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Herman de Tollenaere on Influence of Theosophy on Indonesian and South Asian Nationalisms

Herman de Tollenaere on Theosophical History and Politics

As Theosophy and Freemasonry: Esoteric Schools within the Theosophical Society shows, there is more to the history of the Theosophical Society than is thought, despite the fact researchers have provided a great detail of Theosophical history. This article is about Herman A.O. de Tollenaere’s diligent research: The Politics of Divine Wisdom, Theosophy and Labour, National, And Women’s Movements in Indonesia and South Asia 1875-1947

Herman de Tollenaere asks these first two political questions from the beginning:

A: Was the Theosophical Society Apolitical? (pg. 2.)
B: Was the Theosophical Society Leftist? (pg. 4.)

Helena Blavatsky was directly and indirectly connected to persons and causes during 19th century revolutions and political upheavals, and we are advised to view this in its historical contexts. She was involved in leftist revolutions with Garibaldi, among other sympathies, which raised suspicions about her. This article is noteworthy by K. Paul Johnson on General Mikhail Kotkov and H.P.B.’s Political Loyalties, except for Johnson’s hypothesis on the relation of Thakar Singh to K.H. and Morya.

K. Paul Johnson states in the article regarding Helena Blavatsky’s political loyalties:

“What can be made of all these conflicting statements? The first and most obvious point to be made is that HPB presents herself in whatever political light is suitable for the moment and the person she is addressing. Thus to her family she is a Russian patriot, to Sinnett she is a supporter of British rule in India, and to a New York reporter she is a revolutionary sympathizer. But it is not quite fair to treat all her political comments about Russia as nothing more than opportunistic and chameleon-like. After all, she had chosen to associate herself with radical causes in Europe, and later to emigrate to the US. So her misgivings about Russian autocracy have a ring of sincerity. On the other hand, in India she acted and wrote in ways that caused widespread suspicion of subversive intentions, so her denunciations of British rule seem equally sincere. The conclusion I reached after years of research was that HPB was deeply ambivalent, part of a conspiracy without fully understanding its ramifications….”

Theosophy in Indonesian Politics and Nationalism

It is clear, that ideas of theosophists on politics were not monolithic. We find conservatives, progressives, emancipatory ideologues, aristocrats, elites, particular socialists, persons of lower income, scientists, artists, esoteric orders, and “conservative monarchist occultists” allied with the theosophical movement. Tollenaere details what social categories were under-represented and over-represented within the theosophical movement, and the fact that the TS attracted mostly people of upper and middle-class, even conservatives and revolutionaries.

The approach is nothing like say Constance E. Cumbey’s The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow: The New Age Movement and Our Coming Age of Barbarism, or Lee Penn’s False Dawn: The United Religions Initiative, Globalism, and the Quest for a One-World Religion.

Herman A.O. de Tollenaere’s work covers Indonesian nationalism. In the 19th century near the decline of the Dutch East Indies, and with increasing resistance against the Dutch colonialists under the rising Indonesian nationalism, it was the Theosophical Society among other forces that contributed to that sense of nationalism. The Theosophical Society had in its pre-revolutionary days dozens of lodges in Yogyakarta (Jogja), and Theosophy is held as responsible for the rebirth of Buddhism in that country, reminding the Indonesians of the short-lived golden age of the Javanese empire of Majapahit, its culture, and Buddhism. The modern Theosophists proselytized Asian Esotericism, luring a substantial number of Java intellectuals, Dutch, other foreigners, and Chinese students in Indonesia. John Ingleson details in Workers, Unions and Politics: Indonesia in the 1920s and 1930s, many young Indonesian students educated in schools set up by the Theosophical Society became prominent figures in the Indonesian nationalist movement, and in private life. Although, they may not have considered themselves Theosophists, theosophical ideas deeply influenced them positively (pg. 184).

Herman A.O. de Tollenaere’s work can be read in The Politics of Divine Wisdom, Theosophy and Labour, National, And Women’s Movements in Indonesia and South Asia 1875-1947.


  1. In the early Blavatsky TS, one would definitely get kicked out of the Society if he claimed that the TS backed this or that political party, and was totally a-political by design. Massey got kicked out for giving a political speech recommending using violence, which Blavatsky called “advocating murder,” and Massey later apologized and was readmitted. The altruistic philosophy no doubt has its affect on the personal level, and politically on the personal level, but never associated officially with any Society.

    Liked by 1 person

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