Theosophy and Politics

Reprinted from THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, July 1963.
The recognition of pure Theosophy—the philosophy of the rational explanation of things and not the tenets—is of the most vital importance...inasmuch as it alone can furnish the beacon-light needed to guide humanity on its true path.

—H. P. Blavatsky

One of the illusions from which a very large number of people suffer is that of overestimating the power of politics in promoting general well-being and improving national life and international relationships. The place accorded to politics is so high as to be out of all proportion to its actual influence. It may be well to consider why its influence must necessarily remain limited and why it is incapable of tackling successfully the problem of human advancement.

First, political methods, even when applied with the best of intentions, aim generally at superficial changes and do not go to the root of the problems of modern society. As H.P.B. observes:

To seek to achieve political reforms before we have effected a reform in human nature, is like putting new wine into old bottles. Make men feel and recognize in their innermost hearts what is their real, true duty to all men, and every old abuse of power, every iniquitous law in the national policy, based on human, social or political selfishness, will disappear of itself. Foolish is the gardener who seeks to weed his flower-bed of poisonous plants by cutting them off from the surface of the soil, instead of tearing them out by the roots. No lasting political reform can be ever achieved with the same selfish men at the head of affairs as of old. (The Key to Theosophy, p. 229)

No lasting change or reform can be brought about without an inner change in the individual himself, a new psychological attitude, followed by a psychical transformation. Such a change is not possible through political action only. In fact, people in general are so immersed in mundane affairs that they find little if any time for the supreme task of changing their hearts.

Not only does it need to be reiterated that by making a fetish of political reform, as if all our happiness depended upon it and as if it were the one and only panacea for all our ills, we fail to trace those ills to their real causes; but more—the corrupting influence of and in politics needs to be brought out. It is not recognized, as it should be, that taking sides politically casts a dangerous and degrading glamour on life. It needs to be perceived that politics is only the body and that, without true philosophy and culture, it becomes a soulless institution, potentially the worst kind of machine, which can grind human character to animality. For, without real culture and philosophy, a man is in danger of becoming worse than a beast. Very many political leaders have no time to study philosophy and thus to cultivate the mental detachment so very necessary to solve the problems which their dossiers contain from day to day. They find time to feed their bodies three times a day or more, but how many of them make time to nourish the mind or to sustain the soul? They need as a background to their political life that soul-culture which not only lights up the mind with the knowledge of first principles and makes it detached so that it has the power of insight and evaluation, but also purifies and ennobles the character so that heart-contentment and active service of one's fellow men invariably result.

It may also be pointed out that party-politics tends towards making people rely blindly on their leaders; puts a curb on individual thinking; increases passivity. No people or community can prosper if they lack the virtues of self-help and self-reliance.

There are numerous unequivocal statements of H.P.B. which go to show that neither the Theosophical Adepts nor Theosophical aspirants nor the Society she founded can attach undue importance to political activity. In the very first number of the first volume of her magazine, The Theosophist, that for October 1879, in the article "What Are the Theosophists?" (reprinted in U.L.T. Pamphlet No. 22) we find the following:

Unconcerned about politics; hostile to the insane dreams of Socialism and of Communism, which it abhors—as both are but disguised conspiracies of brutal force and sluggishness against honest labour; the Society cares but little about the outward human management of the material world. The whole of its aspirations are directed towards the occult truths of the visible and invisible worlds. Whether the physical man be under the rule of an empire or a republic, concerns only the man of matter. His body may be enslaved; as to his Soul, he has the right to give to his rulers the proud answer of Socrates to his Judges. They have no sway ove the inner man.

All that the Adepts can do in this direction was indicated by H.P.B. in an Editor's Note in The Theosophist of December 1883 (reprinted in THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT, January 1937), which also holds a hint for the aspirant:

Neither the Tibetan nor the modern Hindu Mahatmas for the matter of that, ever meddle with politics, though they may bring their influence to bear upon more than one momentous question in the history of a nation—their mother country especially.

In the Supplement to The Theosophist for July 1883 can be found a very important pronouncement by Col. H. S. Olcott, the co-founder and President of the Theosophical Society, against mixing Theosophy and politics. This statement, which H.P.B. endorsed, reads:

