Freemasonry is
British India

Freemasonry as we know it originated in the British Isles in the 18th century. From there, it quickly spread to Europe and beyond, especially to all parts of the British Empire.

Given its stated commitment to universality, one could imagine that non-European men would be welcome in the lodges that were established in these newly accessed parts of the world. Sadly, that was not always the case – and India is a typical example.

The first lodge chartered in India was Lodge No 72 at Bengal in 1728. That was just 11 years after the first Grand Lodge at London’s 1717 founding, and just five years after that same Grand Lodge had declared that Freemasonry would accept all men regardless of their religious affiliation in these words:

Concerning GOD and RELIGION
A Mason is oblig’d by his Tenure, to obey the moral Law; and if he rightly understands the Art, he will never be a stupid Atheist, nor an irreligious Libertine. But though in ancient Times Masons were charg’d in every Country to be of the Religion of that Country or Nation, whatever it was, yet ’tis now thought more expedient only to oblige them to that Religion in which all Men agree, leaving their particular Opinions to themselves; that is, to be good Men and true, or Men of Honour and Honesty, by whatever Denominations or Persuasions they may be distinguish’d; whereby Masonry becomes the Center of Union, and the Means of conciliating true Friendship among Persons that must else have remain’d at a perpetual Distance.

Bro Manockjee CursetjeeBro Manockjee CursetjeeUnfortunately, this ideal did not easily translate to lodges across the British Empire, especially to India.

Despite the fact that a few members of the Indian aristocracy became masons, most Indians were barred from masonic membership. Some of the discrimination was undoubtedly based on race and nationality as much as religion, but membership denials based upon religious differences did exist.

One celebrated case involved a native of India named Manockjee Cursetjee, who was repeatedly rejected by English-speaking lodges in India. Even after he finally became a mason in Paris, he was unable to join a local lodge in India. In 1843, Cursetjee’s plight came to the attention of Bro Burnes, provincial grand master of the Indian lodges under the Grand Lodge of Scotland. He set about creating a lodge for native Indian masons – the Star of Western India No 343 – on the register of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. From this beginning, Freemasonry gradually spread to the native Indian classes.

There was, however, one more hurdle to overcome before the universality of Freemasonry could be truly realized in this new context. Unlike many native Indians, Cursetjee was a Parsee (as we would spell this today, a Parsi). The Parsi were descendants of Iranian Zoroastrians who fled to India beginning in the 8th century to avoid religious persecution. Zoroastrianism was a monotheistic religion, so no questions arose regarding Cursetjee’s religious qualification for becoming a mason. But what about polytheistic Hindus, or Buddhists who did not ascribe to a human-divine relationship. Were they eligible to become masons?

Bro Joseph Rudyard KiplingBro Joseph Rudyard KiplingThese pivotal questions were eventually resolved by acknowledging that religion is personal to each individual mason, and that he must decide for himself how his own religious beliefs align with the masonic requirement of a belief in a Supreme Being. For example, if someone followed an outwardly polytheistic religion, but believed that a Supreme Being was behind the outward forms of his religion, he had satisfied the masonic requirement. After all, Christians believed in the Holy Trinity, but acknowledged that it was an expression of the ‘oneness’ of God, or a singular God expressed as three entities. Other religions had to be allowed a similar approach.

This new open-mindedness led to the praise of Freemasonry’s universality by the celebrated author and poet, Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was born in India in 1865, and in 1886 was made a mason in the Lodge of Hope and Perseverance No 782 in Lahore. (At that time, Lahore was in India; today, it is in Pakistan.) Kipling later famously said that he was initiated an Entered Apprentice Mason by a Hindu, passed to the Fellow Craft degree by a Muslim, and raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason by a Christian. He also noted that his lodge had a Jewish-Indian tyler. Kipling’s diverse experience would not have been possible without Burnes’ courage to apply the principles of Freemasonry to the society in which he lived.

Allowing each man to be individually responsible for aligning his religious beliefs with Freemasonry was a major breakthrough – and it directly resulted from its spread to foreign countries. Masons gained a new understanding of the old masonic expression, ‘That I might travel in foreign countries, work and receive Master Mason wages!’

As a centuries-old organization, it can sometimes take a while for Freemasonry to evolve in order to fully align with the implications of its principles, but with time, it always does so. Freemasonry is truly universal. But it sometimes takes courageous masons to call its biases to attention.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, September 2018, pages 12 and 13.

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