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Theosophy as a Political Movement

by Mark Bevir 1)

Officially the Theosophical Society is 'unconcerned about politics,' a fact made clear in the first issue of The Theosophist. 2) The apolitical nature of theosophy was symbolised dramatically at the Society's annual convention in 1884. Several Indian theosophists wanted to meet to discuss the formation of a national political movement, and they planned to do so at that convention, which was to be held at the Society's headquarters in Adyar, just outside of Madras. Yet the Society emphatically refused to become embroiled in politics. Madame Blavatsky, its inspirational prophet, and Henry Olcott, its President, earlier had assured the colonial authorities they would restrict themselves to philosophical and scientific studies and avoid all political matters. 3) The would-be nationalists had to meet, therefore, not in the Society's headquarters under the auspices of its annual convention, but rather across the road as a clearly distinct group. A road in Adyar divided the Theosophical Society from the political action taken independently by some of its members. It is significant, however, that an important attempt to form a national political movement had such close ties to the Society. It is also significant that the colonial authorities kept Blavatsky and Olcott under police surveillance because they feared their embroilment with native religions and cultures would have a destabilising effect on British rule. Whatever the official position of the Theosophical Society, and whatever Blavatsky and Olcott might have said or intended, it quite clearly played a political role within India.

The paradox of a movement both officially divorced from politics and yet clearly entangled with the nationalist struggle becomes even more apparent if we jump forward to the early years of the twentieth century. Annie Besant, who succeeded Olcott as President of the Theosophical Society, clearly identified its role as a religious and cultural one to the exclusion of politics. 4) At first she even said that the genius of India 'is for religion and not for politics, and her most gifted children are needed as spiritual teachers, not as competing candidates in the political arena.' 5) By 1915, however, she had founded the All-India Home Rule League in a clear attempt to foist a more radical political programme onto the Indian National Congress. Her success in doing so climaxed, moreover, with her being elected President of the Congress in 1917. Although the All-India Home Rule League remained independent of the Society, and although Besant generally continued to deny that the Theosophical Society was in any way political, the League relied heavily on people and networks brought together by the Society. Once again, therefore, whatever the official position of the Society, and whatever Besant might have said or intended, it quite clearly played a political role within India.

The explanation of the political role played by the Theosophical Society lies primarily in the significance of the religious ideas for which it stood within the context of colonial India. In India, theosophy became an integral part of a wider movement of neo-Hinduism, and this neo-Hinduism helped to provide Indian nationalists with a legitimating ideology, a new-found confidence, and experience of organisation. In thus unpacking the general pressures that pushed a political role onto theosophy, we will have to abstract somewhat from the particular role of individuals with their peculiar gifts and quirks, and of theosophical lodges with their intricate personal and social networks, but at least we will do so for a good cause; we will do so in order to say something more general about the relationship between religious reform movements and political nationalism in late colonial India.

Theosophy and neo-Hinduism

The Theosophical Society was formed in America in 1875. 6) It has three explicit aims: to explore the psychic powers latent within man, to promote the study of comparative religion, and to defend human brotherhood. Beyond these explicit aims, it stands for Blavatsky's modern occultism, according to which the ancient wisdom, or the universal religion, derives from the east. Theosophy arose as part of an upsurge of occult movements throughout the west in the late nineteenth-century. Indeed, its specific roots were in the spiritualist movement, with Blavatsky and Olcott meeting when both of them went to investigate spirit-raps in Vermont. 7)

Blavatsky transformed the occult tradition in two highly significant ways. 8) The first of these appears in the way she rewrote the ancient wisdom in response to the scientific and moral doctrines that were then producing such a widespread crisis of faith. Here she incorporated a modern geological time-scale, a theory of evolution, and a concern with duty and service within her theosophical teachings. The whole universe, she argued, emanates from an infinite being that infuses all things, and thereafter it evolves through a plethora of cycles, moving out from the infinite and becoming increasingly physical, until, at last, it reaches a turning point, after which it retraces its route, finally being reabsorbed into the divine from whence it first arose. The driving force behind the evolutionary process, therefore, is not a blind mechanical law but the purposive movement of divine spirit. All people, all things, all matter contain a divine spirit, a divine spirit which is the 'source of all forces, alone and indestructible.' 9)

Moreover, Blavatsky continued, we can come into contact with the divine spark within us by adopting an appropriate set of ascetic practices: mystics purify themselves in order to have an unmediated experience of their true unity with God. Although the most advanced portion of humanity already have become highly spiritual beings, some of them have chosen to watch over our progress, and, when necessary, to aid us by suitable interventions in the physical and spiritual realms. Blavatsky claimed these Masters constituted a Great White Brotherhood of Mahatmas who lived in the Himalayas and who gave her her orders. 10) It was they who instructed her to establish the Theosophical Society, and it was they who told her what to write in her works.

The second significant way in which Blavatsky transformed the occult tradition was to identify India as the source of the ancient wisdom. Whereas earlier occultists typically traced their doctrines back to ancient Egypt, she argued that the 'very same ideas expressed in almost identical language, may be read in Buddhistic and Brahmanical literature.' 11) Impressed by the work of orientalists, such as Jacolliot and Jones, on the antiquity of Indian religions and their influence on western culture, she claimed that Judaism, Christianity, indeed all faiths, had their roots in a universal religion she equated with the teachings of the Vedas. No doubt Indian religions really did embrace some doctrines resembling those Blavatsky arrived at whilst reworking the occult tradition to meet a widespread crisis of faith in the west. Nonetheless, certain features of contemporary Hinduism, such as child marriage and suti, clearly did not fit at all well with her idea that India embodied the ancient wisdom. Blavatsky resolved this difficulty by distinguishing the corrupted, exoteric teachings and practices found in modern Hinduism from the true, esoteric ones of ancient Brahmanism. Modern India needed reform; its people needed to return to the pure ways of the Vedas.

