Shri Raghavan N. Iyer

(March 10, 1930 – June 20, 1995)

Shri Raghavan N. Iyer

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Edwin Markham

The secret Society of Sages that guides human progress periodically sends forth one of their own to sound afresh the Divine Philosophy and exemplify the spiritual life in all its richness and mystery. Such an enlightened spiritual teacher articulates eternal but forgotten truths in ingenious ways, adopting modalities that inspire the mind, release soul perception, and cut through the froth of history and the miasma of an age.

Shri Raghavan lyer was a man of immense magnanimity and deep spiritual and intellectual genius. Born in Madras, India in 1930, he matriculated at the University of Bombay at the precocious age of fourteen and received his bachelor’s degree in economics at age eighteen. Two years later he received the Chancellor’s Gold Medal, earned his master’s degree in Advanced Economics, and was selected as the Rhodes Scholar from India to Oxford University. At Oxford, he excelled in his academic studies and avidly participated in Oxford’s rich social, political, and cultural life. During his undergraduate years, he eagerly joined a number of Oxford University clubs and societies. He was apparently so well liked and respected that, in time, he was elected president of several prominent student organizations: the Oxford Social Studies Association, the Voltaire Society, and the Plotinus Society (which he also founded). His broader social sympathies and para-political concerns were served by joining and eventually becoming president of the Oxford University Peace Association and the Oxford Majlis Society (a debating society of Oxford students from South Asia that took up political issues). In 1954, he became president of the prestigious Oxford Union – perhaps the premiere debating society of his time. (Debates were usually spontaneous, witty, and packed full of appropriate references to recognizable historical figures in literature, politics, and society.) At year’s end, he earned first-class honors in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and later was awarded his master and doctorate degrees in Political Theory.

Shri Raghavan was an outstanding teacher of philosophy and politics throughout his public life. He assumed the mantle of teaching at the age of eighteen when he was appointed Fellow and Lecturer in Economics at Elphinstone College, University of Bombay. In 1956, he was appointed an Oxford don, giving tutorials in moral and political philosophy. In addition to teaching at Oxford, he lectured throughout Europe, America, and Africa, e.g., the University of Oslo in Norway (1958), the College of Europe in Belgium (1962), Erasmus Seminar in the Netherlands (1962), the University of Chicago in America (1963), and the University of Ghana in Legon (1964). His profound insights, sparkling intellectual clarity, mastery of different conceptual languages, and his infectious enthusiasm inspired thousands of students on different continents and earned him the deep respect of his contemporaries.

After accepting a professorship at the University of California (Santa Barbara) in 1965, he taught classes and seminars in political philosophy until his retirement at the age of fifty-six. His introductory classes and graduate seminars were legendary for their philosophical depth, theoretical openness, and visionary richness. His class topics were innovative and they attracted the curious, the committed, the idealist, the political realist, and the culturally disenfranchised. The most inspiring (and exacting) undergraduate courses were always enrolled to the maximum and lectures frequently ended with spontaneous, standing ovations from the students. Those classes included: “Parapolitics and the City of Man”, “Anarchist Thought”, “Plato and the Polis”, “The Dialectic from Plato to Marx”, “Politics and Literature”, “American Radicalism”, and “The American Dream and the City of Man”. His lectures were full of wit as well as wisdom, and they unfailingly inspired students to cultivate an abiding confidence in themselves as learners and to become viable contributors to the emerging City of Man. His formal lectures and innumerable informal gatherings affected generations of students who later contributed to diverse fields of work, worship, and humanitarian service.

