Theosophical Encyclopedia

Theosophy and the Theosophical Societies - part 3 (2020 version)

THEOSOPHY AND THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETIES

By Dr. James Santucci

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies

California State University

Fullerton, CA 92834-6868

HQ Building

Another look at Headquarters Building in Adyar

HPB 2

Well-known classic H.P.B. photo

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BELIEFS/PRACTICES 

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The teachings promulgated by the Theosophical societies are ultimately those that have secured the attention of its members as well as what individuals understand Theosophy to be. As a rule, most Theosophists associate the basic teachings with the “three fundamental propositions” contained in the Proem of H.P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. An overview of the development of Blavatsky’s and other Theosophists’ understanding of Theosophy reveal a variety of interpretations. In fact, the term ‘theosophy’, chosen to represent the aspirations and objects of the Society, had little to do with its later development. Theosophy was accepted as the name of the Society in accordance with the definition found in the American edition of Webster’s unabridged dictionary (published ca. 1875),[1] which is as follows:

supposed intercourse with God and superior spirits, and consequent attainment of superhuman knowledge by physical processes as by the theurgic operations of ancient Platonists, or by the chemical processes of the German fire philosophers.

The term, however, was not unknown prior to this period (September, 1875). Blavatsky employed the term in February 1875 in a letter to Professor Hiram Corson (“theosophy taught by the Angels”) and in her “A Few Questions to ‘Hiraf’” (“Theosophic Seminary”).

In a gathering held on September 7, 1875, a lecture given by one George H. Felt on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians.” echoed this definition. The future President of the Theosophical Society, Henry S. Olcott, proposed the formation of a society for the purpose of obtaining “knowledge of the nature and attributes of the Supreme Power and of the higher spirits by the aid of physical processes,” Such was the statement in the Society’s “Preamble and By-Laws” (October 30, 1875) as well as in Col. Olcott’s Inaugural Address as President of the Society:

...how can we expect that as a society we can have any very remarkable illustrations of the control of the adept theurgist over the subtle powers of nature? But here is where Mr. Felt’s alleged discoveries will come into play. Without claiming to be a theurgist, a mesmerist, or a spiritualist, our Vice-President promises, by simple chemical appliances, to exhibit to us, as he has to others before, the races of beings which, invisible to our eyes, people the elements.... Fancy the consequences of the practical demonstration of its truth, for which Mr. Felt is now preparing the requisite apparatus!

In other words, the original purpose of the Theosophical Society embodies—in the words of the Minutes taken on September 8, 1875—“the study and elucidation of Occultism, the Cabala &c. . .” or perhaps to use a term that more directly reflects the remarks given by Olcott above: to demonstrate, by what passed as scientific means, the existence of a hidden world, replete with occult forces and beings therein. Taken in this light, the Society’s original 1875 objects (“to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe.”) take on enhanced meaning.  Over the ensuing years, however, the term assumed different connotations, with most Theosophists viewing it as the Wisdom that

has existed from the dawn of humanity, preserved and transmitted by great teachers such as Pythagoras, Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus from its inception to the present and ascertained in the myths, legends, and doctrines of the historical religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and lesser known mystery cults. The first book-length expression of this Wisdom and of the Theosophical Society’s original (1875) objects was Mme. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, published in 1877. In the ensuing two years, over 10,000 copies were sold, making it one of the most popular books of its kind in the nineteenth century. It continues to have considerable influence in Theosophical circles, with over 150,000 sold since its publication.

The Wisdom described in Isis Unveiled was given a more “Oriental” (i.e., Indian) flavor in the 1888 publication of H.P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. Its three propositions stated above as the existence of an absolute underlying all manifestation, the cyclicity of the universe, and the identity of the individual with the universal oversoul and the pilgrimage of all souls through reincarnation and karma.  Theosophy, in this sense, took on a non-dualistic or monistic view of ultimate reality, manifested or emanated in a dynamic complementarity and evolutionary progression. These general “Propositions” presented by Blavatsky were restated in more specific teachings in the Secret Doctrine and elsewhere, some of which may be summarized in the following statements:

  • the evolution of the immortal individual continues through innumerable lives, such continuity made possible through reincarnation: the entrance of Self—the trinity of Spirit, Soul, and Mind—into another (human) body
  • the complement of reincarnation is that force, known as the “Law of Cause and effect (Karma)” that fuels future rebirths and determines the quality of the experience therein;
  • the structure of the manifested universe, humanity included, may be viewed as septenary in composition, and cooperative in all relationships;
  • Humanity evolves through seven major groups or periods called Root Races, each of which is divided into seven sub-races. At the present time, we humans belong to the fifth Root Race, known as the Aryan (Sanskrit “Noble”) Race. The term, however, is not limited here to “Indo-European” peoples; it has a much broader meaning;
  • the individual is in actuality but a miniature copy or microcosm of the macrocosm;
  • the universe—and humanity—is guided and animated by a cosmic Hierarchy of sentient beings, each having a specific mission to fulfill.

