THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY . Founded in 1875 in New York City, the Theosophical Society is an organization whose name was chosen to align it with the larger theosophical tradition. This tradition embraced Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, Renaissance philosophers like Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus, and Romantic mystics and philosophers like Jakob Boehme and Friedrich Schelling as well as wider religious philosophies like Vedānta, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Qabbalah, and Sufism. The Theosophical Society functions as a bridge between East and West, emphasizing the commonality of human culture.
The First Generation
Among the sixteen persons who participated in the formation of the Theosophical Society, two were notable for their roles in its future development: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), a charismatic Russian of upper-class family, and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), an American lawyer and journalist. Blavatsky was the energetic force that brought the society into existence, and she remained its chief theoretician throughout her life. At the age of eighteen, to escape the bonds of an unwanted marriage, she began her world travels, in the course of which she circumnavigated the globe and became familiar with a wide range of intellectual and mystical traditions. In 1873 she moved to New York, eventually meeting Olcott in Chittenden, Vermont, at Spiritualist meetings he was reporting for a New York newspaper. The Theosophical Society subsequently grew out of evening gatherings held in Blavatsky's New York apartment, at which papers and conversation about arcane matters attracted a small company of intellectuals. Blavatsky's first significant publication was Isis Unveiled (1877); her major book is The Secret Doctrine (1888), setting forth a cosmology; her most readable work is The Key to Theosophy (1889). Her periodical articles (in English and French, but excluding those in Russian) fill fourteen volumes of Collected Writings (1950–1991).
Olcott provided the organizing force that held the Theosophical Society together. During the American Civil War he had investigated procurement fraud for the military, and his early writings covered agriculture, insurance, and Spiritualism. He became the first president of the society and held that post until his death. He also became a champion of civil rights for the Ceylonese in Sri Lanka, where he remains a national hero; a promoter of education for the common people of Sri Lanka and India; and a key figure in the Buddhist revival, espousing an ecumenical Buddhism.
Three years after the Theosophical Society's founding, Olcott and Blavatsky left New York for Bombay, arriving there in 1879. A short-lived alliance with the Hindu reform movement of the Ārya Samāj failed because both sides misunderstood the basic orientation of the other. But Olcott and Blavatsky enjoyed a considerable popularity with some native Indians and members of the British raj, Blavatsky particularly among the latter for her ability to produce phenomena, such as the materialization of objects, and for her claim to be in touch with human teachers of extraordinary abilities.
In 1882 the Theosophical Society acquired property in southern India at Adyar, on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai) where the Adyar River flows into the Bay of Bengal, property that is still the international headquarters of the society. In 1885 Blavatsky left India after an investigation by a staff member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) resulted in a report calling her an imposter, although the report was later shown by another member of the SPR to have been biased and flawed (Harrison, 1997). Blavatsky eventually settled in London, where she spent the last four years of her life producing the major body of her writings.
Meanwhile the Theosophical Society continued to grow, with national sections (semiautonomous bodies) being formed within the international organization. The first three sections were established in the United States (1886), England (1888), and India (1891).
The most important person in the Theosophical Society's history after Blavatsky and Olcott was Annie Wood Besant (1847–1933). Already a proponent of free thought as well as an activist and the most famous woman orator in England, Besant met Blavatsky after reviewing the latter's book The Secret Doctrine for an English periodical. Besant joined the Theosophical Society just two years before Blavatsky's death and was almost immediately recognized as Blavatsky's spiritual successor. Besant became international president of the society upon Olcott's death in 1907.
Shortly after Blavatsky's death a disagreement arose about the role within the Theosophical Society of William Quan Judge (1851–1896), who was one of the society's original organizers and who had become the chief executive of the American section. As a result in 1895 most of the members and branches in the United States seceded from the parent society and formed an independent organization that is now headquartered in Pasadena, California. The parent society soon reestablished itself in the United States through lecture tours by Besant and others.
Besant was a supporter of Indian independence within the British Empire, and she became the first woman and the only non-Indian to serve as president of the Indian National Congress. Besant was also a vigorous promoter of education and of human and animal welfare. With her colleague Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934), she added significantly to the body of Theosophical literature and sponsored the young Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986), who later became an independent religious philosopher.
During the second generation the presentation of Theosophy focused on Indic and particularly Hindu spirituality in a Westernized form. Besant and Leadbeater also promoted several Western traditions interpreted in Theosophical terms, particularly Christianity through the Liberal Catholic Church and Freemasonry through a French-derived form of Co-Masonry that admitted women on equal footing with men. Besant also organized the Order of the Star in the East to promote Krishnamurti as the spokesperson for a new world teaching. These ancillary movements were organizationally autonomous but had overlapping memberships and leaderships with the Theosophical Society.
