The Theosophist, October-November 2014
The first time I met Radha Burnier was in Argentina during her lecture tour in 2001 and then again in 2004 under similar circumstances. After that I had the opportunity to live and work at Adyar for almost two years and experience close up how tirelessly she worked as International President of the TS.
Although my personal acquaintance with Radhaji was not long, she has been an important influence in my theosophical and spiritual life. Her teachings were both a guiding beacon and a source of inspiration. Looking back, I can picture vividly the times in which her writings, words or actions have had an effect on the direction my journey has taken. Since this is a personal account of my acquaintance with Radhaji I will inevitably have to refer to my life to provide the context, and for that I appeal to the kind forbearance of the reader.
Not long after I joined the TS, I had a conversation with a member in which he told me about Radhaji and her teachings. Not being very aware of her writings, this was the first time I came in touch with her ideas. In our conversation I found many interesting points to think about but there was one in particular that would change the direction of my approach to the spiritual work. At the time I was studying at the university and my attitude regarding Theosophy was mainly intellectual. But then this member told me that, according to Radhaji, the fundamental change we have to bring about in ourselves lies not so much at the level of knowledge, but at that of perception. I still remember the impact that this concept produced on my way of thinking. The idea that the problem of humanity was not primarily how much or how little we know but how we perceive life and ourselves had an atmosphere of both mystery and a depth difficult to fully fathom. I was intrigued by this, and began to explore her writings. Eventually, I realized that knowledge, even a Theosophical one, is not an end in itself, but rather a means to something far more fundamental. It was through her writings that I first realized that as long as my perception remained within the sphere of the divisive mind, I would be caught in a fragmented reality, regardless of how much knowledge I could accumulate. From that point on my focus shifted towards learning how to break through this psychological barrier.
A few years after this conversation I had the opportunity to finally meet Radhaji. This was during her visit to Argentina. By this time I was very familiar with her teachings. I attended all the talks she gave in the country and was very inspired by her presence. In addition, since I was part of the National Council of the TS in Argentina, I was able to participate in some private talks with her in which we discussed subjects regarding the administration and managing of the TS in our country.
During one of the lectures she gave for TS members I came to an important realization. In her presentation she mentioned the importance of watching our minds as J. Krishnamurti had taught, that is, with a silent awareness, without judgment or manipulation of the contents of our consciousness. I was already exploring this practice and I had noticed that it seemed to contradict Patanjali’s technique of pratipaksha bhavana described in Yoga Sutra II.33: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, one should think of the opposite.” At the end of her talk I asked her how she would reconcile these two approaches. Knowing about Radhaji’s affinity with Krishnamurti, I expected her to favor the silent watching. Her answer, however, was that the two practices were not really contradictory. That sometimes a state of passive awareness was the best approach, but on other occasions it may be more appropriate to apply Patanjali’s more active method. She said that each one of us had to discover which technique was appropriate at each given time. This response taught me a very important principle. I saw how the conceptual mind tends to take things in this divisive and exclusivist way—if “A” is right, then “B” is wrong. But the spiritual life is far more dynamic than we tend to think it is, and cannot be laid out in the water-tight compartments of hard and fast rules. This also lead me to realize that we must have an experimental attitude, trying the different approaches without prejudices and seeing what actually works and when.
Another highlight of that visit was a lunch we arranged for her with about twenty representatives of the Young Theosophists Group from different cities around the country. I remember an amusing occurrence that happened that morning, which I think depicts one prominent trait of her personality. The lunch was going to take place in a TS building. To greet her properly, we resorted to the very limited knowledge of Sanskrit a few of us had and wrote with chalk on a blackboard in devanagari script “Namaste Radhaji”. The inscription was in a fine handwriting and had coloured borders. As soon as Radhaji entered the room she saw the greeting, walked towards the blackboard, and to our astonishment, she grabbed a piece of white chalk and crossed out the word “Radhaji” with a big X. She then turned around and began to explain that we had incorrectly written the word with two short “a”s, proceeding to reproduce how the word would sound in this case. After this she wrote it correctly, in her rather shaky devanagari handwriting and showed us the difference. Our artistic drawing had been leveled with the austere touch of scholarship. She most likely did not even notice that we were intending to pay homage to her with the ornate greeting. What she did appreciate was our effort to learn Sanskrit and did not hesitate to assist us in this direction.
On this same occasion I took the opportunity to inquire about a concern a group of members and I had at the time. We felt the Theosophical work in our country needed some changes. In our view, we were doing a good job of studying the core Theosophical teachings but we were not emphasizing their practical relevance. Because of this, the TS in Argentina was generally perceived as a rather intellectual organization. Although we had an idea of the direction we should take to remedy the situation, we did not know how to do this without producing confrontation and conflict with other members who did not seem to see the need for a change. After I described the situation, Radhaji told us that we should not try to “force” others to change but, rather, should apply our energy to build something new in tune with our vision. She said that if what we were doing had the seed of truth, energy would come and vitalize it. This would then grow and eventually reduce the influence of whatever was no longer a valid approach.
At the time I could recognize the correctness of this approach as an ideal, but I could not see how a dominant and well established tendency could change with this more indirect approach. Nevertheless I kept this in my mind as I tried to do my best to deal with the situation. In time I realized the profound wisdom behind those words and recognized it as practical advice that is not only idealistic, but in the long run the most effective way to proceed.
