The Eternal Counterculture: Theosophy and the New Age

Dara Tatray

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, March 2002

The following is presented as food for thought, rather than a definitive statement.

Partial Chronology

3rd Century BCE: Megasthenes, Greek envoy to the Mauryan court, writes the Indika

3rd Century CE: Ammonius Saccas founds the Eclectic Theosophical School aiming ‘to reconcile all religions, sects and nations under a common system of ethics, based on eternal verities’ (Blavatsky 1889/1987, p.3)

1463: Marsilio Ficino translates Hermetic texts from Greek into Latin during the Renaissance (15th-16th Centuries)

Late 18th and early 19th Centuries: the Romantic Movement

1821-1910: Mary Baker Eddy

1848: Birth of modern Spiritualism in North America

1863: Baha´i Faith founded

1875: Theosophical Society founded in New York, hoping to turn the tide of interest in spiritualism to the deeper waters of the Ancient Wisdom; reconcile all religions, et cetera

1879: TS headquarters moves to India where HPB, Colonel Olcott and later Annie Besant ‘greatly raised the self-confidence of the Hindus … removing any feelings of inferiority that had developed following the activities of Christian missionaries …’ (Weightman 1998, p.303)

1888: The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn founded in London

1893: World Parliament of Religions. Annie Besant addressed the Parliament on behalf of the TS. Vivekananda represented Hinduism, making a great impact, when for the first time Hinduism was presented as a world religion. Vivekananda´s message was that all religions were true, but Hinduism the most ancient and the noblest of all (Weightman 1998). He then spent four years lecturing in America and England.

1895: Theosophical Society established in Australia

1897: Vivekananda´s Vedanta Society founded in the United States

1912: Rudolf Steiner leaves the TS and establishes the Anthroposophical Society (one of many schisms besetting the parent Society)

1930: Guy and Edna Ballard founded the I Am movement, said to represent the greatest popular diffusion of theosophical concepts, reaching up to three million people. The ‘Ballard version of Theosophy’ is today carried on by Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant (Heelas 1996, p.45).

1960s and early 1970s: the twentieth century counterculture movement

1965: United States opens to Asian migrants

1971: Werner Erhard establishes est to enable others to share in his experience of ‘Enlightenment’

1972: Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) founded on New Age principles – folding in financial ruin in 1991 (Heelas 1996).


Though outstanding exceptions to the rule exist in the work of Jocelyn Godwin and Antoine Faivre (Godwin 1994; Faivre 2000), the New Age is under-theorised in academia: the Theosophical Movement even more so. This gap in the history of ideas, together with a lack of clarity within the movement itself, has given scope for Theosophy to be much misunderstood within the context of the New Age. The more one looks into it, the more complicated the relationship between the two appears to be.

I think it fair to say that generally, Theosophy is viewed as:

  1. the progenitor of the New Age,

  2. identical with the New Age, or

  3. more serious than the New Age.

All three views bear some validity, but the true position is far more complex and interesting. Let us examine each proposition in turn.

Was The TS the Progenitor of the New Age?

Firstly, writing this article has brought home to me the axiom that to see the workings of karma, one must first have transcended karma. Even knowing every event involved would not disclose the truth of things; so even a full chronology, which would probably run to volumes, would not truthfully answer the question — was The Theosophical Society the progenitor of the New Age? Nevertheless, let us see where the problem might take us.

Looking at the history of the term ‘the New Age’, we are initially led back to the beginning of the twentieth century and to Theosophy, when in 1907, Alfred Orage (1873-1934), ‘influenced by Theosophy and Gurdjieff’, took over co-editorship of New Age (Heelas 1996, p.17). Indeed, the influence of Theosophy, either overt or indirect, is pervasive throughout the literature. Writing of the 1960s, James Webb suggested that ‘almost every tenet cultivated among the contemporary underground’ could be traced to the occult revival of the 1890s (quoted in Heelas 1996, p.48): a revival which on the surface at least, was provoked in large part by the Theosophical Society.

But factors other than those set in train by the TS have also been of influence. For instance, if we set the date of the New Age as roughly coinciding with the counterculture movement, say in the late 1960s, early 1970s, then opening the United States to Asian migration in 1965 is relevant. A considerable number of gurus, swamis and Zen masters were amongst those Indian, Japanese, Korean and Sri Lankan migrants. On the other hand, it was The Theosophical Society which introduced into everyday speech such concepts as karma, reincarnation, meditation, and the spiritual path: providing ‘almost all the underpinnings of the “New Age” movement’ (Godwin 1994, p.379).

