- This article is about the philosophy introduced by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. See Theosophy (history of philosophy) for other uses.
is a doctrine of religious philosophy
originating with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
. In this context, theosophy holds that all religions
are attempts by the "Spiritual Hierarchy
" to help humanity in evolving to greater perfection, and that each religion therefore has a portion of the truth. Together with Henry Steel Olcott
, William Quan Judge
, and others, Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society
Blavatsky addressed the name in the beginning of The Key to Theosophy:
Theosophy, literally "god-wisdom" (Greek: θεοσοφία theosophia), designated several bodies of ideas predating Blavatsky:
The term appeared in Neoplatonism. Porphyry De Abstinentia (4.9) mentioned "Greek and Chaldean theosophy", Ἑλληνική, Χαλδαϊκὴ θεοσοφία. The adjective θεόσοφος "wise in divine things" was applied by Iamblichus (De mysteriis 7.1) to the Γυμνοσοφισταί, i.e. the Indian yogis or sadhus.
There was a group of Renaissance philosophers: Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Robert Fludd, and, especially, Jacob Boehme; the Enlightenment theologian Emanuel Swedenborg was influenced by these.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines theosophy as: "Any system of speculation which bases the knowledge of nature upon that of the divine nature", noting it is used in particular with reference to Boehme.
The three objects
The three declared objects of the original Theosophical Society as established by Blavatsky, Judge and Olcott were as follows:
- First — To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
- Second — To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
- Third — To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.
Basic Theosophical beliefs
Consciousness is universal and individual
According to Theosophy, nature
does not operate by chance. Every event, past or present, happens because of laws which are part of a universal paradigm
. Theosophists hold that everything, living or not, is put together from basic building blocks evolving towards consciousness
Immortal higher self
Theosophists believe that all human beings in their "Higher Selves
" are immortal, but their lower personalities are often unconscious of their eternal Spiritual Nature and that their physical, emotional, and lower mental components will decompose and perish.
Reincarnation is universal
Theosophy teaches that what is known as human is actually a Spiritual Nature classically called the Monad (Higher Self). This Monad has prompted wakefulness (self analyzing reflection) called the human state through myriad lives
passing through the mineral, plant and animal stages during the evolution of life on earth. However Theosophy differs from the common belief that regression is possible. Human beings cannot incarnate as animals
again having attained awareness of Self, or really awareness of themselves as distinct from the lower kingdoms for whom such awareness does not exist, for form follows functional mind. Conversely, people are considered only the epitome
of spiritual/physical life on Earth
and not the end stage of evolution, which continues for further stages.
This natural progression includes those types of beings that were men and women like ourselves, but have since become more than egocentric personalities. The Ancient Wisdom Religion considers that in reaching such levels of selfless spiritual development, a man or woman naturally partakes in a Hierarchy of Being, where concern is the welfare and highest good of all beings. Therefore, in this sense, where religions would have men worship such Angelic types as the son of the Father (God), Theosophy teaches that all people are such beings in various stages of attainment, through the changing of their focus of life from the outer ego to the welfare of all others.
Of course this must take as many lives to occur as it took to become enmeshed in so called material life. Men and women that have accomplished this are known throughout history as the benefactors and teachers of humanity, and have taught that all people may become what they have become. They teach that it is the duty of human beings to follow this Path of self-emancipation from the bondage of selfishness and become their own saviours, vicarious atonement essentially being impossible and outside the natural order. For although the thoughts and actions of another may be emulated, no being can be saved from foolishness through another's actions. Therefore Theosophy teaches that the immortal ethical life must be lived, and to this end teaches a Heart Doctrine of ethical thought and action as the practice by which the changes spoken of may be made.
Theosophy professes the method for people to free themselves from unconsciously causing negative karma, which has become the cause of suffering of humanity during life, through an emulation of dharma-duty to all that lives. Theosophy teaches, as do many ethical/religious doctrines, that what ye sow, so shall ye reap
. The point being that a sense or law of rigid justice rules nature, whereby Causes sown (in terms of conscious and unconscious actions) all have their mathematically connected consequences. Evil and good are the result of human determination, and of themselves are illusions caused by the mind being absorbed in spirit/matter in a cycle of becoming. There is a natural involution of spirit into matter followed by an evolution of matter back into spirit. The purpose of the Universe is for spirit to manifest itself self-consciously. This is done in small unassuming ways where individuals make a decided work out of doing their duty in the daily round, and learning to treat all others as their equal. In this way the Karma of our past, which precoccupies much of our endeavor, is resolved, the resolvent and solvent being the application of what the Buddhists call Good Heart through Mindfulness.
