A Unique Spiritual Heritage:
Historical Review of the Theosophical Society from 1875-1907

Mary Anderson

Magazine Article: The Theosophist, November 2002

In 1874, about a year before the foundation of the Theosophical Society, ‘the curtain is raised’, to quote Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB), when Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and she – the future founders – met and a wonderful and fruitful friendship began.

HPB’s home in New York attracted many personalities interested in the occult and drawn by her brilliance. At one such gathering it was suggested that a society be formed with the sweeping aim of investigating science and religion and diffusing ‘information on the secret laws of Nature’ (Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society, p 78). Several preparatory meetings followed and finally on 17 November 1875, the Theosophical Society was founded by seventeen persons of whom, finally, two remained active until the very end of their lives: HPB, to whom we owe the message of Theosophy, and Colonel Olcott, the first President, to whom we owe the Theosophical Society. (They are hereinafter referred to as ‘the founders’.)

In studying the early history of the Society, we discover, on the one hand, much that strikes us as strange and unfamiliar and, on the other hand, certain basic attitudes which are still fundamental in the Society today.

Thus the early period is marked by lively interest at the same time in things psychic and in intellectual, often scientific, preoccupations. In the Preamble to the original By-laws, the Objects are stated as ‘to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe’ – which may sound unrealistically ambitious today! Proof is sought at the physical level for the existence of a non-physical ‘Unseen Universe’. ‘The founders . . . seek to obtain knowledge of the nature of the Supreme Power and of the higher spirits by the aid of physical processes . . .’ (p. 81).

Such aims may appear to us somewhat naive and sensational, but probably no other approach would have made inroads in the materialism of that time. And, apart from HPB’s brilliant conversation, it was her psychic gifts even more than the deep wisdom of her explanations (in which many were probably less interested) that attracted some of the greatest brains of the time. So much for what may strike us today as unfamiliar.

On the other hand, much that we discover in our study of the early period is strikingly modern. From the very beginning, two keynotes recur which always were and still are fundamental in the Society: brotherhood and freedom of thought – both indispensable in the pursuit of truth.

In the Preamble to the By-Laws already quoted we read:

Whatever may be the private opinions of its members, the Society has no dogmas to enforce, no creed to disseminate. . . . In considering the qualifications of applicants for membership, it knows neither race, sex, colour, country nor creed. (p.81)

Outwardly, the early period is marked by many changes in the form of the Society. There is a kind of groping. Fees are abolished and later reintroduced. Secrecy is enforced, but not for long. Various rituals are tried out and dropped. The idea is even entertained of making the Society a masonic body. A radical change in the organization of the Society was its short-sighted and short-lived amalgamation with the Arya Samaj, which body seemed to have the same fundamental aims as the young Theosophical Society, and even submission to the head of that body, considered to be an adept of the Himalayan Brotherhood. The founders were mistaken on both counts – similarity of aims and the high spiritual standing of Swami Dayanand – and the status quo was restored. This incident is an example of groping and also of mistaken judgement. Indeed, the early period is marked by some initiatives which apparently led directly to minor disasters. The early attacks on Christianity were later considered to have been a mistake (p 284). We shall enquire presently into the possible significance of such apparent mistakes.

The early period was dominated by the figures of Mme Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. One might say it was a patriarchal or matriarchal period. Behind all, casting a sacred light, was the often perceptible nearness of superhuman beings, the Mahatmas or Masters who inspired – even called for – the foundation of the Society.

With this wise and benevolent influence in the background, why the groping, why the apparent mistakes, sometimes with almost disastrous results? The explanation lies partly in the freedom of thought and action accorded to the founders. The Mahatmas may have given general indications, sometimes even orders; They may have stood in the background with their blessing; but never did They give precise indications as to how They wanted things done. To decide exactly how to proceed was left to the founders, who, we may suppose, learned from their mistakes.

Colonel Olcott was certainly always ready to do so. Commenting later on his inaugural address as President, he admitted that, although much in it had come to pass, ‘yet it reads a bit foolish after seventeen years of hard experience’ (p. 83).

This hard experience included many difficulties, as we shall see. The founders were often in financial straits. Members made trouble, resigning and sometimes rejoining. The Spiritualists attacked the Society when apparitions were explained in a way which did not suit them. The founders were ridiculed or attacked by the press. The early life of the Society was lived, in a sense, in public, subject to public comment. One cause of hilarity was the cremation of Baron de Palm, ‘principally famous as a corpse’ (p. 88) – the first case of cremation in the USA. But this event was also the first trial of the Society’s willingness and courage to face public opinion as a body, despite ridicule and opposition.

