By Makarand Paranjape
The New Age and the recent spiritual revival can be traced to the advent of the Theosophical Society. But the society itself stands marginalized today. It’s president, Radha Burnier, speaks to Makarand Paranjape.
The Theosophical Society (TS) was the ground-breaking prototype of most New Age philosophies and practices that have lately taken the world by storm. Founded in 1875 by two ‘spiritual radicals” Madame H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian aristocrat, and colonel Henry S. Olcott, an American Civil War veteran, the institution was initially considered too quaint to warrant serious theological attention.
As a congenial non-sectarian, worldwide movement, the TS sought to cull the core of religions from the useless accretions that distorted them overtime. Over the past century the TS’s international membership has grown to over 30,000—spread over 50 countries, with India alone accounting for about 10,000. Members are attached to lodges and meet regularly to discuss books and issues pertaining to inner growth and spiritual transformation. And there is an esoteric section reserved for more advanced practitioners.
Theosophy has aged gracefully: but while it continues to offer a constructive and elevating alternative, it sorely needs an infusion of new blood. It is commonly believed that the TS was created upon the instructions of superhuman teachers. An entry from Madame Blavatsky’s scrapbook, dated July 1875, reads: ‘Orders received from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious society and choose a name for it—also to choose Olcott.’ This was an important diary entry, just prior to one of the central events in the history of TS—its relocation from its home base in New York to Madras (now known as Chennai), southern India.
The threefold objective of the society is: to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
Both Blavatsky and Olcott realized that India was the only country in the world where a spiritual civilization still existed. In Europe and America, the spiritual dimensions of Christianity had already been all but lost. The wave of spiritualism, which was sweeping across the West in the 19th century, was preoccupied with the occult experience and not with self-realization and inner perfection. The two felt that a true spiritual revival would not be possible without reconnecting with the living spiritual wisdom of the East.
In Hinduism and Buddhism they found all that the West had discarded from its traditions. The TS, thus, shifted its international headquarters to Adyar, Madras, in 1884.
Despite being attacked by both rationalists and religious fundamentalists, the TS survived. The mantle of leadership passed on to Annie Besant. She was assisted by C.W. Leadbeater, the clairvoyant who discovered J.Krishnamurti . Under Besant, its members became involved with India’s social life, from the uplift of untouchables to setting up schools and colleges. Not only was the Indian National Congress founded by a Theosophist (A.O. Hume), but also Besant later became its first woman president. She even started the Home Rule League, which contributed tremendously rousing India’s nationalist fervor.
It was during her time that J. Krishnamurti was declared to be the world teacher. He was to later break from the TS, declaring that Truth was a pathless land and that his sole interest was to set people free—unconditionally.
Towards the end of his life, Krishnamurti was welcomed back to Adyar, where he had grown up, the reconciliation engineered by Radha Burnier, the current president of the Theosophical Society. The turnaround was total: today, Krishnamurti’s works and ideas are widely accepted and even disseminated by Theosophists. Following are excerpts from an interview with Radha Burnier.
Is the Theosophical outlook evolutionary, believing that we are going forward to some kind of culmination?
Slowly. Our scale of time does not apply. If you apply it, you cannot show that this is a fact, because every now and again humanity seems to descend into barbarism.
The followers of Sri Aurobindo believe that humanity is evolving. Philosophers such as Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti, however, believe that the moment a person becomes fully conscious or self-aware there is no evolution, since while evolution is located in time, enlightenment is not.
That is also the Theosophical point of view. Evolution is for humanity in general. Human consciousness is gradually growing in understanding. If you take the individual, even all of humanity, there is no evolution. Theosophical books make it very clear that evolution is related to the material part of the human being, and the human body is the result of a long biological evolution. As for consciousness, it is only the unfolding of what is already there.
Does Theosophy hold that there is no evolution of consciousness?
Yes. There is only an unfolding of the potential, which is already latent. This is particularly clear in the case of the individual—probably true even of humanity.
But according to Theosophy, we all are going higher at our own pace, and eventually we can all become masters.
Yes, that is true.
