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The Essential Work of The Theosophical Society by Radha Burnier

Radha Burnier

It is easier to say what the Theosophical Society is not, rather than what it is, because the Society has a character which is a synthesis of a number of different elements. Its aim is to bring about the uplift of the human being at all levels — physical, cultural, moral, intellectual, spiritual — and its work has to do with many aspects of life. But it is not limited to one aspect or level of human existence and activity.

The Theosophical Society is not for example a philosophical society in the ordinary sense of the term. There is deep philosophy which we call Theosophy, which is in some measure presented through the literature published by the Society and is at the basis of its work. But that philosophy is not meant to be a speculative or theoretical exercise. There are learned men all over the world, capable of discussing subtle metaphysical points or delivering erudite lectures, but whose behaviour is exactly like that of ordinary people in daily life. When there is a problem, if a wife or son were to die, they are as likely to be unphilosophical about it as all other people. But the Theosophical Society is concerned with a philosophy which probes into the nature of man and the universe in order to bring about a change in man and society.

 Similarly although there is a deep religious side to the work of the Theosophical Society, it cannot be called a religious society in the ordinary sense. H.P.B. declared that Theosophy is not a religion, but religion itself because it is not concerned with mere tradition and belief. In the Theosophical Society there is no church, priests or scriptures, and like conventional religion it does not build a cult which separates people from others. The Society is religious only in the sense that its work is concerned with lifting the human spirit to the highest level.

 The first Object of the Society is to form a nucleus of Universal Brotherhood without any distinctions. Some interpret this object to mean that members of the Society must work for relieving distress, run orphanages, save the derelict, and so forth. The Theosophical Society is not however a welfare organization in that sense, although it supports all work which benefits mankind. As H.P.B. wrote:

Theosophists are of necessity the friends of all movements in the world, whether intellectual or simply practical, for the amelioration of the condition of mankind.... We are the friends of those who exercise practical charity, who seek to lift a little of the tremendous weight that is crushing down the poor. But, in our quality of Theosophists we cannot engage in any one of these great works in particular. As individuals we may do so, but as Theosophists we have a larger, more important and much more difficult work to do. The function of Theosophists is to open men's hearts and understandings to charity and justice, attributes which belong specifically to the human kingdom and are natural to man when he has developed the qualities of a human being.  Theosophy teaches the animal-man to be a human-man; and when people have learned to think  and feel as truly human beings should feel and think, they will act humanely, and works of charity, justice and generosity will be done spontaneously by all. (Message to American Convention).

We can also say that though the theosophical approach to the questions of life is scientific,  that is to say based on a rational, investigative spirit, it is not a scientific society with a sphere of interest limited to the world of sense perception. Similarly, though cultural development is within the purview of the Society’s aims it cannot be equated with organizations which promote culture.

 Philosophy, religion, science, philanthropic work, culture, research and enquiry — all these elements form part of the work of the Society. They must be blended together in such a balance, without stressing any one element or concentrating on any one level of human existence, so that the Society’s work brings about the good of humanity in a total sense. If it does not do so, the Society would lose its essential character.

It is important to recognize that universality of approach is fundamental to the work of the Society at any level whether it is the work of a Lodge, Federation, Section or the Society as a whole. It has been organized in such a way that it is not meant merely to preach brotherhood but to consist of a world-wide body of people who feel close to each other and who learn to cooperate and work together for the common weal. Men and women the world over live in a diversity of conditions, which modify their outer comportment in a variety of ways so that the central fact of their having a shared destiny is completely lost sight of, and relationships are full of tensions and conflicts. Contact with the Theosophical Society must help people to recognize that when they harm others they harm themselves, and when they love others, they create happiness for the world as a whole. The Society must be an example of how humanity can be united in affection and mutual care.

To bring this about, an atmosphere of universality must be maintained wherever there are members. The work of the Society must help people to drop their old habits and patterns of thought. The most pernicious habit of the mind is to divide everything. This divisiveness is the basis of the conflict and suffering which has been the bane of human society throughout the centuries. People have been conditioned to think of themselves in terms of tribe, race, nation, religion, family, the high and the low, and so on. Therefore one of the Mahatmas described humanity as ‘poor, poor humanity’ and as ‘the orphan humanity’, He wrote:

It reminds me of the old fable of the war between the Body and its members; here too, each limb of this huge ‘Orphan’ — fatherless and motherless — selfishly cares but for itself. The body uncared for suffers eternally, whether the limbs are at war or at rest.

