Theosophy and the Theosophical Society
Keywords: Theosophy, the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, Spiritualism, esotericism, divine wisdom, universal brotherhood of humanity, Brotherhood of the White Lodge, Mahatmas, the Secret Doctrine
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in the fall of 1875. The two founded the Society upon the belief that a Brotherhood of Divine Men has held and will hold for all time a Secret Doctrine, from which all regions spawned. They created the society to research ancient wisdom, which the co-founders believed could illuminate the Secret Doctrine. At first it focused on the study of ancient Western occultism, but gradually came to embrace ideas more conducive to the spiritual and religious systems of the East. The Society promoted as essential a unity of science, religion, and philosophy.
The ultimate goal of Theosophy is to attain the divine wisdom of the Masters (members of the Brotherhood) through self-discipline and meditation, knowledge that one accrues increasingly over innumerable reincarnated life cycles. Theosophists believe this is the meaning and purpose of life: to arrive at spiritual and moral perfection through self-control, strength of will, and meditation. Theosophy teaches that the confirmation of the spiritual consciousness is as definite and tangible as that of the mental and sensory world. Once a Theosophist achieves enlightenment, reincarnation will end, and the spirit will become a member of the Brotherhood of the White Lodge, which oversees, protects, and controls both the Divine Wisdom and the evolution of humanity.
The goals of the Theosophical Movement are threefold:
1. To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
2. The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies, and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study.
3. The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man (Cranston, 146-147).
Principally, Theosophy seeks a direct knowledge of God. The system instructs in a distinct and comprehensible manner the methods of developing ways to attain this knowledge by revealing the spiritual consciousness and developing the faculties through which that consciousness can operate. The chief means to do so are the intense study of the writings of a major founder of the movement, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and especially rigorous self-discipline and deep meditation (Besant, 12). Theosophy preaches that man can never be human in the most complete and essential sense, nor can he realize to the fullest extent his potential as a ‘divine’ being, without advancing as close as possible towards the essential “nature and destiny of the human being as revealed through knowledge of the supersensible world (Steiner, 18).” Theosophists believe staunchly in the divine nature of human life as offspring of the Logos (Demiurgos, Creator, God). Thus the major goal of the Theosophist is to acquire wisdom that surpasses the world of sensory perception (Steiner).
Secondly, Theosophy identifies and extrapolates eternal truths common to all religions. Theosophy attempts to expose the pervading and universal themes prominent throughout the religions of all time, and to introduce them as one “Wisdom-Religion” or the “Universal Religion,” the supposed source from which all religions emerged (Besant, 12). Shortly after its foundation in 1875, the Theosophical Society established a headquarters in New York City, London, and India. It became a widespread phenomenon in Russia. Theosophy was widely and wildly popular among the educated middle classes around the early twentieth century.
III. Authority Structure
a. Sources and Criteria of Valid Knowledge
Theosophy claims that, although all religions both ancient and modern are markedly different and seemingly antagonistic, they relate to one another in core essence (Besant, 13). The movement identifies positive connections and parallels in this manner and it asserts therefore that all religions are the offspring of the same entity, which the founders termed the Secret Doctrine, or the Mystery Wisdom (Carlson, 30). The protectors of the Mystery Wisdom, who also control the spiritual and physical evolution of humanity, the founders dubbed the “Brotherhood of the White Lodge” (Carslon, 31). This Brotherhood supposedly dispatches to the human world a member of its order every now and again to establish a new religion or to impart divine knowledge that—although unique in configuration, ceremonies, and rituals in order to be conducive to the respective period and peoples—nonetheless embodies the same essential truths as those preceding it. Theosophy cites Zarathustra, Vyāsa, Manu, Christ, and the Buddha as examples of these messengers of wisdom and truth (Besant, 15).