Eventually Blavatsky and Olcott decided to travel to India, where they landed at Bombay in January 1879. Not surprisingly they soon attracted interest, and even some support, from within the British community. Westerners living in India were not immune from the crisis of faith that had led various people in Europe and America - including powerful and respected families such as the Balfours, Gladstones, and Sidgwicks - to dabble in spiritualism, and in India too an interest in spiritualism easily could develop into one in theosophy. Blavatsky and Olcott obtained their entry into Imperial society, for example, largely through the good offices of A. P. Sinnett, whose theosophical convictions developed out of his earlier fascination with spiritualism. 12) Similarly, Allan Octavian Hume met Blavatsky at Allahabad, and after spending some time with her, he concluded that many of the spiritualist phenomena associated with her - phenomena about which Sinnett wrote a book - were genuine. 13) Hume joined the Theosophical Society in 1880, became President of its Simla Lodge in 1881, and he seems also to have provided much of the financial support for the launch of The Theosophist. Although he broke with Blavatsky and resigned his post in the Simla Lodge in 1883, he still continued to believe in her teachings - in the existence of the Mahatmas and in their special mission to aid the spiritual evolution of humanity.

If the appeal of theosophy to some westerners in India should not surprise us, the same might not appear to be true of its appeal to Indians. After all, men such as Subramanian Aiyar, B. M. Malabari, Raganath Rao, Nurendranath Sen, and Kashinath Telang can scarcely be said to have responded to a crisis in Christianity by turning to spiritualism. Actually, however, the appeal of theosophy to these Indians is not hard to explain. Not only did Blavatsky assure them of the worth of their cultural heritage, she also unpacked this cultural heritage in a way that soothed fears and concerns raised in them by their contact with contemporary western ideas and practices. Western-educated Hindus were almost bound to experience some sort of cultural dislocation - a tension between the religious tradition in which they had been raised and the apparent scientific and ethical rationalism of the west - and theosophy constituted one way in which they could deal with this dislocation. 14)

The suitability of theosophy as a belief-system for Hindus struggling to come to terms with the impact of the west on their cultural heritage appears in the extent to which it incorporates doctrines characteristic of Hindu reform movements of that time. Blavatsky, like Swami Vivekannanda and Sri Aurobindo, and, perhaps slightly more awkwardly, like Dayananda Sarasvati, eulogised the Hindu tradition whilst also calling for reform of corruptions found in its modern expressions. She, like them, evoked a true Hinduism that incorporated a monotheistic and evolutionary cosmology according to which the divine could be found at work within all things. She, like them, evoked an idealised past in which Indian society had been a pure and harmonious expression of this true, spiritual Hinduism. And she, like them, wanted modern Indians to return to this true Hinduism by purging their society of corruptions such as child-marriage. Hinduism, they all concluded, incorporates the central insights of modern science, such as a geological time-scale and a theory of evolution, and also a rational, even liberal, ethic emphasising things such as social service.

The powerful resemblances between the teachings of the Theosophical Society, the Ramakrishna movement, Aurobindo, and, perhaps slightly more awkwardly, the Arya Samaj, enables us to refer to them collectively as a distinct neo-Hinduism. 15) In thus bringing these reform movements together, we imply that they can be treated collectively as responses to the stress of phenomena such as modernisation and foreign belief-systems. They constitute a coherent and related set of religious ideas and movements constructed in a particular social and cultural context. They constitute a set of attempts to fashion a new spirituality to resolve the dilemmas posed by colonial rule and contemporary scientific discoveries. Locating them in their specific historical context in this way seems to be more or less indispensable if we are to explain theosophy's place among them. How else, after all, can we bring a product of western occultism that exhibited a fascination with spiritualism and natural magic into line with Hinduism as it developed in the late colonial era? To emphasise the historical specificity of such movements, however, need not be to deny that many of them had points of contact with traditional forms of Hinduism. It would be a mistake here to suppose that we must see these movements as either conforming to the Hindu tradition or as breaking completely with this tradition. It would be a mistake because all religious thinkers, all thinkers, necessarily innovate against an inherited background, retaining aspects of their inheritance at the same time as they modify it. The question we should ask, therefore, is: does neo-Hinduism exhibit sufficient novelty for us to regard it as a fairly decisive break within the Hindu tradition even though it obviously has some sort of continuity with this tradition? The answer surely must be yes. Yes, if only because Blavatsky, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, and others, all used concepts taken from modern western thought - notably evolution - and, crucially, to accommodate all of these alien concepts they undoubtedly had to modify Hinduism to a considerable extent.

One other issue of historical context had perhaps best be dealt with before we proceed. To emphasise that neo-Hindu thinkers and movements exhibit common features explicable in terms of their shared historical setting is not to deny that they also differ from one another, with their differences often reflecting more specific features of their respective historical settings. A more detailed study might look at Vivekananda's Bengali heritage, the Punjabi setting of so much of the Arya Samaj's activities, or at the castes from which Indian theosophists came, and it might then trace these regional or social influences through to the political impact these various movements had. But even such detailed studies would occur within the context of the sort of general study we are undertaking here.

Theosophy and Nationalist Ideology

To some extent the place of theosophy within a broader neo-Hinduism means that in examining its political role we are looking at a particular instance of the more general relationship of neo-Hinduism to political nationalism. Certainly there are many interesting parallels between the way in which the theosophy of people such as Besant supported their nationalist thought and the way in which neo-Hinduism did so both for people vaguely influenced by theosophy, such as Gandhi, and also others, such as Aurobindo. Despite these interesting parallels, however, we will focus here on the particular case of theosophy.