Theosophy teaches that all life exists in an essential "Radical Unity" and in which all individual beings, regardless of the kingdom in which they exist (human, animal, vegetable or mineral), are involved in an inextricably interconnected single life. The advancement of any one aspect of this synergistically bound Unity affects all for the good. Of course, therefore, the opposite must be true. Human beings, being the only self conscious types in this continuum, are the product of countless awakenings into this state through lives of involvement with this "Radical Unity" and are therefore growing positively, when the awareness of this has become obvious.
Evolution and Race
Theosophists believe that religion
, the arts
, commerce, and philanthropy, among other "virtues," lead people ever closer to "the Absolute."
Planets, solar systems, galaxies, and the cosmos itself are seen as conscious beings, fulfilling their own evolutionary paths.
The spiritual units of consciousness in the universe are the Monads, which may manifest as angels, human beings or in various other forms. Essentially, according to Leibniz in his Monadology, and adopted by Blavatsky because of the usefulness of the idea regarding a perspective upon what is called the Higher Self or Spiritual Nature of man, the idea of Monad stands for an essential unitary nature, a point which is the basis for all compound natures, or a sort of 'spiritual atom.' The point is that all beings, regardless of stature or complexity, are informed by the Monad, as it/they perfectly reflect(s) all of nature, but only from their vantage point. So-called empty Space is "dotted" with them to the exclusion of emptiness.
Theosophists also believe that human civilization, like all other parts of the universe, develops through cycles of seven stages. Thus in the first age, humans were pure spirit; in the second age, they are known as Hyperboreans; in the third as Lemurians; and in the fourth, Atlanteans. Since Atlantis was the nadir of the cycle, the present fifth age is a time of reawakening humanity's psychic gifts. The term psychic here really means the realization of the permeability of consciousness as it had not been known earlier in evolution, although sensed by some more sensitive individuals of our culture.
In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky says that Semitic peoples were an offshoot of the initial Aryan Race which through a natural process of differentiation, had branched off from the Parent Aryan Race, along with its core beliefs, and became the basis for the Semitic peoples, as they are known in the Mid-east and from which ultimately sprung the Judeo-Christian perspective upon the Wisdom Religion of the Aryans. According to her, the Semitic were an early off-shoot or Sub-Race of this 5th Race of people, who are the participants within the earlier races, and will be the participants of the latter races to be, as the evolution of our Spiritual awareness naturally proceeds and the less flexible forms of preceding people (through a Darwinian perspective) are less and less adaptable to the Soul's needs. However, this evolutionary drive, must be consciously assisted by its participants. For there can be no increase in awareness for those who practice an addiction to a stultifying materialism. This is one of the major emphases in Theosophy and is discussed in what is known as the Third Fundamental in The Secret Doctrine. Self-imposed and Self-divised effort is said to bring about the changes needed for us to effectively grow in Spiritual awareness, and only this is said to be able to enrich our culture with genuine ethical civilization.
Theosophists opine that the most material of the vestures of the Soul are interpenetrated by the particles of the more subtle vesture. For example they claim that -The "Sthula-Sarira" or most material body, is, as science is aware, mostly space at its so-called atomic level (as all matter is known to be), and these interstitial spaces are inhabited by the those subtler particles of the Astral Body or Linga sarira, and so on for the other more energy like envelopes of the Soul. The important thing about this interpenetration of each sheath, is that we see the inner person as a fluid and unbroken continuity, although varying in density/flexibility and energy and therefore more and more susceptible to the behest of the Real Person - the Soul/Higher Self since they are less and less encumbered in material boundary. Perhaps the image of a suspension or colloid in chemistry is an apt perspective. And since matter is merely the material opposite of consciousness (ultimately the Highest aspect of us being pure consciousness), this interpenetration of sheaths allows for consciousness to interpenetrate Man's nature and explains how we are sensitive to what we think is external stimulate, through the five senses.
Theosophy, as well as many other esoteric groups and occult societies, claims in their esoteric cosmology that the universe is ordered by the number seven. The reincarnating consciousness of the monad utilizes spirit/matter forms in seven bodies:
- The first body is called sthula-sarira (Sanskrit, from sthula meaning coarse, gross, not refined, heavy, bulky, fat in the sense of bigness, conditioned and differentiated matter + sarira to moulder, waste away). A gross body, impermanent because of its wholly compounded character. The physical body is usually considered as the lowest substance-principle. The physical form is the result of the harmonious co-working on the physical plane of forces and faculties streaming through their astral vehicle or linga-sarira, the pattern or model of the physical body.