An outstanding event during this early period in New York was the publication in 1877 of Mme Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and its immediate success. Challenging the infallibility of contemporary science and of religion, Isis naturally caused a sensation.

A new era in the Society’s history dawned with the founders’ departure for India late in 1878. On their way there, they visited the London Theosophical Society, one of the first of many groups gradually being formed in different countries. On 16 February 1879 they landed in Bombay.

The Indian press announced their arrival and, here again, they were ‘lionized’, receiving visits from high-ranking officials, editors of influential newspapers, famous professors, etc. Soon after their arrival they heard from Mr A.P. Sinnett, editor of The Pioneer, the most influential newspaper in India. A relationship began which was to throw open to them the doors of the cream of British Indian society. But the founders never hesitated to implement the principle of brotherhood, befriending Indians and British alike as a matter of course. This may seem perfectly natural to us today, but at that time in India it was revolutionary. They extolled the religions of India, to the fury of the Christian missionaries.

From the first year in India dates the founding of the international magazine The Theosophist. HPB having carried on vast correspondence for years, it was felt that it would lighten her load of work to expound in a magazine what had hitherto been communicated to individual correspondents. From the beginning, it was a success, although it did not lighten HPB’s workload!

During 1880, branches of the Society were formed in France and Greece. The founders went, on instructions, on the first of many visits – especially on the part of Colonel Olcott – to Sri Lanka. During this visit they ‘took Pansil’, acknowledging themselves Buddhists. ‘Our Buddhism was that of the Master Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishad-s, and the soul of all ancient world faiths’ (p. 143). Branches were formed in many places in Sri Lanka. The Colonel realized that the education of Buddhist children was entirely in the hands of Christian missionaries – a situation he was later instrumental in remedying.

This was one of his numerous and meritorious services to Buddhism which included organizing the Buddhists in Sri Lanka to claim their rights, reconciling the representatives of different Buddhist traditions, obtaining the latter’s recognition of certain fundamental Buddhist principles (travelling for this purpose to Burma and on a sensationally successful visit to Japan) and writing The Buddhist Catechism, which became an authoritative work and a classic.

On the founders’ return to India, they visited the Sinnetts in Simla, where they associated with local British society and HPB produced psychic phenomena – e.g., providing a missing cup at a picnic – but too few to satisfy some people! During this trip the famous correspondence between A. P. Sinnett and the Mahatmas began, which enabled Sinnett to become one of the first popularizers of theosophical teachings, writing notably Esoteric Buddhism. The letters were published many years later as The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett.

In 1881, the Society was reconstructed, brotherhood being emphasized more than occultism (p. 154). The First Object was now the formation of ‘the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity’ (p. 155).

The years in Bombay (1879-1882) were marked by personal attacks on the founders in the press of different countries. At the same time, Colonel Olcott travelled extensively (as he continued to do in later years) and founded branches throughout India. The largest – with ninety-one members – was in Madras.

And it was at Adyar near Madras that in 1882, the permanent home of the Society was found. With the establishment of the Society’s permanent home here begins another epoch in its history.

During her first years in Adyar, HPB was occupied mainly with vast correspondence and the editing of The Theosophist, helped by Damodar Mavalankar. The Colonel continued to travel far and wide, lecturing, admitting members, organizing branches and, having discovered his healing powers, treating numerous patients until he was warned to discontinue this activity which was putting a strain on his health. Sometimes HPB and the Colonel travelled together. At the headquarters in Adyar, many visitors were welcomed. In 1883, forty-three new branches were founded in India alone.

In the USA, activity had been reduced since the founders’ departure, as William Quan Judge, one of the original seventeen founders, who had been left in charge, was prevented by pressing personal matters from being as active as he would have wished. But in 1883 a New York branch was formed. A group had been meeting regularly in Paris and the first branch in Russia was organized.

In London, Mr Sinnett on the one hand and Dr Anna Kingsford on the other were active along different lines, studying teachings received from the Mahatmas and Christian mysticism respectively. On a visit to Europe by HPB and the Colonel in 1884, the differences between the Sinnett and Kingsford groups were settled, the latter remaining members of the London Lodge but at the same time also forming an independent society.

