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Theosophy on War and Peace

Originally printed in the September - October 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Ellwood, Robert S.. "Theosophy on War and Peace." Quest  91.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2003):164-170.

By Robert S. Ellwood

Robert EllwoodBoth of the principal founders of the Theosophical Society in 1875, the Russian emigrée Helena P. Blavatsky and the New York lawyer and journalist Henry Steel Olcott, had some background in military matters. Blavatsky’s father had been a career officer in the army of the czar, and Olcott had served the Union during the Civil War as an investigator of fraudulent suppliers, and also in the investigation of Lincoln’s assassination, acquiring the more or less the honorary title of Colonel.

But despite this exposure, the issue of a coherent Theosophical view on the morality and legitimacy of war does not seem to have presented itself forcefully to Blavatsky and Olcott. The latter does not appear to touch on it at all, and Helena Blavatsky refers to war only in passing and as a matter of course as the vast mythologies of The Secret Doctrine unfold, revealing conflicts between various primordial races.

Blavatsky’s The Key to Theosophy (1889) contains much indictment of the wrongs of society, stating as humanity’s due “full recognition of equal rights and privileges for all, and without distinction of race, color, social position, or birth,” and stating unequivocally that “the whole present system of politics is built on the oblivion of such rights, and the most fierce assertion of national selfishness.” But this important late work also affirms that Theosophy is not a political organization, and states that political reforms cannot be achieved before “we have effected a reform in human nature.” Work to influence public opinion is therefore important. Individual Theosophists may pursue their own reformist agendas, even if superficially different; by creating good karma and because of the solidarity of the human race, they will all work together for good in the end. War is not explicitly cited as an evil, unlike the evils of extremes of wealth and poverty; this is no doubt characteristic of the Anglo-American perspective of 1889. The late Victorian decades of relative peace obscured the war issue somewhat, but the horrors of the industrial revolution’s fetid urban slums, and the social injustice they betokened, were all too apparent.

With those ills, however, came the zeal of the late Victorian reformers, many of them women. No one was more characteristic of the type than Annie Besant (1847-1933). Once freed from her lot as an unhappy wife of an Anglican parson, she plunged into the frontlines of reform, working closely with the radical freethinker Charles Bradlaugh. She was heavily and very controversially involved in labor organization, dissemination of birth control information, the London School Board, the socialist Fabian Society, and much else. In 1889, after reviewing The Secret Doctrine, she moved away from atheistic free thought and joined the Theosophical Society, bringing to this new enthusiasm the social as well as intellectual passion that had animated her earlier commitments. While Theosophy had from the beginning tended to attract people of liberal inclination, it was Annie Besant more than any other single individual who made it a vehicle for what Catherine Wessinger has called “progressive messianism.” This viewpoint embraced, Wessinger believes, a millennialist belief in coming world perfection attained with superhuman help, in the persons of the Theosophical Masters and particularly the World Teacher, but achieved gradually rather than with apocalyptic suddenness. In Besant’s vision, the messianic process would bring to fruition all the worthy causes for which she had labored with somewhat less hope, at least on the spiritual side, in her pre-Theosophical days. She was in a good position to try to implement the vision after becoming International President of the (Adyar) Theosophical Society in 1907, an office she held till her death in 1933.

The issue of world peace and of finding a way to make war obsolete came more to the fore of public consciousness during Besant’s early Theosophical years in the 1890s and the Edwardian period. These years saw of the founding of the Nobel Peace Prize, the much-publicized Hague Conference on Peace in 1899, and the establishment of the World Court in that Dutch city. Attention to peace issues on the part of reformers grew as the world situation leading up to the First World War became more tense. That conflict was to sorely test the progressivist mood of the century’s first decade, at the same time pushing it into new dimensions.

In this situation Annie Besant wrote about war and peace on several occasions. In general the concept of dramatic world evolution, in which war might have a necessary part, took precedence for her over strict pacifism. This perspective was only enhanced by her Theosophical regard for the Hindu classics, in which—at least on the level of ordinary exoteric understanding—war played as central a part as in the comparable epics of Homer. Thus in her preface to a retelling of the Ramayana for Indian students, she writes of its climactic war by Rama and his monkey allies to rescue Sita from the demon Ravana in terms of the long sweep of evolution, saying, “In order that this evolution may take place, two things are necessary—two forces that apparently work the one against the other... The force that pushes against evolution is as necessary for it as the one which pushes it onwards.” In this unavoidable conflict it may be a requisite for an avatar like Rama to appear, as an “ideal king and warrior,” to exemplify the “manly virtues,” for “No nation can be great which lets slip out of its character these strong and virile virtues, and we must rebuild them in India’s sons.”

