By the mid-19th century Freemasonry was permeating Bombay's intellectual atmosphere with its ideas of a "religion" underlying all religions, and individual and societal perfectibility. It seems that western-educated Hindus began self-consciously to reproduce Freemasonry in their movements of religious and social reform. There were overlapping memberships in Freemasonry and various reform movements (e.g., the Prarthana and Arya Samajes, Vivekananda, and the Rahnumai Mazdayasnan Sabha); and close ideological similarities; Freemasonry with the Manava Dharma Sabha and Pararnahansa Mandali.
Masonry provided a template of ritualism and graded degrees which could be copied and altered, whether in the Theosophical Society or Saraswati's "Aryan Masonry," in order to create a bridge between Eastern and Western religious thought in the 19th century. This template allowed Westerners and Easterners thrust together by the political bonds of imperialism to explore each other's religions within the context of something familiar: ritualism and occultism.
Some of the Masons in in leadership positions of the Arya Samaj were Harichand Chintaman, Mulji Thakarshi, Chitpavan Brahmin physician, Dr. Anna Moreshwar Kunte. Thirty-seven Brahmin members of the Samaj, would be initiated in Lodge Islam in 1878, and affiliated to Lodge Aryan that same year. (Short History of the Aryan Lodge, in The Aryan Lodge. No. 30 G11, Centennial Jubilee Celebrations, December 9, 1978)
In 1873 Hindu Masons received a Temporary Warrant from the District Grand Lodge (English Constitution) of Bombay to found a lodge named Aryan. The Aryan Lodge was duly constituted in 1877, its aims being to attract and initiate Hindus. Its founding members were Edward Tyrrell Leith, the lodge's first Master, Dr. Joseph Anderson, a surgeon, Bal Mangesh Wagle, the "First Advocate of the High Court of Bombay," Shantaram Narayan and Ghansharn Nilkanth Nadkarni, the most prominent pleaders of the High Court, Dr. Shantaram Vithal-Sanzgiri, Dr. Atmararn Pandurang Tarkhad, and Harichand Chintaman, who later became first Lodge leader of the Theososphical society in India. After the formation of Aryan, a considerable number of western-educated Hindus regularly entered Freemasonry, men who had important roles in the economics, politics, and social and religious reformism of the Bombay Presidency.
Membership consisted of Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis (although, in the case of Aryan, Hindus did predominate, since it was, after all, founded to screen Hindu applicants). Pherozeshah Mehta, a Parsi, was a member of both Lodge Rising Star (mostly Parsi) and Lodge Aryan, as was N.G. Chandavarkar, a Saraswat Brahmin. And Lodge Islam, which was founded in 1876, "has admitted Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and various other classes of people during its life of over a hundred years." (S.P. Sarbadhicary, How Hindus Were Admitted Into the Mysteries of Freemasonry, p.19-20)
After the formation of Aryan, a considerable number of western-educated Hindus regularly entered Freemasonry, men who had important roles in the economics, politics, and social and religious reformism of the Bombay Presidency.
After co-founders of the Theosophical Society H.P. Blavatsky and Olcott came to India in 1887, Blavatsky claimed that her Mahatmas belonged to a lodge of Freemasons.
In fact from as soon they went to India Blavatsky probable with the knowledge of Olcott attempted to prepair some kind of Masonic rite. This is confirmed in a never before (obtained by myself at the TS archive in Adyar) published letter from Masonic patent salesman John Yarker to Blavatsky dated 2 Jan, 1879, after Blavatsky had already moved to India, where Yarker writes her, seeking instruction:
"I will adopt your revised Ceremonies - I wish to advance 3 objects -1. Censorial (with the 7 imperfect ceremonies, 4 of which I sent you), 2. Perfection (giving the gist of the Vedic doctrine), 3. For a select few, the division of the 7 grades according to the dogma of the East. Or would you make two branches -1. the Censorial 7 rites, and 2. the ceremony of Perfection, ranking as the first Eastern grade, Censor the second, and Sponsor the third? By Yama (a mistake) you mean I think Capt. Archer. He was sometime resident in Manchester, and I made his acquaintance here through Prince Rhodocanakis.
We sent the Maharajah of Burwan a Mandate with a complimentary letter, but he did not reply."
That there was such an inner group seems confirmed by Blavatsky's letter to Hurrychund Chintamon, dated 4 May, 1878 where probably speaking of C.C. Massey she writes: "I have tried hard to make him a Theosophist of the inner ring - an English Swamee, but failed most signally."