Although most Theosophists would subscribe to all or part of the above statements, one should keep in mind that the above statements may take on various interpretations depending on the understanding of each Theosophist. Furthermore, although some commentators emphasize the presence of Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) philosophy in Theosophical teaching after 1880 when Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in India, this does not preclude the presence of important Western (Kabbalistic, Christian, Masonic, and pre-Christian) teachings and myths and doctrines after 1880 or the presence of Eastern thought prior to 1880 as evidenced in Isis Unveiled. 

ORGANIZATION and MEMBERSHIP

The Theosophical Society, with international headquarters in Adyar, Chennai, India, as of the end of has a worldwide membership of about 25,306 distributed in almost fifty countries as of 2017; the Theosophical Society in America, one of its sections, has a national membership of 3,306, (General Report, 2017) It considers itself to be the parent Theosophical Society and thus goes back to its New York origins in 1875 although the Theosophical Society (Pasadena) currently takes the position that the original Theosophical Society divided in 1895, with each Society having equal claim to the 1875 New York origins. The Theosophical Society (Adyar), incorporated at Madras (now Chennai) in 1905, is under the Presidency of Mr. Tim Boyd, who has held this office since 2014. It is comprised of fifty-seven sections worldwide, the oldest being the American Section (The Theosophical Society in America, as it is now known), formed in 1886, and the English Section (chartered in 1888).  After the separation of Judge’s society from Adyar in 1895, Col. Olcott declared that the Aryan Branch of the T. S.’s charter was forfeited and therefore “ceased to exist as a part of the Theosophical Society proper.”[2]  Olcott then rechartered the remaining fourteen branches that remained loyal to Adyar as the American Section T. S.[3]

Sections are composed of lodges. A small number of Lodges are directly attached to the International Headquarters at Adyar. The governing body of the T.S. is the General Council consisting of the president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, all elected General Secretaries of the national sections, and up to twelve additional members nominated by the president and elected by the General Council. The international President is elected by popular vote of all eligible members every seven years from among candidates who receive at least twelve nominations from the General Council members.  The national president of the American Section is similarly elected every three years. An international convention is held annually, usually at Adyar. The Society boasts a magnificent library on the grounds of the headquarters, which houses original manuscripts in Sanskrit and other Asian languages, books and journals on Theosophy, philosophy, and religion. The archives of the Society are currently housed in the Headquarters building and contain many thousands of documents, including the important scrapbooks of Blavatsky and the Olcott diaries. The Theosophical Publishing House also functions in Adyar and produces a number of pamphlets and books, written primarily by its members, and continues to issue the oldest Theosophical periodical, The Theosophist. In addition, the quarterly Adyar Newsletter is published by the Society as is also the respected Adyar Library Bulletin, a scholarly journal specializing in oriental research.

THEOSOPHY IN AMERICA

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Constance Wachtmeister

The Adyar Theosophical Society’s American Section, though substantially decreased in members in 1895, when many of its Lodges followed Judge in becoming independent of Adyar, quickly regained its strength under the leadership of Alexander Fullerton (1895-1907), and as a result of an 1897 tour of the American Section by Annie Besant and Countess Constance Wachtmeister (1839–1907), a close associate of H. P. Blavatsky and enthusiastic worker for the Theosophical cause. This and subsequent tours by Charles Webster Leadbeater beginning in 1900 and by Olcott and Countess Wachtmeister in 1901 led to a membership increase from 288 in 1895[4] to 1391 by the end of 1900.[5]  The American Section continued as a major player within the Theosophical Society under a number of General  Secretaries (or Presidents as the leaders were later called).  Following Alexander Fullerton were Weller Van Hook (1907–1912), who moved the headquarters of the Section from New York to Chicago; A. P. Warrington (1912–1920), who was responsible for establishing a new headquarters at Krotona, Hollywood, and L. W. Rogers (1920–1931), under whose stewardship the cornerstone of the new headquarters building at Wheaton, Illinois, was laid in 1926.  Membership of the Section reached 8,520 by 1927.[6]  Sidney A. Cook (1931–1945) presided over “The Theosophical Society in America”[7] at a time when its membership declined to a low figure of about 3144 in 1941,[8] due in part to Krishnamurti’s dissolving the Order of the Star and in part to the Depression, he was succeeded by James S. Perkins (1945–1960), Henry Smith (1960–1965), Joy Mills (1965 as acting national president and 1966–1974) as president), Ann Wylie (1974-1975, acting president), Dora Kunz (1975–1987), Dorothy Abbenhouse (1987–1993), John Algeo (1993–2002), Betty Bland (2002–2011) and Tim Boyd (2011-2017), and Dr. Barbara Hebert (2017–present).

