Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2012  



The Roots Of Theosophy


by Michael Barker



(Swans - June 18, 2012)   The nineteenth century witnessed an unprecedented attack on organized religion, but this did not mean that spiritual beliefs declined. In fact, amidst the decline of established churches "interest in religion itself was never stronger." Driving the attack on churches was the correct belief that religious hierarchies were corrupt; thus the solution, for many, was to bypass such spiritual mediators and seek "a secure source of spiritual authority," and it was "this need for authority that made disciples so very vulnerable to charismatic teachers." (1) Especially in the wake of failed revolutionary struggles, the new wave of spiritualism sweeping across the world found all manner of patrons, including utopian socialists (like Robert Owen) with their amorphous doctrines "blend[ing] easily with millenarian Christianity..." Soon these new beliefs stretched the limits of Christianity, with upper-class individuals like Laurence Oliphant bringing together Christianity and Islam in a unique amalgam "which appealed even to Queen Victoria." Helena Blavatsky (1831-91) however was the "most important" Western guru who broke free from the confines of Christian doctrine by founding her very own religious tradition, Theosophy. (2)

Officially founded in 1875, Helena Blavatsky, like others before her, was no doubt influenced by the writings of the mere mortals who preceded her, and one notable individual was the English novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, whose work popularised Rosicrucianism. Lytton was the author of occult romances like Zanoni (1842) and A Strange Story (1862), and it "would not be unjust to say" that Theosophy was "virtually manufactured" from the pages of his novels. (3)

Taking a line from Eliphas Levi's synthesis of oriental religion and western magic as dramatised by Bulwer Lytton, buttressing this with her own extensive reading in Asian scriptures, and drawing on Rosicrucian, Masonic and Templar mythology, Blavatsky created a Brotherhood of Himalayan Masters who had supposedly selected her to communicate their message to the world. Quite why they should have chosen her, she never knew. But in retrospect it became clear that her apparently aimless wanderings had been under fraternal direction all along: it was the Masters who made her a concert pianist in Serbia, an amazon in Italy and a spirit medium in Cairo. (p.40)

Blavatsky, an autodidact Russian aristocrat, had first met the American colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) in October 1874, a month or so after he had begun to develop a keen interest in the spiritual realm (which happened to coincide with a period of spiritual revival across America). (4) Olcott "craved excitement and a mission in life" while Blavatsky "wanted admiration and a source of income." They were a match made in heaven; serving as partners-in-mischief (if not always friends) for the rest of their lives. Over these years Blavatsky honed the mysterious art of precipitating letters from the Masters, which were either directly delivered to herself and passed on to their intended recipient, or simply fell from the sky into their recipients' laps (as if by magic). "Especially large numbers were written during moments of crisis, usually urging the recipients to do whatever Blavatsky suggested." (5)

Seeking to make a career out of their ability to dupe spiritual seekers, during their early years the dubious duo paid the editor of the Spiritual Scientist to publicize Olcott's otherworldly communications with the Masters. However, when they finally "ran out of money," this gambit drew to a close, as did the magazine, which filed for bankruptcy in 1878. Blavatsky then formed a Miracle Club to investigate the occult realm, and it was only when this project failed that in 1875 she "hit on the ideas that were to make her an international celebrity." She simply had to do what many other occult gurus had done before her... write a bible and found a church. Her first step on this road to international fame came when she published Isis Unveiled (1877), "an exposition of Egyptian occultism and the cult of the Great Mother" that had been "transmitted direct to her by the Masters, with whom, her relationship was becoming ever more intimate." (6)

The first printing of a thousand copies sold out immediately, despite the attacks of scholars, and reviewers who dismissed it as "discarded rubbish" (New York Sun) and "a large dish of hash" (Springfield Republican). The New York Times ignored the book completely. Max Muller, professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, accused the author of scholarly incompetence, and another critic identified over two thousand unacknowledged quotations. The author and her chum calmly cited such quotations as evidence of her occult power. (pp.52-3)

Either way, what is certainly true is that "Blavatsky's book answered to deep needs at a time when religious doubt was fuelled by the first great age of mass education." Next, in September 1875, the "church" to accompany the new "bible" was formed named the Theosophical Society (a name that ironically was arrived at by the mystic art of "flipping through a dictionary"). (7)

