Theosophical Society

Research paper for Western Civ II

In an era searching for its identity, spiritualism provided a fantastic alternative to traditional religion and science. From trends toward the occult in the nineteenth century sprang the Theosophical Society, developed by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, based upon a combination of ancient religions. Blavatsky traveled the world studying religions of all types in search of a “body of truth.” Olcott was a Spiritualist convert who evolved to a Buddhist activist and hero. Overshadowed by showmanship and spectacle, theosophy was dismissed as an occult fad rather than a coherent philosophy. This essay examines the founders of the Theosophical Society and explores the society itself, including its fundamentals, attractions and criticisms.

Helena von Hahn was born in 1831 in the Ukraine. During her childhood, her family moved frequently. Helena first came into contact with an Asiatic religion when she lived in the Buddhist Kalmyk territory of Russia for a year. When Helena was eleven, her mother, an accomplished novelist, died. Her father was career military and sent Helena and her siblings to live with their grandmother, a scientist, artist and Dolgorukov princess. Helena’s early role models were strong and well-educated nobility. Her sister, Vera, also became a novelist, having started writing as a child, though their mother always saw Helena as the extraordinary child.

From her grandmother, Helena learned more of the Buddhist culture of the territory over which her grandfather was governor. She spent time in her great-grandfather’s library reading the alchemical and astrological works of Paracelsus and Agrippa. Young Helena also befriended Baranig Bouyrak, an old world magician living near her home, and absorbed his insights. From Prince Alexander Golitsyn, a mystic and freemason, she learned about the sacred places of Greece, Egypt, Persia and India. She also entertained her siblings and the serfs with stories of the past, visions inspired by places or objects. Helena spoke of the past lives of her stuffed animals and the accounts of the creatures that have over time dissolved to sand on the beach. According to her sister, “She heard the voice of every object and form, whether organic or inorganic; and claimed consciousness and being…1” When her grandfather was reassigned, Helena and her family moved to Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, which had little European influence but resembled territories of Turkey and Persia, countries which had warred over this city in the past centuries.

It was with her family that Helena began to produce phenomena openly. First hand accounts of her abilities as a medium remain under scrutiny, but a wide variety of people were convinced of her talents. She was reportedly capable of levitation, clairvoyance and communication with unexplained entities; the latter delighted and astounded witnesses as complex rappings from beyond answered their secret questions. But as word spread, Helena was in high demand to prove herself; general skepticism was not allayed because the spectacles were unreliable while she was under pressure. Despite the discredit, her sister writes, “[W]e seemed to have entered a magical world and grew so used to the inexplicable movements of furniture, to things being transported from one place to another, and to the interference into our everyday life of an unknown but rational force, that we soon began to regard that force as something rather ordinary.2”
When Helena was seventeen, her family announced her engagement to a man twenty-three years her elder, Nikifor Blavatsky. At first the strong-willed young woman resisted, but then she resolved to marry him in order to free herself of the “constant supervision to which single girls and women in aristocratic families were then subject.3” After only three months of marriage, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB) fled to Constantinople to begin a new life. The next twenty-five years of her life were devoted to far-flung travels and extensive studies of religions and philosophies throughout the world.

HPB commenced her travels in Egypt and Greece. She visited Quebec and Mexico to meet Native Americans and continued through Central and South America to explore ancient ruins. She planned to visit the newly established Mormons in Missouri, but their city of Nauvoo had just been attacked by a mob. She did, however, journey to Salt Lake City several years later. HPB also went to New Orleans to study voodoo but left quickly when she had a vision that warned her of their dangerous practices.

HPB continued her globe-trotting, journeying to Cypres, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jerusalem, where she studied the Kabbalah. Her travels also included sojourns in Europe, which included an affair with an Italian opera singer and a stint as a pianist. She reportedly lived a short while in Paris and London. It was in London in 1851 that she met her guru, of whom she had visions since childhood. She resolved to travel to India per the instruction of her mentor- “Your destiny lies in India, but later, in twenty-eight or thirty years. Go there [now] and see the county.4” During her trips to India, HPB attempted to enter Tibet, first by route of Nepal and then via Kashmir.

