The Theosophical Society in America

Lift High the Torch

By John Algeo

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Algeo, John."Lift High the Torch." Quest  95.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007):

John Algeo

During Summer Convention, 2006, John Algeo gave two presentations on the topic of H. P. Blavatsky's Messages to America. These talks have been transcribed and "Theosophy's Most Holy and Important Mission" was published in the May-June 2007 issue of Quest. In this issue we have the second component, "Lift High the Torch." 
 

Previously, we considered the central theme of H. P. Blavatsky's three Messages to America of 1888, 1889, and 1891. That theme was Theosophy's"most holy and most important mission—namely, to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work, not on a labor with selfish motives." We discussed the fact that the mission in question is not that of the Theosophical Society, but of Theosophy, and that Theosophy is enshrined in the heart and mind of every human being, for it is the Divine Wisdom that pervades the cosmos. It is the"logos," the articulation of the reason or inner thought that orders all things and is inherent in all things.

We live in a world that we experience as insecure, uncertain, painful, fragmented, violent, inimical, or, as Alfred Lord Tennyson said in his great elegy In Memoriam,"red in tooth and claw." But that world of our experience is not the only world. Our world of experience is a fact, but, as Krishnamurti said of reincarnation, it is not true. Facts are things we make. The word"fact" comes from the Latin verb facere"to do or to make," and so facts are what we have done or made. They are our actions and the karmic consequences of those actions.

The word"true," on the other hand, comes from the same root as the word"tree.""True" is the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; it is Igdrasill, the world ash tree of Norse mythology; it is the Ashwattha tree of the Bhagavad Gita; it is the Etz Chaim or Tree of Life of the Kabbalah. The word"true" is also related to the Sanskrit words daru, meaning"wood," and daruna, meaning"solid, firm, steadfast," as well as to the Latin-derived word durable, and to the Celtic druids, those priests of the trees."True," then, is what is secure, certain, joyous, whole, peaceful, and benevolent. It is that of which Tennyson also speaks in In Memoriam, when he invokes the bells that peel at the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one:

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring happy bells, across the snow;
The year is going, let him go:
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

The distinction between what is factual, that is, what is produced by our actions, and what is true, that is, what is unchanging and basic to Being—that distinction brings us to another line from HPB's Messages to America. In her second message of 1889, she writes,"There, then, is part of your work: to lift high the torch of the liberty of the Soul of Truth that all may see it and benefit by its light."

First, consider the allusion when HPB says,"lift high the torch of the liberty of the Soul of Truth that all may see it and benefit by its light." Those words clearly allude to the Statue of Liberty. And the allusion was a topical one in 1889, when she wrote this message, because the statue had been dedicated only three years earlier in 1886, and thus was still much in the consciousness of Americans. Moreover, the statue was originally called"Liberty Enlightening the World," and so HPB's phrase"benefit by its light" clearly echoes that name.

Moreover, the Statue of Liberty is an ideal symbol for what HPB is talking about in her Messages to America. The Statue is so familiar to us as to seem trite, but it is a parable because it was the product of the joint effort of people in France and America. The Statue was proposed by the French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, and its underlying framework was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the creator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Statue's pedestal was constructed on an island in New York harbor, and the Statue itself was assembled on that base by Americans, who also raised money to finance the work.

Now, France and America have a long history of competition and armed conflict on the North American continent, as well as of cooperation to serve their separate self-interests, notably during the Revolutionary War in opposition to Great Britain. But the Statue of Liberty was something altogether different. It was a symbol of peaceful cooperation in the interest of such ideals as the freedom and welfare of all humanity, brotherhood, openness, and that love which is"perfect justice to others as to oneself." Thus the Statue of Liberty embodies the essence of HPB's message, by bringing together two nations of rather different characters in a celebration of high ideals.

But what does HPB mean by the word"there" in"There, then is part of your work"? To answer that question, we must consider a somewhat larger context of this text. Here is the whole paragraph in which it occurs and the following sentence:

But you in America. Your Karma as a nation has brought Theosophy home to you. The life of the Soul, the psychic side of nature, is open to many of you. The life of altruism is not so much a high ideal as a matter of practice. Naturally, then, Theosophy finds a home in many hearts and minds, and strikes a resounding harmony as soon as it reaches the ears of those who are ready to listen. There, then, is part of your work: to lift high the torch of the liberty of the Soul of Truth that all may see it and benefit by its light.

