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Adyar Pamphlets

By Theosophical Publishing House

Issue No.35 - The Influence of Theosophy on the Life and Teachings of Modern India

by Gyanendra Nath Chakravarti (Published in 1905 and 1913)

IT is evident, even to a superficial observer, that Theosophy has been a powerful factor in directing thecurrent of thought in India ever since its arrival on the land which more than any other place in the worldmight be called its home, and it may therefore be interesting to discuss the various ways in which it hasinfluenced thought and life for weal or for woe. The impressions of one who has been connected more orless intimately with the movement for nearly a quarter of a century may be found pregnant with hope andencouragement for those who are beginning to get interested, as also indicative of the dangers to whichit is particularly exposed.

As no human institution is perfect, it may be at once confessed without hesitation that, like all otheraltruistic movements, the T.S. has also given birth to some errors and abuses as the result of erroneousor imperfect understanding of its fundamental ideas. It is therefore eminently desirable that a powerfulsearch-light should be directed on the shoals and rocks that beset its path; and the purpose of this paperwill be served if it renders its steering any easier for those whose hands are to be upon its helm. Thesimplest plan seems to be to consider separately its influence in the regions of the politics, the religionand the spirituality of India, although it must be remembered that all these different departments of lifeare mutually interrelated and are constantly acting and reacting upon one another.The political influence of Theosophy will be taken first and disposed of, as according to the constantlyrepeated manifesto of the movement it keeps itself clear of politics which are regarded as outside itssphere of influence. Politics, however, form one of the manifold ways in which the inner life and thoughtof a nation find outer expression; and it therefore follows that any powerful influence on the life of thoughtmust be a determinant factor in the shape which politics will assume. Theosophy therefore finds itselfunconsciously drawn into the vortex of political issues, although its professedly indifferent attitudetowards politics keeps it elevated far above the din and bustle of strife so peculiar to political life. For withthe olive branch of “universal brotherhood” always held out and its all-embracing arms, it makes forpeace and not conflict, for union and not dissension. The critical idea of the whole body of its teachingsbeing Unity, it evokes harmony; and deriving all its motive power from the inspiration of Love itsuccessfully combats hatred.

Curiously enough, soon after its arrival in India it encountered the suspicion of the very people whosehands it was destined to strengthen, and the English people in India saw in it through the mist of thatgeneral distrust which unfortunately hangs about the political horizon of this country, a fresh phantom ofunrest and trouble called into being by a person suspected to be a Russian spy assisted by one who waslooked upon as a deluded, if well-meaning American enthusiast. Years of steady and devoted laboursucceeded in dispelling this delusion but not before the leaders had the opportunity of proving theirmettle by calmly putting up with persecution and promoting their mission of peace regardless ofmisconceptions, patiently confident of the ultimate triumph of truth. At this distant day one recalls with a smile of amusement and relief the obstacles put in the way of the movement by this unreasoning attitude of suspicion, and one still remembers with a feeling of admiration the moral courage of those who cameforward publicly to help, in days when such a course involved material risk to their worldly prosperity andreputation. No sooner had this suspicion of the Government time to die out than it was re-born with atougher life in the minds of the Indians themselves, due to the appearance on the scene of a number ofearnest and devoted Englishmen who had sacrificed everything to toil for the well-being of the verypeople who looked upon them with suspicion. The very magnitude and selflessness of the sacrificeserved only to breed distrust and set people to the task of ferreting out some dark and sinister motive thatcould in their minds account for a life of labour bereft of comfort, wealth, name, position and all that theworld holds dear. And this discreditable distrust was not confined to the illiterate or the so-called halfeducated, but claimed the ingenuity of some of the most brilliant intellects of the country in puttingforward plausible theories to explain away such altruistic conduct. The writer of this article was solemnlywarned by a distinguished literary friend of his against the wisdom of rendering any support to the deep,mischievous designs of the scheming Englishmen, who, not content with holding in bondage ourpersons, were making through the Theosophical movement a determined attempt to reduce us into acondition of intellectual and moral slavery also. But once more the Light of Truth shone out clearly abovethe clouds of harrowing fancies born out of a diseased imagination, and the forces of Love and Charitytriumphed over those of Hatred and Distrust. Lord Bacon compares suspicion to bats, owing to acommon partiality for darkness, and it cannot be gainsaid that most of the misunderstanding and illfeeling that divide man from man can be traced to ignorance and want of fuller knowledge of the thoughtsand motives that determine conduct.