The circumstances when these qualities might be called for were spelled out clearly in Besant’s introduction to another of India’s great classics, the Mahabharata, within which the Bhagavad Gita is set. Of this epic of epochal war between rival contenders for the throne of an ancient kingdom, she writes:

Sometimes a whole nation goes wrong. Then the Gods place in its way a great war, or a famine, or a plague. The nation is gone wrong and must be driven right, or has gone wrong and must suffer, so as not to go wrong again. And the Great War, the story of which we are going to study, was brought about by the Gods, because it was necessary for the evolution of the nation.

This passage, undoubtedly written with the then-recent Great War of 1914-18 in mind, reaffirms still more clearly that war can be of evolutionary and even character-building benefit.

In 1940, as another great conflict was underway, the Theosophical Publishing House in Adyar produced a slim volume in the “Besant Spirit Series” called The High Purpose of War. Containing an enthusiastic foreword by George S. Arundale, it offers a collection of passages on this theme culled from her lectures and writings, mainly of course, from the World War I era. She continued:

We, who are servants of the White Brotherhood, who regard Love as the supreme Virtue, and who seek to enter into the Coming Age of Brotherhood and Co-operation, we can but follow the Guardians of Humanity, and work for the triumph of the Allied Powers who represent Right as against Might, and Humanity as against Savagery. The Theosophical Society, the society of the Divine Wisdom, founded by members of the White Brotherhood and Their Messenger in the world, must throw itself on the side which embodies the Divine Will for evolution, the side on which are fighting the super-men of the Day.

A contemporary, and rival, of Annie Besant in Theosophical circles was the American, Katherine Tingley (1847-1929). Like Besant, she was active in social work before coming to Theosophy, and was also a Spiritualist. She founded a Society of Mercy in 1887 to visit hospitals and prisons, supporting it with dramatic recitals and Spiritualistic readings. She established the Martha Washington Home for the Aged in 1889, and a Do-Good Mission in New York in 1891. Her Spiritualistic and social concerns led to her meeting with William Q. Judge, head of the American Section of the Theosophical Society, in 1894. She became a Theosophist, convinced that its worldview placed both her spiritual and humanitarian commitments on a deep footing, and quickly became a close confidante of Judge.

Tingley was therefore prepared to play a leading role in dramatic Theosophical events that were about to unfold. In 1895, at Judge’s urging, the American Section declared its independence from the international Theosophical Society headquartered at Adyar, Madras, India, under the presidency of Henry Steel Olcott, and with which Besant was affiliated. Judge died in 1896 and within a couple of years Tingley had risen to the Presidency of the separated American section, though Annie Besant, on a whirlwind tour, won back a number of U.S. lodges.

At the same time, Tingley was nursing another dream, the idea of a utopian Theosophical community, in which the arts, education, and labor would combine to create a new vision of human life. With the help of wealthy Theosophical patrons, the dream took shape. In 1897 land was bought on the Point Loma peninsula in San Diego, and by the turn of the century Katherine Tingley and many of her followers were settled in Lomaland, as the community was called, surrounded by imposing edifices with leaded glass domes and Egyptian gates. The Raja Yoga Academy, in which the community’s children and youth were schooled, was particularly impressive because of its futuristic educational principles. She closed her remaining lodges, urging their leaders to join the new community.

Tingley was passionately concerned with peace, as with many social issues. As she once recalled, this opposition was grounded in childhood memories of the dreadful and unforgettable expressions she saw on the faces of Civil War casualties; after that she could never again credence those who spoke of the “honor” and “glory” to be attained on the battlefield. In 1913 she organized and attended an international Theosophical Peace Congress in Sweden, held June 22-29. On the way back, she attended the Twentieth World Peace Conference in The Hague August 18-23. More peace meetings were convened at Point Loma. Once war had erupted in all its horror, Tingley and the Lomaland community swung into action with a “Sacred Peace Day for the Nations” on September 28, 1914, which as a day of prayer for peace drew endorsements from President Wilson and several governors;  in San Diego there was a Peace Parade, “a great procession of protest” against the slaughter commencing across the Atlantic.

In her writings on peace, Tingley emphasized a special role for America. It was to be the “Spiritual Mecca of the World,” “The Cradle of the Sixth Sub-race” which would carry humankind to a higher level, and “The Torch-Bearer of Peace.” But she recognized that the present United States was an imperfect vessel for this lofty destiny, “its duties were only half done,” and there was much to regret in its past wars and injustices. The case might have been better “if our great America had from the beginning realized that Brotherhood is a fact of Nature.”