Critics slander and debunk the movement because they feel that by claiming a common origin for all religions the movement undermines credibility and faith in them. But Theosophists retort and dispel this argument with the declaration that the movement is rather a gallant protector of the very institution of religion itself and its various manifestations (Besant, 17). Their explanation is as follows:
During the 1870’s, the early days of Theosophy, the age-old issue concerning the integration of science and religion reemerged. Charles Darwin propounded his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1859, which was in direct contradiction to religious creation stories; by 1861, his theory was gaining momentum and acceptance throughout Europe. Paleontologists discovered bones of prehistoric creatures in the early nineteenth century, thus empirically proving life existed before man (Campbell, 17). Archaeologists and antiquarians were unearthing ancient cities, tombs, manuscripts, and temples that shocked the religious world with evidence that all religions and mythologies seemed to have a universality and singularity of origin (Besant, 14). These discoveries sent a shockwave through the religious community. The weeds of fear and doubt began to creep into the previously healthy and blooming garden of faith and religious consciousness. Many became skeptical and lost hope of the possibility of attaining eternal life. This led the way for the roots of agnosticism to implant themselves into minds. Faith seemed doomed to wither away.
But then a ray of hope to dispel this veritable “eclipse of faith” appeared with the dawn of the Theosophical Society in 1875. The Society supported and revived religions through its logical revelation that all religions were different and vital branches of the same tree (Besant, 14). Furthermore, the Society insisted that this proposition, which was supported by archaeological discoveries and historical evidence, in no way diminished the authenticity of any religion; rather, it reaffirmed each religion’s individual greatness and the complementary spirituality of them all. Blavatsky’s masterwork, The Secret Doctrine, became the sacred scripture of Theosophy; it infused and incorporated religion, science, and philosophy into one system with the insistence that they are all integral parts of one whole (Cranston, 458).
b. Methods of Inquiry
Gaining a direct knowledge of God is the utmost goal of Theosophy. But Theosophy makes a clear distinction between two types of knowledge. The mundane, earthly, or “lower” form one can learn through instruction; but the supreme, transcendent, or “higher” knowledge one can only discover through personal experience. Academia can show one the door that leads to the world of divine wisdom, but the student of Theosophy can only independently unlock and pass through that doorway. The lower knowledge is a stepping-stone—albeit an essential one—on the journey to divine knowledge; it is a means to an end. The end itself one can only reach through intensive meditation and a rigorous discipline of life. But it is essential that one remembers, “in truth, all reality is one; since the lower reality and the higher, spiritual reality are merely two sides of one and the same fundamental unity of being, a person who is ignorant with regard to the lower knowledge will probably remain similarly ignorant of higher things (Steiner, 17).”
There is an esoteric feature of every world religion; that is, in every religion there is a supreme form of knowledge that can be attained and understood only by a small, inner circle of specially initiated. One grasps this esoteric knowledge only through insight and intuition. This esoteric knowledge is supreme, only available to those who lead a life of self-discipline and meditation. Although it is not intentionally entombed and obscured from view, this form of knowledge cannot be instructed or communicated conventionally. One must develop a certain state of consciousness through outstretching and unveiling the faculty to do so. Theosophists believe this faculty exists inherently in all humans, yet is hidden and undeveloped because evolution has not fully run its course to disclose this power to humanity (Besant, 11). “Only that which has been experienced in consciousness can be known to consciousness (Besant, 11).”
The opposite is the exoteric side (the lower knowledge) of a faith, which can be seen, transmitted, and learned through reason and study: books, lectures, conversations, and authorities on Theosophy. The sacred ‘scriptures’ in which one can obtain the lower knowledge are Madame Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled. The former work is expressly indispensable because its author claimed to have been under the influence of the ancient Masters of the Brotherhood, writing the work through her as a medium. Blavatsky asserted this work was, as the name indicates, the ancient canon and source for all religions of the world (the Secret Doctrine) that had been obscured and lost through the ages.
Theosophy makes certain scientific claims that have the support of eminent scientists. Chemist and biophysicist Dr. Lovelock propounded the Gaia Hypothesis, which regards the earth as a living being, arguing that the biosphere regulates itself perfectly for life to exist. As Blavatsky states in The Secret Doctrine:
Science, it is true, contents itself with tracing or postulating the signs of universal life, and has not yet been bold enough even to whisper ‘Anima Mundi!’ (The Living World)… It hardly seems possible that science can disguise itself much longer, by the mere use of terms such as ‘force’ and ‘energy,’ the fact that things have life and are living things, whether they be atoms or planets (1:49).
