With the founding of our local Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1893, Asian religions and traditions loomed large in the spiritual and intellectual lives of some Dunedinites.
Asian places, peoples and practices shaped and reshaped colonial society, playing an important part in the making of “New Zealand culture” as we know it today. Dunedin’s Theosophical Society provides a strong example of this trend: the Society brought the “oriental renaissance” to Otago as it members saw opportunities for intellectual stimulation and spiritual revivification in Asian religious traditions. Concepts such as karma, samsara (reincarnation) and nirvana offered new ways of thinking about the nature of life and its meaning. Theosophists were especially attracted to the “ancient wisdom” they believed was stored in important Indian texts like the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita. More generally, they were very interested in comparative religion and were deeply committed to the ‘universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour’.
Initially founded in New York city in 1875, the Theosophical Society quickly emerged as a prominent international movement. Local branches or lodges flourished across the globe in the 1880s and the 1890s: the first New Zealand lodge was established in Wellington in 1888. Local lodges organised reading groups, discussion circles and public lectures and provided members with access to library collections and reading rooms. Effectively, the Lodges were sites where books, ideas and arguments were exchanged. Theosophists in New Zealand were part of a global association: they were part of the Australasian Section of the Society and built strong connections to the Theosophical Society’s international networks which had a wide reach from Adyar, in the Indian city of Madras, which became the Society’s headquarters.
Presbyterianism was a powerful influence on the development of early Dunedin, but the city also was home to a significant cohort of freethinkers and individuals interested in new religious movements, such as Theosophy. The first Dunedin name to appear on the international role of the Theosophical Society’s membership was that of Augustus William Maurais, the son of a London bookseller who arrived in Otago in 1875 and became prominent as a journalist, editor and newspaperman. His early years as a Theosophist in Dunedin were lonely ones until a chance meeting with wealthy tannery owner Grant Farquhar, who Maurais noticed on the train from Sawyers Bay to Dunedin reading a Theosophical magazine. In 1893 Maurais and Farquhar were joined as founding members of the Dunedin branch of the Theosophical Society by Robert Pairman, Frank Allan, John Oddie and Thomas Ross: their newly-established Lodge was the third in New Zealand to have a charter issued. From the 1890s, women were actively involved in the Dunedin Lodge and held a range of offices, including the position of President.
Although the Society’s selective approach to new membership meant that it grew slowly – with 18 members in 1896 and 39 in 1900 – its interest in non-western religions caused considerable anxiety. Dunedin’s newspapers showed a persistent interest in both the Society’s international programme and its local growth. The Evening Star ran an “exposé” column written by a London correspondent, the Otago Daily Times closely followed the activities of prominent Theosophist Annie Besant, while The Triad printed a detailed account of Theosophy with the explanation that there was so much public interest in Theosophy that this new movement could be no longer ignored. The Christian Outlook, edited by the influential Presbyterian minister and social reformer Rutherford Waddell, resentfully commented on the ‘excitement; Theosophy had induced in Dunedin.
James Neil, a local chemist, produced a pamphlet Spiritualism and Theosophy Twain Brothers of the Anti-Christ that summarised the hostility that some Dunedinites felt towards this new movement: by synthesising the “ancient wisdom” of the Holy Bible with the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran, Neil judged Theosophy guilty of reducing “Jesus to the level of man” and “the Bible to the level of other books”. To Neil and many other Christians in Dunedin, the interest of the city’s Theosophists in the “heathen faiths” of India was a threat to the authority of the Bible, the Protestant churches, and the morality of the colony.
Although the Dunedin Lodge of the Theosophical Society remained small, until World War One it was particularly prominent in Dunedin’s intellectual and cultural life, feeding debates over a range of issues from karma to astrology, vegetarianism to the value of “occult” knowledge. Interest in these areas was in part generated by the visits of prominent Theosophists from overseas – Mrs Cooper Oakley in 1893, Annie Besant in 1894 and 1908, the Countess Wachmeister in 1895 and Colonel Olcott in 1897 – whose public lectures grew significant audiences and stimulated further controversy.
The Dunedin Lodge persisted through these public arguments and continued to support its members in exploring ancient texts and new ways of looking at the world. It also provided an important source of fellowship and sociability for a cluster of Dunedin families as well as visitors.
Many Dunedinites will remember the impressive turreted building the Lodge occupied at 236 High Street (after moving from its earlier location in leased rooms in Dowling Street). Having just taken up residence in the old Fitzroy Hotel building on Hillside Road, the Dunedin Theosophical Society Lodge, one of city’s most enduring cultural institutions, is showing no sign of slowing down.
A.Y. Atkinson, ‘The Dunedin Theosophical Society, 1892-1900’, BA Hons Dissertation, University of Otago, 1978.
Tony Ballantyne, ‘India in New Zealand’, in his Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2012, 82-104.
James Neil, Spiritualism and Theosophy Twain Brothers of the Anti-Christ, Dunedin: Budget Print, c.1901. (A copy is held in Hocken Collections).