Out of this world: Bombay Theosophical Society


November 16, 2008

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The Bombay Theosophical Society turns 129 today. Kareena N Gianani pays a visit

Blavatsky Lodge at Grant Road doesn’t quite echo the enthusiasm of its ex-president and a much-respected speaker, Keki Palkhiwala. A longstanding member of the Bombay Theosophical Society, Palkhiwala is upbeat about the 129th anniversary celebrations to be held today.

But, after more than a century, the Lodge itself bears no outward signs of anticipation or fervour. Occasionally, a library member walks in and browses through the old volumes on the shelves. Ganpat, the Lodge’s faithful caretaker keeps a keen eye and lets no one wander around “without proper business.” On most evenings, he says he maintains “a safe distance from the Hall” because schoolgirls come for ballet lessons and male members of the Lodge aren’t allowed to mooch around. Ganpat goes home on Sundays and, though he knows little about theosophy, guards the Lodge devotedly.

The Theosophical Society, a worldwide organisation, was founded in 1875 in New York by Madame HP Blavatsky, a clairvoyant from Russia and Colonel HS Olcott, a retired US Army officer. The Society believes in the brotherhood of man, irrespective of religion and sex, and strives to seek ‘the Truth’ by studying religions, philosophy and science. It came to Mumbai in 1879 and today, the city has seven lodges. The two-storeyed Blavatsky Lodge is home to the Theosophical Library that has over 7,000 books, a hall, a meeting room, a private section for advanced studies, and a co-Freemasonic temple, where the initiation ceremonies are performed.


The Society mainly holds interactive seminars on theosophy.  Book readings and lectures are also devoted to studying its principles. Last month saw excerpts from the book Letters from the Masters being read and a seminar on spirituality and the occult was conducted. The Society also includes the Theosophical Order of Service wing that involves itself in charity, education for the destitute and service to the aged. Most members of the Society are Parsis, which was not always the case earlier. Gujaratis and Maharashtrians were active members till a few decades ago and the number of members was higher. Today, smaller cities have more members than Mumbai’s 400.
Palkhiwala isn’t blind to the changes. “Us old hands have been chugging along and haven’t quite managed to attract new members. But I live in hope. I tell people to attend a seminar here some day — the quality of teachings has not suffered over the years.”

Palkhiwala is joined by eighty-year-old Jal Sanjana,  one of the oldest theosophists in Mumbai. Sanjana fetches a writing pad and hands it over to the Society’s president, DP Sabnis. Sanjana is partially deaf so questions and snatches from the conversation have to be written down on the pad for his perusal. Sabnis scribbles excerpts from the just concluded conversation with Palkhiwala and hands it to Sanjana who reads solemnly, then clears his throat. “Are you worrying about what the future holds for the Society?

Not once have I had sleepless nights fretting about membership — ideas like theosophy, clairvoyance and reincarnation are not meant to attract the majority,” he clarifies. Sanjana adds that the Society is all about ethics — “it cannot be a part of popular culture that will be sought by many.”

Which is why it is not such a huge hit with the youth,  feels Bachu Bharucha, a member since 2000. “The young like a vibe that stimulates. Theosophy isn’t for the impatient,” says Bharucha. This perhaps explains why the Society has not been able to enlist too many members under 40. “Youngsters will invest their time in something that gives them tangible returns, not in something that teaches them how to die and move beyond.”

There are some exceptions though. Sixteen-year-old Kaizad Billimoria, a student at Christ Church School, joined the Society one-and-a-half-years ago. He is bewildered by the fact that the Society is perceived as youth unfriendly. “Theosophy is anything but serious, profound or boring, I have been able to stretch my mind beyond the ordinary,” he explains. “A layperson, for instance, will describe a lotus by citing its scientific name, its shape and colour. Theosophy urges you to look beyond and if you are willing, you will see different stages of our life in the lotus, too. “The Society should be free of misconceptions and publicise itself positively,” he adds.

It isn’t just the number of members that worries the members. The Lodge, a heritage structure, has needed repairs for a long time. Two years ago, minimum repairs were done. Though the hall finds many takers, Sanjana and Palkhiwala are stringent about who rents it — they are clear that only those activities that are supported by the Society’s principles must be encouraged. So no businessmen promoting sales products, no contemporary Hatha Yoga since the Society believes only in Raj Yoga. The hall is only rented out for the ballet classes and for condolence meetings that fetch them Rs1,800 each.

Another ‘battle’ is the one on the family front. Navaz Dhalla, 44, says he often gets snide remarks from people who do not understand theosophy — for them, it is just another place where “people kill time”. It hurts her when she is accused of shirking responsibilities on the home front. “Over time, one learns to take it in stride. After all, theosophy also teaches patience,” she smiles. Palkhiwala overhears this and says that it is all a matter of karma. He talks of a time when members often found partners within the Society and “lived happily ever after.” “And now,” he winks, “there just aren’t enough members to choose from!” he chuckles.

Original article here.