Pablo Sender


Dr Radha Burnier, the seventh International President of the Theosophical Society (TS), was very aware of the problems of the world. During her 33 years leading the Society she spoke openly about the challenges facing our planet and civilization. She did not want an organisation with a self-serving attitude, mainly preoccupied with its own growth and success while indifferent to the real needs of humanity. On the contrary, she envisioned a Society fully committed to helping the world, being thus in perfect alignment with what the Founders and the Masters of Wisdom had in mind during the forming years of our organisation. In this article we will explore some of Radhaji’s statements about the work of the TS and its members, and reflect on her views in an attempt to bring to light some of the main implications.


Our Central Work

Radhaji fully agreed with Socrates in that an unexamined life is not worth living. She frequently remarked that if we go through our day mechanically, simply reacting to circumstances, we would end up living aimlessly, without any definite direction. And she considered that this principle is applicable not only to individuals but also to organisations. Unless there is a periodical examination of the activities we organise in the TS there is a danger of inadvertently drifting away from the central aim towards endeavours that may seem easier, more pleasant, more rewarding, or that follow the general trend in our environment. For this reason, she emphasized the need for clarity in regard to the fundamental work of our Society:

If the T.S. is to be a beneficent force in the world, we must see where our work lies. We should be very clear about it, not play about with relatively unimportant things, but get to the core. If we are clear about the central work, subsidiary matters will be resolved easily in accordance with it. [1]

What is the “core” of our work? It is a general understanding that the TS was founded for the service of humanity. This, however, is a vague statement that needs to be pondered over in order to become more meaningful. What kind of service does humanity need? The main human concern is that of suffering. Our actions—whether peaceful or violent, wise or foolish, religious or secular—are for the most part attempts at attaining happiness or averting suffering. But what is the primary cause of suffering? The lack of basic needs such as food, shelter, security, health care, and so on is an evident cause of grief and distress. But even those of us who have our basic needs met still suffer due to a supposed lack of enough money, power, respect, objects, information, entertainment, relationships, etc.

In her writings, Radhaji frequently examined this situation to show that the underlying cause of suffering is found at the psychological level. Even an objective problem such as the hunger in the world is not really due to lack of material resources to feed everybody. The underlying cause of it is the unequal distribution of wealth, which in turn is due to greed—both in the common citizen and the politician. And there is greed because people are confused, thinking they can attain happiness by external means. Thus, Radhaji pointed out that to help humanity efficiently the TS should address the problem of suffering at its source—the human mind and heart:

I think the work of the Theosophical Society is to point to the challenge within, because it is of much greater importance to see it and deal with it than to go on dealing with what is outside. If we do not look at the source of the problem, but only at the effects, then temporary, partial and superficial solutions are found. [2]

As we can see from the previous quotes Radhaji emphasised the fact that we should not get distracted with peripheral or superficial activities, but go to the core of the situation and address the source of the problems. In her view the TS was founded to become a force for transformation; to assist humanity (which includes each one of us) to produce an inner revolution that fundamentally changes how we perceive the world and how we relate to it. She remarked that “the fundamental change we are talking about is from selfishness to unity”[3] and, therefore, our activities should help people move in this direction. As humanity transcends the divisive mind and begins to perceive things in terms of unity and universal brotherhood the main problems of the world will be automatically solved.


A Successful Organisation

From time to time some members would ask Radhaji if she thought the TS was “successful”, given its relatively small number of members or lack of public recognition. Undoubtedly, it would be great if a large number of people saw the value of the Theosophical teachings and were inspired to earnestly work on moving from selfishness to unity. However, for Radhaji, this possibility seemed unlikely. She observed that “not many are as yet ready to become self-reliant and do the hard work necessary for having pure vision”.[4] Thus, she always questioned the idea that the number of people we attract is an appropriate means to gauge the success of our organisation. She cautioned that if this were to become our main concern, we would be gradually led to change our focus from exploring the difficult path of self-reliance and transformation to saying what most people want to hear. As she wrote:

It would be easy for the Society to attract larger numbers if it changed its aims or watered them down to suit a public eager for easy ways to realization and ready to accept a leader who is seen as a means to unmerited rewards.[5]

Many people are still looking for shortcuts to happiness, external means of transformation, or to follow somebody on whom they can put the responsibility for their awakening. This is why today there is an abundance of those who offer—or, rather, sell—all kinds of easy methods to become spiritual. Placing a crystal on your forehead, visualizing a certain colour, invoking some angel, and many other similar activities are advertised as quasi magical methods to attain happiness. But Radhaji warned against this kind of approach:

From a theosophical point of view, only the pseudo-gurus say, ‘You do not have to change yourself, all that you have to do is to believe me’, or even worse, ‘I will touch your forehead and you will be transported to a transcendental sphere’.