In addition to his vast and varied gifts as a teacher, Shri Raghavan Iyer was a devoted consultant and lecturer to various world organizations committed to some form of universal human betterment. While an Oxford don, he became a member of the Executive Committee for the World Association of World Federalists (The Hague) and likewise became a consultant and lecturer for the Friends International Centre (Kranj, Yugoslavia). In a similar spirit of rendering service, he became a consultant to OXFAM and accepted the temporary post of Director of Studies, UNESCO Conference on “Mutual Understanding Between the Orient and the Occident”. He was also a member of The Club of Rome, The Reform Club, and The World Futures Studies Federation. In later years he became a contributing member of the Task Force appointed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter to develop “The Global 2000 Report for the President” – a call for Promethean initiatives to meet the most compelling needs of an emerging global civilization.

Over the arc of his extraordinary life, Shri Raghavan wrote numerous articles in diverse fields of thought as well as authored and edited many works that point toward an emerging global consciousness – replete with multiple challenges and stirring prospects. In 1965, he edited The Glass Curtain between Asia and Europe. This compilation of essays by internationally reputed historians contained a fascinating dialogue between Shri Raghavan and the world’s most eminent historian at the time, Arnold Toynbee. They mutually explored Shri Raghavan’s thesis that there exists an obscuring “glass curtain” between Asia and Europe that needs to be recognized and dealt with before there can be true intellectual and cultural understanding between East and West.

His most well-known and prominent books are The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (1973) and Parapolitics—Toward the City of Man (1977). Each of these remarkable pioneering works is accessible to both the profound thinker and the serious inquirer, the erudite scholar and the dedicated student, the earnest seeker and the committed practitioner. Later, in 1983, he edited an extraordinary collection of spiritually inspiring readings entitled The Jewel in the Lotus – aptly characterized by Professor K. Swaminathan, a noted compiler of Gandhi’s collected writings, as “a Universal Bible.” In addition, Shri Raghavan edited and wrote luminous introductions for numerous sacred texts, including Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish, Christian, and Sufi teachings.

The deeper replenishing current of Shri Raghavan’s life, however, flowed from the empyrean springs of Theosophia. He became a Theosophist at age ten when his father first took him to the United Lodge of Theosophists in Bombay. In time, he was introduced to the profound writings of H.P. Blavatsky and W.Q. Judge. Not long after entering the orbit of the Theosophical Movement, he made a sacred resolve to serve the Lodge of Mahatmas and increasingly assumed responsibility for forwarding the impulse of the worldwide Theosophical Cause of promoting universal brotherhood. For the rest of his life, all his efforts in the academic, social, political, and religious arenas were infused by his wholehearted devotion to the service of the Brotherhood of Bodhisattvas and to the enlightenment of the human race. This deeper, ever-present golden thread of meaning that wove together all his worldly activities became more apparent when he emigrated to America.

In 1965, Shri Raghavan moved with his wife and son to Santa Barbara, California. (His wife, Nandini, a brilliant Oxford don who received a First in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford, went on to teach in both the Philosophy and Religious Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Barbara until her retirement. Pico, their only child, was born in Oxford in 1957. He later graduated from Oxford University and became a contributing writer to Time magazine and is now a noted author of international standing.) Once settled in California, Shri Raghavan and Nandini founded the United Lodge of Theosophists, Santa Barbara. Beginning informally in October of 1966, the Lodge grew from fourteen initial students to over a hundred active associates. Soon after its inaugural meeting on February 18, 1969 (the death anniversary of Shri Krishna), Lodge members were invited to give talks and, in time, to co-lead Theosophy School classes for the young. In addition to evolving various modalities of giving and receiving Theosophical instruction, Shri Raghavan and Nandini founded several ancillary institutions that further served the global aims of the worldwide Theosophical Movement.

One such ancillary institution is the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara. On July 4, 1976 – the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence – Shri Raghavan and Nandini co-initiated this educational non-profit organization. Its “Declaration of Interdependence” elucidates ten aims that are the visionary basis of all its intellectually and culturally enlightening programs and activities. The Institute of World Culture regularly hosts engaging seminars, forums, lectures, study circles, and film series. There is a wholesome blending of spiritual, intellectual, ethical, and cultural themes for focused thought and extensive discussion. The Institute has proved to be a culturally “consciousness expanding” experience for many and has, in its own way, contributed to a deeper appreciation of the often unsuspected power of classical and renaissance cultures to provide illuminating perspectives on a host of contemporary national and global issues.

