W.Q. Judge and Annie Besant – an uncomfortable heritage

I only just discovered that the Aquarian Theosophist has switched their magazine to a blog format. I congratulate them on a wise decision and I of course subscribed. Though I have to say, it is with a sad heart that I do so, because their latest article shows just how far the various theosophical organizations are from understanding one another.

There is, apparently, a five year campaign going on to get Radha Burnier to acknowledge that mistakes were made in dealing with W.Q. Judge. They have it easy: She is the clear successor to Annie Besant and H.S. Olcott and as such the one to hold accountable. Whatever that means. The hard part is the reverse. Judge allowed the Theosophical Movement to be split. Who can we now hold accountable for that?

As usual though, the very premise of the campaign of letters is wrong: it assumes that the reason there isn’t a reconciliation between the various theosophical organizations has to do with people. The fact is: it has to do purely with principle. That is – from the Adyar perspective.

Radha has said this in the past, and she will continue to repeat it at regular intervals I’m sure. The issue is freedom of thought. There isn’t really such a thing as an official TS Adyar point of view on any subject whatsoever. Members of the TS Adyar are free to study who they want and their lecturers are free to quote whoever they want. And they do. Blavatsky, Judge, Besant, Leadbeater, Mahatma Gandhi, Sai Baba, Richard Dawkins etc – all get quoted in Theosophical lectures.

It didn’t take a single non-Adyar connection for me to get in touch with the work of Judge when I was a young theosophist. In fact, it didn’t even require my mentor Henk Spierenburg. It was members of the Groningen Lodge who first made me aware of his work. I think his essays on karma are some of the best ever written about the subject in the Theosophical Movement. His spiritual stories are inspiring and his ‘letters that have helped me‘ are a very clear guide on the esoteric path.

However, I do think he made mistakes in his dealing with Besant. Despite the charges being dismissed (Besant had destroyed the evidence before hand!), how could they officially clear him of all charges when Besant had personally witnessed Mahatmic letters being forged? I don’t mean she was present of course, but she did have evidence of letters to her personally having no occult explanation at all, while there was a very clear suggestion by W.Q. Judge that something occult WAS going on.

I know, I know – it’s the content that determines whether a letter is by a mahatma, and that’s subjective. Sure, but when a forged (faulty) seal is used and subjects touched upon that Judge had a personal stake in, it just became too hard to ignore. Besant had fought political battles for decades, how could she ignore this?

What it comes down to in the Judge Case is that both sides made serious mistakes:

  • Besant destroyed the evidence
  • Judge crossed the line by using Mahatmic letters to get power in the TS and then refused to defend himself, hiding behind a technicality

Besant had, for a while, seen Judge as her spiritual teacher. While she read the SPR report and THEN became Blavatsky’s pupil, with Judge it was the opposite: she became his pupil and THEN became disillusioned with him. He was too prominent a member to just ignore, so they (Besant and Olcott) had to do something about it.

Ultimately I think on both sides it was simply a matter of personalities clashing and occultism getting in the way. Surely it was sad, but it’s difficult for Radha Burnier to now apologize for something that was not cleared up back then.

While we’re talking defending those who are attacked unjustly… Judge is hardly attacked by Adyar theosophists these days. The reverse is not true: Besant still gets attacked by ‘Judgite’ theosophists quite regularly. With Judge it’s worse: he gets ignored. People just don’t care.

I do wonder though why supporters of Judge care so much about Besant being wrong and Judge being right. Why is it something to keep harping on about? Aren’t there more important issues to worry about? We’ve got an economic crisis on our hands, wealth and debt in the West, economic growth and sharp differences between rich and poor in the East. We’ve got serious environmental issues. Our culture is changing at a huge pace, with wicca, positive thinking, ‘the secret’, all kinds of gurus, alternative health, global connections through the internet – the world is teeming with potential theosophical topics to apply our theosophical ‘eternal wisdom’ to.

But what does the Aquarian Theosophist do? It continues an age old controversy. A one sided controversy that the other side has stopped caring about long ago. If the tree is known by it’s fruits, the W.Q. Judge tree isn’t very promising. This is a sad sort of funny, because actually Judges writings are more legible now than Besant’s are. At least to me.

But let’s get back to basics: the reason the various theosophical organisations haven’t kissed and made up are:

  • All the organizations calling themselves theosophical, except the TS Adyar, take only a few theosophical teachers seriously.
    Usually it’s Blavatsky and Judge – with one or two added. In other words: they want freedom of thought while also being loyal to a spiritual teacher. Sorry people, but you can’t have it both ways. It’s EITHER freedom of thought, OR picking a spiritual lineage for the whole organization. (Individual theosophists in the TS Adyar are of course free to choose whatever spiritual path they want. And in they do. I know theosophical Buddhists, Christians, Sufis, Freemasons, Rosicrucians etc.)
  • The TS Adyar is a democracy with a very clear structure.
    The only way to fairly include the other theosophical organizations in that structure would be for them to attach themselves as lodges under the national sections of their respective countries. And yes, it’s for them to compromise for the simple reason that the TS Adyar is way larger. In other words: each ULT lodge could choose to join the TS Adyar, if the group is serious about freedom of thought. Similarly of course each independent theosophist can join the TS if they want Blavatsky and Judge to be taken more seriously than they already are. But that’s work, requiring compromise. You know, like living in the real world.
    Writing polemical blogposts and continuing letter campaigns is far easier.

3 thoughts on “W.Q. Judge and Annie Besant – an uncomfortable heritage”

  1. Bravo! You have hit every nail squarely on the head. Let’s accept that Judge and Besant were both very fine theosophists and human beings, but neither was perfect and blameless. We can never know exactly what went on in their time, and it does not matter since we do not know the bigger karmic picture anyway. Being judgmental is damaging. In the TS Adyar I am free to read writings from both of them, and am richer for it. I especially like their speeches at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, when they were still working together for Theosophy. The main hall in the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America, in Wheaton Illinois, has portraits of Judge and Olcott with HPB between. HPB’s portrait is very slightly elevated, but all are the same size!

  2. The point seems simple, really: if Theosophy was given out by the Masters through H.P.B., then any ideas labelled as Theosophy have to agree with those ideas, not disagree with them. The argument can be made that Masters did not correct H.P.B. when she was wrong and that They allowed her to mislead the world. But who wants to follow the teachings of any such Masters?

    Thus what was in her original works is the statement of Theosophy; what agrees with that, no matter who wrote it, is also Theosophy. The problem lies with ideas that are in opposition to the original teachings that are labelled and accepted as Theosophy.

    It does not matter what group we belong to as much as it matters what Theosophy we study.

    1. Hi,

      This is precisely NOT how the Theosophical Society Adyar views this situation. As individuals we may believe that the Mahatmas and Blavatsky’s teachings are the basis for (our) theosophy, but the organization puts freedom of thought above that. So if people believe that Leadbeater’s teachings are valuable, they are as free to study them as they are to study Buddhism or Krishnamurti. Whether or not scholars feel there is a discontinuity in the teachings between Leadbeater and Blavatsky on issues like the afterlife, or not.

      The TS Adyar never had an official list of teachings. In fact: Blavatsky warned against that. So even her teachings are not ‘gospel’ to the TS Adyar.

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