing. Often we hear that the Theosophical teachings are too difficult, demanding, or antiquated. As members lean more in this direction, the typical effect is that programmes promoting core Theosophy get progressively pushed to the periphery until they all but disappear. In this approach the depth of the message provided and its potential to change people’s lives is generally overlooked and the result is a gradual movement from spiritual education towards a kind of spiritual entertainment.

 

The other end of the spectrum places modern Theosophy as the last word of the esoteric philosophy, labelling all other teachings as ‘exoteric’, and giving them little value. These members tend to emphasise the exclusive study of traditional Theosophical literature and the use of technical words and terminology. They are generally not very sensitive to what the general public may need nor too interested in finding effective ways to share their understanding with newcomers. They work under the assumption that only the few are called to the TS and those who want to join TS have to make the effort to understand the language and concepts. This leads to the existence of groups proficient in a certain specialised knowledge, which, although satisfying for these few members, is of little relevance to the world at large.

Two metaphors illustrate the two approaches. The first is like a person lacking self-confidence, always looking at those around him or her and deciding his behaviour according to what will make him liked by his peers. The second approach is like a self-centred person, absorbed in the contemplation of his or her own ideas and interests, expecting others to come to his way of thinking and recognise its grandeur.

These two extremes bring with them different sets of problems. The first approach produces a large but loose membership, where people are not committed to the Society or united in endeavour. There is an open and all-embracing attitude, accompanied by a lack of clarity or direction. The second approach generates a small and compact membership composed of active and devoted people. These members tend to have strong ideas and lean towards dogmatism, with the conflict that normally accompanies rigid interpretations.

It seems apparent that a healthy Theosophical organisation must find a balanced attitude that embraces the positive features of the two extremes while avoiding their flaws. This article is an exploration in that direction.

THE ORIGINAL EXPERIMENT

An outsider reading this description of the different approaches existing within the Society could naturally ask — how can these two opposite attitudes find room in a single organisation? This is due to a rather unique feature of the Theosophical Society, which, according to one of its Inner Founders, was established as an ‘experiment’ for which most of the Mahatmas seemed to think humanity was not yet prepared. Before the founding of the TS in 1875, the model followed by most spiritual traditions was to develop around a central figure or figures, and the purpose of the movement was to spread a particular body of teachings. For example, Buddhism is based on the teachings of the Buddha and Christianity on what Jesus preached. Many of the organisations that were introduced after the TS also follow this pattern: the Anthroposophical Society studies follow the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, the Krishnamurti Foundation those of J. Krishnamurti, and so forth. The Theosophical Society was founded under a different plan. Even though Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, one of its Co-Founders, disseminated a definite body of teachings, the TS was never meant to be a ‘Blavatskyan Society’. In time, a rather large number of Theosophists contributed to form a rich and diverse body of teachings that we call ‘modern Theosophy’. However, our Society was not founded to restrict its activity to the spreading of this world-view. The TS was, in fact, the first organisation in modern times to promote a systematic study of the various spiritual, philosophical and scientific teachings available, both ancient and modern.

About a century after the birth of the TS this new trend slowly began to be adopted by other organisations, and today there are many that offer lectures, retreats and workshops on a variety of ‘spiritual’ subjects. These new centres, as a rule, do not have any teachings of their own. They have become popular as neutral ‘umbrella-organisations’ for the promotion of various traditions, philosophies and movements.

The uniqueness of the Theosophical Society lies in the fact that it embraces, in one single organisation, two seemingly opposite natures. As in the case of traditional spiritual movements, the Society has a particular worldview to offer, represented by the Theosophical teachings. But its work does not stop there. The Society also encourages the study of other traditions, as is the case with the modern neutral centres of spirituality. The presence of these two aspects together is an essential and distinguishing feature of the TS. If the organisation were to exclude one of them, it would become either a Theosophical ‘church’ with its own dogma, or a mere eclectic society with no voice of its own. Either fate would mean that the TS would have ceased to be what it was intended at the moment of its formation, and that the experiment initiated by the Mahatmas would have finally failed.

Recognising the value of these two sides and learning how to honour them both is not as difficult as it may first seem. When rightly understood, these aspects are not contradictory but rather complementary.

Committed members of the Society have before them a serious but inspiring responsibility, that of participating in a work designed by the Masters of the Wisdom to help humanity move in a new direction, to set an example that inspires other movements. As stated by the Mahachohan: “The Theosophical Society was chosen as the cornerstone, the foundation of the future religions of humanity.”1

PUBLIC WORK

For many years after the Theosophical Society was founded, the TS was one of very few spiritual options to traditional religions, especially in the West. But today there are thousands of organisations promoting what we can loosely call ‘spirituality’. What is the role of the TS in the midst of this wealth of offerings? Is it still relevant? Does it have anything unique to offer?