To appreciate how theosophy fed into nationalist ideology, we have to contrast it with the official discourse of the Raj. Although Christianity clearly played very different roles in the lives of different individuals within British India, the colonial authorities equally clearly relied on a particular Christian discourse to define and to legitimise their role. The key idea was that only in a Christian society can individuals develop as properly rational beings in accord with the will of God. The Raj, in other words, was needed to secure the conditions under which Indians could realise their God-given capacities. 16) Hindu society, in contrast, was denounced, first, for obscuring the worth of the individual behind a fatalistic pantheism, and, second, for preventing a rational concern with the facts by representing the world as maya, that is, an evil illusion to be overcome by ascetic withdrawal. 17)

Theosophy turned upside-down the official denunciation of Hinduism. Whereas the ruling discourse of the Raj complained of Hinduism reducing the individual to a mere part of a greater whole, many theosophists complained of Christianity fostering an unhealthy individualism. Blavatsky taught, allegedly following traditional Hinduism, that all beings are manifestations of the one divine form and so interlinked with one another. Moreover, as Besant explained, this has as its 'inevitable corollary' acceptance of a 'Solidarity' based on 'universal Brotherhood.' 18) Hinduism, she argued, puts the individual in a proper relationship to the social whole; it recognises that the good of the individual is bound inextricably to that of society; it teaches us that 'the primary truth of Morality, as of Religion and of Science, is the Unity of Life.' 19) The unity of life does not imply a lack of respect for individual differences, nor does it imply a flat, western-style equality, defined in terms of the rights of man. Rather, it implies that individuals should use their diverse talents and abilities for the good of the whole. Hinduism, therefore, incorporates an admirable social morality. It teaches us that 'we live not to assert our rights but to do our duties, and so to make one mighty unit where each shall discharge his functions for the common good of all.' 20) It teaches us the importance of performing our dharma. The introduction of Christianity into India, however, undermined this traditional, Hindu focus on brotherhood, service, and duty. Christianity emphasises the salvation of the individual in a way that prevents people seeing themselves correctly as part of a social whole: it encourages the illusory idea, so popular in the west, that the individual is an independent entity with private ends; it leads people to think in terms of individual rights rather than social duties.

Moreover, whereas the ruling discourse of the Raj complained of Hinduism encouraging an ascetic withdrawal from the world conceived as an evil illusion, many theosophists complained of western thought failing to provide an adequate basis for moral action. They argued that Hinduism offers us a purely natural account of ethics based on the doctrine of reincarnation and the law of Karma. Because the current evils afflicting people are the necessary consequences of their past actions, therefore, people have a reason to behave morally - they know they later will reap the harvest of what they now sow. In theosophical writings, the concept of karma generally acts as a call to action; it requires us to strive to make life better for others and so for ourselves. Although Hinduism teaches us we can escape from a cycle of rebirths only by ridding ourselves of desire, we should take this teaching as an injunction to renounce only selfish desires, not the desire to do good unto others. Besant, for instance, told her fellow theosophists, 'the word of freedom' is 'Sacrifice - that which is done for the sake of carrying out the Divine Will in the world'; she told them, 'that which you do as living in God and doing God's work - that action alone does not bind the man, for it is an action that is sacrifice, and has no binding power.' 21)

The law of karma does not mean that we have a fate to be endured. It means that we are called upon to act selflessly for the good of others. Hinduism, and its concept of karma, therefore, provide an impetus to rational, moral behaviour in a way neither western science nor Christianity does. On the one hand, the materialist premises of western science seem to rule out belief in a divine or ethical order, so science has undermined supernaturalism - faith in the Bible as revealed truth - without providing an alternative, naturalist account of ethics. On the other hand, Christianity, with its doctrine of vicarious atonement, suggests that one can commit sins with impunity provided only that one later repents in faith. As Blavatsky explained to her aunt:

"A Buddhist, Brahmanist, Lamaist, and Mahomedan does not take alcohol, does not steal, does not lie while he holds fast to the principles of his own heathen religion. But as soon as the Christian missionaries appear, as soon as they enlighten the heathen with Christ's faith, he becomes a drunkard, a thief, a liar, a hypocrite. While they are heathen, every one of them knows that each sin of his will return to him according to the law of justice and readjustment. A Christian ceases to rely on himself, he loses self-respect. 'I shall meet a priest, he will forgive me,' as answered a newly initiated to Father Kiriak." 22)
Western thought undermines the traditional Hindu basis for moral behaviour.

The theosophists' defence of Hinduism fed readily into an idealisation of a golden age in Indian history. Whereas the official discourse of the Raj portrayed India as an unchanging land in which individual liberty lay crushed beneath religious superstition and traditional custom, theosophy implied that traditional Indian society embodied an ideal religion and ethic. The Indian nation, in essence, was an organic community of individuals bound together to pursue spiritual enlightenment through a recognition of personal duty. The Aryan polity, with its caste system, was designed to serve the religious purpose of advancing the universal process of spiritual evolution. For a start, Aryan society aided the growth of the soul by subordinating man's lower nature to his higher one. The hierarchy of castes showed that the Aryans prized spiritual life over material luxury, for, as Besant explained, 'the highest caste in the older days, the Brahmans, were a poor class, and the wealth of the Brahman lay in his wisdom, not in his money-bags.' 23) The Aryans lived pure, simple lives dedicated to the conquest of their lower selves as a means to contact with the divine. In addition, Aryan society promoted spiritual advancement by defining, and so encouraging performance of, one's dharma. The location of individuals within a caste indicates that they are part of a greater whole. Each individual occupies a specific place within a social whole, and has a duty to act in accord with that place. Caste indicates the nature of people's dharma. It encourages them to do their duty and thereby facilitates their spiritual development. Finally, the emphasis the Aryans placed on simple living and social duty produced an organic community in which religion ruled social conduct and each individual cared for his neighbours. Aryan society was an association of individuals bound together in pursuit of shared spiritual goals, not a neutral arena in which atomistic individuals fought for competing, private goods.

