The Human Face of Theosophy
Katinka Hesselink, 2007
Theosophy has a tradition of ' impersonality ', but it also has a tradition of very outspoken public figures (Blavatsky, Besant). These two traditions have very different effects in the public sphere and the personality.
The advantage of having a human face is that a movement is recognizable. There is a clear perception who to talk to, in order to know more about that movement. Both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have that function for Buddhism at this time. The same can, for better or worse, be said of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.
The advantage of ' impersonal ' work is that the people involved don't get the credit of their work publicly. It is hoped that this will help them avoid character flaws like arrogance and selfishness. A psychological disadvantage of anonymous work is that nobody can be held liable when things aren't done well. The historical work 'The Theosophical Movement' is such an anonymous work that is very one-sided - and nobody can be held responsible because it isn't known (officially) who wrote it. Anonymous work has the disadvantage that criticism is hard to give AND receive. One can hide behind the lack of accountability and this will lead to the expression of personality traits that would otherwise probably be held in check. A massive amount of people is familiar with these sort of mechanism now, because of the Internet and the ease with which different online identities can be explored.
Online theosophy is represented by various impersonally run websites. Blavatsky Net, Blavatsky Archives and most official theosophical websites fit this profile. The Theosophical Society in America (Wheaton / Adyar) is the only exception I can think of. It has the faces and short biographies of its officers prominently online. The Dutch TS (Adyar) is an example of the opposite. It's board has decided NOT to have their pictures and personal contact-information online.
Blavatsky Net and Blavatsky Archives both benefit from the brand-name 'Blavatsky'. Blavatsky was a very public figure, who did not hide behind pseudonyms (though some historians would argue the Mahatmas themselves were none other then pseudonyms for Blavatsky). She left such a large impression on the public mind that a century later her followers can make quite a name online, just by using her name. And yes, Blavatsky Net and Blavatsky Archives are both private enterprises. There are even two Blavatsky anonymous profiles on myspace: Madame Blavatsky and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.
All this has given theosophy a frankly outdated face. On one online forum where I entered the discussion I was asked whether there were still theosophists around. My being there was the obvious answer - yes, there are still theosophists around. There are still people out there who not only think about what Blavatsky, Besant and/or Krishnamurti wrote, but also about how that fits in with our current knowledge of science and religions like Buddhism. These people were amongst the first to enter online discussions about religion. I personally joined an already very lively discussion group (theos-l) in 1998 (or 1999). There are all kinds of online theosophical forums still, though not all equally active.
The Theosophical Society Adyar has had very public figures internally. There are speakers that travel around the world in what has been called the 'speaker circuit'. Radha Burnier, John Algeo and Joy Mills fit this profile as well as less dominant (but younger) figures like Professor Krishna, Ravi Ravindra, and Ali Ritsema - to name but a few.
Theosophy can continue it's present policy of quiet work - or it can become a more public presence. This depends on the ability of theosophists to enter the public sphere again. Theosophy has thoughts and doctrines on questions very much alive today: the spiritual path, reincarnation, the Unity of All, the place of consciousness in the universe etc. Without theosophists actually going out there - as theosophists, not anonymously - the world will never know this.
The world will continue to remember the public figures of theosophy: H.P. Blavatsky, Dharmapala, H.S. Olcott, Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater and Jiddu Krishnamurti - but it will not realize the potential of theosophy as a unifying and clarifying force in today's fragmented, multicultural and globalising world.