For Tingley, this was a key fact, reiterated repeatedly: Brotherhood is a fact of nature. War is based on essentially false premises, promoted by the “pernicious propaganda” of the news media, whereas peace is based on the fundamental fact of “that Divinity which now stands in the background of human consciousness.” More than Besant, for all her reformist zeal, and the cause of Indian self-rule to which she was by now giving herself even at the cost of brief imprisonment, Tingley together with Lomaland stood for and sought to exemplify what might be called a utopian, rather than evolutionary (in the Besant sense), Theosophical millennialism.

The position was well put by a disciple of hers, Montague A. Machell, in connection with the 1913 Peace Congress in Sweden:

I believe it is because Theosophy teaches and has taught the doctrine of human solidarity throughout the ages, because it holds that all men are brothers and are bound into one great family by bonds infinitely stronger and more lasting than those of mere nationality, it is because of this that the Theosophical Leader is calling this International Theosophical Peace Congress... [For] Theosophy is another name for the Wisdom-Religion, that religion which is coeval with man himself and anterior even to the earth upon which he dwells. . .

This sentiment may well have been based on lines from Helena Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy: “All men have spiritually and physically the same origin, which is the fundamental teaching of Theosophy. As mankind is essentially of one and the same essence, and that essence is one—infinite, uncreate and eternal, whether we call it God or Nature—nothing, therefore, can affect one nation or man without affecting all other nations and all other men.” (That Blavatskeian dictum was, ironically, imprinted on the bulletin of a Peace-Day Celebration of the International Theosophical Peace Society, held in the Isis Theatre at Point Loma, on May 18, 1914, only a little more than two months before Europe would be awash with the carnage Katherine Tingley and her Theosophists had so strived to avert.)

But, though undoubtedly very few Theosophists saw the world struggles of the twentieth century with any sentiment other than initial, visceral revulsion, there were alternative ways to interpret them and all wars in light of the Ancient Wisdom, as we have noted already in the writings of Annie Besant, just as there may be a latent tension between Blavatsky’s practical ethics of The Key to Theosophy and the grand mytho-historical role conflict plays in The Secret Doctrine when rivalries between the godlike fore-parents of humanity were under consideration.These are what might be called Tingley’s ethical unity theme and the Besantian “evolutionary” Bhagavad Gita theme, one emphasizing that peace only enacts the fundamental reality of natural and cosmic oneness, the other the possible spiritual dharma or duty evoked by conflict necessary to evolutionary change. To put it another way, it is the strain between ontological reality and evolutionary necessity, a tension evoked by very basic but unreconciled precepts of Theosophy’s dynamic monism, predictably coming to a head in the issue of war. The conundrum can be viewed in further detail and possible resolution in positions taken in the next Theosophical generation.

It was during the period between the World Wars, and during the Second World War, that Theosophy, or perhaps one should say Theosophists, attained greater prominence than before or since in the political life of several nations large and small. These persons were by no means entirely motivated by Theosophy in their political decisions, and their attitudes and actions in regard to war and peace issues are often contradictory one to another. Nonetheless I believe that by examining their careers one can discover certain fundamental presuppositions that can in turn be related to Theosophy in the age of progressive messianism.

George Lansbury (1859-1940) was a long-time M.P. and prominent figure in the British Labor Party, serving as editor of the Labor national paper, the Daily Herald. In 1931 he became leader of the Laborite parliamentary opposition, at the time of the erstwhile Labor Prime Minister, Ramsey MacDonald’s, controversial formation of a “National Government” coalition to confront the crisis of the Great Depression. Lansbury, an outspoken socialist since the 1890s, rallied those Laborites unwilling to support the coalition, and had that party then attained power would have become Prime Minister himself. He was also an uncompromising pacifist who had opposed World War I, and was a founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to aid conscientious objectors.

In 1935 he resigned his leadership position in parliament because he could not concur with his party’s support of sanctions against Mussolini’s Italy over the invasion of Ethiopia. While he had little sympathy for the fascist dictatorship, he believed that economic sanctions were simply war under another name. (It should be added there is reason to think that Lansbury’s resignation on this matter of principle may have been partly arranged by powers within the Labor party who felt the times demanded fresh leadership.) In the remaining years of his life, the former parliamentary leader worked assiduously for peace in a darkening Europe by visiting numerous capitals and conferring with leaders.

