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Related to theosophy: Theosophical Society, Gnosticism
theosophy(thēŏs`əfē) [Gr.,=divine wisdom], philosophical system having affinities with mysticismmysticism
[Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with God, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion.
..... Click the link for more information. and claiming insight into the nature of God and the world through direct knowledge, philosophical speculation, or some physical process. This system of thought differs from many other philosophical positions in that it begins with an assumption of the absolute reality of the essence of God, from which it deduces the essentially spiritual nature of the universe. Other assumptions frequently found in theosophical doctrine are that God is the transcendent source of all being and all good; that evil exists in the world because of human desire for finite goods and may be overcome by complete absorption in the infinite; and that sacred writings and doctrines are interpreted through allegory. This is the position of much speculative mysticism. However, mysticism generally confines itself to the soul's relation to God, while the theosophist uses these theories to formulate a complete philosophy of humanity and nature.
The Neoplatonists, the Gnostics, and the kabbalists are generally considered types of theosophists. Jakob BoehmeBoehme or Böhme, Jakob
, 1575–1624, German religious mystic, a cobbler of Görlitz, in England also called Behmen. He was a student of the Bible and was influenced by Paracelsus.
..... Click the link for more information. , regarded as the father of modern theosophy, developed a complete theosophical system attempting to reconcile the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God with the presence of evil in the world. The philosophy and theology of Asia, especially of India, contain a vast body of theosophical doctrine. Modern theosophy draws much of its vocabulary from Indian sources. The Theosophical Society, with which theosophy is now generally identified, was founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna BlavatskyBlavatsky, Helena Petrovna
, 1831–91, Russian theosophist and occultist. She was the daughter of a German named Hahn who had settled in Russia and who was distantly connected with the Russian aristocracy.
..... Click the link for more information. ; associated with her were H. S. Olcott and W. Q. Judge. Blavatsky wrote The Secret Doctrine (1888, repr. 1964) and Key to Theosophy (1931, rev. ed. 1969). An active exponent of theosophy in Europe, America, and the East was Annie BesantBesant, Annie
, 1847–1933, English social reformer and theosophist, b. Annie Wood. She steadily grew away from Christianity and in 1873 separated from her husband, a Protestant clergyman.
..... Click the link for more information. , who added many works to the literature on the subject.
Theosophy(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
There is a hidden side of reality that is controlled by masters of the occult: this is the premise of the Theosophical (divine wisdom) Society. Its founder and guiding light was a woman named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891). She spent more than twenty years traveling the world, meeting with experts in the occult. She was initiated into secret societies all over the globe. She studied in Egypt, Mexico, Tibet, Canada, and the United States, where she met Colonel Henry Olcott (1832-1907). He was a scientist and a lawyer who had been investigating the new phenomenon of Spiritualism (see Spiritualism) for years. The two of them formed the Theosophical Society in 1875, convinced science and the occult supernatural could expand both mind and spiritual power. In 1878 Blavatsky published Isis
Revealed, in which she looked to the wisdom of the ancient masters for guidance in the modern world.
It soon became obvious to them that real wisdom could only be found in the East. So the two traveled to India, where they established their headquarters in Madras, thereby linking their understanding of Theosophy with both Buddhism and Hinduism. They took such a proactive position for Indian independence from Britain that they were soon befriended by the local Hindu intellectual community, and Theosophy began to flourish.
Blavatsky published her most important work, The Secret Doctrines, in 1888, a work that she claimed was based on a lost text called Stanzas of Dzyan. It shows a lot of Hindu influence (see Brahman/Atman) with its imagery of the One universal principle, which flows through all things, pulsing through creation and then returning to the One. All reality is one universal consciousness. Humans, existing at different spiritual levels, are linked to the One.
Later Theosophical leaders developed a whole master hierarchy. Solar Logos rules the solar level. Sanat Kumara, "Lord of the World," resides in Shamballa, another dimension parallel to the one in which we live. The Buddha, the Bodhisattva, and Manu serve there as well. The Seven Rays govern all earthly life, each ruled by a different master. They have appeared from time to time throughout history. We know them by such names as Krishna, Jesus, and Roger Bacon.
Although Theosophy, as might be expected, splintered into many different movements, it is still active today, known by many names. It served a valuable function in that it introduced a lot of Westerners to Eastern thought. For this reason, a good argument can be made that Theosophy was the first of what is now called New Age Religion (see New Age Religions).
Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, is considered by her detractors to have been a hoaxster, a fraud, and a deceiver—but even today her followers revere her as a genius, a veritable saint, and a woman of monumental courage.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York by Mme Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91) on November 17, 1875, with the aid of Col. Henry Steel Olcott and William Q. Judge, an attorney. The threefold purpose of the Society was (1) to form a universal brotherhood of man; (2) to study and make known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences; and (3) to investigate the laws of nature and develop the divine powers latent in humankind.
Theosophy (“divine wisdom”) is an esoteric blend of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Kabbalah, and the philosophy of Plato and other mystics—all of which Madame combined with the teachings of mysterious masters who dwell in secret places in the Himalayas and communicate with their initiates through their psychic abilities and their projected astral bodies. Whereas many founders of cults and secret societies evolved their teachings primarily through their own revelations, inspirations, and psychic abilities, Mme Blavatsky claimed to be able to draw upon the ancient wisdom of the masters Koot Hoomi and Morya to abet the considerable knowledge that she had distilled from various mystery schools, Hindu religious thought, Jewish mysticism, and Christian sects. In additions to such contributions as occult masters and guides, Mme Blavatsky introduced the legend of the lost continent of Lemuria, promised the return of the Maitreya (world savior), and was greatly responsible for popularizing the concepts of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States. Many of the concepts, along with the spiritual eclecticism, professed by Mme Blavatsky in the 1880s would be revised on a large scale in the 1970s, in what has loosely been called the New Age movement.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born at Eka-terinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine, on July 30, 1831, the daughter of Col. Peter Hahn. As a child she loved mystery and fantasy and claimed supernatural companions that kept her safe from harm. At the age of seventeen she married Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia, who according to some accounts was forty years older than she. She separated from her husband after three months and spent over a year traveling in Texas, Mexico, Canada, and India. All the time she was wandering, she was developing her mediumistic abilities, secure in the confidence that her spirit guide watched over her. Twice she attempted to enter Tibet, and on one occasion she managed to cross its frontier in disguise, but she lost her way and was escorted out of the country.
Mme Blavatsky described the years between 1848 and 1858 as the “veiled” or “vagabond” time in her life, refusing to divulge anything specific that happened to her in that time but making mysterious allusions to spiritual retreats in Tibet. In 1848, shortly after she had “escaped” from her husband, she fled to Egypt, where she supposedly became adept in the art of snake charming and was initiated into the secrets of oriental magic by a Coptic magician. In 1851, according to her account, she was in New Orleans, studying the rites and mysteries of Voodoo. She traveled to Paris in 1858 and met the internationally famous medium Daniel D. Home, who so impressed her with his paranormal abilities that she became a Spiritualist. Later that year she returned to Russia, where she soon gained fame as a spirit medium. After about five years spent perfecting her mediumship, she entered another “veiled” period from 1863 to 1870, when she was allegedly in retreat in Tibet, studying with Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya and a secret brotherhood of adepts.
In 1870, back in Europe, she was en route to Greece when the ship on which she was traveling exploded and she lost all her earthly possessions, including whatever money she had managed to save. Rescued at sea and brought to Cairo, she supported herself through her mediumship, and in 1871 she founded the Spirit Society, which was quickly disbanded after accusations of fraud.
In 1873 she traveled to the United States and settled in New York, where she remained for six years and, according to some accounts, became a naturalized citizen. She resumed the practice of her mediumship in association with the brothers William and Horatio Eddy, two well-known materialization mediums. As she became more prominent in Spiritualist circles in America, she came to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott, a journalist, who established a study group around her unique style of mediumship, a blend of Spiritualism and Buddhistic legends about Tibetan sages. She professed to have direct spiritual contact with two Tibetan mahatmas—again, Koot Hoomi and Morya—who communicated with her on the astral plane and provided her with wonderful teachings of wisdom and knowledge.
Sometime in 1875 Mme Blavatsky entered into a very brief marriage of two or three months with a merchant in Philadelphia named M. C. Betanelly. At about the same time, she managed to break up the marriage of Colonel Olcott, who left his wife and children for her. It was during this period that she founded the Theosophical Society.
