India, Theosophy in
The Indian Section of the Theosophical Society (TS) was constituted by an Executive Order of the President Founder, Henry S. OLCOTT, dated November 17, 1890 stating, “The Indian Section of the Society is formally constituted as a Section for the whole of India, effective from January 1, 1891.” By that time 127 Branches (Lodges) had already been chartered in India, showing that theosophical work was already quite strong there, mainly due to Olcott’s extensive tours.
Before the Founders, Helena P. BLAVATSKY and Olcott, arrived in India, they were in correspondence with several persons, one of whom, Moolji Thakersey, was, in 1877, the first Indian to join the TS. So, TS work in India can therefore be considered to have begun in that year. It gained momentum with the arrival of the Founders in Bombay in 1879.
Damodar K. MAVALANKAR was initiated into the TS on August 3, 1879, in Bombay. He is considered to be one of the architects of theosophical work in India, after the Founders.
The first Lodge was founded in Bombay in 1880. In 1881 eight Lodges were chartered in distant parts of the country, starting with Tinunelveli in the South and Simla in the North, followed by Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) in the far North-West, and Berhampore in the East.
In 1882, at the invitation of (Swami) Subba ROW, the Founders came to Madras and later decided to establish the International Headquarters at Adyar. Their lecture on April 25 in Madras attracted a large audience, seventy-seven of whom joined the TS in the next three days. A Lodge with ninety-two members was chartered with Subba Row as its first Secretary.
Before the Indian Section was chartered, the Lodges were called Asiatic Branches, the work was carried on as part of the International Headquarters and the annual report was presented by the Secretary of the TS.
In 1883 the publication of a journal in Marathi was approved and a Hindustani journal called Satyaprakashi was started in the N.W. Provinces. The work in that area slowly languished in later years.
Olcott sponsored the magazine Arya Bala Bodhini to inspire Hindu youth and give them the right religious and cultural training. Later, it became the Central Hindu College Magazine. In the early days, emphasis was on “restoration of Aryan moral standards . . . as a means . . . to quickening the salvation of humanity from lower to higher planes of activity.”
The TS did much work in reviving the study of Sanskrit and the publication of ancient work, which received an impetus from the establishment of the ADYAR LIBRARY and Research Center. Subba Row was one of the early Indian members who made notable contributions to theosophical literature during his few years of membership. His Esoteric Writings and Philosophy of Bhagavad-Gītā remain in print to the present day.
Tukaram TATYA made notable contributions in the first two decades, not only financially but also in the field of the publication of theosophical literature. By 1885, he had published in English 2,000 copies of the Bhagavad-Gītā and 1,000 copies each of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, Compendium of Rājayoga and Sāṅkhya Kārikā. Several members published English translations of other books, including among others, The Sacred Books of the Hindus, Rig Veda Saṁhita.
The impact and recognition of the contributions of the TS to the revival of ancient Indian ideals and the promotion of the study of Sanskrit texts can be judged by the fact that Olcott was the first Westerner to be admitted to an exclusive Pandit’s Association at Varanasi, a very orthodox organization; he received the Sacred Brahmanical Thread at Calcutta.
Members in India were active in bringing to people’s notice books on their own religions and in promoting interest in the essentials of all religions. For example, a Parsi Archaeological Society was founded. Books dealing with the teachings of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were published. The emphasis was on the essential unity of all religions.
The Theosophical Society, spreading teachings of love and unity, has been an integrating force in this multilingual, multi-racial and religious land. Under the leadership of Olcott, pioneering work was done for the upliftment of the down-trodden, by starting schools for them, one of which, the OLCOTT MEMORIAL SCHOOL at Adyar, Chennai (formerly Madras) is still managed by the TS. This aspect has lately attained political importance in the country.