During the absence of the founders from Adyar, a storm was brewing. The Coulomb couple, whom HPB had taken in during the Bombay days and who had accompanied the founders to Adyar, told Christian missionaries that HPB had forged letters received from the Mahatmas. HPB was prevented from taking steps against this slander by a committee of the Society, as an official trial would have meant exposing to possible ridicule that philosophy and those Great Beings ‘most sacred not only to Hindus but to occultists of all religions’ (p. 206).

The Society for Psychical Research, which had interviewed Colonel Olcott, HPB and others in London, formed a committee of investigation which delegated a Mr Richard Hodgson to Adyar to investigate. Hodgson discounted all HPB’s explanations and produced a one-sided report, proclaiming HPB an imposter. The Society for Psychical Research has since clearly dissociated itself from this report.

Following the turmoil in the wake of this investigation and the refusal to let HPB defend herself adequately – which was understandable in view of her fiery temperament – HPB was persuaded to leave Adyar and her beloved India. The Colonel did his best, following her departure, to smooth matters over.

Work progressed, the Colonel continuing his extensive travel in India, during which he was also fully occupied with writing letters and articles for The Theosophist. HPB on her part stayed at first in Germany, where she continued intensive work on what was to be The Secret Doctrine, greatly helped by Countess Constance Wachtmeister.

With the Colonel active in Adyar and in India generally and HPB active in Europe, many superficial differences and misunderstandings arose between them. But ‘the theosophical twins’, so different in nature, were bound by a deep friendship, living and working, as they did, for the same cause.

The turmoil following the Coulomb affair subsided and the Society expanded further in many countries, 121 branches in all being chartered by 1885. In 1886 work began on the Library building adjoining headquarters, which was completed for the 1886 Convention. Mr C. W. Leadbeater had for some time been active in the work – at first in Adyar and then in Sri Lanka. In the USA, work was now reviving under Mr Judge.

In 1887 HPB moved to London, where she was to spend her last years, receiving many visitors, teaching her closest pupils (including the Keightleys, GRS Mead and, later, Annie Besant) and continuing work on The Secret Doctrine as well as producing the magazine Lucifer. Her presence in London led to an eighty percent increase in membership and the spread of Theosophy by her pupils not only in Britain but also on the Continent and in the USA, Australia and New Zealand. In 1888 an Esoteric Section was formed, later to become the Esoteric School, with HPB as its head.

The outstanding event in 1888 was the long-awaited publication of The Secret Doctrine. HPB’s principal literary activity was completed in 1889 by The Key to Theosophy and her beautiful translation, The Voice of the Silence. Of course, she also wrote innumerable articles. All her writings, apart from correspondence, are now available in fourteen volumes of Collected Writings.

It was when Mrs Annie Besant was asked to review The Secret Doctrine that she became a member and was immediately active, putting her brilliant oratorical and other gifts at the Society’s disposal and becoming, after HPB’s death, one of the principal collaborators of Colonel Olcott and later his successor as President.

At the end of 1889, the President reported the Society’s rapid growth throughout the world. Any differences there had been between Adyar, London and New York had been overcome and work was proceeding in harmony, stimulating the ideal of brotherhood.

In 1890, however, turbulence returned. HPB was constituted head of the Theosophical Society in Europe. Colonel Olcott accepted this but announced his intention to resign in favour of HPB, upon which HPB threatened to sever her connection with the Society if he did resign. So he withdrew his resignation, to the general relief.

Activities in 1891 included a visit by the Colonel to Australia and New Zealand, where seven lodges were formed. While in Sydney, the President learned of HPB’s passing. Thus ended an epoch in the Society’s existence. One of her pupils, William Kingsland, wrote of her: ‘She taught us Theosophy not as a religion, or a philosophy, or a creed, or a working hypothesis, but as a living power in our lives’ (p. 281). The work for which she had lived went on . . .

The President took the chair at the First Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society in Europe in July 1891, where Lodges in Greece, Austria, Sweden, Holland/Belgium, France Spain and eleven in Britain were represented. He then travelled on to the USA and Japan.

Between the end of 1891 and 1895 serious difficulties arose between Mr Judge and Colonel Olcott. The Colonel submitted his resignation as President, then revoked it on instructions from his Master. Members in the USA and Europe were not informed of his decision to remain in office, which led to misunderstandings. Mr Judge was accused of himself writing letters claimed to be from the Master. Dissatisfaction continued and members resigned. Finally, Mr Judge seceded, taking most of the American members with him and establishing headquarters at Point Loma, which later moved to Pasadena. In 1896 he died, after a life devoted almost entirely to work for the original Theosophical Society. In recent decades, relations with the Pasadena group have grown increasingly friendly. Various different societies within the theosophical movement cooperated in harmony at the second World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1993. And the success of the Theosophical Society at the first World Parliament is one of many instances of how, during those years of difficulty, intensive work continued.