Throughout the years, the Society has been influential in many ways and in several fields. It was pivotal in the promotion of esotericism in modern times. It was fundamental in reviving the Buddhist movement in the East. The TS helped India regain confidence in its ancient teachings, which, at the time, were generally seen as superstitions. Our organisation stimulated the translation, study and spreading of Sanskrit literature among the general public. In fact, it was essential in bringing the Eastern teachings to the West. The Society pointed out the connection between science and spirituality at a time when the two were seen as irreconcilable opposites. It also emphasised the need for the study of comparative religions and interfaith dialogue when the field was basically unknown, and even unthinkable, to most people. Members of the TS were central figures in spreading knowledge of Esoteric Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular, decades before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi codices. Theosophical teachings also influenced the fields of art, education, healing and others.

It is important to note that, in the past, if the TS did not organise programmes and produce literature on, for example, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Gnosticism, the general public in the West would have had practically no other sources to study. Today the situation is very different. In most countries there are many organisations working along each of these lines. Kabbalists, Sufis, Healers, and so on, each spread their own teachings quite effectively, lectures and books being easily accessible in most places. So the question naturally arises, what place should these subjects have in our public programmes?

Suppose there is a Theosophical group in which the programmes for the season consist mainly of inviting people to talk about modern religions, healing, angels, crystals, and so on. Although each of these subjects is valuable in itself, we must ask: how relevant are these programmes within the context of the Theosophical work? Of course, there are special cases to be considered. If we are talking about a group in a city where these subjects are difficult to access, then programmes along these lines may be a positive influence. Also, in the case of a religion that is misunderstood, like, perhaps, Islam is today, programmes about it can be an important part of the Theosophical work.

However, in normal circumstances, is it intelligent for a group to exhaust its time, money and resources to produce talks and publications on subjects that are widely available outside the TS?

In an article by Cristian Conen, published in The Theosophist in December 2014, he began to examine the work of the Theosophical Society (TS) based on ideas expressed by the late International President, Radha Burnier. Continuing this inquiry, particularly in connection with work in the field of spiritual education, we may ask: what kind of public programmes should TS offer in order to help the spiritual growth of humanity?

To evaluate what programmes the Theosophical Society should promote so that our work for humanity remains relevant, we could ask the following question: If the TS were to disappear, what would be missing? Would the Buddhist, Hindu, or any other religion suffer a loss? Would the field of science and spirituality be affected? The same question may be asked about other traditions and fields, and the answer will probably be that none of these areas would notice the lack.

In an article by Cristian Conen, published in The Theosophist in December 2014, he began to examine the work of the Theosophical Society (TS) based on ideas expressed by the late International President, Radha Burnier. Continuing this inquiry, particularly in connection with work in the field of spiritual education, we may ask: what kind of public programmes should TS offer in order to help the spiritual growth of humanity?

To evaluate what programmes the Theosophical Society should promote so that our work for humanity remains relevant, we could ask the following question: If the TS were to disappear, what would be missing? Would the Buddhist, Hindu, or any other religion suffer a loss? Would the field of science and spirituality be affected? The same question may be asked about other traditions and fields, and the answer will probably be that none of these areas would notice the lack.

So, what would suffer if the TS were to go away? The first and most obvious answer is – the Theosophical teachings. If our organisation did not spread Theosophy, who would? Would the followers of any religion teach Theosophy? Would those in the field of Gestalt psychology or the Mindfulness Movement? Who else would? To be sure, the books could still be available on the internet, but without an organisation promoting these teachings and helping people to understand them, they would soon fall into oblivion. Co-founder of the TS, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, said that the Society was “formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities.”2

THE MISSION

It seems clear that, besides the field of work that our Three Objects lay out, the preservation, development and spreading of Theosophical teachings is a fundamental aspect of our mission.

Does this mean we should only teach Theosophy? Should we become like most spiritual traditions, a kind of Theosophical sect teaching only the words of our founders and leaders? Here again, asking ourselves what the world would miss if the TS became one more spiritual sect can bring some clarity. One may realise that the TS can offer a special kind of study that is still quite unique in the modern world.

As stated in its Second Object, part of the purpose of our Society is “To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.” When applied to our public work, this seems to imply that we should have a variety of lectures on different subjects, for example, one on Yoga, another on Mysticism, then on Greek Philosophy, and so forth. However, this is not quite a comparative study. All we would be doing is offering a series of different approaches with no apparent connection between them. In my view, the Second Object involves more of an effort to compare the different worldviews, arriving at a synthesis in understanding that is more holistic than the mere sum of the fragments. When we do this, we have something unique to offer, a new element of understanding that may bring order to and bridge the myriad of spiritual viewpoints available today.

A simple example is Mainstream Christianity, which tends to emphasise that we are sinners, unable to win salvation for ourselves. We need to believe in Jesus and give up our personal will to follow the Will of God. In contrast, modern Advaita teachings propose that we are already enlightened and therefore need no saviour – or practice, for that matter. If our Theosophical group offers two consecutive lectures on these subjects, people will learn two apparently contradictory doctrines with little to suggest a unified view. What are they supposed to do with the information?