According to Besant, the self-governing village stood as the institutional embodiment of the organic nature of Aryan society. The village had been the fundamental, enduring feature of Indian society through the ages: emperors came and went, but the village remained as a self-sufficient community providing stability and continuity in the lives of ordinary people. Each village was composed of a core area of buildings for living, working, and resting, surrounded by arable land, then pasture land, and finally a natural or planted forest. The village owned the land on which it was situated, and the villagers treated each piece of land as a common possession on loan to the family cultivating it. Everyone had a common right to both the pasture land, where they grazed animals under the watchful eye of a shepherd, and the forest, where they gathered wood for fuel and building. Each village supported craftsmen, such as carpenters and potters, and professionals, such as astrologists and priests, by granting them a share in village lands, or, more usually, village crops, and by making gifts to them during religious festivals. The life of the community always revolved around the temple which fostered religion and moral culture. Everybody willingly devoted time and effort to work on communal projects such as digging wells.

A view of Indian society as organic and spiritual left theosophists needing a very different historiography from that incorporated in the official discourse of the Raj. They could not accept that India was a land of unchanging superstitions being liberated and made rational by the British. Instead, they needed to explain how Indian society had fallen away from the Aryan ideal. Typically they did so by pointing to the disruptive effects of foreign, and especially British, rule. Earlier invaders rarely touched the soul of India. Indeed, India typically captured the invaders by turning them into Aryans whilst also being enriched by their culture. The British, in contrast, had destroyed the great religious basis of India by pushing western ideas and habits on to her people. The crucial difference, at least according to Besant, was that the British had been the first foreigners to come to India exclusively for profit with no intention of learning from her culture. They had invaded India not to spread Christianity, nor to free a subject people, nor to find adventure, but rather to trade, and, in particular, to find new markets for the products that they produced in such vast quantities after the industrial revolution. They had even conquered India by the dishonest means of the merchant class. The East India Company paid scant heed to treaties and also initiated quarrels among Indians. It played rulers off against one another by, say, hiring troops to one until he became too powerful when they would help his rival. Indeed, almost every quarrel in eighteenth-century India was encouraged, or actively started, by Europeans fighting over trade. 'England,' Besant concluded, 'did not "conquer her [India] by the sword" but by the help of her own swords, by bribery, intrigue, and most quiet diplomacy, fomenting of divisions, and playing of one party against another.' 24)

Once the British had conquered India, they systematically discredited Hinduism by teaching not the indigenous literature and religion, but rather subjects designed to produce the clerks needed first by the East India Company and then by Imperial rule. Worse still, the British had instilled in India a European concern with rights. Thus, Indians now regarded caste as a mark of privilege and status indicating how much respect an individual should be shown. Caste now stood for social distinction, not social duty, so that the lower castes had naturally become angry and jealous of the higher ones. The resulting conflicts ruined Indian society, for 'out of the base marriage of Caste to Separateness, instead of the true wedlock of Caste with Service, there sprang a huge and monstrous progeny of social evils, which preyed, and are still preying, on the life of India.' 25) As well as corrupting the great religious culture of India, British rule had destroyed her economy and denied her people the right to self-government. Besant complained of the drain on Indian wealth that was needed to pay for the India Office, pensions to retired civil servants, and an army only allegedly needed to defend India's frontiers. British rule had led to increased taxation of the Indian peasant, and so, in turn, to recurring famines and a neglect of the public works, such as irrigation, that were needed to promote economic development. In addition, the British had ruined the self-governing village of the Aryans by introducing peasant proprietors instead of common ownership of the land, and also by replacing elected officers responsible to the village itself with appointed officials responsible to the higher echelons of government. The British had failed to recognise, let alone to use, the genius of the Indian people for democratically managing their own affairs. They ruled India though an administrative bureaucracy that paid no attention to the voices of Indians, but relied instead on executive fiat reinforced by large doses of repressive legislation.

Theosophists denied, therefore, that the British were creating the basis for a liberal and rational form of government in India. On the contrary, the British had brought to India a corrupt individualism and decadent materialism which had done much to destroy the glories of the Aryan polity. The key political question was not how long it would take the Indians to adopt the Christian values needed for self-rule. It was, rather, how best to return India to its true self.

The whole tenor of theosophy led, therefore, to a view of India's nature, its past and its current situation, very different from the one that informed the Raj. But theosophy did not just question the self-justification of British rule, it also promoted, with respect to India, those doctrines we regard as characteristic of nationalist movements wherever they arise - the glories of the native culture, a golden age sometime in the past, and, of course, a bewailing of the disruptive effects of foreign rule. In promoting nationalist doctrines, theosophy encouraged Indians to ask themselves not 'how can we adopt for ourselves the British system of governance?' but rather 'how can we recapture our former glories?' There were, of course, all sorts of answers they might give to the latter question, not all of which entailed independence, but then not all nationalists demanded independence. What theosophy certainly did do, particularly when placed alongside other forms of neo-Hinduism, was to provide a clear basis for a nationalist ideology. The British often argued that India could not be united and independent because the Indian people did not constitute a nation - the Indian people belonged to diverse regions, faiths, and castes, each of which had its own special identity. Neo-Hinduism, including theosophy, gave nationalists a clear response to this argument. Nationalists could say not only that India had been a nation in a past golden age, but also that she was becoming one again. Nationalists could point to objective factors promoting a sense of national identity - British rule over the whole of the sub-continent and a growth of economic links between the regions - to the emergence of a subjective awareness of a national identity - a growing sense of a common past and a shared predicament - and to the growth of all-India organisations for religious reform. The Indian nation, they could say, was at last waking up from its long slumber.

