IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme


Indian Thought in the Dutch Indies
The Theosophical Society

To what extent did the Theosophical Society (TS) disseminate Indian thought to the Dutch Indies (1880­1942)? Before we embark on this topic, we need to clarify three points first:
(1) what is theosophy, and what is the Theosophical Society;
(2) what influence did the TS have in the Dutch Indies; and
(3) how much did theosophy actually represent Indian thought?


What is theosophy? In a wider sense, people call various attempts within different religions to get knowledge of God, or of 'higher worlds', 'theosophy'. With regard to Indonesian Islam, this might also include the Sufi tradition. Here, however, we discuss 'theosophy' in a narrow sense, i.e. the ideas promoted by the Theosophical Society as well as ideas outside the direct framework of the TS, but clearly influenced by it, whether it is acknowledged or not. Within the circles of the TS, theosophy is synonymous with 'Divine Wisdom'.

The TS was founded in 1875 in New York by sixteen people, including the initiator, the Russian Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and the president, the American Col. Henry Olcott. Its immediate aim was to promote the study of how to evoke nature spirits by the supposedly magical properties of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In 1879, Blavatsky and Olcott established themselves and their society in India. Since 1883, the headquarters of the TS are in Adyar near Madras. In 1907, the English Annie Besant succeeded Olcott as president, and in 1934, Besant herself was succeeded by her compatriot George Arundale.

TS influence in the Duthc Indies

Between 1880 and 1883 the German Baron von Tengnagell founded the first TS lodge in Java. It soon fell apart, though. Twenty years later, the TS became more successful in the Dutch Indies, also influencing the social and political life outside their immediate membership. The monthly 'Theosofisch Maandblad voor Nederlandsch-Indië' was published (in the Dutch language) from July 1901 onwards. In 1903, already five lodges existed in Java. All their officials were Dutch, except for one Javanese aristocrat. In 1930, membership had risen to its highest level ever: 2090 people, 1006 of whom were 'European'. These Europeans were mainly Dutch who made up nearly a half per cent of all the Dutch in the Dutch Indies, the highest proportion of theosophists anywhere in the world! Eight hundred and sevety-six members were 'Native' (Indonesian), and 208 members were 'Foreign Oriental' as most Asians of non-Indonesian ancestry were categorized. Probably about 190 of them were Chinese and approximately twenty of them were Indian. One should not try to credit the few Indian members of the TS living in the Dutch Indies with any significant influence in the local TS lodges, let alone in the politics of the Dutch Indies. Geographically, membership was concentrated on Java. Socially, most Indonesian members were Javanese aristocrats, so-called priyayi, and only a few of the 'natives' were West Sumatran and Balinese noblemen.

One influential theosophist was a member of the Volksraad [i.e. the largely powerless colonial 'parliament'] and a political theorist, Raden Mas Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo (1888-1924). He was also a member of the Paku Alam princely dynasty of Yogyakarta. Rejecting all-Indonesian nationalism, Marxism, Islam, and Western democracy alike, Soetatmo advocated instead an aristocratic, spiritual, 'Javanese' nationalism. His ideas on spirituality, however, were rooted in a European theosophist interpretation of Indian religion, especially the Indian caste system. Like theosophists in other countries defending social hierarchies perceived as under threat, he equated all-Indonesian nationalism, Marxism and Western democracy with the sudra whom he saw as incapable of acquiring the wise esoteric insight of their social superiors. Soetatmo's name and some of his ideas resurfaced in General Soeharto's post-1965 'New Order' regime, even though Soetatmo's narrow 'Javanese' brand of nationalism had by then ceased to be a viable ideological option.

How much did theosophy
actually represent Indian thought?

In Indonesia, just like in other countries, early twentieth century views on India were much more influenced by theosophy than one might expect. Though the geographical and ideological links of theosophy with India are evident, it did not originate in India nor were its leaders of the pre-1942 period Indian. In order to assess how theosophy disseminated Indian thought to the Dutch Indies, we will have to look at how theosophists represented and mediated influences from Indian literature, politics, and religion.