W.Q. Judge is quoted in P. Deveney "Astral Projection or Liberation of the Double and the work of the Early Theosophical Society" p. 54 as mentioning the existence of such an inner group that "continued secretly over the years, with Blavatsky alone having the power to promote members in the grades." A letter by Blavatsky published in Theosophia 1947 indicates that she also associated her "Mahatmas" in India with masonry:
"They are members of an occult brotherhood, not of any particular school in India ... its origin is of untold antiquity, and is as much Masonic as present masonry is little Masonic." (Manly P. Hall, ’Madame Blavatsky - A Tribute, ”Theosophia, May-June 1947, pp. 10-11.)
Dayanand Sarasvati, who was considered a Mahatma, and member of the White Lodge by Blavatsky and Olcott, is supposed to have compiled a ritual for the use of the London and New York TS. (Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, vol. 1, pp. 468-69.)
Blavatsky claimed that "The Rishis of the Vedic school were, of course, also Founders of the Masonic." (The Theosophical Society or Universal Brotherhood, in The Theosophist, vol. 1, no. 7, April, 1880: 179) And is a clear attempt to use antiquarianism to appropriate Freemasonry to ancient Hinduism, and make the Vedic Rishis the earliest exponents of the Craft. The colonized is attempting to alter the moral relations between him and the colonizer by placing the origin of the West's most cherished and venerable organization (after the Church) in India.
The new an expanded set of "Principles, Rules, and By-Laws" of the T.S. at a meeting held at the palace of the Maharaja of Vizianagram in Benares on 17 December 1879 (revised and ratified in February 1880), strongly bear the impress of Freemasonry.
The Society was formed, “upon the basis of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity," a principle not contained in the former foundation by –laws of the 1875 T.S. in New York.
Like Freemasonry the T.S. initiated its members and had three degrees: the Third and lowest, the Second, and the First and highest "Sections." Once initiated, the new Theosophist was to be invested with the secret signs, words, or tokens by which Theosophists of the third (probationary) Section make themselves known to each other, a solemn obligation upon honour having first been taken from him in writing, and subsequently repeated by him orally before witnesses that he will neither reveal them to any improper person, nor divulge any other matter or thing relating to the Society.
Creeds and modes of worship may differ but the idea that God is one is common to the whole race. And in the love of God, common to humanity is to be found that harmony which it is the mission of the Universal Religion not only to preach but which it strives to make an actuality of life.... Saints, therefore, ask you to look beyond yourselves-to a centre that is within yourself, and it is only when the seed of goodness will have been sown there that it will fructify into what is called Universal Brotherhood, Universal Love, and Universal Religion. (speech delivered at the Social Reform Association, Mangalore, 1900, in The Speeches and Writings of Sir Narayen Ganesh Chandavarkar, 88.)
An important goal of the Hindu reform movements looked at here was not only to modernize society, but to elaborate a universal religion which could serve as the basis for a new, universal polity, although for practical purposes this meant a unified Indian/Hindu nation (whether Hindu or Indian was not always made clear) whose diverse elements would be harmonized by a latitudinarian spirituality which stressed fraternity. In the words of Narayen Chandavarkar,
In his presidential address at the 1893 Indian National Congress, Naoroji concluded with almost the same words he had used in Lodge Yarborough twenty-five years earlier: ... The day, I hope, is not distant when the world will see the noblest spectacle of a great Nation like the British holding out the hand of true fellow-citizenship and of justice to the vast mass of humanity of this great and ancient land of India with benefits and blessings to the human race. (Dadabhai Naoroji, quoted in Annie Besant How India Wrought For Freedom: The Story of the National Congress Told From Official Records, Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1915, p.165)
At the time that Dadabhai Naoroji was speaking of brotherhood and racial harmony in Lodge Yarborough, he and his associates were seeking parity with the British in the Indian Civil Service the "steel frame" of the Raj and the key institution in governing India. (Dadabbai Naoroji, speech at Lodge Yarborough, published September 19, 1868, in Bristol Guardian Newspaper)
Many Freemasons, following an ideological trajectory which began in the Renaissance, finally "de-centered" Christianity and, by the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, had come to see Freemasonry as a universal "religion" supple enough to serve the needs of empire, nationalism, and socio-religious reform. In the case of Empire, unlike the Theosophical Society, many Raj officials belonged to Freemasonry, which makes it all the more intriguing.
