Theosophy is a part of Western occultism. Created by Helela Blavatsky, it went on to influence a wide array of occult philosophies ranging from the New Age movement to the occult roots of Naziism.
Like Aleister Crowley and Thelema, the story of Theosophy is very much the story of the spiritual development of its creator.
Theosophy was established during the 19th century in the United States. It’s based on the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and is centered around a group of mysterious Masters.
These Masters are a cadre of spiritually advanced beings who, according to Blavatsky, attempted to bring back an ancient religion that would come to displace all others and unify humanity.
Despite the fact that scholars have sometimes referred to Theosophy as a religion, Blavatsky was adamant that this was not the case.
Origins & History
The late 1800s were a strange time to be religious in the United States. As industrialization spread rapidly and more people moved to cities for work, multiple new religious and philosophical communities arose by necessity. Immigrants from Asia brought their religions, adding a new influx of ideas.
This created the ideal social and religious environment for Theosophy. An increasing awareness of the theory of evolution challenged the creation narrative of Christianity, more people were embracing socially liberal ideas, and there were increasing feelings of anti-clericalism. In short, people wanted a way to reconcile science, religion, and liberation, and Theosophy claimed to do so.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born in Russia. A very free thinker for her time and station in society, she traveled often and gained exposure to a variety of occult and mystical traditions. It was on her travels to the United States that she met Henry Steel Olcott.
In 1875, Blavatsky, Olcott, and a man named William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society. Two years later, Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled, a key writing in Theosophy that outlined her esoteric philosophy.
She called Theosophy a blend of science, religion, and philosophy, and claimed that it was helping to revive an ancient wisdom that would unify all of the world’s religions into a single, coherent belief system.
Five years later, Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India. While Theosophy spread quickly there, Blavatsky experienced health problems, a scandal, and accusations of defrauding people with faked paranormal phenomena. She returned to Europe in 1885, where she died of influenza.
Before her death, Blavatsky named several potential successors. After her passing, Olcott, Judge, and Annie Besant met in London to discuss the movement’s future. The discussion broke down when Judge claimed to be in contact with the Masters, who told him that he and Besant were to lead the movement.
Olcott said that Judge’s notes from the Masters were forgeries, and Judge informed Besant that the Masters had told him that Olcott was planning to kill her. It didn’t go well, and culminated in the American branch of the Theosophical Society voting to secede.
Olcott then sent Besant to the United States to gain supporters for the Society. Upon his death in 1907, she became his successor. In the years that followed, amid charges of child sexual assault by six of its priests and a wave of resignations, many members initiated a “Back to Blavatsky” movement that resulted in further divisions within the Society.
While Theosophy has a set of core teachings, it isn’t a dogmatic philosophy. There are no sets of ideas that followers have to espouse, and the only requirement that the Theosophical Society placed on its members is that they should “form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.”
There are likewise no ethical codes or formalized rituals.
With this in mind, there are Three Fundamental Propositions outlined by Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine:
- The First Fundamental Proposition is that there is one absolute Reality which came before all manifested things. It’s infinite, eternal, omnipresent, unchangeable, and transcends human perception and understanding.
- The Second Fundamental Proposition states that the “Eternity of the Universe” is boundless. It’s a field on which infinite universes manifest and vanish. This also invokes an idea akin to the Hermetic principle of rhythm.
- The Third Fundamental Proposition deals with reincarnation. All human souls are identities within a Universal Over-Soul. Every soul must undertake a pilgrimage through the Cycle of Incarnation, in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic Law.
These ideas are very condensed here — in the original manuscript, they’re much more elaborate and written with occultist jargon and metaphor.
As a summary, these Propositions hold that there is a Reality that was Reality long before anything ever physically existed, the Universe is an infinite space in which universes are constantly popping in and out of existence, and human souls issue from the same source and are subject to karmic laws.
Karma & Reincarnation
Blavatsky’s ideas about life, death, and reincarnation are, at times, contradictory. She worked as a spirit medium, but also wrote that souls were subject to reincarnation. Initially, she posited a concept called “metempsychosis” — that souls progressed through more spiritual planes after death. In approximately 1884, she added the idea of reincarnation to Theosophy.
According to the Third Fundamental Proposition, souls are immortal and reincarnate into other living beings after death. This doesn’t happen instantaneously, and never occurs while the deceased’s relatives are still alive.
Upon death, the astral body remains in a state of limbo called kama-loka before it, too, passes away. The soul then remains in a paradisiacal place called devachan for several centuries. The circumstances of the soul’s previous life influence their next reincarnation. People who suffer in this life, according to Theosophy, are doing so because of actions in their previous incarnation.