Theosophy and neo-Hinduism helped to provide Indian nationalists with an ideology. They encouraged nationalists to describe India as a unified entity that had a common heritage and that faced a common set of problems requiring an all-India solution. They popularised a belief in a golden age when India had been a paradise free from the spiritual and social problems of modernity. Even today, they suggested, India has a valuable understanding of matters of the spirit that is absent from the west, and without which the west can not for long avert disaster. 26) Unfortunately, however, a number of corruptions had crept into Indian spirituality and thereby undermined this golden age, corruptions that Blavatsky characteristically equated with passages she thought the Brahmins had added to the sacred texts so as to justify a distasteful version of the caste system. It was these corruptions that had left India vulnerable to British rule, arguably even in need of British rule to provide the necessary impetus to reform. A suitable scheme of reform, however, would enable India to attain independence and to recover her lost greatness.

Theosophy and Nationalist Politics

When Olcott disembarked at Bombay in 1879, the first thing he did was 'stoop down and kiss the granite step' in an 'instinctive act of 'pooja'. 27) Olcott and Blavatsky then went to live in the Indian quarters of the city, not among the Europeans. From then on, they constantly lauded Indian religions and cultures, arguing that the true source of all religion lies in the Vedas. The theosophists thought of India as a sacred land, so they showed it, its people, and their practices, a respect verging at times on worship. Theosophy helped to provide Indians not only with a nationalist ideology but also with a new confidence in the worth of their culture. It suggested that their past, their customs, their religion, and their way of life, were as good as, even better than, those of their Imperial rulers. If such confidence was in some ways an inevitable corollary of Indians adopting theosophical beliefs, the same can not be said of the other great contribution theosophy made to the nationalist movement. The Theosophical Society, and neo-Hindu groups in general, provided nationalists with experience of organisation - of coming together and acting in consort - and with contacts and networks which they then could draw upon for political purposes.

Nineteenth-century Indians had little experience of modern politics with its emphasis on popular participation and agitation. Indeed, India as a whole remained, in many ways, a divided society with few co-operative lines of communication running between its different regions, castes and classes. 28) Neo-Hinduism did much to change this. Even Dayananda, although he initially set out to reform Hinduism by converting his fellow Brahmins alone - he conveyed his message through Sanskrit and retained the dress and traditions of the sannyasi - later used the Arya Samaj to appeal to the Hindu faithful as a whole - he adopted Hindi and dropped most of the practices of the sannyasi. 29) Theosophy was especially important here, however, because of the very diversity of those it brought together. Whereas the Arya Samaj had little impact except on Punjabi Hindus, and the Brahmo Sabha except on Bengali Hindus, the Theosophical Society was more of an all-India organisation. Its members came from all over the sub-continent. Besides Hindus, it attracted Parsees, Christians, Sikhs, and even a few Muslims. 30) At least as importantly, it brought members of the western-educated elite of Indian society, such as Aiyar, Rao, and Sen into close contact with liberal members of the British community, such as Sinnett and Hume. The Society held annual conventions from 1881 onwards, and these gatherings provided a diverse group of sympathetic people with the opportunity to discuss the past, present, and future of India. Networks were formed, an understanding of how to deal with others was gained, and a growing sense of a common identity and common purpose was promoted. The importance of these networks can be seen at work in the formation of the Indian National Congress and again in the activities of the All-India Home Rule League.

I: The Formation of Congress

From 1875 through to 1885 a number of young nationalists became increasingly disaffected with their older leaders. Their alienation first became apparent in 1876 when a group of young Bengalis, led by Surendranath Banerjea, formed the Indian Association of Calcutta. 31) They broke with the established British Indian Association of Bengal because they thought it was tied to the zamindars, who showed little, if any, desire to end British rule. Sen, the editor of the Indian Daily Mirror, was a prominent member of both the Theosophical Society and the Indian Association of Calcutta. Early in 1885, he first put forward a proposal for an all-India nationalist association, and then, together with Banerjea and others, began to organise a conference for that December to form just such an all-India body. The inspiration for Sen's proposal might well have come from Madras, which had been the venue for the 1884 annual convention of the Theosophical Society, during which Raganath Rao argued that the Society should formally discuss political issues as well as religious ones. Although Rao did not get his way, he managed to arrange a political discussion at a separate meeting across the road form the official convention. Theosophists, including Aiyar, Ananda Charlu, M. Viraraghavachariar, and, of course, Rao himself, met as private individuals to promote a nationalist agenda. Soon afterwards they formed the Madras Mahajana Sabha, arguing that the established Madras Native Association had ceased to be of any value to the nationalist cause. Sen had attended some of the meetings leading up to the formation of the Madras Mahajana Sabha, and he surely must have had some knowledge of its plan to establish an all-India organisation at a meeting scheduled to coincide with the next annual convention of the Theosophical Society. Later in 1885, Malabari, Telang and other nationalists, such as Pherozeshah Mehta and Dadabhai Naoroji, formed the Bombay Presidency Association as a more radical alternative to the older Bombay Association. Throughout India, theosophists were joining with other young nationalists to advance a more radical agenda, at the very heart of which lay the idea of an all-India organisation.

