This book is not a full history of the Theosophical Society (TS),
founded in 1875; it does not go beyond 1947. It is not even its
complete political history; concentrating on India and Indonesia. My
two central questions are: 1. What were the Theosophical Society's
relationships to three political movements: labour, national, and
women's movements? 2. How did outsiders, linked to these movements'
fields of activity, agree, or clash, with the theosophists' approach
to them? I based the book on many sources: both from theosophists,
and from their allies and opponents in the political field.
One approach to 1875-1947 world political history is looking at it through a well-recorded organization, existing all of that time, international, neither too big nor too small. The Theosophical Society fits these criteria. It is also interesting as a relatively well-organized nucleus' of a looser, broader occult current, influential in those times. I included diagrams of numbers which I found, and other pictures.
Often, authors see theosophists' occult views as politically irrelevant; this shows in the little attention political history pays to them. On the other hand, authors connect them to progressive political views. James Webb associated occultism with `Nationalisms, Socialisms.' Daniel Bell linked `gnostic esotericism' to `anarchism' without explaining this. Authors both left and right in the political spectrum, opponents and supporters of theosophy, often took one of these two views. This book questions both. I limited the complex notion `nationalism' to nationalism in a colonial rule situation.
Part I is a brief outline of theosophic doctrines; it looks at theosophy's self-definition as religion of religions, science of sciences. It deals with its relationships to various religions. The doctrines of karma and reincarnation, of the non-existence of chance, and of the existence of higher worlds, are central to theosophy. When scientists attacked traditional religious views of Earth as the centre of the universe; and humans as the most important products of divine creation, theosophists tried to restore them in a scheme of non-Darwinist idealist evolution.
Part II is a brief history of theosophy. Its origins were in spiritualism. From the US, it spread, mostly to western Europe, south Asia, and Australia. 1917-8 was the high point of its influence on Indian and Indonesian politics; the 1920's of its influence in general. In spite of conflicts and splits, and a high membership turnover rate, the TS as an organization grew, from 1875 till 1928. The Theosophical Society attracted many thousands; it lost many again, though, especially after 1929. Arundale, who was not as dynamic a leader as Annie Besant had been, managed consolidation, but not new expansion, in the late 1930's.
Part III deals with social backgrounds of theosophists over the world. The great majority of supporters belonged to more or less privileged strata like the nobility, business, and officers. Theosophy, promising an international élite, inter alia worked as ideological support for some sections of groups who felt they might lose privileges. In India mainly Brahmans; lawyers were very strongly represented. In Indonesia, many totok Dutch with good positions in government and business. About twenty Indians and 190 Chinese (many of them from `officer' families, an élite which other Chinese challenged) were members at maximum. By far the most Indonesian members were from the Javanese nobility; fewer came from West Sumatra, and, after 1930, Bali and Lombok.
In theory, theosophy was for everyone. However, attempts to reach workers or peasants were infrequent and unsuccessful. In Indonesia, there were two, internationally atypical, attempts among peasants. In 1915, TS leaders attempted to stop Saminists, a non violent protest movement in north Java, by converting them to theosophy. They failed. The second attempt, in the 1930's when the TS as a whole declined, was more successful and lasted longer. For some years, Pemitran Tjahja, an auxiliary to the TS, had close to a thousand supporters in Java, Bali, and Lombok.
Part IV is on the TS' relationship to three tendencies in the labour movement: social democracy, communism and anarchism. From the beginning, the relationship was strained, as showed in Madame Blavatsky's anti-socialist declaration of intent in the first issue of her monthly The Theosophist in 1879. Marx and Engels referred quite often briefly, and not in a very complimentary way, to spiritualism. Engels once, in a 1890 private letter to Kautsky, referred, not in a positive sense, to the Theosophical Society. This set a pattern for later Marxists: reactions to viewpoints of theosophists mostly came only where these views were influential.
Opposition to revolution, as in the czar's empire in 1905, to anarchism, to communism, was consistent in theosophists' writings. The relationship with moderate social democrats was more complex. On the one hand, there were quite some links; on the other hand, a basic principle like universal suffrage was a problem with theosophists.