But despite a healthy start, within a few years Blavatsky and Olcott had been deserted by many of their original members and were "almost alone." It was at this inopportune time that the adventurous pair left their base in New York to set off for India, where for four years (1878-1882) they united with a Vedic society known as Arya Sarnaj to form the Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavarta. Given Theosophy's favourable orientation to Hinduism (and Buddhism), this move may have also been motivated by the potential to convert millions of Hindu Indians. Given their magical beliefs, one might have logically expected them to travel to Egypt -- the home to their Masters (Tuitit Bey, Serapis, and the Luxor Brotherhood) -- yet their choice of destination is perhaps best interpreted as being "symptomatic of a general shift of interest in occult circles from Egypt to the Himalayas, and after 1878 we hear little from Blavatsky about Egyptian Masters." (8) Whatever may be, the decision to travel to India was fortuitous and the Theosophical Society steadily grew in strength, such that "Blavatsky gradually acquired a wide circle of acquaintances including influential figures in the Raj (among them the Major Henderson deputed to spy on her and Olcott during their first weeks in India)." Indeed by December 1882 the Society was doing so well that they moved to a "small estate at Adyar near Madras, where Theosophical headquarters remains to this day." (9)

Theosophy proved particularly popular on the island of Ceylon. Blavatsky and Olcott had first visited this island in May 1880, soon opening "seven Singhalese branches of the Society," while "Olcott began to espouse the Buddhist cause against the Christian missions which dominated the island by imposing religious conformity." This political gambit proved successful, and as part of their missionary efforts Olcott "set up a Buddhist Defence Committee, teaching the monks how to be politically effective in pursuit of their rights." In this way, the Theosophical Society had "a formative influence on Singhalese nationalism" and in testament to their achievements, when the "when Ceylon's education service was nationalised [in the 1960s], the Buddhist Theosophical Society had over four hundred schools, with many former pupils in important positions." But while Theosophy continued to develop deep roots in the East, it slowly grew in the West as well, such that "distinguished converts included the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, [Charles] Darwin's collaborator Alfred Russel Wallace and the inventor Thomas Edison." (10)

Yet the factors that led to the international growth of the Theosophical Society, which included their "lack of administrative and doctrinal coherence," also promoted conflict. A significant source of trouble for the Society arose when Anna Kingsford, who "was already a celebrated figure in esoteric Christian circles," was elected president of their London Lodge in January 1883. (11) Kingsford was already concerned about Theosophy's evident bias against Christianity, but the final straw came later in the year when one of Theosophy's leading lights, Alfred Sinnett, who was "the Editor of a major Indian newspaper, the Allahabad Pioneer," published his book Esoteric Buddhism. "Far from being esoteric, in her view the book was thoroughly meretricious and materialistic: sensational in every sense." It didn't help that the publication on this book came hot on the heels of a scandal whereby American medium Henry Kiddle had demonstrated that Sinnett's previous book, The Occult World (1881), had contained a message derived from one of Blavatsky's Masters (Koot Hoomi) that plagiarized one of his own speeches. As Sinnett was a member of the London Lodge, this upset precipitated a split that Blavatsky and Olcott attempted to defuse when they came to England (in February 1884) specifically "to sort out the row." (12) Despite their best efforts to placate the head of their London Lodge, Kingsford decided to cut her ties to the Theosophical Society, which she considered to be thoroughly corrupt, and in April created her own rival Society.

At this stage, the Theosophical Society was strong enough and small enough to withstand the crisis, and Anna's early death in 1885 removed the danger of a major rival. But the serious doctrinal disputes in London were nothing compared to the farcical drama brewing back at Adyar, where the uneducated housekeeper left in charge by Blavatsky turned out to be another strong woman and a far more formidable enemy than the cultivated and brilliant Anna Kingsford. (p.78)

Emma Coulomb had been utilized by Blavatsky as an "accomplice to precipitate letters, materialise saucers and provide visions of the Masters." But with ongoing quarrels about money, and with Blavatsky far away in England, Coulomb attempted to blackmail the remaining leaders of the Society by threatening to publish a collection of letters that made it clear that their spiritual leader "had deliberately set up phenomena to defraud the public by arranging for her housekeeper to stage them." The Society's trustees did not, however, cave in to Coulomb's demands, and in the summer of 1884 they turfed her out onto the street. As if all this was not bad enough, Blavatsky had powerful enemies in India in the form of the Christian missionaries -- especially in Ceylon and Madras -- and it was to the Principal of the Madras Christian College that Coulomb subsequently sold her collection of letters. (13) The first batch of letters was published with "perfect timing" in September 1884, "just as Richard Hodgson, the investigator appointed by the [Society for Psychical Research] embarked on his enquiry into the charges against Theosophy." (14) Not surprisingly Hodgson's initial report determined that Blavatsky was "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors of history." (15)

