Theosophical Society
The major modern organization advocating gnostic-esoteric
teachings. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York
in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott,
William Quan Judge, and others. It grew out of interest in the
occult generated previously by the magnetist movement and
especially Spiritualism, in which both Blavatsky and Olcott had
participated. The society proposed a different direction, including
attention to a distinct philosophical stance drawn from
Eastern teachings.
Both Blavatsky and Olcott were closely concerned with Spiritualist
investigations, and they met at the house of the Eddy
brothers in Vermont. They were also concerned in the claimed
phenomena of the mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes of
Philadelphia, who were accused of cheating. The Holmes partnership
involved the alleged manifestation of the spirits ‘‘Katie
King’’ and ‘‘John King,’’ associated with the British medium
Florence Cook. Blavatsky eventually disowned the Holmes
phenomena, but endorsed the reality of the spirit ‘‘John King.’’
In May 1875 Blavatsky and Olcott formed the Miracle Club,
which offered an alternative to prevailing scientific materialism,
but the organization languished. Soon Olcott began to receive
messages through Blavatsky from a mysterious ‘‘Brotherhood
of Luxor,’’ prototypes of the famous Mahatma letters of
later years. These messages claimed the support of hidden
masters of wisdom in the spreading of truth.
In November 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded
with Olcott as president, Blavatsky as corresponding secretary,
and Judge (a lawyer) as counsel. There were approximately 20
original members. The term ‘‘theosophy’’ was proposed by
Charles Sotheran, a well-known bibliophile and editor of the
American Bibliopolist. The preamble to the society’s bylaws states
‘‘The Title of the Theosophical Society explains the objects
and desires of its founder they ‘seek to obtain knowledge of the
nature and attributes of the Supreme Power, and of the higher
spirits by the aid of physical processes.’ In other words, they hope,
that by going deeper than modern science has hitherto done,
into the esoteric philosophies of ancient times, they may be enabled
to obtain, for themselves and other investigators, proof
of the existence of an ‘Unseen Universe,’ the nature of its inhabitants
if such there be, and the laws which govern them and
their relations with mankind. Whatever may be the private
opinions of its members, the society has no dogmas to enforce,
no creed to disseminate. It is formed neither as a Spiritualist
schism, nor to serve as the foe or friend of any sectarian or
philosophic body. Its only axiom is the omnipotence of truth,
its only creed a profession of unqualified devotion to its discovery
and propaganda. In considering the qualifications of applicants
for membership, it knows neither race, sex, color, country
nor creed.’’
The stated objects of the society were ‘‘to collect and diffuse
a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe.’’ To the society,
these laws involved phenomena of a miraculous kind as
claimed in the history of occultism, Rosicrucians, and other secret
This preoccupation with the miraculous, which has also
been the popular focal point in the establishment of great
world religions, proved to be the strength as well as the weakness
of the society. Over the next two years, there was a shortEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Theosophical Society
age of unusual phenomena and the society seemed doomed to
failure, many members dropping out.
Meanwhile, Blavatsky was preparing her book Isis Unveiled,
a compilation and survey of esoteric religious and occult traditions
through the ages. This book, together with the amalgamation
of the Theosophical Society with the Arya Samaj of
Swami Dayananda Saraswati in 1878, stimulated new interest
in the society.
In 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott toured India, establishing new
contacts and developing an aura of the mystic East. India was
traditionally associated with the supernormal feats of yogis and
the esoteric wisdom of the Vedas and Upanishads. Although
Swami Dayananda proved to be something of a disappointment,
due to being a social reformer rather than a repository
of the prized miraculous feats of yoga, extraordinary events
surrounded Blavatsky over the next few years in India and reports
on them attracted widespread support for the Theosophical
Olcott’s tour of Ceylon and acceptance of Buddhism helped
to solidify the society’s image as a unifying principle for all religions,
though it also succeeded in exciting opposition from
Christian missionaries who did not believe that religions could
or should be unified.