Isn’t that evolution? However, Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi say that at the point when you are aware there is not time. You become immortal, in a different sense.
True. Krishnamurti said that, and I have no doubt there is truth in it. You step from one dimension into another. There is no time present there. And the other dimension is not the result of this time. But there is the great question: why doesn’t it happen to everyone? Why is it that practically nobody gets it? There are very few, because a maturing process has to take place. Because, to use their own terminology, the death of the old has to happen, the past has to be dispensed with. We can say it is like a fruit which matures under the sun. At one point it drops; but if it does not come to that point, it does not happen. And with those rare souls like Ramana it may be the result of many centuries of past births.
So you are reconciling the two. It appears that Theosophists are getting attracted to Krishnamurti; it is almost as if he were returning to Theosophy. Being reabsorbed. His works re studied carefully in study camps in the TS. Is the schism ending?
Reabsorption is not the right word. Members of the society have become more open to what he was saying and it was rather profound. These are questions, which are not easy to answer because they are too subtle. For example, in the reminiscences of Sydney Field, he quotes Krishnamurti as saying that reincarnation is a fact but it is not the truth. Now, Ramana Maharshi makes a similar remark. He says that there is reincarnation when there is ignorance. But what is ignorance? Ignorance is seeing things as they are not. You see the rope as a snake. Then you may become aggressive, want to kill it our run away from it. You are frightened; all sorts of emotions, thoughts arise out of that. When you see the thing as it is, then all this does not happen. That is the other dimension, when you see the whole universe, with its significance, its beauty—then there is no problem. Reincarnation is the problem or part of the life-cycles of those who were in the state of ignorance. But that whole field of ignorance is illusion and therefore it is not real. So reincarnation also is not real.
From the relative point of view so many things appear to be true, but from the absolute point of view…
This is why Buddhists and Hindus spoke about the two truths: there are things which are true from their relative point of view and which have no place at all from the absolute point of view. One of the great difficulties in understanding Krishnamurti is that he spoke always or almost always from the absolute mind. Ramana did not.
Ramana had commented that what Krishnamurti advocates—that there is no guru and all that—is OK only for a few. But the rest do need guidance up to a point. When we start distinguishing between illusion and reality, then the guru is seen as internal, no longer seen as embodied. But until that point guidance is necessary.
So did Krishnamurti, if one understands him rightly. If he believed that no guidance was necessary, why did he speak at all?
He said, when he answered that question, that it is just an outpouring of love, of giving…
But that is not a contradiction because he could have loved and kept quiet. He did not because he realized that speaking helped people to wake up a little. But what he was dead against was dependence on a guru. Or imagining that by going to X, Y or Z, something is going to happen to you. He was against that, against authority, blind belief. It is the spiritual intelligence, viveka, which has to awaken in the person.
Isn’t it ironic that the TS, which in its very charter upholds the freedom of belief, became rigid at a certain point?
It had. And all kinds of strange belief also existed, so we are very thankful that Krishnaji helped people to shake it all off, and I think it is to the credit of the society that it pulled itself out of that. And I think my father (Sriram Burnier) was largely responsible for that when he was the president. If he had opposed it head on, there would have been a very strong reaction. But he was able to turn people’s minds to the open approach of Krishnamurti, to inquiry, to using one’s intelligence, in a very tactful, gently sort of way, so that people did not know that they were learning to think in a different way. In Tamil there is a proverb: ‘It’s like putting a needle into a banana; you don’t know that it is going in.’
History books do not acknowledge the role played by Theosophy in India’s awakening, in the freedom movement, even the fact that the Congress was started at the behest of some members of the TS. Why has this neglect come about?
I think that one reason was the clash of Annie Besant’s ideas and Mahatma Gandhi’s. She became very unpopular. She was a great heroine after she was released from confinement in Ooty (a hill-station in southern India) and people carried her in a procession and threw flowers on her, and then almost overnight they were willing to abuse her and throw stones at her. But she was magnificent—she said, ‘ I am glad that you Indians have given up your subservient attitude to a white skin and that you have the courage to say such things to me’.
