The Theosophical Society in America

The Charter of Compassion

Betty Bland, National President 

Originally printed in the Summer 2010 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bland, Betty. "The Charter of Compassion." Quest 98. 3 (Summer 2010): 86.

Betty BlandThe collisions and clashes of cultures and belief systems have reached epic proportions. The problem partly stems from the attitude of Christian colonialists over the last 500 years, who were so convinced that theirs was the only way that they felt totally justified in subjugating the "heathen" races. In fact they used what has come to be known as the Doctrine of Discovery to validate their territorial claims all over the world. This doctrine traces its origins to a series of pronouncements by fifteenth-century popes that non-Christian lands could be "discovered" and subdued; the original inhabitants were classified as occupants without any sovereign rights to their land. Using this idea as justification, the colonialists destroyed millions of indigenous people and their cultures. This attitude has slid to the background in recent decades, but it still colors the attitudes of many people, influencing political policies and causing immense psychological harm to the point where it has boiled to overflowing in the violent events of today.

At its founding in 1875, the Theosophical Society was the first organized effort to develop appreciation for faiths beyond that of the dominant culture. The founders of the Theosophical Society, especially those inner guides—the adepts—recognized the urgent need for humankind to learn to live together and to honor one another as brothers and sisters of the spirit—all one family interdependent and partaking of one substance, one nature, and one destiny. Again and again they emphasized the importance of our First Object: "To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity regardless of race, creed, sex, caste, or color." Their work for the formation of a strong nucleus of a compassionate brotherhood for all people was aimed at permeating and changing the culture of oppression before it was too late. This was probably the main reason that they even agreed to become as publicly visible as the forming of the Society required. The currents of conflict and violence were in motion, and they needed to do whatever possible to stem the tide.

By 1893, although some in the Western world were waking up to the presence of other faiths, Christian culture still prevailed, as exemplified by the first World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago that year. Its organizers basically viewed religions other than Christianity merely as interesting oddities, so they were quite amazed at the results. They were stunned by the popularity of the Hindu teacher Swami Vivekananda and of Annie Besant's famous oration. Reflecting a gradual shift in attitude, the second such event, held a hundred years later in 1993, was renamed the Parliament of the World's Religions in order to acknowledge that each religion has its own validity.

However, as we now so sadly recognize, humanity has not been quick enough in changing its attitudes. We have been entrenched in habitual thought and unwieldy institutions; finally the pain of abuse and disenfranchisement exploded into our consciousness with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Now we know that interfaith understanding is not just a nice thing to do, but is essential for the welfare and survival of all people. All over the planet different sects are attacking each other. No one is immune—Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and others are all the brunt of someone else's hatred.

As a continuation of the efforts to build interreligious understanding, a number of subsequent Parliament events have been held, the most recent being the Parliament for the World's Religions that David and I attended in Melbourne, Australia , in December 2009. Thousands of thinkers and religious leaders gathered to dialogue, honor the universal search for spiritual meaning, recognize the plight of indigenous people, and promote environmental sustainability as an inherent responsibility for the well-being of all. Foremost in the presenters' and participants' minds were ways to heal the rift between peoples and between people and their environment, all within the context of their religious traditions.

Notable among the presentations was the Charter of Compassion, which had been prepared by the well-known religious author Karen Armstrong in consultation with a number of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders. Signatories of note include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson. The charter calls for the establishment of an alliance of individuals, organizations, and communities to advocate for global change. It calls for a complete change of attitude with a renewed sensitivity to all.

I urge each one who reads this piece to copy the Charter of Compassion given below and post it on your wall as a daily reminder of this global ethic of sensitivity. And I further ask that you consider promoting it in your groups, among friends, and in your spiritual communities. In doing so, we will be joining thousands of others who have been touched by this message, and little by little we can turn the tide of intolerance and move toward the Theosophical ideal of the universal brotherhood of humanity. 

Charter for Compassion 

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit, or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity. We acknowledge that we have failed to live compassionately and that some have even increased the sum of human misery in the name of religion.

We therefore call upon all men and women

  •  To restore compassion to the center of morality and religion;
  • To return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred, or disdain is illegitimate;
  •  To ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions, and cultures;
  • To encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity;
  •  To cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings, even those regarded as enemies.

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological, and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment and indispensable to the creation of a just economy and peaceful global community.