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National President of the TSA, Barbara Hebert speaks during one of her regular YouTube talks

The Theosophical Society in America’s headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois, is the site of an extensive lending and research library. It also publishes a number of works, including Quest Books, through the Theosophical Publishing House (Wheaton). The T. S. A. also publishes Messenger for its members, Quest magazine for the general readership, and a monthly e-mail newsletter. Although organizationally not a part of the Theosophical Society, the Esoteric Section is closely associated with the Society.  Its headquarters in the U.S. is in Ojai, California at the Krotona Institute. On its grounds is also the Krotona School of Theosophy, whose principal purpose is to serve as an educational arm of the Society, to promote its work, and to implement the three objects of the T.S. since they “form the foundation for the work of the Theosophical Society.”[9] These objects (according to the international Society’s wording) are:

  1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color;
  1. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.[the Theosophical Society in America has “. . .comparative study of religion”);
  1. To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man. [The T. S. A. substitutes “humanity” for “man.”]

Members of The T. S. are expected to approve and promote these Objects. They are also expected to search for Truth through study, service, and devotion to high ideals. As the Society states: “All in sympathy with its Three Objects are welcomed as members.”[10]

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Interior of the Olcott Memorial Library at the Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America, Wheaton-Illinois

OTHER THEOSOPHICAL ORGANIZATIONS

In addition to the Adyar-connected Society in America, several others sprang up in that country, although most of them subsequently spread abroad.

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Building of the Theosophical Society Pasadena (Altadena), photo taken in 2014

The Theosophical Society, headquartered in Pasadena, is the direct descendant of the original Theosophical Society in America established in 1895, of which W.Q. Judge was its first President.  Judge was succeeded by Mrs. Katherine Tingley, who  followed by Mrs. Tingley’s Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. It is currently described as a worldwide association of members “dedicated to the uplifting of humanity through a better understanding of the oneness of life and the practical application of this principle.”

Membership figures are not given out; the number, however, is probably low, perhaps no more than a few hundred. Members are known as Fellows of The Theosophical Society (F.T.S.), their only obligation the acceptance of the principle of universal brotherhood and a willingness to try to live it. Fellows are received as probationary Fellows; full Fellowship is implemented with the issuance of a diploma, signed by the Leader and Secretary General, which is issued by the International Theosophical Headquarters. Other groups within the T.S. include Branches, formed by three or more F.T.S. who apply for a charter, and National Sections, the latter headed by a National Secretary. The head of the T.S. is designated as Leader—at present Randell C. Grubb—who serves for life and who is also responsible for appointing a successor. The General Officers include the Members of the Cabinet, the Secretary General, Treasurer General, and the National Secretaries, all of whom are appointed by the Leader. The Leader has the power to remove from office any officer of the Society. The publishing arm of The T.S. is the Theosophical University Press, which publishes over forty book titles authored by H.P. Blavatsky, Katherine Tingley, G. de Purucker, A. Trevor Barker, William Q. Judge, James A. Long, Charles J. Ryan, and others. The Theosophical Society (Pasadena) has initiated correspondence courses, library centers, public meetings and study groups, and overseas translation and publishing agencies in The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Australia, Germany, South Africa, and Nigeria. The objects of The T.S. are as follows:

  1. To diffuse among men a knowledge of the laws inherent in the Universe;
  2. To promulgate the knowledge of the essential unity of all that is, and to demonstrate that this unity is fundamental in Nature;
  3. To form an active brotherhood among men;
  4. To study ancient and modern religion, science, and philosophy;
  5. To investigate the powers innate in man.

FOOTNOTES PART 3 

[1] Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language.  Revised by Chauncey A. Goodrich and Noah Porter (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, State Street, 1875), 1373.

[2] Supplement to The Theosophist (October 1895): iii.  H. O. Olcott, “Appendix. Theosophical Society, President’s Office, Zumarraga, Spain, 5th June 1895,”  Supplement to The Theosophist (August 1895):

[3] Alexander Fullerton, “Report of the American Section T. S.” General Report of the Theosophical Society (1895), 24; A Short History of the Theosophical Society, compiled by Josephine Ransom (Adyar: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1938), 313–14.

[4] Fullerton, “Report of the American Section T. S.” General Report of the Theosophical Society (1895), 24.

[5] Alexander Fullerton, “Report of the American Section,” General Report of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary and Convention of the Theosophical Society (1900), 17.

[6] “Lodges and Members,” General Report of the Fifty-Second Anniversary and Convention of the Theosophical Society (1927), 7.

[7] The American Theosophical Society was renamed “The Theosophical Society in America” in 1934. See  “Changes in the By-Laws,” The  American Theosophist 22, no. 9 (September 1934), 206.

[8] Sidney A. Cook, “(Report of the General Secretary of the National Society:) United States of America,” General Report of the Theosophical Society (1941), 43.

[9] This quotation is located on the T. S. A.’s website under the “Three Objects” (https://www.theosophical.org/about/about-the-society).

[10] My thanks to Dr. John Algeo for providing information on the Theosophical Society in America.

TO BE CONTNUED

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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