The entrance to the building that houses the historic Karachi Theosophical Society has a history of its own. Some time ago, the entrance was adorned with the name of the society, loud and proud. These days, however, a large signboard that reads ‘Jamshed Memorial School’ captures the visitors’ first glance. It appears that the society has deliberately placed emphasis on the school above all else.
Benevolently watching over it is a less obvious signboard: ‘Jamshed Memorial Hall’. This is the name that the city knows the place by; it is after all a tribute to Karachi’s first mayor, Jamshed Nusserwanjee.
The building houses an auditorium together with an overhead balcony, a library, a seminar room and a Montessori on the third floor. Inside, the arched and spacious architecture point to a culture rooted in history but the deserted hallways tell a tale of a sorry present.
“In our heyday, up until the ‘60s, this was the place for theatre,” recalls my host for the evening, Hamid Mayet, who is the incumbent president of the Karachi Theosophical Society.
Karachi Theosophical Society has been around since 1896 but finds itself searching for younger members and renewed impetus
Walking me through the society’s auditorium, he laments the time when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shut down liquor stores, bars and nightclubs and touched on the Ahmadi subject. “An atmosphere of intolerance developed soon after and Pakistani society underwent a transformation.”
With Karachi also being swayed by the winds of conservatism, ideas such as theosophy became dangerous.
At its core, the philosophy of theosophy entails spiritual enquiry that is not bound by the boundaries of specific religions. Instead, it is about making various religions converse with each other in an attempt to find greater spiritual answers together.
“Other clubs in Pakistan focus mainly on social events. The Theosophical Society involves something deeper. Our motto is: There is no religion higher than truth,” says Mayet. “We used to get people coming in and telling us to replace the word ‘truth’ with their particular religion. But the truth is that our members belong to all religions. Anyone is welcome to join provided they subscribe to the three central tenets of the Theosophical Society.”
The society’s tenets are etched in stone on a plaque: “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science and [humanity]; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man [which refers to a belief in a deeper spiritual plane].”
Theosophy and theosophical societies exist all over the world. In Pakistan, however, the current state is one of terminal decline. The Karachi Theosophical Society presently has about 50 members, nine of whom are executive members. “Most of our members are very old. We are currently looking for young people to become members.”
Mayet too did not find theosophy in Karachi; he was only sixteen when he joined the Theosophical Society in South Africa. “It was there that I first stumbled upon the Theosophical Society, housed in a strange, ancient looking building. Upon venturing inside, I encountered a bunch of old European fogies. They were all wondering who this Indian was. This was in the days of the apartheid. I joined the society because I had always been curious about the unknown laws of nature.”
As we walk past the seminar room, a bust of Annie Besant watches our every move. Removing a scarf-like cloth strategically placed on the bust’s head, Mayet remarks, “We keep her covered.”
Besant is popularly known in Pakistan as the leader of the Indian National Congress in 1917 who had also instigated the Home Rule Movement against the British Raj. She is among the few characters in history for whom the Congress and Muslim League both took a stand when she was put in incarceration by the colonial masters.
But Besant’s greatest contributions were not in politics. She was an ardent theosophist and the second president of the international Theosophical Society, from 1907 to 1933. In fact, the formation of the Karachi Theosophical Society and its Hyderabad counterpart are also credited to her.
The Karachi chapter was founded on December 21, 1896 by a coterie of Karachiites while the Hyderabad branch — now defunct — was established in 1901, in Besant Hall. Both were inspired by a series of lectures delivered by Annie Besant in Karachi and Hyderabad. According to the Theosophical Society gazette, Theosophy in India, published in 1906, Besant also delivered a lecture in Larkana.
In Karachi, Besant would find an ally in spirituality: Jamshed Nusserwanjee.
Nusserwanjee is largely credited as being the maker of modern Karachi. He too was a committed theosophist and spiritual protégé of Annie Besant.
“While Nusserwanjee was president of the Karachi Theosophical Society,” narrates Mayet, “he met Italian educator Maria Montessori who had come to India in 1939.” Montessori’s Indian sojourn ended up lasting seven years after the outbreak of the Second World War when she was put under house arrest in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters due to Italy’s involvement with the Axis Powers. Meanwhile in Europe, the Nazis closed down Montessori schools.
“Nusserwanjee wanted to introduce Montessori’s system of education here in Karachi,” continues Mayet. “The concept that lies at the core of the Montessori is that any child can learn, no matter what their IQ, provided that the correct approach is taken.”
Gool Minwalla was one of Montessori’s first students in India. She invited her to Karachi in 1949 to conduct a teachers’ training course. The Montessori in the Karachi Theosophical Society was founded in 1961.