It is said that while in Italy, HPB had been an acquaintance of the revolutionary Garibaldi and fought with other European ladies for Italian unification. After recovering from saber and musket wounds, HPB traversed the Balkans and received word from her guru, Mahatma Morya of Punjab, to proceed to India and then Tibet. She studied for three years in Tibet; assorted accounts place her in this restricted county at that time. In the summer of 1873, she settled in New York and began the philosophical application of her vast religious studies.

On the other side of the world, Henry Steel Olcott was born in New Jersey in 1832. Raised Presbyterian, Olcott converted to Spiritualism at age nineteen and became an activist for anti-slavery, women’s rights and temperance. He was an active freemason and practiced spirit healing and mesmerism, Olcott also kept up on the Spiritualist press and occasionally contributed to the publications.

As an acclaimed and published agricultural scientist, Olcott founded the Westchester Farm School, but after its failure, he worked for the New York Tribune as its Agricultural Editor. Olcott received two medals of honor for public service in agricultural reform. During the Civil War, he joined the Union Army and investigated profiteers as Special Commissioner to the War Department. He was also appointed to the three-man board that investigated the assassination of President Lincoln, as well as covered for the New York Tribune the hanging of militant abolitionist John Brown. After the war, Col. Olcott was admitted to the Bar in New York, and his practice included clients such as the City of New York, U.S. Treasury and New York Stock Exchange. He was nominated Assistant Secretary of Treasury but lost the appointment when he sided with Congress against President Johnson. Still, Col. Olcott was to make his greatest impact later in life. In October of 1874, while reporting on a spiritualist tourist trap in Vermont, Eddy’s Farm, he met HPB.

HPB opened Col. Olcott’s eyes to eastern religions while Olcott lent legitimacy to HPB’s eccentric nature. The larger-than-life charisma of HPB rocketed her into popularity, and she became the champion of the revived Spiritualist movement. In the fall of 1875, an inspiration fell upon Olcott during a lecture by Mr. J.G. Felt about the spiritual science of mathematical formulas of the Egyptians and Greeks. The gathering also included a judge, poetess, manufacturer, attorney, clergyman, barrister and mesmerist, doctor and cabbalist, Rosicrucian, Freemason, two journalists, the president of the New York Society of Spiritualists and a law clerk, William Quan Judge. Olcott proposed forming a society, and he was promptly voted president and Judge secretary.

The founders stressed that Theosophy should be a science and not a religion. HPB expressed that “Ideals and faiths have been lost almost everywhere…Pseudo-science has destroyed them. People in our century demand a scientific bulwark, scientific proofs of the spirit’s immortality. Ancient esoteric science will give it to them.5” The society tried to distinguish itself from the spiritualist movement. In the words of Col. Olcott, “American spiritualism…was a sort of debauch of phenomena accompanied by comparative indifference to philosophy.6” Though HPB’s book Isis Unveiled was quite popular, Col. Olcott’s book People from the Other World was a bust. The Theosophical Society had a slow and shaky beginning in New York, and in 1879, HPB and Olcott moved the headquarters to Adyar, India.

In the 1880s, the society began to grow, recruiting members such as Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Edison. Theosophy appealed to the professional class, “attract[ing] these creative thinkers and intellectuals because it offered a philosophy that approached consciousness as a substantive rather than transcendental phenomenon…finding a common ground between many world religions, without necessarily subscribing to the tenets of any one particular religion.7” The Theosophical Society was reminiscent of the Enlightenment in that the educated middle class gathered for philosophical expression. The difference was that the latter stressed a rational perspective of the physical world whereas the former extends to the world beyond that which was commonly conceived. Theosophy was also made more accessible because of colonization. India, for example, was no longer as alien to Europeans as it had been in centuries past. As Orientalism became more common, philosophical and religious ideas were like commodities. Putting aside the spectacles of telekinesis and mesmerism as presented by its founders, Theosophy was grounded in valid philosophical concepts, though its significant eastern influences qualified it as occult.