The Theosophical Society had its largest membership and influence during the 1920s. The 1929 decision of Krishnamurti to dissolve the Order of the Star and withdraw from the role envisioned for him, coupled with the effects of the Great Depression and World War II, reduced public awareness of the society. The society fared badly under totalitarian regimes, whether of the right or the left, being outlawed and persecuted in Francisco Franco's Spain, Adolf Hitler's Germany, Joseph Stalin's Russia, and other dictatorships. Yet Krishnamurti went on to become an important spiritual teacher in the late twentieth century, and the Theosophical Society continued under able leaders. Besant was followed in the presidency by an Englishman, George Arundale (1934–1945); a Sri Lankan, Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa (1945–1953); an Indian, N. Sri Ram (1953–1973); another Englishman, John Coats (1973–1979); and another Indian, Radha Burnier (1980–), daughter of Sri Ram. In the early twenty-first century the society has branches in some seventy countries and a membership of approximately thirty-two thousand.
The Theosophical Society has no requirement of belief or practice for its members other than subscription to its three "objects" and a way of life not incompatible with them. These objects are:
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science
- To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.
In addition to these objects a body of teachings has evolved that attempts to state in present-day terms concepts called the ancient wisdom, the perennial philosophy, or simply theosophy. These concepts, which are not incumbent on members of the society, although they are widely espoused by members, have no official statement. The concepts may include such ideas as the following, each with ethical implications:
- There is only one ultimate reality, of which all existent things are expressions. Theosophy is philosophically monistic, with implications of human equality (formulated in the society's first object) and concern for animal welfare (resulting in the practice of vegetarianism for ethical reasons and the avoidance of other animal exploitation).
- The orderliness of the world is expressed in cyclical patterns, which can be seen in all aspects of reality from the macrocosm to the microcosm, including the reincarnation of an individual human consciousness in a long series of lives. The belief that an individual has lived or will live in bodies of both sexes and of various races and cultures fosters an understanding of and respect for human differences.
- The orderliness of the world is based on a principle of causation called karma, which operates in both material and moral realms, positing for every action a corresponding reaction, both physical and ethical. The fact that every action by a person has unavoidable consequences is a basis for practical morality: to do harm to another is to generate harm for oneself; to do good to another is to ensure good for oneself.
- World history follows an evolutionary pattern, not only of material forms but of intellect and spirit, governed by both causes and purposes. Evolution is teleological, and consequently human life is meaningful and purposeful, a recognition of which aids successful living.
- All objects in the universe are imbued with consciousness of some sort, and consciousness evolves through the ages so that, for example, mineral consciousness becomes successively vegetative, animal, human, and eventually something beyond human. Furthermore the interconnection and interdependence of all consciousness implies an ecological rather than exploitative approach to life.
- The final purpose of evolutionary development is that the ultimate reality may become conscious of itself through its expression as the world (similar to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead), and the purpose of human life is to further that evolutionary development by a conscious participation in it. All individuals have a high and serious calling, which may be responded to by carrying out the duties of their stations in life.
- Human beings are assisted in fulfilling the purpose of their lives by the teachings and examples of sages, prophets, saints, avatars, or bodhisattvas; but the responsibility for that fulfillment and the impulse to meet it arise from within the individual, who is responsible for his or her own salvation. A means to fulfill one's purpose for being is an intelligent and spiritually sensitive activism, tempered by the realization that one's knowledge of the world and of oneself is still severely limited, making humility and tolerance the best guideposts to ultimate success.
Extensions and Influences
For a small and nonproselytizing organization, the Theosophical Society has had some notable effects. Offshoots of the parent society, headquartered at Adyar, Chennai, India, include the Theosophical Society with international headquarters at Pasadena, California (the direct descendant of the Judge group); the United Lodge of Theosophists; the Temple of the People at Halcyon, California; the Anthroposophical Society, which began as the German section of the Theosophical Society; the Buddhist Society U.K., which began as the Buddhist Lodge of the Theosophical Society; the Arcane School, Lucis Trust, and other organizations springing from Alice Bailey (1880–1949), who was an employee of the Theosophical Society; and a number of organizations often loosely categorized as New Age.
