I happened onto a reference in a book I just finished reading, Occult America, about Gandhi that mentioned the influence of Theosophy in his life.
On a quick excursion to find the deeper connection, I happened upon a statement of Gandhi’s from his Harijan Journal about the philosophy that struck me. In the statement written January 30, 1948, Gandhi said:
“I have come to the conclusion that the Theosophy is Hinduism in theory, and that Hinduism is Theosophy in practice.”
“There are many admirable works in Theosophical literature, which one may read with the greatest profit; but it appears to me that too much stress has been laid upon mental and intellectual studies: upon argument, upon the development of occult powers, and that the central idea of theosophy, the brotherhood of mankind and the moral growth of man has been lost sight of in these.”
That same day Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, assassinated the pre-eminent political and ideological leader.
His proximity to the Theosophical movement was so close that in the founding of the Indian National Congress, which Gandhi assumed leadership over in 1921, we find the most eminent Theosophists at its inception.
Mark Bevir says in his paper Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress
“[the] Theosophical Society provided the framework for action within which some of its Indian and British members worked to form the Indian National Congress.” “The founders of the Indian National Congress relied on the contacts and commitments generated within the Society;” “Gandhi, like Malabari, Rao, and Sen, used theosophy to help restore his pride in his native culture to support his vision of ancient India as a vital, rational, and moral society (Gandhi 1948). British occultists, such as Besant, and western-educated Indians, such as Gandhi, turned to theosophy for different reasons, but once they had done so, they shared practices and intellectual commitments that helped sustain the nationalist movement.”
Such was the connection that Annie Besant of Co-Freemasonry fame was the Congress’ president in 1917, to which she later split off to form the Swaraj Party.
Gandhi, in this swirling sea of occultists, is said to of met Blavatsky in 1889. In those pre-Mahatma years the great philosopher was a student of law at London University. In the book Occult America, Mitch Horowitz says it was in this period that Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time writing in his memoirs that he “felt ashamed…as I had read the divine poem neither in Sanskrit nor in Gujarati …that I had not read the Gita.”
It was in this interesting connection that I felt necessitated a closer examination of the religious group.
Theosophy, a system of religious philosophy, was founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge in 1889 (previous incarnations stretch back to 1875). Defined in its present day incarnation by the Theosophical Society, in Pasadena, California, the name Theosophy is derived from the Greek theos (god, divinity) and Sophia (wisdom). It goes on to say that Its “philosophy is a contemporary presentation of the perennial wisdom underlying the world’s religions, sciences, and philosophies.” That same Pasadena Society goes on to say that the Theosophical Society is a worldwide association of men and women dedicated to the uplifting of humanity through a better understanding of the oneness of life and the practical application of this principle.
Interesting to note, there are several branches that exist, all as offshoots in one way or another of the original organization founded by Blavatsky in 1875.
The Los Angeles branch, under the banner of United Lodge of Theosophists, explains Theosophy,
…by reference to the three great principles which underlie all life, as well as every religion and every philosophy that ever has been, or ever can be. They may be briefly named: (1) The Self, as reality in man; (2) Law, as the processes by which man evolves both in form and soul; (3) Evolution, as the design of life in terms of meaning and purpose.
Masonry and Theosophy come together at a point in the formation and work of Le Droit Humain, the French obediance of Co-freemasonry which began in France in the 1880’s. The early prominent members of the Theosophy movement: Annie Besant, George Arundale, Charles W. Leadbeater, C. Jinarajadasa and Henry Steele Olcott soon became prominent members of Co-Freemasonry.
Brought to England and founded by Annie Besant the Order of Universal Co-Freemasonry in Great Britain and the British Dependencies was founded in 1902 with the creation of Lodge Human Duty No. 6 in London. Her working of the system evolved the then ritual to into the working called the “revised ritual” which was called the ‘Dharma Ritual’, also known as the ‘Besant-Leadbeater’ and more recently as the ‘Lauderdale’ working. Of note, the Dharma ritual is said to of been an attempt to restore an esoteric tone and mysticism back into the degrees as the theosophical authors believed that this spirituality was (is) at the heart of what Freemasonry represented. Their work of Co-Freemasonry has been called “Occult Freemasonry” because of these inclusions.
From the Grand Lodge of Freemasonry for Men and Women website of the degree:
In 1904, the Dharma Ritual was published in which the Supreme Being or God was firmly established as essential to the Ceremonies in that Ritual….
In 1925, speaking in Kensington to a Theosophical audience, Dr.Besant expressed her differences with the French approach, and summarized the agreements that had been made with earlier Supreme Councils as follows:
‘If (Masonry) is really anything, it is a presentment by symbol and by legend of the great fundamental truths of human life and human evolution; and therefore, just as in the great Mysteries – of which its forms are really the vessels surviving – no distinction of sex is permitted; and because of that act in what we call Co-Masonry, it came into the position of being a possible instrument for helping in the evolution of mankind …. into the really Universal Brotherhood which it proclaims. The difficulty in the French Masonry, where this movement, Le Droit Humain originated, was that they left out that universal landmark of Masonry, the recognition of the Great Architect of the Universe. But when some of us here, Theosophists, became Masons, taking our Initiations, as we had to, from France, we said quite frankly that we could do nothing (with Freemasonry ) in England unless that great landmark was restored, as we believed in the Existence (of God). As they were willing to accept us believing in Him, it was necessary that we should be given perfect freedom to use His name in our Rituals and to acknowledge His Power in our workings. So that, in this respect, English Freemasonry differs from the French – certainly so far as we are concerned, we follow the English usage and not that of the French’.
In the book Hidden Life in Freemasonry, C.W. Leadbetter says of the fraternity:
Although today Masons do not call their Craft a religion, it has nevertheless a religious origin, as we have already seen, and it does religious work in helping its initiates and through them the rest of the world. To many of the Brn. it is the only real religion they have ever had, and certainly many of them put its principles nobly into practice: for masculine Masonry is a stupendous charitable organization as well as a “system of morality”, and it offers a splendid training in practical kindliness and fraternity.
I’ve read in several online forum that the Lauderdale working is still in practice with Le Droit, but for those not involved with the Co-Masonic Order one can get a sense of what the Dharma ritual may look like in a through reading of Leadbetter’s book, especially as it really relates the practical to the esoteric in the working.
Theosophy, however, has not aged well and their following seems to be increasingly diminishing. They do have some organization that remains, but not the tooth it had in the days of Blavatsky and Besant. Theosophy has moved on from those days with mostly the echos of its past projecting onto the modern stage. They still have lodges and study libraries, but like so many “occult societies” it would seem their days in the sun have waned, if one could argue that they ever had one.
Notables of Theosophy you might recognize include:
A literary critic and cultural philosopher of the early 20th century. He founded the spiritual movement, Anthroposophy, which is an esoteric philosophy growing out of European transcendentalism and with links to Theosophy. Steiner later became most famous for his ideas about education, resulting in an international network of “Steiner Schools”, also known as Waldorf schools.
L. Frank Baum
Author of the book Wizard of Oz, in addition to many other children books and fantasy novels.
The french artist who made beautiful and colorful works that idealized Polynesian life as being tropical and mostly unclothed.
William Butler Yeats
The Irish poet and dramatist, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years Yeats served as an Irish Senator.
Others include Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kafka.