With such nomenclature comes a western stigma; if it’s not Judeo-Christian, it must come from darker forces. But this was not the only criticism Theosophy received. The society claimed to be objective, but as Peter Washington argues, “There is nothing objective about the study of occult phenomena by a society that has already decided that they exist and merely remain to be located and explained.8” Theosophy as an institution also suffered from inherent dilemmas. As an institution, like any organized religion, the spiritual ideal was clouded by tradition and dogma. Conversely, doctrine without dogma denied members a framework or guideline for worship. (Later, this ambiguity resulted in a schism after the deaths of HPB and Olcott.) Leadership also remained a dilemma, whether based on charisma or the appointment to an office. A question arose as to whether Theosophy was a religion or a philosophy, “blur[ring] the distinction between knowledge and faith.9” Finally, commitment to the Society became an issue, and membership turnover was high.

HPB produced a body of writing that included Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, but an accusation of plagiarism arose from William Coleman, arguing that she did not disclose all of the sources of her research. The Theosophical Society fell under investigation by the Society for Psychical Research in England. The phenomena of HPB were under scrutiny and about to be declared fraudulent when another calamity occurred. The Coulombs, a couple that HPB had employed when they were going through a rough period, had published a series of letters allegedly written by HPB explaining in detail the specifics of how she faked her phenomena. The Theosophical Society, concerned that the accusations of HPB mar the Society itself, declared that she was not allowed to sue the Coulombs for defamation. In 1884, HPB resigned as secretary of the Theosophical Society and left India.

Tensions grew between Col. Olcott and HPB. In Europe, she focused on writing and ceased producing phenomena for propaganda, explaining that it no longer contributed to the Society for her to continue. Olcott continued as president of the society in India. In 1888, HPB threatened to split off from the Theosophical Society unless Olcott issued her a charter for an Esoteric Section of the Society under her exclusive control, to which he complied. Over the next two years, Olcott and HPB exchanged threats of resignation; Olcott knew that she did not possess his executive abilities, and HPB knew that he did not possess her charisma. The two fought with the unspoken assumption that if either were to resign, the Society would not survive. HPB continued to vie for more power, culminating in a demand of the permanent position of president of Europe. She explained her actions as the “right of individual conscience… convey[ing] a commitment to a mystical ideal above loyalty to any organizational forms.10” The organizational struggle ended when HPB died from influenza in 1891.

Though HPB inspired Col. Olcott and exposed him to new ways of thinking, his most significant achievements occurred in Asia without her. “Gradually he was coming to see himself more as a teacher than as a student. He was also coming to view India as his home. But perhaps most important, he was beginning to emerge from behind Blavatsky’s formidable shadow…highlight[ing] Olcott’s oratorical skills rather than Blavatsky’s parlor-room charisma.11” He motivated the revival of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Zoroastrianism in countries such as India, Japan, Burma, Siam and Ceylon. In several Asian countries, he united the various Buddhist sects. Olcott established several Buddhist, Hindu and Free Schools and founded the Adyar Library. He toured the world, lecturing about Theosophy, and was given the “official blessing of Pope Pio Nono; blessed by the Buddhist High Priests of Ceylon, Burma, Siam and Japan, for his work for Buddhism…and adopted into the Brahmin caste for distinguished services to Hinduism.12” Col. Olcott remained president of the Theosophical Society until his death in 1907.

The Theosophical Society drew on ancient philosophies that would culminate in “divine wisdom.” The society’s symbol incorporated the Star of David, representing Jewish Kabbalism as well as the double triangles symbolizing the Trinity in Christianity and Hinduism; the Ankh, an Egyptian symbol for life and resurrection; the Ouroboros, a hermetic symbol representing the cycle of nature wherein the serpent also signifies wisdom; the Aum, referring to the mantra; and the Swastika, chosen for its Hindu and Buddhist origins.