In the past, people were often unaware of the worldviews offered by other religions. The very act of coming in touch with a different perspective had an intrinsic beneficial effect, allowing them to think ‘out of the box’. But today, people know that there are all kinds of different religious views, quite easily accessed. In fact, many feel overwhelmed and confused by such diversity. Merely providing different perspectives is no longer sufficient.

If we want to remain relevant, we cannot just repeat old formulas that do not address the needs of the moment. This does not mean that teaching about other traditions is no longer necessary. In fact, the Society can offer something in this field that, generally speaking, no other organisation is able to do. Coming back to our example, if these religious philosophies – the Christian and the Advaita – are truly contradictory, then they are mutually exclusive; only one of them will be valuable or true for an individual, and the other will be false. But if we use the deep understanding that Theosophical teachings provide, we can shed a new light on their seemingly contradictory nature and arrive at a more unified and profound realisation.

For instance, when seen from a Theosophical perspective, Christianity is describing a necessary attitude at the level of the personal ego (kāma-manas). This level of consciousness is intrinsically limited and cannot perceive the truth. The personal ego needs to move out of the way so that the Divine can manifest. Modern Advaita, in its turn, is talking about the wisdom (buddhi-manas) that is an inherent part of our spiritual individuality. Our true nature is already enlightened, but it gets obscured when it has to express itself through the personality. Bringing these two teachings together we realise that, if our inherent wisdom is to manifest in the waking state, the personal ego has to be abandoned.

When these worldviews are looked at from this perspective, they both make sense. They are not talking about different realities, but about different aspects of the same reality. They both have a place and complement each other, providing together a more coherent picture than either of them can offer separately. Isn’t this message far more valuable than simply offering two unconnected programmes leaving people with apparently contradictory views? Granted, to do this a speaker needs to have some degree of knowledge of Christianity, Advaita and Theosophy. Simply inviting people to talk about their traditions is far easier than presenting a comparative study, but no organisation can hope to be a meaningful influence in the world while approaching its work with a commonplace attitude.

MEMBERS’ WORK

It is obvious that the quality of our Theosophical work in the public arena depends on the quality of our membership. In countries where the National Section and the branches do not stimulate a well-rounded education of their members, public activities become either more reliant on non-Theosophical speakers, or are dry and uninspiring. Here, the importance of the work of the branches, as Cristian Conen points out, becomes self-evident.

It is necessary to mention here that Theosophical education is not limited to intellectual study. If in our public programmes we want to communicate more than mere words and concepts; if we want to inspire those who come to our meetings, we need to make a sincere effort to live a Theosophical life to the degree that it is possible for us at the moment. Only thus will we be able to present the teachings as a living power that can transform our lives. In the words of a Master of the Wisdom:

The problems of true Theosophy and its great mission are, first, the working out of clear unequivocal conceptions of ethical ideas and duties ... and second, the modelling of these conceptions for their adaptation [to] daily life ... where they may be applied.3

In this article, however, we can only examine the role of the TS in providing a rich understanding that can serve as a foundation for the spiritual practice.

The study of modern Theosophy should be a regular activity of branches and committed members. This statement is not inspired by a dogmatic spirit, but simply by the fact that the Theosophical teachings themselves provide that unique approach that our organisation can contribute to the world. Unless we are familiar with these teachings, we will be unable to offer anything original.

However, if Theosophical teachings are studied to the exclusion of everything else, we will become one more group promoting a fragment of the Truth, unable to discern the whole. We need to create opportunities for our members to learn about other traditions and integrate this knowledge.

In this endeavour, we must expose ourselves to philosophies from their own sources, rather than simply repeating what Blavatsky (or some other Theosophist) says that this tradition says. We must be careful not to see everything as if through a ‘theosophical filter’. If, for example, a tradition says that one can reincarnate in animals, we should not immediately declare that this is not true. We need to be able to understand its logic, even if we do not entirely agree with it. Once we have accomplished this step, the subject can be examined from a Theosophical point of view, to shed new light upon obscure points or add a new dimension of interpretation.

At the beginning, this comparative work may seem difficult, but great erudition is not really necessary. The example I gave above requires only a basic knowledge of the traditions involved. As is the case with many things in life, practice develops skill, and eventually we are able to do the work quite effortlessly.

Moving in this direction, the Theosophical Society can continue to be a living influence in the evolution of humanity and, perhaps, become indeed the cornerstone of future religions, exemplifying a deeper, holistic and non-exclusivist approach to life.

References

1. C. Jinarâjadâsa (ed.), Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series, No. 1 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), p. 4.

2. H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing House, [1987]), p. 57.

3. B. de Zirkoff (ed.), Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. VII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), p. 175.So,

Pablo Sender joined the Theosophical Society in Argentina, in 1996. Nine years later he stayed for two years in India at the International Headquarters of the TS in Adyar, Chennai, working in the archives. Currently, he lives at the National Centre of the TS in Wheaton, Illinois, working in the Library and in Education and Outreach. Pablo lectures and conducts seminars in Spanish and English, in the three Americas, India and Europe. Pablo is a microbiologist and PhD in Biological Sciences. Adapted from: https://pablosender.wordpress.com/