Radhaji visited Argentina again in 2004. I was part of the organizing group for her trip, which afforded me a closer acquaintance with her. We had a number of casual but very interesting conversations and I also observed her response in certain situations, all of which was quite illuminating.
One striking feature of her personality, noticed by many people, was the intensity of her sight. Her eyes were wide open and many times they seemed bigger than they really were. To me, this was the outward sign of an inner state of attention. I can share a little anecdote related to this.
Upon her arrival two or three of us were explaining the arrangements that were made for her. In the course of our explanation she looked at us silently and attentively, but without showing any particular response to what we were saying. We thought that she might be struggling to understand our English, so we went on basically repeating the same information in a slightly different way. Still no response. Finally, we stopped and asked her if she had understood. She said “Yes,” and repeated back our instructions perfectly. Most of us show an attitude of intense attention only when we are making an effort to understand something, and this is what we assumed was happening. But evidently this was a more natural state with her, reflected in a way of listening quietly, without the mechanical responses that we usually show in our conversations.
Her lecture tour was quite successful. The public talk held in a university hall attracted 400 people. We were all happy with the outcome and one of us asked if the work had met her expectations. Her simple reply was: “I never have expectations.” Eventually I came to realize how very important this attitude is, not only for Theosophical work but for the spiritual path in general. This response exemplifies one of the aspects of Radhaji’s character that I admire. She had the integrity to always state the truth as she saw it, without seeking to flatter or to gain acceptance. Actually, it seems to me that most of the spiritually mature Theosophists, from HPB down to Radhaji, were against flattery and many of the things that we consider “polite”, because these actions are many times just strategies to feed each other’s egos. I remember an occasion in which Radhaji stated that we should not be thanking or applauding each other in our Theosophical work. We do this work because it is our service to humanity and should not be expecting personal recognition in return.
Another aspect of her character I observed was her sensitivity in recognizing the One Life. In one of her talks she was asked what we could do to help humanity. Her answer was that humanity should not be our only concern as Theosophists, but that we should be aware of the totality of existence. A few days later I saw how these words were not just a philosophical concept, but a living reality for her. One day, after dinner at the Theosophical Centre in San Rafael she went for a walk. Soon after leaving the dining hall she came upon three stray dogs from the farms around the Centre. I saw her bending over and I thought she might need some help in chasing them away. I walked towards her and started to chase the dogs away but she stopped me saying “No, no! Don’t do that. They are just hungry.” That is when I noticed she had been petting the dogs. She remained looking at them silently with affection and then asked me to go get some bread. She stood there with the smile of a delighted child while watching them eat. Then she remarked, “Look at how happy they are now that they have eaten. It must be hard for them to see everyone eating while they are hungry.” Her concern then turned to what would happen to them when the activity at the Centre was over and people left. Perhaps one could think this would be a common attitude in people who love pets, but the whole event was surrounded by a different feeling; one not so much of personal love for pets but of recognition and respect for the universal life in its different expressions.
At the Centre there were some T-shirts with the TS emblem the Youth Group had prepared to fund its activities. When she saw them she said she would buy one for her driver at Adyar. At the end of her stay we presented to her one of the T-shirts as a gift, but she insisted she would pay for it. We told her there was no need for that, adding that we had also given one to a previous speaker. She immediately answered “Do not compare.” In her talks and writings, Radhaji pointed out many times how destructive is the mind’s habit of comparing. But what was striking to me is to see how she responded in this way spontaneously even in very small things, which seemed to be of little importance. When a mind is established in a certain state it naturally expresses itself in that way always.
In 2005 I had the opportunity to live and work at Adyar. A few days after my arrival I met with Radhaji in her office and she asked me where I’d like to work. I knew nobody was in Archives so I told her I could work there. The Archives are on the floor below her office, and on occasions my work required that I make some decisions that needed her input. Thus, during my stay I had many opportunities to talk with her.
In one of these conversations Radhaji mentioned the existence of some private documents supporting the position of one of our Theosophical leaders in a famous controversy. I asked her whether we should publish a book with this new information but she refused. She said that this would not be a good idea from a more esoteric perspective. Such a publication would only stir up the strong feelings some people still may have about this, it would stimulate responses and counter-arguments, and the result of all this would be to further pollute the mental atmosphere. She said that a true Theosophist works impersonally for the benefit of humanity and is not worried about personal attacks or prestige. She added that, from a karmic point of view, personal attacks cannot interfere with the work in any serious or lasting way. This response was to me an example of her deep abnegation in the Theosophical work.
She had a profound and quiet reverence for the Masters of Wisdom. After one of her talks about Them I mentioned that sometimes the awareness of our own imperfections may create the feeling that the Masters are distant, beyond our reach. Her reply was unambiguous—“The Masters are never far away”. And certainly, when relating to Radhaji in Theosophical matters, their presence felt much closer.
I stayed in Adyar until October 2006, and during this time I had the opportunity to relate to Radhaji both in a work environment and on a more personal level. She was always kind but frank, without being flattery or condescendence. She was a very austere person with a good sense of humour. The way Radhaji lived revealed a deep understanding and realization of many of the things she spoke and wrote about. Although, of course, I do not hold the view that she was free from flaws—and who is?—she was a person that embodied many Theosophical ideals.
With her departure from this plane our organization lost a leader that will not be easy to replace. Perhaps the best homage those who appreciated Radhaji and her work can pay to her is to tread the spiritual path in earnest as she did, and to endeavour to materialize her vision for the Theosophical Society.