Therefore it is that the Ethics of Theosophy are even more necessary to mankind than the scientific aspects of the psychic facts of nature and man.

The Americans of HPB's day were interested in psychic matters; modern Spiritualism began in America with the Fox sisters in 1848. And Americans have maintained a high degree of interest in the psychic ever since, as in the New Age movement, which was an international phenomenon during the last half of the twentieth century, but achieved prominence in America.

Moreover, since Colonial days Americans had, of necessity, practiced community altruism, such as barn raisings and quilting bees, and later such covert activity as the Underground Railroad to assist fugitive slaves. Even today, a naïve American impulse to be"helpful" has been exploited to elicit popular support for what is also regarded as hubristic, incompetent, and ignorant foreign interference. But these characteristics of a fascination with the psychic and the impulse to be helpful are what HPB identified as the karma that"brought Theosophy home to" this nation.

It is clearly no accident that the Theosophical Society was founded in America, nor that its international headquarters were established in India. America and India: the archetypal West and East, the embodiment of the new and the old. As Walt Whitman says in his ecstatic and prophetic poem"Passage to India":

 

Passage to India!
Lo, soul! seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann'd, connected by network,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.
 
       . . . . . . .
Passage to more than India!
        . . . . . . .

 

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

 

Whitman wrote this poem in 1870, just a year after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. That event became symbolic of the connection between West and East; and for Whitman, in particular, the Suez Canal was symbolic of the connection between America and India, which are on opposite sides of the globe and symbolically represent cultural and spiritual opposites. The connection of America with India therefore represents the joining of human cultures into a harmonious, peaceful union of"nations in brotherly love," which is the mission of Theosophy. In particular, HPB pointed out that the Theosophical Society was meant to be a bridge between the East and the West. She wrote in her last message to America that:

. . . it is one of the tasks of the T.S. to draw together the East and the West, so that each may supply the qualities lacking in the other, and develop more fraternal feelings among Nations so various. (1891)

The Masters sent HPB to America to meet Colonel Olcott and to start the Society there, in New York. Once the Society had been thus founded, the Masters sent Blavatsky and Olcott to India, where they first settled and established the Indian branch of the Society in Bombay (now called Mumbai). New York and Bombay/Mumbai are both highly symbolical cities, quintessentially representing, respectively, Western and Eastern cultures. The connection of those two cities with Theosophy and the Society can be no accident. The symbolic value of those two cities is part of the reason why they have both been targeted by fanatical terrorists for acts of inhumane destruction: New York on September 11th, 2001, and Mumbai on July 11, 2006. Love, which unites, is the mission of Theosophy; hate, which divides, is the mission of terrorism. The symbolic parallel of New York and Bombay/Mumbai as both centers of Theosophical love and the objects of terrorist hate could not be clearer.

West and East are parallel as poles of human culture. New York and Bombay/Mumbai are parallel as the objects of both loving union and hateful destruction. That parallelism raises the question of how we can achieve balance between those two cultural poles and how we can overcome hate and destruction in favor of love and union. HPB addresses those questions in her Messages to America. Our work is"to lift high the torch of the liberty of the Soul of Truth that all may see it and benefit by its light." The"torch of the liberty of the Soul of Truth" is Theosophy, whose light we are to"lift high" so that"all may see it and benefit by that light."

Theosophy is not a set of doctrines but a system of ethics. Ethics is concerned with what is good and bad in action—with what is important to do in life—so that the actions we do may not just contribute to the facts of insecurity, uncertainty, pain, fragmentation, violence, and opposition that make up the world of samsara,"this world" of duhkha. Ethics is concerned with the truth of security, certainty, joyousness, wholeness, peace, and benevolence, which are the world of nirvana, that world of being, awareness, and bliss. Awakening oneself and others from fitful dreams of illusion to the consciousness of what is true is what Theosophy is for.

