Theosophical Encyclopedia

Theosophy and the Theosophical Societies - part 1 (2020 version)

THEOSOPHY AND THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETIES

By Dr. James Santucci

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies

California State University

Fullerton, CA 92834-6868

Theosophy 420 b

Adyar, part of Headquarters Building. Photo: © Richard Dvořák   

[Versions of this article have been published in Syzygy, vol. 6, no. 1–2 (Winter-Fall 1997): 221–45; The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998) [and second edition, 2002], 388–89 [2nd ed.: 573] (“Point Loma Publications”), 476 [2nd ed.: 722–723] (“Temple of the People”), 480–83 [2nd ed.: 727–730] (“Theosophical Movement”), 483–87 [2nd ed.: 730–734] (“Theosophical Society”), 503–505 [2nd ed.: 760–762] (“United Lodge of Theosophists”), and 527–28 [2nd ed.: 802–803 (“The Word Foundation”), and in Odd Gods, edited by James R. Lewis (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001), 270–289.

This text was updated in 2013 through the efforts of Janet Kerschner (the Archivist at the Henry S. Olcott Memorial Library, The Theosophical Society in America, Wheaton, Illinois), S. Ramu (General Manager, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar), Kenneth Small (Point Loma Publications), Herman C. Vermeulen (The Theosophical Society, Point Loma, The Hague, The Netherlands), Jan Nicolaas Kind (Theosophy Forward).  The 2013 edition was edited for Web publication by the late John Algeo, former President of the Theosophical Society in America and Vice President of the International Theosophical Society in Adyar, Chennai, India.  The presentation has been further updated in 2020.]

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THEOSOPHY

The modern Theosophical Movement is represented today in the U.S. primarily through seven organizations: the Theosophical Society, headquartered in Adyar, Chennai, India; the Theosophical Society, headquartered in Pasadena, California (U.S.A.); the United Lodge of Theosophists, formed in Los Angeles, California; the Temple of the People, with headquarters at Halcyon, near Pismo Beach, California; the Word Foundation of Dallas, Texas; and Point Loma Publications (now renamed as the Point Loma School of Theosophic Perennialism) in San Diego, California, and The Theosophical Society: Point Loma. Of these groups, the Adyar T.S. is considered by most Theosophists and scholars to be the parent organization. All claim to disseminate Theosophical teachings, “Theosophy” referring to a term popularized and defined by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) to denote the Wisdom of the Ages, embodying “higher esoteric knowledge”—hence, a “Secret Doctrine”—partially recoverable in imperfect and incomplete form in those portions of the scriptures of the world’s great religions that express mystical teachings and in those philosophies that display a monistic or pantheistic bent. 

Theosophy 420 c HPB

Photo of HPB, wonderfully "colored"" is realistic colours by Theosophists in Valencia, Spain

EARLY HISTORY

The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 with Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) becoming its first president, H.P. Blavatsky its first corresponding secretary, George Henry Felt and Seth Pancoast the vice-presidents, and William Quan Judge (1851–1896) the counsel for the Society. First proposed on September 7 by Col. Olcott, the society— entitled “The Theosophical Society” on September 13—was inaugurated on November 17.

Less than three years later, in May 1878, the Theosophical Society affiliated with a reformist Hindu organization known as the Ārya Samāj under the leadership of Svāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī (1824–1883), whose promotion of the Vedas—the ancient compositions of the north Indian Āryan tribes composed between 1600–500 B.C.E.—as the font of Truth served as the basis of his attempt to return Hinduism to a more pristine form devoid of later corruptive teachings and practices such as polygamy, child-marriage, caste, suttee (satī), and polytheism. Due to differences that arose within a few months of affiliation—one of which was the Svāmī’s adoption of a personal Supreme God, a position that was not acceptable to many members of the Theosophical Society—it was decided to modify the association by distinguishing three bodies: (1) the Theosophical Society, (2) The Theosophical Society of the Ārya Samāj of Āryāvarta, i.e., a “link society,” and (3) The Ārya Samāj. Separate diplomas existed for each, with only members of (2) belonging to both (1) and (3). By 1882, all affiliations were broken due to Svāmī Dayānanda’s attacks on the Theosophists for their leaders Olcott and Blavatsky associating with Buddhists and Parses and for their formally converting to Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by taking pānsil (pañcasīla) “the Five Precepts” in May 1880. Around this period of time, the headquarters of the T.S. in the persons of H.S. Olcott and H.P. Blavatsky, moved first to Bombay in early 1879 and then to Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in December 1882.

Theosophy 420 d Henry Steel Olcott

Henry Steel Olcott

Theosophy 420 e william quan judge

William Quan Judge

During the 1880s, four significant events occurred in Theosophical history:

(1) the Coulomb affair (1884)

(2) the formation of the Esoteric Section of the TS under Mme Blavatsky on October 9, 1888 [1]

(3) the publishing of The Secret Doictrine - the seminal work ofd the Theoeophical Movement in 1888, and 

(4) the joining of the T.S. in May 1889 of Annie Besant (1847-1933), , the second President of the T.S. (Adyar) and certainly the most prominent Adyar Theosophist in the 20th century.