Who is to say which events in my partial chronology bore the greatest weight in the scheme of things? Take the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, a significant event in the history of ideas. It has been said that the mere fact of it being held, ‘underscored a new attitude of respect among Western scholars and religious leaders for the non-Christian religions of the world’ (Melton 1998, p.596). Would it have taken place if the TS was not first founded in 1875? Not only did H.P. Blavatsky, H.S. Olcott and Annie Besant (all high profile public figures of their time) expound the virtues of Eastern thought unremittingly; both HPB and HSO took Buddhist vows. Olcott then worked tirelessly for the Buddhist cause in Ceylon; whilst Annie Besant worked as diligently on behalf of India´s independence from British rule.

One of the main objects of the Theosophical Society was to revive an interest in the Aryan philosophy, a philosophy quintessentially expressed in Vedanta. The Vedanta Society was formed four years after the World Parliament of Religions. Was this a mark of success in the mission of the TS? Whilst the Parliament did much to showcase Buddhism and Vedanta, in the main, it was within the nonsectarian fold of The Theosophical Society that non-Christian religions and spiritual practices could be openly discussed at the turn of the nineteenth century. In the Australian context for instance, Theravada Buddhism came to Australia with the Chinese in the 1850s gold rush; but it was not until the establishment of the TS in 1895 that widespread public discussion of the teachings took place (Malykke 1996, p117).

Another possibility is that both the World Parliament and the formation of the TS were effects of the same underlying cause; some kind of impulse at work in both. The New Age, Theosophy, the Renaissance and the Romantic movement have many surface-features in common, including a pronounced interest in the esoteric. Perhaps they also have something more fundamental in common: the one impulse generating them all. In this case the question becomes more interesting – not whether or not Theosophy gave rise to the New Age; but rather, what generated them both?

Is Theosophy Identical with the New Age — or More Serious?

More about that later. But what of our second and third propositions: is the New Age synony-mous with or more superficial than Theosophy? The New Age has been described as the latest contribution to a long history ‘of bizarre spiritual fads and panaceas’; two key features being a ‘degradation of piety’ and ‘blatant commercialisation’ (Lasch 1987, p.79). Other critics are more sympathetic. Looking beneath the bewildering variety of New Age practices, Paul Heelas discerned a ‘remarkable constancy’ which he characterised as ‘Self-spirituality’, expressed in three New Age assumptions (Heelas 1996):

  1. The Self is sacred
  2. The natural order is spiritual
  3. The task for each of us is to contact the spirituality within

A fourth central feature he identifies as the ‘perennialised’ nature of the New Age: a rejection of traditional beliefs in favour of the ‘arcane’; the ‘esoteric’; the ‘hidden’ or ‘ageless wisdom’.

With these assumptions, neither Theosophy nor The Theosophical Society could have any quarrel. All four receive detailed treatment in theosophical publications such as HPB´s The Secret Doctrine; Annie Besant´s The Ancient Wisdom; and Clara Codd´s The Ageless Wisdom of Life. However, many New Age activities are far removed from the ethically rigorous and intellectually demanding occultism of the early theosophists, known to have been ‘utterly opposed to sensuousness’ and teaching ‘the subordination of the body to the spirit’ (Olcott 1895/1974, p.157).

Heelas describes New Age activities as falling along a spectrum ‘from the world-rejecting to the world-affirming’ (Heelas 1996, p.30). The ‘world-rejecting’ end he characterises as being concerned with manifesting the inner life, and detaching from the outer. At the other end, the inner life is used as a means to prosper outwardly, the emphasis being on empowerment and prosperity rather than detachment. In this model, Theosophy would doubtless be more at home at the world-rejecting, or better still, the non-materialistic end.

In theosophical literature, a kind of enlightened altruism is seen as the highest form of practical occultism. In contrast, since the 1960s, prosperity focussed teachings have proliferated amongst proponents of the New Age (Heelas 1996, p.62). Zen Master Rama helps you ‘Get the competitive edge with Zen’; with Denise Linn you can ‘Programme yourself to attain your goals’; and Scientology run World in Scientology Enterprises (WISE), offering management systems to dentists, chiropractors, business and financial managers and other professionals. Likewise, followers of Rajneesh run Results Seminars for companies like IBM; Rebirthing runs prosperity and money seminars; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation has a flourishing business wing; and the Arcane School (derived from Alice Bailey) offers ‘The Ageless Wisdom and its relevance to Business, Politics and Religion’. The list might go on; much to the dismay of some Theosophists.