The principles that guide that waking up or transformation are clearly laid out by HPB in her Messages to America. We will now consider some of those principles.

In the previous article, we observed that organizations, including governments, cannot effect transformation. The effectiveness of organizations depends crucially on the organizers who administer them. If the administration of an organization, such as a nation, is wise, it does not attempt to force its ideas on others, but confidently respects the working of the Divine Wisdom in the heart-mind of all people. If the administration is unwise, arrogant, and intransigent, it will attempt to impose its view of what is good on other people. And the result of that is, at best, failure and, at worst, disaster on an international scale.

We cannot make rules or pass laws that will open the human heart-mind to the Divine Wisdom. This truth is the basis of the Apostle Paul's insistence that salvation is a free gift of God's grace, rather than something earned by following the Law. We cannot tell others that they must be whole and holy, much less tell them how to achieve that end. We can only become whole and holy ourselves by opening our heart-minds to the Divine Wisdom seated within.

Society as a whole will be transformed, not by legislation, but by the inner conversion of the human beings who compose it. It is the"hundredth monkey" phenomenon: when the number of individuals who have been transformed reaches a critical level, humanity collectively will be transformed. You may remember the story about a group of scientists studying primate behavior who used to scatter sweet potatoes on the beach of a South Pacific island to attract the monkeys in order to observe them. But the potatoes scattered on the beach got covered with sand, which was not at all nice; nevertheless, the monkeys still came for them. Then one day, a particularly clever monkey began to take her potato into the sea to wash off the sand. In a few days, another monkey started to imitate her. And then another and yet another. When the hundredth monkey finally got the idea, something remarkable happened; all the monkeys began washing their sweet potatoes in the ocean water, and not only the monkeys on that island, but monkeys all over the archipelago. The behavior had somehow spread, without direct communication, through the ether.

The story of the hundredth monkey is not fact, but fiction. However, fiction can often express a very real truth. Christ's parables are fiction, and so are the Jataka Tales of Buddhism, but they are fiction that is profoundly true. The hundredth-monkey theme is found also in Arthur Clarke's science-fiction novel Childhood's End, which is about a genetic mutation in human children that spreads rapidly, transforming the species into a superhuman form. The concept is not limited to fiction. It is also the basis of Rupert Sheldrake's Hypothesis of Formative Creation through morphic resonance, by which the changed behavior of some individuals affects the ability of all individuals to make the same change. It is what happens when we follow the Master's advice quoted by HPB:"Feel yourselves the vehicles of the whole humanity, mankind as part of yourselves, and act accordingly."

What does such feeling of oneself as the vehicle of the whole humanity consist of? Let us consider five principles from HPB's messages. We might consider many others as well, but five is the number of humanity, so it is a fitting number to choose here. These five are Freedom, Rationality, Spirituality, Ethics, and Dedication.

1. Freedom. The freedom of the individual is an essential. HPB says the Theosophical Society is and must be"an organization which, while promoting feelings of fraternal sympathy, social unity, and solidarity, will leave ample room for individual freedom and exertion" (1888). And she goes on to urge:

But let no man set up a popery instead of Theosophy . . . . We are all fellow students, more or less advanced; but no one belonging to the Theosophical Society ought to count himself as more than, at best, a pupil-teacher—one who has no right to dogmatize. (1888)

And she continues:

Orthodoxy in Theosophy is a thing neither possible nor desirable. It is diversity of opinion, within certain limits, that keeps the Theosophical Society a living and a healthy body, its many other ugly features notwithstanding. Were it not, also, for the existence of a large amount of uncertainty in the minds of students of Theosophy, such healthy divergencies [sic] would be impossible, and the Society would degenerate into a sect, in which a narrow and stereotyped creed would take the place of the living and breathing spirit of Truth and an ever growing Knowledge. (1888)

These remarks by HPB are extremely important. No group is safe from the impulse to fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is characterized by rigidity, literalism, intolerance, militant aggressiveness, close-mindedness, and extremism. There are fundamentalists in every school of thought—religious and secular. In this country today, we are most aware of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, but there is also fundamentalism in Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto. There is fundamentalism in science, ecology, democracy, and . . . yes, even in Theosophy, or at least what claims to be Theosophy.