As a forward-looking extension of his sacred obligation to serve the Theosophical Movement, Shri Raghavan founded, edited, and wrote for the golden journal Hermes (1975 – 1989). This wide-ranging spiritual journal was dedicated to the pristine sounding of Brahma Vach and to the spiritual regeneration of humanity. The profound articles found in Hermes span the spectrum of human thought from the metaphysical to the mystical, the ethical to the psychological, the spiritual to the material, the mythical to the historical.  These alchemical articles were again edited by Shri Raghavan in the last years of his life, compiled and organized into three volumes, and titled The Gupta Vidya, a synonym for the life-giving sacred lore of Theosophia. They convincingly reveal the subtle Theosophical foundations of all religions, philosophies, and sciences. They ingeniously address the chronic problems of the age and provide much needed “correctives to consciousness” in an age that tilts away from soul-saving and revitalizing ideals.

As repeatedly witnessed by close students, Shri Raghavan spoke at many different levels and freely interacted with each and all – regardless of race, creed, or condition. He exemplified – for the sake of the future – a multitude of Aquarian modalities and qualities. He was, in one sense, very Hindu: a true Brahmin – spiritual, cultured, brilliant, full of the graces that immediately remind one of ancient India and of golden ages long past. He was also very English: confident, highly educated, extremely literate, and at ease with statesmen, scientists, educators, and royalty. He was also very American: a true and fearless rebel, innovative, resourceful, visionary, and the eternal friend of the common man. But, beyond all this, he was in a much deeper sense the Universal Man, original, sui generis and timeless. His sympathies were always compassionately inclusive and his repeated emphasis – from first to last – was to “draw the larger circle” through universality of thought, the richness of imagination, the therapeutics of speech, and the magic of selfless action.



Student Testimonials

Lessons in Breadth, Depth and Kinship –

My Meeting of Raghavan Iyer

In the spring of my 20th year I experienced a strong surge of idealism. Not only earnest questions about the good, but mystical reveries on reincarnation and divine love. But I had no scaffolding, no community, no language with which to make sense of it. I remember feeling convinced that there just had to be more to life than had been presented to me by education, counselors, church, and even well-intentioned parents.

After several weeks of conversation with a friend of mine, she suggested I might wish to attend a meeting with other people who were interested in the kinds of things I seemed to be. And so, in the Summer of 1981, I attended my first meeting at the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara. The theme for reflection that night was “The Square” and I was rather lost trying to follow the talk, being completely unacquainted with referenced texts and theosophical terms. But I liked the kindly aloofness of people, the absence of ritual, and the few points I could follow. I kept coming back.

The speakers changed every week. I knew none of their names, their occupations, their backgrounds. Impersonality is a formal principle for United Lodge of Theosophists. So when, at one meeting that summer, I first heard Raghavan Iyer speak, I had no expectations. I didn’t know he was a university professor, an eminent international scholar on Mohandas Gandhi, nor even that he was co-founder (with his wife, Nandini) of the Santa Barbara branch of ULT. I only remember being swept up by this man’s erudition, versatility, and clarity. But more, he was intensely present in the moment, and entirely free of self-concern. And there was such authenticity, a deep respect for the ideas and a loving and earnest desire to communicate with his audience. By that point in my life, I had attended hundreds of school lectures and church homilies but had never heard anyone speak like this.