Interestingly, Blavatsky didn’t believe that this was always the case, nor would it be so in the future. Instead, karmic laws only came into existence when humans developed ego. Once humanity had moved past that, then karmic law would no longer be necessary.
A core concept in Theosophy is the existence of the Masters. These are a group of spiritually, morally, and intellectually advanced men who were allegedly the “true” creators of Theosophy. They were said to keep all of the world’s ancient knowledge, and charged with observing and guiding humanity’s development.
Theosophists named several key religious and historical figures as Masters, including Jesus, Confucius, and Gautama Buddha. The Masters would approach people who they had deemed worthy, and accept them as apprentices. Following this, the apprentice was required to live seven years of chastity, with no regard for physical comforts and luxury.
This idea wasn’t unique to Theosophy. The Spiritualist movement resulted in a rise of spirit mediums who claimed to channel messages from advanced beings. In Theosophy, the idea of the Masters is very similar — they are spiritual adepts who send messages to those they deem able to receive them.
The Ancient Wisdom Religion
Following the idea of an absolute Reality and unified Over-Soul, Theosophy also taught that there was an ancient religion that was at one time universal, and continues to make itself known in various way through modern religions.
Blavatsky believed that ancient civilizations had a unified philosophy and body of scientific knowledge, which was far more advanced than what modern society was capable of.
Unfortunately, this knowledge was lost over time. The Masters conserved this ancient religion, with the goal of reviving it in the future to help humanity return to their former glory.
This is why Blavatsky didn’t regard Theosophy as a religion in itself. Instead, it was a set of ideas about life, death, the universe, and a religion which the Masters were in the process of restoring. This ancient religion was part of Theosophy, but the two were not synonymous.
Theosophy’s cosmology holds that all things emanate from an absolute Reality. What humans are capable of perceiving with their senses isn’t reality itself, but an illusory and limited reflection.
The idea of deities is a complex topic in Theosophy. Blavatsky held that every solar system issues from a Solar Deity, with multiple lesser planetary spirits that guide evolution in their specific realms.
Like humans, planets also had several bodies — their physical manifestations, astral bodies, spiritual bodies, and mental bodies, all of which occupy the same physical space.
These are involved in evolution, as it progresses from the first spiritual body, to the first mental body, to the first astral body, to the physical body, and then on to the second astral body, second mental body, and second spiritual body.
This is tied to Blavatsky’s concept of “Root Races,” one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated ideas in Theosophy. She claimed there were seven Root Races, each with seven Sub-Races:
- The first comprised beings created of pure spirit.
- The second beings were also made of pure spirit. These were known as the Hyperboreans, and lived in an area near the North Pole.
- The third were the Lemurians, who lived in Lemuria.
- The fourth were the Atlanteans. The Atlanteans lived in Atlantis, and their appearance marked the beginning of the development of physical bodies. They allegedly crossbred with animals, abused technology, and lived decadent lifestyles, and so Atlantis sunk into the ocean and was lost.
- The fifth were the Aryans. Rather than the concept of Aryans eventually espoused by Nazi ideology, this simply referred to modern-day people around the world.
- The sixth Root Race didn’t exist at the time of Blavatsky’s writings. She believed that this Race would appear after the fifth, and would be heralded by the appearance of Maitreya Buddha.
- The seventh Root Race represented the end of humanity’s evolutionary cycle.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky is a complicated figure who often reinvented herself by creating new backstories. As a result, it’s very difficult to know what’s true, what’s allegorical, and what was intended to bolster her reputation.
She was born Helena Petrovna von Hahn to an aristocratic Russian-German family in Yekaterinoslav in 1831, and was baptised into the Russian Orthodox Church. Her mother was a self-educated young woman, and the daughter of the similarly autodidactic Princess Yelena Pavlovna Dolgorukaya.
Blavatsky’s father was Colonel Pyotr Alexeyevich von Hahn, a descendant of the German aristocracy. Her father’s military career normalized a quasi-nomadic lifestyle for the young girl, as the family traveled extensively around Russia. Taking after her mother and grandmother, she also had a very curious mind that was receptive to self-education. As a teenager, Western esotericism sparked her imagination.
Sometime between 1838 and 1840, Blavatsky moved to Saratov, where she claimed to have discovered her Freemason great-grandfather’s personal library. It was filled with books on a range of esoteric subjects, which only increased Blavatsky’s curiosity. She also claimed to have begun having visions of an Indian man, who she is later said to have met in person.