The Theosophical Society of the nineteenth century attempted to “reform Spiritualism by ‘uplifting’ its masses out of their supposed philosophical and moral vulgaries- to transform the masses of prurient ghostseeking Spiritualists into ethically exemplary theorists of the astral plane.13” The fundamentals of Theosophy included six tenets. The first was the universal law that everything had a consciousness. The second was that man was unaware of his immortal and divine consciousness until he awakened to it. The third was reincarnation, that it took man more than one lifetime to discover his divine nature. The fourth was karma, the notion that everything must be kept in balance, that an action of good must counter one of evil. The fifth was universal brotherhood, that everything was conscious and equal, and unity helped realize divine nature. The sixth was “God’s Plan, which is evolution,14” that human nature progressed towards divinity through religion, philosophy, art, science, industry, philanthropy and commerce. HPB’s successor, Annie Besant, argued that evolution occurred due to reincarnation- “There is no mental or moral heredity, genius does not descend; it is the death-knell of human progress, unless reincarnation be true.15”

John Symonds described Helena Petrovna Blavatsky as “a kind of female Karl Marx on the cloudy plane of occultism…The Masters had picked the right the right person when they picked her. For courage, vitality, audacity, imagination and erudition, she had no rival.16” Her extensive expeditions in search of “divine wisdom” within the religions of the world demonstrated her strength and dedication toward the formation of a philosophical and religious movement, but her eccentricities marred the Theosophical Society in the eyes of both skeptics and supporters. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott experienced a religious evolution that matched HPB’s in magnitude but not in nature. As much as HPB was a pop star in Europe and America, Olcott was an activist throughout Asia, and his conviction championed religious revival, but his adherence to the organization diluted the notion of individual spiritual freedom. These two potent figures developed a society and philosophy that, despite the human short-comings of its founders, was rooted in ancient religions and garnered notable popularity among intellectuals and Spiritualists alike.

Burdett, Carolyn. “Romance, Reincarnation and Rider Haggard.” The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004.

Campbell, Bruce F. Ancient Wisdom Revived : A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

Cranston, S. L. HPB : The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. New York : Putnam, 1993.

Everett, Glen. “Spiritualism.” (September 12, 2005).

Goldstein, Matthew Mulligan. “Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky.” (September 12, 2005).

Landow, George P. “Late-Victorian Occultism.” (September 12, 2005).

Prothero, Stephen. “The White Buddhist: Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival.” (November 23, 2005).

Symonds, John. Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician. London, Odhams Press, 1959.

The Theosopical Society – Adyar. (November 15, 2005).

Viswanathan, Gauri. “The Ordinary Business of Occultism.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 1. (Autumn, 2000), pp. 1-20.

Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon : theosophy and the emergence of the western guru. London : Secker & Warburg, 1993.
1 Cranston, Sylvia. HPB. Putnam: New York, 1993. pp 29.
2 Cranston. pp. 72.
3 Cranston. pp. 36.
4 Cranston. pp. 49
5 Cranston. pp. 113
6 Cranston. pp. 126.
7 Viswanathan, Gauri. “The Ordinary Business of Occultism.” Critical Inquiry. pp. 4-5.
8 Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon : theosophy and the emergence of the western guru. London : Secker & Warburg, 1993. pp. 69.
9 Campbell, Bruce F. Ancient Wisdom Revived : A history of the Theosophical movement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. pp. 196.
10 Campbell. pp. 99-100.
11 Prothero, Stephen. “The White Buddhist: Henry Steel Olcott and the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival.”
12 The Theosopical Society – Adyar.
13 Burdett, Carolyn. “Romance, reincarnation and Rider Haggard.” The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004. pp. 224.
14 The Thesopical Society – Adyar. (November 15, 2005).
15 Burdett, Carolyn. pp. 225.
16 Symonds, John. Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician. London, Odhams Press, 1959. pp. 73.

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1 Comment

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