- The second body is called Linga-Sarira, (Sanskrit, from linga meaning characteristic mark, model, pattern + sarira, from the verbal root sri to moulder, waste away). A pattern or model that is impermanent; the model-body or astral body, only slightly more ethereal than the physical body. It is the astral model around which the physical body is built, and from which the physical body flows or develops as growth proceeds.
- The third body is prana (Sanskrit, from pra before + the verbal root an to breathe, to live). In theosophy, the breath of life. This life or prana works on, in, and around us, pulsating unceasingly during the term of physical existence. Prana is "the radiating force or Energy of Atma -- as the Universal Life and the One Self -- its lower or rather (in its effects) more physical, because manifesting, aspect. Prana or Life permeates the whole being of the objective Universe; and is called a 'principle' only because it is an indispensable factor and the deus ex machina of the living man."
- The fourth principle is kāma (Sanskrit, from the verbal root kam meaning to desire). Desire; the desire principle is the driving, impelling force. Born from the interaction of atman, buddhi, and manas, kama per se is a colourless force, good or bad according to the way the mind and soul use it. It is the seat of the living electrical impulses, desires, and aspirations, considered in their energetic aspect.
- The fifth principle is manas (Sanskrit, from the verbal root man meaning to think). The seat of mentation and egoic consciousness; in humanity Manas is the human person, the reincarnating ego, immortal in essence, enduring in its higher aspects through the entire manvantara. When embodied, manas is dual, gravitating toward buddhi in its higher aspects and in its lower aspects toward kama. The first is intuitive mind, the second the animal, ratiocinative consciousness, the lower mentality and passions of the personality.
- The sixth principle or vehicle is Buddhi (Sanskrit, from the verbal root budh to awaken, enlighten, know). The vehicle of pure, universal spirit, hence an inseparable garment or vehicle of atman, which is, in its essence, of the highest plane of akasa or alaya. In man buddhi is the spiritual soul, the faculty of discriminating, the channel through which streams divine inspiration from the atman to the ego, and therefore that faculty which enables us to discern between good and evil: spiritual conscience. The qualities of the buddhic principle when awakened are higher judgment, instant understanding, discrimination, intuition, love that has no bounds, and consequent universal forgiveness.
- The seventh is called Atman (Sanskrit). Self; pure consciousness, that cosmic self which is the same in every dweller on this globe and on every one of the planetary or stellar bodies in space. It is the feeling and knowledge of "I am," pure cognition, the abstract idea of self. It does not differ at all throughout the cosmos except in degree of self-recognition. It may also be considered as the First Logos in the human microcosm. During incarnation the lowest aspects of atman take on attributes, because it is linked with buddhi, as the buddhi is linked with manas, as the manas is linked with kama, etc.
See: Encyclopedic Theosophic Glossary
Theosophists trace the origin of Theosophy to the universal striving for spiritual knowledge that existed in all cultures. It is found in an unbroken chain in India
but existed in ancient Greece
and also in the writings of Plato
) and other neo-Platonists
, as well as Jakob Boehme
). Some relevant quotations:
- ...we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell.
- — The Socrates of Plato, Phaedrus
- To the philosopher, the body is "a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of knowledge..."
- ...what is purification but...the release of the soul from the chains of the body?
- — The Socrates of Plato, Phaedo
The Theosophical Society
Modern Theosophical esotericism
, however, begins with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831
) usually known as Madame Blavatsky
. In 1875
she founded the Theosophical Society
in New York City
together with Henry Steel Olcott
, who was a lawyer
. During the Civil War Col. Olcott worked to root out corruption in war contracts. Blavatsky was a world traveler who eventually settled in India
where, with Olcott, she established the headquarters of the Society in Bangalore. Her first major book Isis Unveiled
(1877) presented elements mainly from the Western wisdom tradition based on her extensive travels in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Her second major work The Secret Doctrine
(1888), contains a commentary on The Book of Dzyan
, and is based upon what she called an Unwritten Secret Doctrine (really the Wisdom tradition or Wisdom Religion allotted to Man), which is described as the underlying basis of all the religions of humanity. These writings, along with her Key to Theosophy
and The Voice of the Silence
are key texts for genuine students.