It was Raghavan’s practice, when he spoke at Sunday night meetings, to take the second portion of the meeting, the Q&A session. But he handled Q&A like no one else. He always took the questions all at once—never one at a time. Audience members would ask 10 or more questions, one-by-one. He would listen intently, nod, sometimes ask for a point of clarity. And then he would point to the next raised hand, but he took no written notes. This gathering of verbal questions rolled along patiently, for 5 minutes or longer sometimes. Quite an air of anticipation built-up in the hall; something quite wonderful was about to be constructed before our astonished ears. And then, he would launch into a fluent, cohesive discourse that ran some 45 minutes, visiting each of the questions, in whatever order the unfolding logic required. He modeled for us how to think, how to ask questions, and how to bridge the moral and metaphysical, the philosophical and psychological. And he displayed a capacity of memory that appeared superhuman, and effortless. It certainly fanned to flame within me a desire for a more cohesive mental life – I sheepishly felt like chopped liver between the ears, by comparison.

The following school year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a friend, a different one, insisted that I had to attend a political science lecture with him. I agreed and – to my surprise – here was the Indian gentleman who occasionally spoke at ULT! And now I attached a name to him, Professor Raghavan Iyer. The lecture hall must have had 300 undergraduates, and here again was on display his focus, erudition, and effortless fluidity. But his language was specialized to the subject at hand, and more suited to young people. Still, it was extremely challenging to keep up with him during a 40-minute lecture, his broad palette of references, his weaving together the classics with the concerns of existential psychology, his cultural critiques and his amusing observations about American students. At the close of the class, the hall erupted with applause. Applause? How extraordinary! But you couldn’t help showing some form of appreciation after what had been given. Raghavan always seemed indifferent to the applause, cheerfully getting on with whatever was next – a few words with his teaching assistants perhaps, and then out the door, pipe in mouth.

In the Spring of 1982, I attended the introductory lecture for Raghavan’s “Politics and Literature” class. He delivered an enticing, kindly, compassionate pitch for the value of literature. He surveyed what was to be covered in the next ten weeks and the logic of the sequence (all without glancing at a printed syllabus). But more, he displayed such respect for the works, and convinced us that there was no greater privilege and occupation than to spend Spring reading Ursula Le Guin, Aldous Huxley, Dostoyevsky and Sophocles. And he was not falsely positive – his respect came from knowledge. I loved his integrity and enthusiasm. I was sold!

My feet, almost against my will, walked me to the front of the classroom after the lecture. I wanted to offer my personal thanks and joyful anticipation for what lay ahead. I stood and waited. Eventually he turned from another student to me, with a smile. I managed to choke out my message.

“Very good. And you’ll give a summary?” he instantly replied. His manner of speaking had a way of shooting right through you. I was back on my heels.

I need to mention here a word about the format of his classes. He always began with two students giving summaries  – “seven minutes each,” he would say – of the reading assignment, before he lectured. I had not thought of giving a summary. The prospect of speaking before hundreds of fellow students was frightening, to say the least.

“Ah . . . well . . . maybe, sometime,” I stammered.

“Oh, okay, sometime. But not Thursday?”

Thursday?! Today was Tuesday. The Thursday assignment was Sophocles play, Antigone. What? Was he asking me to spearhead the whole class? I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. Looking back now, I was getting a hard lesson about this extraordinary leader who moved in so many spheres – that there was almost no such thing as a simple inconsequential exchange with him. Everything led somewhere else. The moment mattered – Carpe diem or don’t bother to approach! Raghavan was ease and lightning at one and the same time. But now I was cornered, and I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know what to say.

“Uh . . . this Thursday? Um, I don’t think so.”

“Oh, not Thursday? I understand. But you see, it would not be difficult. You might just say a few words about the concept of law, and contrast Creon’s and Antigone’s positions.” He asked me my name.

“You see, Joe, we need an ice-breaker. The students are always timid to begin, but once someone shows courage and steps forward, then the others are not frightened.”

“Well . . .” I now found myself conceding (while another part stood in the wings, waving No! Stop!) “I did read Antigone in high school.”

“So, you’ll do it?” He beamed. It was irresistible. He needed help. He wanted my help.