Brian Josephson, a Nobel Prize winner in science and a Cambridge physics professor, seems to agree with HPB regarding matter as alive.
There may be elements of intelligence in every atom of matter and, like the world’s biological forms; it may undergo evolution toward even higher levels… Similarly, there appears to be a mysterious wholeness or unity to all matter that scientists can’t explain, but which is frequently described in Eastern religions (Cranston, 457).
As mentioned earlier, a pervading theme in The Secret Doctrine is the integration of religion, science, and philosophy. Albert Einstein concurs, insisting they are inseparable from one another.
The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science…. I maintain that cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research (Cranston, 458).
c. Institutions and Professional Structure
Theosophy teaches that the true founders of the Society were not Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, but rather extraordinary humans called Mahatmas, or Masters. Believed to be greatly evolved men, their home is supposedly hidden from the world in the mountains of Tibet. Other names by which they are referred include Masters of Wisdom, Adepts, Masters of Compassion, and the Elder Brothers. According to the Movement, the Adept “towers above the rest of humanity, for he has already attained the summit of ordinary human evolution” (Campbell, 54). This end is the ideal goal of members of the Movement. As Blavatsky put it, a Mahatma is:
A personage who, by special training and education, has evolved those higher faculties and has attained that spiritual knowledge which ordinary humanity will acquire after passing through numberless series of incarnations during the process of cosmic evolution (Campbell, 54).
They comprise the Great White Brotherhood or Great White Lodge (the Brotherhood of Divine Men), who safeguard the verities of eternal wisdom. The Masters have accumulated this wisdom over eons of experience and assessment to guide humanity’s maturation and evolution (Campbell, 53).
Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus are considered the “mighty triad” of Masters. Other Mahatmas include Laotze, Boehme, Solomon, Cagliostro, Moses, Abraham, and Mesmer (of Mesmerism, or Hypnosis, fame). The Mahatmas are the authorities on Theosophy, and Theosophists learn all through them (Campbell, 54). As the culmination of human development, the Adepts become incarnate in human bodies to serve as the intermediary between human and superhuman beings. Blavatsky proclaimed they were the true authors of her major Theosophical works, for they transmitted thoughts to her and instilled her with the wisdom (Campbell, 55). If one proves himself worthy through perfect purity, chastity, asceticism, selflessness and love, he is a candidate for apprenticeship, also given the name discipleship or chelaship (Campbell, 55).
The word ‘theosophy’ stems from two Greek words: Theos, God; Sophia, Wisdom. Thus it literally means Divine Wisdom or God-Wisdom. History credits neo-Platonist Ammonius Saccas (c. 160-240) with coinage of the term, and the word has persisted thereafter in the history of western religion (Carlson, 28). The word materialized in its current form in America and Europe in 1875, when the Theosophical Society was founded.
The Theosophical Society was the creation of two dissimilar individuals: the enigmatic and mystifying Russian lady Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), and the industrious and sensible American lawyer Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) (Campbell, 2). Their paths crossed fatefully in 1874, one year prior to founding the Society (Carlson, 29).
The ideal of womanhood exhibited by Blavatsky’s grandmother and mother was one of nonconformity to women’s social conventions, the free will to mold life to one’s fascinations, and the necessity for independence. These figures that Helena idolized immensely would prove the compelling and vital sources to her personality. Much evidence abounds concerning her childhood belief in paranormal and spiritual friends, as well as her charismatic and demagogic nature. She was known to weave intricate and captivating tales to a spellbound audience of peers. Her charisma and free spirit would prove especially important later in life (Campbell, 2-3). At seventeen it was arranged that she marry Nikifor Blavatsky, vice-governor of an Armenian province; but she abandoned him shortly thereafter, opting instead for a life of travel and adventure throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America. During this Nomadic period, she became enthralled with spiritualism, the belief and practice of communicating with spirits of the dead via a medium (i.e. spirits would supposedly table-knock or induce trances) (Campbell, 4). In addition, her obsessions included psychic phenomena and esotericism, the latter of which denotes that which relates to knowledge intended only for and comprehended only by the specifically initiated (Campbell, 4). Her lifestyle in this early period bordered on the Bohemian: she lived for a time similar to a vagabond and gypsy, and there is evidence she indulged periodically in smoking hashish (Campbell, 5). In July 1873, nearing age forty-two she moved to New York City.