The weakest spot in the otherwise stable foundation of British rule and the consequent peace in India isthis want of confidence, which must be regarded by every thoughtful observer as the most serious aspectof the present political situation. While both the rulers and the ruled are working steadfastly for the peaceand good government of the country, they understand amazingly little of the inner life, thoughts andaspirations of each other. The complete isolation of the English people in India, who live in a world oftheir own creation into which an Indian seldom or never finds admittance, is, in the opinion of the mostsagacious minds of both these communities, a standing menace to the stability of the Empire. The reallife of each community, in which all the finer feelings and the delicacies of sentiment find full play, everremains a sealed book to the other; and it is no wonder that out of such mutual exclusiveness should beborn estrangement and distrust between such close neighbours. The blindest bigot is bound to recognizethat it is the hand of Providence that has driven two great and highly cultured nations into the arms ofeach other, and any organization which makes it possible for the heart of the one to respond to the heartof the other when they meet in loving embrace, is making itself the instrument of that Divine Beneficencewhich has brought them together. It seems that the accomplishment of this glorious end is one of themany missions which the T.S. is destined to subserve. No doubt it will take long years of devoted andselfless labour on the right lines but it is a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” and if attained theSociety will not have lived in vain, apart from the more spiritual aspects of its work. That the movement isparticularly fitted to achieve the end in view hardly admits of any doubt on a consideration alike of thespirit that animates it and of the results already accomplished.

A European Theosophist in this country is singularly free from the trammels of the enforced reservewhich handicaps official life in India, as also from the overwhelming sense of moral and religioussuperiority which only too often characterizes the non-official European. He goes into an Indian homewith his heart full of love for the people who are the lineal descendants of the Great Sages, whosewisdom has brightened his life and whose teachings are his dearest possession. There is no magic more miraculous than the mantra of true sympathy, and it is to be wondered that it proves an “open sesame” tothe heart of the Indian, which opens out to its gentle touch exposing its richest treasures, while it remainssecurely fastened against the rude knocks of people who seek entrance in order to accuse. Once thebond of sympathy is established, all racial antipathy, misconception born of ignorance, distrust arising outof exclusiveness, vanish into thin air, giving place to unbounded confidence and unalloyed love. And as apractical illustration of what is stated above it is enough to mention that within the personal knowledge ofthe writer of this paper there are orthodox and conservative Hindûs who delight in counting someEuropeans as their nearest and dearest friends on earth, dearer in many cases than near relations.Surely this is a result of which any organization might justly be proud and yet it is so insignificant whencompared with the object in view. The end may not be within view yet, the road may yet seem very uphilland rough, but if we all resolve to live in our lives the Law of Love to which we are pledged, successcannot be uncertain and, although devoid of politics, the Society cannot fail to attain the greatest politicaltriumph of the age.