Bertram KEIGHTLEY was the first General Secretary of the Indian Section. He worked from Adyar, ably assisted by Babu Upendranath Basu, the Joint General Secretary. Olcott felt the need for another Theosophical Center in the north and the ancient holy city Kashi — known then as Benaras, now as Varanasi — was chosen and the Section headquarters moved there in 1895.
Annie BESANT’s arrival, along with Countess WACHTMEISTER, on November 16, 1893, was an event of historic significance. Both of them contributed not only to the spread of Theosophy throughout the country but also to the establishment of the Indian Headquarters and laid the foundation of educational work which was interwoven with the work of the Section. Many Lodges are involved in educational work to this day. A landmark was the founding of the Central Hindu College at Varanasi, followed by several schools for boys and girls in various parts of the Section. This laid the foundation for girls’ education in India. To continue the story of educational work at the Indian Headquarters, it may be stated here that the Central Hindu Girls’ School did splendid work under the administration of Francesca ARUNDALE and Sarah Palmer. The girls attend school in Indian dress. Instruction in the religious ideals of India was the chief feature of the education of both boys and girls.
The Central Hindu College was transferred to a new Trust, to form the nucleus of the Benares Hindu University. To carry on the work of theosophical education, the Theosophical Educational Trust was established in 1913. Under its auspices a Theosophical School for boys and another for girls was established at the Indian Headquarters and several other schools conducted in various parts of India by theosophists were handed over to the Trust. Besant was the President and Ernest WOOD the Secretary. The names of both the schools were changed in 1917 to the Theosophical National School for Boys and Girls. Later, when the Rishi Valley Trust came into being, the Boys’ School was redesignated Besant College and the Girls’ School Vasanta College. Still later, both these institutions were moved to Rajghat, where they are now run under the auspices of the Krishnamurti Foundation. In their place, the Besant Theosophical School for Boys and the Vasant Kanya Mahavidyalaya for girls were started in 1939 and 1954 respectively. A Montessori School called Annie Besant Shishu Vihar also exists on the campus. There is co-education up to class V and separate education for boys up to high-school level and for girls up to degree level (affiliated to the Benares Hindu University). These educational institutions continue to function today and enjoy a good reputation.
The names of eminent Theosophists M. G. Kanitkar, K. Rajagopalachari and N.V. Tampi will always be remembered for their contributions to the boys’ school and that of Leela Sharma for her work for the girls’ college. In 1950 the Indian Section created a Trust called the Besant Education Fellowship for the better management and more efficient control of the expanding educational activities. The members of the fellowship are elected from among members of the TS and approved by the Executive Committee of the Indian Section.
The 1898 Indian Convention was the first to be held at the Section Headquarters. An International Convention was held there for the first time in 1900 when the tradition of holding International Conventions alternatively at Adyar and at the Indian Section Headquarters at Varanasi was started — a tradition which gradually died out from the 50’s. As a very special event, the last one was held in 1990 to mark the Centenary of the Indian Section. In the late 1890’s Lilian Edger from Australia joined the band of workers, consolidated the work and undertook extensive tours in addition to Besant and Wachtmeister. The present estate of the Indian Section Headquarters covers 25 bighas and 47 beswas (about 70,000 sq. meters). It was transferred to the Section by Besant, partly in 1907 and partly in 1912. On it stands the famous bungalow, Shanti Kunj (Abode of Peace), in which she lived from March 1900 until she moved to Adyar, Madras, when she became the International President in 1907. She continued to consider Varanasi her home and India her homeland till she passed away in 1933.
To the list of early stalwarts must be added the names of Upendranath BASU, Bhagavan DAS, Govind Das, A. Richardson, the first Principal of the Central Hindu College and George S. ARUNDALE.
The early Theosophists under the leadership of Besant, assisted by Bhagavan Das, advanced the work of the unification and deeper understanding of religions by publishing books such as The Essential Unity of All Religions, The Universal Textbook of Religions and Morals, the Sanatana Dharma series and Besant’s own lectures on the Great Religions of the World as well as her Wake Up India lectures.
