Remembering B.P. Wadia
August 20th, 2008 marks the 50th Anniversary of the passing of B.P. Wadia.
The biographic detail about B.P. Wadia and his work, in this note, is derived from material compiled by the late Dallas W. TenBroeck, life-long student of Theosophy, and associate of the United Lodge of Theosophists, who worked for Theosophy in both India and the United States. His original piece is available online, entitled, "B.P. Wadia - A Life of Service to Mankind".
The Indian Institute of World Culture at 6, Shri B.P. Wadia Road in Basavanagudi seems almost a bit of an anachronism in today's Bangalore. It is housed in three unassuming, pale-yellow, two-storey buildings, in a compound across from the northern edge of M.N. Krishna Rao Park. For many, especially those who may not live in Bangalore today, but grew up here, and for whom the Institute was an influence in so many ways, it is the site of personal pilgrimage. For others who continue to live here, it is a refuge, from what the city has become, today. There are still moments of quiet to be found within the precincts, despite the traffic outside and some intrusive blaring radios from the buildings next door. The library is full of remarkable treasures from the classics to modern fiction, from poetry to philosophy, history and travel writing, to art and the social sciences. The collections include imprints well over three-quarters of a century old and perhaps unavailable anywhere else, carrying due-date stampings going back to the 1940s. There is also an active children's section, and magazine and reference sections, with ample reading room space. Public lectures, performances and cultural events fill up its monthly calendar and draw a various assortment of audiences including many discerning attendees. In many ways, the somewhat quaint and understated role the Institute (or 'world-culture' as it is fondly referred to as, in the Basavanagudi area) has come to occupy today, belies its illustrious history and that of its founder.
Very little seems to be remembered, in today's Bangalore, of the person who founded the Institute and after whom the street it stands on, is named. Thanks to the meticulousness of his associates, friends, and co-workers as well as the Institute itself, there are well compiled biographical notes available about B.P. Wadia.
The Early Years
Bahman Pestonji Wadia was born on 8th October 1881 into a family of famous shipbuilders. Wadia-built ships were highly renowned in their day, and one of them, the HMS Trincomalee (built in 1817), can be seen, even today, fully restored, as an example of a classic British Frigate of 'the age of Sail', in Hartlepool, on the North Eastern Coast of England. B.P. Wadia was educated in Bombay and began his working career there in a textile firm. He later took over his family business upon his father's premature death. Deeply inspired and energized by reading H.P. Blavatsky's "The Secret Doctine", a book he was introduced to by a friend and fellow commuter on his tram ride from Parel to his work place in the 'Fort' area of Bombay, and perhaps influenced partly by his uncle Khursetji J.B. Wadia, he joined the Bombay branch of the Theosophical Society, in 1904. He became an active member of the Theosophical Society and during this time also edited a couple of Theosophical journals. He had also made a great success of his family business and, in 1904, he sold it in order to meet the needs of his parents and siblings and to devote himself to the cause of Theosophy. He made contact with Pandit Bhawani Shankar - one of H.P. Blavatsky's direct pupils - in Bombay, between 1904 and 1907 and is said to have spent long days and hours in his company and in meditation, and thought, upon the work of H.P. Blavatsky and her presentation of Theosophy. B.P. Wadia was also introduced by Pt. Bhawani Shankar to the role of the Masters in the transmission of Theosophical truths to H.P. Blavatsky, and was treated, by the former, as a special friend and associate, even being summoned by him at the moment of his death, for a last conversation, decades later, in 1936. On one occasion in 1907, when many questions were being asked about the nature of the Theosophical Masters, B.P. Wadia is reported to have sighted the Master, in a cave, near Bombay. This was one of several moments of truth and affirmation that B.P. Wadia is believed to have experienced during his lifetime and that, he believed, energized his life, work and mission.
Theosophical Society, Home Rule, Trade Unions
In 1908 B.P. Wadia moved to Adyar, Madras to work with Annie Besant. He became a key worker there and was involved in the Home Rule movement. He quickly established a reputation for his energy and for the quality of his work among the circle of leaders of the early Indian National Congress, which A.O. Hume, a Theosophist himself, had been involved in founding. In 1909, he reported that during a special Theosophical meeting (on the occasion of White Lotus Day), under an external influence that acted through him, he had departed from his carefully prepared speech and delivered a lecture that was very enthusiastically received by the audience. This, he concluded, was a moment when he had been taken control of by the Theosophical Masters and had spoken as their instrument.