The life of Henry Steel Olcott before meeting Blavatsky was markedly different from that of her in nearly every respect. He was born into a rigid Presbyterian New Jersey home in 1832. A diligent and quick-witted boy, he enrolled in New York University at the age of fifteen. However, this education ended prematurely after only a year as a result of his father’s financial troubles, and he moved to Ohio near to learn farming from his relatives. Later in life he would credit these relatives with his introduction to spiritualism. Two years during the late 1850’s he served the New York Tribune as associate agricultural editor. During the United States Civil War Olcott served the Union army, during which he was made a colonel (a designation he included in his name for the remainder of his life). In 1868 the Colonel gained admission to the New York State Bar; the thirty-something lawyer managed to erect for himself a prominent and successful practice (Campbell, 7). Later he would refer unhappily to this stage in his life as a period of “clubs, drinking parties, mistresses (for he was married with children), a man absorbed in all sorts of worldly public and private undertakings” (Campbell, 8). But his introduction to Madame Blavatsky was destined to fill this void of his life with meaning and objective in the task of helping others who felt spiritually demoralized as he had.
Spiritualism, a loosely structured that in a distinctive method melded American ideas with Western occultism, was in a period of renewal during the 1870’s. Popular among religious people who were uncomfortable in organized and firmly rooted religious systems Spiritualism was the force that united these two founders of the Theosophical Society (Campbell, 20). Blavatsky especially enamored the Colonel, and he was convinced immediately of her extraordinary psychic and spiritual powers. The resolute departure of the “Theosophical Twins”—as Olcott referred to her and himself—from spiritualism was March 9, 1875, when the Colonel was the recipient of a strange letter that invited him as “Brother Neophyte” to be an occult disciple of Tuitit Bey, the Grand Master of the mystical Brotherhood of Luxor (presumably a subunit of the Brotherhood of the White Lodge) (Campbell, 23-24). This was merely the beginning of what would be much correspondence between Master and apprentice. Curiously, the letters often collaborated with the contemporary concerns of Blavatsky. Essentially, the messages communicated to Olcott that he should join Blavatsky, and the Brotherhood would lead them to the “Golden Gate of Truth” (Campbell, 24).
The movement flourished in India with a new headquarters erected in India in 1881. But after a few successful years there, Blavatsky’s critics—for just as she had many disciples, critics abounded as well—first attacked her and then convicted her in a court of law, claiming she had fraudulently produced much of her miraculous phenomena. At this time in 1885 she departed for England. She and Olcott fell out of favor with one another over the next few years (Campbell, 96). This was a complex, deep-seated rift that had been brewing for years. In general, they scuffled over the issue of power equilibrium between the executive figure and the other leaders. A number of the members in India complained that the Colonel wielded too much authority. The clash was fueled by the diametrically opposite figure of authority each represented: Olcott’s official authority (President) versus Blavatsky’s charismatic authority (Campbell, 96). Finally, the quarrel intensified over the disagreement between established organization and mysticism. “Mysticism is an individualized turning away from institutionalized religion in favor of religious experience outside established forms (Campbell, 97). Blavatsky desired for the Society to take this route, whereas Olcott hoped to establish better religious organization.
After the death of Blavatsky in 1891, the Theosophical Society shattered into various pieces owing to these administrative, moral, political, and doctrinal differences (Carslon, 60). At this point the emphasis of the Society shifted from Blavatsky’s seemingly miraculous, although intensely controversial, miracles toward a focus of her chef-d’óeuvre, The Secret Doctrine. The Society fell increasingly into the hands of Mrs. Annie Besant, who had a “paradoxically sober, bourgeois approach to occult knowledge” in comparison with Blavatsky (Carslon, 53).