During 1880–82 there were many letters purportedly from
the mysterious Mahatmas, or Masters of Wisdom, governing the
development of the society, which established headquarters at
Adyar, Madras. Although the marvels associated with Blavatsky
brought new and important supporters for the society, they
also excited opposition and accusations of fraud, even from
Swami Dayananda, who publicly repudiated Blavatsky and the
society in April 1882.
Through the years the Theosophical Society suffered from
various dissensions and schisms. Most notable was the controversy
over the so-called Mahatma letters, which Blavatsky
claimed were supernormally produced messages from Masters
or adepts. Accusations from Christian missionaries in India
that these letters were fraudulent began in 1884; in the same
year Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research,
Britain, went to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society
at Adyar, Madras, to conduct an on-the-spot investigation.
He reported the discovery of a shrine with a false back, used
with the connivance of Madame Coulomb, an employee of the
society, as a fake mailbox for the letters. The confession of
fraud by Coulomb was dismissed by loyal members of the society
as part of a Christian plot to discredit Blavatsky and the society.
Coulomb’s disclosure of the different methods by which
the ‘‘miracles’’ were produced and Hodgson’s own discovery of
various fraudulent events proved more conclusive to most.
Blavatsky left India and settled in England, leaving the society
in Olcott’s hands. There she drew a group of students, and
an internal controversy arose in the society over the establishment
of an esoteric section for the study of arcane doctrines
and practices. Meanwhile, Blavatsky worked on her massive
presentation of theosophical teachings, which finally appeared
as The Secret Doctrine.
Meanwhile, following the transfer of international headquarters
to India, Judge had organized and was leading the
American section. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, disputes
arose over the production of further Mahatma letters by Judge.
These letters supported his claim to take charge of the esoteric
section, which Blavatsky had bequeathed to newcomer Annie
While there was a temporary agreement for Besant and
Judge to share leadership, tension between Judge and the society
leadership outside of the United States continued; in
1895–96 he led the great majority of the American lodges in
the establishment of the Theosophical Society in America as
a separate entity. Judge died a short time later and E. T. Hargrove
was elected president of the Theosophical Society in
America. But like Blavatsky, Judge had found a talented protege,
and Katherine Tingley’s abilities were recognized by the
membership and she became president of the American society—a
post she would hold for the rest of her life. She led in
the establishment of a Theosophical community at Point Loma,
San Diego, California.
Meanwhile, Annie Besant succeeded Olcott (d. 1907) as
president of the international Theosophical Society. A capable
orator and administrator, she helped the society and built it
into a worldwide organization. While the society was hindered
by the scandals attached to Blavatsky, Besant attempted to put
that history in the past. However, one of her colleagues,
Charles Webster Leadbeater who impressed Besant as one
possessed of occult abilities, was involved in several scandals
that involved some young boys. Eventually he was exiled from
India to Australia, though not before he and Besant had produced
some of the standard theosophical texts. Leadbeater cost
the society the considerable support of the scholar G. R. S.
Mead and some 700 other members in England who left in
1908 and established a rival organization.
Besant adopted, with the aid of Leadbeater, a young Brahmin
boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, who they claimed would
be the vehicle through whom the future ‘‘World Teacher’’
would manifest. After World War I, as Krishnamurti matured,
Besant promoted him and took him on speaking tours around
the world. The society’s membership peaked in response to his
presence and both Besant and the members were devastated in
1929 when he resigned and renounced the role she had assigned
him. Krishnamurti went on to become an independent
teacher in his own right with a considerable following.
Theosophy’s teachings had been given to Blavatsky by a
group of exalted masters. Following her death, various people,
such as Leadbeater, also claimed to be in spiritual contact. One
who made such claims was Alice A. Bailey, a member living in
southern California. She claimed that she was serving as the
amanuensis of Djual Khul, usually called the Tibetan. Her
claims eventually led to her separation from the society and the
establishment in the 1920s of another offshoot of Theosophy—
the Arcane School.
In spite of its controversial background, the Theosophical
Society itself has had a considerable influence on the spiritual
and intellectual life of many individuals in India, Europe, and
the United States. Much of the power of the Irish literary renaissance
of William Butler Yeats and AE (George Russell)
stems from their association with Theosophy, which also exercised
a powerful influence on European occultism.