The concepts of the Theosophical Society have affected modern life especially in the areas of religious and social reform, art, literature, and what may loosely be called spirituality. Olcott was a leading force in the modern Buddhist revival, as was a protégé of his, Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864–1933), who founded the Maha Bodhi Society to preserve Buddhist sites and to extend Buddhism. Besant's prominence in Indian politics and in social movements inspired a number of others in India, England, and the United States to promote reform, especially for women's rights. An earlier Theosophical exponent of woman's rights was Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898), American feminist and coauthor with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony of the History of Woman Suffrage (1881–1887). Wassily Kandinsky framed his theory of nonobjective art in Theosophical terms, citing Blavatsky in his manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912); another pioneer in abstraction, Piet Mondrian, developed the neoplastic style of art on Theosophical principles. The Irish literary revival was influenced by Theosophy, particularly in the person of its chief exponent, William Butler Yeats. On a more general level, the Theosophical Society popularized such concepts as reincarnation, karma, and the aura as well as practices such as yoga and the complementary healing technique called Therapeutic Touch.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. 2 vols. London, 1877; reprint, Wheaton, Ill., 1972. The author's first major work, which established her reputation as a figure in nineteenth-century esotericism.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. 2 vols. London, 1888; reprint, 3 vols., Wheaton, Ill., 1978. The author's major work, a commentary on the otherwise unknown Stanzas of Dzyan, dealing with the origin of the universe (cosmogenesis) and of the human species (anthropogenesis) and including essays on symbolism and contemporary science.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Key to Theosophy: Being a Clear Exposition, in the Form of Question and Answer, of the Ethics, Science, and Philosophy for the Study of Which the Theosophical Society Has Been Founded. London, 1889; reprint, Pasadena, Calif., 1995. One of the author's last works, a presentation of her ideas for the general reader.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. Collected Writings. 15 vols. Compiled and edited by Boris de Zirkoff. Wheaton, Ill., 1950–1991. A collection of all known periodical articles and some other incidental writings by Blavatsky, with an extensive index by Dara Eklund as vol. 15.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, vol. 1: 1861–1879. Edited by John Algeo. Wheaton, Ill., 2003. The beginning of a collection of all of Blavatsky's known correspondence, this volume contains letters written before she settled in India in 1879, with extensive background essays and notes.
Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages. Wheaton, Ill., 1986. A popular presentation of basic Theosophical concepts as viewed by a religion scholar who is also a Theosophist.
Harrison, Vernon. H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885. Pasadena, Calif., 1997. An examination by an expert in forgery of the 1885 report submitted to the Society for Psychical Research, which branded Blavatsky as a fraud, concluding that the report was biased and that the crucial handwriting evidence was misinterpreted.
Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves: The True Story of the Theosophical Society. 6 vols. New York, 1895–1935; reprint, Adyar, India, 1974–1975. The founder-president's recollections of events between 1874 and 1898, originally published partly as journal articles that were later collected.
Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington, Ind., 1996. A biography of Olcott focusing on his interactions with the Buddhist community and his role in the modern Buddhist revival, especially in Sri Lanka, where he became a national hero.
John Algeo (2005)
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 society—a 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.
THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY The Theosophical Society was founded on 7 September 1875 in New York following a talk on ancient Egyptian spiritualism, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), a Russian occult medium, and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a U.S. Civil War veteran and abolitionist, who became the society's first president. Their goals were to study the spiritual truth underlying all religions, to reject materialism, and to do public service. The last aim enabled the society to establish schools, influence the Indian national movement, and act as the seedbed for India's first feminist association in Madras (Chennai) in 1917. Blavatsky claimed that a Rajput spirit "master" or "mahatma" had inspired her during her trip to Tibet and India in 1851. She met Olcott after writing a defense of his investigations into occult phenomena in an essay, "Rosicrucianism." In 1874 they claimed they had witnessed an apparition named Kitty King at a seance in Philadelphia. Their fascination with the occult led Blavatsky to start an Esoteric Section of the society in 1888 and to claim that her books were mystical revelations by "masters." Her first book, Isis Unveiled (1877) increased the society's membership worldwide.
In 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott, who had corresponded with Dayananda Saraswati, the Vedic Hindu revivalist and founder of the Āryā Samāj, established their headquarters in his city, Bombay (Mumbai), calling it the Theosophical Society of the Ārya Samāj. However, theological disagreements separated them in 1882, the Theosophists moving south to Adyār, Madras. Blavatsky and Olcott's lectures across North India and Sri Lanka were reported extensively in the Allahabad Pioneer by A. P. Sinnett. The British kept them under surveillance as possible Russian spies.
In 1881 Blavatsky began publishing the journal the Theosophist, which C. W. Leadbetter edited when she moved to London due to ill health. There, in 1889, Annie Besant (1847–1933), who was to become her greatest disciple, visited her after reading The Secret Doctrine (1887) on the doctrine of karma (reincarnation). Blavatsky also soon published The Key to Philosophy (1889) and The Voice of Silence (1890). Besant joined the Theosophical Society in 1891, mesmerized by Hinduism and by Blavatsky's fervent appeal to "come among us!" (Besant, Autobiography, p. 311).