I have treated the conflict between theosophists and trade unions and socialists in Indonesia during the First World War, on military conscription, extensively here for the first time. Apart from Annie Besant's role in the Indian National Congress at the same time, it was the most important political question, linked to theosophists. It was also much less described previously than that. After 1916, socialists like Henk Sneevliet saw the General Secretary of theosophists in Indonesia, Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, and his Indië Weerbaar committee, as their main opponents. Labberton was the most often criticized individual in their press. One may see Sneevliet and Labberton as the two Dutchmen who influenced Indonesian political movements most, though in different directions. IW was Indonesia's first twentieth century political issue, which got mass attention among all people's categories. It contributed greatly to polarization between left and right in the big Sarekat Islam movement, generally in Indonesian society, and against colonial authority; so, rifts with prolonged influences. Its effect was contrary to its sponsors' view of harmony along hierarchical lines of social and imperial pyramids.
Most main Indië Weerbaar supporters were TS members or allies. Indië Weerbaar also used links with theosophists outside Indonesia, in The Netherlands, the US, and other countries. This agreed with theosophists' views internationally of the first world war and other wars as spiritual clashes between divine powers and dark powers. Both Semaoen and Darsono, later prominent in the world's largest non-ruling communist party, the PKI, wrote their first ever articles against prominent Theosophical Society members. Another PKI leader, Alimin, in 1918 addressed Jakarta's biggest political mass meeting so far, against Indië Weerbaar. The journalist Marco in 1917 had to go to jail after a notorious trial, because of anti-IW writings and cartoons in his paper.
Among Indonesians in The Netherlands, TS supporters like Noto Soeroto and Sooryopoetro were for, Soewardi Soerianingrat against Indië Weerbaar. Soewardi later also opposed the policies of theosophists of the monthly Wederopbouw. So one cannot just assume, as has been done, that his later activities in the Taman Siswa education movement were based on the TS' or Rudolf Steiner's ideas.
Bolshevik authorities banned the small Theosophical Society of Russia in 1919. Most of its members emigrated, and formed the only TS section in exile. Relationships with Indian communists also were not good. M.N. Roy and Shapurji Saklatvala in exile, Dange in Bombay, and Singaravelu Chettiar in Madras criticized Annie Besant. Muzaffar Ahmad in Bengal, where the TS was relatively weak, did not mention her though. Sylvia Pankhurst criticized how Annie Besant's views on social inequality had changed, compared to her pre-theosophist days.
Indonesian Marxists' relationship to the TS was bad in 1918. Their paper accused the theosophists of basically supporting authorities who had bloodily defeated the uprising in the Jambi oil region. It also accused two prominent TS members, A.J. Hamerster and Captain Christoffel, of murdering a village headman in Borneo in a case of sexual harassment against the headman's sister. In 1921, contradictions from Indië Weerbaar times seemed to wear off somewhat. After then, though, the non-co-operation question became central. As in India, this question opposed not only communists, but also others to theosophists. General Secretary Kruisheer accused the PKI of a plot to wreck his TS in 1926. He also wrote that at least one member was killed by communists during the 1927 uprising in West Sumatra.
V, on imperialism and Home Rule and independence movements, shows how TS occult views of a future Aryan world empire, based on the British empire, on the one hand made them ask Britons and other imperialists to respect fellow `Aryans'; on the other hand, to oppose total independence (for `Aryan' or non-`Aryan'). India as a country, and 1913-17 as a period, were (important) progressive deviations from general TS political patterns.
Indian and Irish politics had much mutual influence. However, in spite of some personal contacts, theosophical influence on Irish politics was minor. The Theosophical Society in Ireland had relatively fewer members than for instance in Britain or The Netherlands; and many less than in Iceland.
In the early twentieth century, the TS had a good relationship with Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of British India; as showed during the controversy on the partition of Bengal in 1905. This changed, though, during Annie Besant's Home Rule action in 1916-7. As more, also non-privileged, people became involved in Indian politics, the TS' influence declined again. After 1918, Annie Besant lost the overwhelming part of her influence in the Indian national movement to Gandhi; though she tried to keep, and, later, to regain it. This later part of theosophists' role in India's politics is less described than the earlier one. So I paid some more attention to it. Mrs Besant came to oppose Gandhi's non-co-operation strategy, which she had not rejected earlier. She now claimed non-co-operation was against theosophical basic principles. So, co-operation with colonial authority, unlike her earlier Home Rule agitation, was a religious duty. Non-co-operation supporters could no longer remain members of the Esoteric Section, the Theosophical Society's `inner circle'. The Theosophical Society did not keep the earlier allegiance of people like Jawaharlal Nehru or Krsna Menon.
