In the Service of All: The Theosophical Order of Service

Printed in the  Winter 2024 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Secrest, Nancy "In the Service of All: The Theosophical Order of Service" Quest 112:1, pg 23-29

By Nancy Secrest

There is no other in this world. Each is a separate form, but one spirit lives and moves in All.
                                                                                                                      —Annie Besant

nancy secrestThis quote gives us much to reflect upon. In the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS), humanitarian aid is given from that place that is the All in each of us to the All in every other.

Annie Besant, the second president of the international Theosophical Society, announced the founding of the TOS and published its provisional constitution in the February 1908 supplement to The Theosophist.

This document stated the organization’s purpose and set forth a structure of governance. The provisional constitution of the TOS outlined an organization of leagues, or groups. Within three years, there were over sixty recorded leagues around the world. They focused on such issues as animal welfare, education for the poor, the promotion of Braille, temperance, prison reform, and in India, the abolition of child marriage.

The document also acknowledged that Besant had founded the organization at the behest of members who wanted to put the First Object of the TS into action: “To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of humanity regardless of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” This is still true today and is one of the main reasons for the existence of the TOS.

Besant acknowledged that her inspiration for founding the TOS might be found in an article written by a Master of the Wisdom, entitled “Some Words on Daily Life,” which H.P. Blavatsky had published in the journal Lucifer. It said:

Theosophy should not represent merely a collection of moral verities, a bundle of metaphysical ethics, epitomised in theoretical dissertations. Theosophy must be made practical; and it has, therefore, to be disencumbered of useless digressions, in the sense of desultory orations and fine talk. Let every Theosophist only do his duty, that which he can and ought to do, and very soon the sum of human misery, within and around the areas of every branch of your Society will be found visibly diminished. Forget Self in working for others—and the task will become an easy and a light one for you.

While the Master’s article and members’ requests may have been the immediate inspiration for the founding of the organization, Besant herself had had a commitment to service since childhood. This was fostered by her teacher, Ellen Marryat. Miss Marryat came into Besant’s life when she was eight. Annie’s father had died three years before, leaving her mother under financial hardship. Her mother struggled to obtain for her son the education she and her husband had wished for him. There was scant money left for Annie’s education. Miss Marryat was a maiden lady of large means looking for work which would make her useful in the world. She settled on teaching, and taking a fancy to Annie, invited her to study with her.

Miss Marryat proved to have a genius for teaching. Her methods were unique, without rote memorization or dry questions and answers. Instead, the children were encouraged to learn from the life around them and to think for themselves. Annie flourished.

Miss Marryat, a devout evangelical Christian, taught Christian values as well, including working on behalf of those in need. Therefore as a child, Besant was taken to help the needy, the poor, and the sick, laying a cornerstone for her future service work.

By the time she became international president of the TS, Besant had been a prominent social activist for many years. She worked for the betterment of the poor: better working hours, better, safer labor conditions, and women’s suffrage.

Besant brought her rich experience to the TOS in its formative years, and her writings often spoke of duty, altruism, and selfless service. Her presidential address of 1907 asked the question:

tosWhat of our practice? . . . our lodges should not be contented with a programme of lectures, private and public, and with classes. The members should be known as good workers in all branches of beneficent activity. The Lodge should be the centre, not the circumference, of our work. To the lodge for inspiration and knowledge; to the world for service and teaching.

The world was a busy place in those early years of the TOS. The North Pole was reached in 1908 and the South Pole a couple of years later. The first airplane flight was made across the United States, taking eighty-four days. The International Congress for Women was held in Amsterdam. There were race riots in Springfield, Illinois. In 1910, the thirteenth Dalai Lama fled Tibet from Chinese troops to British India, Gandhi was at work in South Africa, and in 1906 Finland approved women’s suffrage.

At this time, vast numbers of people were suffering under the weight of horribly long work hours, meager wages, child labor, oppression of women and those of other ethnicities, crime, and war or the threat of war. The newly formed TOS leagues worked to alleviate the suffering caused by these and other societal woes.

