Presidential Address to the 1996 Convention of the Theosophical Society, Adyar
Reproduced from "The Theosophist" January 1997 issue. (Portions of this article, pertaining to the state of the various Sections of the Society were edited out because of space limitations.)
The Theosophical Society began its mission in the last century with a strong sense of purpose and much inspiration, without which it could not have expanded rapidly throughout the world as it did. Not only the Founders and the leaders who succeeded them, but a galaxy of lesser known Theosophists kindled a light in the hearts of a vast number of people by communicating to them new ideas about life and mutual relationships. Their example of self-sacrifice and service gave vitality to the branches of the Society, and the work done stimulated members of the public to higher ends. Such a sense of inspiration as well as the example of members dedicated to the welfare of the world are essential if the Theosophical Society is to remain vibrant and influential in raising human consciousness to higher levels.
All of us members of the Society present here, along with those who are with us in spirit, must share the responsibility of maintaining the flow of theosophical inspiration undiminished. Wherever it is weak, we must jointly find the means for regeneration. Although we had the good fortune to be guided in the past by outstanding persons like the Founders and Annie Besant, the future influence of the Society should not be envisaged as dependent on the few. It must be built upon the dedication, understanding, and selfless service of the many. When there is the right quality in the membership, from time to time a bright figure might emerge to lead the way, but that may happen only if all of us take a share of the responsibility for preparing the ground.
Whenever inspiration seems to come from outside, from a person of higher understanding than ourselves, it really springs from within ourselves. As Annie Besant said:
Has it never struck you in what lies the power of the speaker, whence comes the strength with which he moves a crowd? It does not lie in himself; it lies not in his own power, but in the power he is able to evoke from the men and women he addresses, from the human hearts he wakes. It is their energy and not his in the tide of his speech. The orator is but the tongue that syllables out the thoughts in the hearts of the people; they are not able to speak them, they are not able to articulate them. The thoughts are there, and when some tongue puts them into speech, when the other inarticulate sense takes the force of the spoken word, then they think it is oratory. It is their own hearts that move them, and it is this voice, inarticulate in the people, which from the lips of the speaker makes the power that rings from land to land.
The spiritual nature within us, normally shrouded by the vestures it assumes, is kindled from time to time by a lecture, a passage in a book, a quiet moment in Nature, or by compassion for the sorrow of others. The response comes from a state of sensitivity for which we must make room in our consciousness, and then inspiration will not be lacking. The consciousness is then fresh and full of vitality.
Deep and thoughtful study of the wisdom teaching, and dwelling on the principles rather than on details, is a powerful aid in making our work effective. Through such study, the consciousness learns to respond to the beautiful and the significant. The reflective approach to study also enables us to grasp what is essential for clarifying the problems of life, and for proceeding through daily incidents and encounters with maturity and dignity. Entanglement with details, on the other hand, results in confusion.
Many millions of volumes are being produced today, and a vast amount of unrelated information is available to confuse the mind. In order to counteract this, it would be well if theosophical groups and Lodges would direct attention to the principles and fundamental ideas in Theosophy that shed light on daily living and hence are of profound practical value.
The study of books is far from beneficial if it converts the reader into a believer and thus creates one more division in the world. The Adept, it is said, is one who has verified for himself the truths of life, even though they have already been realized by generations of enquirers. Each of the Adepts labors hard before directly experiencing what would otherwise have only been hearsay. A truth is not truth to one who has not examined what he or she has heard so throughly and deeply that it is a directly realized, incontrovertible fact. Concurrence with the words of others, however enlightened they may be, does not mean knowing about the truth. To quote Annie Besant again, the study of theosophical books calls for 'a bright intelligence, a keen mind, an eager intellect, a thoughtful and critical reason'. She advises that the observations of others should be held as hypotheses until they are known at first hand in one's own heart:
If they illuminate obscurities, if they conduce to sound morality, take them and use them; but never let them become fetters to your mind, gaolers of your thought. Study these books, but do not swallow them; understand them, but hold your judgement in suspense; these books are useful servants but dangerous masters; they are to be studied, not worshipped... is it not time to offer to Truth the homage of study instead of that of blind credulity? Let us ever be ready to correct a mistaken impression or an imperfect observation, to walk with open eyes and mind alert, remembering that the best service to Truth is examination.
We also know that learning through study of recorded wisdom must be supported by study of the human mind at work in oneself and in others, and of the book of Nature. Self-knowledge is the foundation of all other knowledge, because our consciousness is the instrument of all knowledge. Quoting from The Mahatma Letters:
He who is desirous to learn how to benefit humanity, and believes himself able to read the characters of other people, must begin, first of all, to learn to know himself, to appreciate his own character at its true value. (ML 219)
In theosophical literature, much information has been provided about the human constitution. This is no doubt useful, particularly in helping people to overcome the fear of death, and to understand that the essential element in the human being is divine, while the lower nature belongs to the past, to evolutionary stages which must be transcended. But the knowledge provided on this subject in books remains ineffective as a means to rise above the lower nature, if the student fails to watch his own comportment, impulses and reactions with honesty and care. The past inheritance which comples a person to commit blind acts of greed, violence or pride is transcended and replaced by a harmonious and intelligent way of living only when there is detached self-study and the study of the mind in general.
Another aspect of theosophical work is devotion to service. As At the Feet of the Master teaches: 'You must be so filled with the intense desire of service that you are ever on the watch to render it to all around you--not to man alone, but even to animals and plants.' This attitude disperses selfish tendencies. As we learn to respond to the beauty and value of plant, animal or human being, all forming part of the one great life, the mind becomes lucid. Progress in knowledge is not merely a matter of intellectual development, but an opening of one's entire nature in love, harmony, and deep understanding. It means ending intolerance in any form, ceasing to assess things as high or low, important or unimportant. It is that condition described in the Bhagavadgitã which is found in sages for whom a Brãhmana adorned with learning and humility, a cow, an elephant, a dog or an outcast are the same--equally divine and precious.
For the ever-existent, innate inspiration within the heart to light one's path and help others, a certain way of life composed of study, self-awareness and service must be adopted. Study that is thoughtful gives depth; self-awareness purifies; and readiness to serve teaches love. Let us therefore study with alert and open minds; intelligently observe what sullies and binds consciousness; and engage ourselves in such service as will enlarge affection and understanding.
The Theosophical Society could become a wonderful force in the
future, surpassing the accomplishments of the past, provided we
dedicate ourselves to the task. If we wait for miracles, nothing may
happen, but if we offer ourselves unselfishly to a life of pure
service, help may come from higher levels.
Mrs. Radha Burnier is current President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar.