As one of those who helped to form the Theosophical Society, I may claim to speak with personal knowledge of the facts, and having worked in its ranks ever since its first day, a few words respecting its basis and spirit will be of use. The society was founded in New York in 1875, the inaugural address of the president being delivered on the 17th of November. The preliminary meeting was held before that date, at the rooms of H. P. Blavatsky, in Irving Place, New York. [The minutes] read thus, in substance:
“Mr. William Q. Judge took the chair, and calling the meeting to order, nominated Col. H. S. Olcott as permanent chairman, who, being elected, suggested Mr. Judge as secretary. The latter was elected as secretary.”
Formal organization was provided for, and the minute is signed by myself. In November the constitution was reported and the President’s address delivered.
Although the objects of the society were then expressed more elaborately than now, they even then carried the same idea as now, and the basis and spirit of the organization were the same then as now. Its basis was intended to rest on equality, autonomy and toleration, its prime object being universal brotherhood, of which it was hoped the germ or nucleus might be formed. All members are on an equal footing, as is shown by its rule that caste, color, religion, creed, sex have no bearing on the question of membership in any way. The founders did not hold the idea that all men are equal in all things, but they did lay it down that in respect to membership they were and should be equal. This has ever been its law.
Autonomy as a principle put into practice meant that each branch should govern itself so long as it did not contravene the law of the whole, but should be under the general federal jurisdiction of any section it might help to form or be formed in. Similarly each section is autonomous within its own borders, and cannot be interfered with so long as it does not violate the general law and is loyal to the whole. And as the whole cannot have a creed or dogma, no section is put under bonds in matters of belief.
Toleration can only really exist where brotherhood is admitted as a truth and a necessity. Hence its principle of toleration means that every member has the right to believe as he or she pleases in all matters of religion, philosophy, and the like, but must not try to force that belief on others, though not prevented from promulgating it. The Society as a body has no belief save in universal brotherhood, and from that it gets its strength. The moment it should declare a creed or dogma, that moment its strength would begin to leave it, for division would arise and sides would be taken. Hence, also, it includes in its ranks men of all religions: Brahmins, Buddhists, Christians, Mahommedans and every other variety, as they all know that the T. S. furnishes them a common ground on which to work. The bigoted dogmatist cannot feel moved to join the body, because its freedom is opposed to bigotry, and the member who is a Buddhist is just as good as the Christian or the Agnostic. Many times have persons asked that the society formulate some doctrines as authoritative, but that has always been refused, and, indeed, would be its deathknell.
Its three objects cover the whole field of research and the first is essential because without brotherliness and toleration no calm inquiry would be possible. The second calls for an investigation of the religions and philosophies of all men, and for demonstrating the importance of that study. Its importance lies in the fact that the religions and philosophies of man are his revelations made by his greater better self, or God within, to his lower self, and must be all studied if we are to arrive at the one fountain or basis from which they have arisen and in which they are based. Hence the scriptures of the Christian do not rule, nor likewise do those of the Brahmin or the Buddhist, even though the last be the older.
But some people think the Society is a Buddhist one or Hindu one. This is because as a fact the religions of the West have come from those of the East, and the great age, and the similarity of the older ones to the newer ones of the West, must soon be apparent. And further, it is inevitable that a large body of members must come to a general tacit agreement or belief which is prominent because of their great devotion and constant work. But no one has to believe with this body of persons on any point. Reincarnation, Karma, the sevenfold nature of man, and the doctrine of the Masters, may be rejected, and one may still be a good member so long as he or she believes in and tries to practice Universal Brotherhood.
The main underlying effort of the work of the members of the Society should be to furnish a real and philosophical basis for ethics, seeing that the ancient ethics re-promulgated by Jesus are not practised by the nations who profess them. In this respect the work of the Society in Christian lands is ever tending to bring forth a real Christianity, and not to oppose it. Opposition to mere dogma is not opposition to truth, and hence the Society is a builder up and not a mere destroyer of old beliefs. In other lands it has its distinct work also; as in India it will be to revive the old pure spiritual life now covered with much dogma, and among the Buddhists it will show men how to live by the ethics of Buddha, which, promulgated centuries before the birth of Jesus, are the same ipsissima verba as those of the latter.
Apart from all religious views, the philosophy put forth by members of the Society gives reasonable explanations of life, of man, and of nature; tends to remove superstition by showing what physical phenomena are, and why they occur, instead of denying them and thus leaving thousands without any solution for that which they know does happen, but which is generally denied by science and the church. This philosophy, though old, meets all the facts and solves them, and shows how man may, if he will, reach to the power hinted at by all the great teachers of the world, offered by Jesus to his disciples but denied by the dogmatist of the West. And all this philosophy may be brought out in the ranks of the organization, while at the same time the Society itself puts no seal of approval or disapproval thereupon. From this great freedom it has resulted in 19 years that the organization embraces the world, with members and branches in every nation, having the sympathy of those who think the mind of man should be free, and being hated only by those who prefer dogmatism and superstition to toleration and brotherly love.