The single most important individual behind the formation of the Indian National Congress was arguably Hume. In 1878 Hume read various documents that convinced him that large sections of the Indian population violently opposed British rule and even plotted rebellion. 32) These documents were communications he had received, supposedly from the Mahatmas of which Blavatsky spoke, but presumably from Blavatsky herself. In one of the letters the Mahatmas sent Sinnett, they described how the Great White Brotherhood had controlled the Indian masses during the Rebellion of 1857 so as to preserve an Imperial rule necessary apparently to bring India to her true place in the world. 33) Now the Mahatmas seemed to be directing Hume to maintain the correct balance between east and west. 34) Even after Hume turned against Blavatsky, he continued to believe in the Mahatmas. He thought they had chosen to pass some of their understanding on to him, and, in particular, to warn him of an impending catastrophe so that he could ward-off disaster. Hume set about averting disaster in two ways. First, he tried to convince Ripon to reform the administration of India so as to make it more responsive to the Indian people. 35) Second, he tried to promote an all-India organisation so as to give voice to nationalist concerns and aspirations. 36)

Although Hume helped to form the Bombay Presidency Association, really he wanted to create an all-India body, and throughout 1885 he used the Bombay group as a springboard from which to promote the idea of an Indian National Union. He soon acquired the backing of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha as well as the Bombay group for an all-India political conference to be held in Poona during December 1885. His quarrel with Blavatsky meant, however, that he had to work harder to win over the theosophists of the Madras Mahajana Sabha and the Indian Association of Calcutta. By May, he had visited Madras to discuss his proposals for the Poona conference with the members of the Mahajana Sabha, and also to put forward his views on the way the Theosophical Society should develop. He convinced the local leaders to fall in with his plans for an Indian National Union. Next he travelled to Calcutta where he seems to have contacted several prominent members of the Indian Association. Although Sen decided to give his backing to Hume, many of the others, under Banerjea's leadership, did not, preferring instead to go ahead with their alternative conference. An outbreak of cholera in Poona forced Hume to change the venue of his proposed conference, but, finally, in December 1885, the Indian National Union convened in Bombay. 37) Those present immediately renamed themselves the Indian National Congress, and when the Congress next met in December 1886, it did so in Calcutta, thus ensuring the adherence of Banerjea's alternative National Conference. 38)

The Indian National Congress was formed by nationalists from all over India under the leadership of a retired British official. Hume worked alongside people he had met at the annual conventions of the Theosophical Society - Malabari, Rao, and Sen - to arrange the founding conference of the Congress. The Theosophical Society helped to make it possible for Hume to meet and co-operate with these Indian nationalists, and had it not done so, the formation of an all-India political body would have been, at the very least, harder. 'No Indian could have started the Indian National Congress,' wrote G. K. Gokhale; indeed, 'if the founder of the Congress had not been a great Englishman and a distinguished ex-official, such was the distrust of political agitation in those days that the authorities would have at once found some way or other to suppress the movement'. 39)

II. The All-India Home Rule League

By 1914 the Indian National Congress had become an established organisation. The triumph of the moderates over the extremists had left it, moreover, with a significantly restricted and rather non-confrontational political vision. When Besant entered the political arena, after years of devoting herself to religious, educational, and social work, she tried to foist a more radical position onto the Congress. She demanded self-government for India in the immediate future, and she wanted the Congress to advance this demand by heading a campaign of educative propaganda, a campaign using many of the techniques with which she had become familiar as a radical agitator in Britain. 'Congress,' she said, raises little 'enthusiasm' among Indians since it continues in 'the same groove, passing year after year similar resolutions and making little substantial progress.' 40) What the Congress should do, she continued, is to formulate, proclaim, and promote the views of educated India on all matters of public importance. More particularly, each year it should select various topics for discussion and then conduct an educative campaign around them. Politics, she concluded, should become a permanent feature of the life of the Indian people, not a three day event circumscribed by the annual Congress. All through 1914, Besant published, in her new daily paper, New India, a series of articles debating the role that Congress should play. Many of the more vociferous articles in support of her views came from fellow theosophists such as Krishna Rao and Aiyar, although she also attracted support from other nationalists. 41) At the Madras Congress of 1914, Besant put forward a constitutional amendment in line with her views, but suffered defeat in the Subjects Committee. 42) Despite this defeat, her proposals continued to gain momentum, with, for example, young theosophists in Bombay, led by Jamnadas Dwarkadas, publishing a paper, Young India, to promote her programme. 43) When Besant failed once more to introduce changes at the Bombay Congress of 1915, she founded a new organisation, the All-India Home Rule League. 44)

The League was formed on 3 September 1916 at a meeting in Gokhale Hall, Madras. George Arundale, a British theosophist who became Organising Secretary of the League, gave a speech in which he said that Besant already had sent him on a tour of north India 'to draw recruits around the Home Rule flag, to help to organise educative propaganda, and above all else to send to the coming Congress, delegates pledged to make the policy of Home Rule the dominant policy of the National Congress.' 45) What he did not say was that when Besant sent out home rule missionaries, they generally stayed with local theosophists who made the practical arrangements for the meetings they addressed. 46) Besant and Arundale were not the only western theosophists to play prominent roles in the League: Miss S. H. Burdett, a former suffragette, became his secretary, Miss Gmeiner, the headmistress of a girl's school, helped to establish the Delhi branch, and Miss Francesca Arundale was a leading figure in the Benares branch. The League also drew heavily on the support of Indian theosophists. The Council of the League consisted of Besant, Arundale, Aiyar, who served as Recording Secretary of the Society, B. P. Wadia, a Parsi and theosophist from Bombay who then lived in the Society's headquarters at Adyar, and A. Rasul and Pandharinath Telang, both of whom were members of the Society; only Ramaswami Aiyar was not a theosophist, and even he was a sympathiser. Moreover, although the membership of the League rose to about five times that of the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society, Indian theosophists often provided the impetus behind, and core members of, the branches of the League: in Tanjore, Srinivasa Aiyar headed the local branches of the Society and the League; in Calicut, Manjeri Ramier held an office in both organisations; and so one could go on - sixty-eight of the seventy people who founded the Bombay City branch of the League were members of the Society. 47) Clearly the two organisations became deeply entwined with one another: when Wadia visited Guntur in October 1916, he spent one day engaged in home rule work and another in theosophical work. 48) Many of the leading home rulers were inspired by Besant's religious teachings as President of the Society. They saw participation in the League as an expression of their spiritual or theosophical commitments. Jamnadas Dwarkadas saw Besant as his 'adorable Guru', describing his meeting her as a greater landmark in his life than his marriage; and his brother, Kanchi Dwarkadas, saw himself as Besant's 'chela', describing becoming a theosophist as 'the happiest and most important decision I ever made.' 49)