But as Gandhiji’s movement grew and he became successful, I think the public conscience went through a long period of regarding Annie Besant and TS as negligible factors. But later, a few people like Raja Rajagopalachari (the first Indian Governor-General) could see that she was very far-sighted, that in fact the kind of things that were done in the name of civil disobedience had broken down the respect of law. This is what she was most against and also against using raw, immature students for political purposes. She said young people must learn to think first before acting and they have not come to that stage yet.
Krishnamurti once said that Annie Besant had done more for India’s freedom than anybody else.
He had great respect and love for her.
Theosophy attracted some of the best minds of India but today most people have not even heard of the TS. What are your plans for the society?
It is not an easy thing to resolve simply by planning, because it involves a change in attitude. People must realize that Theosophy is a practical wisdom. If you simply sit somewhere and discuss the nature of the unity of life, or still worse, what happens in the astral planes—all these things may have their value in their right place, as Krishnaji used to say, but ultimately, they must find an application not only in the individual’s life but also in the different fields of human activity. I think people have neglected this for too long. What is the relevance of the fundamental principles of Theosophy to life as we see it everywhere? I think that is one of the main causes for this decline. And secondly, an organization tends to crystallize. Madame Blavatsky first saw it and mentioned it as early as when she wrote The Key to Theosophy.
So, I have known lodges where a bright intellectual, young or old, comes in, shows interest. But they have a standoffish attitude and approach. They want to take the role of the teacher. This kind of thing is deadly. I think it should be much more open. This happened partly because people don’t do enough work, I mean internally, and they are afraid that the newcomer will ask questions that they cannot answer. If one cannot answer, the best thing is to be humble and say, “Sorry, I don’t understand but we can enquire into it together”.
What is your assessment of the functioning of the TS worldwide?
It isn’t entirely satisfactory but it isn’t entirely unsatisfactory either. Much more energy has to come into it.
One of the original aims of the TS was to retrieve the lost wisdom of the West, not only of the East. We do see an increasing number of westerners turning toward the spirit, going away from materialism, but they are not necessarily turning to Theosophy. So why is it that in the West People are turning to Sathya Sai Baba or to Osho ?
That is simple to answer. Whether it is the West or the East, the conditions of life are much more stressful. The world has become so organized that the individual feels alienated. Everything is more difficult although life is far more comfortable. Relationships are breaking down, young people don’t feel a deep sense of belonging, and many of them don’t know what their life is about, and they want to cling to something. The society does not offer anything to cling to. Krishnamurti has been all the more remarkable because he does not offer anything, yet so many people are attracted to what he says, which is a very hopeful sign for the world. But if you think of Sai Baba or Buddhism or something, you find that they do hold on to some figure or some text…
As a crutch?
Most people want that.
Don’t you think it has some temporary use?
May be. As long as a person does not feel he can stand up on his own; but it had better be a good crutch!
Rather than some drug or some other form of dependence, or violence as an outlet?
Quite right. And addiction nowadays is terrible. Alcoholism has increased. Also this preference for something unreal. Now they speak of virtual reality. But it is total unreality. In fact the world of our consciousness is unreality because we do not see rightly. We have created this Internet or TV, or whatever it is, and we prefer that to seeing the actual world. It is a strange thing that so many people like a plastic flower or an artificial flower almost more than a real flower, or a drama on the screen when there are so many dramas happening just next to us.
This revolution in information technology believes that it is going to bring the world closer, because everyone will be connected, and space and tie will shrink through the Internet. What kind of impact is that going to have on human consciousness? I mean what resources do we have in our spiritual traditions to face the challenges of tomorrow?
You can lead people into terrible illusions, can you not? Suppose I sit at a great distance and converse with you and believe I have a relationship with you, it may not be a real relationship at all. I do not think hours of that can make up for actually meeting with somebody even for a few minutes. In fact the kind of silent relationship, which is affection, really caring and so on, may disappear.
But don’t you think that the TS should also modernize with the times?
Yes. We are beginning to do that. In America, they are putting Madame Blavatsky’s works on CD-ROM.
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