A Changed World

Today the TOS concept of leagues has given way to project-focused collaboration in its principal areas of concern: education, peace, social services, healing, arts and music, animal welfare, the environment, and emergency relief. Even more recently, helping those who have been affected by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken center stage in our work, along with aid to those who have been displaced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The world has changed since 1908, partly thanks to the efforts of members of the TS and the TOS, who focused on service as spiritual action, lived the First Object, and made it practical. The citizens of many countries in today’s world enjoy shorter work weeks, better wages, better health care, housing, educational opportunities, and religious freedom than our forebears. The work continues. There are still places in the world where some of these basic rights have yet to be realized. But all in all, in many respects, the world is a better place today than in years and centuries past.

In a 2015 talk, Diana Dunningham Chapotin, then international secretary of the TOS, said, “Because the media bring almost instantly into our living room reports of acts of great violence committed on the other side of the globe, we have the impression that the world is an increasingly dangerous place to live. In fact, individual and collective violence has been steadily declining over the past thousand years. The number of wars and the number of deaths through war all over the world has been going down for many centuries proportionate to the number of people on earth.” She said that while “we need to be careful of statistics . . . it can be reliably said that today’s citizens are far less at risk of being killed or subjected to violence than a century ago and far, far less at risk than a thousand years ago” (emphasis added).

Because of rapid advances in media and the ease and speed of travel, the planet seems a much smaller place nowadays. The pandemic we have experienced over these last few years showed us its negative effects, with the Covid-19 virus being transmitted at lightning speed worldwide.

At the same time, over the last few years, many of us discovered Zoom and other meeting media that allowed us to improve our communications and remain in touch with each other. We traveled virtually, with Adyar and other conventions, conferences, and online talks given by various TS Sections accessible worldwide. TOS online programs were presented in India, the Philippines, Argentina, the United States, and Ukraine, with speakers such as Tim Boyd, Deepa Padhi, Nancy Secrest, Sivaprasad K., Rekha Harder, and others. This has allowed us to reach many more people than localized, physical programs did.

As the world gets smaller in this way, it is easier to see that we all have the same basic rights to shelter, food, clean water, opportunities to provide for ourselves and our families, human dignity, respect, justice, freedom, and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. The smaller the world becomes, the more we understand each other, and the more apparent the oneness of all life becomes to us. We know that by serving others, we serve ourselves. We can see that service work goes beyond feeding the body or the mind. It is a spiritual path that, when trodden consciously and selflessly, serves the giver as much as the receiver.

This is reflected in the twofold purpose of the TOS, which remains the same today as at its inception:

  • The unselfish service of the needy and suffering
  • The inner transformation of the server

Radha Burnier, late international president of the TS, wrote:

The Theosophical Order of Service was founded by Dr. Annie Besant in 1908 so that the sum of pain in the world may be reduced, to some extent at least, and at the same time help its workers to learn, through their service and the attention they pay to the quality of their work, to purify the mind. The Order of Service has therefore a double purpose. From this point of view, it is not merely the doing of work which is important but the manner in which it is done and the purity of purpose behind it.

Today the TOS is active in thirty-six countries doing humanitarian work based on spiritual concepts. Today, as in the beginning, TOS workers find a joy and a freedom in their work.

Let’s take a look at some of it.

The United Nations

To begin with, you may not know of the TOS’s longstanding interest in the United Nations. The TS and TOS have supported the UN since its inception in 1945 as well as its predecessor, the League of Nations. In fact, Annie Besant became one of the first members of the League of Nations Union in England. The TOS’s UN committee produced a brochure printed in October 2011, outlining the support shown to the UN by every TS president since Besant. Support for the UN is also shown through local TOS celebrations on UN Day, and our former Spanish-language coordinator, the late Fernando Pérez Martin, published more than thirty issues of a newsletter about the UN’s actions. Currently, the TOS is exploring affiliation with the UN as a nongovernmental organization (NGO). If pursued, this process will take a few years to realize. Ironically, our diverse reach may preclude us from being able to join, but we are looking into it.

Support for Ukraine

One of the service areas shared by the TOS and the UN is the promotion of peace. We all know of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although the TOS does not involve itself in politics, we are dedicated to giving humanitarian aid wherever necessary. During this past year, letters from the TOS Ukraine asking for assistance have been shared with directors and presidents of the TOS worldwide. Here is a quote from a recent one.