Some years ago, Martin Marty gave a talk here at Olcott. He is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, a columnist for the Christian Century magazine, a Lutheran pastor, Director of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Fundamentalism Project, and an authority on fundamentalisms of all kinds. His Olcott talk was on that subject, and in the course of it, he remarked that, of course, there could be no Theosophical fundamentalism. He was not being ironic, but a slight laugh ran through some of the audience who knew better.

Marty was right, that in true Theosophy there are Fundamentals, but there can be no fundamentalism. But among individuals who call themselves Theosophists, there certainly are fundamentalists who dismiss as"neo-Theosophy" all Theosophical views that do not conform to their notions and who indulge in the wildest forms of conspiracy theories. Like all fundamentalists, they pay attention only to what they agree with and ignore large-minded, open-hearted attitudes, such as those HPB expresses in her Messages to America.

2. Rationality. Another point HPB makes is that nothing in Theosophy can conflict with established fact or with reason. Indeed, in her first message she defines Theosophy in a particularly notable way. She says that"pure Theosophy [is] the philosophy of the rational explanation of things and not the tenets."

To be sure, there are Theosophical tenets, which are important teachings about the nature of the universe, human beings, and the purpose of things. Many of us treasure those tenets and try to model our lives on them. But they are not"pure Theosophy" because any effort to put Theosophy into words, to formulate it, to embody it in tenets (which are the beliefs that we hold) is bound to be impure. That is, tenets are always"mixed" up with our conditioning. When we put Theosophy into words, those words necessarily come out of our experience, our conditioning, and so distort the reality that is pure Theosophy.

When HPB says that Theosophy is"the philosophy of the rational explanation of things," she does not, I think, intend for us to understand"rational" as"conforming to human logic." Instead, I think she means"reflecting the divine Reason or Logos." It is not the reason of lower manas she is talking about, but the reason of buddhi, a direct insight into the nature of things. That direct buddhic insight is reflected in Theosophical tenets, but is not exhausted or limited by them, for the tenets are only approximations of the insights. Theosophical fundamentalists confuse the approximations with the reality approximated.

3. Spirituality versus Materialism and Phenomenalism. Part of the reason for the foundation of the Theosophical Society was to point out a via media between the tendency to materialism, which is exhibited by both commercialism and scientism, and the tendency to phenomenalism, which was exhibited by Spiritualism in her day and is still exhibited by various forms of New Age thought in our own day. Phenomenalism was itself a reaction against materialism, but, like many reactions, it went too far and thus violated a commitment to rational philosophy. So Theosophy supplies a middle way.

HPB talks about materialism or, as she calls it here,"animalism":

The tendency of modern civilization is a reaction towards animalism, towards a development of those qualities which conduce to the success in life of man as an animal in the struggle for animal existence. Theosophy seeks to develop the human nature in man in addition to the animal, and at the sacrifice of the superfluous animality which modern life and materialistic teachings have developed to a degree which is abnormal for the human being at this stage of his progress. . . . the essence of Theosophy is the perfect harmonizing of the divine with the human in man, the adjustment of his god-like qualities and aspirations, and their sway over the terrestrial or animal passions in him. (1888)

But HPB also, and repeatedly, cautions against a naïve and credulous embrace of the phenomenal as an end in itself:

The fainthearted have asked in all ages for signs and wonders, and when these failed to be granted, they refused to believe. Such are not those who will ever comprehend Theosophy pure and simple. . . the Society was not founded as a nursery for forcing a supply of Occultists . . . . It was intended to stem the current of materialism, and also that of spiritualistic phenomenalism. (1888)

When A. P. Sinnett wanted to abandon an emphasis on Brotherhood in favor of occult studies, Master K.H. replied to him in no uncertain terms (The Mahatmas Letters to A. P. Sinnett):

. . . 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!