The Indian Theosophists made significant contributions to Indian life by discarding social customs such as child-marriage, the rigid caste system, the cruel and unsocial treatment of widows, animal sacrifices, etc. which were against India’s spiritual heritage and the principles of the Oneness of life.
J. KRISHNAMURTI came to Varanasi for the first time in September 1910 and gave the final shape to the book At the Feet of the Master. It was here that he filled in an application form to join the TS on November 17, 1910. On January 11, 1911, the Order of the Star in the East (OSE) was founded in the Indian Headquarters as an organization independent of the TS. December 28, 1911, was the date of the occasion in the Hall of the Section now named “the Besant Hall” when people prostrated themselves before him while receiving their certificate as members of the O.S.E. His last visit to the Headquarters of the Indian Section was on November 6, 1985.
With the formation of the O.S.E., the proclamation of the “coming of the Christ” and related activities led by Annie Besant, a large number of members enthusiastically plunged into that activity which, to some extent, conflicted with the work of the TS in India. There were protests and Bhagavan Das, as the General Secretary of the Indian section and editor of Theosophy in India, published articles protesting against the identification of the two associations. This created controversy within the ranks of the Indian Section. In the July-August 1912 issue of Theosophy in India a letter by Annie Besant was published, clarifying that “. . . the O.S.E. is the embryo of a new religion and because I so thought, I did not charter it as even a League of the TS. It is an entirely independent body, outside the TS. . . .” With this the controversy was formally closed, but it continued to unsettle the minds of many members. Pandit I. N. Gurtu, who succeeded Bhagavan Das as the General Secretary, did his best to reconcile the two opposing views.
Without involving the Indian Section as such, several Theosophists led movements for the resurgence of the people. Such activities might be called “Applied Theosophy.” With a view to promoting the uplifting role of women in many spheres of life, including the home, the Indian Women’s Association was organized on May 8, 1917, by Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarājadāsa. Another important event was the formation of a truly national Indian Scouting Movement. Indian Theosophists took the initiative in encouraging indigenous arts and crafts. In fact, the first Swadeshi (Indigenous) Exhibition was organized by Olcott as early as 1879 in Bombay. Indian music and dancing, which had fallen into disrepute, were given dignified status by Rukmini Devi who started the KALĀKSHETRA Academy which operated for about three decades on the premises of the TS (Adyar) before moving to its own property nearby.
Moved by the theosophical teaching of the oneness of life, Indian members have played a leading role in the prevention of cruelty to all forms of life, especially to animals. There are centers of Beauty Without Cruelty on the premises of the TS at Varanasi and Adyar with Theosophists as Directors. A landmark was an Act moved by Rukmini Devi in 1960 in the Parliament of India on the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Though officially the various “allied activities” differ from the activity of the TS it is difficult to separate them from the work of the TS in India, firstly because such planning was done on the premises of the TS and secondly because they are the expression of efforts to help all forms of life. Many lodges and members throughout India are active under the auspices of the THEOSOPHICAL ORDER OF SERVICE in humanitarian activities like running charitable dispensaries, supplying artificial limbs, medicine and food to the needy, and helping the afflicted in the case of natural calamities.
The first Co-Freemasonic Lodge east of the Suez Canal, called the Dharma Lodge, was established in 1903 at the Indian Section Headquarters, but the ownership of the premises was left with it by Besant in her gift deed, so as not to involve the TS in Masonic work. The same is the case at Adyar. In India, CO-FREEMASONRY functions on the premises of several TS lodges, without being technically confused with the TS, in spite of the fact that almost all Indian Co-Freemasons are members of the TS in India.