As a result of the armed attack on Ukraine and damage to civilians, residential buildings, and communications, many humanitarian problems have arisen. As of today, June 28, 2022, about 3 million civilians live out of the country as refugees, and about 10 million civilians left their homes and moved to the western regions of our country, becoming internally displaced persons (IDP). In addition, those villages and cities which were under occupation and then returned to Ukrainian administration are essentially destroyed and those people need support. So all these people need help: water, food, medicine, housing, basic necessities.

Today, our TS members actively cooperate with social organizations (NGOs) and also organized our own TOS activity to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.

The TOS in Ukraine received letters of sympathy and support from all corners of the world. In its annual report, the Ukraine TOS expressed “heartfelt gratitude to all who responded with their hearts to our trouble!”

Aid for Victims of War

The organization has also worked in relief of victims of other war-torn regions. Since 2013, the TOS in Italy has been active with projects to support the Syrian people fleeing war. The projects responded to emergency requests from Syria’s Bab al-Salam refugee camp.

The work the TOS in Italy has been doing to aid Syrian refugees has inspired much interest and respect. The Italian TOS has sent medicine, food, clothing, much needed footwear, tents, and firewood to those in camps and on the road. Of vital importance is the presence of Dr. Alì Nasser, a Syrian refugee now living in Turkey with his family, who immediately offered medical assistance, especially for children. At the suggestion of Dr. Nasser, and thanks to the commitment of other associations and many donations, two containers with the functions of a pediatric clinic were installed. The clinic, managed by him, is still active today and has been fully funded by TOS Italy.

Disaster Relief

Like war, natural disasters can displace many people. Unlike other TOS projects, which may be limited in scope to the group’s local area, disaster relief is a concern to which we respond on an international level. In recent years, the TOS worldwide has responded by raising funds to help with cleanup efforts, rebuilding and supplying food and water to those displaced by natural disasters, such as the earthquake in Nepal several years ago, and the earthquakes in Italy in August and October 2016.

Theosophical Order of ServiceIn past years, TOS members have also offered assistance after hurricanes, cyclones, and tornados in the Philippines, India, and the United States, and floods in India and the United States. More recently, TOS Spain is working with other NGOs in Latin America after earthquakes in Haiti and hurricanes in Honduras and Nicaragua. This year record-breaking floods occurred in India, and cyclones again hit the Philippines. TOS members were there to give help to those who needed it. Teddy bears knitted by English, Italian, and French TOS members made their way to many children affected by some of these disasters. Belgium has now joined this project as well. Psychologists have shown that having a soft and cuddly friend to hang on to during stressful times is beneficial to small children. The TOS in England leads the way with this project. As of the last report, the TOS England had shipped over 30,000 teddies overseas, thanks to the generosity of two charities—International Aid Trust (IAT) and Furniture for Education Worldwide (FEW)—who convey the teddies free of charge.

Pandemic Aid 

For the last few years, we have been experiencing a different kind of natural disaster: a pandemic of global proportions. We have all had to deal with the effects of the Covid-19 virus in one way or another.

TOS members in many countries have given aid in various ways, such as medical assistance to those suffering from the disease, help to caregivers, and food and financial aid to those who have lost their livelihoods.

A scenario exemplified by the Hungarian TOS was repeated in many TOS countries around the world in an attempt to ease the suffering caused by the pandemic. This included assistance to the elderly and disadvantaged and help to students, who could only attend classes online or not at all.

The Hungarian TOS works closely with the Roma (Gypsy) community there, providing clothing and household items. This year, the number of emergency support donation requests soared. Elderly couples, families with many small children, and others taking care of older relatives received sums of money to ease the crisis. Food and household articles were also given.

Of special interest is a large donation received from the TOS in England for Covid-19 relief in India. The British responded to reports of suddenly increased rates of infection in India in summer 2022. The funds were used to purchase food and household articles in several cities in India, which were then distributed by TOS members in the local areas. Food was provided in villages and to old-age homes. Face masks and hand sanitizers were purchased in Chennai, a month’s supply of food was given to a girl’s home in Odisha (which is supported by TOS members there), and oxygen tanks were provided for a temporary Covid hospital. Some Adyar employees who needed help with medical costs due to Covid-19, or replacement of loss of spousal income due to the lockdowns, were also assisted. Some help is still being given, although we hope we have seen the last of this virus.

