Theosophy as a Panacea for Urban Decay
In the November issue of The Lancet, the Australian version of the journal of medicine, a podcast on the countdown to health and climate change forewarns of the unlivable place our planet will become in the future, unless more is done on the ground. Conferences and accords are many but the policies need to be translated into action. If New York is fondly referred to as the ‘Big Apple’, then Sydney of late is being referred as the ‘Big Smoke’. Last year six million children stepped out of the classroom in schools across the world to protest against an irresponsible generation. Cape Town just barely escaped from ‘Day Zero’ which would be the doomsday of a waterless city. New Delhi, despite the green buses, ranks as amongst one of the most polluted cities in the world. Venice is trying to keep itself afloat through a five billion Euro project called Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico (MOSE). In my own city of Mumbai, every monsoon becomes a nightmare with flash floods and erratic climate trends. The Arabian Sea next to Marine Drive promenade, threw back in disgust all the garbage and plastic onto the pavement, expressing its wrath… the list goes on, and the writing on the wall cannot be ignored. A major reason for this ecological disorder is a man-made crisis by a failed architecture and urban design.
There has been a fascist greed to usurp land, encroach into the mangroves, farm land and forests, obliterate water bodies for reclamation, deny bees and sparrows their habitat and to ignore the existence of all other creatures and vegetation. A new metro line in Mumbai has encroached into the last green cover reserve of Arrey, resulting in the carnage of two thousand trees, with just a few hundred having escaped due to the public outcry and belated judicial intervention. Although Europe and North America ring-fence their urban habitats from squalor and ghettos to a large extent, the crises remain in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Singapore and the Sultanate States of the oil-rich gulf are an exception. Much of the woes emanate from human greed, avarice and lack of equitable governance.
Development is welcome and inevitable but we must bear in mind the common good of the Universe and also consider the future of mankind and the planet. The founders of the Theosophical Society, Madam Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, along with Dr Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater were clairvoyant of the disastrous direction in which mankind was moving. It was with this in mind that they went searching for a promised land and set up an International Headquarters at Huddleston Gardens on the Banks of the Adyar river in Chennai, then known as Madras. In the words of C. Jinarajadasa, a past president of the Theosophical Society, it was a “Vision of hope for mankind, intended by its creators to be an inspiration to the coming new era of the world”. The first step had been taken to create an equitable habitat and urban agglomeration with the sound wisdom of Theosophy. Izabela Trzcińska and Agata Swierzowska, two research students from Krakow in Poland, in their research paper on Theosophy and its Headquarters remark “One of the most interesting examples of Theosophy’s campaign of transgressive imagination in eastern and western culture is the movement’s Headquarters at Adyar”. True to its vision, the Adyar campus is the last reserve among the three green cover areas in the city of Chennai, and during the deluge of 2015 and cyclone Vardha, the trees and green bushes guarded the residents from the fury of the waters, while the adjoining areas of the city were submerged. Adyar is good example of visionary urban architecture. Theosophists were learning from the past to save the future, and Radha Burnier, the then President of the Society, never let a single tree be cut. The present President Tim Boyd has taken up the gargantuan task of reviving the dozens of heritage buildings within the campus, which have many stories to narrate. The Dutch environmental award-winning architect, Michiel Haas is executing Tim Boyd’s vision of a structurally reinforced Adyar.
In the book Man, Whence, Where and Whither the clairvoyant authors have prophesied Adyar to be a futuristic Think Tank epicentre of the world in raising the consciousness of mankind well into the 28th century. They have also forecast cities styled as one community with no individual kitchens and a new medium of communication between fellow human beings. Many of their statements authored a hundred years ago in their book are a reality today, with artificial intelligence, digital communication and virtual world all unimagined, even fifty years ago. As the consciousness of humankind rises, urban town planning design and goals will have a transformational shift from the present-day perception. Lee Wharf (1897-1974) in an article that appeared in The Theosophist in 1942 ‘Language, Mind and Reality’ states that Theosophy will continue to contribute to the cultural image of modernity. The TS in India, as explained by Jinarajadasa, emphasizes the pedagogic value of the natural environment, not merely for human beings, but All Beings. To this day even pest control and fumigation is not encouraged in Adyar, with a view to avoid wanton killing of smaller creatures.
The English poet Ernest Armine Wodehouse (1879-1936), a tutor of Jiddu Krishnamurti, extols the beauty of Adyar in his poem ‘I hail thee Paradise.’ The visionary Adyar Headquarters is not the only ‘World view’ experiment in the world. Close by in the French culture-influenced Pondicherry, the world city of Auroville founded by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, of Aurobindo Ashram, has successfully experimented with sustainable and equitable living habitats. Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters) founder of the Ananda Kriya Yoga movement also believes that the future of the world will be in spiritual communities which he calls ‘World Brotherhood colonies’, the first of which he established in the Expanding Light Retreat, in Nevada California, and later others at Assisi in Italy and Pune in western India. Coming back to the Theosophical experience, another experimental project was The Theosophical Society in Juhu, Mumbai. Shiben Banerji, Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in his paper submitted to the conference ‘Lineages of the Global City: occult modernism and spiritualization of democracy’ describes in his paper ‘A Theosophical Life in Mumbai – A Garden City Designing Household – circa 1924’, how Theosophists planned Mumbai’s first garden community on the Juhu coast in the ‘Theosophical Colony’. At the time of inaugurating the colony Dr Annie Besant described it as one among the triad of Theosophical Activity centres in India viz. Adyar, Varanasi and Juhu in Mumbai. Shiben Banerji interviewed Dr Ajay Hora, the oldest living resident of the Juhu colony and Mrs Mahazaver Dalal, wife of Brother Rustum Dalal hailing from a dedicated and charitable family of Theosophists, in 2017, when the article was published.
