Boodie and theosophy in Australia

My great-aunt Boodie (Florence Teasdale Smith) was born around 1892 in Melbourne and was descended from Irish quakers and an Indian Maharajah (see ancestral-tales-a-theosophist-a-thief-and-an-indian-princess).

Boodie and her mother were theosophists, and Boodie was a vegetarian who never ate meat. She was involved in funding the construction of an amphitheatre at Balmoral to watch for the coming of Krishnamurti. Another family recollection was that “her money bought a house in Balmoral for the theosophists”. This note gives a brief overview of theosophy in Australia and sheds some light on the “house” and amphitheatre in Mosman.

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Florence Teasdale Smith (Boodie)

Theosophy in Australia

The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Olcott. It was part of the late 19th century responses to religious uncertainty which essentially attempted to positively correlate Darwinian thinking and religious experience, to locate the spiritual within evolution. It was fundamentally the result of Victorian spiritualists encountering Buddhism and other Indian religious philosophies, and Theosophy grew into a movement which though small, was influential beyond its size1. Theosophy holds that all religions are attempts by the “Spiritual Hierarchy” to help humanity in evolving to greater perfection, and that each religion therefore has a portion of the truth Madame Blavatsky claimed to have received teachings from secret Masters in the Himalayas.

Both Blavatsky and Olcott formally became Buddhists in Sri Lanka in 1880, possibly the first Westerners to do so in the modern era2. Olcott contributed enormously to the revival of Buddhism in colonial Sri Lanka, and Olcott Day is still commemorated in Sri Lanka. Olcott has been called by Sri Lankans “one of the heroes in the struggle of our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival.”

The Theosophists combination of spiritualism and science to investigate the supernatural reflected the society’s desire to combine religion and reason and to produce a rationally spiritual movement. This “occult science” within the Theosophical Society was used to find the “truth” behind all of the world’s major religions. Through their research, Olcott and Blavatsky concluded that Buddhism best embodied elements of what they found significant in all religions. Olcott utilized Western scientific reasoning in his synthesis and presention of Buddhism. His efforts represent one of the earliest attempts to combine the scientific understanding and reasoning of the West with the Buddhist religion of the East.

The first branch of the Theosophical Society in Australia was founded in 1889 in Tasmania, and in 1891 Colonel Olcott spent several months lecturing throughout Australia specifically on “Theosophy and Buddhism”. Olcott’s Melbourne lectures were chaired by Alfred Deakin, recently returned from India, and later to become Australia’s second prime minister. Deakin himself was for a time active in the Theosophical Society, and founding secretary of a branch which met at his South Yarra home. Theosophy attracted educated and well-known people and the Society had a membership of over 2,000 people in Sydney around 1920. Other well-known members included Walter Burley Griffin and C.E.W. Bean, the Australian war historian.

Boodie, the theosophist

Boodie, the theosophist

Upon Blavatsky’s death in 1891, several Theosophical societies emerged. Annie Besant became the leader of the society based in Adyar, Chennai, India and under her influence, and that of C.W. Leadbeater, the Theosophical Society shifted markedly towards Hinduism and even Christianity. Like Spiritualists before them, Australian theosophists had great difficulty in coming to terms with Buddhism’s non-theism and its understanding of the non-existence of the self. Buddhism was perhaps too down-to-earth for many of the romantic souls attached to Theosophy.

Charles Leadbeater

Charles Leadbeater in 1914

From 1914, one of theosophy’s most controversial leaders, Charles Webster Leadbeater, was based in Sydney and lived in Mosman. A close confidant of Besant, he discovered the young Indian, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and identified him as the next great world teacher (Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad having been previous incarnations). He established the Order of the Star of the East as a separate organization, in Croucher’s words “signaling the degeneration of Theosophy into a wacky millenarian cult”.2 The Star Amphitheatre was built in 1923–24 at Balmoral Beach in Sydney, as a platform for the world teacher (see below). In the 1920s, thanks to Leadbeater, public interest in theosophy increased greatly, and the Sydney Theosophical Lodge was the largest and wealthiest in the world.

While in Australia he came in closer contact with J. I. Wedgwood who initiated him into Co-Masonry in 1915 and then in 1916, as a Bishop himself, consecrated Leadbeater into the Liberal Catholic Church, of which he also became a bishop. As his many detractors and the Sydney press liked to point out, however, Leadbeater was probably also a pedophile and a “sex pervert”; among other things, he liked to have a young boy sleep in his room. It seems that masturbation was part of the curriculum at the Theosophical school in Sydney, and his failure to deny this earned him a police file as well as some very unsavoury publicity. Gandhi considered him a humbug and Krishnamurti later referred to him as “evil”. This was one reason for the decline of the movement, both in Australia and internationally after the events of the 1920s. The other factor was the abdication of Krishnamurti, described below.