[Blavatsky's] reputation in Anglo-Indian circles never recovered from the double blow inflicted by the SPR and the Christian College Magazine. But the adverse publicity actually enhanced her standing with many Indians, because of the way in which it polarised the Troubles antagonism between Hindu nationalists and Christian missionaries, which was in turn part of the larger conflict between the colonisers and the colonised. Blavatsky appeared to be firmly pro-Hindu in India, just as Olcott was pro-Buddhist in Ceylon. Any attack by the missionary societies or western organisations such as the SPR therefore simply obscured issues of occult truth and falsehood by identifying Blavatsky with the cause of Home Rule in the eyes of her Indian supporters. (pp.84-5)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America (Schocken, 1995), p.9. In this way, "The seance offers a new version of holy communion, in which faith is replaced by evidence, blood and wine by manifested spirits. It was therefore especially popular among the Protestant sects of the east coast of the United States, deprived as they usually were of any sensuous fulfilment in their religion and susceptible to any sign of the workings of divine grace, however bizarre." (pp.10-11)

In a review of Washington's book for the Cultic Studies Journal, Joseph Szimhart points out that: "Some important TS offshoots are missing in Washington's survey, such as the Agni Yoga Society founded by Nicolas and Helena Roerich in the early 1920s, the Arcane School founded also in the 1920s by Alice A. Bailey, and the I AM Activity founded by Guy and Edna Ballard in the mid-1930s. To those who have studied the history of Theosophy as it has influenced these and other groups not mentioned by Washington, these may appear as glaring omissions. But the pervasiveness of Theosophy's influence, especially with the thousands of New Age movement teachers and sects throughout the world, would take volumes to merely summarize." In addition, Frederick Crews' review of Madame Blavatsky's Baboon for The New York Review of Books notes how Washington "overlooked" the fact that Henry A. Wallace (Franklin Roosevelt's vice president) was a "zealous" Theosophist.  (back)

2.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.11, p.22. Laurence Oliphant was a disciple of Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906).  (back)

3.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.36. "Bulwer Lytton was no mere novelist. He also had a successful career in politics, entering Parliament in 1831 and becoming Colonial Secretary in 1858 (for which he was rewarded with a peerage as Lord Lytton in 1866)." Lytton had been friends with "the unfrocked French priest Eliphas Levi (1810-75). Levi -- whose real name was Alphonse-Louis Constant -- had inaugurated an occult revival in France." (p.37)

"Zanoni begins with a reference to the Rosicrucians, almost certainly the main Western source in modern times of Hidden Master mythology. The irony of Blavatsky's debt to Bulwer Lytton is doubled by the fact that this secret brotherhood is itself a fiction, created in early-seventeenth-century Germany by a series of pamphlets reporting the existence of a mysterious brotherhood (fraternitatis) of the Rosy Cross, named in honour of the fourteenth-century knight Christian Rosenkreutz." (p.38) Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.38. For further details of the Rosicrucian fiction Washington cites Frances Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (Arkana, 1986), and Robert Wolff, Strange Stories and Other Explorations in Victorian Fiction (Gambit, 1971), pp.163-6.

"Behind both the real Masons and the mythical Rosicrucians stands the mythology of the Knights Templar, a military and religious order which played a major role in the Crusades before its destruction by the French monarchy in 1312. The cruel persecution of the Templars by King Philip the Fair and his ministers (almost certainly motivated by jealousy of their power and vast wealth) was supported by papal propagandists who suggested that the order had become a secret society involved in occult practices, sexual perversion, political rebellion and heretical contacts with Islam. It was implied that the knights were trying to set up a state within the state, devoted to the overthrow of the monarchy." (p.39)  (back)

4.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.30, p.29. "Theosophy's millennial and occult tendencies sat well with the atmosphere of frenzied eschatological doom pervading Russia in the first decades of this century, and many intellectuals and writers were attracted to it, including Blok, Pasternak, Berdyaev, Soloviev, Rozanov, Florensky, Merezhkovsky and, most famously, Bely and Skriabin." (p.160) For further details on Russian occultism Washington refers his readers to James Webb's classic text The Occult Establishment (Open Court Publishing, 1976).  (back)

