Which Theosophy?

Pedro Oliveira

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, March 2006

Madame Blavatsky made no secret about the fact that The Theosophical Society came into existence in 1875 in New York through the inspiration and guidance of her Adept-Teachers, whom she very often referred to as Mahatmas or Masters of the Wisdom. Through the TS a teaching was to be given to the world, which was a modern presentation of the main principles of the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, known as Brahmavidya in India and Theosophia by the Neo-Platonic philosophers in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century CE.

HPB, as Madame Blavatsky was affectionately known by her students and co-workers, wrote extensively on Theosophy, beginning with the two-volume edition of Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, which presented a critique of modern science and religion in the light of the ancient esoteric doctrine. She founded The Theosophist in Bombay in 1879 and contributed many articles to it. After leaving Adyar, in March 1885, HPB eventually settled down in London in 1887 and founded yet another journal, Lucifer, to which she wrote many energetic editorials and articles on a number of subjects connected with Theosophy. In 1888, her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, was published and it became the source-text of modern Theosophy, based on ancient teachings on cosmogony and anthropogenesis contained in the Book of Dzyan. Her final contributions in book form were The Key to Theosophy, a clear and concise introduction to its study, and The Voice of the Silence, which presents timeless guidelines to the pilgrim on the Path of Compassion.

Another important source of theosophical teachings came into being at the end of the nineteenth century through the correspondence between Alfred Percy Sinnett, a respected journalist and prominent member of the TS in India, and the Mahatmas who were HPB’s Teachers. The collection of letters was eventually published in 1923 under the title The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. & K.H. It contains a great deal of commentary about the work of the TS at that time (from 1880 to 1884) but also deep philosophical and theoretical teachings as well as vital instructions on the probationary path of discipleship.

Soon after HPB died, in May 1891, differences of approach to the teachings of Theosophy became evident. By that time Annie Besant had become well known in the TS world wide and was contributing many articles to theosophical journals. William Q. Judge, Vice-President of the TS at the time, left the TS with Headquarters at Adyar and formed The Theosophical Society in America in 1895. With him begins a line of students that regard the writings of Madame Blavatsky and her Adept-Teachers as the only authentic source of modern Theosophy. They include Katherine Tingley, Gottfried de Purucker and Robert Crosbie, among many others.

In a communication received by Sinnett through Master K.H., a great Adept known as the Maha-Chohan expressed his views about the work of The Theosophical Society at that time (1881). In one of its passages it says:

For our doctrines to practically react on the so-called moral code, or the ideas of truthfulness, purity, self-denial, charity, etc., we have to popularize a knowledge of theosophy. It is not the individual and determined purpose of attaining oneself Nirvana (the culmination of all knowledge and absolute wisdom) which is after all only an exalted and glorious selfishness—but the self-sacrificing pursuit of the best means to lead on the right path our neighbour, to cause as many of our fellow-creatures as we possibly can to benefit by it, which constitutes the true theosophist.[1]

This passage had a profound impact on both Annie Besant and her colleague, Charles Webster Leadbeater. “To cause as many of our fellow-creatures as we possibly can to benefit by it.” Therefore both of them set out to try and make Theosophy more widely known through a clear and simple presentation. In this process they were successful in bringing the teachings of Theosophy to dozens of thousands of enquirers and students around the world, and many of their books are still in demand. Annie Besant explained the reason for such an approach:

Some have complained that our literature is at once too abstruse, too technical, and too expensive for the ordinary reader, and it is our hope that the present series may succeed in supplying what is a very real want. Theosophy is not only for the learned; it is for all. It may be that among those who in these little books catch their first glimpse of its teachings, there may be a few who will be led by them to penetrate more deeply into its philosophy, its science, and its religion, facing its abstruser problems with the student’s zeal and the neophyte’s ardour. But these Manuals are not written for the eager student whom no initial difficulties can daunt; they are written for the busy men and women of the work-a-day world and seek to make plain some of the great truths that render life easier to bear and death easier to face.[2]

The TS statistics for that period express the results of such an initiative. In 1907, when Besant became the President of the TS, the Society was composed of 567 Branches and Lodges world wide, and had 14,863 members. At the end of December 1933, soon after Dr Besant had died, in September 1933, the TS as a whole counted 1,279 Branches and Lodges and 30,836 members. Considering that proselytising was never a platform of the Society, the numbers reveal a solid growth through the decades of her presidency.

Several books by Besant and Leadbeater are based on their clairvoyant investigations, including Thought-Forms, Man: Whence, How and Wither, The Lives of Alcyone, Occult Chemistry, among others. A number of statements made in these books were not independently corroborated and for some this called into question the legitimacy of teachings based on clairvoyant observations. However, it is interesting to note that HPB herself used some form of clairvoyance in the writing of The Secret Doctrine. She describes the process to Countess Wachtmeister thus:

Well, you see, what I do is this. I make what I can only describe as a sort of vacuum in the air before me, and fix my sight and my will upon it, and soon scene after scene passes before me like the successive pictures of a diorama, or, if I need a reference or information from some book, I fix my mind intently, and the astral counterpart of the book appears, and from it I take what I need. The more perfectly my mind is freed from distractions and mortifications, the more energy and intentness it possesses, the more easily I can do this…[3]

Let us now consider some extracts from the writings of HPB and her Teachers on two aspects of the theosophical teaching together with passages from the works of Besant and Leadbeater, bearing in mind that the latter’s effort was to popularize Theosophy.