Similar to the Indian experience, Theosophists have set up other retreat centres/residencies: the American Theosophical Society Headquarters at Wheaton, Chicago, Illinois, USA; Reserva Ecologica Paraiso na Terra, Brasilia, Brazil; The Kamachha, Varanasi, which houses the Indian Section Headquarters; Bhowali Himalayan Study Centre in North India; Centro Teosofica in San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina; Theosophical Summer Estate in Ukraine; Pumpkin Hollow Retreat Center, NY, USA; Indralaya Community in Washington State, USA; The Krotona Institute, Ojai, California, USA; Kreivila Summer Retreat Centre, south-east Finland; The Manor, Mosman, Sydney, Australia, and The International Theosophical Centre at Naarden, Holland. These centres promote the concept of nature-friendly habitats promoting equitable justice, environmental sustainability and a spirit of well-being for all Beings. The ITC at Naarden have recently launched a new facility. It was a brave move by its director, Arend Heijbroek and architect Michiel Haas, who with a small team of resourceful Theosophists have built an eco-friendly facility named ‘Lotus House’. Probably the only other architectural landmark near Amsterdam built on Theosophical ideals, is K.P.C. de Bazel’s Dutch Trading Company Building (Theosophy Forward, essay by Marty Th. Bax). Talking of Lotus House – to quote Michiel Haas: “When Theosophists are to construct a building, it must be fully sustainable, and in harmony with the surroundings. This is part of our philosophy, fulfilling our responsibility to the environment. This implies the building is energy efficient, the building is very well insulated.” Lotus House manifests all these elements.
Theosophists’ tryst with architecture and urban planning is not isolated and sporadic, nor was it accidental. One of Europe’s architectural Schools, part of the Bauhaus School of Art was started by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) and was influenced by Theosophy. During his time, young architects would come to the Bauhaus to live, study there and learn from the teacher who often would repeat “…starting again from zero…” – the phrase was heard all the time. Gropius gave consent to any experiment as long as it had in mind a pure and clean future. Other Theosophists in the Bauhaus like Peter Behrens and H.P. Berlage based their designs on the mysteries of geometry. Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe sought to elevate the architectural philosophy. The forerunner of having introduced Theosophical Wisdom in architecture was Rudolf Steiner (1861- 1925), himself a Theosophist and an architect. Through his breakaway organization, the Anthroposophical Society, Steiner used a spiritual element as manifested in the Goetheanum Building in Dornach, Switzerland. To quote Steiner: “Every building deprives a portion of the Earth, of sun, wind and rain and probably plant and animal Life. It must redeem this sacrifice by the healing quality of its architecture.”
In his article entitled ‘Contemporary Architecture and the influence of Theosophy’ (1998), Scott Finckler writes: “Theosophy and the avante garde effect on architecture can be seen in two ways, physically through architectural characteristics and through theory and practice. In the same vein Joseph Rykwert (1968) states: “A strong current of occult and mystical thought permeated much of ‘Modernist’ discourse at this turn of the century.”
The Theosophical world view of an equitable, responsible and sustainable universe can be a panacea to the woes of contemporary architecture and urbanism. Architecture and urban habitats must refrain from consumer-centric greed and opulence at the cost of environment. The ‘Accord de Paris’ on climate change signed in 2016 has created a platform for revisiting governmental policies on a macro level to mitigate the greenhouse gas emission. Theosophy can form the bedrock of national and global policy and planning as well as in the domain of macro-economic resource deployment. It should be in a spirit of altruism, reinforcing the right to exist, not only to the human species but to the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms as well.
Trzcińska, Izabela and Swierzowska, Agata. The origin and Impact of the Theosophical Centre in Adyar. Department of Humanities, AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow, Poland.
Srinivas, Smriti. A Place for Utopia – Urban Designs from South Asia, Seattle and London. University of Washington Press. 2015.
Wharf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Mind and Reality (1942). Article in The Theosophist 1963, pp. 281-291.
Krishnamurti, Jiddu. Adyar – The House of the Theosophical Society. TPH, Adyar, Chennai.
Marty Th. Bax. Theosophy and Architecture, K.P.C. de Bazel’s Dutch Trading Company Building in Amsterdam. Theosophy Forward, Brasilia, issue dated 21 January, 2011.
Handerson, Sunan R. Architecture and Theosophy. Syracuse University Press.
The Beautiful Necessity – Seven Essays on Theosophy and Architecture. Manas Press, Rochester NY. 1910.
Banerji, Shiben. Assistant Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Paper entitled A Theosophical Life in Mumbai – A Garden City Designing Household, circa 1924.
The Lancet, Australian Medical Journal, Sydney. Countdown on Health and climate change. October 2019.
Gold, Margaret and John. Planning Prospectus – An International Journal of History, Planning and Environment. July 2017.
Editors Note: While searching for images to illustrate this article, I came across an interesting book of photographs published in 1911 by The Theosophist Office, Adyar, Madras. The photographs were taken by the young Krishnamurti, and in his Preface, C. W. Leadbeater describes how Krishnamurti “has spent many hours and much labour in preparing a series of photographs, tramping all over the estate to find the best points of view…”