Many members followed Besant in the several activities undertaken by her for the social and spiritual regeneration of India. One such activity which brought the TS to the notice of the masses in India, was her founding of the Home Rule League and her work for India’s independence. She felt that this was necessary in order to spread its spiritual message. She started The Commonwealth and New India, a weekly and a daily newspaper in which she regularly wrote. The Indian National Congress, which successfully led India’s independence movement, was founded by Allan Octavian HUME, a Theosophist, at the Theosophical Convention of 1885. Besant, the first Westerner and a woman, was elected president of the Congress in 1917. Because she led the struggle for India’s independence, she was interned along with G. S. Arundale and Bahmanji P. WADIA. Her Commonwealth of India Bill went for its first reading in the British House of Commons in 1925, but India had to wait for its independence until 1947, as Indian leaders did not agree with Besant’s views.
There are many more aspects of the work of Theosophists in and for India, but these are sufficient to show clearly what vital and varied roles Indian Theosophists played in the all-round progress of India. An objective assessment of the influence of the TS in India is found in the words of S. Radhakrishnan, who later became the President of India, “when with all kinds of political failures and economic breakdowns, we were suspecting the values and vitality of our culture, the Theosophical Society rendered good service by vindicating those values and ideas. The influence of the Theosophical movement on the general Indian society is incalculable.”
B. P. Wadia was a very active, talented and trusted associate of Besant. Differences in policy matters, mainly his firm view that “H.P.B. was, is, and ever will be the sole, true and infallible source of Theosophy” and his outright rejection of later contributions to Theosophy, led him to leave the TS in 1921 and set up the UNITED LODGE OF THEOSOPHISTS which was promoted by his wife Sophia Wadia. It still has a few centers in India and brings out inexpensive publications.
During these stormy decades in the work of the Theosophists in India, several lecturers regularly toured the Section, reaching its remote corners, spreading the message of Theosophy. They took with them books for distribution and sale to the public, a feature neglected in recent years. The publication of translations and periodicals in regional languages continued.
The Youth Movement was strong under an autonomous unit, the All India Federation of Young Theosophists, the first session of which was held on April 20, 1924. The number of young members rose to 2,200 in 1929, constituting about one third of the total membership and having about 10 Lodges. Later, the membership sharply decreased to 239, then it picked up for some years. In 1933 it became a non-autonomous Federation of the Indian Section. In the fifties, it ceased to be a separate entity and at present there are only a handful of youth Lodges, though some young people are active in adult lodges.
Another activity taken up by a number of Lodges in India is the Bh€rat Samaj, started in 1920. It was initially meant to simplify the Hindu rituals. Under the leadership of Pandit Mahadeva Shastri of the Adyar Library and Research Centre, a daily Pūjā was introduced, taking Mantras from the ancient scriptures. It was publicly performed for the first time by Krishnamurti at the Convention in 1925. There are Bhārat Samaj Temples on the TS premises at Adyar and Varanasi and the pūjā is performed there daily. On certain days it is performed regularly in several Lodges and it is a common feature on some special occasions.
Reference needs to be made to the RITUAL OF THE MYSTIC STAR, composed by C. Jinarajadasa and performed monthly at Adyar and Varanasi, periodically at a few other places and also during International Conventions and Conferences. Designed to bring down forces of peace and blessing on all, it forcefully brings home the idea that all religions have a common source and also that people of all professions are equally important in work on the spiritual path. The Order of the Round Table, founded by George Herbert Whyte in London, in 1908, provides yet another opportunity to members, especially youth, for spiritual upliftment. At present “Tables” meet regularly at Adyar, Bombay and Bangalore and also at a few other places. Meetings are also held during International Conventions.
With Besant’s inability to participate actively due to her failing health, coupled with the influence of Krishnamurti’s teachings after he had dissociated himself from his role as a vehicle for Lord MAITREYA, the number of members in the Indian Section, which was 7051 in 1920 began to drop and stood at 4290 in 1931. There was a steady increase in membership from 1940 and it now (1999) stands at nearly 12,000.