HPB echoes the Master in her second Message to America:

The Theosophical Society has never been and never will be a school of promiscuous Theurgic rites. But there are dozens of small occult Societies which talk very glibly of Magic, Occultism, Rosicrucians, Adepts, etc. These profess much, even to giving the key to the Universe, but end by leading men to a blank wall instead of the"Door of the Mysteries." (1889)

Psychic powers are latent in all of us, and they may spontaneously be activated under certain circumstances, as well as be developed under competent direction. But such powers, if forced or uncontrolled, involve considerable dangers. In her last message, HPB warned about them:

Psychism, with all its allurements and all its dangers, is necessarily developing among you, and you must beware lest the Psychic outruns the Manasic and Spiritual development. Psychic capacities held perfectly under control, checked and directed by the Manasic principle, are valuable aids in development. But these capacities running riot, controlling instead of controlled, using instead of being used, lead the Student into the most dangerous delusions and the certainty of moral destruction. (1891)

4. Practical Ethics. There is no inherent virtue in psychism. There is an inherent virtue in right action, which is one of the steps of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. So it is not surprising that HPB makes right action or ethics central in Theosophy:

 

Kindness, absence of every ill feeling or selfishness, charity, goodwill to all beings, and perfect justice to others as to oneself, are its chief features. He who teaches Theosophy preaches the gospel of goodwill. (1888)
. . . the Ethics of Theosophy are even more necessary to mankind than the scientific aspects of the psychic facts of nature and man. (1889)

 

Ethical action certainly involves helping others, but there are many ways of being helpful. Some of those ways are necessary but superficial because they address only the symptoms of humanity's ills. Symptoms must be treated, but if the cause of a disease is not removed, the treatment of symptoms alone is temporary and ineffective. HPB addressed that distinction in both The Key to Theosophy and in her first Message to America:

Theosophists are of necessity the friends of all movements in the world, whether intellectual or simply practical, for the amelioration of the condition of mankind. We are the friends of all those who fight against drunkenness, against cruelty to animals, against injustice to women, against corruption in society or in government, although we do not meddle in politics. We are the friends of those who exercise practical charity, who seek to lift a little of the tremendous weight of misery that is crushing down the poor. But, in our quality of Theosophists, we cannot engage in any one of these great works in particular. As individuals we may do so, but as Theosophists we have a larger, more important, and much more difficult work to do. People say that Theosophists should show what is in them, that "the tree is known by its fruit." Let them build dwellings for the poor, it is said, let them open "soup kitchens," etc., etc., and the world will believe that there is something in Theosophy. . . . The function of Theosophists is to open men's hearts and understandings to charity, justice, and generosity, attributes which belong specifically to the human kingdom and are natural to man when he has developed the qualities of a human being. Theosophy teaches the animal-man to be a human-man; and when people have learnt to think and feel as truly human beings should feel and think, they will act humanely, and works of charity, justice, and generosity will be done spontaneously by all. (1888)

5. A Life of Dedication. A recurring theme in HPB's messages is the importance of a life of dedication. That is a theme that both she and Colonel Olcott clearly manifested in their own persons. That theme is the coda in her final message and, indeed, sums up her own life. It is a theme that should echo in the heart of every Theosophist:

After all, every wish and thought I can utter are summed up in this one sentence, the never dormant wish of my heart, "Be Theosophists, Work for Theosophy!" Theosophy first, and Theosophy last; for its practical realization alone can save the Western World from that selfish and unbrotherly feeling that now divides race from race, one nation from the other, and from that hatred of class and social strifes . . .

. . . My own span of life may not be long, and if any of you have learned aught from my teachings, or have gained by my help a glimpse of the True Light, I ask you in return, to strengthen the cause by the triumph of which, that True Light, made still brighter and more glorious through your individual and collective efforts, will lighten the World . . .

May the blessings of the past and present great Teachers rest upon you. From myself accept collectively, the assurance of my true, never-wavering fraternal feelings, and the sincere heartfelt thanks for the work done by all the workers,

 

From their Servant to the last,
H. P. BLAVATSKY (1891)

 

Those words, penned in 1891, may well have been the last ever written by H. P. Blavatsky. As such, they should be engraved in the heart-mind of every Theosophist. They are words of inspiration and of her dedication to a life of Theosophy as"their servant to the last." Beyond those words, there is nothing more to be said.