Theosophy: Revisiting the Ancient Wisdom

What Is Theosophy?

Use of the word theosophy dates back at least to the third century AD and is open to interpretation. Within The Theosophical Society it is used chiefly in three ways:

  • To mean divine wisdom, from the Greek, theosophia
  • To refer to teachings about divine wisdom and the way to it
  • To refer to a specific set of teachings on the subject of divine wisdom gathered from a wide variety of sources by H.P. Blavatsky and others

The founders of The Theosophical Society regarded it as a repository and guardian of teachings about the nature of reality uttered by the great seers, sages and prophets of all ages. In the pages of its publications one will find some of the core teachings of Vedanta, Buddhism, Plato, the Kabbalah, Alchemy and the ancient Mysteries put together in a new synthesis. The result is a comprehensive outline of a vast evolutionary scheme embracing the whole of nature, physical and spiritual; with teachings on spiritual evolution, the nature of consciousness, the doctrine of karma, reincarnation, the art of meditation, the subtle bodies of the human being, and much more. They are offered as hypotheses, propositions and premises to be studied, explored and lived; not as binding doctrines or dogmas.

Some Key Ideas

The Theosophical Society is not the only place one might encounter the ideas presented here. Particularly since the 1970s they have gained a fairly wide currency in one form or another, synthesized anew by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Paul Brunton and Ken Wilber. But to give credit where it is due, The Theosophical Society was ahead of its time in its vindication of ancient traditions, and in its stand against dogmatic theology and materialistic science. These are some of the ideas that have been circulating around The Theosophical Society since 1875:

  • There is one fundamental law and that is unity; at a deep level all is One
  • There is no dead matter; everything in Nature is a product of consciousness
  • The universe is eternal; the periodic playground of numberless worlds and of life
  • There is a fundamental identity of all souls with the universal Over-Soul
  • Each individual being goes through a process of spiritual evolution according to cyclic and karmic laws
  • Everything that happens is the result of natural law

There is evidence of a certain consistency in sacred teachings throughout the ages. A number of philosophers and scientists, including Sir Isaac Newton, Henry More and the Renaissance Platonists, argued for the existence of a universal wisdom-religion?a philosophy of the sacred? with a number of basic teachings in common. The founders of The Theosophical Society sought to bring that tradition to public attention at a time when it was all but eclipsed by the rapid advance of science, technology and industrialisation; which seemed to usher in a new world in which the sacred had little place outside the narrow confines of sectarian religion.

Third Century

As a body of thought by that name, Theosophy can be traced back to the third century AD, with the founding of the Eclectic Theosophical System by the Alexandrian philosopher Ammonius Saccas, who was the teacher of Plotinus. This ancient system was based on three main principles:

  • Belief in one absolute, incomprehensible and supreme Deity, or infinite essence, which is the root of all nature, and of all that is visible and invisible
  • Belief in the human being’s immortal nature, identical in essence with the Universal Soul
  • Theurgy, or divine work, which entails making oneself as pure as the incorporeal beings so that “the gods” might impart the Divine mysteries

Many ideas prevalent in the modern theosophical movement find their echo in the above system, which has its Eastern counterpart in various schools of Vedanta, with which it is entirely consistent.

Nineteenth Century

H.P. Blavatsky was the first public intellectual to argue against the Darwinian consensus and suggest a super-physical element to evolution. In keeping with many ancient traditions, Eastern and Western, she argued that consciousness is not a by-product of matter. Consciousness or intelligence came first.

The three fundamental propositions in her book, The Secret Doctrine, represent a nineteenth century restatement of ancient ideas, coupled with a spiritual view of evolution. They propose:

  • An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless and Immutable Principle on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude
  • The Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane, periodically the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing
  • The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul

Twentieth Century

Then in the twentieth century we find a similar chord struck by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy (1947) where he summed up the perennial philosophy as:

  • The metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds
  • The psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality
  • The ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being

Unity and the Undivided Consciousness

Unity may seem like an abstraction and universal brotherhood but an idle dream, yet a number of philosophers, mystics and scientists have argued that there is a unity to the world that is far more deeply real than the all-too apparent separateness. However, although it may be a fact in nature, it seems that unless one’s consciousness is elevated to that level, unity will remain a mathematical abstraction and an unattainable ideal.

Exploring the nature of undivided consciousness is perhaps an urgent matter in a heavily-armed world torn apart by entrenched views, self-interest and ignorance of other races, religions and ways of life. It may be a great source of wisdom, helping us live in harmony with nature and with each other.

The motto of the Society —There is no Religion Higher than Truth— suggests, among other things, that Truth is to be striven for rather than imposed by an authority.

It is only when we go underneath or beyond the superficial differences to the essential nature of life that we can know what Unity means; until then we have to be in the prison-house of separateness.

— N. Sri Ram, Fifth President of The Theosophical Society

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The Theosophical Society welcomes seekers belonging to any religion or to none, who are in sympathy with its objects which have remained unchanged since 1896

  1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
  2. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.
  3. To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in the human being.

Theosophy is not defined in the Constitution of the Theosophical Society or in any of its official documents. It comes from the Greek, theosophia, meaning divine wisdom, but it is left to the members to discover what it is for themselves, taking as guides whatever philosophies or religions they may wish.

For what we see is but the smallest part and least proportion of humanity. I tell you, madam, were the whole frame here, it is of such spacious lofty pitch your roof were not sufficient to contain it.

— William Shakespeare

Scalpels and microscopes may solve the mystery of the material parts of the shell of man: they can never cut a window into his soul to open the smallest vista on any of the wider horizons of being.

— H.P. Blavatsky