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Theosophy

THEOSOPHY

A modern gnostic movement begun in New York City (1875) by Helena Petrovna (Hahn) Blavatsky, Henry Steele Olcott, and William Q. Judge. At its inception, the stated purpose of the Theosophical Society was the study of Aryan and Eastern literature and the laws of nature, and the formation of a universal brotherhood. According to modern theosophists, theosophy is not a religion, but a philosophy of life uniting religion, philosophy, and science.

Doctrine. Theosophists deny fundamental Christian concepts regarding the nature of God and the soul; they teach the immanence of God in the world, understanding by this that there is no creation in the Christian sense and that God is not wholly external to creatures but a part of them. The evolution of the soul is a fundamental doctrine; for salvation comes by evolution, and the need for a vicarious atonement is denied. Evolution, in the theosophical sense, is a process of self-realization or manifestation carried on by the Cosmic Life by means of repeated incarnations. Its purpose is the perfecting of man and all creatures. All matter contains consciousness, which is evolving, not in a mechanical way but as a result of a divine plan guided by intelligence. It is conceived of as a twofold movement, involving descent into matter and ascent into spirit. The adept can speed up or direct his own course by recognizing nature's hidden laws through theosophy.

Mme. Blavatsky taught the septenary constitution of man, a reflection of the division of the universe into seven stages, or hierarchies. The first three are a "conscious crystallization of Spirit into Matter." In the fourth, Spirit turns upward again and begins to rid itself of the grossness of matter. The last three complete this process and Spirit emerges into Nirvana. The individual is composed of spirit, spiritual soul, human soul or mind, animal soul, vitality, astral body, and physical body; the first three are immortal, the others, mortal. Of these seven elements, clear distinctions are rarely possible, for they are "interblended around the monadic individuality to constitute the complete man," and are rarely perfectly balanced. Such exceptional cases were the Mahatmas or Masters of the theosophists. The astral body is defined, however, as the shadowy duplicate or idea of the physical body formed before birth, but equally mortal. Death involves a rebirth, liberating the human spirit from the physical body to enjoy the astral life, which will be, in turn, followed by forgetfulness and rebirth. The astral world is not the true heaven, but an emotional world, the true home of grosser men and animals. Heaven or the mental world is achieved only after repeated reincarnations; it is the true home of intelligence and the soul. Thus the four key doctrines of theosophy that are generally accepted are the divine origin of the soul in a pantheistic sense, evolution, reincarnation, and karma, which readjusts effects to causes for the achievement of absolute justice. The division of the movement into numerous sects has resulted from disagreement over succession to the prophetic mantle, rather than to major doctrinal differences.

Divisions. Helena Petrovna Hahn, born to a distinguished family in the Ukraine in 1831, was married to Gen. N. P. Blavatsky, but soon deserted him and left Russia. According to the Memoirs of her cousin, Count Witte, she spent some time in Cairo before arriving in New York in 1873. But her own contradictory statements make it impossible to construct a satisfactory account of her life in these years. In either version there is no possibility for the extended visit to Tibet, to which she later credited her revelations. Through a common interest in spiritualism, she became associated with Col. H. S. Olcott in the formation of occult groups, culminating in the 16-member Theosophical Society. In 1877 she published Isis Unveiled, a collection of material from Eastern thought, serpent worship, witchcraft, alchemy, and 19th-century science, which she ascribed to her Tibetan masters, but which was often taken verbatim from 50 standard works on occult subjects in Olcott's library.

In 1878 the theosophist leaders left Judge in charge of the sect in America and set out for India, purchasing land at Adyar, near Madras, for a center (1879) and winning important converts, among them A. P. Sinnett and A. O. Hume. In 1880 Olcott began missionary efforts in Ceylon, while Mme. Blavatsky began to edit the Theosophist, a periodical published under her direction at Madras (187988). Olcott succeeded her as editor (18881907). At the Adyar Temple, Mme. Blavatsky claimed that she had received direct written communications from two long-dead Tibetan Mahatmas. In 1885 investigation by the London Society for Psychical Research stamped the entire process as a deliberate fraud. However, this did little to dim Mme. Blavatsky's reputation on her arrival in England, where she published The Secret Doctrine (1888), which purports to be a portion of the Book of Dzyan, an otherwise unknown occult history of the earth. In her preface, she described it candidly as the "record of a people unknown to ethnologywritten in a tongue unknown to philology" and stated that she was prepared to accept the charge that she had invented the whole.

