Term derived from the Greek theos (rod) and sophia (wisdom),
denoting a philosophical-religious system that claims absolute
knowledge of the existence and nature of the deity, and
is not to be confused with the later system evolved by the founders
of the Theosophical Society.
This knowledge, or theosophy, it is claimed, may be obtained
by special individual revelation, or through the operation
of some higher faculty. It is the transcendent character of
the godhead of theosophical systems that differentiates them
from the philosophical systems of the speculative or absolute
type, which usually proceed deductively from the idea of God.
God is conceived in theosophical systems as the transcendent
source of being, from whom human beings in their natural
state are far removed.
Theosophy is practically another name for speculative mysticism.
Thus Kabalistic and Neoplatonic conceptions of divine
emanations are in reality theosophical, as are the mystical systems
of Jakob Boehme and Baader.
Theosophy has also come to signify the tenets and teachings
of the founders of the Theosophical Society. This society was
founded in the United States in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky,
Col. H. S. Olcott, and others. Its objectives were to establish
a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity,
to promote the study of comparative religion and philosophy,
and to investigate the mystic powers of life and matter.
The conception of the Universal Brotherhood was based
upon the oriental idea of one life—that ultimate oneness underlies
all diversity, whether inward or outward. The study of
comparative religion had materialized into a definite system of
belief, the bounds of which were dogmatically fixed. It was set
forth in the theosophical system that all the great religions of
the world originated from one supreme source and that they
are merely expressions of a central ‘‘Wisdom Religion’’ vouchsafed
to various races of the earth in such a manner as is best
suited to time and geographical circumstances.
Underlying these was a secret doctrine or esoteric teaching,
which, it was stated, had been the possession for ages of certain
Mahatmas, or adepts, in mysticism and occultism. With these
Blavatsky claimed to be in direct communication, and she herself
manifested occult phenomena, producing the ringing of
astral bells, and so forth.
On several occasions these effects were unmasked as fraudulent,
but many people believed that Blavatsky was one of those
rare personalities who possess great natural psychic powers,
which at times failing her, she augmented by fraudulent methods.
The evidence for the existence of the Great White Brotherhood
of Mahatmas, the existence of which she asserted, was unfortunately
somewhat inconclusive. It rested, for the most part,
on the statements of Blavatsky, Olcott, A. P. Sinnett, Charles
W. Leadbeater, and other committed Theosophists, who
claimed to have seen or communicated with them.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Theosophy
With every desire to do justice to these upholders of the
theosophical argument, it is necessary to point out that in occult,
or pseudo-occult experiences, the question of hallucination
enters very largely, and the ecstatic condition may be responsible
for subjective appearances that seem real enough to
the visionary.
Again, the written communications of the Mahatmas—the
Mahatma letters—give rise to much doubt. One Mahatma employed
the American system of spelling, and this was accounted
for by the circumstance that his English had been sophisticated
by reading American books. A study of these letters leaves little
doubt that their style, script, and purpose were nearer to Blavatsky
than to Tibetan or Himalayan hermitages.
The revelations of Blavatsky in her books Isis Unveiled (2
vols., 1877) and The Secret Doctrine (2 vols., 1888–97) are an extraordinary
mixture of Buddhistic, Brahministic, and Kabalistic
matter with a basic theme of religious unity and the persistence
of occult and miraculous phenomena throughout history.
The Theosophical Society has numbered among its members
many persons of high ability, whose statement and exegesis
of their faith has placed it upon a much higher level and
more definite foundation.
The system was constructed in a manner akin to genius, and
evolved on highly intricate lines. It was, to a great extent,
pieced together after the death of the original founder of the
society, on which event a schism occurred in the Brotherhood
through the claims to leadership of William Q. Judge, of New
York, who died in 1896, and who was followed by Katherine
Tingley, the founder of the great Theosophical community at
Point Loma, California.
Olcott became the leader of the remaining part of the original
Theosophical Society in America and India, being assisted
in his work by Annie Besant, but a more or less independent
organization was founded in England.
A brief outline of the tenets of Theosophy may be stated as
follows. It posits a rational belief in its views rather than blind
faith, and allows for individual differences of opinion. It professes
to be a religious philosophy that holds the germs of all
others. It has also its aspect as a science—a science of life and
of the soul.
The basic teaching is that there are three absolute truths
that cannot be lost, but yet may remain silent for lack of speech.
(1) The soul of humanity is immortal and its future is the future
of the thing, whose growth and splendor has no limit. (2) The
principle that gives life dwells in us and without us, is undying
and eternally beneficent, is not heard, or seen, or smelt, but is
perceived by the man who desires perception. (3) Each individual
is his or her own absolute law-giver, the dispenser of glory
or gloom to oneself, decreer of one’s life, one’s reward, one’s
Although Theosophy posits the existence of an absolute, it
does not pretend to knowledge of its attributes. In the absolute
are innumerable universes and in each universe countless solar
systems. Each solar system is the expression of a being called
the Logos, the Word of God, or the Solar Deity, who permeates
it and exists above it and outside it.
Below this Solar Deity are his seven ministers, called Planetary
Spirits, whose relation to him is like that of the nerve centers
to the brain, so that all his voluntary acts come through him
to them. Under them are vast hosts or orders of spiritual beings
called devas, or angels, who assist in many ways. This world is
ruled by a great official who represents the Solar Deity, who is
in absolute control of all the evolution that takes place upon
this planet. When a new religion is to be founded, this being either
comes or sends pupils to institute it.