The tenacious observance by the Founders of our Society of the principle of absolute neutrality, on its behalf, in all questions which lie outside the limits of its declared "objects," ought to have obviated the necessity to say that there is a natural and perpetual divorce between Theosophy and Politics. Upon a hundred platforms I have announced this fact, and every other practicable way, public and private, it has been affirmed and reiterated. Before we came to India, the word Politics had never been pronounced in connection with our names; for the idea was too absurd to be even entertained, much less expressed. But in this country, affairs are in such an exceptional state, that every foreigner, of whatsoever nationality, comes under Police surveillance more or less; and it was natural that we should be looked after until the real purpose of our Society's movements had been thoroughly well shown by the developments of time. That end was reached in due course; and in the year 1880, the Government of India, after an examination of our papers and other evidence, became convinced of our political neutrality, and issued all the necessary orders to relieve us from further annoying surveillance. Since then, we have gone our ways without troubling ourselves more than any other law-abiding persons, about the existence of policemen or detective bureaux. I would not have reverted to so stale a topic if I had not been forced to do so by recent events. I am informed that in Upper India, some unwise members of the Society have been talking about the political questions of the hour, as though authorized to speak for our organization itself, or at least to give to this or that view of current agitations the imprimatur of its approval or disapproval. Again, it was but a fortnight or so ago that one of the most respectable and able of our Hindu fellows strongly importuned me to allow the Theosophical Society's influence—such as it may be—to be thrown in favour of Bills to promote religious instruction for Hindu children, and other "non-political" measures. That our members, and others whom it interests, may make no mistake as to the Society's attitude as regards Politics, I take this occasion to say that our Rules, and traditional policy alike, prohibit every officer and fellow of the Society, AS SUCH, to meddle with political questions in the slightest degree, and to compromise the Society by saying that it has, AS SUCH, any opinion upon those or any other questions. The Presidents of Branches, in all countries, will be good enough to read this protest to their members, and in every instance when initiating a candidate to give him to understand—as I invariably do—the fact of our corporate neutrality. So convinced am I that the perpetuity of our Society depends upon our keeping closely to our legitimate province, and leaving Politics "severely alone," I shall use the full power permitted to me as President-Founder to suspend or expel every member, or even discipline or discharter any Branch which shall, by offending in this respect, imperil the work now so prosperously going on in various parts of the world.

The greatest of the tragedies of the Theosophical Movement occurred when, after the passing of H.P.B., there was a departure from the original lines and the original programme of the Masters and Their Messenger. What was originally intended to be a cosmopolitan, spiritual movement became degraded into a nationalistic, religious one, for in the Theosophical Society of later years there was the mixing of Theosophy with orthodoxy on the one hand and with politics on the other. As a result many were led astray, and the serious business of the spiritual life was given a secondary importance when not quite forgotten.

The United Lodge of Theosophists with its centres all over the world does not participate in political activity of any kind because it was established for the specific purpose of studying and promulgating Theosophy. The work it has on hand and the end it keeps in view are too absorbing and too lofty to leave it the time or inclination to take part in side issues: and to it politics is a side issue. Furthermore, the organic unity of the Lodge depends on mutual respect, tolerance and brotherliness subsisting between all its Associates. Now, political action varies with the circumstances of the time and with the idiosyncrasies of the individuals; while from the very nature of their position as students of Theosophy the Associates and friends of U.L.T. are agreed on the principles of Theosophy, it does not thereby follow that they agree on every other subject. As Theosophist, H.P.B. wrote in The Key to Theosophy, "they can only act together in matters which are common to all"—that is, in connection with or relation to Theosophy itself; "as individuals, each is left perfectly free to follow out his or her particular line of political thought and action, so long as this does not conflict with Theosophical principles" or hurt the Theosophical Movement.

It should not be lost sight of that though Theosophy has no part to play in politics as such, it being an all-embracing philosophy of life which repudiates narrowness of every kind and provides the key to the unravelling of every problem, Theosophists cannot refuse to notice present-day social issues or the problems of national and international politics. But the solutions to these problems that Theosophy would offer would, in many cases, be almost entirely at variance with those proposed by men of the world. With politics divorced from morality Theosophy has nothing to do; it seeks rather to effect a reform in the outlook of the individual. All that there is of good and of evil in the world has its roots in human character. It follows, therefore, that once men recognize in their hearts what their duty to all men is, "every old abuse of power, every iniquitous law in the national policy, based on human, social or political selfishness, will disappear of itself."

Application of such Theosophical principles as Universal Unity and Causation, Human Solidarity, the Law of Karma, and Reincarnation would give such a turn to all problems of the time as would make easier their practical solution. The attemt to apply these principles to the conduct of public affairs might be dubbed "impractical" by the so-called "practical" men of the world, but it is to such application alone that we must look to bind humanity into one family and to make social amelioration possible and lasting.

So, if students of Theosophy seem to some to have an unusual way of reforming the world, if they seem overmuch engaged in abstract pursuits, it is because they see the dire need for guiding principles, without which all efforts at reform are likely to make things worse than before. Aspiration is not enough; there must be knowledge to direct it.

to return to the table of contents