Krishnamurti – the world teacher

KrishnamurtiLeadbeater is best known for his discovery, in April, 1909, of Jiddu Krishnamurti, at the Theosophical headquarters in Adyar, India. Krishnamurti was to be the vessel for the incarnation of the coming “World Teacher”, Maitreya. According to Leadbeater, Maitreya’s plan in the early 20th century was to manifest through Krishnamurti (two souls in one body), as he had purportedly done millennia earlier through Jesus, Mohamed, Zarathustra and others. Krishnamurti was extensively groomed for this mission, and an organization called the Order of the Star in the East was set up, with him as its head, to prepare the way for his role as World Teacher.

However, as Krishnamurti grew to maturity, his emphasis in public talks and private discussions shifted away from the expected World Teacher as he became increasingly uneasy with the role for which he was being groomed. On August 3, 1929 he disbanded the Order of the Star in Ommen, the Netherlands, in front of 3,000 people including Annie Besant, and denounced the concept of saviors, leaders and spiritual teachers. He severed his ties with Theosophy, and spent the rest of his life holding dialogues and giving public talks around the world as an unaffiliated individual speaker, becoming in the process widely known as an original, independent thinker on philosophical, psychological, and spiritual subjects.

Krishnamurti rejected all the rules, rituals and beliefs such as reincarnation, of traditional Buddhism and Hinduism. By striking out on his own and rejecting formal religious organisations, Krishnamurti anticipated the 20th century’s spiritual preferences. Krishnamurti’s concept of the revolution within made him incredibly popular during the counter-cultural upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s. He was by now an old man, but his message seemed fresh. He was also an important influence in the evolution of Zen practice in the West. Ironically enough, for millions of people around the world, Krishnamurti did become the spiritual teacher he was proclaimed to be all those years ago in India.

The Star Amphitheatre, Balmoral

star-amphitheatreThe Star Amphitheatre was built in 1923-1924 at Balmoral Beach in Sydney by the Order of the Star in the East. It was intended as a platform for lectures by the expected “World Teacher”, widely believed at the time to be Jiddu Krishnamurti, and was the vision of Dr. Mary Rocke, a prominent theosophical worker in Sydney in the 1920s. She purchased land and worked tirelessly to raise the money (through donations) for its construction, which commenced in 1923 and was completed a year later. It cost over £13,000 and was financed partly through the sale of seats at £100 each.

star amphiIt was an open-air Greek-style temple of white marble, with 26 tiers which could hold 2,500 people. It provided a magnificent view of the harbour as a backdrop to speakers at the Theosophist conference of 1925. As far as is known, Krishnamurti gave only one lecture in the Amphitheatre during his 1925 Australian visit.

The Amphitheatre became the object of much exaggerated humour in Sydney, and stories circulated that Theosophists would gather there to watch the coming of Krishnamurti walking on water through the Heads of Sydney Harbour. This story was repeated in the family, and I recall my father describing how Boodie had been involved with the amphitheatre where they would watch Krishnamurti walk through the Heads.

After the 1920s, the Theosophical Society distanced itself completely from the project, and claimed to have had no connection at all with the now disbanded Order of the Star in the East or the Amphitheatre. As far as the story about walking on water goes, the journal Theosophy in Australia (March 1989) claimed:

“Over the decades since that time Chapters of the Australian press have repeated the story, based on the poetic licence of a journalist for the Truth – a newspaper that specialized in ‘sensational news’, that Krishnamurti, in his role as World Teacher, was going to walk on water through the Heads of Sydney Harbour before addressing a gathering of followers at the amphitheatre!”

The National President of the Theosophical Society in Australia, Linda Oliveira, reiterated in an unpublished letter in 2007 that there was never any suggestion among the Theosophists that Krishnamurti would “walk on water through Sydney Heads”.

The Amphitheatre at Balmoral continued as something of a Theosophical “white elephant” until it was sold in 1931.  After being used for a variety of secular purposes, it was demolished in 1951, and replaced by a block of flats. The Doric columns of the Amphitheatre may have been re-used in building the Rotunda near the Bathers Pavilion at Balmoral Beach, according to John Haskell’s book on Sydney architecture.

The Manor at Clifton Gardens

In 1922, the Theosophical Society began renting a large mansion known as The Manor in Clifton Gardens. The Manor, at 2 Iluka Road, Clifton Gardens, is a large mansion loosely in the Federation style. Built circa 1911 by a Mr Bakewell as an eight-room cottage, it grew to over thirty rooms, most of which were lined with beaten copper, with an internal maze of corridors. It was known locally as Bakewell’s Folly. In the 1920s, the Theosophical Society rented and then purchased The Manor, and Leadbeater took up residence there as the leader of a community of around 50 resident Theosophists.

The Manor, Sydney, Australia, where Leadbeater stayed from 1922-1929

The Manor, Sydney, Australia, where Leadbeater stayed from 1922-1929

There he accepted young women students. These young women wore long, flowing cotton dresses of Indian cloth and sandals, and they would go across on the ferry to Sydney in order to take services at the Liberal Catholic Church, St Alban’s, in Redfern. This naturally was fairly shocking to Sydney residents of the time, and a little like a pretaste of the 1960s.

Mary Lutyens, who would later write the Krishnamurti biography, stayed there in 1925, while Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya stayed at another house nearby. She described the Manor as “a huge and hideous villa”. The Theosophical Society bought The Manor in 1925 and in 1951 created The Manor Foundation Ltd, to own and administer the house. It became an important centre for the Society and is still used by them today.