In 1877 Olcott began to speak of moving the headquarters of the society to India, closer to the mahatmas, the occult brotherhood, and sincere practicing Hindu adepts. By 1879 the central headquarters of the society had been established at Adyar, India, and an amalgamation with the Arya Samaj sect founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati had also been accomplished. By April 1882, however, the swami realized that he had been exploited by the leaders of the Theosophists, and he denounced the group.
By that time, the influence of the swami in India was no longer required, for in 1880 Mme Blavatsky had visited northern India and observed wonderful phenomena manifested especially for her by the mahatmas. Theosophy began to attract students and followers from around the world who came to observe for themselves the miracles centered on the spiritual teachings of Morya and Koot Hoomi as channeled through the mediumship of Mme Blavatsky. It was also at this time that she met A. P. Sinnett, journalist and editor of the Pioneer, an influential Anglo-Indian newspaper, and Allen O. Hume of the Indian Civil Service, her two most important converts in India.
Mme. Blavatsky performed such manifestations as written letters from Koot Hoomi and Morya that would materialize in midair. Eventually such reports reached the attention of England’s Society for Psychical Research, which dispatched Richard Hodgson, one of their most formidable researchers, to investigate. It didn’t take long for Hodgson to assess the followers of Theosophy as extremely gullible individuals who had arrived in India with expectations of finding in Mme Blavatsky a modern miracle worker. The psychical researcher easily detected the sliding panels, the dummy head and shoulders of Koot Hoomi, and the cracks in the ceiling through which the letters from the mahatmas appeared in “midair” to the astonishment of the true believers.
Regardless of the exposé published by the Society for Psychical Research, Theosophy continued to grow to become a worldwide movement. In 1877 Mme Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled, followed in 1887 by her monumental The Secret Doctrine, which she allegedly wrote in an altered state of consciousness while attuned to higher powers.
At the time of her death in 1891, Mme Blavatsky’s detractors considered her to have been a hoaxster, a fraud, and a deceiver, while her followers revered her as a genius, a veritable saint, and a woman of monumental courage who had struggled against an incredible array of adversities and adversaries to fashion a modern mystery school without equal. Foe and follower alike conceded that she was a unique, sometimes overpowering, personality.
In 1887 Madame had met Annie Besant, a woman’s suffragist and social reformer who had embraced theosophical beliefs. They became close, and Blavatsky died in Annie’s home. The Theosophical Society, which numbered about 100,000 persons at the time of Madame’s death, split into two branches, with Besant as president of one of them. Annie Besant became a worthy successor, actively preaching the wisdom and insights provided in The Secret Doctrine and shepherding the movement to steadily larger growth.
Besant took the mission to India, the Hindu root of many of Blavatsky’s teachings on reincarnation and karma, and in 1898 founded the Central Hindu College at Benares. Becoming embroiled in the national politics of India, in 1916 Annie established the Indian Home Rule League, becoming its president, then, in 1917, president of the Indian National Congress, an active force in the independence movement.
Although she remained based in India until her death in 1933, she returned to her native England from 1926 to 1927 with her protégé Jiddu Krishnamurti and traveled around the country promoting him as the new Messiah.
(1) In the broad sense of the word, the mystical knowledge of god. Among the followers of the Areopagite, the-osophy was a synonym for theology. Later, theosophy, unlike theology, which relies on revelation and dogmas, was defined as the study of divinity that was based on subjective mystical experience and that attempted to expound this experience in the form of a coherent system.
Some scholars associated theosophy with Gnosticism, Neopla-tonism, and the cabala. More widespread, however, is the use of the term to apply to a number of mystical teachings of the 16th through 18th centuries that were outside the Christian tradition; these include works by J. Boehme, Paracelsus, L. C. Saint-Martin, E. Swedenborg, and F. Etinger. F. W. von Schelling used the term “theosophy” to designate the synthesis of mystical knowledge and rational philosophy; V. Solov’ev’s concept of “free theosophy” was similar to this synthesis.