V. Representative Examples of Argumentation
The Theosophical Society considers one of its main duties to reinforce and preserve the various faiths of the world in the face of the scientific and anthropological community, which through empirical evidence debunk their ancient scriptures and venerated traditions. But the Society asserts the religions of the world must unite on a common front and acknowledge themselves as the progeny, the Brotherhood of Divine Wisdom, of one all-encompassing ancestor, the Secret Doctrine. Theosophy recognizes and commends each religion for its significant donations and services that have collectively enriched the powers striving towards the evolution of the human race.
Hindūism proclaims the One Immanent Life in everything, and hence the solidarity of all, the duty of each to each, enshrined in the untranslatable word Dharma. Zoroastrianism strikes the note of Purity—purity of surroundings, of body, of mind. Hebraism sounds out Righteousness. Egypt makes Science its word of power. Buddhism asserts Right Knowledge. Greece breathes of Beauty. Rome tells of law. Christianity teaches the value of the Individual and exalts Self-Sacrifice. Islām peals out the Unity of God. Surely the world is the richer for each, and we cannot spare one jewel from our chaplet of the world’s religions (Besant, 17).
Theosophy embraces the profound unity that exists among such a colorful and rich diversity as the product of a master design of spiritual and physical evolution.
Researcher and author Rudolph Steiner, at one time an ardent and influential Theosophical leader and later founder of the offshoot movement Anthroposophy (the wisdom of man), confirms that proof of the supreme wisdom is wholly unnecessary; he explains that nobody who has achieved a supersensible perception of reality needs to prove it. “Those who have grasped something of this hidden wisdom are as secure in their possession of it as people with normal eyes are in their ability to visualize color; thus, they need no ‘proof’ of it (Steiner, 14-15).” One who requires proof of existence of the higher worlds in order to take it seriously will never experience them.
If, on principle, we admit the existence of higher worlds only once we have seen them for ourselves, this in itself is an obstacle to ever being able to see them, but being determined to use sound thinking to understand first what we will later be able to observe actually fosters this seeing. It summons up important forces of the soul that lead to this seership (Steiner, 19).”
He expounds that the supreme wisdom is available to any “individuals who allow open, unbiased thinking and an unhampered, independent feeling for the truth to work freely within them (Steiner, 17).”
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky offers personal experience to prove the validity of the system through her insistence that the Masters used her as a medium through which to transmit the Secret Doctrine (in her work The Secret Doctrine). A passage from that work describes the “tremendous occult power” of sound: “Sound may be produced of such a nature that the pyramid of Cheops would be raised in the air, or that a dying man, nay, one at his last breath would be revived and filled with new energy and vigor (Blavatsky, I: 555).” She writes further that her own life was spared three times in this manner. Author Sylvia Cranston describes one of these instances while Blavatsky was in Ostend, Belgium early in 1887. Ten days prior to departing for London in order to “prop up” the London Lodge of the Society, she became unconscious while seated in a chair (Cranston, 320). After this occurred several times successively, a Belgian doctor identified life-threatening failure of the kidneys. Those present arranged for the American consul and a lawyer to come the following day in order to draw up a will and transport the body to America. The woman on watch that night smelled the “faint odor of death that sometimes precedes dissolution (Cranston, 320).” When the doctor, lawyer, and consul appeared early the next morning, they were mystified to discover Blavatsky was alive and well. She explained that during the night the Masters offered her a choice: “to die and take the easy way out, or to go on with the work at the risk of facing even greater difficulties than those hitherto encountered (Cranston, 321).” The doctor was in disbelief, only able to utter, “But she should be dead, …she should be dead (Cranston, 321).” The doctor had never heard of a situation in which someone had recovered from such a state. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) corroborated Blavasky’s claim in The Secret Doctrine that intense volume of sound can cause objects to levitate. Since August 1979, NASA has studied such a phenomenon and published its reports in over twenty technical papers, such as “Stabilized Acoustic Levitation of Dense Materials Using High-Powered Siren (Cranston, 321-322).”