This is one of the most well-known passages in The Mahatma Letters and for some it represents the definitive theosophical view on the subject:

Neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all in one whose pronoun necessitates a capital H. … Our doctrine knows no compromises. It either affirms or denies, for it never teaches but that which it knows to be the truth. Therefore, we deny God both as philosophers and as Buddhists. We know there are planetary and other spiritual lives, and we know there is in our system no such thing as God, either personal or impersonal. Parabrahm is not a God, but absolute immutable law, and Iswar is the effect of Avidya and Maya, ignorance based upon the great delusion. The word “God” was invented to designate the unknown cause of those effects which man has either admired or dreaded without understanding them, and since we claim and that we are able to prove what we claim — i.e. the knowledge of that cause and causes we are in a position to maintain there is no God or Gods behind them.[4]

HPB expressed a similar view on the subject:

ENQUIRER. Do you believe in God?

THEOSOPHIST. That depends what you mean by the term.

ENQUIRER. I mean the God of the Christians, the Father of Jesus, and the Creator: the Biblical God of Moses, in short.

THEOSOPHIST. In such a God we do not believe. We reject the idea of a personal, or an extra-cosmic and anthropomorphic God, who is but the gigantic shadow of man, and not of man at his best, either. The God of theology, we say — and prove it — is a bundle of contradictions and a logical impossibility. Therefore, we will have nothing to do with him.[5]

The above views clearly deny the existence of a creator, anthropomorphic God, which is upheld by Christian theologians in general, but not necessarily by the great Christian mystics. We have also to bear in mind that, as stated by the Mahatma, they are addressing the subject from a Buddhist perspective and in that tradition there is no room for the concept of God. Theirs is a radical view worthy to be studied in all its aspects but it has never been held as the official view of the Theosophical Society on the subject. The TS welcomes differing views, including the view of the Divine as a all-embracing Intelligence, Logos in Greek. This was the view adopted by Besant and Leadbeater in their popularization of Theosophy and they always emphasized that each student has to come to his or her own conclusions regarding these subject as well as any other matter presented in the theosophical literature.

For example, the following is what Annie Besant wrote about the nature of the Trinity:

The One becomes manifest as the First Being, the Self-Existent Lord, the Root of all, the Supreme Father; the word Will, or Power, seems best to express this primary Self-revealing, since until there is Will to manifest there can be no manifestation, and until there is Will manifested, impulse is lacking for further unfoldment. The universe may be said to be rooted in the divine Will. Then follows the second aspect of the One — Wisdom; Power is guided by Wisdom, and therefore it is written that “without Him was not anything made that is made”; [S. John, i, 3.] Wisdom is dual in its nature, as will presently be seen. When the aspects of Will and Wisdom are revealed, a third aspect must follow to make them effective — Creative Intelligence, the divine mind in Action.[6]

C. W. Leadbeater also presented his view of the Deity:

When we lay down the existence of God as the first and greatest of our principles, it becomes necessary for us to define the sense in which we employ that much abused, yet mighty word. We try to redeem it from the narrow limits imposed on it by the ignorance of undeveloped men, and to restore to it the splendid conception — splendid, though so infinitely below the reality — given to it by the founders of religions. And we distinguish between God as the Infinite Existence, and the manifestation of this Supreme Existence as a revealed God, evolving and guiding a universe.

Only to this limited manifestation should the term “a personal God” be applied. God in Himself is beyond the bounds of the personality, is “in all and through all”, and indeed is all; and of the Infinite, the Absolute, the All, we can only say “He is”.[7]

To many students the above views are incompatible and mutually exclusive and they hold the HPB/Mahatma’s view on the subject as the only true one. While they are entitled to do this, one of the dangers of such a stance is that diversity of views may be annulled and a de facto creed be formed. The contradiction — there are no official creeds in the TS — is compounded when we consider that the Maha-Chohan, whom the Mahatmas considered as their Master, does not deny the idea o God:

Mystical Christianity, that is to say that Christianity which teaches self-redemption through our own seventh principle — this liberated Para-Atma (Augoeides) called by some Christ, by others Buddha, and equivalent to regeneration or rebirth in spirit — will be found just the same truth as the Nirvana of Buddhism. All of us have to get rid of our own Ego, the illusory apparent self, to recognize our true self in a transcendental divine life. But if we would not be selfish, we must strive to make other people see that truth, to recognize the reality of that transcendental self, the Buddha, the Christ or God of every preacher.[8]

Human Principles

In The Key to Theosophy, HPB presents the principles of human constitution as follows:

  1. Rupa, or Sthula-Sarira, physical body;
  2. Prana, Life, or Vital principle;
  3. Linga Sarira, Astral body, the Double, the phantom body;
  4. Kama rupa, the seat of animal desires and passions;
  5. Manas — a dual principle in its functions; it can gravitate towards Kama or respond to the influence of Buddhi;
  6. Buddhi, the Spiritual Soul.
  7. Atma, Spirit, One with the Absolute.