“I’ll try.”

“No, you mustn’t say you’ll try. You must be here and you must do it if you agree.” Kind but firm. I could suddenly feel new fibers sprouting down my spine.

“Ok, yes, I’ll do it.”

“Very good.” A customary affirmative from him. Always a benediction. He turned away smiling, and I left the classroom wondering what had just happened.

It was a leap like no other. But it felt, too, like such an honor. So, on April Fool’s day (Did he know that when he recruited me?) I stood before several hundred students and stammered my way through my notes. And so began a Spring like no other. How I looked forward – lived really – for those classes! I was a pupa; I could feel wings growing. Anything was possible.

In 1983 Raghavan published a 600-page anthology entitled, The Jewel in the Lotus. “A comprehensive collection of chants, invocations and intimations from the world’s religions and mystical traditions.” The breadth of the book is astonishing. Near East, Far East, Native American, European poets and writers, English poets, Greek and Roman classics, Christian mystics, Sufi, Kabbalistic, Neo-Platonic, and, of course, Theosophical writers. The book was published with a guide for daily use through the calendar year, and I used it religiously for many years, to great benefit.

But I mention the book for another reason. It illustrates the view of Theosophy that I learned from Raghavan Iyer; not merely a belief system of doctrines; not a self-regarding, self-preening sect; not an elect perch from which to evaluate and pass judgments on other (always inferior) belief systems. Theosophy is, in fact, a light that makes other things more visible, more intelligible, more connected, more kin and more kind. A light is evaluated not by staring at the bulb, but by turning it to objects in the dark. A camera that produced picture after picture only of itself would be useless; but a good camera puts you in such vivid contact with images of mountains or stars or architectural wonders that you forget the camera altogether.

The United Lodge of Theosophists Declaration ends, “The true Theosophist belongs to no cult or sect yet belongs to each and all.” I rather like this notion of theosophy, not as a special sect, anxious for converts; but as a selfless light that feels and expresses kinship with many forms of worship and philosophy. I like to think of theosophists not insulating themselves from others. I like to think that the friendship of a theosophist – with a Baptist, a Catholic, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, an atheist, etc. – is not to shake that person’s faith, but rather to help them better walk their particular path, and more deeply embrace, perhaps reform, their own tradition. Who better than a theosophist to argue the spiritual logic – by living it – that the faith of another takes nothing from me, but rather enhances me because it enhances the whole?

Who better than a theosophist to exhibit the confidence to be a brother?



A Magus Teacher

Shri Raghavan Iyer was a Magus Teacher of Humanity and lifelong Theosophist. He possessed the subtle graces of the Hindu, with the daring and generosity of the American on the “open road”. He was a brilliant professor and teacher at Oxford University, England and UCSB in California, a prolific writer, a Socratic questioner — incisive with getting to essentials yet with a very engaging, warm wit. He appreciated the global condition, consulting with policymakers such as those of the Club of Rome who wrote on the “Limits to Growth”. He wrote Novus Ordo Seclorum, an ode to lifelong learning in the year 2000 in response to U.S. President Carter’s request. He hosted his friend the Dalai Lama and gave the Prime Minister’s talk in 1989 in India on Mahatma Gandhi on whom he wrote several books.

He was a compassionator of humanity. He approached people the way they approached him. I was with him when he would sit and talk (“Vaya con Dios”) with Latino working men, or chat with a group of Christian nuns. He met an alcoholic who spontaneously gave Shri Raghavan his Bible. He invoked healing mantrams at the very flashpoint of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Yet he would also honor his students’ birthdays, give a word of kindness, help a student find a job. Very memorably, he would play a variety of Indian bhajans and ragas or American jazz such as Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.”

Shri Raghavan gave us inspiration and optimism. He was loyal to the teachings of H.P. Blavatsky and gave talks such as “Universality and Sectarianism” in Canada to Theosophists of all stripes. He always vivified the most sublime teachings and evoked regenerative thoughts uplifting us all. However, he was much more than any of these roles, for one can intuit that his radiant, omnidirectional presence, thought, and self-defined action was in the world but its source was not of it.