With The Secret Doctrine, she began to lay greater stress on the occult and formed (1888) an Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society in London for advanced study of the occult. Theosophy spread in England and Ireland among literary circles. The Irish Theosophical Society formed at Dublin by Charles Johnston in 1886 drew William Butler Yeats and others into its orbit, while the London Theosophists made an important convert in Annie (Wood) Besant in 1890. She was born in London of Irish ancestry in 1847, married an Anglican clergyman from whom she was later divorced, and had devoted herself since 1872 to advancing free thought, planned parenthood, labor unions, socialism, and other causes through the columns of the National Reformer, the Pall Mall Gazette, and other periodicals, as well as by the lecture platform. After Mme. Blavatsky's death (1891), Mrs. Besant became her successor as leader of the Theosophical Society. A division between the American theosophists developed in opposition to Mrs. Besant. In 1892 Judge was confirmed as president of the American section of the society, but an acrimonious controversy, involving more letters from the Mahatmas, allegedly forged by Judge, led to a permanent division in 189495, when he was elected for life as president of an independent Theosophical Society in America. At his death in 1896, Judge was succeeded by E. T. Hargrove, who published the Theosophical Quarterly at Chicago (18981935). A pro-Besant group, led by Alexander F. Fullerton and Kate Buffington Davis, formed the Theosophical Society of New York. Other divisions within the movement led to the founding of The Temple of the People (1899) at Syracuse, N.Y. (later transferred to Halcyon, Calif.); and to the formation of The Universal Brotherhood, under the leadership of Katherine A. Tingley and later of Gottfried de Purucker, which made its headquarters at Point Loma, Calif., until 1942. It was later established at Altadena, Calif., with James A. Long as its leader.

While the American theosophists divided on the question of the legitimate line of prophetic succession, the London and Adyar groups, under Olcott and Mrs. Besant, moved steadily in the direction of greater occultism. The influence of Charles W. Leadbeater, a former Anglican clergyman, became paramount. In 1895 Leadbeater published The Astral Plane and Mrs. Besant issued The Self and Its Sheaths, both devoted to occultism. In 1899 she moved permanently to Adyar, interesting herself in the establishment of the Central Hindu College, later affiliated to Allahabad University, and in Indian nationalism, as well as in the esoteric speculations revealed in Esoteric Christianity (1901) and The Ancient Wisdom (1899), which consider Christ as one of the incarnations of the Buddha. After a brief expulsion arising from charges of unnatural vice, Leadbeater was restored to the inner councils of the Theosophical Society in 1908, following Olcott's death and Mrs. Besant's rise to supreme power in the sect. Soon after he became convinced that the Christ was alive and would soon reappear. A Hindu youth, Jeddu Krishnamurti, was identified as the reincarnated Messiah. In 1911 the Order of the Star in the East was formed at a Congress of Theosophists held at Omnen, Holland, to prepare for the new avatar.

When four theosophists were ordained (191314) to the priesthood of the Old Catholic Church by Bp. Arnold Mathew, Leadbeater became interested in this development and was himself ordained (1916) bishop of the Old Catholic Church for Australasia. The aim of the liberal catholic church, as this branch of theosophy was designated, was to prepare a church for Krishnamurti. Although shaken by a series of public scandals in 1919, it continued to exist. Opposition to the Krishnamurti movement centered in the German section of the society, led by Rudolf steiner, who had founded (1912) the Anthroposophical Society (see anthroposophy). The following year Steiner's group was expelled by the Adyar Theosophists. The Order of the Star in the East was formally dissolved (1929) by Krishnamurti, who renounced all claims to divine origin or messianic mission. In a related move, Mrs. George Arundale was acknowledged by the Adyar group as "World-Mother" in 1928. On the death of Mrs. Besant (1933), leadership of the Adyar Temple passed to the Arundales. When George Arundale died (1945), C. Jinarajadrasi became spiritual leader. Subsequently a reaction to the excesses of the Besant-Leadbeater epoch led to an increased devotion to the memory of Mme. Blavatsky among British and American theosophists and to efforts to reunite the divided sect on the basis of commonly accepted dogmas.

Bibliography: The Theosophical Movement 18751950 (Los Angeles 1951). e. a. greenwalt, The Point Loma Community (Berkeley, Calif. 1955). c. p. ramaswami aijar, Annie Besant (Delhi, India 1963). c. e. b. roberts, The Mysterious Madame (New York 1931). g. l. williams, Priestess of the Occult (New York 1946). g. h. whyte, H. P. Blavatsky (London 1909). j. symonds, Madame Blavatsky (New York 1960). a. h. nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago 1960); The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (Chicago 1963). t. m. francis, Blavatsky, Besant and Co. (St. Paul, Minn. 1939). f. p. spinks, Theosophists Reunite! (Boston 1958). c. j. ryan, What is Theosophy? (Covina, Calif. 1944). l. w. rogers, Elementary Theosophy (Wheaton, Ill. 1950). i. s. cooper, Theosophy Simplified (Wheaton, Ill. 1955). h. p. blavatsky, Key to Theosophy (New York 1913). w. c. ohlendorf, An Outline of the Secret Doctrine (Chicago 1941).

[r. k. macmaster]

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