The Theosophical Society in America

Theosophy in Times of War

By Janet Kerschner

Originally printed in the Summer 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kerschner, Janet. “Theosophy in Times of War.” Quest  97. 3 (Summer 2009): 110-112.

Members of the Theosophical Society have faced war on many levels, as combatants and peacemakers, refugees and healers, workers and visionaries. Theosophists have been keenly aware of the opportunity warfare has afforded to break down social barriers and creatively reconstruct the world according to a new framework of brotherhood.

Leaders of the Society in India and the United States were vocal in their opposition to American neutrality during both world wars. Loving peace, but viewing the world with the perspective of the ancient wisdom, they knew that just wars must at times be waged to transform society. Few members dissented from that vision. During those great wars, American Theosophists engaged in a wide range of patriotic activities. Lodges bought Liberty Bonds and proudly displayed service flags with a star for each member in the armed forces. During World War I, Theosophical club rooms for servicemen were opened near military bases in Houston, New Orleans, Washington, New Haven, Louisville, Rockford, Atlanta, Waco, Columbus, and Little Rock. A typical club provided a library, reading room, Victrola, piano, lectures, and entertainment. Houston hosted a ball in the city auditorium so that 350 heavily chaperoned girls could dance with soldiers from Camp Logan. At least 334 American members served in World War I.

In World War II, Theosophists joined every branch of the armed forces, including WAC, WAVE, WAAC, Army Nurse Corps, and even the Aleutian Air Force. Meeting times changed to comply with blackout requirements. Lodges held concerts and sales to raise money for war relief, collected clothing and food for refugees, and corresponded with servicemen. Many lodges hosted Red Cross auxiliaries, which gathered to knit and sew while a member read aloud from inspiring texts. In 1940 alone, the small Oak Park, Illinois, Lodge supported the war effort with 200 garments and 6490 surgical dressings. Hundreds of thousands of reassuring leaflets were handed out at service clubs, mailed to families, and tucked into the pockets of handmade hospital pajamas.

In 1942, a national convention was held at the Olcott campus, although attendees had to bring along their ration cards. Travel restrictions in 1944 and 1945 changed the focus of the summer gathering to “Convention Everywhere,” with identical programs conducted simultaneously nationwide by local groups. Thoughts of American members were constantly with their fellows abroad. Extra Adyar Day contributions from the American Section covered dues for all the members of ten occupied European sections in order to keep them in good standing.

Theosophical periodicals vividly reflect the realities of the world wars. Issues were printed on thinner paper with fewer staples. Adyar’s Theosophist could not be mailed directly during the Second World War, but had to be shipped in bulk to Wheaton for redistribution, and one complete consignment was lost when the ship carrying it sank. Articles ranged from theoretical treatises on the nature of war to political commentary, and practical advice for coping with wartime was not neglected. Evolution, the karma of nations, and world transformation all figured prominently in the Society’s journals. Writers explored how the Society could provide leadership in the postwar era, a concept that became the main topic for the 1943 International Conference in Adyar. Charles Luntz of St. Louis wrote amusing poems like “The Rommel and the Schickelgrub” (it was a common belief that Hitler’s original name had been Schicklgruber) and his son, an Army Air Force sergeant, wrote of “The Soldier’s Philosophy.”

Members used the turbulence of wartime to heighten awareness of racism and cruelty to animals. Civilian hardships in rationing inspired a Tacoma, Washington, member to introduce vegetarian cooking to the public. To combat racism, Carl Carmer recounted a true story titled “Three Engineers,” which told of an incident in which an American fighter-pilot crashed in a river. Three African-American privates from an engineering unit dove through the flames on the water to pull out the unconscious white flier, who survived. “All three were badly burned. All three were happy,” he wrote. The Society found new ways to encourage brotherhood and spiritual growth, and opportunities to introduce Theosophical principles in a world that was grasping for meaning.

On the international scene during World War II, members in Holland, Greece, Java, and elsewhere were interned in concentration camps. Australian members in the Manor witnessed a submarine attack in Sydney harbor. Adyar residents trained as air raid wardens. The Italian Maria Montessori, as an enemy alien in British India, took refuge at Theosophical Society headquarters. The American Theosophist serialized the “thrilling” adventures of C. Jinarajadasa (later international president) as he traveled the globe. In 1941 he left England for Capetown, Tanganyika, Bombay, Australia, Java, Singapore, and other ports, to Adyar for Convention, and then on to the United States for an extensive tour before he made it safely back to London. At the age of sixty-seven, he served as a Fire Guard in a helmet and armband, helping to extinguish blazes from German bombing.

Following World War II, American Theosophists worked closely with their counterparts in London to ship over fifteen tons of clothing and food to members of ruined sections. Donations were channeled to specific members of European sections to provide vegetarian products that were not available through other aid programs. Hundreds of letters in our archives document those efforts and the gratitude of recipients. Olcott staff members orchestrated some complex transactions. A man from Omaha donated an overcoat in October 1948, and it was reshipped to New York for the use of international president N. Sri Ram during his visit to the United States and France. Our staff wrote to Omaha, “When he boards the plane for India in France, he will leave the coat behind for the use of a needy European member.”

Since the 1940s, war has seldom been mentioned in Theosophical publications, although the Cold War years triggered articles and lectures about atomic weapons and the role of Russia in world evolution. The Society has also participated in United Nations conferences and other endeavors in support of peace. The Theosophical Order of Service shipped parcels during the Berlin airlift and the Korean War, and operated an orphanage in Saigon. In 1975, the American Section helped twenty-five Vietnamese Theosophists to resettle in this country, and two refugee brothers joined the Olcott staff for a while. In recent years, the Theosophical Society in America has sponsored workshops on posttraumatic stress disorder to heal the spirits of wounded warriors, using War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder by psychotherapist Edward Tick, a work published by Quest Books in 2005.

Since the 1940s, no conflict has overwhelmed the daily life of our nation to the degree of the world wars, and for that we must be grateful. Looking back at our responses to wartime shows how conflict can energize and transform society. First-hand experience with wars helped the Theosophical Society to exert leadership in the world reconstruction, and our members learned to think in fresh ways about outward manifestation of inner realities.