(1) Regarding the Coulomb Affair, Emma Coulomb, a housekeeper at the Adyar Headquarters, charged that Blavatsky had produced fraudulent psychic phenomena and was responsible for writing letters in the name of her Masters or Mahatmas. She was investigated by Richard Hodgson on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research (S.P.R.), whose 1885 report (which was the second report issued by the S.P.R. on Blavatsky, the 1884 S.P.R. preliminary report being more neutral) charged that she committed these misdeeds, thus calling to question her claim that Masters or Adepts actually existed. 

Although the Hodgson Report was accepted by the S.P.R. at its general meeting held on June 26, 1885, it was never the official or corporate opinion of that organization. Hodgson wrote most of the Report, but it was the product of a Committee consisting not only of Hodgson but also of E. Gurney, F.W.H. Myers, F. Podmore, H. Sidgwick, J.H. Stack, and Mrs. H. Sidgwick.  Because the Hodgson Report was never officially adopted, the S.P.R could not withdraw a report that it never issued. What it did instead was to issue a statement making “amends for whatever offence we [the S.P.R.] may have given,” as stated in the editorial note to Vernon Harrison’s article, “J’Accuse.”[2] The editorial note begins with a strong statement:

The Report of the Committee appointed to investigate phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society (commonly called the Hodgson Report) is the most celebrated and controversial of all the reports published by the Society for Psychical Research. It passes judgement on Madame H.P. Blavatsky. . .; and the final sentence in the Statement and Conclusions of the Committee has been quoted in book after book, encyclopaedia after encyclopaedia, without hint that it might be wrong. It runs: “For our part we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.” 

The damage was done, however.  Ill at the time, Madame Blavatsky departed from Adyar.

(2) Blavatsky eventually settled in London, where she instituted—at the suggestion of Mr. Judge—the formation of the Esoteric Section (or E.S.) under her leadership as Outer Head (the Inner Heads being the Mahatmas), as declared in the anonymously written (but most likely by Annie Besant), “The Eastern School of Theosophy: Historical Sketch,” reprint ted in Theosophical History 6, no. 1 (January 1996): 11, and originally published in Madame Blavatsky’s journal, Lucifer 3, no. 14 (October 15, 1888).  The E.S. is an organization designed to “promote the esoteric interests of the Theosophical Society by the deeper study of esoteric philosophy” (Notice of “The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society,” October 9, 1888). Although it had no institutional connection with the T.S., the E.S is only open to T.S. members; furthermore, all teachings and activities are conducted privately.

(3) H. P. Blavatsky’s major work, The Secret Doctrine 1888) states three propositions that serve as the basis of Theosophy for most Theosophists: (1) the existence of an absolute, infinite, reality or principle, (2) the cyclic nature or periodicity of the universe and all therein, and (3) the fundamental identity of the individual soul with the universal oversoul and the pilgrimage of all souls through the cycle of incarnation in accordance with karmic law.  Theosophy, int this sense, is a non-dualistic or monistic view of ultimate reality, which is manifested  or emanated in a dynamic complementarity and evolutionary progression. 

(4) Olcott’s activist role was continued by the second president of the T.S., Annie Besant, who became involved in numerous activities both within and outside the Society, including such diverse activities as occult investigations, education, politics, social reform, and the introduction of ritual within the Society.  Among  her numerous contribution, Besant was instrumental in founding the Central Hindu College in Benares in 1898, became active in Indian politics serving as president of the Indian National Congress, forming the Home Rule League and later drafting the Home Rule Bill (1925).  Within the Theosophical Society, she founded the Theosophical Order of Service in 1908, which is intended to carry out the first object of the Society—to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity—by carrying out works of compassion and alleviating suffering, including such activities the giving of goods, medicine, clothes, etc. to the needy, and the abolition of the cruelty of animals. 

Theosophy 420 f Annie Besant

Annie Besant

LATER HISTORY

With the death of H.P. Blavatsky on May 8, 1891, the leadership of the Esoteric Section (by that time called the Eastern School of Theosophy) passed to William Q. Judge and Annie Besant. A few short years later, charges were brought against Judge that he was “misusing the Mahatmas’ names and handwriting,” in other words, claiming that he received messages from the Masters, or, as Mrs. Besant put it, “giving a misleading material form to messages received psychically from the Master.” Although the charges were dropped in July, 1894 by Mrs. Besant and Col. Olcott, they were reopened toward the end of 1894 by Mrs. Besant, who proposed a resolution during the December 1894 Convention of the T.S. at Adyar that President Olcott “at once call upon Mr. W.Q. Judge to resign” his vice-presidency of the Society. The resolution having been passed, Judge refused to resign. Later, at the Convention of the American Section of the T.S. in Boston (April 28-29, 1895), delegates voted for autonomy of the American Section from the Theosophical Society at Adyar with Mr. Judge elected President for life, calling itself “The Theosophical Society in America.”