Jocelyn Godwin raises a view — as he points out, one not often discussed despite its significance if true — that modern spiritualism ‘was not a spontaneous manifestation, but something provoked by living persons, acting with no lesser intent than that of changing the world view of Western civilisation’ (Godwin 1994, p.196). Not unfamiliar to theosophists — if proven to be viable — this notion would have a profound impact on the history of ideas. Godwin´s research cites Olcott´s People from the Other World (1875) as the first written source of the occult-agency view; the same idea being taken up in 1893 by an Anglican occultist, Charles G. Harrison. Harrison believed that by 1840, modern Europe was entrenched in gross materialism, and in its evolutionary cycle, having reached an extreme ‘point of physical intellectuality’, ‘various groups of occultists’ took the opportunity to initiate a new impulse. Shortly after, in Old Diary Leaves, Olcott reported HPB´s view ‘that the outburst of mediumistic phenomenon had been caused by the Brotherhood of Adepts as an evolutionary agency…’ (Olcott 1895/ 1974, p.69).

By way of corroboration, Godwin points out that working independently of each other, HPB, William Stainton Moses and the Spiritualist Emma Hardinge Britten were producing similar works around the same time. In Art Magic, published by the Brittens in 1876, mention is made of an Ellora Brotherhood, headed by unnamed Eastern Adepts, working towards the ‘brotherhood of humanity’ and ‘the discovery of occultism’ (Godwin 1994, p.302). In an early essay by HPB, A Few Questions to Hiraf (1875), she proclaimed ‘the existence of regular schools of occult training’ and styled herself ‘a follower of Eastern Spiritualism’ (Olcott 1895/1974, p.108). She also stated that ancient Kabbalists knew as much as modern scientists; occultism needed to explain and alter much of spiritualism; and that reincarnation is a modern misunderstanding (Godwin 1994, p.296). In Isis Unveiled Blavatsky again rejected the doctrine of reincarnation as commonly taught; claimed the superiority of Eastern and Egyptian wisdom over modern science; and proclaimed the existence of an esoteric tradition handed down by Adepts (Godwin 1994, pp.305/6).

Present at the inauguration of the Theosophical Society, Mrs Britten expressed immense surprise at the ‘coincidence of purposes’ (Olcott 1895/1974, p.185). Indeed, Art Magic and the TS ‘simultaneously affirmed the dignity of Occult Science, the existence of Adepts, the reality of, and contrast between White and Black Magic…’. Olcott described this as ‘an attack from two sides simultaneously upon the entrenched camp of Western ignorance and prejudice’ (p.186). Likewise, in the automatic writing of William Stainton Moses we find that: a new revelation is imminent; each religion is a ray of truth from the Central Sun; India is the source of all religions; the ancient Egyptians were wise and erudite philosophers who educated Jesus; and the doctrine of transmigration is an error (Godwin 1994, p.295).

To Jocelyn Godwin, the foregoing provides evidence of ‘a concerted effort in the early 1870s to give out fresh doctrines … known collectively as “occultism” ’ (p.302). The nature of the real agency behind that effort is a moot point. In my view, whether an actual Order of Adepts, guiding evolution, exists or not — and H.S. Olcott for one records compelling eye-witness testimony in the affirmative — the said ‘impulse’ might yet exist as part of the unfolding of consciousness.

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I believe that underpinning the chronology with which this article begins is what might be described as the eternal counterculture — a stream of dissent running quietly throughout history and occasionally manifesting in a tidal wave of new thought. This current is aptly symbolised by Hermes Trismegistus, treated throughout history variously as interpreter of secrets and master of transcendental knowledge; one who distinguishes the true philosophy from the false; and the one who brings the philosophia perennis back into circulation (Faivre 1995). Rising ‘above sectarian divisions’, Hermes ‘transcends religious mysteries and chronological time’.

The archetypal theosophist, Hermes has his feet firmly planted in Eternity. And Theosophy, a progenitor of the New Age, is more profound than many New Age activities – whilst synonymous with the deeper undercurrent of the Perennial Philosophy underlying both.

Works Cited:

Blavatsky, H. P., The Key to Theosophy, Los Angeles, The Theosophy Company, 1889/1987.

Faivre, A., The Eternal Hermes — From Greek God to Alchemical Magus, Phanes Press, USA, 1995.

Faivre, A., Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000.

Godwin, J., The Theosophical Enlightenment, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994.

Heelas, P., The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge, 1996.

Lasch, C., “Soul of a new age”, Omni 10, October 1987, 78(6).

Malykke, Y., In Pursuit of the Spiritual Cosmos, Cosmos Periodicals, Sydney, 1996.

Melton, J. G., “Modern alternative religions in the West” in A New Handbook Of Living Religions, J. R. Hinnells, Penguin, London and New York, 1998, pp.594-617.

Olcott, H. S., Old Diary Leaves — First Series America 1874-78, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1895/1974.

Weightman, S., “Hinduism” in A New Handbook of Living Religions, J. R. Hinnells, Penguin, London and New York, 1998, pp.261-309.

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Dara Tatray is a member of Olcott Lodge and a Supporting Lecturer for the Australian Section. She has recently concluded a PhD dissertation on Environmentalism.