What is Theosophy, its Beliefs, and Practices?

Theosophy has a long history but is in its narrowest sense an eclectic, mystical worldview and movement primarily associated with the enigmatic Russian mystic Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891).

Blavatsky

Blavatsky’s authored many texts, perhaps the most influential of which are the multi-volume Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), both considered classic expositions of theosophical doctrine. Blavatsky traveled widely and spent many years studying various religious traditions in Europe and the Middle East. 

Although she later immigrated to the United States in 1873, Blavatsky explored ancient religions, Renaissance Christian occultism, Kabbalah, and spiritualism. She was notably inspired by mystical truths found in the mystics of India and Tibet. 

Blavatsky believed she had access to Divine Wisdom and wrote of how she attained this knowledge: “Not a word was spoken to me of all this time in the ordinary way… nothing taught me in writing. And knowledge so obtained is so clear… that all other sources of information, all other methods of teaching with which we are familiar dwindle in significance with this” (1). Perception is supra-conceptual as a deeper knowledge of divine truth is obtained via direct spiritual experience rather than only through books and lectures. 

The Theosophical Society 

Along with the lawyer and newspaperman Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907) and occultist William Quan Judge (1851-1896), Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 (2). Olcott was largely invested in contact between the living and dead (an important feature of the “spiritualism” he followed at the time) and became the organization’s first president.

In his inaugural address, Olcott noted the troublesome relationship between religion and science, and maintained that both represented a limited, shallow, and dogmatic view of truth. Blavatsky agreed stating that,

“The Infinite cannot be known to our reason, which can only distinguish and define; but we can always conceive the abstract idea thereof, thanks to that faculty higher than our reason — intuition, or the spiritual instinct of which I have spoken” (3).

Instead, “Ancient Wisdom”, once known in former times although now nearly forgotten, could, Olcott thought, show the oneness of matter and spirit and the way to its realization. The Theosophical Society outlines its goals which are to,

“form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; and to investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in human beings” (4).

Accepting and pursuing these goals is the only condition for becoming a theosophist. The Theosophical Society is thus not a religiously exclusive organization but allows members to ascribe to other religious affiliations and spiritualist orders.

Blavatsky maintained that she made regular contact with a brotherhood of Great Masters, or Adepts, who, having perfected themselves, directed the spiritual evolution of humanity. But these claims also became the locus of controversy in 1884 when Blavatsky was accused by a former employee and confidant of faking the extraordinary phenomena that accompanied the reception of some messages from the Masters.

William Hodgson, a member of the Society for Psychical Research in London, investigated Blavatsky on these charges and concluded, in what became known as the “Hodgson Report”, that the controversial allegations made by Blavatsky’s former employee were true.

Although the report was a major setback for Blavatsky, she still attracted converts. Ever since, the Theosophical Society has proven influential, notably in furnishing an avenue for Eastern ideas and thought to penetrate the West. The society also became the inspiration behind the proliferation of many other esoteric religious movements.

Theosophical Beliefs

Theosophical doctrine is taught by proponents believed to have attained true insight and knowledge via their perception of Divine Wisdom (5). Their teachings are not considered infallible but instead evolving and unfolding descriptions of Divine Wisdom.

Continuous Revelation. Although modern theosophy has a shared “sacred cosmovision”, expressions of this cosmovision vary in proclamation over time (6). Rather than Divine Wisdom having been revealed by a single infallible figure, revelation and divine discovery of truth do not cease. As Blavatsky stated in a letter, “much more” Divine Wisdom will be revealed over time (7). Stagnancy is therefore considered a defect because it shows a lack of spiritual development and discovery of divine truth. 

Further, life is considered a spiritual journey. Everyone is on a voyage and can acquire true knowledge from spiritual guides and instructors to aid them on this journey. Those who provide assistance are called Masters, Mahatmas, or Elder Brethren. 

Mystical Experience. Theosophists emphasize mystical experience. They believe there exists a spiritual reality that can be contacted and experienced via meditation and mental states transcending normal human consciousness. According to Blavatsky, “Knowledge comes in visions, first in dreams and then in pictures presented to the inner eye during meditation” (8).

Divine Wisdom. Theosophists maintain that every world religion stems from and is based upon an ancient truth known as “Wisdom Religion” (9). This body of truths forms the basis of all religions, none of which can claim exclusive possession of them. Theosophists believe that over time these pure truths were corrupted because of ignorance, greedy ambitions, superstition, and more. Theosophists consider it their duty to remedy this situation and solve the accompanying mass confusion. 

Inclusivist Truth. Theosophists find wisdom and truth in the many teachings of other religions (10). As such, Theosophy became a melting pot of religious elements taken from both the West and East. Theosophists enthusiastically comb through the sacred texts of other religions to discover these truths. 

Ancient religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Egyptian religion, among others, are popular resources for discovering spiritual truths, which is why the society “encourage(s) the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science” (11). Sacred religious figures like Buddha, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ, and others are considered a part of the theosophical tradition and therefore theosophists (12).

Truth Access. Divine Wisdom is in all human beings. However, the theosophist is the individual who has realized this potentiality leading to a state of inner enlightenment (13). Orthodoxy is therefore unattractive and rejected by Theosophists. According to Blavatsky,

“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 not withstanding” (14).

Blavatsky strongly opposed her spiritual movement ever degenerating into a “sect, in which a narrow and stereotyped creed would take the place of living and breathing spirit of Truth and an ever growing Knowledge” (15).

Oneness/Monism. Theosophists affirm the “oneness” of reality (16). 

Despite theosophists maintaining there to be a basic distinction between the phenomenal world and a higher spiritual reality and between the human and the divine, they display a preference for monism, which is the view that reality is constituted of one principle or substance, such as mind or spirit. Blavatsky maintained that there is a state in which one ceases to be a “personal I, and becomes one with ALL”. This state is to be in contact with the Infinite. It is ineffable as “mortals” cannot “describe this state in words” (17).

References

Blackburn, Simon. 2016. A Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Audi, Robert. 2015. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

1. Blavatsky, Helena P. 1973. Collected Writings. Theosophical Publishing House. p. 258.

2. Ellwood, Robert S. 2020. “Theosophy”. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, edited by David Leeming, 2354-2355. Springer Science+Business Media.

3. Blavatsky, Helena P. 1973. Ibid. p. 258.

4. Theosophical Society of America. n.d. Three Objects. Available

5. Sender, Pablo. 2007. What is Theosophy? PDF document. p. 100-102.

6. Sender, Pablo. 2007. Ibid. p. 104.

7. Blavatsky, Helena P. 1973. Ibid. p. 285.

8. Blavatsky, Helena P. 1973. Ibid. p. 285.

9. Blavatsky, Helena P. 2011. The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. p. XX, XVIII, 376.

10. Sender, Pablo. 2007. Ibid. p. 103.

11. Theosophical Society of America. n.d. Ibid.

12. Sender, Pablo. 2007. Ibid. p 103

13. Sender, Pablo. 2007. Ibid. p. 101.

14. Blavatsky, Helena P. 2017. Theosophist is who Theosophy does: On Theosophy, true Theosophists, and the Theosophical Society. Philaletheians UK. p. 6.

15. Blavatsky, Helena P. 2017. Ibid. p. 6.

16. Ellwood, Robert S. 2020. Ibid.

17. Blavatsky, Helena P. 1973. Ibid. p. 258.

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