As in India, in Indonesia about 1916, the TS had a promising starting position in political life. For some years then, theosophist editors like H.J. Kiewiet de Jonge, Raden Djojosoediro, and Tabrani led pro-government papers like the Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad, Pemitran, and Neratja. Also Hadji Agoes Salim was an active TS member and contributor to the monthly Pewarta Théosofie for a short time. Good contacts within political movements like the Nederlandsch-Indische Vrijzinnige Bond, Budi Utomo, and with Indonesians living in The Netherlands, existed. To a lesser extent, they also existed with Sarekat Islam, though ideas for instance on hierarchy differed. The government-imposed gap between SI's national and local levels made influence at the national level by personal links like from the active Van Hinloopen Labberton to Djojosoediro, and possibly the later susuhunan Pakoe Boewono XI, easier than at the local level. Sukarno, later Indonesia's first president, read his first political books in the Surabaya TS library, because of his father's membership.
Annie Besant tended to emphasize Indian unity over regionalism; which in Tamil Nadu was associated with her non-Brahmin opponents. The situation with regionalism in Indonesia differed. Contacts were best with two groups, aimed at the nobility of Java and of West Sumatra. First, Javanese nationalists of prominent theosophist Prince Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo's magazine Wederopbouw, one among tendencies within Budi Utomo. Prince Mangkoe Negoro VII was Wederopbouw's sponsor. Wederopbouw aimed at a Javanese state, a member of the League of Nations; and at reconstruction of Javanese culture in an aristocratic sense. Basing himself on Annie Besant, and on the philosopher Bolland, much quoted in the Theosofisch Maandblad voor Nederlandsch-Indië, Soeriokoesoemo fought democracy on principle. Annie Besant changed her views on for instance universal suffrage, after she joined the TS. Both within their organization, and in politics, theosophists thought in terms of hierarchy and authority. The historians Tsuchiya and Reeve see influence from Soeriokoesoemo's ideas as a factor in limitations on democracy in Indonesia since 1959. Tsuchiya in this, though, does not mention Soeriokoesoemo's TS connection. David Reeve sees theosophy as an influence on the ruling Golkar party. In that view, authoritarian strands in theosophic thought may have influenced Indonesia deeper than India; though post-1945, the TS' reputation in India was better than in Indonesia.
The TS also had a link to the Sarekat Adat Alam Minangkabau of Datoek Soetan Maharadja in Sumatra. Earlier on in his daily Oetoesan Melajoe and women's paper Soenting Melajoe, Maharadja used to criticize Dutch authority and aristocrats. After about 1916, this changed. Then, he, and supporters like Abdoel Karim, kept writing theosophical articles. In these, they attacked kaum muda (Islam modernism), socialism, militant feminism, and all-Indonesia nationalism. Much in Oetoesan Melajoe was parallel to Wederopbouw, of which it approved. Contacts to other organizations like Sarekat Islam weakened, if these aimed at broader layers of people, and became more militant. In Jakarta, already from 1915 members of Sarekat Islam's left wing around the daily Pantjaran-Warta (of Soekirno, Marco, Goenawan, Alimin and Abdullah Fatah), were sharply anti-theosophical. Fatah, of the petroleum workers' union, called for common action by Muslims and socialists against theosophical ideas. At least till the end of 1918, the TS' relationship to Sarekat Islam's right wing (Djojosoediro, Abdoel Moeis, Hadji Agoes Salim) was close.
With Budi Utomo, relations were not as good in 1919 as ten years earlier. This showed in the strike by students of the theosophical teachers' training school in Jakarta. In the 1920's, ex-TS members like Salim and Soerjopranoto became the most avowed anti-theosophists within Sarekat Islam. Contacts with the Indische Partij, called Insulinde and Nationaal Indische Partij later, were not good. With Perhimpoenan Indonesia, the organization of Indonesians in The Netherlands, relations deteriorated. Attempts to influence the new generation of members, like Mohammad Hatta, soon failed. The PI thought the TS: `a grave danger to our national struggle.' In spite of Sukarno's theosophical education, his Partai Nasional Indonesia came to think similarly. It was based on non-co-operation with colonial authority. As in India, the Theosophical Society declared that membership in non-co-operation political organizations was basically incompatible with TS membership. Perhimpoenan Indonesia in its turn banned dual membership with the theosophists' social and political organization. Indonesian PNI delegates withdrew from an international women's congress after finding that theosophists had co-organized it.