(2) The religious and mystical teachings of the Russian writer H. P. Blavatsky (1831–91), author of The Secret Doctrine (1888), and her followers. Theosophy arose under the influence of the religious and philosophical concepts of Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (for example, the study of karma—the soul’s reincarnation—and the study of cosmic evolution as a manifestation of the spiritual absolute); it also drew on occultism and some elements of Gnosticism. Discarding the “established forms of religion,” theosophy strives to unite various creeds through the revelation of the common hidden meaning of all religious symbols and to create on this foundation a universal religion not linked with any fixed dogma. According to theosophy, man’s final goal—the attainment of occult knowledge and supernatural abilities—is fulfilled through the esoteric teachings of a few “devotees,” or “masters,” who inspire man’s spiritual evolution.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York City by Blavatsky and the American Colonel H. S. Olcott. Its goal was to promote universal brotherhood, the comparative study of religion and philosophy, and the exploration of unexplained natural laws and of man’s hidden forces. The society soon spread to many countries of Europe and the Americas. Its headquarters was transferred to India in 1879 and since 1882 has been located in Adyar, a suburb of Madras. After Olcott’s death in 1907, A. Besant (1847–1933) became the president of the society. In 1912 she declared J. Krishnamurti the new “savior” of humanity. Later, however, Krishnamurti abandoned theosophy, and after this schism took place R. Steiner formed an offshoot movement called anthroposophy.
As a form of mysticism beyond the realm of creed, theosophy attests to the crisis of the traditional religions that it tries to replace.
REFERENCESLeadbeater, C. Kratkii ocherk teosofii. Kaluga, 1911. (Translated from English.)
Shakhnovich, M. I. Sovremennaia mistika v svete nauki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Guenon, R. Le théosophisme: Histoire d’une pseudoreligion. Paris, 1921.
Bichlmair, G. Christentum: Theosophie und Anthroposophie. Vienna, 1950.
Theosophy is a particular synthesis of religious and occult ideas drawn primarily from the philosophical systems of India, the ancient Gnostics, and the Neoplatonists. The term also refers to a specific religious movement, the Theosophical Society, which was founded in New York in 1875. As a part of the religious phenomenon known as esotericism, Theosophy offers enlightenment to the individual through knowledge of the world of the divine and its hidden mysteries.
Theosophy postulates a rather complex view of the universe, within which humanity’s origins, evolution, and destiny after death are delineated. According to its principles, the visible world arises from an omnipresent and immutable divine “source,” an immaterial reality, of which—as in Hindu philosophy—the universe is the manifestation and from within which it is worked and guided. The ultimate goal of human life is, as in southern Asian religions, to free oneself from matter (Theosophists believe in reincarnation) and return to the source, with an increased consciousness.
One of the central teachings of Theosophy is that the cosmos is arranged in a series of distinct vibratory “planes” that coexist with the physical plane (the densest of them all) in what may be called a different “dimension.” The soul, which is a spark of the divine source, can operate in the lower planes via a series of vehicles or “bodies,” with which it clothes itself. The planes closest to the physical are the etheric plane and the astral plane.
During sleep, according to Theosophy, the soul withdraws to these subtler planes. The level at which the soul stops determines the types of dreams the individual will have. As examples of dreams created or influenced by the physical body, C.W. Leadbeater, in his short work Dreams, cites instances in which a sound or other stimulus in the environment is incorporated into a sleeper’s dream immediately before the person awakens.
When the soul is operating in the etheric plane, Leadbeater says, we are receptive to the “thought-forms” of other people. By this he means that thoughts radiate out from our minds on the etheric plane, and that these thoughts can be picked up by other minds, usually as an indistinct jumble of images (although, as in ESP, a clear idea can sometimes be communicated directly from one mind to another). These cluttered, disconnected, constantly changing thought-forms are often picked up by the mind during sleep, and this accounts for the disconnected nature of much of our dream experience.
According to Leadbeater, when the soul is operating in the astral body, the dreamer may visit distant scenes of surpassing beauty, … meet and exchange ideas with friends, either living or departed, who happen to be equally awake on the astral plane. He may be fortunate enough to encounter those who know far more than he does, and may receive warning or instruction. He may [also] come into contact with non-human entities of various kinds—with nature-spirits, artificial elementals, or even, though very rarely, with Devas (angels)…. (Leadbeater, pp. 30–31—see Sources).
The problem with these experiences, Leadbeater notes, is that the dreamer often does not remember his dreams—not even the more significant ones.
Certain writers in the broader occult-theosophical tradition have asserted that during sleep the soul has the option of advancing itself to the higher planes. For example, the dreamer’s soul might attend “classes” in special “classrooms” on the higher planes of existence, though most of us forget what we have learned upon awakening.