Quite a few Indian intellectuals and artists in British India were influenced by theosophy. One of them was the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore, who visited Java and Bali, where he was well received by both Javanese and Hindu-Balinese intellectuals, in 1927. The content of political discussions in India as far as it consisted of topics discussed also among the members of the Indian lodges, i.e. especially the issues connected with the fight for independence controversely debated by Gandhi and Annie Besant, often raised the interest of the theosophists in the Dutch Indies, too. The (mainly Dutch) theosophists commenting on these issues in writing, sided with Mrs Besant who reasoned against a complete break with the British Empire, whereas Gandhi or even more anti-colonialist Indian opponents took a much more radical stance. The (Dutch) theosophists like Government Secretary A. Vreede backed up their position by claiming that the Dutch Indies were not as advanced as India. Like Mrs Besant, they based their political ideas on theosophical doctrines. In Annie Besant's religious writings, for instance, India had a central significance for the 'Aryan race', of which the highest achievement so far was the British Empire. In the Dutch Indies, former Assistent Resident and theosophist C.A.H. von Wolzogen Kühr spoke about the mythical ancient Indian colonizers bringing Indian civilization to the Indonesian islands as 'Aryan' predecessors and precedents of present 'Aryan' Dutch. To the Javanese priyayi, theosophists described India as the historical origin of their relative privileges as they supposedly descended from the earlier Aryan invasion of the archipelago.

The majority religion in Indonesia in the Dutch Indies was ­ as it is now ­ Islam. Historically, Muslim traders from Gujerat had been instrumental in spreading their faith in the archipelago. No Indian Muslim influence, however, was mediated by the TS since there were practically no Muslim members in India. Indian Hindu views of theosophy differed widely, ranging from praise to criticism. One prominent Hindu critic, Swami Vivekananda, called theosophy 'this Indian grafting of American Spiritualism ­ with only a few Sanskrit words taking the place of spiritualistic jargon'. He saw a general tendency outside India ­ which held true also for the Dutch Indies ­ to form an image of India, and Hinduism, for that matter, through the mediation of theosophy, and claimed: 'Hindus... do not stand in need of dead ghosts of Russians and Americans!'

In 1911, Indian representatives of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam wrote to the newspaper 'The Hindu' that while, in theory, adherents of any religion could join the TS and continue to practise their faiths, in fact they were obliged to adopt a collection of doctrines and ideas inconsistent with any of them. The theosophist C.W. Leadbeater on his part said: 'you must not take it for granted when you meet with any of our theosophical terms, in Hindu or Buddhist books, that they mean exactly the same thing. Very often they do not.'

Examining the doctrines of theosophy and of the authentic Indian religions, important differences become apparent; e.g., in concepts like cakra (misspelt as 'chakra'). In the Indian yoga philosophy, a cakra is an imaginary point used to facilitate concentration on Hindu deities. However, in the view of a theosophist like Leadbeater, well known in the Dutch Indies both as a lecturer and from his writings, a 'chakra' became a really existent 'thing', albeit 'etheric'. This view, by the way, persists, like other aspects of theosophy, in many Western New Age movements of today. Another example is the Sanskrit word akasha signifying 'space'. In theosophy it is used in the compositum 'Akasha chronicle' which signifies a supposed cosmic record, stored on the so-called 'etherical plane', of the past and the future accessible to the paranormally gifted, but not to mere historians or futurologists. The 'Akasha chronicle', however, is no Indian concept. Jörg Wichmann, who scrutinized the various theosophical doctries in detail, opposed the theosophical concept of the 'seven principles in man' to the five or six substantially different 'principles' in Hinduism. He also explained that the theosophical notion of karma is more philosophically 'idealist' than Indian concepts of karma. How about reincarnation, the doctrine which would eventually become central to Blavatsky's thinking? Before she went to India, she rarely mentioned the concept, if at all. From the fact that it became so prominent in her later writings does, however, not follow that it retained all its original connotations. Reincarnation in theosophy supposes teleology or evolution in the cosmos, which contradicts the cyclical notion of time within Hinduism, or Indian philosophy for that matter. Another difference between theosophy and Indian philosophy, especially Hinduism, is that in theosophy, human souls will always reincarnate as humans, and never as animals. Thus, Wichmann is right to conclude that, in spite of the fact that Indian ideas did influence theosophy, its real 'roots' are not Indian, but Western spiritualism as well as evolutionism. One may add that theosophists' views on miracles were also closer to the Christian than to the Hindu tradition.

Hence, I may conclude that the Theosophical Society, which was quite influential in the Dutch Indies, especially among the Dutch colonial administrators as well as the Javanese nobility (priyayi), did disseminate Indian thought to the archipelago, albeit in a highly idiosyncretic, corrupted and 'Westernized' form. *

Dr Herman de Tollenaere lives in The Hague in The Netherlands.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 23 | Theme Modern Hinduisme