Doctrine and Dogma

Shirley Nicholson – USA


One of the most precious benefits of the Theosophical Society to many members is the freedom of thought it offers. Theosophy may be regarded as an open search for truth with no dogma, nothing that anyone is required to believe or adhere to other than allegiance to the principle of brotherhood. This freedom is rare. There are few religious or philosophical organizations in the world today that permit members such latitude of belief and exploration. This may be one of the most important reasons that the Society has survived and viable for over a hundred years. (Written in 1983, editor)

Most churches and religions hold dogmas which their adherents are expected to accept. For example, in recent decades the Catholic Church declared the Assumption of Mary as a new dogma. This means that Catholics must accept as fact that Mary’s physical body ascended into heaven. By contrast, the members of the Theosophical Society are not required to accept any of its teachings. They may or may not believe in the existence of the Masters or the continuity of life after death on inner planes or any other notion found in the literature. There is no dogma in the Society in the sense that its members may dispute, reject, or accept any of its teachings except for brotherhood.

Recently a group of Fundamentalist Christians headed by an articulate television personality visited Olcott (headquarters of the TSA in Wheaton, USA, editor) , apparently to warn us that, according to their interpretation of the Bible, we were unknowingly following Satan. At the time there were several distinguished Theosophists at Olcott for the National Education Committee meeting. One of them eloquently explained The Secret Doctrine view of Satan and the Gnostic interpretation. He ended with an aside: “But I am not sure I go along with all this.” The Fundamentalists could not comprehend this attitude. How could he be a Theosophist if he didn’t believe The Secret Doctrine? They hold to a literal reading of the Bible with no symbolic interpretations and no latitude. They gave us a true-to-life example of dogmatism. The ultimate dogmatist, as Geddes MacGregor put it, would “flagrantly disregard truth for the sake of dogma,” as did the Church in the cases of Copernicus and Galileo. This is the opposite pole from the free search for truth for which the Theosophical Society stands.

However, the absence of dogma in Theosophy does not mean that there is no doctrine, or that every viewpoint is equally welcome on the platform of the Society. H.P.B. even titled her major work The Secret Doctrine and the word appears frequently in her writings and also in the letters from the Masters. The famous letter from the Mahachohan begins with “The doctrine we promul­gate, being the only true one . . .”1 It is obvious then that there is a coherent body of teachings in Theosophy, a doctrine, which can be studied and from which members may choose what they wish to accept. Clearly the Society was formed to present a philosophy, a metaphysics, a broad-based and nonsectarian teaching that would undergird the practice of brotherhood so much needed in the world. Volumes and volumes have been written to explicate the doctrines of Theosophy. Though they are very broad, they are still definite and specific. The fact that they have been expressed in various ways throughout history does not make them any less explicit. The oneness of all life, the law of cycles, the unity of the individual soul with the Oversoul, man's pilgrimage through many lifetimes — these are among the universal principles stressed by H.P.B. They are understood in various degrees of depth by different members.

In addition to required belief, dogma has connotations which relate to how a doctrine is understood. Fritjof Schuon, renowned authority in the study of religions, equates dogmatism with the purely theoretical understanding of an idea. If a spiritual idea is stated in a particular way, given a certain form, and this is repeated without a deep understanding of its inner significance, this he would say is dogma. There results a “sort of confusion of the idea with the form in which it is clothed,” and then “paralysis of this form [comes about] by attributing to it an absoluteness.” Giving form to a genuine intuition does not constitute dogmatism for Schuon, but after the form is given, the idea should then “rejoin the formless and total truth” from which it sprang. Symbols which express religious truth have deep inner meaning, but dogmatism misses “the inward or implicit illimitability of the symbol.” Nor can a dogmatic view recognize the “inward connection” between two apparently contradictory truths, though true insight “can make of them complementary aspects of one and the same truth.”

According to Schuon, in true esotericism a dogma is no longer limited and dogmatic “once it is understood in the light of its inherent truth, which is of a universal order.” But he claims that even metaphysical truth can be turned into dogma when not properly understood. In other words, we can make truth into dogma by repeating it verbally without true understanding.2

Many will recall that in the early days of the Theosophical Society Mme. Blavatsky and T. Subba Row, a brilliant Indian Theosophist, had a dispute over the principles of man. She held that there are seven principles and he said there are four. For some time there were lively debates in the journals over the issue. In the end each agreed that the other's system had merit. What is important for us in all this is not whether one of the systems was right but to recognize and experience the reality behind them, the actualities in man himself which they each describe in a different way. We could dogmatically stick to one system or the other and miss the living human qualities on which each system is based. The motto of the Theosophical Society is driving at something like this when it states: “There is no religion higher than Truth”; no formulation is superior to the reality it refers to.

H.P.B. recognized that no interpretation of truth is the final truth. She never claimed to be infallible and sometimes felt inadequate to verbalize the ideas she wished to convey. A slavish adherence to her words, or those of anyone else, is an obstacle to the deep understanding of the truth behind the words. She, of all people, wanted Theosophists to be open-minded and to continue to grow in the depth of their understanding and knowledge:

Orthodoxy in Theosophy is a thing neither possible nor desirable. It is diversity of opinion within certain limits that keeps the Theosophical Society a living and healthy body, its many other ugly features notwithstanding. Were it not, also, for the existence of a large amount of uncertainty in the minds of students of Theosophy, such healthy divergencies would be impossible, and the Society would degenerate into a sect, in which a narrow and stereotyped creed would take the place of the living and breathing spirit of Truth and an ever-growing knowledge.3

It is a challenge for us today to remain true to Theosophy without being dogmatic. There are so many gurus and esoteric groups with teachings which seem similar to Theosophy. How can we be open to different expressions without straying from the doctrine? Can we learn to recognize what is implausible, distorted, a travesty of esoteric truth without closing ourselves to its authentic expression through avenues other than theosophical ones? Can we retain genuine Theosophical teachings and still avoid the dogmatism which H.P.B. feared?

Every such attempt as the Theosophical Society has hitherto ended in failure, because, sooner or later, it has degenerated into a sect, set up hard-and-fast dogmas of its own, and so lost by imperceptible degrees that vitality which living truth alone can bring.” 4

It seems the way for us to present Theosophy truly but undogmatically is for us to become steeped in the doctrine, to come to understand its principles for ourselves and begin to bring them into our experience, not merely to rely on the authority of others. Through study and contemplation, more and more we can touch the reality behind theosophical teaching and keep alive “the vitality which living truth alone can bring.” This will lead to varied and creative expressions of the ancient truths. It will also give us a touchstone to judge what is and is not a true expression of it. It is up to us whether we try to understand the broad principles of Theosophy undogmatically and in the spirit of truth or turn them into narrow dogma or even lose sight of the doctrine altogether in amisunderstanding of what freedom of thought in the Society means.


1. C. Jinarajadasa, compiler, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1948), p.2.

2. All quotes are from Fritjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (New York: Pantheon, 1958), pp. 17-19.

3. H. P. Blavatsky, Five Messages from H. P. Blavatsky to the American Theosophists (Los Angeles: The Theosophy Company, 1922), p.5.

4. H. P. Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (Covina, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1946), p. 305.

The article was published previously in The American Theosophist, Issue y1983,  v71 i9 October p296

Text Size

Paypal Donate Button Image

Subscribe to our newsletter

Email address
Confirm your email address

Who's Online

We have 447 guests and no members online

TS-Adyar website banner 150



Vidya Magazine