Because of questions raised by J. Krishnamurti, doubts arose in the minds of many members and the confidence of some was shaken. G. N. GOKHALE, General Secretary from 1936 to 1944, had to deal with this problem, coupled with the decision of the Rishi Valley Trust to move the educational institutions to its own premises at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and VaruŠa.
Gokhale, being a civil engineer, brought about improvements in the Campus. He was responsible for the expansion of the Besant Hall, the construction of an amphitheater and the Bh€rat Samaj Temple adjoining an ancient Shiva Temple, besides several other improvements. During this period, there were a few useful publications on Theosophy and Science. From the sixties onwards, Indian members contributed to the work of the Theosophy-Science Group in England. There is now a Theosophy-Science Center at Adyar.
After India had attained independence, some Indian theosophists, on the initiative of C. Jinarājadāsa, started a non-political movement called Asoka Chakra with a view to recalling and inculcating in public life the ideal of moral and spiritual values for which the country had stood for ages. The Edicts of Aśoka, which the Emperor Asoka had engraved on huge pillars, were published. They are reminders of the principles to be followed in private and public life. Members lectured widely on the theme, which was appreciated by the intelligentsia, but the movement did not get sufficient public support.
In 1968, under the patronage of N. SRI RAM, a movement styled “New Life for India” was started. It continues to be active, bringing out a quarterly magazine Wake Up India. It highlights the ideals of right citizenship, right values and right means. The movement is intended to further spiritual regeneration and a number of lodges and individuals are inspired by it. It is under the guidance of Radha BURNIER with N. C. Ramanujachari as the Secretary and the office is based at the TS at Adyar.
Rohit Mehta was the general Secretary from 1945 to 1959. His youthful energy, gift of public speaking, wide interest in social and political affairs and modern psychological approach brought dynamism to the work of the Indian Section. He also wrote a number of books. From 1949 J. Krishnamurti paid annual visits to Varanasi and had meetings in the Girls’ College on the TS premises. He soon shifted the venue to Rajghat, where educational activities were under the Krishnamurti Foundation. His talks and discussions once again raised some questions in the minds of Indian members. C. Jinarājadāsa, N. Sri Ram and also Rohit Mehta helped to foster proper understanding of Krishnamurti’s teachings.
Mehta started several activities such as the Cultural Association, the Music College and Anand Publications on the Indian Section premises, though this useful work was short lived. The present Girls’ College was started at his initiative in 1954 when the earlier one was shifted to Rajghat. He lectured extensively throughout the section. He was succeeded by K. Rajagopalachari who could, however, continue for only a few months due to ill health.
In this uncertain and difficult period, Radha Burnier was elected the General Secretary in 1961. She had the additional responsibility of the Adyar Library. She was assisted by Joan S. Morris, the former Secretary of the Canadian Federation, as Assistant General Secretary, who served the Section from 1964 until her death in 1988. Pandit Ramachandra Shukla and Thakur Jaideva Singh helped her in educational work. Burnier brought stability to the work, depth and a serious approach to study, and inspired the members to lead a truly theosophical life. The relationship with J. Krishnamurti and organizations that developed around him became cordial. His stand with respect to the TS is clear from the following incident. A questioner started to say, “When you walked out of the TS. . . .” and he interrupted, saying, “Sir, I never walked out. . .”
In 1978 Burnier relinquished her office as General Secretary because of her added responsibilities at Adyar and within five years there were three changes in the office of the General Secretary.
Following this period of uncertainly, C. V. Agarwal was elected General Secretary in 1984. He served three terms of three years each. The most outstanding features of this period were the visit of J. Krishnamurti to Shanti Kunj, where he had lived in his younger days and a brief talk by him in the Besant Hall after a lapse of six decades, and two visits of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the second visit being to deliver the Besant lecture at the Centenary Convention of the Indian Section, which was celebrated along with the International Convention at Varanasi in 1990. That seems to have been the last International Convention to be held at the Indian headquarters.