Upon Blavatsky's death in 1891, several Theosophical societies emerged following a series of schisms. Annie Besant became leader of the society based in Adyar, India, while William Quan Judge split off the American Section of the Theosophical Society in New York which later moved to Point Loma, Covina, and Pasadena, California under a series of leaders: Katherine Tingley, Gottfried de Purucker, Colonel Arthur L. Conger, James A. Long, Grace F. Knoche, and in March 2006 Randell C. Grubb. The great pulp fiction writer Talbot Mundy was a member of the Point Loma group, and wrote many articles for its newsletter. Yet another international theosophical organization, the United Lodge of Theosophists, was formed by Robert Crosbie. He was a student of William Quan Judge and after his death went to Point Loma in 1900 to help Katherine Tingley's Thesosphical society, and which he left in 1904 to found the ULT in 1909. He experienced a lack of respect for the original work of Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge in Tingley's work and wished to bring that original stream of study back to the world, through a re-presentation of unaltered original writings.
Rudolf Steiner created a successful branch of the Theosophical Society Adyar in Germany. He focused on a Western esoteric path that incorporated the influences of Christianity and natural science, resulting in tensions with Annie Besant (cf. Rudolf Steiner and the Theosophical Society); these were seriously exacerbated by Steiner refusing members of the Order of the Star of the East membership in the Theosophical Society's German Section. Steiner was vehemently opposed to The Order of the Star of the East's proclamation that the young boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti, was the incarnation of Maitreya (who was believed to have "over-shadowed" Jesus Christ). (Krishnamurti himself later saw through this business and left the Society.) In 1913 Steiner founded his own Anthroposophical Society; the great majority of German-speaking theosophists joined the new society, which grew rapidly. Steiner later became most famous for his ideas about education, resulting in an international network of "Steiner Schools." Other influences of anthroposophical thought include biodynamic agriculture, anthroposophic medicine and the acting techniques of Michael Chekhov.
In North London, another splinter group split off to form the Palmers Green Lodge under the leadership of the occultist and colonial adventurer, Thomas Neumark-Jones. The Palmers Green Lodge published the journal Kayfabe which published, among others, Rainbow Circle writers like Hobhouse and Chiozza Money. After the death of William Quan Judge, another society, the United Lodge of Theosophists, emerged, recognizing no leader after Judge; it is now based in Los Angeles, California.
Other organizations based on the theosophical teachings of Helena Blavatsky, Besant and Leadbeater include the Agni Yoga, "I AM" Activity, The Bridge to Freedom, The Summit Lighthouse, and The Temple of The Presence. These various offshoots dispute the authenticity of their rivals. Thus followers of the United Lodge of Theosophists will claim that only " the Writings of HPB, William Quan Judge and Robert Crosbie can be trusted to contain unadulterated concepts and ethical direction."
At its strongest in membership and intensity during the 1920s
the parent Theosophical Society (or Theosophical Society Adyar
) had around 7,000 members in the USA
The largest section of The Theosophical Society, the Indian section, at one time had more than 20,000 members, now reduced to around 10,000.
Theosophy was closely linked to the Indian independence movement: the Indian National Congress was founded during a Theosophical conference, and many of its leaders, including M. K. Gandhi were associated with theosophy.
The present-day New Age movement is to a considerable extent based on the teachings of Blavatsky, though some writers have described Alice Bailey as the founder of the "New Age movement". However, the term was used prior to Bailey; a weekly Journal of Christian liberalism and Socialism called The New Age was published as early as 1894. James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, in Perspectives on the New Age wrote, "The most important—though certainly not the only—source of this transformative metaphor, as well as the term "New Age," was Theosophy, particularly as the Theosophical perspective was mediated to the movement by the works of Alice Bailey."
Scholar Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote his thesis, Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, on the subject - perhaps the first instance in which an individual has been "permitted" by any modern American or European university to obtain his doctorate with a thesis on Theosophy.
Artists and authors who investigated Theosophy, aside from the musicians listed below, include Aldous Huxley, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kafka, William Butler Yeats, George William Russell (Æ), Owen Barfield, and T. S. Eliot, in Europe, and Arthur Dove, George Lucas, Katherine Dreier, Robert Duncan, Marsden Hartley, Wallace Stevens, and James Jones in America.