In 1917, he was interned along with Annie Besant and George Arundale by the Government of Madras, for his political activities. They were interned in a cottage outside of Ooty, in the Nilgiris, for a period of three months. Something about his forced stay in the Nilgiris might have caused B.P. Wadia to later return and establish a home for Theosophical study and practice, called Gurumandir, in that area in later years. He is also said to have developed a deep empathy and understanding of the Toda and Badaga people, native to the area, and who had lived in relative isolation from the people of the plains. He believed, as he expressed to some of his co-workers, that after settlers from the plains, and the British, had explored the area, the "real Todas" had retired into seclusion.
Over the years, B.P. Wadia began to believe that Theosophical Society work had deviated from 'pure' Theosophy, as promulgated by H.P. Blavatsky, and had become more enamored by psychic and personal persuasions of some of its members. He began to work, along with several like-minded associates, for a program of return to the 'original impulse of the Theosophical movement, the Theosophy of H.P. Blavatsky and that of the Masters'.
In November 1918, while in Adyar, B.P. Wadia reported that he had a vision of H.P. Blavatsky, and had experienced her presence. This was another moment of truth and reaffirmation he described having had, to his close associates. He is said to have acknowledged that this experience, along with the earlier 'sighting' of the master, in 1907, near Bombay, were the source energy with which he conducted his life and work.
During this period of his involvement in political causes, along with Annie Besant, he also became aware of exploitative and inhumane working conditions of textile workers in the mills in Madras. After a series of meetings with mill workers of the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, he was involved in launching India's first organized Labor Union called the Madras Textile Workers Union, in 1918, and became its first president. Later the same year, he was summoned to testify before a Parliamentary Commission in London, set up to identify and ameliorate conditions in the mills. This testimony, along with many others, on a wider range of issues, led to the enactment of the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms Act of 1919. In December 1919, B.P. Wadia was summoned to represent India at the First International Labor Conference organized by the League of Nations.
The United Lodge of Theosophists
During his visit, he also toured and lectured extensively at Theosophical Society centers in the United States, and in Canada, on the Secret Doctrine, the message of H.P. Blavatsky, and on the need for each Theosophical Society member to acquire rigorous Theosophical knowledge and understanding and to apply it in practice. He first also came across, in Los Angeles, the United Lodge of Theosophists and its work to reaffirm and deliver in a pure form, the essential message and teachings of Theosophy. He was also, for the first time, introduced to the work of William Quan Judge. In the United Lodge of Theosophists, and its declaration of purpose, B.P. Wadia, seemed to have found the reformation of the Theosophical Society he had been seeking. There was also rapid acknowledgement and recognition, among its members, that they had found, in B.P. Wadia, the successor to Robert Crosbie, the founder of the United Lodge of Theosophists, who had passed away just a few months prior to Wadia's visit. In a prescient moment, just prior to his passing, Crosbie is believed to have assured his co-workers in the Lodge, that they would not have to wait too long for 'help' to arrive to take forward their work.
The next few years of B.P. Wadia's life are an account of tireless efforts to do his duties to the Theosophical Society, lecturing extensively in centers across North America and Europe, of embarking on an intense period of personal study to understand William Quan Judge and his writings, and of working to reform the Theosophical Society by bringing it to acknowledge the path of true Theosophy. Alongside all of this, he also represented India at the Second International Labor Conference of the League of Nations, in Geneva, in 1921. In 1922, B.P. Wadia resigned from the Theosophical Society, after he felt his efforts at reform had failed, through an open communication of his reasons and thought process to 'all fellow Theosophists and members of the Theosophical Society '.
The United Lodge of Theosophists movement gained steam in the years after B.P. Wadia's resignation from the Theosophical Society , and inspired by his example, centers opened across the US, in England, France and the Netherlands and the program of publication and study of original Theosophical texts gathered momentum. Along with the help of close associates in the United States, B.P. Wadia intended and planned to establish a center of the Lodge in India. In 1928, he married Sophia Camacho, an associate of Colombian origin, in London - a marriage that was described as one that had Theosophy as the 'sole bond' between them.
