A short history of brotherhood, sisterhood and religious tolerance

There are a lot of spiritual traditions which can be said to be of influence to the Theosophical Movement. One of the early ones was freemasonry. It is fairly well known among theosophists that Blavatsky got a masonic diploma for writing Isis Unveiled. Less well known is that Col. Olcott, who founded the Theosophical Society with her in 1875 in New York, was a mason himself.

Freemasonry is a world wide, loosely organized network of lodges in which men come together to do rituals and grow in virtue. Freemasonry started in 1717 in England where the lodges of stone-masons were opened to non-masons. The rituals, symbolism and mythology of the stone masons were imported into this new organisation.

Seeking royal support to survive it became an organisation which brought politicians, artists and influential people in general together.

In it’s circles the 18th century idea that all people are equal and should have equal rights was practiced – though without the women of course. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that not untill the 20th century did women get voting rights in most countries.

The Theosophical Society, as an organisation in which women were admitted, took the ideals of freemasonry one step further and into the realm of religion. Brotherhood (sex neutral language hadn’t been invented yet in the 19th century) should be practiced without regard to race, creed, sex or anything else – where most masons did have to believe in God to be allowed in.

Where masonry left religion and politics at the door – masons weren’t allowed to discuss those subjects in the lodge – the Theosophical Society made religion and science it’s primary focus of discussion. [Though Blavatsky was not beyond writing about women’s rights occasionally]

One of the aspects of freemasonry that the Theosophical Society soon abolished was secrecy. In the early days of the Theosophical Society all meetings were held under vows of silence from all present. It is still not clear what transpired at those meetings.

There were also secret handshakes which made it easier for theosophists to recognize each other. The secret handshakes lasted longer than the vows of silence did. Pretty quickly most meetings of the Theosophical Society were open to all. I have personally never learned the handshake, but I know people who have. This of course defeats the whole purpose: if only some theosophists know the handshake, it is not going to be a good way to recognize fellow theosophists.

Freemasonry had a principle of religious tolerance – within a monotheistic, usually Christian, context. Leaving religion at the door meant that whatever religious affiliation one had, one could still be with the brothers.

In this century the ideal of religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue is quite normal, if not popular. In the early days of the Theosophical Society the idea of talking with Hindu’s and Buddhists on an equal footing was scandalous. It is, I think, fair to say that the Theosophical Society broke ground and made it clear that religious dialogue should be given a chance.

Even today however many groups which practice religious dialogue limit themselves to the Abrahamitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). The TS was clearly ahead of its time in trying the concept on a universal footing. The only limitation perhaps was that the textual religions were given more attention than the oral traditions. But even that was surely not Blavatsky’s intent. She delved with equal love for detail and occult explanation in folk mythology and ancient philosophy.

That’s all the theosophical history for today. What should I write about next week?

6 thoughts on “A short history of brotherhood, sisterhood and religious tolerance”

  1. I find theosophy and anthroposophy great sources of inspiration.

    Have you read Rudolf Steiner’s “How To know Higher Worlds”?

    Nice site!

  2. In the late 19th century, various orders of “co-masonry” were founded. These admitted both women and men. Annie Besant and her daughter Mabel Besant were both involved with co-masonry.

  3. You seem like a fairly reasonable person but I’m curious about one thing, how does Rudolf Steiner rub you the wrong way? I’ve been studying his work for over thirty years and find him to be absolutely brilliant. He essentially reconciled the scientific method with spiritual reality. How can this be wrong?

  4. Don’t read too much into it. These things are to a large extent taste. Of course Rudolf Steiner was brilliant. He had a PHD after all. No, there is nothing wrong with combining the scientific method and spiritual reality. In fact, i admire that. But it’s a risky adventure that often leads to too much intellectualizing – and missing important points.
    I admire Steiner enough BTW to have made a tribute page for him: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/Steiner-Rudolf.htm

    But that doesn’t mean I can read his books. Somehow. He is all over the place in a way that bugs me. Which is weird, because Blavatsky is also all over the place and in her work it does NOT bug me. Perhaps it’s the very claim that his work covers all the bases. Blavatsky merely claims to give out a series of important hints.

    Perhaps a comparison to Ken Wilber (whose works I CAN read) is relevant. There too you have a brilliant man who combines his insights into spirituality with his knowledge of science. He has some great insights, but he misses the boat occasionally as well – and in ways that, if acknowledged, would topple his whole system. Which is the problem with having a water tight system in the first place.

    I much prefer reading books by people who just share their insights and the reasons they feel those insights make sense – instead of people pretending it all fits together seamlessly – it never does, because all knowledge has its limitations as soon as it gets put into words anyhow.

    One other issue I have with Steiner is that he focuses on the Western Esoteric tradition and therefor misses out on one of the important aspects of the Theosophical quest: finding a spiritual truth that can unite West and East. He stayed regional and therefor culturally limited. Given his place and time this is understandable, but it also did not help German consciousness overcome it’s cultural challenges.

  5. Co-masonry is still a fringe masonry, which is why I didn’t mention it here. Annie Besant didn’t just join that movement, she was a significant factor in spreading it – great orator that she was. There was a time when most theosophists were co-masons and most co-masons were theosophists.

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