Educational Efforts

Many TOS groups focus on providing or supporting schools, particularly those that teach Theosophical concepts and virtues. Helping children is close to the hearts of many Theosophists. The largest and most successful of these efforts is the Golden Link College in the Philippines. The school has been providing transformational education for less privileged children since 2002. Eighty-five percent of the student body is on scholarship. The school is regarded throughout the Theosophical world as a model of Theosophy in action.

Besides teaching core academics, the school teaches meditation and focuses on developing character, integrity, and self-confidence. At the college level, courses in Theosophy are part of the core curriculum. It is felt that these qualities of character will be communicated to others throughout the students’ lives, promoting peace and harmony.

The Adyar Theosophical Academy has followed suit. The school is located on the Society’s campus in Chennai. ATA is beginning its fifth year of operations and added a fifth standard (grade) this year. Temporary classrooms have been built to add a sixth standard next school year. Construction of a new campus at Adyar for grades 1‒12 is scheduled to begin in December 2023. The TS would greatly appreciate donations to fund the construction of these classrooms.

The TOS in Pakistan provides fifteen home schools for 300 children, focusing on girls who would otherwise be unable to get an education. The TOS in Australia, New Zealand, and Italy all support individual home schools there. It costs $1,100 per year to support a home school.

These schools of literacy, founded by the TOS in Pakistan, take their distinctive name from qandeel, which means lantern and symbolizes the light of knowledge. It employs teachers who reside in poor areas of the country and who reserve a room during the day (of the two that usually make up their homes) to use as a classroom. The TOS provides whiteboards, mats for children to sit on, stationery, and other essential tools. The children learn the basic educational tools of reading, writing, arithmetic, and social skills.

The TOS in Pakistan also provides nursing scholarships to young women. This program was initially run jointly with the UN Women’s Group. It now relies on donations from the TOS and others. (Donations to both of these efforts can be made through the TOS in the United States.)

TOS Pakistan also works with Montessori teacher training. Members there are strong in their resolve to continue with their various programs unimpeded. This is no small matter, as Theosophists in Pakistan were targeted in the past and killed simply for being Theosophists. The TS was shut down, but the TOS was allowed to continue and just last year again began presenting public programs, with emphasis on charitable works.

The TOS in Finland, along with other TOS groups, supports the work of the Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School (OMHSS) and the Social Welfare Centre at Adyar. The OMHSS, founded in 1894 by Henry Steel Olcott, provides a solid education for underprivileged boys and girls. The Social Welfare Centre cares for small children from the local area, allowing their mothers to attend the Vocational Training Centre, where they learn fabric arts, such as sewing, tailoring, embroidery, and weaving.

Many other TOS groups, particularly in India, run schools or educational programs for children, and TOS members around the world sponsor the education of many hundreds of others. These include a school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sponsored jointly by the French TOS and the Liberal Catholic Church.

The TOS in Italy helps to support the Little Flower Convent School for the deaf, located in Chennai. Founded in 1926 by the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Little Flower Convent was recognized by the government of Tamil Nadu in 1931. It became a secondary school in 1968. It welcomes 800 deaf children and young people, giving them the opportunity to obtain a recognized diploma. The convent also welcomes and gives the opportunity to work for blind people, who are otherwise condemned to survive in poverty on the margins of society.

In Sweden, the TOS helps orphans and street children. Many TOS groups, like those in Bangladesh, offer school supplies to children.

The TOS in Spain has continued with its support to the NGOs COMPARTE and PERSONAS, both working in Central America, mainly involved in providing education to the most disadvantaged children in different parts of Latin America.

Another bright star in the TOS world is our youth group in Tanzania. Getting youth involved in the TS and in TOS work is something we all struggle with, but in Tanzania they have done it. (Brazil too does outstanding work with youth.) The young people work with children from the Chanika Orphanage, which the TOS there helps to sponsor. This year the TOS in Odisha, India, also began a TOS youth group. We are hoping that this concept will spread throughout India.

Healing Efforts

The TOS Healing Network operates around the world. In many places healing groups get together, usually weekly, to perform a ritual and a healing meditation that calls the devas to assist in healing or in a peaceful transition from this life. Names of those in need of healing are submitted by family or friends and are now shared internationally.

