John Algeo – USA
The term “theosophy” or “Theosophy” has two meanings, identified in Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary as “1: teaching about God and the world based on mystical insight [and] 2 often capitalized: the teachings of a modern movement originating in the United States in 1875 and following chiefly Buddhist and Brahmanic theories especially of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation.” Theosophists certainly accept the historical part of the second definition and generally subscribe to all three concepts of pantheism, evolution, and reincarnation. However, they generally regard Theosophical teachings, including the three specifically mentioned as by no means limited to Buddhism and Brahmanism, but rather as the common property of the more general sense of “theosophy,” that is, spiritual teachings about the divine and the mundane that can be found in diverse traditions all over the globe.
All three of those basic concepts are worth considering further. Pantheism is a term formed from Greek “pan” = “all” and “theos” = “god.” In Theosophical use, it is the theory that God and nature are identical, that is, everything in nature is an expression of the divine and the divine ensouls every particle of matter. Incidentally, in this use, the term “theory” denotes a way of viewing the world, being from a Greek term meaning “to look at,” rather than unfounded speculation. In a Theosophical view, evolution is not just biological but cultural, intellectual, and spiritual as well; and reincarnation is the principal means by which human evolution progresses through the ages.
Theosophists regard the theories of pantheism, evolution, and reincarnation as universal ones that can be found in all religious traditions of the world. It is a typical Theosophical view that every traditional religion has two aspects: an outer or exoteric one and an inner or esoteric one. In their exoteric aspects, religions can be very different from one another and often antagonistic as well. They are expressions of the cultures and times in which they are practiced. But in their esoteric aspects, all religions are harmonious, being expressions, varying of course according to place and time, of the same eternal truth, which Theosophists call the Ancient Wisdom.
Founded in 1875 in New York City, the Theosophical Society is an organization whose name was chosen to align it with the larger theosophical tradition. Among the sixteen persons who participated in the formation of the Theosophical Society, two were notable for their roles in its future development: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), a charismatic Russian of upper-class family, and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), an American lawyer and journalist who served during the American Civil War (1861–1865), chiefly as an investigator and reformer of military procurement, for which he was highly respected and rewarded by the federal government of the United States. His contacts and influence with the U.S. government help to get Blavatsky and Olcott free from being tailed by the British secret service when they were traveling in India. Blavatsky was the energetic force that brought the Society into existence and remained its chief theoretician throughout her life. Olcott provided the organizing force that held the Society together. He became the first president of the Society and held that post until his death.
Madame Blavatsky’s first attempt to form a similar organization was made in Cairo. It did not succeed. Her teachers (the Masters [in a sense more frequent in Britain than in America, namely “a teacher; a person qualified to teach”]) then directed her to go to America, in order to meet Colonel Henry S. Olcott, who was investigating mediumistic phenomena at the Eddy homestead in Chittenden, Vermont, and was publishing the results of his investigations in some newspapers. Blavatsky demonstrated that she could produce such phenomena herself, and she maintained that their real explanation was quite different from the causes assumed by most spiritualists.
Blavatsky maintained that Spiritualistic phenomena were produced, not by the souls of dead persons coming into our world from “the other side,” but rather by the force of the human medium, often exercised unconsciously, or by “elementals,” which are semi-intelligent forces of nature. Blavatsky sent strongly worded articles to newspapers and journals defending what she called “true spiritualism” and exposing fraudulent mediums. In replying to an article on “Rosicrucianism,” she delivered what she characterized as her “first occult shot,” hinting at the sources of the great secret teachings of all times, guarded throughout the ages by those wise persons, the “Masters,” in the sense of both skilled persons and teachers.
Her articles brought Madame Blavatsky considerable notoriety, and her ideas on occultism — a word she helped to make familiar to the world — heightened interest in what was to become the Theosophical Society. Men and women of note attended her soirees in New York City. At one of those sessions, on 7 September 1875, a talk by G. H. Felt on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians” led to a decision to form a society for the study of such subjects. “The Theosophical Society” was chosen as the name of the new organization. According to tradition, it was selected by those present who just flipped through a dictionary to find an appropriate term.
The Theosophical Society was intended to be eclectic, that is, to reflect the traditions of a number of sources and not to be limited to any single one. Its members were not restricted to any single approach, nor expected to subscribe to any creed. Several meetings were held to frame and pass rules, and an emblem was adopted as the seal of the Society. On 17 November 1875, Colonel Olcott gave his inaugural address as president of the society, and this date is therefore still remembered as the Foundation Day of the Theosophical Society.
In 1877, H. P. Blavatsky published her first major work, the two-volume Isis Unveiled, which, she said, was “the fruit of somewhat intimate acquaintance with Eastern adepts and study of their science.” Its success was immediate and widespread around the world, attracting many persons to membership in the Society, despite the fact that it is a disorganized text, and by no means an easy read. However, it is full of arcane information and covers an amazingly broad scope of spiritual and mystical concepts.
Late in 1878, at the direction of HPB’s Masters, the two Founders left New York for Bombay via England. At that time, the Society was largely restricted to New York City. HPB and HSO left the American (that is, the New York) Society in the charge of a third important early member, a lawyer by the name of William Quan Judge. On their arrival in India, HPB and HSO first established the headquarters of the Society in Bombay, where their house was crowded with visitors. The press frequently published reports of their activities, and the Colonel lectured in Bombay and elsewhere to overflowing audiences. The appearance of two Westerners, neither British, who were presenting the Ancient Wisdom of India to modern-day Indians, as well as to others, was bound to attract a good deal of attention as an anomaly, especially in the eyes of the British Raj.