The fragmentation which we have spoken of has been created by the mind. Unless the mind abandons its habit of thinking in terms of difference instead of endeavouring to realize the unity of life, there cannot be a fundamental change in human society nor can relationship be established in truth and goodness. The shift from old patterns of thought to which the mind is accustomed to a recognition of unity as the truth of life is a radical change and brings a creative quality and vitality to the mind which can be described as regeneration. Therefore from the early days of the Society, universal brotherhood which is the purpose of the Society, was described as ‘regenerative brotherhood’.

There are many ruts into which the mind falls without knowing why it is doing so. People unconsciously repeat ideas and adopt the attitudes, prejudices and animosities which surround them. The evils which exist in the atmosphere of a particular society are unknowingly absorbed by everyone who is not aware. Therefore H.P.B. pointed out that anyone who seeks wisdom must endeavour to free his mind of all the ideas he may have derived from heredity, education, environment or other people. This implies that there must be a different quality of mind as a result of theosophical study and understanding, a quality which finds natural expression in action and relationship.

Many people may accept theoretically that although there are physical differences among human beings — some are tall, others short, the skin is black, white or yellow, etc. — these are of no importance, for all are human and experience the same joy, pain and aspirations. When there is only an intellectual acceptance of this fact, action in daily life and relationships with others contradict the concept of unity. When attitudes of difference condition everyday relationship, it is the old mind at work. Regenerative brotherhood exists only when there is a real deep sense of non-separateness.

Regeneration is the key to the work of the Society. It gives direction with regard to the nature of the work, clarifies what must be done and what programmes are not compatible or useful. All T.S. activities must have a direction, and that direction must be one of inner change towards unity, co-operation. and affectionate relationship. In theosophical lodges and groups, very often study is undertaken and discussions take place. What is the purpose of the study? Study can be a mere pastime or an intellectual preoccupation in which case it is empty from the theosophical point of view. Or the study and discussion can be of such a nature that they help the mind to shed its prejudices and conditioning and bring about transformation.

 The three Objects of the Society do not mention the word 'Theosophy'. So we can ask ourselves what place Theosophy has in promoting the Objects of the Society. Theosophy is wisdom which is not mere knowledge; it is the kind of knowledge which finds expression in right action. Action includes not only physical action but thinking, feeling, in fact every movement of consciousness within each person. Discovering wisdom is therefore not different from regenerating oneself

Since the work of the Society must be carried on in an atmosphere of universality, the atmosphere of any Lodge or group should be such that any person, Western or Eastern, Christian or Muslim, black or white, feels welcome to participate. The programmes must not be of such a nature that they appeal only to a particular group. There are members who say that the West has a wisdom tradition and so it is not necessary to turn to Eastern thought. There are others who are of the view that in Indian thought one can find all the essential teachings and therefore it is enough to study the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-gïtâ. In such cases, each group remains within its own enclosure and shuts the door on others. This is in contradiction to the essential purposes of the Society.

 Every Section, Federation and Lodge is a representative in its own area of the Society as a whole. Therefore it must embody the essential characteristics of the Society, including universality of approach. However, universality does not mean that all kinds of misleading ideas, superstitions or frivolous activities should be encouraged or included as part of the work of the Society. The Society cannot become a forum for every kind of cult, philosophy or activity. Discrimination must be used and this means finding out what brings about the new quality of mind about which we have spoken.

 The study of comparative religion which is part of the second Object of the Society does not imply that all religions and all teachings are equally good. In all religions there are superstitions and accretions which are unhelpful or positively undesirable. If the followers of different religions are asked to deliver talks in a theosophical lodge and they do it from a narrow or dogmatic point of view, how does it help the work of the Society? It is good to appreciate what is of value in all religions; it is equally necessary to be discriminating and promote only that which will help people to become wiser, more selfless and loving. Those who come into a Theosophical Lodge must be able to get new insights concerning man and his relationship to all creation. Lectures which treat a subject in such a manner that they promote division, blind belief or dogmatism are not suitable for the Theosophical Society.