Coming to the domain of religion, on which Theosophy has naturally a more direct bearing, it is noexaggeration to say that the change effected in the opinion of the educated people of India and theirattitude towards their own religion is not far short of revolutionary. It is unfortunately necessary to confinethe remarks about religion to the Hindû religion, for although sporadic attempts have been made to tacklethe religion of the Prophet, it may at once be conceded that the inspiration which is to breathe into Islamthe life which has vitalized Hindûism has yet to come. But with regard to the latter it may rightly beclaimed that the advent of Theosophy has given it a fresh lease of life which was fast ebbing away underthe pressure of Western ideas and scientific materialism. One remembers quite vividly the time whenHindûism was associated in the minds of the “educated” classes with all that is debasing and grosslysuperstitious and no reference to it was possible without carrying vague horrors of meaningless practicesand enthralling priestcraft. However difficult it may be for young men of the present generation to realize,it is nevertheless a fact that the very sight of a religious book in Samskrt never failed to evoke acontemptuous smile and a stinging sneer at the absurdities and superstitions it was supposed to holdwithin its covers; and anyone has the “crankiness” to dive into their contents was made the object ofmuch raillery and sometimes of sincere pity for the wrong-headedness of attempting to draw wisdomfrom ignorance and religion from superstition. It is hardly necessary to mention the fact that this is nowchanged and the picture drawn above of the state of feeling of the educated classes in this country isfaithful in all its details derived from personal experience. The stupendousness and rapidity of the changebrings home to one’s mind the wisdom behind the movement that chose the psychological moment atwhich to set to work, for it is scarcely open to doubt that the T.S. is the fountain-head from which flowedthe first and main stream of reverence for Hindû religion and Shâstras; although it is equally certain thatother tributary streams have largely contributed to swell the volume of admiration for their religion whichnow surges through the heart of the majority of Hindûs. The T.S. may justly claim to be the dominantfactor in the working out of the transformation which causes one ignorant of the main principles of Hindûreligion and philosophy to be regarded as behind the times and not “up to date,” just in the same way asinterest in them was tabooed before the Society began its operations.

It may, however, be doubted if the impetus so given has not swung the pendulum too far backwards, forthe crazy enthusiasm of the so-called “revivalist” brings out the unpleasant fact that in some cases atleast a blind and unquestioning admiration of everything Hindû coupled with a corresponding contemptfor all that is Western has given place to the former prejudice against Hindû ideals. Perhaps this extrememove in the opposite direction is but the working out of the natural law of action and reaction and thisthought gives one room for hope that the swinging backwards and forwards of public sentiment is only preliminary to the attainment of true balance. It is nevertheless essential for us to bear in mind that thereis no blight more potent than self-admiration, and that self-complacency spells ruin even more certainlythan running blindly after Western ideals. All the encomiums that have been bestowed by Europeanthinkers on the greatness of the Rshis and their love, ought to make us feel more keenly than ever thedepths of our own degradation; and instead of affording food for self-congratulation and vanity, ought tospur us into redoubled efforts to make ourselves worthy of such a glorious heritage. In no department oflife is this illogical slavery to the self-laudatory instinct more painfully visible than in holding up everydetail of social life in India as worthy of imitation for all times and in all ages. This is a perfectly intelligibleattitude when one remembers that all social usages in India have the sanction of religion, and that in thiscountry religious and social duties are not kept in water-tight compartments as things apart, betweenwhich there is no necessary relation. In India religion formed the central sun around which all otherinstitutions were made to revolve, deriving from it their life and energy. Indeed, social institutions were sofar subordinated to the controlling centre as to be absorbed into it altogether, thus losing their separateidentity; and this is the reason why they are dealt with under the heading of religion in this article. The farseeing Rshis who gave India her religion and polity, never lost sight of the fact that the attainment of thetrue aim of religion depended less upon an intellectual assent to a body of crystallized doctrines thanupon the manner in which the life is lived; and before their clear vision always shone out the fact that,provided life is well regulated so that it ministers to the growth of the Soul, the recognition of Truth cannotbe far delayed. Hence although facts about the life of the Spirit are stated in the Shâstras as clearly as itis possible to do so in words, belief in any detail is never insisted upon, for the human mind, at aparticular stage of evolution, may not be able to grasp that aspect of Truth which is presented, and wordscan at best attempt to convey only one solitary aspect at a time. It is for this reason that Hindûism standstoday among all the religions of the world as the most liberal in the range and variety of its beliefs, andmen of all shades of opinion from a fetish-worshiper to an atheist find shelter in its broad bosom so longas they observe the rules of conduct upon which Hindû society is based. These rules were framed bymighty Seers resplendent with Inner Illumination, with a view to helping on the spiritual evolution of therace; and it is a wise instinct that has made the Hindû so conservative. Accustomed to be guided bySages whose eyes saw clearly the goal of the path on which the feet were set, he is naturally reluctant tofollow a less certain guidance. And yet there is plenty of evidence in the Shâstras to show that the Hindûin periods of virility and vitality was not slow to adapt himself to altered conditions when a change wasdictated by one who had the wisdom to command his confidence. Deprived of the freshness and vigourof youth, the present-day Hindû finds it easier to run in old grooves, however worn out, and unable to findamongst men of this age leaders of towering spirituality, he prefers to be guided by old landmarks,however out of date, unwilling to make up his mind to direct his steps by the fitful flash of reason insteadof the polestar of true knowledge. While it is impossible not to sympathize with his spirit of devotion toideals that have stood him in such good stead for centuries past, the plain fact has to be faced that nohuman institution, however perfect, can be made to serve forever a useful purpose; and thatorganizations devised thousands of years ago need adaptation to suit conditions of life so entirelydifferent from those that prevailed when they were first brought into being. It is hard, very hard, to departfrom the customs and institutions framed by the holy hands of Seers, and yet such a step has to betaken, however slowly and cautiously it may be, if utter destruction is to be prevented. For we cannothope to escape the universal law of the organic world, in which crystallization means death andassimilation implies life.