Olcott recorded the society's history in his Old Diary Leaves (1892). His interest in Buddhism led him to Sri Lanka and Japan in the 1880s. In The Poor Pariah (1902), Olcott urged the educational uplift of the Dalits, or the panchamas, "downtrodden, wretched human beings" who were shunned by the high castes as untouchables, and seduced by Christian zeal. In 1894 Olcott started a free school for "untouchables" in Urūr, near Adyār. He established the Panchama Education Society, starting five primary vocational schools in Madras and several others in Sri Lanka between 1898 and his death in 1907. The Olcott Schools remain in operation with the aid of government grants.
Annie Besant's Early Years
Annie Wood was born in 1847 in London to a middle-class Irish-English family that became impoverished by her father's death. She was educated by a wealthy Calvinist widow and was married at nineteen to Frank Besant, an Anglican vicar. Annie railed against her husband's rigid Christian Victorian values, eventually leaving the marriage. In 1879 she wrote the tract "Marriage as It Was, and as It Should Be," while fighting a legal battle for custody of her children. Thwarted from attaining a degree in science by misogynistic university rules, she became a vocal advocate of women's education. Her spiritual quest led her first to Unitarianism, then to atheism and Fabian Socialism, before she finally became a Theosophist and Hindu.
Besant became a labor activist due to the trade unionist William Roberts. Her affair with the atheist Charles Bradlaugh led to her joining his National Secular Society. In 1877 she and Bradlaugh were tried for "obscenity" for having published Dr. Charles Knowlton's tract on contraception. Their victory prompted Besant to write Law of Population, although later, as a Theosophist, she repudiated this work. As a Fabian Socialist, she supported democratic representation on municipal boards; fought successfully in 1888 for women who were on strike in match factories; wrote and published The Unemployed, Why I Am a Socialist, and How Poverty May Be Destroyed. Radical socialists criticized her "Modern Socialism," and her socialist convictions declined. She became estranged both from Bradlaugh and Bernard Shaw when she espoused Theosophy. In 1908 she declared that democratic socialism would not succeed in India.
Annie Besant in India
In 1893 she and her Theosophist "guru" Gyanandra Nath Chakravarti attended the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, where Swami Vivekananda made his inspiring speech on Hinduism, predicting that it was destined to "conquer the world" with its philosophic wisdom. On 16 November 1893, at the age of forty-six, Besant reached India. Her appearance in a sari, and her passionate lectures, praising Hinduism and Indian nationalism, sparked interest in journals like Amrita Bazaar Patrika, winning avid followers. She resided first in Benares (Varanasi), learning Sanskrit from Bhagwan Das, with whom she founded the Central Hindu College.
In 1896 at Maharani Girls' School, Mysore, Besant addressed the students as Hindu girls who would "grow up to be Hindu wives and mothers." Noting that there was "nothing nobler than loving, unselfish, spiritual Indian women," Besant beseeched them not to emulate materialistic Western women, but to aspire to the wisdom of female Upanishadic sages like Gargi and Maitreyi, and to the selflessness of the Rāma's heroic wife, Sītā. Her 1904 pamphlet, The Education of Indian Girls, became the educational blueprint for Indian girls for decades. Olcott's death in 1907 brought Besant to Adyār as the society's new president and head of the Theosophical Educational Trust's network of National Schools.
Besant joined the Indian National Congress in 1914, when she started the journal Commonweal. She and Lokamanya ("Friend of the People") Tilak each started Home Rule Leagues in 1916, also helping M. A. Jinnah to forge the Congress-League Lucknow Pact that year. Arrested in June 1917 under the Defence of India Act, Besant was released after intercession by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. As the first European-born president of the Indian National Congress in 1917, Besant spoke about women activists in her inaugural address. In May 1917 at Adyār, she became president of the Women's Indian Association. On 18 December 1918, she led a delegation to Secretary of State Edwin Montagu, pleading for female suffrage in India.
In 1919 Besant was replaced as president of the National Home Rule League by Mahatma Gandhi, whom she had tried, without success, to convert to Theosophy when he first came to London. Her last years were clouded by scandals around Leadbetter's alleged homosexuality; and around her proclamation of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a brilliant student, as "the messiah" or "world teacher" through the Order of the Star with twelve apostles. Krishnamurti himself denied that he was a "savior"and dismantled the order, breaking free of Besant's ambitions for him. Annie Besant died in Adyār in 1933, but the Theosophical Society continues to flourish there.