Indonesia had no parliament. In the first Volksraad from 1918-21, the closest Indonesia had to one, eventually five out of 39 members were theosophists; as was the mayor of Jakarta, A. Meijroos. As in India though, the TS was already past its real zenith. Both colonialist hard-liners and revolutionaries had grown to dislike Van Hinloopen Labberton. Labberton, isolated, went back to the Netherlands.
The Committee for Javanese Nationalism and Wederopbouw disappeared after the death of their founder, Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo. Gradually, the ideas of that committee too declined. Budi Utomo disappeared in a merger. The Oetoesan Melajoe paper of Datoek Soetan Maharadja ceased to exist.
VI deals with views on the women's movement. Both strong opponents and strong supporters were minorities among theosophists. Annie Besant represented an intermediate position. Before she joined the TS, people saw her as the most militant feminist of her times. Like on other points, during her rapid rise as TS leader she changed towards more conservative views. Also like on other points, shortly before World War I she began to defend somewhat more progressive views again, also on the position of women in India. Both on suffrage there, and on women's education also in Sri Lanka, positive influence is probable or evident. I could find some links of Dutch women TS members in Indonesia to the (moderate) women's momevent. Not so, however, of the very few Javanese women TS members in the 1910's.
In 1914 in England and in 1920 in India, Annie Besant got some criticism for excessive moderation regarding the women's movement. The 1918-20 conflict with women's papers in Indonesia, reproaching the theosophists around Datoek Soetan Maharadja with conservatism, lasted longer.
Contrary to anti-colonial and labour movements, 1920-1945 was a time of decline for the women's movement in many countries. So, the friction did not lead to a major worsening of relations like with the two other movements.
With those, relations worsened if their support got more of a mass character, and social groups that were little represented in the TS, increased participation in them.
In Indonesia, the conflict with the labour movement from 1916 on, predated the one with the national movement. In India, however, after 1918 the conflict with the national movement first became most conspicuous. Contrary to India, in Indonesia labour gained momentum before the national movement did (Sarekat Islam was various movements in one). The contradiction to the national movement in India clearly influenced Indonesia. India, of course, was the country of the TS international headquarters. However, as far as I found out, Indonesia did not influence relations with India's labour movement. Language may have been a factor here: more people in Indonesia knew English or Sanskrit, than people in India knew Dutch or Malay.
The supposition on the TS' `apolitical nature' proves to be wrong. Both Annie Besant, and opponents like Perhimpoenan Indonesia, contradicted it. However, the TS in Indonesia had a more apolitical attitude in the 1930's than before. That was not typical for all countries: though also in India political influence had declined, TS president Arundale tried to reverse that tide. Also against the `apoliticism' supposition: quite some important politicians in various countries belonged to the TS, were influenced by it, or thought it important enough to oppose it.
As for the assumption on the special relationship to the political left: James Webb himself already noted links between occultism and conservative French monarchism; contrary to his thesis on `Nationalisms, Socialisms'. This book qualifies the thesis even more. In 1875-1947, one may find people like Annie Besant, Australian ex-Labor, later rightist Senator Reid, Dutch ex-anarchist Van Steenis, Datoek Soetan Maharadja, and probably D. van Hinloopen Labberton: they joined the TS and moved left to right on the political scale. On the other hand, people like J. Nehru, Wickremasinghe -from Ceylon TS to communist leader-, Krsna Menon, Charlotte Despard, and Singaravelu Chettiar, in a sense Krishnamurti, left the TS sphere and turned leftward in politics. A.P. Sinnett after joining the TS, wrote more positively on Indians in his Pioneer. His opposition to socialism, for instance, did not change though. More examples of movement in that sense probably exist. They were mainly limited to views on non-European élites, seen as `Aryan'; not to views on for instance Javanese villagers.
The political direction of theosophists varied; the 1913-1918 period marked both more progressiveness and more influence than before or after. On the whole, it was more one among various positions within relatively upper social layers, than an opposition from below. The TS lost favourable starting positions. The involvement of broader groups of people in politics, with Indians and Indonesians both in their countries and in England or The Netherlands, made keeping influence difficult.