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Theosophical Society

Theosophical Society

The major modern organization advocating gnostic-esoteric teachings. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, and others. It grew out of interest in the occult generated previously by the magnetist movement and especially Spiritualism, in which both Blavatsky and Olcott had participated. The society proposed a different direction, including attention to a distinct philosophical stance drawn from Eastern teachings.

Both Blavatsky and Olcott were closely concerned with Spiritualist investigations, and they met at the house of the Eddy brothers in Vermont. They were also concerned in the claimed phenomena of the mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes of Philadelphia, who were accused of cheating. The Holmes partnership involved the alleged manifestation of the spirits "Katie King" and "John King," associated with the British medium Florence Cook. Blavatsky eventually disowned the Holmes phenomena, but endorsed the reality of the spirit "John King."

In May 1875 Blavatsky and Olcott formed the Miracle Club, which offered an alternative to prevailing scientific materialism, but the organization languished. Soon Olcott began to receive messages through Blavatsky from a mysterious "Brother-hood of Luxor," prototypes of the famous Mahatma letters of later years. These messages claimed the support of hidden masters of wisdom in the spreading of truth.

In November 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded with Olcott as president, Blavatsky as corresponding secretary, and Judge (a lawyer) as counsel. There were approximately 20 original members. The term "theosophy" was proposed by Charles Sotheran, a well-known bibliophile and editor of the American Bibliopolist. The preamble to the society's bylaws states:

"The Title of the Theosophical Society explains the objects and desires of its founder: they 'seek to obtain knowledge of the nature and attributes of the Supreme Power, and of the higher spirits by the aid of physical processes.' In other words, they hope, that by going deeper than modern science has hitherto done, into the esoteric philosophies of ancient times, they may be enabled to obtain, for themselves and other investigators, proof of the existence of an 'Unseen Universe,' the nature of its inhabitants if such there be, and the laws which govern them and their relations with mankind. Whatever may be the private opinions of its members, the society has no dogmas to enforce, no creed to disseminate. It is formed neither as a Spiritualist schism, nor to serve as the foe or friend of any sectarian or philosophic body. Its only axiom is the omnipotence of truth, its only creed a profession of unqualified devotion to its discovery and propaganda. In considering the qualifications of applicants for membership, it knows neither race, sex, color, country nor creed."

The stated objects of the society were "to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe." To the society, these laws involved phenomena of a miraculous kind as claimed in the history of occultism, Rosicrucians, and other secret orders.

This preoccupation with the miraculous, which has also been the popular focal point in the establishment of great world religions, proved to be the strength as well as the weakness of the society. Over the next two years, there was a shortage of unusual phenomena and the society seemed doomed to failure, many members dropping out.

Meanwhile, Blavatsky was preparing her book Isis Unveiled, a compilation and survey of esoteric religious and occult traditions through the ages. This book, together with the amalgamation of the Theosophical Society with the Arya Samaj of Swami Dayananda Saraswati in 1878, stimulated new interest in the society.

In 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott toured India, establishing new contacts and developing an aura of the mystic East. India was traditionally associated with the supernormal feats of yogis and the esoteric wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads. Although Swami Dayananda proved to be something of a disappointment, due to being a social reformer rather than a repository of the prized miraculous feats of yoga, extraordinary events surrounded Blavatsky over the next few years in India and reports on them attracted widespread support for the Theosophical Society.

Olcott's tour of Ceylon and acceptance of Buddhism helped to solidify the society's image as a unifying principle for all religions, though it also succeeded in exciting opposition from Christian missionaries who did not believe that religions could or should be unified.

During 1880-82 there were many letters purportedly from the mysterious Mahatmas, or Masters of Wisdom, governing the development of the society, which established headquarters at Adyar, Madras. Although the marvels associated with Blavatsky brought new and important supporters for the society, they also excited opposition and accusations of fraud, even from Swami Dayananda, who publicly repudiated Blavatsky and the society in April 1882.