The only chance of a continued existence for our body-politic lies in its being able to assimilate all that isbest and most helpful in the vigorous organizations of the West, discarding everything that is lifeless anda dead weight upon every pulsation of fresh life. Indeed, the more thoughtful minds of the country arefully alive to the necessity for this adaptation and deplore deeply the blind slavery to customs that are either mere superstitious overgrowths or are so devoid of life as to be in the nature of an incubus. Nay,some of them while being in thorough sympathy with the broad principles of Theosophy, hold it, in somemeasure, responsible for this state of affairs. It is conceivable that Theosophy has been the indirect andunwilling instrument of contributing towards the growth of this unreasonable frame of mind, for “everyaction,” as truly remarked by Lord Shri Krshna, “is enveloped by faults as fire by smoke;” but nothing isfurther from the true scope of Theosophy than the encouragement of a blind adherence to any custom orany doctrine simply because it has the sanction of age. It is true that it has taught people to hold inreverence their religion and institutions by explaining in many cases the rationale of a number of customsthe meanings of which they failed to grasp; but it has never encouraged the belief that every detail ofHindû religious customs and dogmas is above criticism. It is of the essence of Theosophic teaching thatwhile all religions give expression, more or less perfect, to Truth, none of them is identical with Truthitself, to know which one ought to be able to discriminate between the shell and the kernel, the real lifeand the mere outer form, in one’s own religion as much as in that of others. The form must, in view of thenever-ceasing change of environments, need adaptation and even elimination. In order to give aconcrete illustration, it is perhaps enough to mention the much-abused and much-misunderstoodinstitution of the Sati.