At age 17, Blavatsky was at a marriageable age. Her family wanted her to have a good match, but she had no interest in sex, children, or a relationship. She married the much older Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky, either out of spite or because of his “belief in magic,” and allegedly responded to the “love, honor, and obey” portion of the ceremony with, “I most assuredly will not!”
Regardless of whether she chose Nikifor out of spite or genuine interest, Helena Blavatsky attempted to escape from her new home multiple times. Nikifor eventually relented, allowing his young wife to do more or less as she pleased. She was sent to Odessa to meet her father, along with a set of escorts.
She claimed to have evaded her escorts in Kerch, bribed a ship’s captain to take her to Constantinople, and spent the next nine years traveling around Europe, India, and the Americas. At one point, she’s said to have survived a shipwreck off of the Cape of Good Hope before arriving in England around 1854.
In 1858, Blavatsky returned to her family where she began experiencing more paranormal phenomena. She reconciled with her husband in 1862, adopted a son, and suffered a spinal fracture from a fall from a horse in 1864. She remained in a coma for several months, but claimed to have obtained full control of her psychic abilities upon awakening.
Blavatsky’s son passed away in 1867 at the age of 5, and she continued traveling. She claimed to study with rabbis, and sustain an injury fighting for Giuseppi Garibaldi in a battle to capture Rome. During her various journeys, she said she had met a group of spiritual masters. At this time, one of them sent her to Tibet for training. Blavatsky was taught an unknown ancient language called Senzar, and used this knowledge to translate a number of texts.
In the early 1870s, after more traveling, Blavatsky claimed to have been instructed to travel to New York City. As the Spiritualist movement was picking up steam, Blavatsky was right along with it. While she ardently believed in the veracity of Spiritualist phenomena (like knocking, channeling, and apparitions), she didn’t believe that the entities contacted by mediums were actually the spirits of the dead.
In 1874, she traveled to Vermont to meet William and Horatio Eddy, a pair of brothers allegedly capable of levitation and other psychic abilities. It was there that she met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. The two struck up a friendship, and Blavatsky taught him her spiritual beliefs. The pair founded Theosophical society along with William Quan Judge. Five years later, Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India.
India was currently experiencing a Hindu Reform Movement, which Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society were happy to ally with. This proved unpopular with the British colonial administration and Christian missionary groups, but the Thosophical Society nevertheless established a headquarters in Adyar.
Unfortunately, while Blavatsky was traveling to Europe, trouble broke out. There was evidence that Emma Coulomb, one of Blavatsky’s old friends whom she had helped out of poverty, had been embezzling funds from the Society. Cloulomb and her husband retaliated by threatening to blackmail Blavatsky using letters that supposedly contained evidence that Blavatsky admitted her psychic abilities were fraudulent.
In 1885, after being one of the first people from the United States to convert to Buddhism, Blavatsky returned to Europe where she passed away.
Blavatsky was a master at inventing and reinventing her past as she needed to. Many of her alleged travels take place during times where she didn’t keep a diary, and there was no one else around to corroborate her stories. This allowed her to say whatever she felt she needed to at the time, and there was no evidence either for or against her.
The popularity and adaptability of Blavatsky’s ideas proved to be a very mixed blessing. While Theosophy has had a very wide-ranging influence, not everyone has used these ideas for good.
For example, the occult roots of Naziism borrowed from Blavatsky’s ideas. Theosophy influenced, in part, the German and Austrian Paganism revival that took place in the early 19th century. A blend of Theosophy and Germanic Paganism to create Armanism, and eventually Ariosophy (which translates to “the wisdom of the Aryans”). Ariosophy became part of the German nationalist groups that eventually formed the Nazi party.
On the other hand, many of her ideas are also used in the New Age movement and some forms of modern Paganism. Theosophy was largely responsible for spreading, if not introducing, the concept of reincarnation in Western belief.
Theosophy’s influence spread beyond philosophical and spiritual groups, as well. Several scientists were also Theosophists, including naturalist, anthropologist, and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, and chemist Sir William Crookes. Theosophy also contributed to the arts, including the abstract works of Hilda af Klimt and Piet Mondrian.
Helena Blavatsky and Theosophy are both complex and contradictory. Blavatsky’s own backstory is full of holes, confabulations, and bits of reality too extraordinary to be made up.
Theosophy is a non-religion that’s sometimes considered a religion, which went on to have a far-reaching influence on modern spirituality, global politics, science, and art.