“Our emphasis is on education because when the Society was founded, many members felt the desire to participate in something beyond theosophy,” says Mayet. “That is why Annie Besant established the Theosophical Order of Service (TOS) worldwide. Through our Education Sponsorship Programme, we have sponsored 375 students from primary school to university level.”
Then there is the Qandeel Home School Project, through which an educated person living in a low-income neighbourhood is employed to teach 25 students in their area. “We try to bring them up to a certain level of literacy and then send them to mainstream schools,” explains Mayet. There is also a Medical Relief Fund for those who cannot afford medical treatment.
Although the Theosophical Society now finds its roots in many countries across the globe, it has historically been more at home in the subcontinent than anywhere else in the world. Soon after Russian aristocrat Helena Blavastsky – whom Mr Mayet describes as a “larger-than-life character” — founded the Society in New York in 1875, she and co-founder Henry Olcott relocated first to Bombay and then to Adyar in Chennai. It was in Adyar that they established the international headquarters of the Society in 1882.
“India was spiritually advanced,” explains Mayet. “This is why people like Blavatsky gravitated towards it. A great deal of intellectual and spiritual activity was going on there. Therefore the Theosophical Society was always assumed to be an Indian domain.”
As we walk through the library, I spot an 1893 edition of Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine: the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy. And although I try not to judge it by its cover, its archaic binding carries a certain weight that demands I treat it like a holy book.
One of the central and most controversial concepts in theosophy is that of a master. In Jamshed Nusserwanjee: A Memorial (Karachi, 1954), Gool Minwalla, a close friend of his, quotes him as having said, “Remember the Master. If you are ever in trouble, in real trouble, He will come to help you.” She writes, “Masters are certain Adepts or Teachers, known to a few of their disciples.”
This idea of being able to contact ‘Masters of Ancient Wisdom’ or ‘Mahatmas’, who are believed to be guiding the spiritual development of mankind, has drawn much controversy. In 1884, Blavatsky’s credibility came into question when her housekeeper publicly rubbished her claim of being in touch with the Masters and accused her of fraud. The Society for Psychical Research in London backed these accusations.
There are several versions of the story depending on which side is telling it, one of which points out that the housekeeper had personal motives for attempting to destroy Blavatsky’s reputation. Either way, it did not deter Annie Besant from joining the Society in 1889 and becoming the president of its Esoteric Section (which focuses on occultism) in 1901. Nor did it dissuade Nusserwanjee from believing in the Masters.
“The original Theosophical Society was controversial,” acknowledges Mayet. “Radha Burnier, the last president of the international Theosophical Society closed down the Esoteric Section on the grounds that it is no longer relevant today. Blavatsky’s works such as The Secret Doctrine are complex and deep. They require a tremendous amount of insight and intellect to understand. I don’t think she was a fraud. There is so much we don’t know that one has to be open-minded.”
Equally controversial was Besant and her associate Charles Leadbeater’s proclamation that an Indian boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti was a potential Master or World Teacher. After being educated and trained in the ways of theosophy by Besant in the 1920s, Krishnamurti decided to part ways with the Society in 1929.
“Krishnamurti rightly broke away, otherwise the Society would have been a cult,” claims Mayet. “He argued against the need for a World Teacher and promoted spiritual freedom.”
But there were other schisms too.
“There was always a division in the Society’s hierarchy. Rudolf Steiner of the German Theosophical Society, which consisted largely of purists, broke away in 1912 on racial grounds, because the headquarters of the Society was linked to India,” explains the president of the Karachi Theosophical Society (KTS). Steiner rejected Krishnamurti’s instatement as World Teacher and went on to form the Anthroposophical Society.
Meanwhile, the Karachi Theosophical Society remains active and relevant through its educational programme, far-reaching welfare services and the revival of its theatre. At the same time, it provides an intellectually stimulating environment where new ideas can be cultivated through reflection and discussion, outside the realm of social pressures and traditional practices.
“We impart a fairly good education at a low cost with particular emphasis on making the child more creative and self-sufficient,” says Mayet. “Likewise, we are currently trying to revive the concept of affordable theatre.”
Defending the Society from criticism that it has received from some quarters for its inhospitable location on the chaotic M.A. Jinnah Road, he remarks that ordinary citizens would think twice before venturing into places such as the Arts Council, which he describes as being elitist.
“Tickets there are expensive. We, on the other hand, are located in an old part of town and within reach of people from all sections of society. Here, we want to bridge the gap between the so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ Karachi.”
Gesturing at the orchestra of chaos playing out on the street, he tells me “This is the real Karachi.”
The writer is a freelance contributor and tweets @aliHbhutto
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 11th, 2016