Apart from two books and information pamphlets in English, books and pamphlets in several Indian languages were brought out during the centenary year. Agarwal lectured very widely in the Section, visiting remote parts of all sixteen Federations. He started publishing special issues of the Indian Theosophist as booklets dealing with a particular theme and holding annual study camps at the Headquarters lasting one week. Earlier, the North India Conference had been held at different places in addition to the Headquarters.
The association of the Buddhist and the Theosophical movements was revived when Ven. S. Rinpoche, Director, Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies Sarnath, became a Life Member of the Indian Section and participated in its activities. He gave lectures and also directed study camps at Varanasi and Adyar. 1992 was another milestone in this relationship when the President and also the General Secretary of the Maha Bodhi Society of India visited the Headquarters at Varanasi and the former was the principal speaker at the 117th Foundation Day Celebrations of the Theosophical Society. The last visit of senior officials to the TS was when DHARMAPALA came to see the ailing Col. Olcott at Adyar. The Maha Bodhi Society invited C. V. Agarwal to tour Sri Lanka in 1992 and published his book, The Buddhist and the Theosophical Movements, thereby reviving memories of the active interest of theosophists in the teachings of the Buddha.
Agarwal was succeeded by M. P. Singhal in 1993. The Centenaries of the arrival of Besant in India and the birth of J. Krishnamurti were celebrated throughout the Section in 1993 and 1995 respectively. The Indo-Pacific Federation Conference was held at Adyar in 1994 along with the Annual Convention. About a dozen national lecturers were appointed to cover the large Section. With greatly improved finances, help is being given to lodges to maintain their properties and also for the publication of theosophical literature in regional languages. In 1999 M. S. Umakantha became the General Secretary.
Besant had started the Indian Bookshop which she presented to the Indian Section in 1926. In the forties it was moved to new premises facing the main road and thus attracting non-members also. The library, which was quite small, was moved to its present independent premises and now contains about 15,000 books and journals, some of them quite rare.
The Besant Hall has portraits of all the Presidents, busts of Besant and Olcott and a unique oil painting by Hermann SCHMIECHEN of Blavatsky. He painted two portraits of her, the first of which is now in the Headquarters of the English Section in London. The second one, an improvement on, and larger than, the first, was brought by Besant from her house in London and presented to the Indian Section.
Most of the lodges regularly observe the four theosophical anniversaries, namely: Foundation Day, November 17; Adyar Day, February 17; White Lotus Day, May 8; and Annie Besant’s birthday, October 1, by conducting meetings and conveying something of the message of theosophy.
International Conventions are no longer held at the Indian section headquarters, Section Conventions being held concurrently with International Conventions at Adyar, where members have the unique privilege of attending the latter besides taking advantage of various activities in Adyar, such as the School of the Wisdom.
The Constitution of the Indian Section has been amended many times during the last century. A radical change was made in 1950 when each of the Federations was given a share in the annual dues and made “responsible for the proper functioning of the Lodges and Centers attached to it.” The Federations elect representatives who form the Council which is the governing body. The latter elects the General Secretary, the Treasurer and the Executive Committee, approves the budgets and takes all major decisions.
Most of the Federations publish their own journals/bulletins and translations as well as original books in the regional languages. As the use of Indian languages is increasing, the Federations arrange for lectures in local languages also.
Regular study camps are important features of the work in India. Besides week-long camps at the headquarters, held during the Dashahara holidays in October, a three-day Conference is also held at Adyar over the Easter weekend. Study and workers’ training camps, lasting one month, are held during the summer season at Adyar and Bhowali, a resort in the Himalayas. Shorter study camps are regularly organized by the Federations at about 50 different centers in India.
83,748 membership Diploma certificates, 1,467 Charters for the Lodges and 262 certificates for Centers had been issued to the end of March 1999. The Section monthly is the Indian Theosophist, and although the name has been changed a few times, it has been published for the last 98 years without a break.