The United Lodge of Theosophists in India
The Bombay center of the United Lodge of Theosophists opened, in November 1929 to overflowing audiences. Several close associates of the Lodge in the US, and elsewhere in the world, traveled to India to work with B.P. Wadia and the cause, in India. Some of these families stayed back in India for several decades, living and serving in various capacities.
Over the next few years after the establishment of the Bombay Lodge - there was a proliferation of Theosophical work and activity - three Theosophical magazines began publication from Bombay - The Aryan Path, The Theosophical Movement and the Indian PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) - the last as a vehicle for Theosophical ideals to be presented to the world through the modes of writing and poetry. Additional centers of the Lodge and study groups were established - a center in Matunga, Bombay, a study and residential community, called Aryasangha, also in Bombay, that ran a Theosophy school for children in addition to a full program of lectures and meetings, a press in Baroda for printing Theosophical material (called the Sadhana Press) and Theosophy study groups in Baroda and in Delhi.
B.P. Wadia and Bangalore
The Bangalore center of the United Lodge of Theosophists was established in August 1942 at Maitri Bhavan, 4, Sir Krishna Rao road in Basavanagudi. On August 11, 1945, the Indian Institute of Culture, a sister organization of the Lodge, grounded in the same guiding philosophy and values, and aiming to provide a cultural atmosphere in which Theosophic thinking, living and ideas would flourish, was started by B.P. Wadia at 1, North Public Square Road with Dr. L.S. Doraiswamy as its Secretary. The Institute later shifted to its current location at number 6, on the same street. It was integrated with a students hostel (the William Q Judge Cosmopolitan Home for Students), a library and a lecture hall. In 1954, the William Quan Judge Press was established in Bangalore, and took over the printing of Theosophical journals and material, from the Sadhana Press in Baroda.
On November 9, 1957, the Governor of Mysore (and former Maharaja of Mysore), Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar inaugurated a new lecture hall at the Institute. On that day, it was also formally renamed, the Indian Institute of World Culture (IIWC). Bangalore attracted, along with B.P. Wadia and Sophia Wadia, a large group of committed co-workers, students of Theosophy, and volunteers from across the country and the world. Basavanagudi seems to have, in the late 1940s and through the 50s, become a thriving nucleus of Theosophy-inspired work, institutions and thinking and a small international community of devoted workers came to live in and around the area. The TenBroeck family that had traveled to Bombay, to work with B.P. Wadia and for the cause of the United Lodge of Theosophists, and Theosophy, moved to Bangalore and left an enduring legacy in the city. William Davis TenBroeck, Elizabeth Pearsall TenBroeck and their daughter Sophia, lived in Bangalore until the ends of their lives in 1959, 1982 and 1999. Elizabeth TenBroeck and her daughter Sophia TenBroeck, established the East-West School, in Basavanagudi, in 1961, and guided it over many years, before handing it over to a board of trustees. The IIWC, itself, became a nucleus of enlightened, universal and humanist thinking. In its six decades of existence in the city, the IIWC has invited to its roster, distinguished visitors and speakers, including, the Panchen Lama, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sir C.P.Ramaswami Iyer, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Dr. JBS Haldane, Prof. Julian Huxley, Prof. Arnold Toynbee, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Sir C.V.Raman, Dr. Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Dr. V. Raghavan, Dr. H.J. Bhabha, Dr. J.V. Narlikar, Dr. K.G. Saiyidain, Dr. Karan Singh and Salman Rushdie. It remains a foil, of sorts, today, against the city's new culture of frenzied transaction and an uncertainty of values.
B.P. Wadia, passed away in Bangalore, on August 20, 1958, a few days after he delivered a stirring address entitled 'Our Soul's Need', at the IIWC. The night before his passing, he called together his closest associates and friends and spoke of his approaching end, his life, and about the future. He was cremated in Chamarajpet, Bangalore, the following morning. Close associates who went to collect his ashes, in earthen pots, for immersion in the Kaveri, speak of a lingering fragrance of sandalwood around his still smoldering mortal remains.
In 1959, the Municipal Corporation of Bangalore renamed North Public Square Road, Shri B.P. Wadia Road, in his honor and memory.