During the lockdowns, when groups could not meet physically, many began meeting electronically on Zoom or like media. The healing group in Costa Rica invited those from other countries, especially those that do not have a healing group, to participate. Members from Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico joined the meetings.

Other medically related TOS projects include the issuing of mobility aids, which is a principal project of the TOS in India. The TOS in Puerto Rico collects, cleans, repairs, and sells used goods of all types in a sort of flea market. The proceeds of their sales are used to buy prostheses or implants for children in Haiti. There are many such children who were injured by falling buildings during earthquakes there, and the prostheses need to be replaced as the children grow.

Animals deserve healing too, or so thought Rozi Ulics of the TOS-USA, who began an animal healing network there a number of years ago. The TOS in Hungary has followed suit. The TOS in Argentina started its own animal shelter six years ago. At present there are twenty-one dogs and seven cats enjoying life there.

In the spirit of ahimsa, several TOS Sections—Portugal, Uruguay, and Hungary—teach vegetarian or vegan cooking classes or have produced DVDs or vegetarian cookbooks.

In Chennai, although it is not a TOS program, the Besant Memorial Animal Dispensary has long been a favorite among TOS groups and individuals when deciding where to donate funds. BMAD has grown exponentially in the last five years. Not only does it serve dogs and cats on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, it is now home to horses, cows, donkeys, injured monkeys, and pigs. BMAD helps with a turtle hatching and release program in Chennai each year. The surgeons there have performed over 1,000 spaying and neutering operations to help hold down the population of street (we call them community) dogs and cats as well as complicated surgeries on major injuries. Recently, the government of India asked BMAD to assist in a program for wild animals.

Women’s Issues

Several years ago, the international TOS declared a worldwide focus on women’s issues, which we have extended ever since then. We asked TOS Sections to sign on to this commitment. Several Sections have done so and are actively supporting women’s safety, both outside and inside the home, education for women, equal economic opportunities and basic human rights. The especially fine work in gender issues of Dr. Deepa Padhi (international vice president of the TS) and TOS Bhubaneswar in Odisha Region attracted significant support from TOS groups in other countries.

Dr. Padhi says the initiative began when her group went to the then governor of the region and solicited his support to put up billboards to educate people about violence toward women. Since then, they have conducted seminars at workplaces, put on street plays, and published a journal with many articles about women’s issues and a book containing a compilation of these and other articles. Proceeds from the sale of the book Yes, She Can go toward supporting projects for destitute women. Karate classes are even being conducted for young women.

In the last year, sewing machines were purchased with a donation from TOS New Zealand for use with a vocational training program in the region’s slums, and scholarships have been given to twenty-five young women. These have been matched by donations from TOS Italy doubling their impact.

In Kenya, women are being taught various skills, such as hairdressing and manicure, in order for them to help support themselves and their families. The Olcott Education Society’s Women’s Vocational Centre, while not a TOS program, is a shining example of providing poor women with skills that will help them to be more independent and to help provide for themselves and their families. The center teaches tailoring and weaving. Also, TOS groups in the U.S. and France help to support shelters for abused women.

Recently, the TOS Odisha opened a clothing store, where people can donate clothing and small household appliances. Those in need can then visit the store, selecting needed articles at no cost. The TOS Odisha also gives an Empowered Woman of Odisha award each year to a woman who has exemplified the role of women as empowered individuals.

In Kenya, the men are not forgotten. The TOS there recently invited applicants for training in tailoring, carpentry, and landscaping. Three candidates were selected. The training lasts for six months with fees paid by the TOS.

The TOS is active in thirty-six countries doing humanitarian service work based on spiritual concepts. I want you to know that the international TOS and the TOS in the U.S. are there to help and support you in your own service endeavors, whether in your private lives or within the TOS or the TS. The TOS has resources available on its website and people willing to listen to you and share ideas. The TOS’s whole reason for existing is to support the Theosophical Society’s work in making Theosophy of transformative value in the world and in the life of the individual spiritual seeker. We all need to work together “in the service of all that suffers.”

As the poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”

Nancy Secrest is the international secretary of the Theosophical Order of Service. Originally from the United States, she now lives and works at Adyar as the treasurer of the international TS ( Nancy has been involved with the TS for over fifty years, previously working as national secretary and national treasurer of the American Section.