What Is Theosophy? Definition, Origins, and Beliefs

The Writings and Teachings of Madame Blavatsky

Nemorial of colonel Henry Olcott
Memorial at the burning place of colonel Henry Olcott in the Park of Theosophical Society, Adyar, south part of Chennai. Colonel Henry Olcott was the founder and first President of the Theosophical Society. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Theosophy is a philosophical movement with ancient roots, but the term is often used to refer to the theosophical movement founded by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian-German spiritual leader who lived during the second half of the 19th century. Blavatsky, who claimed to have a range of psychic powers including telepathy and clairvoyance, traveled extensively during her lifetime. According to her voluminous writings, she was granted insight into the mysteries of the universe as a result of her travels to Tibet and conversations with various Masters or Mahatmas.

Toward the later part of her life, Blavatsky worked tirelessly to write about and promote her teachings through the Theosophical Society. The Society was founded in 1875 in New York but was quickly expanded to India and then to Europe and the rest of United States. At its height, theosophy was quite popular—but by the end of the 20th century, only a few chapters of the Society remained. Theosophy is, however, closely aligned with the New Age religion and is the inspiration for many smaller spiritually-oriented groups.

Key Takeaways: Theosophy

  • Theosophy is an esoteric philosophy based on ancient religions and myths, particularly Buddhism.
  • Modern theosophy was founded by Helena Blavatsky, who wrote numerous books on the subject and co-founded the Theosophical Society in India, Europe, and the United State.
  • Members of the Theosophical Society believe in the oneness of all life and the brotherhood of all people. They also believe in mystical abilities such as clairvoyance, telepathy, and travel on the astral plane.

Origins

Theosophy, from the Greek theos (god) and sophia (wisdom), can be traced to ancient Greek Gnostics and Neoplatonists. It was known to the Manichaeans (an ancient Iranian group) and to several medieval groups described as "heretics." Theosophy was not, however, a significant movement in modern times until the work of Madame Blavatsky and her supporters led to a popular version of theosophy that had a significant impact during her lifetime and even in the present day.

Helena Blavatsky, who was born in 1831, lived a complex life. Even as a very young woman she claimed to have a range of esoteric abilities and insights ranging from clairvoyance to mind reading to traveling on the astral plane. In her youth, Blavatsky traveled extensively and claimed to spend many years in Tibet studying with Masters and monks who shared not only ancient teachings but also the language and writings of the Lost Continent of Atlantis.

Helena Blavatsky
Portrait of theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky.  Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1875, Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, and a number of others formed the Theosophical Society in the United Kingdom. Two years later, she published a major book on theosophy called "Isis Unveiled" which described the "Ancient Wisdom" and Eastern philosophy on which her ideas were based.

In 1882, Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to Adyar, India, where they established their international headquarters. Interest was greater in India than in Europe, largely because theosophy was based to a great degree on Asian philosophy (mainly Buddhism). The two expanded the Society to include multiple branches. Olcott lectured around the country while Blavatsky wrote and met with interested groups in Adyar. The organization also founded chapters in the United States and Europe.

The organization ran into problems in 1884 as the result of a report published by the British Society for Psychical Research, which declared Blavatsky and her society to be frauds. The report was later rescinded, but not surprisingly, the report had a negative impact on the growth of the theosophical movement. Undaunted, however, Blavatsky returned to England, where she continued to write major tomes about her philosophy, including her "masterwork," "The Secret Doctrine."

Following Blavatsky's death in 1901, the Theosophical Society went through a number of changes, and interest in theosophy declined. It continues, however, to be a viable movement, with chapters around the world. It has also become the inspiration for several more contemporary movements including the New Age movement, which grew out of theosophy during the 1960s and 1970s.

Beliefs and Practices

Theosophy is a non-dogmatic philosophy, which means that members are neither accepted nor expelled as a result of their personal beliefs. That said, however, Helena Blavatsky's writings about theosophy fill many volumes—including details regarding ancient secrets, clairvoyance, travels on the astral plane, and other esoteric and mystical ideas.

Blavatsky's writings have a number of sources, including ancient myths from around the world. Those who follow theosophy are encouraged to study the great philosophies and religions of history, with a special focus on archaic belief systems such as those of India, Tibet, Babylon, Memphis, Egypt, and ancient Greece. All of these are believed to have a common source and common elements. In addition, it seems very likely that much of theosophical philosophy originated in Blavatsky's fertile imagination.

The objectives of The Theosophical Society as stated in its constitution are:

  • To diffuse among men a knowledge of the laws inherent in the universe
  • To promulgate the knowledge of the essential unity of all that is, and to demonstrate that this unity is fundamental in nature
  • To form an active brotherhood among men
  • To study ancient and modern religion, science, and philosophy
  • To investigate the powers innate in man
Seal of the Theosophical Society, Budapest, Hungary
Seal of the Theosophical Society - Door decoration at Kazinczy Street 55, Budapest (Hungary). Etan J. Tal / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Basic Teachings

The most basic teaching of theosophy, according to the Theosophical Society, is that all people have the same spiritual and physical origin because they are "essentially of one and the same essence, and that essence is one—infinite, uncreate, and eternal, whether we call it God or Nature." As a result of this oneness, "nothing... can affect one nation or one man without affecting all other nations and all other men."

The Three Objects of Theosophy

The three objects of theosophy, as laid out in Blavatsky's work, are to:

  1. Form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color
  2. Encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science
  3. Investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in human beings

The Three Fundamental Propositions

In her book "The Secret Doctrine," Blavatsky lays out three "fundamental propositions" on which her philosophy is based:

  1. An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable PRINCIPLE on which all speculation is impossible since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude.
  2. The Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane; periodically “the playground of numberless Universes incessantly manifesting and disappearing,” called “the manifesting stars,” and the “sparks of Eternity.”
  3. The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul, the latter being itself an aspect of the Unknown Root; and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul — a spark of the former — through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term.

Theosophical Practice

Theosophy is not a religion, and there are no prescribed rituals or ceremonies related to theosophy. There are, however, some ways in which theosophical groups are similar to the Freemasons; for example, local chapters are referred to as lodges, and members may undergo a form of initiation.

In the exploration of esoteric knowledge, theosophists may choose to go through rituals related to specific modern or ancient religions. They may also participate in seances or other spiritualistic activities. Though Blavatsky herself did not believe that mediums are able to contact the dead, she believed strongly in spiritualistic abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance and made many claims regarding travel on the astral plane.

Legacy and Impact

In the 19th-century, theosophists were among the first to popularize Eastern philosophy (especially Buddhism) in Europe and the United States. In addition, theosophy, though never a very large movement, has had a significant impact on esoteric groups and beliefs. Theosophy laid the foundations for more than 100 esoteric groups including the Church Universal and Triumphant and the Arcane School. More recently, theosophy became one of several foundations for the New Age movement, which was at its height during the 1970s.

Sources

  • Melton, J. Gordon. “Theosophy.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 15 May 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/theosophy.
  • Osterhage, Scott J. The Theosophical Society: Its Nature and Objectives (Pamphlet), www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/theos/th-gdpob.htm#psychic.
  • The Theosophical Society, www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ts/h_tsintro.htm.