Perhaps its greatest contribution came during the presidency
of Besant, when Theosophy provided the people of India
with a feeling of pride in their own cultural and spiritual heritage
and participated in the growing wave of nationalism that
eventually resulted in the independence of India. Under the
auspices of the Theosophical Society, many important Hindu
scriptures were translated and published and the library at
Adyar contains many rare manuscripts preserved by the society.
The Theosophical Society, with its international headquarters
in Adyar, Madras, India, is today a worldwide body perpetuating
the basic perspective and teachings of ancient Gnosticism,
as promoted by Blavatsky in the 1880s and 1890s. While
the society is a significant body in its own right, its influence has
been extended through the hundreds of organizations that
have taken the basic theosophical worldview and built variations
upon it. Theosophy led directly to the founding of the
Liberal Catholic Church, the Anthroposophical Society, the
Alice Bailey movement, and the I Am Movement. Almost a
hundred different organizations, some of which rival the parent
Theosophical Society in size, have emerged from these offshoots.
Less directly attached to Theosophy, but owing much
to its initial impulse, is the modern magical revival whose initial
major organizational expression was the Hermetic Order of the
Golden Dawn, but which has found contemporary expression
in the OTO and the popular neo-pagan witchcraft movement.
The single most popular expression of Theosophy has been the
Theosophical Society Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
New Age movement of the 1980s, which brought literally millions
of people into esoteric studies.
The main theosophical bodies, i.e., those that have a specifically
theosophical heritage, are the Theosophical Society (with
international lodges and headquarters at Adyar, Madras,
India); the Theosophical Society, American Branch (with international
headquarters at Altadena, California); and the United
Lodge of Theosophists (headquarters in Los Angeles, California).
The American affiliate of the international society headquartered
in Adyar is the Theosophical Society in America,
with headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois on an estate called Olcott;
the British affiliate is the Theosophical Society at 50
Gloucester Pl., London, W1H 3HJ, England.
Besant, Annie. The Theosophical Society and H. P. Blavatsky.
London, 1891.
Campbell, Bruce F. A History of the Theosophical Movement.
Berkeley University of California Press, 1980.
Christian Literature Society. Theosophy Exposed; or, Mrs. Besant
and Her Guru Appeal to Educated Hindus. Madras, India
SPCK Press, 1893.
Coulomb, Madame E. Some Account of My Intercourse with Madame
Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884. London Elliot Stock, 1885.
Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy. Wheaton, Ill. Theosophical
Publishing House, 1986.
Gomes, Michael. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century An Annotated
Bibliography. New York Garland Publishing, 1994.
Hare, H. E., and W. L. Hare. Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters
London Williams & Norgate, 1936.
Harrison, Vernon. H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR. Pasadena,
Calif. Theosophical University Press, 1997.
Hodgson, Richard. ‘‘Personal Investigations, in India, of
Theosophical Phenomena.’’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychical
Research 3 (1885); Journal of the Society for Psychical
Research 1–2 (1884–1886).
Johnson, Paul. In Search of the Masters Behind the Occult Myth.
South Boston The Author, 1990.
Kingsland, William. The Real H. P. Blavatsky. London John
M. Watkins, 1928.
Olcott, H. S. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, Madras, India
Theosophical Publishing House, 1895–1910.
Ransom, Josephine. A Short History of the Theosophical Society.
Adyar, Madras, India Theosophical Publishing House, 1938.
Ryan, Charles J. H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement.
Pasadena, Calif. Theosophical University Press, 1975.
Solovyoff, V. S. A Modern Priestess of Isis. London Longmans,
Green, 1895.
Symonds, John. Madame Blavatsky, Medium and Magician.
London Odhams Press, 1958.
Waterman, Adlai E. [Walter A. Carrithers]. Obituary The
‘‘Hodgson Report’’ on Madame Blavatsky, 1895–1960; Reexamination
Discredits the Major Charges Against H. P. Blavatsky.
Adyar, Madras, India Theosophical Publishing House, 1963.
Williams, Gertrude Marvin. Priestess of the Occult Madame
Blavatsky. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1946.