Through the years the Theosophical Society suffered from various dissensions and schisms. Most notable was the controversy over the so-called Mahatma letters, which Blavatsky claimed were supernormally produced messages from Masters or adepts. Accusations from Christian missionaries in India that these letters were fraudulent began in 1884; in the same year Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research, Britain, went to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, Madras, to conduct an on-the-spot investigation.

He reported the discovery of a shrine with a false back, used with the connivance of Madame Coulomb, an employee of the society, as a fake mailbox for the letters. The confession of fraud by Coulomb was dismissed by loyal members of the society as part of a Christian plot to discredit Blavatsky and the society. Coulomb's disclosure of the different methods by which the "miracles" were produced and Hodgson's own discovery of various fraudulent events proved more conclusive to most.

Blavatsky left India and settled in England, leaving the society in Olcott's hands. There she drew a group of students, and an internal controversy arose in the society over the establishment of an esoteric section for the study of arcane doctrines and practices. Meanwhile, Blavatsky worked on her massive presentation of theosophical teachings, which finally appeared as The Secret Doctrine.

Meanwhile, following the transfer of international headquarters to India, Judge had organized and was leading the American section. After Blavatsky's death in 1891, disputes arose over the production of further Mahatma letters by Judge. These letters supported his claim to take charge of the esoteric section, which Blavatsky had bequeathed to newcomer Annie Besant.

While there was a temporary agreement for Besant and Judge to share leadership, tension between Judge and the society leadership outside of the United States continued; in 1895-96 he led the great majority of the American lodges in the establishment of the Theosophical Society in America as a separate entity. Judge died a short time later and E. T. Har-grove was elected president of the Theosophical Society in America. But like Blavatsky, Judge had found a talented protege, and Katherine Tingley 's abilities were recognized by the membership and she became president of the American societya post she would hold for the rest of her life. She led in the establishment of a Theosophical community at Point Loma, San Diego, California.

Meanwhile, Annie Besant succeeded Olcott (d. 1907) as president of the international Theosophical Society. A capable orator and administrator, she helped the society and built it into a worldwide organization. While the society was hindered by the scandals attached to Blavatsky, Besant attempted to put that history in the past. However, one of her colleagues, Charles Webster Leadbeater who impressed Besant as one possessed of occult abilities, was involved in several scandals that involved some young boys. Eventually he was exiled from India to Australia, though not before he and Besant had produced some of the standard theosophical texts. Leadbeater cost the society the considerable support of the scholar G. R. S. Mead and some 700 other members in England who left in 1908 and established a rival organization.

Besant adopted, with the aid of Leadbeater, a young Brahmin boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, who they claimed would be the vehicle through whom the future "World Teacher" would manifest. After World War I, as Krishnamurti matured, Besant promoted him and took him on speaking tours around the world. The society's membership peaked in response to his presence and both Besant and the members were devastated in 1929 when he resigned and renounced the role she had assigned him. Krishnamurti went on to become an independent teacher in his own right with a considerable following.

Theosophy's teachings had been given to Blavatsky by a group of exalted masters. Following her death, various people, such as Leadbeater, also claimed to be in spiritual contact. One who made such claims was Alice A. Bailey, a member living in southern California. She claimed that she was serving as the amanuensis of Djual Khul, usually called the Tibetan. Her claims eventually led to her separation from the society and the establishment in the 1920s of another offshoot of Theosophy the Arcane School.

In spite of its controversial background, the Theosophical Society itself has had a considerable influence on the spiritual and intellectual life of many individuals in India, Europe, and the United States. Much of the power of the Irish literary renaissance of William Butler Yeats and AE (George Russell ) stems from their association with Theosophy, which also exercised a powerful influence on European occultism.

Perhaps its greatest contribution came during the presidency of Besant, when Theosophy provided the people of India with a feeling of pride in their own cultural and spiritual heritage and participated in the growing wave of nationalism that eventually resulted in the independence of India. Under the auspices of the Theosophical Society, many important Hindu scriptures were translated and published and the library at Adyar contains many rare manuscripts preserved by the society.