Universality and Inclusivity

My memory of Raghavan Iyer is of a man incredibly alive. The first time I heard him speak was at a lecture he gave at the Claremont Colleges where he spoke on Gandhi. He was profound, optimistic and quickening. Later when I would hear him in Santa Barbara at the United Lodge of Theosophists, I found him to be superbly capable of transmitting vital theosophy in original and interesting ways. He could compose perfect speech through the act of meditation on a theme, which occurred right before you. This is surely why his talks and answers to questions could be so readily edited into instructive and soul awakening lead articles for his journal Hermes. At all times his emphasis was on universality and inclusivity, and never on tribalism or sectarianism, especially in the arena of Theosophy.

One thing he was particularly adept at was the cultivation of other students around him. He understood that spirituality was not just the expansion of metaphysical perspective through study of theosophical teachings, but also the development of the will in the service of humanity. He encouraged people to ask questions, to give talks, to participate in projects and efforts that they previously had not thought they were capable of. I think it was his example of effortless but penetrating concentration and his joyous buoyancy that helped so many, including myself, to rise to their best capabilities. He showed me that I too could meditate and how I could begin to function from above below and from within without. That is no small help he gave me, and so many others.


Raghavan Iyer

-a eulogy from The Times (London), June 24, 1995

Raghavan Iyer was one of those thinkers who helped to transcend all notions of East and West, or ancient and modern, and who explained to the rest of us how the ideas and ideals of one tradition could be used to inspire another. Born in the last days of British India, and coming of age just as his country was gaining her independence (in the first year of independence, 1948, at the age of 18 he began teaching at the University of Bombay), he won India’s Rhodes Scholarship in 1950 and enjoyed the kind of Oxford career that many a classical Englishman would envy: President of the Union, a memorable First in P.P.E. at Magdalen, a marriage to a kindred spirit from Bombay (who also gained a first in P.P.E. at Oxford) and then a Fellowship in Political Philosophy at St. Antony’s College. In one recent memoir, by Ved Mehta, lyer and his wife Nandini were described as a kind of paradigm for students of the time, “so strikingly handsome that they could have passed for movie idols” and the beneficiaries of “some kind of perfection in their lives and their marriage.”

Yet through all this, lyer never lost his commitment to the heritage and the values that had nurtured him, nor his determination to make them visible, and viable, in the West: he left Oxford for a while to work in the Indian Planning Commission in Delhi; hé edited his first book, The Glass Curtain, on the need for exploding false distinctions between Asia and Europe; and perhaps his greatest labour of love was his book on The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Drawing upon an uncommon command of the histories, philosophies and literatures of many different worlds, he placed the Indian visionary in the context of Plato and Kant, Buddha and Christ, and linked traditions so seamlessly that they seemed not to clash but to conspire.

Raghavan Iyer was a famously electric speaker who could, it seemed, pursue any public career he wanted. But he chose to devote more and more of his energy to his spiritual interests – Theosophy and the unity of religions – and, throughout the 21 years he spent teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, after leaving Oxford, he worked to find a way of pursuing idealism without ideology and transforming the lives of the young. He still roamed around the globe, lecturing and consulting for bodies like the Club of Rome, but the soul of his enterprise was the envisioning of a new universal order in which the highest ideas could be as day-to-day realities. “To achieve the impossible,” he loved to quote Unamuno, “attempt the absurd.” Only a few years ago, Iyer brought out a three-volume edition of Gandhi’s writing, and in this, as in everything he did, he managed to make belief seem reasonable, and a life of principle not only exciting but plausible. By the time of his death last week, it seemed that the world was beginning at last to catch up with his hopes for the 21st century of a world without borders, and a new kind of City of Man.