Originally printed in the May - June 2002 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. "Brotherhood." Quest 90.3 (MAY - JUNE 2002):
By John Algeo
A member of our Society recently returned our 2002 Annual Fund leaflet, which included a quotation using the word “brotherhood.” That word was circled and the comment added, “I’m not a brother.” That comment has been made in recent years by a number of women who object to the use of the word in our first Object: “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” The use of the word in Theosophy and the history behind it are worth considering.
In the early days of our Society, there were two strong interests among its members. One was to increase human cooperation on an international scale without any bias, to promote cross-cultural understanding, and to transform one’s own nature through insight into the nature of reality and of the human constitution. Those interests became embodied in our three Objects, which you find stated on the inside front cover of this journal.
But a second kind of interest was also very widespread, namely, to learn how to do exceptional feats, to perform phenomena, and to acquire unusual abilities. The nineteenth century, when the Theosophical Society was founded, was a hotbed of interest in spiritualism and psychic phenomena. It was, in fact, such interest that led many of the early members to join the Society in the hope of finding in it a channel by which they might experience and learn to produce such phenomena themselves.
The wise teachers who inspired the foundation of the Society, however, had no patience with the second interest. One of them wrote to an Englishman, A. O. Hume, who strongly preferred the latter, as follows: “it has been constantly our wish to spread on the Western Continent among the foremost educated classes ‘Branches’ of the T. S. as the harbingers of a Universal Brotherhood . . . a ‘hotbed of magick’ we never dreamt of” (Mahatma Letters, chronological no. 11). The same teacher wrote to another Englishman, A. P. Sinnett, in even stronger language: “you have ever discussed but to put down the idea of a universal Brotherhood, questioned its usefulness, and advised to remodel the T. S. on the principle of a college for the special study of occultism. This, my respected and esteemed friend and Brother—will never do!” (Mahatma Letters, chronological no. 2).
The brotherhood those teachers were talking about was clearly not a brotherhood of males, but of human beings without distinction (as the first Object says) of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. Almost all words have more than one meaning. Think how many meanings there are for “love” or “fear” or “truth.” So also “brotherhood” has many meanings, and one of them is (as defined by the Merriam Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the biggest and best dictionary of present-day American English): “a group sharing a common interest or quality.” The “universal brotherhood of humanity” is the worldwide group sharing the common quality of humanity, without any distinctions. That is the way early Theosophists understood the term and used it, and it is the way it is used in the first Object.
In more recent years, a new sensitivity to language has developed, and terms that might be misunderstood in a limited sense as applying only to one sex have generally been avoided. So the old generic use of “man” to mean “human being” became taboo (although etymologically “man” is from the same root as the word “mind” and meant a being with a mind, not a masculine being). Conforming to the new sensitivity, in the literature we now produce, we—like almost all publishers these days—make a concerted effort to avoid what today is widely perceived as “sexist” language, although it certainly was not so intended originally or perceived to be so by earlier speakers and writers.
Accordingly some years ago, we looked at rephrasing our Objects. The Objects of the Theosophical Society are international ones. They are defined by the General Council (or main administrative body) of the Society and are stated in our international Rules and papers of incorporation. No nation can of itself change the Objects; they are in common to all branches of the Society around the world. But nations speaking different languages translate the rules into their own language. We argued that the wording of the Objects was late Victorian British English, which needed to be translated into present-day American English, and a committee proposed three such translations of wording in the Objects into current usage. Two of those proposals were accepted; one was not.
The rejected proposal was to rephrase the first Object to read: “To form a nucleus of the universal human family without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” Some of us thought that captured the sense of the original, while avoiding the “sexist” misunderstanding of the word “brotherhood.” However, that proposed change became a subject of intense and heated controversy. And the reason for the controversy was precisely that early difference of opinion about the purpose of the Theosophical Society, reflected in the two interests of early Theosophists.
Those who objected to changing “brotherhood of humanity” to “human family” thought that we were departing from the intention of the founders of the Society to emphasize human unity to something else, and they cited statements like those quoted above to Hume and Sinnett, which emphasized “brotherhood” as the central purpose of the Society. In the end, we decided to leave the wording of the first Object as it has been for more than a hundred years, with the recognition that “brotherhood” here obviously does not mean “a group of male siblings” but rather “a group sharing the common quality of humanity.”
Words have no inherent meaning. They mean only what their users intend them to mean. Of course, other people may misunderstand the intention behind any words, so if one person says to another “I love you,” the meaning may be “I honor you and wish the best for you in all things” or “You amuse me” or “I lust after you.” If the words are misinterpreted by a hearer, that does not change the meaning intended by the speaker. This is a widespread problem in communication by human language. What is needed is, not an assumption about meaning, but rather an effort by the hearer to discover the intention of the speaker.
The intention of the first Object is made clear by its qualifying prepositional phrase: “without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” To ignore that phrase is to mis interpret the clear intention of the Object. To insist that “brotherhood” can mean only a group of men is to ignore the fact that the word does in fact mean a number of different things, including a group of human beings. For communication to be effective, two things are needed: for the user to be clear and for the perceiver to make an effort to understand the user’s intention and not project an imagined meaning on another’s words.
Women have always been centrally important in the Theosophical Society’s nucleus of universal brotherhood. The chief idea person of Theosophy (Helena Blavatsky) was a woman; its most distinguished leader (Annie Besant) was a woman; the current international President of the Society (Radha Burnier) is a woman. Other members of the Society (such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, Clara Codd, Margaret Cousins, and Dorothy Graham Jinarajadasa) have been active feminists. Ultimately, words are less important than actions, and the actions of Theosophists have always been on the side of equality and a brotherhood that embraces both sexes without distinction.