The Colonel as usual travelled widely in India and other countries. Mrs Besant also toured extensively in India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, including Australia and New Zealand. In Madras she addressed an audience of six thousand – in days when there were no loudspeakers! As the colonel remarked, she revived Hinduism as he did Buddhism. She was later to found the Central Hindu College in Varanasi. The Colonel started Hindu Boys’ Societies in many places (later incorporated in the ‘Hindu Boys’ Association’) and, above all, four schools for Panchama or casteless children in Adyar itself. One of the original Olcott Schools, attended by about 750 children, is still run by the Society with considerable success.

In 1896 a flood of books appeared: the first volume of Old Diary Leaves by the Colonel and several books by Mrs Besant, CW Leadbeater and others. New Lodges springing up in many places studied those books. The Colonel and Mrs Besant continued to travel extensively, as did many other workers, including Countess Wachtmeister, who helped in rebuilding the American Section, as did Mrs Besant the following year.

During the next few years, lecture tours continued, too numerous to mention, and the Society grew. Prominent personalities visited Adyar, the centre from which radiated all this vast activity. The new century opened with promise.

After an extensive tour, lasting almost the whole of 1901 and taking him round the world, covering 48,000 miles in all, the President spent most of 1902 in Adyar, seriously troubled with gout. Mrs Besant travelled in India during 1901, speaking about Hinduism and education, and in 1902 visited Europe. Mr Leadbeater went for some years to the USA.

In 1905 the Theosophical Society was incorporated as a legal entity. Successful tours continued, especially by the President and Mrs Besant. The recently formed Federation of European Sections was holding annual Congresses.

The Society expanded further – not only as such but as a powerful influence, part of a vast sweeping movement. As Mrs Besant saw it: ‘There is a vast theosophical movement going on in the world, and every department of thought is affected by it, and it is this movement that finds a partial embodiment in the Society, and spreads beyond it, far and wide, in every direction’ (p. 354).

To the very end, peaceful growth alternated with crises. The last crisis which the Colonel had to face resulted from accusations brought against Mr Leadbeater of immoral practices. During the very last year of his life and in spite of ill health the President continued to travel, visiting several European countries and the USA. Although in poor health, he managed to attend the opening and closing of the 1906 Convention. Surrounded by the blessed presence of his Master, he passed away after a life of service to the Society and to humanity. Mrs Besant was his successor and a new era began.

Having considered the first thirty-two years of the Society’s existence, in what sense can we speak of it as embodying a unique spiritual heritage?

The Society exists to spread the teachings of Theosophy, which are spiritual and truly universal in nature. They are spiritual and not materialistic in that, while the divinity of matter is recognized, spirit is seen as the source and innermost nature of matter – and also as our innermost nature and that of all beings. As a universal philosophy, Theosophy is ‘the universal Wisdom of the Ages’ – not a religion but, by definition, that Wisdom which is the root of all religions, however deformed their messages may have become by dogma and superstition. Colonel Olcott relates how, when asked to speak on Islam, he at first despaired, since he felt he did not know anything about that religion. However, with a little study and above all in the light of Theosophy, he was able to speak with a depth of understanding which aroused the enthusiasm of his listeners.

The Society was built up and its affairs run by Colonel Olcott and others in such a way as to preserve as far as possible the universal and spiritual nature of the theosophical philosophy expounded. To this end, it rests on two pillars: the principles of brotherhood and freedom of thought. These principles are fundamental to spirituality. In what way? Spirit implies the Oneness of all. There is only one Spirit in the highest sense – not ‘my’ spirit or ‘your’ spirit. This Oneness expresses itself in true brotherly love. Brothers and sisters may disagree – as did HPB and the Colonel on many occasions – but fundamentally, in any ideal family, they belong together. In this sense, all humanity and all expressions of life form one great family. As regards freedom of thought, when dogmas are imposed, consciousness remains blocked at the mental level and the field of transitory thought is given an importance which rightly belongs only to the field of the Transcendental, the ‘unthinkable and unspeakable’, the field of Spirit.

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Mary Anderson is International Secretary of the Theosophical Society. She is a former Vice-President of the Society, was for many years Secretary of the European Federation of the TS and has lectured widely for the Society in many countries and in several languages. She has also contributed many articles to The Theosophist, the international journal of the TS.