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Swami Vivekananda and the Theosophical Society

In her brilliant lecture, delivered at the conference on Reincarnation organized by the European School of Theosophy, in Eretria, Greece,  Ms. Julie Chajes, a post-doctoral fellow of the Ben Gurion University, mentions a Hindu Renaissance taking place almost juxtaposed to the emerging Theosophical movement in India and the West. She mentions Neo Hinduism influencing Blavatsky as much as the esoteric Kabalah. She refers to the Brahmo Samaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the Arya Samaj of Dayanand Saraswathi as forming a new plank in the Neo Hindu movement. I would have added a third, namely the Advaita movement of Swami Vivekananda (born 12 January 1863 to 4 July 1902) and the emerging Ramakrishna mission as part of the movement. Although they have been bracketed together, each had a different purpose and goal. While Brahmo founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, was aiming at a social reform of the community, the Arya Samaj  founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswathi, aimed at a ‘Ghar Vaapasi’ (Returning Home) approach to the Hindu converts who were enchanted with other faiths. While the two organizations of Brahmo and Arya Samaj, were popular in the North of India, Vivekananda’s Advaita had a pan South Asian reach from Colombo (carried forward by Swami Vipulananda in Ceylon) to Almora. Advaita transcended ceremonial and class structured Hinduism and found a homogenous audience across India. Both Theosophy and Swami Vivekananda had unintentionally knitted the fragmented fabric into one large canvas of a Hindu Subcontinent. The word Hindu itself was an Islamic invention which was enlarged and institutionalized in British India. It has come to stay although its historic reference has been ‘Sanathana Dharma’. The Theosophical Society was also instrumental in Buddhist revival in the island of Sri Lanka mainly through the efforts of Col. Henry Steel Olcott, which was ably carried forward by Anagarika Dharmapala. The Dharma was referred to as ‘Dhamma’ in Buddhist scriptures.

Despite Theosophy and Advaita of Vivekananda being the closest in terms of philosophic content, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott decided to partner with the Arya Samaj as soon as they arrived in Bombay in 1879. The first issue of The Theosophist published in October 1879, carried an autobiographical article by Dayanand Saraswathi. The tryst remained short as Theosophy did not want to be classified as another Hindu organization, nor a Buddhist sect, which the book Esoteric Buddhism, written and released by A.P. Sinnett in London, made many believe. The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888 after years of anxious expectation cleared the air. Theosophy is a body of knowledge collated from Divine ancient wisdom, extracted from the Wisdom Schools of all Religions. The Hindu philosophical element in Theosophy was not borrowed from any of the aforementioned organisations. HPB sourced the wisdom provided by the Trans Himalayan Masters Morya and K.H. The Theosophical Society always guarded itself from being identified as a religious organization. The split between Anna Kingsford and HPB is one piece of historic evidence which proves the point. HPB in every way tried to keep the balance, countering Anna’s Christian emphasis.

Swami Vivekananda was a freemason and graduated from the Shillong Lodge (Lodge Anchor and Hope, Calcutta 1884). The Freemasons, like Mr. G.C. Connors, helped the Swami in 1894 while he was in America. In 2013, the Freemasons of India erected a statue of the Swami, in Freemason attire, at the Vivekananda Kendra in Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) (The Hindu, Madurai, 27 June 2013). Swami Vivekananda approached Col. Olcott for a letter of introduction for participating in the Parliament of Religions in 1893. The meeting took place, probably at the Adyar Headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Chennai. At that point of time the Ramakrishna Mission was not established. Among Swami’s ardent admirers and benefactors were the Raja of Ramnad, the zamindars of his kingdom, the Raja of Khetri and the Raja of Mysore. This may explain his choice of return via Colombo port instead of Bombay. Many of the Indian Gurus going to the ‘New World’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had royal benefactors. Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self Realisation Fellowship (SRF), and the first Indian Guru to set base in America, had the Raja of Benaras. Bhakthi Vedanta Prabhupada of the Hare Krishna Movement had Smt. Morarjee, a shipping magnate, pay for his passage to America from Bombay.  Swami Vivekananda set sail from the port of Bombay on the SS Peninsular on 31 May 1893, via Singapore, China and Yokohama, until he finally arrived in Canada. Vivekananda met the Indian Industrialist Jamshetji Tata on the ship while travelling from Yokohama to Canada, inspiring him with his vision of a modern India.

