Theosophy and The Theosophical Society
What is Theosophy?
HP Blavatsky (1831-1891), one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, pointed out that it was formed “to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities”.
But what is Theosophy? The term admits of various interpretations and has levels of meaning. Within the Theosophical Society (TS) it is used principally in two ways:
- To mean divine wisdom, from the Greek, theosophia
- To mean a set of teachings on the subject of divine wisdom
As a system of thought Theosophy can be traced back to the third century AD, when the Alexandrian philosopher, Ammonius Saccas, founded the Eclectic Theosophical System based on what has subsequently been called Neo-Platonism. The teachings of this system were summarised by HPB in Key to Theosophy as:
- 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 man’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
These Neo-Platonic ideas were revived in works such as Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), along with the idea that there once existed throughout the world a Wisdom-Religion known to the priests of ancient Egypt, the magi of Babylon and Persia, the ancient Greeks and the Brahmins of India. In this she was in company with the Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614-1687) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who all subscribed to this notion.
It would be well, however, to not lose track of the fact that the word Theosophy does not just refer to a system of thought, but principally to divine wisdom: that state of consciousness or state of being, which is the principal subject matter of the system/s of thought which also go by the name Theosophy.
It is also important to note that this is not just a dead poets Society with no contemporary relevance, no matter how archaic some of the language may be. The teachings of the Alexandrian philosopher listed above, basic to Platonic thought and taken up by the early members of the TS, were given a modern facelift in 1947 by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy when he summed up that tradition 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 — the thing is immemorial and universal.
It seems that hemlines are lowered and raised according to the fashion of the day, but the cloth remains essentially the same.
The Theosophical Society
Founded in 1875 in New York, with international headquarters at Adyar, South India, the Theosophical Society now has branches in around seventy countries throughout the world; the Australian Section dating back to 1895.
Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
Two of the principal founders of The Theosophical Society
Madame Blavatsky, Alexander Wilder, GRS Mead and other authors associated with the TS, argued that in the neglected philosophies of ancient Greece, ancient Egypt and India can be found a far sounder system of metaphysics, psychology and ethics than that propounded by scientific materialism and dogmatic theology. It was partly to uncover and promulgate that “Wisdom-Religion” that the Theosophical Society was formed.
The seventeenth century Scientific Revolution saw a major eclipse of spiritual values, with empirical science and analytic philosophy—bolstered by the mechanical paradigm—dominating the field of knowledge and the known. What had almost entirely been lost to view was what Theodore Roszak described as, the ‘forgotten psychology of the superconscious and the extransensory’; and he commended Madame Blavatsky for having rescued this forgotten psychology from the remnants of the esoteric tradition (Unfinished Animal, Faber and Faber, 1976 p.124). Professor Roszak further pointed out that HPB was the first public intellectual to argue for a trans-physical or superphysical element to evolution, against the Darwinian consensus, which largely ignored the phenomenon of consciousness, or at least relegated it to the status of an epiphenomenon, a product of matter.
In the 139 years of its existence the TS has undergone a number of changes. In its early days there was a definite understanding that the Society existed to teach a particular system of thought. The Objects of the Society reflected this view up until the early 1880s, but in 1896 its Objects were re-written in the form we find them today, with no mention at all of any specific teachings or doctrines to be promoted or upheld. Finally, in 1924, the governing body of the Society, the General Council, passed a resolution known as The Freedom of Thought Resolution. Worded as follows, it is published monthly, in pride of place, at the beginning of each issue of the magazine The Theosophist:
As the Theosophical Society has spread far and wide over the world, and as members of all religions have become members of it without surrendering the special dogmas, teachings and beliefs of their respective faiths, it is thought desirable to emphasise the fact that there is no doctrine, no opinion, by whomsoever taught or held, that is in any way binding on any member of the Society, none which any member is not free to accept or reject. Approval of its three Objects is the sole condition of membership.
No teacher, or writer, from H.P. Blavatsky onwards, has any authority to impose his or her teachings or opinions on members. Every member has an equal right to follow any school of thought, but has no right to force the choice on any other. Neither a candidate for any office nor any voter can be rendered ineligible to stand or to vote, because of any opinion held, or because of membership in any school of thought. Opinions or beliefs neither bestow privileges nor inflict penalties.
The Members of the General Council earnestly request every member of the Theosophical Society to maintain, defend and act upon these fundamental principles of the Society, and also fearlessly to exercise the right of liberty of thought and of expression thereof, within the limits of courtesy and consideration for others.
Then does the Theosophical Society not have any Doctrines, Tenets or Beliefs?
It would be nice to be able to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to this question, but the facts of the matter are a little more complicated than that. In Key to Theosophy it will be found that the author regarded the Theosophical Society as a repository and guardian of ‘the truths uttered by the great seers, initiates, and prophets’ of all ages. She pointed out that the Society did not have ‘any wisdom of its own to support or teach’. However, she and other members of the TS, including WQ Judge, Annie Besant and CW Leadbeater, certainly did promulgate specific teachings on meditation, karma, reincarnation, evolution, the subtle bodies of the human being and much more. These teachings were gathered from a wide variety of sources Eastern and Western, including Plato, the Kabbalah, Hermetic writings, the teachings of the Buddha and the Upanishads—and they were called Theosophy. And so in this way Theosophy has come to mean a specific set of teachings; but strictly speaking Theosophy is not the works of Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater et al, but the Wisdom-Religion and the divine wisdom it attempts to elucidate.
William Quan Judge
Charles Webster Leadbeater
So what is the Status of these authors within the Theosophical Society? Do they hold any special authority?
Members of the TS are free to study what they wish, and many of them will never read The Secret Doctrine, the magnum opus of the principal founder of the Society to which they belong. There is no authority in the TS to say what should be read or practiced, or even what is meant by Theosophy, the object for which the Society was founded. Some members read widely and study deeply; some concentrate on specific areas of interest whether it be yoga, Buddhism, numerology or anything else. But many of them find it valuable and helpful to belong to an organisation in which one will invariably encounter thoughts of a different hue to one’s own, yet still infused with an interest in the deeper aspects of life that perhaps is rare to encounter in daily life.
As to the value of Blavatsky, Besant and other authors published by The Theosophical Publishing House in Adyar or Wheaton, the reader will have to be the judge. They have remained in print for such a long time because generations of readers have benefitted from their works. The insightful and progressive stance against dogmatic theology and materialistic science; the vindication of ancient philosophies including Hermeticism; and the argument that intelligence or consciousness came first; will surely stand the test of time. Indeed, Madame Blavatsky’s challenge to the materialistic theories of her day are now finding increasing support from quantum physics and zero point physics, epigenetics, cardiology, neuroscience, morphogenetic field theory and consciousness research.
It would, however, be a grave error to assume that only the books published by TPH are on Theosophy. The Bhagavad Gita is on Theosophy; the Tao Te Ching is on Theosophy and the Dhammapada is on Theosophy: because they are each about divine wisdom and the way to it. What marks out TPH publications is a certain eclecticism in the approach of most of its authors, which may be lacking in a work on Buddhism, Vedanta or Taoism, which unarguably point to divine wisdom but which approach it from the point of view of a particular school of thought.
The eclecticism and openness of the Theosophical Society is not for everyone. There is no set teaching offered here, no single Teacher to take one’s hand. Instead one is presented with the entire world of religion, philosophy and science—the spiritual teachings of the ages—minus the compunction to believe or to follow.
For further information please read on to the summary of Key Ideas, as well as the articles and books available on this site.