Whether this separation is to be interpreted as a schism—the position of the Adyar T.S.—or simply the recognition that there was never any legal connection between the Adyar T.S. and the original New York T.S in the first place (according to the interpretation of “The Theosophical Society in America”)—is a matter of opinion.[3] The vote of the American Section was followed by the expulsion by Col. Olcott of Judge and all who followed him. This included over 5,000 members in the U.S. and affiliated Societies elsewhere, including lodges in England and Australia.

After W.Q. Judge’s death in March 21, 1896, Ernest Temple Hargrove (1870–1939) was elected President of Judge’s T.S. in America. The Eastern School of Theosophy (the new name of the Esoteric Section as of 1890) had also split on November 3, 1894: one group remaining in the Adyar Society with Annie Besant as Outer Head, and one within Judge’s Society under an Outer Head whose name was to have been kept secret until 1897, but it was prematurely revealed in the New York Sun of May 27-28, 1896, the New York Tribune of May 18, and also in the newly-named journal, Theosophy,[4] that Katherine Tingley (1847–1929) was chosen to be Judge’s successor. Tingley followed and further developed the direction that Mr. Judge pursued in the latter years of his life, emphasizing less theoretical and more practical applications of Theosophical teachings in the area of social and educational reform. In February 1897, she laid the cornerstone of a community in Point Loma, San Diego, which was to become the new international headquarters of the T.S. in America (the old headquarters being in New York). In the same year she founded the International Brotherhood League with herself as president, and which was designed to carry on a number of humanitarian functions ranging from educational to philanthropical. Furthermore, all of the lodges of her Society were closed to the public in 1904.

Theosophy 420 g K. Tingley

Katherine Tingley

By the latter part of 1897, Hargrove became disenchanted with Tingley’s activities and also perhaps with her unwillingness to share her power with him or with anyone else. He resigned the Presidency and attempted to gain control of the 1898 convention held in Chicago but was unsuccessful both at the convention and in subsequent court action. As a consequence of Hargrove’s intense opposition at the convention over the contents of the new constitution composed by Tingley (about which he knew nothing until its introduction at the convention),[5] Hargrove left the Society and formed his own organization with about 200 former members of Tingley’s T.S. in America.

Hargrove’s New York-based reformed Theosophical Society in America, later renaming itself the Theosophical Society in 1908,[6] with A. H. Spencer becoming the Acting President. It remained a viable organization for many years until the Society, and possibly its own Esoteric School of Theosophy, entered a period of “indrawal” from active work.[7]  The last document ascribed to the E.S.T. is Aids and Suggestions No. 18, dated December 7, 1907.[8]  The “indrawal” most likely took place in the latter part of 1938 although John Cooper[9] considers 1935 to be the actual date. The Theosophical Quarterly, the major magazine of the Society, ended its publication run in October 1938.

The direction of Mrs. Tingley’s forceful leadership led to two dissenting bodies: The Temple of the People, founded in 1898, and the United Lodge of Theosophists, established in 1909, by Robert Crosbie and others in Los Angeles.  According to Jerry Hejka-Ekins in a private communication (February 20, 1996), the U. L. T. actually broke off from the Hargrove Society since Crosbie joined the latter after he left Tingley’s Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society.  Hejka-Ekins adds, however, that “it [the U. L. T.] appears to be more of a reaction to the Point Loma Society [the U. B. and T. S.].” 

FOOTNOTES

[1] So declared in the anonymously written (most likely Annie Besant) “The Eastern School of Theosophy: Historical Sketch,” reprinted in Theosophical History VI, no. 1 (January 1996): 10–11. The President’s Order to establish “The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society” appeared in Lucifer 3, no. 14 (October 15, 1888): 176.

[2] Editorial Note to Vernon Harrison’s article “J’Accuse” (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 53, no. 803 (April 1986): 286.

[3] This is discussed by W.Q. Judge in his article “The Theosophical Society,” The Path, X, no. 2

 (May 1895): 55–60 and reprinted in Echoes of the Orient: The Writings of William Quan Judge,

vol. II. Compiled by Dara Eklund (San Diego: Point Loma Publications, 1980), 197–202.

[4] This was the new name for the Path beginning with the April 1896 issue,  Tingley is identified in the June 1896 issue.

[5] This is discussed in Emmett Greenwalt, California Utopia: Point Loma: 1897–1942 (San Diego: Point Loma Publications, 1978), 37–40.

[6] John Cooper, “The Esoteric School Within the Hargrove Theosophical Society,” Theosophical History IV, no. 6-7 (April – July 1993): 179.

[7] The “indrawal” most likely took place in the latter part of 1938 although John Cooper (“The Esoteric School Within the Hargrove Theosophical Society,” 180) considers 1935 to be the actual date. The Theosophical Quarterly, the major magazine of the Society, ended its publication run in October 1938.

[8] Cooper, “The Esoteric School Within the Hargrove Theosophical Society,” 185.

[9] “The Esoteric School Within the Hargrove Theosophical Society,” 180.

TO BE CONTINUED

This article is published in collaboration with Professor James Santucci, editor of Theosophical History. For more interesting articles and subscriptions follow this link: https://theohistory.org/

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