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Indonesia, Theosophy in

The Theosophical Society (TS) in Indonesia is a national society, governed by the National Council and the Executive Committee. The National Council consists of the National President and Vice President, two Secretaries (corresponding and recording), two Treasurers, Co-ordinators for the regions and Commissaries for Youth and for Research and Development and representatives of each lodge. The Council meets every year at the Annual Congress. Theosophy first appeared in Pekalongan, Central Java, organized around Baron F. Tengnagel. In 1881 this lodge received its charter, but it soon lapsed with the passing of Tengnagel.

The second impetus came from two young men, D. van Hinloopen Labberton and K. van Gelder, arriving from the Netherlands in 1895 to work in a sugar plantation in East Java. In their remoteness they often talked about theosophy, which they came to know while still in the Netherlands. Gradually this seed grew after they met other Dutch in Jakarta and some Javanese in Yogyakarta and Solo interested in theosophy. Although still as a center attached to the Dutch Section, in June 1901 a monthly publication was started in Semarang, Central Java, the Theosofie in Nederlands Indie. It was issued in Dutch and Malay, edited and published by a member-printer, P. van Asperen ven de Velde.

In 1903 two lodges were chartered in Bogor and Surabaya. The founding of the lodges was preceded by a series of lectures on theosophy. Because some of the seven founding members of the Bogor Lodge resided in Jakarta, they soon formed a separate center and library. But it soon dwindled after Labberton moved to Bogor. For years after, the Bogor Lodge remained the main center of activity.

Theosophy slowly evoked interest under the Javanese, as Labberton was convinced that Javanese spiritual tradition is essentially theosophy, although much weed has grown over it. In 1907 a Malay journal Pewarta Theosofie (Theosophy News) was issued, edited by Labberton and some Javanese members. He also took over the Dutch journal after the passing of ven de Velde. After reading Pewarta Theosofie about fifty persons in Solo decided to become members and the first meeting was held in the premises of R. M. Ng. Mangundipuro in the Princedom of Mangkunegoro, attended by 80 persons. Speakers came over from Semarang and Yogyakarta. That princes of Solo were involved and offered their spacious pendopos (open audiency halls) for meetings and congresses seemed to have a great impact on the founding of this Javanese center. The Sala Lodge (Sala, Javanese spelling of Solo) was chartered in 1908 and it has always been a prominent lodge.

In 1908 the first congress was held in Yogyakarta, with the General Secretary J. B. Fricke coming over from the Netherlands. During the Congress the Indonesian lodges officially formed a special branch of the Dutch Section. On the occasion of this first Congress a visit was made to the Borobudur, the famous Buddhist shrine, appreciating its esoteric meaning illustrating the seven planes of nature. A wayang shadow play was performed, with explanations of the hidden meaning of the play (episodes of Mahābharāta and Rāmāyaṇa) provided for the Dutch to appreciate and for the Javanese to recognize under the accretions. For several years this traditional play was performed during congresses and on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee, the Sala Lodge sent a group of members to Adyar to perform a wayang shadow play and classical dancing complete with gamelan music players.

Charles W. LEADBEATER visited Indonesia in 1911 and at his suggestion the Netherlands Indie Section was formalized in 1912, independent from the Dutch Section, with Labberton as its first General Secretary. The 1912 Congress was held for the first time in their own premises, the Blavatsky Lodge, situated at the prestigious Koningsplain (King’s Square). The Surabaya Lodge also inaugurated their lodge building within the same year.

A. J. H. van Leeuwen came to Indonesia as engineer of the Post-Telegraph-Telephone Compagnie and soon became an active worker and General Secretary from 1928 until his detention with the Japanese invasion. On his many travels on duty he also gave lectures to lodges scattered in the regions. He was editor of De Pionier which replaced Theosofie in Ned. Indie and Pewarta Theosofie in 1930. After retiring from his offical post he became director of the Teachers College in Lembang, near Bandung. This College provides teachers for the several schools founded by the Section. It was founded in 1913 in Jakarta and moved to Lembang in 1927, but this boarding school was forced to close down because of the withdrawal of Government subsidy during the malaise around 1937. In 1926, 15 schools were reported as managed by the Section with 15 European and 42 Indonesian teachers and nearly 2,000 pupils. Most of the teachers were TS members. Arjuna schools for Javanese children were reported in Jakarta, Bogor, Bandung and Pekalongan and a school for European children in Surabaya and Montessori schools in Bandung and Malang (1939). Van Leeuwen was also one of the main sponsors of the Theosophical Study Fund which helped many promising youngsters to continue their studies in the Netherlands or in local schools. Some of them became prominent leaders in their field of service during the early years of the Republic.