The legacy of theosophy

At its strongest in membership and intensity during the 1920s, the parent Theosophical Society had around 7,000 members in the USA and 2,500 members in Australia. The radio station 2GB was founded in 1926 in Sydney to broadcast theosophical ideas. The Indian Chapter, at one time had more than 20,000 members, is now around 13,000. In the last several decades, there was a steady increase in membership in India, whereas outside India, the membership has been dropping. In the US, the current membership is around 3,900 which is about the same as it was in 1913, almost a century ago.

Theosophy was closely linked to the Indian independence movement: the Indian National Congress was founded across the street in 1885 during a Theosophical conference, and many of its leaders, including Gandhi were associated with and influenced by theosophy. Gandhi studied law in London between 1888 and 1890. He attended meetings of the Theosophical Society, met Blavatsky and Besant, but did not become a member. Nevertheless it was through the theosophists that he became more aware of India’s own religious tradition, in particular the Hindu philosophical masterpiece, the Bhagavad Gita, which he first encountered in its English translation by Edwin Arnold.

One writer on Australian theosophy, Jill Roe, makes the point that while theosophy has been a peripheral force in modern history, in colonial contexts, such as India and Indonesia, ‘it provided a non-racist forum and was a catalyst for nationalist movements’.3 Leaders of the cultural renewal and nationalist struggles in countries including India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia were attracted to those aspects of theosophy which opposed discrimination, in particular racial discrimination, and promoted Asian beliefs. According to Roe, it is also true that ‘with the theosophical movement a little of the Indian experience of empire and nationhood filtered through to White Australia’. For example, Besant, one of the greatest orators of her day, lectured about Indian self-rule to large, enthusiastic audiences during her Australian visits.

Rudolf Steiner created a successful branch of the Theosophical Society in Germany. He focused on a Western esoteric path that incorporated the influences of Christianity and natural science, resulting in tensions with Annie Besant; these were seriously exacerbated by Steiner refusing members of the Order of the Star of the East membership in the Theosophical Society’s German Chapter. Steiner vehemently opposed the claim that Krishnamurti, was the incarnation of Maitreya. In 1913 Steiner founded his own Anthroposophical Society; the great majority of German-speaking theosophists joined the new society, which grew rapidly. Steiner later became most famous for his ideas about education, resulting in an international network of “Steiner Schools”. Other influences of anthroposophical thought include biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophic medicine and the acting techniques of Michael Chekhov.

According to Blavatsky, the whole of humanity, and indeed every reincarnating human “soul”, evolves through a series of seven “Root Races”. Blavatsky suggested that most of present day humanity belongs to the fifth root race, the Aryans, which originally developed on Atlantis. German occultists later took up some of Blavatsky’s theories, mixing them with nationalism to preach Aryan supremacy. There was a direct link between these occult racial theories and the racial ideology of Hitler and the emerging Nazi party.

Boodie the Theosophist

Boodie the Theosophist

The “New Age” movement which took off in the 1960s is to some extent derived from the teachings of Blavatsky, and borrowed very heavily from the Theosophical Society’s vocabulary and its ideas. Leadbeater enjoyed considerable popularity in the “occult revival” of the 1970’s and his books may be found alongside contemporary best-sellers in any occult or “alternative” bookshop. Concepts such as Masters, reincarnation, karma, Askashic Records, Atlantis, Lemuria, Shambhala, the astral plane, psychic powers, kundalini and clairvoyance, so often used in modern occult writings, owe more to him than to anyone else.

Leadbeater’s books remain in demand.  In modern format, some of his “classics” have achieved high sales throughout the world in paperback editions published by Quest Books, a subsidiary of the Theosophical Society in America.

So what was Aunty Boodie’s involvement with Theosophy?

From family recollections, Boodie and her mother were both theosophists, and Boodie is remembered to have been involved in the building of the Amphitheatre, and according to one recollection, contributed to the purchase of the Manor. Mosman was the centre of theosophical activity in Sydney from the late 19th century, Leadbeater lived at the Manor in Clifton Gardens, and the activities of Leadbeater and the theosophists in the 1920s were very public and became the object of considerable ridicule. So it is hard to know for sure that Boodie was definitely personally involved with the Amphitheatre or the Manor, or whether the family assumed she was due to their proximity and notoriety. But it is highly probable that she was involved with Leadbeater and the Manor, though perhaps not as a resident student, and with the Amphitheatre project. She probably accepted that Krishnamurti was going to be the vehicle for the next World Teacher, and would have been keen to meet him and hear his words. But almost certainly she did not think she was going to see him walk in through the Heads on water.

Reference List

1.    Radio National. Encounter (15 December 2002): Krishnamurti. 2002. Sydney,
Australian Broadcasting Commission
(http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/enc/stories/s746134.htm).

2.    Paul Croucher: Buddhism in Australia 1848-1988. Kensington:
NSW University Press; 1989.

3.    Jill Roe: Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879–1939. Kensington NSW:
New South Wales University Press; 1986.

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