The Masonic scholar LS.M. Ward in 1921 poetically expressed the point to which Freemasonic religious formulations had been evolving for a century:
The Preserver, whether they call him the Madi, Or speak of the Christ returned to earth As the sun in his heat and glory From His throne in the azure sky. Sucks up the mist and dew, Whether they hail Him by Buddha's name And returning them to earth, Or Kalki, of Vishnu sprung, Renews the verdant plain, They tell us a truth for all the same So the Lord of Death and Birth And by every mystic sung. Returns to us again. (J.S.M. Ward, Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods, p. 344)
W.C. Bonnerjee and Rash Behari Ghosh must have been members of the Congress (or at least sympathizers)-when he spoke of people of all races, castes, and religions, whether of the East or West, joining together to give the practical effect to the Grand teachings of our Order. This mirrored the pluralistic vision of India, as well as the desire for a closer and more equitable union between India and Britain, that the Indian National Congress espoused. At the same time, this was also a vision of what the British Empire could be, and it could not have been lost on the consciousness of the Hindu and other Indian Masons at this meeting that one of their own had just been honored with membership in a Canadian lodge, half a world away. Masonic membership meant joining a world-wide fraternity, and membership could lead to international recognition and honors within that fraternity (which no doubt commanded the respect of even the British in India).
Freemasonry and Indian Nationalism
The Masons of Bengal in the 1860s knew what opening up Freemasonry to Indians would mean, and they were dead set against it. It was Lord Zetland (the English Grand Master) and his deputy, Lord Ripon, who in the 1860s had to insist upon the principle of universal brotherhood and, in doing so, promoted, albeit from the top down, a new vision of empire among Masons.
Indian Masons assimilated only too well to the British imperial community-to the point of becoming "brothers" to the English, Scotish, and Welsh-and they strove to obtain the rights and privileges which attended this fraternal assimilation. This was the genesis of the nationalist impulse among the western-educated Indians.
They envisioned and expected to live in an empire of nationalities, in which Indians played an equal role with whites in governing the Indian Empire. Unfortunately for them, the British were simultaneously forging a national identity based on their superior position in the Empire. In the contest between these two nationalisms, British and Indian, the middle path of an imperial brotherhood based on parity would necessarily lose out. Indian Masons, then. who had gone a long way in reaching parity with the British in the lodge, sought the same thing in the Raj as nationalists, but were to find that parity there was "blocked," or at least too slow in coming.
At the first Congress in 1885, Dadabliai Naoroji explained what drew the westerneducated Indians politically to the British: 'What attaches us to this foreign rule with deeper loyalty than even our own past Native rule, is the fact that Britain is the parent of free and representative Government and that we, as her subjects and children, are entitled to inherit the great blessing of freedom and representation.' (Briton Martin, New India, 1885, p. 298)
In the front ranks of Indian leaders in the early Congress Party (and even before) were a number of Masons: Dadabliai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta, Badruddin Tyabji, Narayan Chandavarkar, among those in Bombay. In Bengal, there was W.C. Bonnedee, Man Mohan Ghosh, and Rash Behari Ghosh, and probably others whom research in lodges there would no doubt turn up.
What these men wanted was respect, to be treated like equals, to be "brothers" with the British in running India, just as they were "brothers" with them in the lodges.
An examination of the Masonic Presidents of the Indian National Congress from its inception in 1885 to the Surat "split" between Moderates and Extremists in 1907, is impressive. Of the Congress Presidents from the Bombay Presidency, a staggering seventy-eight percent-were Freemason. In addition, one President-Lal Mohan Ghosh was the brother of the Mason, Man Mohan Ghosh, and thus may have been a Mason himself (which would have made forty-eight percent of the I.N.C. Presidents Masons):
1885 W.C. Bonnedee Mason (Bengal)
1886 Dadabhai Naoroji Mason (Bombay)
1887 Badruddin Tyabji Mason (Bombay)
1888 George Yule Unknown
1889 Williarn Wedderburn Unknown
1890 Pherozeshah Mchta Mason (Bombay)
1891 P. Ananda Charlu Unknown
1892 W.C. Bonnedee Mason (Bengal)
1893 Dadabhai Naoroji Mason (Bombay)
1894 Alfred Webb, M.P. Unknown
1895 Surendranath Banedea Unknown
1896 Rahirntulla Muhammad Saymni Mason (Bombay)
1897 Sir C. Sankaran Nair Unknown
1898 Ananda Mohan Bose Unknown
1899 Ramesh Chandra Dutt Unknown
1900 Narayen Ganesh Chandavarkar Mason (Bombay)
1901 Dinshaw EduIji Wacha Doubtful (Bombay)
1902 Surendranath Banedea Unknown
1903 Lal Mohan Ghosh Unknown (brother of M.M. Ghosh)
1904 Sir Henry Cotton Unknown
1905 Gopal Krishna Gokhale Doubtful (Bombay)
1906 Dadabhai Naoroji Mason (Bombay)
1907 Rash Behari Ghosh Mason (Bengal)