In the Besant and Leadbeater literature most of the Sanskrit names were replaced by English expressions: Dense Physical Body, Etheric Double, Astral Body, Mental Body, Causal Body, Buddhi and Atma. As Annie Besant indicated, the use of the word “body” in this context was derived from the teachings of Vedanta. The word sarira, according to the Monier-Monier Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary, means ‘the body, bodily frame, solid parts of the body; any solid body; one’s body i.e. one’s own person.’ It is derived from sri, ‘support or supporter’, and sri, whose etymological source is ‘that which is easily destroyed or dissolved.’

Strong criticism has been levelled at both Besant and Leadbeater for using the concept of the ‘etheric double’ in their works. Their critics maintain that there is no such concept in HPB’s teachings. According to Geoffrey Barborka, who is critic of the expression ‘etheric double’, Linga sarira literally means “the model body”. Besant mentioned that there is a similar concept in Vedanta for the etheric double: pranamayakosha, the vehicle of Prana, the universal life energy. At least three clairvoyants, Geoffrey Hodson, Phoebe Bendit and Dora Kunz, independently corroborated the earlier observations of Besant and Leadbeater about the etheric double and have written about the role of this aspect of our constitution in health and well being.

In his foreword to the American edition of Arthur Powell’s book The Etheric Double, H. Tudor Edmunds, chairman of the Science Group, Theosophical Research Centre, London, wrote:

Since rigorously established evidence can still neither confirm nor deny, it is reasonable to hold the theory and information presented here as a hypothesis for further investigation. This is the procedure in all scientific work and, in fact, little progress can be made without some tentative working concept as context and guide. But it is essential to remember that an adopted hypothesis may have to be modified or even rejected as the work proceeds, and this is most likely during the early stages of an exploration.[9]

Theosophy as a Way of Life

There are a number of other areas of perceived differences between the two literatures that space constraints prevent us to address: the controversy about Mars and Mercury and the Earth Chain, investigation of past lives, the nature and work of the Brotherhood of Adepts, the after-death states, stages on the Path, among others. But there seems to be little doubt that both HPB and her Teachers as well as AB and CWL did see Theosophy, essentially, as a Wisdom to be lived in our daily life, having at its very core the principle of Altruism or Selflessness. Let their words speak for themselves:

It is he alone who has the love of humanity at heart, who is capable of grasping thoroughly the idea of a regenerating practical Brotherhood who is entitled to the possession of our secrets.[10]

In every conceivable case he himself must be a centre of spiritual action, and from him and his own daily individual life must radiate those higher spiritual forces which alone can regenerate his fellow-men. [11]

The broad ideas must be assimilated first, and they must be realized as facts in Nature. The most important thing about Theosophy is its effect upon practical life; and to obtain that, a man must put himself into the Theosophical attitude towards his surroundings and should learn to look at everything from the Theosophical point of view.[12]

The Theosophic Life must be a life of service. Unless we are serving, we have no right to live. We live by the constant sacrifice of other lives on every side, and we must pay it back; otherwise, to use an ancient phrase, we are but thieves and do not repay the gift. Service is the great illuminator. The more we serve the wiser we become, for we learn wisdom not by studying but by living.[13]


[1] Jinarajadasa, C. Editor, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series, The Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, 1948, p. 3.

[2] Besant, Annie, The Seven Principles of Man, The Theosophical Publishing Society, London, 1909, preface.

[3] Wachtmeister, Countess Constance, Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, 1976, p. 25.

[4] Chin, Jr, Vicente Hao, Editor, The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett in chronological sequence, The Theosophical Publishing House, Manila, 1993, pp. 269-270.

[5] Blavatsky, H.P., The Key to Theosophy, The Theosophical Publishing House, London, p. 61.

[6] Besant, Annie, Esoteric Christianity, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, 1987, p. 179.

[7] Leadbeater, C. W., An Outline of Theosophy, The Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, 1963, pp. 21-22.

[8] Jinarajadasa, C. (editor), Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom Series I, The Theosophical Publishing House, Madras, 1948, p. 6.

[9] Powell, A. E., The Etheric Double, The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, 1969, Foreword by H. Tudor Edmunds.

[10] Chin, Jr, Vicente Hao, Editor, The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett in chronological sequence, The Theosophical Publishing House, Manila, 1993, p. 100.

[11] Blavatsky, H. P., The Key to Theosophy, The Theosophical Publishing House, London, p. 236.

[12] Excerpt of a letter of CWL to an enquirer, published in The Theosophist, October 1967.

[13] Besant, Annie, “The Theosophic Life”, The Theosophist, March 1909, pp.523-4.