Theosophical Society

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The Temple of Light at Adyar in the gardens of theTheosophical Society headquarters near Madras, India. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Theosophical Society

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The Theosophical Society was founded on September 7, 1875, in an attempt to bring together eastern and western magical traditions. The founders were Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott, and W. Q. Judge. The Inaugural Address by President-Founder Colonel Olcott was delivered November 17, 1875, considered to be the official date of the founding of the Society. The stated aims of the society were:

  • 1: To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
  • 2: To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
  • 3: To investigate unexplained laws of Nature, and the powers latent in man.

Blavatsky and Olcott had met the previous year in America, when Olcott was investigating the Eddy Brothers and their Spiritualist phenomena in Vermont. At that time Blavatsky was an ardent Spiritualist. She was also well read in most aspects of the occult. The two became firm friends, sharing an avid interest in a wide variety of occult subjects. They eventually lived together in New York and held evenings of discussions, lectures, and workshops with friends and acquaintances. One evening after a lecture on Egyptian art and magic, Olcott put forward the idea of forming a society. Blavatsky was all in favor and the word Theosophy was adopted as a name for the society. Theosophy means “knowledge of God or divine wisdom.”

Blavatsky went on to write a book of this divine wisdom or body of truth concerning God, man, and the universe. It took two years to write and was published in New York in 1877 under the title Isis Unveiled. The book was written through automatic writing, inspirational writing, and—it was claimed—with writing that suddenly appeared on the paper while Blavatsky slept. It was something of an amalgam of eastern thought, western science, witchcraft, magic, alchemy; surveying the literature of the ages.

In February, 1879, Blavatsky and Olcott moved to India to establish the Theosophical Society there. In October of that year, they published the first of a monthly magazine titled The Theosophist. The driving force of the society were the Hidden Masters, or Secret Brothers, who existed in the Himalayas. Blavatsky claimed that she had been initiated by them in 1864. They provided the power for the seeming miracles that Blavatsky regularly performed. Rappings were frequently heard in her presence, as was the sound of tiny bells. Apports were common and so were many other mediumistic phenomena. Colonel Olcott traveled and established branches of the society throughout India and Ceylon. They purchased a large estate in southern India, in Adyar, near Madras, in May of 1882, which is still the headquarters of the Theosophical Society.

In 1884, a scandal broke when Alex and Emma Coulomb—a husband and wife who had been working for Blavatsky but had been fired—claimed that they had conspired with the medium to produce fraudulent phenomena. The Coulombs were working with a group of Christian missionaries. This happened at a time when Blavatsky and Olcott were in Europe and the medium was being investigated by the Society for Psychical Research. The society had been about to publish a glowing report on Blavatsky when the scandal broke. Blavatsky and Olcott hurried back to India and were prepared to sue the Couloms but were talked out of it by followers. Blavatsky finally left India, though the Theosophical Society continued its existence there. She went on to write The Secret Doctrine, an epic work on the root knowledge out of which all religion, philosophy, and science have grown. She died of Bright’s disease on May 8, 1891. The Theosophical Society continued under the direction of Annie Wood Besant and Charles Leadbeater. Besant was the driving intellectual force and Leadbeater managed occult matters. W. Q. Judge, one of the original founders of the Theosophical Society, struggled with Besant for overall control and, on losing the fight, became leader of the American branch of the society, which seceded from the parent body.

Nandor Fodor said, “Whatever opinions may be held of the soundness of theosophical teaching, no doubt can be entertained of the extent and influence of the society, which has numerous members in lands so far apart and so different in spirit as America and India, besides every other civilized country in the world.”

Sources:

Cave, Janet (ed): Mysteries of the Unknown: Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects. New York: Time-Life Books, 1989
Cranston, Sylvia: H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1993
Symonds, John: Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician. London: Yoseloff, 1960
Wilson, Colin: The Supernatural: Mysterious Powers. London: Aldus Books, 1975