The League pursued its programme of educative propaganda vigorously through late 1916 and early 1917. When the Governments of Bombay, the Central Provinces, and Madras, banned students from meetings, and the Governments of Bombay, Madras, and Punjab seemed to be close to banning home-rule agitation as such, Besant denounced the Government, and even spoke of meeting any ban with passive resistance. 50) In response, the Government of Madras interned her, along with Arundale and Wadia in June 1917. The internments only stirred-up even more of an outcry, until, in September, in an attempt to calm things down, she was released. By then, however, Besant had become a nationalist heroine who was elected President at the Calcutta Congress in 1917. Although her popularity diminished rapidly, the home rule agitation had set the scene for Gandhi's entry onto the national stage.


Despite the Theosophical Society's avowedly apolitical nature, it clearly played an important role in the growth of Indian nationalism. Not only were individual theosophists, such as Hume, Besant, and the Dwarkadas brothers, key figures in the development of nationalist thought and organisation; nor is it just a matter of many of the leading activists of the freedom struggle, including Gandhi and Nehru, having been influenced by theosophy; the key point is rather the general picture within which these details about individuals gain their significance, a general picture of theosophy as an integral part of the cultural and social context out of which the nationalist movement arose.

At first sight there might seem to be something odd about a Society emerging from the western occult tradition becoming so enmeshed within Indian culture and politics. Once we look further, however, this oddity gives way to an understanding based on a recognition of how ideas forged in one context can take on a radically different political colouring when transposed to another one. Blavatsky might have developed theosophy largely as a reworking of the occult tradition in the light of a post-Darwinian crisis of faith, and her western followers, including Hume and Besant, might have turned to theosophy precisely because it seemed to resolve questions raised in them by this crisis of faith, but within India the most important theosophical doctrine was undoubtedly Blavatsky's identification of the universal religion with the Brahmanism of the Vedas. Because theosophy both eulogised the ancient faith of India and also interpreted this faith as incorporating modern scientific doctrines such as evolution, therefore it had an obvious appeal to western-educated Indians looking for a way to reconcile their indigenous culture with the new learning. Moreover, despite Blavatsky's concern to avoid politics, any set of doctrines that thus encouraged Indians to equate their ancient culture with the ideal was almost bound to have a radical political significance within the context of the Raj.

Theosophy was, of course, only one of several movements at the turn of the century that encouraged Indians to equate their ancient culture with the ideal. Other religious thinkers and movements, such as the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, and Aurobindo eulogised Vedic Hinduism as a universal religion of unmatched purity that both incorporated the truths of modern science and that sustained an idyllic society. Despite important differences between them, therefore, theosophy and these other movements did much to develop and promote an analysis of India's past, present, and future, that provided fertile soil for nationalism. India, they suggested, had a highly valuable indigenous culture that had flourished in an earlier golden age; but although this culture continued to provide the basis of a real national identity, the golden age had come to an end as a result of the disruptive effects of foreign rule; so now Indians needed to revive this culture - purging it of later abuses and distortions - and thereby liberate themselves. In addition, and again despite important differences between them, theosophy and these other movements created networks of individuals, patterns of organisation, and modes of behaviour that nationalists could draw on to create a political movement. The Indian National Congress and the All-India Home Rule League certainly drew for their formation, and at least some of their activities, on a social basis that had been established by the Theosophical Society.


1) I thank the Leverhulme Trust for awarding me a Travel Abroad Studentship with which to pursue my research.

2) The Theosophist, October 1879.

3) Olcott, H. Old Diary Leaves: The History of the Theosophical Society. 6 Vols. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972/75. Vol. 1, pp. 254-57. Biographies of Blavatsky include the eulogising Fuller, J. Blavatsky and Her Teachers. London: East-West Publications, 1988; and the condemnatory Williams, G. Madame Blavatsky: Priestess of the Occult. New York: Lancer Books, 1946.

4) Besant wrote two autobiographies. See Besant, A. Autobiographical Sketches. London: Freethought, 1885; and Besant, A. An Autobiography. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing, 1983. The main biographies are Nethercot, A. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. London: R. Hart-Davis, 1961; Nethercot, A. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. London: R. Hart- Davis, 1963; and Taylor, A. Annie Besant. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

5) Besant, A. 'India's Mission Among Nations', in India: Essays and Addresses. London: Theosophical Publishing, 1913. p. 3.

6) On the history of the Theosophical Society in the west, see Campbell, B. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980; Ellwood, R. ‘The American Theosophical Synthesis’, in The Occult in America: New Historical Perspectives. Edited by H. Kerr & C. Crow. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983. pp. 111-34; and Washington, P. Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru. London: Secker & Warburg, 1993.

7) Olcott, H. People From the Other World. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1875. On the relation of theosophy to spiritualism, see Oppenheim, J. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychological Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. pp. 159-97.

8) Bevir, M. 'The West Turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition', in Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXII (1994), pp. 747-67.

9) Blavatsky, H. P. Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. 2 Vols. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972. Vol. 2, p. 588.