Sita Anantha Raman
Besant, Annie. "Address to Maharani Girls' School," Mysore, 24 December 1896. In Arya Bala Bodhini. Adyār: Theosophical Society, January 1897.
——. "An Appeal: Higher Education for Indian Girls." Adyār: Theosophical Society, January 1915.
——. An Autobiography. 1893. Reprint, Adyār: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1984.
Chandra, Jyoti. Annie Besant: From Theosophy to Nationalism. Delhi: K. K. Publications, 2001.
Jayawardena, Kumari. The White Woman's Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Rule. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Kumar, Radha. The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800–1900. Delhi: Kali for Women, 1997.
Nethercott, Arthur H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961.
——. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1963.
Raman, Sita Anantha. Getting Girls to School: Social Reform in the Tamil Districts, 1870–1930. Kolkata: Stree, 1996.
Ramusack, Barbara. "Catalysts or Helpers? British Feminists, Indian Women's Rights, and Indian Independence." In The Extended Family: Women and Political Participation in India and Pakistan, edited by Gail Minault. Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1981.
Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant: A Biography. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Wolpert, Stanley. Tilak and Gokhale. Berkeley: University of California, 1962.
The organization known as the Theosophical Society is generally equated with the largest and most widespread of a number of groups that teach and disseminate those theosophical teachings based on the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891). The Theosophical Society has its headquarters in Adyar, Madras, India. Other theosophical organizations include the Theosophical Society (Pasadena, California), the United Lodge of Theosophy (founded in Los Angeles), and Point Loma Publications (San Diego). Organizations that arose out of the teachings of Blavatsky but emphasize teachings originating from sources other than her include the Temple of the People (Halcyon, California), and the Word Foundation (Dallas, Texas).
The original Theosophical Society was founded on November 17, 1875, in New York City by sixteen individuals, only three of whom have retained their credentials as theosophical leaders and teachers: Helena Blavatsky; Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), the first president of the Theosophical Society; and William Quan Judge (1851–1896).
The basic teachings of the Theosophical Society have varied somewhat from its original stated goals to what it professes today. Originally, the society was established, in the words of its bylaws, "to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe." There is also evidence that the laws were to be applied; in other words, the practice of "magic"—defined as spiritual wisdom—was an unstated goal. The society also taught that spiritual wisdom was passed down through the ages by the great teachers of antiquity, among whom were Jesus, Buddha, Pythagoras, and Krishna. Furthermore, the great religious traditions such as Christianity, Buddhism, the Greek mystery schools, and Hinduism still retained much of this ancient wisdom, although it is encrusted with degraded later beliefs and practices that have nothing to do with it. By the 1880s the ancient wisdom described by Blavatsky became more associated with Hindu and Buddhist teachings because of her perception that it was retained to a greater degree there than in other religions.
Among the teachings adopted from Hinduism and Buddhism, as they were perceived by Theosophists, is rebirth (or reincarnation), the teaching that the essence of the individual (the "ego") takes on a physical body many times. Its complement, karma—"the Law of Cause and Effect"—states that for every intended action there is an effect. Karma therefore fuels future rebirths. These teachings are closely bound to the notion of the evolution and progress of the individual—on physical, mental, and spiritual levels.
Most Theosophists explain theosophy through the objectives of the Theosophical Society and through the three propositions presented in the introduction to Blavatsky's magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. The three objectives are as follows:
- To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color
- To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science
- To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man
A synopsis of the three propositions is as follows: (1) the existence of an infinite and unknowable Absolute; (2) the cyclic nature (i.e., manifestation and dissolution, life and death) of the universe and all it comprises; and (3) the identity of the soul with the Universal Soul (of the Absolute) and the need for all souls to progress through the cycle of reincarnation to realize this identity.
In conclusion, members of the Theosophical Society perceive themselves as students persuing the truth as reflected in the objectives and propositions. The main activity of the society is the publication of basic theosophical classics and various outreach programs.
Besant, Annie. The Ancient Wisdom. 1939; repr., 1897.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Key to Theosophy. 1889; repr., 1973.
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. The Secret Doctrine, 2 vols. 1888; repr., 1974.
Deveney, John Patrick. Astral Projection or Liberation ofthe Double and the Work of the Early Theosophical Society. 1997.
Gomes, Michael. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. 1987.
Gomes, Michael. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century:An Annotated Bibliography. 1994.
Judge, William Quan. The Ocean of Theosophy. 1893; repr., 1987.
Santucci, James A. "Theosophical Movement" and "Theosophical Society." In The Encyclopedia of Cults,Sects, and New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis. 1998.
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.