Lansbury was a decided Christian, an active member of the Church of England who based his pacifism on Christian principles and was generally so identified. The press always called him a Christian pacifist; few sources other than Theosophical identify him as a Theosophist. With some justice, forthe Christian pacifist position has rarely been put more forcefully than in a passage like this by Lansbury:

Jesus and his disciples handed on the blessed truth that love of God through love of mankind is the law of life. By this statement of fact, he once for all destroyed the terrible doctrine that out of violence and slaughter connected with war, and out of the competitive struggle for wealth, the best character traits are developed. It is not possible to gather figs from thistles or develop love from violence and destruction. We cannot show our reverence and love of God through crushing our enemy in the dust or forcing our business competitor into bankruptcy.

At the same time, Lansbury was a Theosophist. He tells us in his autobiography, My Life:

I joined the Theosophical Society in 1914, just after the outbreak of war. This was owing to Dr. Besant asking me to become a member of a committee of workmen to whom, under Sir Edwin Lutyens as architect, she had entrusted the erection of the Theosophical headquarters in Tavistock Square . . . but I had never thought of joining the Society till I came into close contact with the men and women on whose behalf we were carrying out this piece of work at Tavistock Square. I was asked to lecture for the society on Socialism and on Labor questions, and I also attended theosophical lectures. As a result of some talks with David Graham Pole I found myself able to accept the only condition of membership imposed by the Society, which is that all who join shall work together to establish a universal society based on Brotherhood. The Society has no other tests, theological or otherwise. . . I do not claim any more consistency for members of this society than for others, but I have personally received from my association with them more help, more encouragement to live my own life and express my own opinions and develop my own thinking than from any set of people with whom I have come in contact... It may be said I am prejudiced because of the great help I have received from some members of this Society in my political work, and especially in connection with the Daily Herald. It may be so, but. . . I am content to record my grateful thanks and appreciation of the friendship of. . . members of the Theosophical Society and Order of the Star.”

It is clear that Lansbury as Theosophist was pre-eminently a result of the fact that, in the days of Annie Besant’s leadership, the Society attracted the sort of people who were sympathetic to his concerns for pacifism and social justice, willing to talk with him about them, to listen to his lectures, and to give him much-appreciated practical support in his high-minded ventures. As indicated, most books and articles refer to him only as an Anglican and Christian pacifist, and in his own writing and speaking he gave far more attention to Christianity than Theosophy. Yet, perhaps in light of Theosophy’s claim to represent a wisdom behind all religions, as well as its claim to espouse complete freedom of thought—a value very important to Lansbury—he saw no contradiction in the commitments. It is clear from the above passage that he valued what he believed the Theosophical Society represented, as well as his Theosophical associates, very highly.

Yet differences with Besant are apparent. At his death, early in the war he had tried so hard to prevent, the Christian Century spoke of him as “a saint in politics,” and commented that while many might have considered his Christian pacifist efforts “a waste of energy and a revelation of pitiable naiveté,” “we (Christian Century) believe no life devoted to any great aim as completely as Lansbury’s was devoted to peace is ever thrown away.” At the same time, George S. Arundale, editor of The Theosophist, published in Adyar, and International President of the (Adyar) Theosophical Society spoke of Lansbury as, “Fundamentally a Theosophist all his life,” for he “was saturated with the brotherhood spirit.” Arundale added that “war as a factor in evolution, though it has a constructive place in my philosophy, had no place in his—he was uncompromisingly for peace. While Dr Besant, in the war of 1914-1918, was supporting the Allies in the true warrior spirit, Mr Lansbury was opposing it in the spirit of the pacifist. . .Mr Lansbury was one of the greatest pacifists of his epoch. . . a genuine Theosophist.”

Both sides, the unity and the evolutionary necessity, the Tingley/ Lansbury and the Besant/ Arundalesides, can be discerned in the case of the third man under review, the sometime Theosophist Henry Agard Wallace (1888-1965), New Deal Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President of the United States 1941-45. As a wartime ranking official in a belligerent power, he had to come to terms with the moral questions, and like Arundale see potential for epochal good in the conflict, though his inner disposition was undoubtedly much closer to that of his fellow-politician/idealist, Lansbury. Like Tingley, he was very much in the American idealist/utopian/reformist tradition; like Besant and Arundale, he was in a position of some responsibility in the time of a war both hellish and of immense moral consequence. In the end, his view of the Second World War was almost apocalyptic, though perhaps less in Arundale's style than as a way of reaching Tingley's utopian vision. It was the final crisis which could usher in virtual fulfillment of a millennial human dream, the era of the Common Man.