Discovering-Life_-Swami-vivekananda-three-lessons…

In one of his public talks in Chennai, Swami Vivekananda makes his mention of trying to secure a letter of introduction from the Theosophical Society – Col. Olcott insisted on membership in the Society, of which the Swami was unwilling. He was described in the guest speaker manifesto at the Parliament of Religions, as representing “A monk of the orthodox Brahmanical Religion”.   He speaks kindly of William Q. Judge whom he happened to meet in Chicago along with Dr. Annie Besant in 1893, at the world Parliament of Religions. It was his erudite talk on Hinduism at that event which catapulted Swami Vivekananda to fame. Dr. Annie Besant records her meeting the Swami in the following words:

“A striking figure clad in yellow and orange, shining like the Sun of India, in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movement swift and abrupt – such was my first impression of Swami Vivekananda, as I met him in one of the rooms, set apart, for the delegates to the Parliament of Religions. Monk they called him, not unwarrantably, warrior monk was he, and the first impression was that of a warrior, rather than of a monk. He was off the Platform and his figure was instinct, with pride of country, pride of race, the representative of the oldest living religions, surrounded by curious gazers of nearly the youngest religion and by no means inclined to give step, as though the hoary faith he embodied was in aught inferior to the noblest there. India was not to be ashamed before the hurrying arrogant West, by her envoy and her son. He brought her message, he spoke in her name, and the Herald remembered the dignity of the Royal Land whence he came. Purposeful, virile, strong he stood out, a Man among Men, able to hold his own.

On the Platform another side came out. The dignity and the sense of worth and power still were there, but all was subdued to the exquisite duty of the spiritual message, which he had brought, to the sublimity of that matchless truth of the East which is the heart, life of India, the wonderous teaching of the Self. Enraptured, the huge multitude, hung upon his words, not a syllable must be lost, not a cadence missed! ‘That man a heathen!’ said one, as he came out of the great hall, ‘and we send missionaries to his people! It should be more fitting that they should send missionaries to us.’

The Parliament of Religions, 1893, made Swami Vivekananda a new Beacon of India, where he was able to amplify the philosophy of Hindu Wisdom, what the Theosophists had done two decades before. He is quoted as saying to his western audience “The Hindu Faith is as much Yours as mine”, the Hindu concept of Vasudeva Kutumbhakam “The World is one Family” echoing what the Theosophical Society stood for – Universal Brotherhood.

Writing to his devotee in Chennai – Alasinga Perumal, on 2 Novemeber 1893, Swamiji writes that from India there was a large delegation, P.C. Majumdar represented the Brahmo Samaj from Calcutta, one Mr Virchand Gandhi represented the Jains, B.B. Nagarkar represented the Brahmo Samaj from Bombay and the Theosophical Society was represented by William Q. Judge, Annie Besant, G.N. Chakravarti of Allahabad, Miss Henrietta Muller from Europe, and Mrs Isabel Cooper Oakley from Australia, and Anagarika Dharmapala represented Buddhism. Alasinga Perumal, editor of a Vedanta journal based in Madras, in his final years gravitated towards the Theosophical Society, through his association with Col. Olcott.

The reception which the Swami received in the materially enriched, but spiritually yearning West, prompted his repeated visits to both Europe and United States. In 1895 he gave two lectures at the Aryan Theosophical Society of New York, at the Hall of Universal Brotherhood. The first day the topic was “What is Vedanta” and on the second day it was followed by “What is Yoga”. Leon Lordsbery, a part time lecturer of the Theosophical Society, was so impressed that he joined the Swami to become Swami Kripananda. This was chided by W.Q. Judge in The Theosophist of August 1895. On another occasion he gave a talk on Bhakthi at Blavatsky Lodge, in St. Johns Wood, London, on 9 July 1896. In that talk Col. Olcott was also present (a reflection of past wounds having been healed). Again, on 11 February 1897 Swami lectured at the Blavatsky Lodge in the presence of Dr. Annie Besant. L. Frank Baum – author of The Wizard of Oz, America’s most popular fairy tale and a member of the Theosophical Society also became a staunch student of Vedanta. Devi Mukherjee, a Brahmo votary and a prominent member of the TS in Calcutta, who had accompanied Madam Blavatsky and Burjor Padshah on their tour of the West, after an eventful tryst with Theosophy, also joined the Swami.  Ironically Advaita philosophy had already been infused into Western Consciousness through the label of Theosophy twenty years before. This made Swami’s work much easier in the West. Vedanta Societies were established in America and Europe as the interest started growing and many Western converts embraced monkhood in the newly established Ramakrishna Mission. The most famous was Sister Nivedita. Born Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish teacher who was influenced by Swami Vivekananda ever since she had met him in London in 1895. She became a lifelong Bhrahmacharini (nun) and selflessly served in Calcutta during the 1899 plague, also helping establish the Sharadha Mutt and other educational institutions. The seeds of Advaita which Swami Vivekananda planted have today fructified in the opening of the Vivekananda Yoga University (VaYu) in Los Angeles in early June 2020. It was facilitated through a virtual launch from the Indian Embassy in New York.