To discuss the full import and real significance of this mysterious institution, or, indeed, any other Hindûinstitution, is beyond the scope of this paper; but in order to bring out the full force of the illustration it isnecessary to state that the very possibility of Sati, presumed the existence of a spiritual relationship thatis well-nigh beyond the conception of the matter-of-fact man whose range of vision never goes beyondwhat may be cognized by the physical senses. But in days when an attempt was made to base humaninstitutions on spiritual foundations, when human relationship was intended to reflect in some measurerelationship in words which mortal eyes may not penetrate, marriage was not merely a physical tie basedupon social convenience but a union of souls - a bond which no outer change might snap, and thebinding-force of which sank even deeper than the Soul-plane, so that the wife had a place by the side ofher lord for ever and ever even as Shakti is eternally united to Shiva. The union on all planes of existencebeing absolute, the death of even the physical body of her lord produced so great a strain on higher andmore spiritual planes as to cause an outburst of a spiritual energy which flared out in sacred flamesdevouring the body but rendering once more the disturbed harmony complete and blissful. In some rareinstances, as in the case of Savitrî, this spiritual fire produced the opposite effect of restoring to life thebody of the husband. Hence it is that even the spot where a Sati is supposed to have taken place isregarded as sacred for ever afterwards - a place from which mankind in all ages may derive spiritualpeace and strength.

The perfectly natural, almost involuntary, process produced a lasting impression upon the minds ofsucceeding generations of womanhood, and in course of time cases began to arise in which the wife nothaving the spiritual elevation to attain the destiny of a true Sati, wished to imitate that gloriousconsummation by following her dead husband to the funeral pyre. Impossible as we may find it toappreciate or even understand this solemn tragedy, who can help admiring the deathless devotion thatarms a frail mortal with courage to face death cheerfully in order to join her lord. Still it was a distinct stepdownwards, and later on, when people thought it their duty to force women against their will to consigntheir bodies to the funeral flames in order to satisfy a sense of vanity, the bottom of depravity wasreached and the institution so sacred, so natural and so beneficent, became the prolific source ofinhuman cruelty and shameless superstition. It is evidently futile to hug to one’s bosom institutions fromwhich life has completely departed and which can only hamper us in our move onwards in an age whereeven a mention of their true significance sounds like a fairy-tale. And although it may rend our hearts in twain, the inevitable will have to be faced and we shall have to part company with our corpses. But letthat be done only in the fullness of time and then with that devout reverence which is due to the memoryof a great and revered ancestor, praying silently that out of its very disintegration may flow inspiration andblessing for fresh efforts towards building up institutions suited to the spirit of the times. It is a sad,pathetic note to strike; but who knows that the country which has produced so many Spiritual Giants inthe past may not give birth to another to bring Life into new frames. Let us, however, show in our effortsand our conduct that it is Life we crave for and not mere outer form, and that we are ready to welcomeLife in whatever garb it is found. Theosophy has helped a number of people to realise this truth and itspower for uplifting depends upon its constantly attempting to direct the gaze to the Reality instead of thepassing phantoms which once shadowed it forth.