a. traditional authority (1) ---- testimony of experience (10): 5
Theosophy bases its doctrine largely upon the testimony of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled. Furthermore, the divine wisdom for which every Theosophist strives, once he/she learns the lower knowledge through those books, is achieved only independently and experienced personally. However, the secondary goal of Theosophy is the extrapolation of the same eternal truths found in every religion, which one can discover through research and study of traditional authorities on the great religions of the world. The all-encompassing and eternal “Wisdom Religion” that The Secret Doctrine teaches is the traditional authority upon which all religion was founded, according to Theosophy.
b. centralization of authority (1) ---- decentralization of authority (10): 8
Although an international president oversees the Society, there are many Lodges and sectors of the group throughout the world (i.e. Great Britain, Ireland, America, India, Russia); therefore, a body of officers presides over each local and regional group or Lodge. During Colonel Olcott’s presidency, the Society was much more centralized, but over time it was inevitable and indeed prudent to decentralize authority.
c. the invisible realm (1) ---- visible realities (10): 1
The ultimate goal of Theosophy, like many Eastern religions, is attainment of spiritual perfection, and therefore the system focuses on the supersensible, intangible world.
d. spiritual/moral goal (1) ---- pragmatic objectives (10): 1
The search for divine wisdom, or spiritual perfection, is a wholly spiritual and moral goal.
e. primarily divine power (1) ---- individual power (10): 9
Although Theosophy acknowledges a Demiurge, or Creator, the Movement roots itself firmly in the belief that humankind can reach the divine wisdom of the Demiurge, and thus it asserts that through will power, self-discipline, and meditation, one can achieve divine, or godly, wisdom.
Besant, Annie. Theosophy. New York: Dodge Publishing Company.
This work by Blavatsky’s ‘successor’ contributed greatly to my understanding of Theosophy and the Society. The book was an invaluable source because it shed light on the direction the movement took after Olcott and Blavatsky. I discovered that the Movement shifted from focus on Blavatsky to that of her great work, The Secret Doctrine. I used this work to expound upon the Movement as it grew out from under the mysterious, controversial shadow of Blavatsky. This wonderful work taught me the most about Theosophy.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine. Pasadena, CA: Theosophical
University Press, 1888.
This is the sacred scripture of the Theosophical Society. It served very useful in explaining the true essence of Theosophy, despite some seeming contradictions. The work provides interesting and sometimes accurate, yet generalized, prophesies of the future: asserts that sound emitted at high frequencies can cause objects to levitate, which was confirmed scientifically by NASA in 1979. There were great examples within concerning how Theosophy, on some levels, holds scientific beliefs that the scientific community corroborates. She propounds that science and religion are inseparable, and convinces one why.
Steiner, Rudolf. Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life
and in the Cosmos. Transl. Catherine E. Creeger. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1910.
This source was fascinating in that the author, an avid Theosophist at one time, attempted to help the reader along the path towards spiritual enlightenment. Steiner, an eminent and prolific Austrian philosophical, literary, and scientific scholar, provided a scholarly approach to attainment of the divine wisdom.
Campbell, Bruce F. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical
Movement. Berkely and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1980.
This provided excellent historical information of both the Movement and its co-founders. It also details how and why the Movement evolved out of spiritualism.
Carlson, Maria. No Religion Higher Than Truth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
This was a great source for disclosing the transition the Movement underwent after the death of Blavatsky. The work also went into much detail concerning the history of the movement in Russia.
Cranston, Sylivia. HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky,
Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. Los Angeles and New York:
Jeremy P. Tarcher/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993.
This was an important source that clarified much of Blavatsky’s murky past. If ever there was any matter concerning her life or the Movement of which I was uncertain or confused, I turned to this voluminous, thorough work.
 This is also the name of Blavatsky’s masterwork, the sacred scripture of the movement, The Secret Doctrine. It is thus named because Blavatsky asserts the ancient Mahatmas transmitted through her the actual Secret Doctrine that illuminates the origin of all religions.