In the words of Prof. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke: Blavatsky’s preference for Advaita Vedanta related to its exposition of the Ultimate Reality as a monoist non theistic impersonal absolute. The non-dualistic view of the Parabrahm, as the Universal Divine principle would become the first fundamental proposition of The Secret Doctrine. This clearly shows that Theosophy and the Advaita philosophy of Swami Vivekananda was in sync at its fundamental core. Swami Vivekananda was quoted saying “We on our part see nothing but good in Theosophy, we have no wish to disparage the good work of the Theosophical society”. Theosophy had transferred the Sanskrit and Pali knowledge to the West. The Divine Wisdom of Hinduism and Buddhism hidden in the wilderness of the trans Himalayan regions. Even the obeisance of prostrating upon a Guru’s feet was first demonstrated in the West by Devi Mukherjee, when he touched Madam Blavatsky’s feet at the instance of the Masters, in front of the French students of HPB in Europe (Jinarajadasa, The Personality of HPB, TPH 1930). Within the Society members like Bro Subba Row believed that too much of the esoteric sacred knowledge was given away by HPB. This in his view was tantamount to making it profane (Radha Burnier, Secret Doctrine – centenary souvenir, Adyar Lodge 1988). Swami Vivekananda on the other hand had his misgivings about the capability of Madam Blavatsky and Col. Olcott to interpret this archaic wisdom. When once asked in America as to whether he had encountered the Masters in Himalayas, he replied with a No. There appears to be a touch and go relationship between the Swami and the Theosophical Society. Swami Vivekananda did use the space and consciousness implanted by the Theosophists in the West, prior to his arrival in America. Yet on a deep dive, they had worked together, albeit separately, for the redefinition of a new inclusive Hinduism, devoid of caste and ceremonies. Much later Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by both in his ‘Harijan’ campaign of demarginalising the untouchables. They had made the Wisdom of Advaita Vedanta universal. This indeed is their unwritten collaboration for the enhancement of Universal Consciousness. Once on the Path of Truth external divergences disappear to converge into one ‘Parabrahm/Fohat.’

References:

Lectures from Colombo to Almora – Swami Vivekananda, 1897, VV Jayanti Press, Madras.

Theosophy and Hinduism – Wikipedia.

Vivekananda and Theosophical Society –Theosophicalwiki.

The Hindu – Chennai, 12 January, 2013, T.S. Seshagiri, Counterpoint, Swami Vivekananda and the TS.

The Personality of HP Blavatsky – C. Jinarajadasa, 1930, TPH, Adyar.

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna – Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishnavivekananda.info

Swami Vivekananda visit to Europe – 1894-1896, sudburyhinduassociation.co.uk

Secret Doctrine Centenary Issue, Adyar Lodge, Chennai 1988.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdTy8e7XMxA

Written by

Arni Narendran began his career as a Radio and Print journalist. He moved to the Banking Industry where he stayed put for four decades. and won Banking Awards at Shanghai and Dubai. He continues to serve the Industry as a Banking consultant for Banks targeting clients at the Bottom of the Pyramid- the marginalised. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1976 and served as the Manager of the International Theosophical Youth Centre at the Adyar, Chennai Headquarters. He is presently the Honorary Treasurer at the Blavatsky Lodge, Mumbai and a regular speaker. He contributes to journals across the world in content relating to Theosophy and metaphysics. A keen student of Art History, he is a practitioner of the Ananda Kriya Yoga, and has been directly initiated by the late Swami Kriyananda.-founder of the Expanding Light Retreat, Nevada-California.

Latest comments
  • A very well researched article. Being indian, i assumed that i knew Enough aBout swami VivekanAnda and was surprised at how little i Actually knew!! Lots of tidbits and gems of trivia in this article! Thanks !!!

    • Able to type only in upper case and it changes the case To loweR case After it is posted !

  • Excellent!

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