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Published by: bde_gnas on Apr 22, 2013
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Viewpoint: Brotherhood
By John Algeo
A member of our Society recently returned our 2002 Annual Fund leaflet, whichincluded a quotation using the word “brotherhood.” That word was circled and thecomment added, “I’m not a brother.” That comment has been made in recentyears by a number of women who object to the use of the word in our first Object:“to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction ofrace, creed, sex, caste, or color.” The use of the word in Theosophy and thehistory behind it are worth considering.In the early days of our Society, there were two strong interests among itsmembers. One was to increase human cooperation on an international scalewithout any bias, to promote cross-cultural understanding, and to transform one’sown nature through insight into the nature of reality and of the humanconstitution. Those interests became embodied in our three Objects, which youfind stated on the inside front cover of this journal.But a second kind of interest was also very widespread, namely, to learn how todo exceptional feats, to perform phenomena, and to acquire unusual abilities.The nineteenth century, when the Theosophical Society was founded, was ahotbed of interest in spiritualism and psychic phenomena. It was, in fact, suchinterest that led many of the early members to join the Society in the hope offinding in it a channel by which they might experience and learn to produce suchphenomena themselves.The wise teachers who inspired the foundation of the Society, however, had nopatience with the second interest. One of them wrote to an Englishman, A. O.Hume, who strongly preferred the latter, as follows: “it has been constantly ourwish to spread on the Western Continent among the foremost educated classes‘Branches’ of the T. S. as the harbingers of a
Universal Brotherhood 
. . . a ‘hotbedof magick’ we never dreamt of” (
Mahatma Letters 
, chronological no. 11). Thesame teacher wrote to another Englishman, A. P. Sinnett, in even strongerlanguage: “you have ever discussed but to put down the idea of a universalBrotherhood, questioned its usefulness, and advised to remodel the T. S. on theprinciple of a college for the special study of occultism. This, my respected and
esteemed friend and Brother—will never do!” (
Mahatma Letters 
, chronologicalno. 2).The brotherhood those teachers were talking about was clearly not abrotherhood of males, but of human beings without distinction (as the first Objectsays) of race, creed, sex, caste, or color. Almost all words have more than onemeaning. Think how many meanings there are for “love” or “fear” or “truth.” Soalso “brotherhood” has many meanings, and one of them is (as defined by theMerriam
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 
, the biggest and bestdictionary of present-day American English): “a group sharing a common interestor quality.” The “universal brotherhood of humanity” is the worldwide groupsharing the common quality of humanity, without any distinctions. That is the wayearly Theosophists understood the term and used it, and it is the way it is used inthe first Object.In more recent years, a new sensitivity to language has developed, and termsthat might be misunderstood in a limited sense as applying only to one sex havegenerally been avoided. So the old generic use of “man” to mean “human being”became taboo (although etymologically “man” is from the same root as the word“mind” and meant a being with a mind, not a masculine being). Conforming to thenew sensitivity, in the literature we now produce, we—like almost all publishersthese days—make a concerted effort to avoid what today is widely perceived as“sexist” language, although it certainly was not so intended originally or perceivedto be so by earlier speakers and writers.Accordingly some years ago, we looked at rephrasing our Objects. The Objectsof the Theosophical Society are international ones. They are defined by theGeneral Council (or main administrative body) of the Society and are stated inour international Rules and papers of incorporation. No nation can of itselfchange the Objects; they are in common to all branches of the Society aroundthe world. But nations speaking different languages translate the rules into theirown language. We argued that the wording of the Objects was late VictorianBritish English, which needed to be translated into present-day American English,and a committee proposed three such translations of wording in the Objects intocurrent usage. Two of those proposals were accepted; one was not.The rejected proposal was to rephrase the first Object to read: “To form a nucleusof the universal human family without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, orcolor.” Some of us thought that captured the sense of the original, while avoidingthe “sexist” misunderstanding of the word “brotherhood.” However, that proposed
change became a subject of intense and heated controversy. And the reason forthe controversy was precisely that early difference of opinion about the purposeof the Theosophical Society, reflected in the two interests of early Theosophists.Those who objected to changing “brotherhood of humanity” to “human family”thought that we were departing from the intention of the founders of the Societyto emphasize human unity to something else, and they cited statements likethose quoted above to Hume and Sinnett, which emphasized “brotherhood” asthe central purpose of the Society. In the end, we decided to leave the wording ofthe first Object as it has been for more than a hundred years, with the recognitionthat “brotherhood” here obviously does not mean “a group of male siblings” butrather “a group sharing the common quality of humanity.”Words have no inherent meaning. They mean only what their users intend themto mean. Of course, other people may misunderstand the intention behind anywords, so if one person says to another “I love you,” the meaning may be “Ihonor you and wish the best for you in all things” or “You amuse me” or “I lustafter you.” If the words are misinterpreted by a hearer, that does not change themeaning intended by the speaker. This is a widespread problem incommunication by human language. What is needed is, not an assumption aboutmeaning, but rather an effort by the hearer to discover the intention of thespeaker.The intention of the first Object is made clear by its qualifying prepositionalphrase: “without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” To ignore thatphrase is to mis interpret the clear intention of the Object. To insist that“brotherhood” can mean only a group of men is to ignore the fact that the worddoes in fact mean a number of different things, including a group of humanbeings. For communication to be effective, two things are needed: for the user tobe clear and for the perceiver to make an effort to understand the user’s intentionand not project an imagined meaning on another’s words.Women have always been centrally important in the Theosophical Society’snucleus of universal brotherhood. The chief idea person of Theosophy (HelenaBlavatsky) was a woman; its most distinguished leader (Annie Besant) was awoman; the current international President of the Society (Radha Burnier) is awoman. Other members of the Society (such as Matilda Joslyn Gage, ClaraCodd, Margaret Cousins, and Dorothy Graham Jinarajadasa) have been activefeminists. Ultimately, words are less important than actions, and the actions of

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