Thinking Aloud: The Specialization of Theosophy

By Eldon Tucker

With each new generation of members in the Theosophical Society, we find the same questions being asked. New members wonder just what this Theosophy is that they're being told about. Is it true? Was it made up by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her followers? What does it really say? With conflicting texts and a diversity of dissenting views among members, newcomers can be left bewildered, perhaps giving up and moving on to other groups without finding spiritual satisfaction. How did we let them down?

The spiritual effort initiated by Blavatsky and her teachers includes much more that just the Theosophical Society. There are numerous theosophical and related groups that have branched off from the initial Society. Countless individuals and organizations have been affected for the better and may still feel an influence. Looking into the future, perhaps a century or two, we may find still other specializations of theosophical work. Those specializations result from the many possible uses for the theosophical treasury of ideas by groups with differing approaches.

One specialization is the formalization of Theosophy as a well-defined system of thought, a philosophy, with distinctive terminology. This Theosophy has become an intellectual tradition that can be taught and understood by people regardless of their backgrounds. It might be called tip-of-the-iceberg Theosophy, since only the surface meanings can be studied and passed on. The heart of Theosophy requires a spiritual awakening in an individual in order to be understood, and so in this intellectual Theosophy, it may be lost. There are several variations or flavors of this formalized philosophy: (a) Blavatsky-Judge Theosophy, (b) Purucker Theosophy, and (c) Besant-Leadbeater Theosophy. The materials for any of those variations can be carefully compiled and organized, as was done by A. E. Powell for Besant and Leadbeater’s materials.

The second specialization is the combination of theosophical ideas with popular thought in various ways. Huston Smith in his books on world religions shows how various systems of thought have arisen to meet the spiritual needs of their times, to revive the heart-life and compassion and the quest for wisdom of a complacent or even decadent people. When we take theosophical ideas and combine them with other ideas, relating them to the way of thinking of various peoples, we are making progress in this direction.

It doesn't take a Krishna to appear and dramatically do all the work for us. We can participate in this effort too, altering the thought and life of those around us. New religions and philosophies can arise either from an evolution of existing systems of thought or from the creation of something completely new. We can help with either of those developments. For such use of the theosophical philosophy, “purity” of the ideas is not important. The important thing is to make something new and useful. The final product--a belief system with a code of life--may not be “perfect” from our point of view, and may even be inaccurate or wrong when considered in terms of the Mystery Teachings, but it may still be a great boon to society. If the effect of a new movement is to better the life of people, leading them back to the path of compassion and the great spiritual quest, then this second specialization of Theosophy has done well.

The third specialization of Theosophy is along the line of a junior school to the Mysteries. It would be somewhat akin to the various Esoteric Schools associated with the existing theosophical groups. These future groups may evolve from the existing ones or be newly founded at some point. With these groups, the emphasis is on keeping the philosophy pure, on depth of understanding, on a living oral tradition of learning and study, by which advanced students train and pass on their knowledge to each succeeding generation. Some groups may be akin to spiritual colleges, training chelas, but not involved in public work, like Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of the Elders. Others may take on the trappings of exoteric religions, stress public works, and be like Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism that stresses extroverted compassion.

It may take a few generations for the theosophical movement to differentiate or specialize into these different efforts to improve the lot of humanity. Meanwhile, there may be growing tension in theosophical groups over the future direction of the groups. The existing groups appear already to have started on these specializations. The United Lodge of Theosophists seems to have made a good start at promoting a formalized intellectual theosophical philosophy. The Adyar Theosophical Society (ours) seems to have made a good start at melding theosophical ideas with popular thought and thereby planting the seeds for future religious directions. The Pasadena Theosophical Society seems to have made a good start at being a spiritual-training group. All of those groups are, to be sure, more complex and diverse than this generalization.

A key idea with theosophical groups is the freedom of belief that members enjoy. Because of that freedom, it is possible for the membership to entertain many different ideas about the nature of Theosophy and what should be done with it. This freedom is fine for one's personal study, but it can create problems at the organizational level. The way any organization operates and its resources are used depends on the ideas one has about its nature and goal.

Can theosophical groups be democratic? Democratic procedures in arriving at decisions can be healthy and good, just as freedom of belief and expression is also desirable. But for both there must be limits, as expressed in a mission statement, a purpose for the Society. Some members may want to carry forward that purpose and so become workers; other members not in accord with that purpose can find other avenues of expression. As the theosophical movement continues to develop specializations, the selection of groups to belong to and the materials to study will multiply. There will be places where we feel strongly “at home,” and other places where we may feel like aliens or outsiders.

A theosophical group is not true to its mission if a surge of new members can vote to throw overboard the old purpose and to do something entirely different. There is plenty of opportunity to found other groups and efforts, and to work side-by-side with other groups, so redirecting existing groups is unnecessary and counterproductive to the work.

This is not to say that existing groups are doing everything they could or are doing things in the best way. There is room for improvement, but that improvement should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

What is it that is the purpose of our Theosophical Society? The three objects--brotherhood, study of comparative religions, and investigation of the unexplained and latent--fall somewhere between the extremes of a pro-Krishnamurti anarchism where all spiritual authorities (except himself) are rejected and a dead-letter worship of the writings of Blavatsky that would make fundamentalist Christians seem liberal by comparison.

If I could define Theosophy for the Theosophical Society, I'd say that it is a distinct body of esoteric doctrines derived from the Mahatmas, given to us by Blavatsky and perhaps a few other initiates. These doctrines are subject to human error in expression, but are more accurate than the ideas of the homegrown philosophies of those who are uninitiated in the Mysteries. We should teach, promote, and have as a significant goal the keeping of these original fragments of Mystery teachings in their pristine, untainted form. I'd want any theosophical group I join and support to affirm this viewpoint.

The Theosophical Society in America has a large turnover in membership. Is that because people are sampling it and deciding it's not right for them, or because we're doing something wrong, and need to change our approach? From the standpoint of the specialization of the theosophical movement, I'd say that we just need to find something good to do for the world, as a Society, and do it the best we can, and leave it to others to serve the many other needs that the world has.

The Internet is something new. People working with computers, or in college, have had the opportunity to learn about and use it. Others are left wondering what it's all about. It will be helpful in the future to have show-and-tell presentations of what's out there and how people can benefit from it. Even without a computer of one's own, it's still possible to get free e-mail and use a computer at many public libraries, if one is aware of what's available.

There are a number of uses of the Internet that could be looked into. There could be more online publications. There could be an online news-only mailing list, perhaps moderated, with timely information without the high volume of chat and less-nice traffic of typical mailing lists that leads people to unsubscribe. There could be online audio theosophical lectures (using the Real audio encoder program). It's even possible to make online slide-show presentations of Theosophy with associated sound tracks.

Any changes that are made in our Society, I think, should be gradual, evolutionary, arising out of cooperative projects where we all get together to promote Theosophy or better the world. Increased communication among members would arise through a day-to-day interaction, through doing things together, through working for a common purpose. No grand plan, petition, document, constitution, or finished product of thought will evolve the organization. The coming together of members in mind and heart would arise because everyone would be helping formulate, organize, and carry out the work of the Society, rather than in imposing their approach on others, requiring others to do work someone else's way.

Do we want to change the Society? Do we want to work for the philosophy in and through the Society? Then we need to start doing our work, building bridges of cooperation between ourselves and others in the Theosophical Society. There's bountiful work to be done, both in and outside of the Society. Let's simply find something good to do and get going!

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