The Theosophical Society, with its international headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India, is today a worldwide body perpetuating the basic perspective and teachings of ancient Gnosticism, as promoted by Blavatsky in the 1880s and 1890s. While the society is a significant body in its own right, its influence has been extended through the hundreds of organizations that have taken the basic theosophical worldview and built variations upon it. Theosophy led directly to the founding of the Liberal Catholic Church, the Anthroposophical Society, the Alice Bailey movement, and the I Am Movement. Almost a hundred different organizations, some of which rival the parent Theosophical Society in size, have emerged from these off-shoots. Less directly attached to Theosophy, but owing much to its initial impulse, is the modern magical revival whose initial major organizational expression was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but which has found contemporary expression in the OTO and the popular neo-pagan witchcraft movement. The single most popular expression of Theosophy has been the New Age movement of the 1980s, which brought literally millions of people into esoteric studies.

The main theosophical bodies, i.e., those that have a specifically theosophical heritage, are the Theosophical Society (with international lodges and headquarters at Adyar, Madras, India); the Theosophical Society, American Branch (with international headquarters at Altadena, California); and the United Lodge of Theosophists (headquarters in Los Angeles, California). The American affiliate of the international society headquartered in Adyar is the Theosophical Society in America, with headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois on an estate called Olcott; the British affiliate is the Theosophical Society at 50 Gloucester Pl., London, W1H 3HJ, England.


Besant, Annie. The Theosophical Society and H. P. Blavatsky. London, 1891.

Campbell, Bruce F. A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Christian Literature Society. Theosophy Exposed; or, Mrs. Besant and Her Guru: Appeal to Educated Hindus. Madras, India: SPCK Press, 1893.

Coulomb, Madame E. Some Account of My Intercourse with Madame Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884. London: Elliot Stock, 1885.

Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1986.

Gomes, Michael. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Hare, H. E., and W. L. Hare. Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters? London: Williams & Norgate, 1936.

Harrison, Vernon. H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1997.

Hodgson, Richard. "Personal Investigations, in India, of Theosophical Phenomena." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 3 (1885); Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 1-2 (1884-1886).

Johnson, Paul. In Search of the Masters: Behind the Occult Myth. South Boston: The Author, 1990.

Kingsland, William. The Real H. P. Blavatsky. London: John M. Watkins, 1928.

Olcott, H. S. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1895-1910.

Ransom, Josephine. A Short History of the Theosophical Society. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938.

Ryan, Charles J. H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1975.

Solovyoff, V. S. A Modern Priestess of Isis. London: Longmans, Green, 1895.

Symonds, John. Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician. London: Odhams Press, 1958.

Waterman, Adlai E. [Walter A. Carrithers]. Obituary: The "Hodgson Report" on Madame Blavatsky, 1895-1960; Reexamination Discredits the Major Charges Against H. P. Blavatsky.

Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1963.

Williams, Gertrude Marvin. Priestess of the Occult: Madame Blavatsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.

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"Theosophical Society." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Theosophical Society in America

Theosophical Society in America

The American affiliate society of the international Theosophical Society, which is headquartered in Adyar, Madras, India. It continues the tradition of Theosophy established in 1875 in New York. The American branch was organized in 1886 but became separate from the international movement in 1895-96. The few American lodges still loyal to the international headquarters in Adyar reorganized and eventually became the dominant segment of the society in the United States.

The society is headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois, where it maintains a library of more that 20,000 volumes and publishes books through the Theosophical Publishing House. It issues a magazine, Quest. Headquarters are located at 1926 N. Main St., Wheaton, IL 60187. The American branch of the Esoteric Section is headquartered in a small theosophical community in Ojai, California. The complex also houses a large library as well an educational facility known as the Krotona Institute. Theosophical literature is distributed through Quest bookstores, outlets being located in several cities, including Wheaton and Ojai.

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"Theosophical Society in America." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Theosophical Society in America." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . (December 11, 2017).

"Theosophical Society in America." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from