Another point of importance is derived from the fact that truth can only be seen by each person for himself. The beauty of a sunset described by someone else never conveys the experience of that beauty. The description can only give an indication. Repeating other people’s ideas or conforming to belief in a particular tradition is not tantamount to seeing. The instrument for seeing is one’s own consciousness. There are certain things which cannot be done by anyone else on another's behalf. If one is ill it will not do if someone else takes medicine instead. Similarly no one else can impart the deeper truths to another unless he works at his own nature and prepares himself to be receptive. It is only when his consciousness is pure, clean, sensitive and capable of responding at a subtle and deep level, can he really know the truths of life. So each person must purify and prepare his own consciousness to receive the light. Purity means egolessness. Therefore H.P.B. says, 'Ethics is the soul of Theosophy.' The impure mind can be very clever and make a fine exposition of ideas, but that is all.

Thus self-preparation is an important aspect of theosophical work. It is important because when a person comes to the threshold of truth perception, everything in his life changes and he also has the power to influence changes around himself. There are many things in life to see and to know. The most important of all is to realize the significance of life and perceive the true relation of the many existences with each other. One who sees significance cannot be destructive. A person who perceives the loveliness of a flower — beauty is a way of seeing significance — treats the flower with care and delicacy, and his relationship with it is one of concern. But he who does not see the beauty, the glory and the meaning of the flower, throws it away. Those who realize the truth of life can never be destructive. The seers of truth are loving and compassionate individuals. The problem of the ordinary man is that he is not prepared to perceive significance. Most people give special value to some person or thing and then become attached to that. This is not a real awareness of their essential nature. Such attachment arises out of a desire to derive some benefit — physical or psychological — out of that person or thing. When the mind is sensitive and clear, that is, when it is truly capable of seeing, it sees significance in all of life, for all life is full of meaning. So the mind must learn to see, and the seeing has to come from within.

Therefore  any kind of activity, programme or teaching which ignores the necessity for self-purification and true seeing, but on the other hand encourages conformity, belief, obedience and dependence, is not in tune with the spirit of the Theosophical Society. None of our activities should result in the closing of the mind, letting other people do the thinking on our behalf, telling us what the truth is. An official statement of the Society has been made' to the effect that neither H.P.B. nor anyone else is an authority in the Theosophical Society whose words must be accepted by all members as the truth. What certain people have said may be of much value, but all the literature of the Theosophical Society is presented only for consideration. Every presentation must be enquired into, experimented with, and understood in relation to the situations and problems of one's own life. If through such testing it is found to be worth while and true, then it has a different meaning. Therefore an essential part of theosophical work is to maintain the spirit of free investigation, deep thinking, an open mind, and readiness to take responsibility for oneself.

All work within the Society must be done in a spirit of anonymity and not with a sense of self-importance. We do not want to build up within the Society personalities on whom we throw all responsibility for our own progress. Every person is responsible for his own action. The nature of the unregenerate mind can be summarized in the word 'egoism'. The essence of ignorance is the feeling of 'I' -ness which exhibits itself in many different ways.  It shows itself not only through aggressions and prejudices but also in the form of self-satisfaction and self-concern. Even if it exists in a mild and concealed form it can sprout forth at any time and create havoc. The desire to be known as a capable person, as a guru, as a competent lecturer or leader, and so forth is only egoism. It is egoistic action which is destroying the social fabric. Therefore in our Society a platform for egoism should never be created. A spirit of self-sacrificing, altruistic work is essential for the success of the Society's aims.

Unless the essential elements are maintained in the Society's work, no amount of propaganda can further the cause. But if the spirit behind the work is right then the adoption of suitable means can serve a purpose. Therefore the understanding of the true character of the Society is of primary importance. It is not just what we do which makes the work of the Society theosophical but the quality of our mind and the spirit of understanding and selflessness which we bring to it. When that quality exists a spiritual influence pervades the work and affects other people, helping to bring about a world transformation. So the members of the Theosophical Society must be people who are working towards the liberation of the mind and who are full of the spirit of cooperation and affection in their relationship. In India there are temple structures with a thousand pillars. Each pillar is important because it bears a part of the weight. The Theosophical Society’s work must be like that, with each member sharing the responsibility.

Radha Burnier (née Radha Sri Ram) (November 15, 1923 – October 31, 2013) was the seventh international president of the Theosophical Society (Adyar). Having taken office in 1980, she was the longest standing president of the organization (33 years).