It is an easy transition to pass from a consideration of the aspect of Theosophy dealt with above, itsaspect towards religion, to that of its influence on the spiritual aspirations of the people; for its function inboth cases remains the same - that of directing attention to the substance as distinguished from theshadow. Theosophy never claimed to bring to India any spiritual message that was novel or startling in itscharacter, or such as had not already been given to it by its Spiritual Teachers; but the task which it setbefore itself and accomplished with remarkable success was that of rejuvenating the old teachings andreviving interest in them by infusing new life into what had practically been reduced to the condition of drybones. Its function was to bring to a focus all the different views of spiritual life and the means of attainingit, to effect a proper co-ordination between them, and to bring into prominence the ideal calculated toprove most helpful - a veritable lighthouse to warn and guide souls on the storm-tossed ocean ofconditioned existence. In a country where attention has been directed to spiritual culture from timeimmemorial, it is but natural that there should be floating about in its mental atmosphere numeroustheories as to the nature and means of spiritual growth - some sane and replete with inspiration, otherswildly fantastic and fraught with the gravest danger, but all having the ostensible object of leading one tospiritual illumination. Amongst this perfect maze of speculations the unsophisticated seeker after Lightlost his way so completely as almost to doubt the existence of the Path. Some fresh impulse wastherefore necessary to revive the drooping spirits and inspire him with faith in the ultimate success of thesearch and the glorious nature of his mission, by affording some clue that would bring him into closertouch with real life and help him in discriminating the true from the false. And numberless are the peoplewho would testify to the fact that Theosophy has supplied this need, both in their own lives as also in thelives of hosts of their friends and personal acquaintances. It would, however, be unfair to omit themention here of a charge that is frequently brought by some of the most spiritually-minded Hindûs that,while Theosophy has unquestionably brought light and comfort to many a bewildered soul, it has, at thesame time, disturbed the serenity of the spiritual atmosphere by diverting too much attention to what maybe termed the theatrical element of spiritual culture. Belief in the divinity of the human soul and itscapacity to manifest powers that would be deemed miraculous owing to the limitations under which itordinarily labours in this age of materialism, has always been almost universal in India; but such powershave always been regarded as symptomatic of spiritual growth - as certain results incidental to the Gloryof the Spirit shining through the sheaths more resplendently, but not as objects that could in themselvesform an end to aspire and work for. These powers are constantly used, unknown and unseen, for theservice of mankind to which the lives of saints, who have the inner illumination, are devoted; but they arenever paraded or sought after by any true aspirant so as to be able “to strut, look big and talk away.”Indeed, phenomenalism has always been regarded as a source of great danger to the Pilgrim of thePath, as dabbling in it often leads to the Vãma-mãrga (Left-hand Path) and not to the goal that is thecentre of Beneficence and Peace. It is contended that, whatever justification there might have been in thepast for the production of “phenomena,” so as to rivet public attention and obtain a hearing, the necessityfor attempting to keep alive an interest in that aspect of spiritual life no longer exists. And when it is remembered that, from the very nature of the obscurity in which the whole region of phenomenalism isinvolved, one genuine phenomenon is imitated by a thousand spurious ones, and that one trueexperience is parodied by myriads of questionable ones, it becomes evident that an indiscriminateencouragement of sensationalism is by no means the surest way of carrying conviction as to the reality ofthe spiritual life. And from the standpoint of scientific investigation nothing can be more pernicious thanthat the Indian mind naturally contemplative, imaginative, and untrained to the methods of accurateobservation, strict scrutiny and careful generalisation, should be called upon to deal with vague details asto superphysical worlds incapable of verification and useless - even positively harmful - as factorstowards the development of that side of human nature which alone makes those worlds a reality.Whatever be the value in the West of these sterile statements as to “psychic experiences” - and some ofthe most earnest European workers in the Theosophical field are gravely apprehensive of theirconsequences even there - it is hardly open to question that they go against the whole trend of trulyspiritual thought in India where no method of knowing facts of the transcendental world that does notbring about personal experience as a result of inner growth is recognised as valid; and where eventeachings about spiritual life beyond a certain point are considered superfluities tending to confusion andnot to illumination, which can only be reached by leading the higher life. But while recognizing that thereis some basis for the charge mentioned above, it is necessary to point out that true Theosophy has nomore to do with the growth of “psychism” than with the revival of superstition; and that both theoreticallyand practically it has ever striven to show that only by earnest devotion to higher ideals and arduouswork for the helping of mankind can one come nearer to the Path that leads to Glory. The whole body ofits responsible teachings and the numerous centres of its work and usefulness bring out unmistakablythe lines on which a seeker after the Truth has to work. Alike by example and by precept the leaders ofthe movement have taught that no quack nostrum or charlatanic alchemy can transmute the base metalof the passions and weaknesses of human nature into the shining gold of purity and saintliness, and thatuntil the soul has attained a purity and peace like that of the eternal snows that crown the mightyHimavat, it may not bask in the sunshine of the Divine Presence. Tirelessly and ceaselessly have theypreached that there is no short cut to the Throne of God and that it is only by a life of constant struggle,profuse bleeding of the heart, and unwavering devotion to the “dim star that burns within,” that one mayhope some day to be face to face with the Majesty of the Spirit. 



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