Religion and spirituality were always important to the shy, gawky, Wallace, who incidentally was also a sometime vegetarian, a teetotaller and rather ascetic, like Lansbury. Wallace was well known for his interest in “mysticism” and “occultism,” particularly when they afforded a vision of the unity out of diversity for which he pined, that value so important to Theosophy but potentially at odds with evolutionary struggle.

Arthur Schlesinger, in The Coming of the New Deal, provides an insightful overview of this side of the New Deal Secretary of Agriculture and later Vice-President. Schlesinger suggests that what particularly appealed to Wallace, “was the hope that the vision of spiritual unity might enable him to join together the two halves of his own personality. For as both scientist and mystic, both politician and prophet, both opportunist and idealist, Wallace was split down the middle. This interior division produced not creative tension but a wavering and torment of dissociation which he sought constantly to exorcise by mysticism or to bridge by rhetoric.” (p.33) Part of that process may have been his membership in the Theosophical Society. Wallace joined the Society in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 6, 1925, when he was editor (1921-33) of his family's farm journal, Wallaces’ Farmer, and resigned on or before November 23, 1935, when he was Secretary of Agriculture. He was also active in the Liberal Catholic Church in Des Moines between 1925 and 1929.

As early as 1912, Wallace had met the Irish poet, mystic and agrarian reformer George Russell (“AE”), who was strongly influenced by Theosophy. His interests were shared by Wallace, and in 1930 the two mystical agronomists began corresponding. Through Russell, Wallace, now editor of Wallaces’ Farmer, established links with others of similar bent. One correspondent was Charles Roos, a poet and Theosophist who was involved with the Temple of the People in Halcyon, California, a communalist off shoot of Theosophy. Wallace and Roos exchanged ideas on finding a new “religious... expression for the American people,” a need which at that time he felt acutely. In November 1931 Wallace began a correspondence course with the Temple; its leader, William Dower, was able to inform Wallace that the future Vice-President had “a splendid knowledge” of Theosophical fundamentals. One imagines he must also have been aware of Katherine Tingley and her other Theosophical community on Point Loma.

In 1932, however, Wallace’s religious experimentalism was caught up by a “flap” over a talk hegave to a group of ministers in Des Moines, in which he reportedly opined that the world needed a“new religion.” This remark produced a predictable flurry of criticism from the orthodox, and may haveled Wallace to realize that his universalist and esoteric spiritual interests could have unfavorable political consequences. Mark L. Kleinman notes that after this event “his Theosophical spiritualism receded into the deep background of his public thought,” to be replaced by relatively more conventionally Christian expressions of his religiosity.

Nonetheless, the values that had earlier led to the Theosophical quest remained to animate many of Wallace’s public positions from the background. The cabinet secretary was particularly intrigued with the ideas of unity out of diversity and of coming eschatological events that might hasten the advent of unity in world history. . . the unity and fateful evolution sides. He was fascinated by symbolism; the Great Seal of the United States, with its phrase E pluribus unum held his attention, and even more the reverse side, with its incomplete pyramid and the words Novus ordo seclorum; he induced Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau to put the reverse on the new dollar bill in 1935 by telling him that Novus ordo was Latin for New Deal!

There were others. Among Theosophical statesmen of the same period was Rex Mason, wartime Ministerof Justice in New Zealand. Among those said to have been influenced by Theosophy, though not members of the T.S., were Mohandas K. Gandhi, for whom the Bhagavad Gita was only allegorical of the general struggle against evil, in which none of us can rightly be non?combatants but which is most truly fought by non-violent means; and Augusto Sandino, the Nicaraguan mystic revolutionary.

We may note that, the theme of progressive messianism or millennialism seems to interpret twentieth century Theosophical attitudes toward war quite well, though with a split between the present-unity-emphasizing utopians and pacifists, and the evolutionary-necessity mystic warriors. All Theosophists engaged in the public affairs of our troubled century have professed a kind of idealism, a potent vision of the better world informed by justice and undergirded by spiritual realities. But their visions have also been shaped by a sense that we are living in eschatological or apocalyptic times, a time perhaps like that of the great battle of the Bhagavad Gita.

Thus, for some, war was an instrument of on rushing destiny, and the ripening karma of individuals. For others, its ways are so incompatible with those of the Kingdom of God that it could hardly serveas means to that glorious end. What all had in common was a dramatic view of history in which actions and choices on the world stage were important. They were in fact to be the deeds of heroes, worthy of Rama or Krishna, and ought to be made out of a heroic commitment to accelerating human evolution, in which mutation into human perfection was not an impossible dream.