Some prominent Hindu leaders, such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Dayananda Sarasvati criticized Theosophy. Swami Dayananda Sarasvati initially worked with Blavatsky and Olcott after they arrived in India, but soon afterwards accused them of lying on several different topics, and then all collaboration was stopped on a permanent basis.
Composers such as Ruth Crawford-Seeger
, Dane Rudhyar
, and most famously Alexander Scriabin
were Theosophists whose beliefs influenced their music, especially by providing a justification or rationale for their dissonant counterpoint
. According to Rudhyar, Scriabin was "the one great pioneer of the new music of a reborn Western civilization, the father of the future musician." (Rudhyar 1926b, 899) and an antidote to "the Latin reactionaries and their apostle, Stravinsky
" and the "rule-ordained" music of "Schoenberg
's group." (Ibid., 900-901) Scriabin devised a quartal synthetic chord
, often called his "mystic" chord, and before his death Scriabin planned a multimedia work to be performed in the Himalayas that would bring about the armageddon
; "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world." (AMG
). This piece, Mysterium
, was never realized, due to his death in 1915.
20th-century literary references to Theosophy
- In Luigi Pirandello's key novel The Late Mattia Pascal (1904), the protagonist's landlord Anselmo Paleari owns many a theosophical work in his private library and frequents a local theosophist school.
- In E.M. Forster's novel, Howard's End (1910), there are several references to the Schlegel siblings' study and participation in Theosophy, as well as a mention of Madame Blavatsky. The characterization serves to highlight the Schlegels' (who were German) non-conformist, liberal and artistic pursuits - considered radical and inappropriate by the upper-class Edwardian society into which Margaret Schlegel was to marry.
- In Hermann Hesse's novel, Demian, Knauer asks Emil if Emil is a theosophist.
- Theosophy is mocked in several episodes of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922).
- In the play Juno and the Paycock (1924) by Sean O'Casey, which is set in pre-independence Dublin, one of the secondary characters is a Theosophist. This character is quite shallow, and through him O'Casey parodies theosophy as an intellectual fad.
- H. P. Lovecraft read W. Scott-Elliot's The Story of Atlantis & Lost Lemuria and altered Theosophical ideas in his short story, "The Call of Cthulhu (1928)."
- Mahatma Gandhi met Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant in India in about 1889, shortly after Besant had joined the Society. He declined invitations to join, but said the meeting induced him to study his own background in Hinduism. He mentions this, and his further study of Theosophy during 1903 as published in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927–29).
- Mark Frost utilizes Theosophy as a plot point in his novel The List of 7 (1993) and features Madame Blavatsky as a minor character.
- The novel Little, Big by John Crowley includes a minor character who is a Theosophist.
- A 1997 film called FairyTale: A True Story includes a Theosophist as a main character.
- Theosophists, along with Rosicrucians, frequently visit Clara in Isabel Allende's novel The House of the Spirits.
- L. Frank Baum, a notable member of the Theosophical Society, wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which some see as an allegory of theosophical tenets. Many of the story's oft-cited parallels to mysticism -- the rainbow and the ruby slippers, for example - actually originated with the 1939 MGM musical adaptation. There are Theosophical elements in all fourteen Oz books, with Tik-Tok of Oz (1914) particularly strong in Theosophist symbolism.
- Jorge Luis Borges uses some of the concepts of theosophy in his short story "The Witness".
- The Maltese poet Kevin Saliba wrote a poem entitled Summa Theosofica in which he poeticises a seminal passage from Madame Blavatsky's book The Key to Theosophy. The poem was published in the poetry collection Ħbula Stirati (Tight Ropes) (2007).
- Ishmael Reed refers to theosophy in the novel Mumbo Jumbo.
- Van Morrison's song "Dweller on the Threshold," has Theosophy concepts at its core. He also mentions Theosophy in the song "Rave On, John Donne".
- Murray Silver's When Elvis Meets the Dalai Lama (Bonaventure Books, Savannah, 2005) is the author's memoirs relating how he started out as a rock concert promoter and ended up as a special assistant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Some Theosophists believe Silver wears the mantle of Henry Steel Olcott.
- Blavatsky, Helena: The Key to Theosophy, ISBN 0-911500-07-3
- René Guénon. Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (2004), Sophia Perennis. ISBN 0-900588-79-9
- Roth, Christopher F., "Ufology as Anthropology: Race, Extraterrestrials, and the Occult." In E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces, ed. by Debbora Battaglia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005.
- Washington, Peter Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (1993), London: Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0-436-56418-1 Review