In the earlier stages of the development of humanity the
great officials of the hierarchy are provided from more highly
evolved parts of the system, but whenever human beings can be
trained to the necessary level of power and wisdom these offices
are held by them. They can only be filled by adepts, who in
goodness, power, and wisdom are immeasurably greater than
ordinary individuals, and have attained the summit of human
evolution. These advance until they themselves become of the
nature of deities.
There are many degrees and many lines of activity among
these, but some of them always remain within touch of the
Earth and assist in the spiritual evolution of humanity. This
body is called the ‘‘Great White Brotherhood.’’ Its members do
not dwell together, but live separately apart from the world and
are in constant telepathic communication with one another.
Their knowledge of higher forces is so great that they have
no necessity for meeting in the physical world, but each dwells
in his own country, and their power remains unsuspected
among those who live near them. These adepts are willing to
take as apprentices those who have resolved to devote themselves
utterly to the service of humankind. Blavatsky was presumed
to be such an apprentice. One of these masters said ‘‘In
order to succeed the pupil must leave his own world and come
into ours.’’
The Theosophical conception of the constitution of the
human being is that he or she is in essence a spark of the divine
fire belonging to the monadic world. For the purposes of
human evolution, this monad manifests itself in lower worlds.
Entering the spiritual world it manifests itself there as the triple
spirit; one of its three aspects always remains in the spiritual
The second aspect manifests itself in the intuitional world,
and the third in the higher mental world, and these two are collated
with intuition and intelligence. These three aspects combined
make up the ego, which is individual personality during
the human stage of evolution. The way or path towards enlightenment
and emancipation is known as karma.
The human personality is composed of a complex organization
consisting of seven principles, which are united and interdependent,
yet divided into certain groups, each capable of
maintaining a kind of personality. Each of these principles is
composed of its own form of matter and possesses its own laws
of time, space, and motion.
The most gross of those, the physical body, is known as rupa,
which becomes more and more refined until we reach the universal
self, atma, but the circumstance that determines the individual’s
powers, tests, and advantages, or in short his or her
character, is the karma, which is the sum of bodily, mental, and
spiritual growth and is spread over many lives past and future.
If in one existence the individual is handicapped by any defect,
mental or physical, it may be regarded as the outcome of past
delinquencies. This doctrine is common to both Buddhism and
Brahminism, from which Theosophy derives.
Returning to concepts of the constitution of the human
being, the ego existing in the higher mental world cannot enter
the physical world until it has drawn around itself a veil composed
of the matter of these spheres, nor can it think in any but
an abstract manner without them—its concrete ideas being due
to them. Having assumed the astral and physical bodies, it is
born as a human being, and having lived out its Earth-life sojourns
for a time in the astral world, until it can succeed in
throwing off the shackles of the astral body.
When that is achieved the individual finds himself or herself
living in the mental body. The stay in this sphere is usually a
long one—the strength of the mental constitution depending
upon the nature of the thoughts to which one has habituated
oneself. But he or she is not yet sufficiently developed to proceed
to higher planes, and once more descends into the denser
physical sphere to again go through the same round. It is only
through that descent that a full recognition of the higher
worlds is developed in the individual.
In the higher mental world, the permanent vehicle is a causal
body, which consists of matter of the first, second, and third
sub-divisions of that world. As the ego unfolds one’s latent possibilities
in the course of one’s evolution, this matter is greatly
brought into action, but it is only in the perfect individual or
adept that it is developed to its fullest extent. In the causal
Theosophy Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
body, none of the possibilities of the grosser bodies can manifest
The mental body is built up of matter of the four lower subdivisions
of the mental world, and expresses the individual’s
concrete thoughts. Its size and shape are determined by those
of the causal vehicle.
While on Earth the personality wears the physical, mental,
and astral bodies all at once. It is the astral that connects one
with the astral plane during sleep or trance. It is easy to see
how the doctrine of reincarnation arose from this idea. The
ego must travel from existence to existence, physical, astral,
mental, until it can transcend the mental world and enter the
higher spheres
The Theosophical path to the goal of Nirvana is derived
from Buddhistic teaching, but there are also other elements in
it—Kabalistic and Greek. The path is the great work whereby
the inner nature of the individual is consciously transformed
and developed. A radical alternation must be made in the aims
and motives of the ordinary mortal. The path is long and difficult,
and as has been said extends over many existences. Morality
alone is insufficient to the full awakening of the spiritual faculty,
without which progress in the path is impossible.
Something incomparably higher is necessary.
The physical and spiritual exercises recommended by Theosophy
are those formulated in the Hindu philosophical system
known as raja yoga. The most strenuous efforts alone can
impel the individual along the path, and thus to mount by the
practice of vidya, that higher wisdom that awakens the latent
faculties and concentrates effort in the direction of union with
the absolute.
The way is described as long and difficult, but as the disciple
advances he or she becomes more convinced of ultimate success,
by the possession of transcendental faculties that greatly
assist in overcoming difficulties. But these must not be sought
for their own sake, as to gain knowledge of them for evil purposes
is tantamount to the practice of black magic. (See also