If we do not understand this, we might have the wrong kind of programmes in our Lodges.[6]

Not everything that is advertised today as “spiritual” constitutes a good Theosophical programme. If a group of members are concerned primarily with attracting more people, they will tend to organise activities centred on “popular” subjects such as angels, crystals, tarot, astrology, time travel, psychism, etc. Although some of these subjects can be presented in a way that is in tune with the Theosophical outlook, the main problem is that when the focus is on the size of the audience, these topics are typically approached in a superficial, self-serving, and many times, superstitious manner. This is why Radhaji remarked that groups should not be tempted to reproduce the kinds of programmes that are typical of the “New Age” movement:

There are, as Dr [Hugh] Murdoch indicates, bizarre beliefs at the ‘fringes of the so-called new age movements’. … The work of the TS is not to get identified or aligned with these superficial cults and trivial activities because they are dubbed ‘new age’. It should be concerned with reaching a deeper level of understanding and the discovery of the One Reality… [7]

Radhaji was very focused on the TS being a place for serious exploration and learning to transcend the personal ego. When carefully examined, one can see that many of the New Age practices are geared towards self-aggrandizement, as for example the idea that we, as separate personalities, deserve the best and only the best; the use of the power of thought to gain material or psychological benefits; the channelling of “spiritual beings” who tell us how great we are, and so on. Radhaji once remarked that the obsession with the body, its health and beauty was a form of materialism, coinciding with Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa who regarded the typical New Age spirituality as a form of “spiritual materialism”. In contrast, the Theosophical endeavour of discovering “the One Reality” requires that the individual transcends the unduly concern with the personal self.


Individual and Collective Work

This brings us to explore another important aspect of the Theosophical work—that of Freedom of Thought. Are members not free to study and follow any teaching or approach they feel attracted to? In reflecting on this, Radhaji remarked that this freedom applies in different ways at the individual and collective levels. It is true that the individual members of the Society have freedom of thought and action within the wide field of the three Objects. But although we cannot expect everybody to be willing to live according to some particular approach, when it comes to the work of the Society the situation is different. Radhaji stated:

A lodge or section is in a different position from a member. The Lodge represents the T.S. where it is, in its own village. It must maintain the character of the Society, and not present an image which makes people mix it up with other things. [8]

As individuals we are free to follow any teacher or set of teachings. We can be very committed to the spiritual life or just exploring it out of curiosity. But as we have seen, the organisation as a whole has a purpose, and Theosophical groups should strive to be a good representation of the global TS in their area. Thus, Radhaji did not think that a theosophical group is unconditionally free to organise any activities that may please its members. She encouraged them to exercise discernment when planning programmes, in reference to the Society’s central work:

Certain groups and Lodges of the Society claim the prerogative to be active along any line which attracts them, unmindful of what the organisation as a whole stands for. There are many subjects which are interesting to study, but if they do not conduce to freedom from the heavy conditioning of race, tradition, environment, and so on, they are not theosophical. To be theosophical, our programmes must be related, directly of subtly, to humanity’s need to awaken. [9]

When our programmes are not concerned with the inner change they become just a form of entertainment. Since a number of people like to be flattered or entertained, even superficial activities may attract a large audience. But, as Radhaji indicated, this kind of programmes is not really Theosophical.

It is important to keep in mind that our organisation is an educative one, and we can be an important influence for people in how they see the world or lead their lives. So, when it comes to planning our Lodge activities we should have a balanced sense of responsibility. We should make sure that—to the best of our knowledge—we are not causing people to be misled.

A related problem Radhaji has also addressed is that sometimes Theosophical groups are turned into a body mainly dedicated to spread a particular philosophy or school of thought. Regarding this she asserted:

There can be confusion if, in a theosophical lodge or any unit of the T.S., people propagate any of the other schools [of thought]. Not because we say we are better, or that we are the only people who know.

. . .

Though the individual is free, if a theosophical lodge or any other unit, federation or section begins to propagate Sai Baba or some such, this will create confusion. The public will believe that we accept him as god. If we allow Rosicrucianism an important role in a lodge, people will associate their labels with the work of the T.S. [10]

Radhaji’s statement does not mean that a Theosophical group should not study the teachings from other schools of thought in a comparative way. But doing this is different from becoming a body to spread one particular point of view. If several individuals in a Lodge are interested in a particular teacher or philosophy and that is all they study, not only are they sending a confused message to the community as to what the TS is. They are also closing the doors to those who may not be interested in that particular approach, but could otherwise profit from being a member of the Society. Thus, when members come together, they should find out how their individual interests and contributions can align with the collective goal and character of the TS.


