- Theosophical Society
- (est. 1875)The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City by Helena Petrovna BLAVATSKY, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Q. Judge. The founders sought to promote the study of insights from various world religions, investigate spiritu-alist and other occult phenomena, and foster the brotherhood of all humankind. Olcott became the first president (1875–1907), although the writings and teachings of Blavatsky became syn-onymous with the teachings of the society. The society accepted her self-description as a disciple of highly evolved beings, mahatmas, who had instructed her in the ancient wisdom, the secret doctrine, the wisdom religion, or Theosophy. She claimed to have contacted an occult brotherhood of these mahatmas in her travels in the Far East, particularly in Tibet. Their perennial philosophy became the basis of her writings.Although Theosophy has no official dogma, it sees itself as a body of truths that are the basis of all valid religions. It is not a religion per se, but rather a restatement of the essence of religion itself. The three stated objectives of the society are (1) to form a nucleus of the Universal Broth-erhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color; (2) to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; and (3) to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humans.To Theosophists, the universe is a manifesta-tion of one eternal, infinite reality, the divine, which underlies and pervades everything. Each person is a spark of the divine, a microcosm of the macrocosm, born in order to evolve from latent divinity to perfection. Through many incar-nations, a soul entity or monad of the divine becomes perfect enough to be free from the cycle of birth and death.Blavatsky expounded a cosmological scheme and description of the human body and soul, involving levels and hierarchies that express rela-tionships among humanity, the angelic realms, and ultimately, the divine. Theosophical ideas are largely drawn from the cosmological and psycho-logical teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism and are portrayed in an amalgam of Hindu and Bud-dhist terminology.In 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott settled in India; in 1882 they established Theosophical Society headquarters at Adyar, near Madras (Chennai). In 1895, Judge, who headed the American sec-tion, severed its relations with the British and Indian branches. In 1896 Judge died and was suc-ceeded by Katherine A. TINGLEY, who moved the American section’s headquarters to Point Loma (San Diego), California. Further schisms of the Theosophical Society in America produced the Temple of the People (from the Syracuse, New York, branch) and the Theosophical Society of New York.After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, the Theosoph-ical movement experienced a decade of internal dissent. Annie BESANT, an Englishwoman who joined the society after reading Blavatsky’s work, succeeded her as head of the Esoteric Section, a small group who experimented with occult prin-ciples. When Olcott died in 1907 Besant became the new president of the society.The first decades of the movement saw wide-spread interest in Theosophical principles in America, Europe, and India. The synthesis of East and West, religion and science, and esoteric and exoteric understanding made Theosophy compel-ling to cosmopolitan, liberal people, regardless of nationality, who had been disappointed by the dogmatism of both religion and science and sought to unite the diverse peoples of the world in a peaceful brotherhood.Around the turn of the 20th century the movement had begun to decline, but under Besant’s leadership many lodges in Europe, Amer-ica, and India revived. In the Netherlands in 1926 Besant announced to the world gathering of Theosophists that the world teacher whom the society had anticipated since Blavatsky’s time had been located. This teacher was the young Jiddu KRISHNAMURTI.The occult formulations and esoteric teach-ings of the society have influenced many Western teachers and movements that do not use the name Theosophy, including Alice BAILEY and the Lucis Trust; Guy Ballard and the “I AM move-ment”; Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the Church Universal and Triumphant; and Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy. Theosophical publishing houses are responsible for making available to the general public many texts and writings of Hinduism.Today the Theosophical movement includes the Judge-Tingley-dePurucker branch called the Theosophical Society, headquartered in Altadena, California. This organization sponsors the Theo-sophical Press, which publishes the periodical Sun-rise and operates a large library. The Theosophical Society in America, part of the larger International Theosophical Society in India, is headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois. This organization sponsors the Theosophical Publishing House and Quest Books, publishes the American Theosophist and Discovery, and operates the Olcott Library at Wheaton. The Theosophist, founded in 1979, is still published at Adyar, India.The United Lodge of Theosophy, founded in 1909 by Robert Crosbie, former member of the Point Loma community, is headquartered in Los Angeles and sponsors Theosophy Company, its publishing house. This organization publishes The-osophy, a monthly periodical. All of the Theosophi-cal organizations cited here maintain Web sites.Although current membership statistics are not available, adherents to the formal structure of Theosophy are becoming fewer. Yet its historic role in introducing Eastern thought and philoso-phy to the West remains secure.Further reading: Bruce F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revisited (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); Emmett A. Greenwalt, California Utopia: Point Loma, 1897–1942 (San Diego: Point Loma, 1978); Howard Murphet, When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975); Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society 1875–1937 (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938); Charles J. Ryan, H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement (Pasa-dena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1975); The Theosophical Movement, 1875–1950 (Los Angeles: Cun-ningham Press, 1951).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.