10) See Johnson, K. The Masters Revealed: Madam Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York, 1994.

11) Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled. Vol. 1, p. 626.

12) Sinnett, A. P. The Autobiography of Alfred Percy Sinnett. London: Theosophical History Centre, 1986.

13) Sinnett, A. P. The Occult World. London: Trubner & Co., 1881.

14) Compare the role ascribed to theosophy in Gandhi, M. An Autobiography, in Collected Works, Vol. 39. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1958-95; Nehru, J. An Autobiography. London: John Lane, 1936; and Pal, B. Memories of My Life and Times, Vol. 1. Calcutta: Modern Book Agency, 1932.

15) Studies that emphasise the way these movements constitute a hiatus within the Hindu tradition include Bharati, A. 'The Hindu Renaissance and Its Apologetic Patterns', in Journal of Asian Studies 29 (1970), pp. 267-88; Hacker, P. 'Aspects of Neo-Hinduism as Contrasted with Surviving Traditional Hinduism', in Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta. Edited by W. Halbfass. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1995. pp. 229-55; and Halbfass, W. India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988. pp. 219ff.

16) Compare, Studdart-Kennedy, G. British Christians, Indian Nationalists, and the Raj. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

17) Compare the general construction of Hinduism within western Indology as described in Inden, R. Imagining India. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

18) Besant, A. What is Theosophy? Adyar, Madras: Theosophist Office, 1912. p. 9. One of her earliest theosophical articles considered the relationship between karma and social action. See Lucifer, August 1889.

19) Besant, A. The Basis of Morality. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing, 1915. p. 26.

20) Besant, A. 'The Place of Politics in the Life of a Nation', in India: Essays and Addresses, op cit., p. 131.

21) Ibid. p. 25.

22) The Theosophist, September 1950. For the contemporary disquiet over the morality of atonement, see Altholz, J. ‘The Warfare of Conscience with Theology’, in The Mind and Art of Victorian England. Edited by J. Altholz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976. pp. 58-77.

23) Besant, A. The East and The West. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Office, 1908. pp. 22-23.

24) Besant, A. How India Wrought for Freedom. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing, 1915. pp. LV-LVI.

25) Besant, A. 'East and West', in India: Essays and Addresses, op cit., p. 78.

26) On the dichotomy between the west as materialistic and India as spiritual, see King, U. Indian Spirituality, Western Materialism: An Image and Its Function in the Reinterpretation of Modern Hinduism. New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1985.

27) Olcott, Old Diary Leaves. Vol. 2, pp. 213-14.

28) That these divisions within Indian society persisted during the nationalist era has since been emphasised by both the Cambridge School (Seal, A. The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Late Nineteenth Century. London: Cambridge University Press, 1968) and the Subaltern Studies movement (Guha, R. [ed.] Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Vol. 1. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982).

29) Jordens, J. Dayananda Sarasvati: His Life and Ideas. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978.

30) See ‘Membership Lists’, Archives of the Theosophical Society (A.T.S.), Adyar, Madras. It is significant that various theosophists even complained that Besant’s close identification with Hinduism transgressed the Society’s principle of remaining equally open to all faiths. See, for example, The Theosophist, March 1894.

31) Banerjea, S. A Nation in the Making: Being the Reminiscences of Fifty Years of Public Life. London: H. Milford, 1925.

32) Wedderburn, W. Allan Octavian Hume: Father of the Indian National Congress, 1829-1912. London: Fisher Unwin, 1913. pp. 78-83. Wedderburn somewhat glossed over the place of Theosophy - especially the Mahatmas - in his account of Hume's political work. No doubt he did so because he was a friend of Hume's, and he regarded Hume's attachment to them as superstitious and so disreputable.

33) Morya. The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. Compiled by A. T. Barker. London: T. Fisher & Unwin, 1923. p. 324.

34) Ripon Papers, British Library, London.

35) Ibid.

36) Wedderburn, Allan Octavian Hume, op cit.

37) Reports of the Indian National Congress. 1885/86.

38) Ibid.

39) Wedderburn, Allan Octavian Hume, op cit., pp. 63-4.

40) New India, 17 October 1914.

41) New India, 22 & 24 October 1914.

42) ‘Proceedings of the All-India Congress Committee Meeting held on the 30th December, 1914’, Political Papers of Annie Besant (P.P.A.B.), A.T.S., Part 2, File 13.

43) Other theosophists involved in forming Young India included: Shankarlal Banker, Kanji Dwarkadas, M. R. Jayakar, K. M. Munshi, Umar Sobhani, and Pandharinath Telang who became its editor.

44) See Bevir, M. ‘The Formation of the All-India Home Rule League’, in Indian Journal of Political Science LII:3 (1991), pp. 1-16; and Owen, H. 'Toward Nation-Wide Agitation and Organisation: The Home Rule Leagues 1915-18', in Soundings in Modern South Asian History. Edited by D. Low. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968. pp. 159-95.

45) New India, 4 September 1916.

46) See various letters preserved in P.P.A.B.

47) Dwarkadas, K. India's Fight for Freedom 1913-17: An Eyewitness Story. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1966. p. 35.

48) New India, 31 October 1916.

49) Dwarkadas, J. Political Memoirs. Bombay: United Asia, 1969. p. 175; and Dwarkadas, India's Fight, op cit., p. 2.

50) See, for example, New India, 4 June 1917.

Biographical Note
Mark Bevir received his D.Phil. from the University of Oxford. He is now a member of the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. His recent publications include The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Contact Information
Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1950
Email: mbevir@socrates.berkeley.edu

"Theosophy as a Political Movement" was originally published in: A. Copley (Ed.), Gurus and their Followers: New Religious Reform Movements in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher, editor and the author.



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