After recovering from the severe deprivations in the camp, Van Leeuwen returned to the Netherlands. He visited Indonesia again in 1965, lecturing in several lodges and meeting old friends. He actually planned a second visit but this was not realized because of his passing in 1972.

During the Japanese occupation in 1942-1945 and the years of struggle for independence, the Society remained dormant, with the consequence of loss of schools and premises. Finally, on the third of September 1950 the first congress after 1942 was held in Semarang. The Congress resolved to resume activities under a new name “Perhimpunan Theosofi Tjabang Indonesia” (The Theosophical Society, Indonesia Section) with Soemardjo as General Secretary and Sadono Dirdjoatmodjo as President of the Young Theosophists. A monthly Madjalah P.T.T.I. was issued. At first the Headquarters was located in Yogyakarta, then the seat of the Government, but later on it was moved to Jakarta. In 1954 17 lodges and two centers were reported, among them one in Medan, North Sumatra. The Society resumed its activities and conducted its annual congresses until the 14th Congress in April 1963. At that time the political atmosphere became critical and heated up. A newspaper from Central Java reported that the Society and all its lodges in Indonesia were prohibited but confirmation from official sources was not received so that it remained a mystery, greatly worrying all the lodges. Finally on June 24, 1963, three months after the Congress, an official Presidential letter was received, dated April 3, 1963, declaring the Society prohibited. All organizations affiliated to foreign countries were prohibited. The Blavatsky Lodge building in Jakarta was confiscated, allowing only two days for the library to move its collection. Before the Second World War a collection of about 5,000 books was reported, but less than half of them were saved from this upheaval. Several books were actually rescued from secondhand book vendors. The National Council hurried to declare PTTI and its branches dissolved.

Then, on July 31, seven days after receiving the letter, a meeting was initiated by R. S. Soejatno, S. M. Soesiswo and other young members to found a new national society independent from Adyar, named “Persatuan Warga Theosofi Indonesia” (Association of Theosophists in Indonesia) abbreviated to Perwathin. Under this condition the Society was allowed to resume its activities, although some senior members did not agree to an organization separate from Adyar. One by one the lodge members joined the new organization and by 1964, 16 lodges were re-established and formally chartered in 1970, gradually increasing to 21 lodges in 1975, among them one in Medan and four in Bali. The new organization was presided over by Soesiswo until the elections during the first congress in 1964 which elected Dirdjoatmodjo as National President. He started as a young Theosophist in the colonial times and was a benefactor of the Society, especially during the difficult sixties when he financed the congresses so that members could afford to participate. After that first congress an application was sent to the International President, N. Sri Ram, to resume membership under the new conditions.

Soejatno succeeded as National President in 1970 until 1982. He was editor of the Society’s journal Theosofi, a monthly, and translated several books published with funds from Adyar. He was also the public lecturer at several congresses and conducted various workshops or study camps until his rather early passing in 1989. From 1982 to the present time (2003) Soesiswo resumed the presidency after an absence of several years from the capital.

Members of the Society played an important role in the revival of Buddhism in Indonesia, one of the earliest activists being Kwee Tek Hosy. Many key persons in the organization and editorial staff of their magazine were TS members. At the moment Dr. Parwati Supangat, a national lecturer and a second generation member since her student years, is President of the Buddhist Women Association in Indonesia. Other members took part in reviving, if not initiating, Javenese spiritual movements.

During the seventies an organization was set up by the Government to embody the many spiritual movements in Indonesia. About 230 of them are officially registered under the Department of Education and Culture as they are considered spiritual traditional cultures, not religions, and the Society is placed within this group. Besides being given briefings from the Government, the societies are requested to present an outline of their doctrines in a set structure before the others. In 1994 a few of these societies were requested to invite other societies and related government agencies for one of their special meetings as a means of getting to know and appreciate one another. The Society used this opportunity to invite them on the occasion of commemorating Annie Besant’s birthday on the first of October.

As of 1995, only 11 Lodges were still active with a total of about 400 members. The highest membership reached during the new era (after 1963) was 750 belonging to 21 lodges. During the colonial times the highest membership reached was 2,028 with 26 lodges. At that time some cities had separate lodges for Dutch and Javanese or Sundanese (local) members, because of language difficulties. But now only in Medan are special lectures given in other than Indonesian, namely Tamil, as many members are of South Indian descent.

Of the 15 Arjuna schools, only one remains, namely Arjuna Junior High School in Solo. In 1994 it moved to its new building. The lodge and school building were sold because of road extension plans and new sites were chosen more appropriate to the need of a quiet environment though still located centrally in reach of members. At present only four lodges have their own premises, namely in Surabaya, Semarang, Solo and Yogyakarta. Other lodges hold their meetings in homes of the members.