A Pioneering Task

Radhaji was aware that the deeper purpose of the TS is lofty and difficult to attain, and at this point in human evolution not many people are willing or able to apply the needed effort in this direction. But she thought that if we work seriously on the “cutting-edge” of spirituality, that is, on how to bring about a fundamental change in the human being, then we do not need a large number of members to be an effective force for transformation:

Although TS members are relatively few in number, if there is real earnestness in them, the world will be helped to change. [11]

History has shown repeatedly that pioneers in any field were always a minority, but eventually produced a large effect. The idea that the TS was founded to do pioneering work is based on some core Theosophical teachings. According to these, the next evolutionary stage (technically called the “Sixth Root-Race”) is one in which the sixth Principle, buddhi or spiritual intuition, will begin to develop in humanity. Radhaji was deeply aware of this and constantly pointed to the need to learn how to move in this direction:

The future welfare of humanity lies in directing energy to awaken buddhi, sometimes called intuition. Intuition is not a hunch; it cannot be alive so long as the personal self, which is the product of the separative mind, is active and dominant. The personal self must die and yield place to a new consciousness, if there is to be true progress. [12]

The TS was founded to assist the beginning of what C. Jinarajadasa called “the new humanity of intuition”, and Radhaji regarded that the principles on which the Society was organised make it specially fit for the task. She wrote:

With patience and perseverance, we must prepare for the dawning of the light of buddhi in ourselves and in humanity. The Theosophical Society is uniquely endowed to assist progress in this direction. [13]

An awareness of this exalted goal and a certain understanding of its implications are important to help us preserve the real nature of our organisation and a sense of direction.

Now, one of the difficulties we encounter in this work is that we are trying to help cure humanity of a disease—selfishness—that we ourselves still suffer from. Thus, if we are not going to be “the blind leading the blind” we must learn the principles of this “soul medicine”. Radhaji remarked that the success of the TS in this task rests on its members striving to awaken the Divine Wisdom (Theos-Sophia) in themselves:

The vigour and usefulness to humanity of the Theosophical Society hinges on how many of its members seek to become Theosophists. . . . Only by growth in wisdom does a person earn the right to be called a Theosophist in the real sense. [14]

Radhaji indicated that to grow in wisdom the study of serious spiritual literature is necessary, but not enough. Study provides knowledge, and by this means we can become scholars, but buddhi will not awaken by the mere accumulation of information. We need to make efforts to turn the acquired knowledge into wisdom. Thus, for the study to be Theosophical it must affect our lives:

Theosophical study is not meant to be an interesting pastime, or merely a stimulation for the intellect. It must evoke awareness of the essential need of humanity, and help to make it healthy morally, psychologically and spiritually. [15]

Keeping this in mind is important because it will determine the manner in which we work. Members of a Lodge who are in earnest will study Theosophical and other serious spiritual teachings not simply to gain knowledge, but because they realize that a right understanding of life and of human nature is the foundation for any real transformation. But they will not be content with just studying the “recipe” for a spiritual life. They will be interested in putting the teachings into practice. By meditating on what they study and making efforts to live accordingly, they will gradually awaken the buddhic aspect of their nature. This will allow them to discover first-hand in what way the teachings can help produce an inner transformation. And then, they will have something relevant to offer to those who want to hear, and will become a source of inspiration for others to follow this path.

Radhaji was aware that this is not an easy accomplishment and therefore considered that this work is for those who can keep their eyes on the goal in spite of the difficulties:

Therefore, the Theosophical Society has an uphill task. Its work is for pioneers whose spirit is not daunted by obstacles and apparent lack of success. [16]

At the beginning of any new stage of evolution changes are slow and appeal to the few that can see the need for a different way of living. But if the relatively few members of the TS are able to work earnestly and unselfishly in this direction, when the need for this change awakens in more and more people they will find an organisation and a spiritual approach ready to assist them to tread this path.

Perhaps the beginning of this awakening for a deeper spirituality is not too far off in the future. Today there is a relatively large number of people that feel traditional religion does not help them, and are seeking a better answer. Humanity has experimented with the “New Age” approach for the last 40 years or so and many are finding it to be also inadequate. This may be why Radhaji thought that the moment is approaching when the TS can step up and offer an alternative. Let us close with her inspiring vision of the Theosophical work:

A renewal of energy and a further era of splendid work lie ahead for the TS, provided members do not stagnate at the level of ideas and information. This is the moment for the TS to irradiate receptive minds with an invigorating, universal, religious spirit, and live up to the lofty implications of the name given to the Society. [17]


The Indian Theosophist, November 2014


[1] Radha Burnier, Human Regeneration (HR), (Amsterdam, 1990), 10.

[2] HR, 4.

[3] HR, 15.

[4] Radha Burnier, “The Uphill Task”, The Theosophist, June 1994, 332.

[5] Ibid., 332.

[6] HR, 31-32.

[7] Radha Burnier, “The Second Object”, The Theosophist, Dec. 1990, 85.

[8] HR, 104-105.

[9] Radha Burnier, “TS Work”, The Theosophist, April 1999, 725.

[10] HR, 104.

[11] Radha Burnier, “Theosophy”, The Theosophist, Nov. 2000, 45.

[12] Ibid., 45.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Radha Burnier, “The Razor’s Edge”, The Theosophist, Feb. 1994, 171.

[15] Radha Burnier, “TS Work”, The Theosophist, April 1999, 725.

[16] Radha Burnier, “The Uphill Task”, The Theosophist, June 1994, 332.

[17] Radha Burnier, “Theosophy”, The Theosophist, Nov. 2000, 43.