5.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, pp.43-4, p.47. "Whether Olcott was Blavatsky's fellow-conspirator or her dupe, it is hard to say. The colonel was a classic case of someone whose desire to believe is hard to distinguish from belief itself." (p.44)  (back)

6.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.49, p.52. Isis Unveiled "reflected controversies of its times -- particularly the implications of Darwinism and of Asian religions for the West -- and expressed a response that appealed then and now to intelligent persons interested in religion but alienated from its conventional Western forms." "A first edition of one thousand copies sold out in ten days. Within a year, all copies of two reprints also had been sold. It continued to sell well for a century, the total copies now sold now numbers about half a million." Bruce Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (University of California Press, 1980), p.38, p.35.  (back)

7.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.53, p.54.  (back)

8.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.57. "Swami Dayananda Sarasvati of the Arya Samaj, who expounded the practice of yoga and the powers it can produce. These include levitation, the occupation of other prolongation of life and the transformation of matter." (p.60)  (back)

9.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.61, p.66. "Much of her fame among the Anglo-Indians she owed to Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840-1921) and Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912)." (p.61) In later years Sinnet would break with the Thesophical Society, but while a member he wrote the preface for fellow theosophist William Scott-Elliot's influential book The Story of Atlantis (Theosophical Publishing Society, 1896). Hume who was the son of the British Liberal MP Joseph Hume, "was deeply embroiled in nationalist politics, and a moving force behind the formation of the Indian National Congress, which first met in 1885." (p.62)

For a more detailed treatment of the political implications of theosophy in India, see Mark Bevir, "Theosophy as a political movement," In: Anthony Copley (ed.), Gurus and their Followers: New Religious Reform Movements in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, 2000); and Mark Bevir, "Theosophy and the origins of the Indian National Congress," International Journal of Hindu Studies, 7 (1-3), 2003, pp.99-115.  (back)

10.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.66, p.67, p.68. "By 1885,121 lodges had been chartered -- 106 of them in India, Burma and Ceylon, where the Society had the bulk of membership." (p.68)

Alfred Russel Wallace "first attended seances in 1865, and then published a number of spiritualist writings including a pamphlet entitled 'The Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural' (1866). He twice turned down the presidency of the Society for Psychical Research at the turn of the century, although he was a great defender of spiritualism." David Katz, The Occult Tradition: From the Renaissance to the Present Day (Pimlico, 2007), p.229. For further details, see Martin Fichman, An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (University Of Chicago Press, 2003).  (back)

11.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.70. In addition to her wide ranging spiritual beliefs Anna Kingsford was a leading animal rights activist. "In the course of her campaign against animal experiments, Mrs Kingsford claimed to have willed to death several famous French vivisectors, writing after one expired of fever: 'The will can and does kill... I have killed Paul Bert, as I killed Claude Bernard; as I will kill Louis Pasteur...'" (p.73)  (back)

12.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.61, p.76, p.75, p.76.  (back)

13.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.81, p.82. "After comparatively little progress in the subcontinent in over a century -- nothing to compare with their African successes -- they were not inclined to tolerate rivals such as the Theosophical Society. The Principal of the Christian College in Madras, many of whose students provokingly supported HPB and Olcott because of their nationalist stance, was especially keen to see Theosophy discredited." (p.79)  (back)

14.  Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.82. Founded in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) "became an influential body, including John Ruskin, Lord Tennyson, W. E. Gladstone and William James among its members. Though more limited in scope, it had affinities with Theosophy's scientific project, and several Theosophists -- notably Edward Maitland and Alfred Russel Wallace -- had joined. Both organisations claimed to be devoted to the objective study of the spirit world, the SPR rather more convincingly than the TS." (p.80) Here it should be pointed out that while the governing body of the SPR "was dominated" by individuals hostile to spiritualism, "Hodgson belonged to the SPR's pro-spiritualism" contingent and he was "disappointed by the exposure of [Blavatsky's] frauds." (p.84)  (back)

15.  Hodgson cited in Washington, Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, p.83. Hodgson's "report has not gone unchallenged by Theosophists, but their defense consists of arguments ad hominem, and Hodgson's basic findings have not been refuted." Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived, p.93.  (back)


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Published June 18, 2012