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Theosophy is a religion established in the United States during the late nineteenth century. It was founded primarily by the Russian immigrant Helena Blavatsky and draws its beliefs predominantly from Blavatsky's writings. Categorised by scholars of religion as both a new religious movement and as part of the occultist stream of Western esotericism, it draws upon both older European philosophies such as Neoplatonism and Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

As presented by Blavatsky, Theosophy teaches that there is an ancient and secretive brotherhood of spiritual adepts known as the Masters, who—although found across the world—are centered in Tibet. These Masters are believed to have cultivated great wisdom and supernatural powers, and Theosophists believe that it was they who initiated the modern Theosophical movement through disseminating their teachings via Blavatsky. They believe that these Masters are attempting to revive knowledge of an ancient religion once found across the world and which will again come to eclipse the existing world religions. Theosophical groups nevertheless do not refer to their system as a "religion". Theosophy preaches the existence of a single, divine Absolute. It promotes an emanationist cosmology in which the universe is perceived as outward reflections from this Absolute. Theosophy teaches that the purpose of human life is spiritual emancipation and claims that the human soul undergoes reincarnation upon bodily death according to a process of karma. It promotes values of universal brotherhood and social improvement, although it does not stipulate particular ethical codes.

Theosophy was established in New York City in 1875 with the founding of the Theosophical Society by Blavatsky and two Americans, Henry Olcott and William Quan Judge. In the early 1880s, Blavatsky and Olcott relocated to India, where they established the Society's headquarters at Adyar, Tamil Nadu. Blavatsky described her ideas in two books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She was repeatedly accused of fraudulently producing purportedly supernatural phenomena, often in connection with these "masters". Following Blavatsky's death in 1891, there was a schism in the Society, with Judge leading the Theosophical Society in America to split from the international organization. Under Judge's successor Katherine Tingley, a Theosophical community named Lomaland was established in San Diego. The Adyar-based Society was later taken over by Annie Besant, under whom it grew to its largest extent during the late 1920s, before going into decline. The Theosophical movement still exists, although in much smaller form than in its heyday.

Theosophy played a significant role in bringing knowledge of South Asian religions to Western countries, as well as in encouraging cultural pride in various South Asian nations. A variety of prominent artists and writers have also been influenced by Theosophical teachings. Theosophy has an international following, and during the twentieth century had tens of thousands of adherents. Theosophical ideas have also exerted an influence on a wide range of other esoteric movements and philosophies, among them Anthroposophy, the Church Universal and Triumphant, and the New Age.


Theosophy's founder, the Russian Helena Blavatsky, insisted that it was not a religion,(Lachman 2012) although did refer to it as the modern transmission of the "once universal religion" that she claimed had existed deep into the human past.(Franklin 2018) That Theosophy should not be labelled a religion is a claim that has been maintained by Theosophical organisations,(Campbell 1980) who instead regard it as a system that embraces what they see as the "essential truth" underlying religion, philosophy, and science.(Santucci 2012) As a result, Theosophical groups allow their members to hold other religious allegiances,({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) resulting in Theosophists who also identify as Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus.(Dixon 2001)

Scholars of religion who have studied Theosophy have characterised it as a religion.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) In his history of the Theosophical movement, Bruce F. Campbell noted that Theosophy promoted "a religious world-view" using "explicitly religious terms" and that its central tenets are not unequivocal fact, but rather rely on belief.(Campbell 1980) Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein termed it "one of the modern world's most important religious traditions".(Hammer Rothstein) Various scholars have pointed to its eclectic nature; Joscelyn Godwin described it as a "universally eclectic religious movement",(Godwin 1994b) while scholar J. Jeffrey Franklin characterised Theosophy as a "hybrid religion" for its syncretic combination of elements from various other sources.(Franklin 2018) More specifically, Theosophy has been categorized as a new religious movement.(Lowry 2019)

Scholars have also classified Theosophy as a form of Western esotericism.(Hanegraaff 2013) Campbell for instance referred to it as "an esoteric religious tradition",(Campbell 1980) while the historian Joy Dixon called it an "esoteric religion".(Dixon 2001) More specifically, it is considered a form of occultism.(Carlson 1993) Along with other groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society has been seen as part of an "occult revival" that took place in Western countries during the late nineteenth century.(Dixon 2001) The historian of religion Wouter Hanegraaff noted that Theosophy helped to establish the "essential foundations for much of twentieth-century esotericism".(Hanegraaff 2013) Although Theosophy draws upon Indian religious beliefs, the sociologist of religion Christopher Partridge observed that "Theosophy is fundamentally Western. That is to say, Theosophy is not Eastern thought in the West, but Western thought with an Eastern flavour."(Partridge 2004)


Blavatsky and Olcott, two of the founding members of the Theosophical Society

At a meeting of the Miracle Club in New York City on 7 September 1875, Blavatsky, Olcott, and Judge agreed to establish an organisation, with Charles Sotheran suggesting that they call it the Theosophical Society.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) Prior to adopting the name "Theosophical", they had debated various potential names, among them the Egyptological Society, the Hermetic Society, and the Rosicrucian Society.(Santucci 2012) The term was not new, but had been previously used in various contexts by the Philaletheians and the Christian mystic Jakob Böhme.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) Etymologically, the term came from the Greek theos ("god(s)") and sophia ("wisdom"), thus meaning "god-wisdom", "divine wisdom", or "wisdom of God".({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) The term theosophia appeared (in both Greek and Latin) in the works of early church fathers, as a synonym for theology.(Faivre 1994) In her book The Key to Theosophy, Blavatsky claimed that the term "Theosophy" had been coined by "the Alexandrian philosophers", especially Ammonius Saccas.(Partridge 2013)

Blavatsky's Theosophy is not the only movement to use the term "theosophy" and this has resulted in scholarly attempts to differentiate the different currents. Godwin drew a division by referring to Blavatskian Theosophy with a capital letter and older, Boehmian theosophy with a lower-case letter.(Godwin 1994) Alternately, the scholar of esotericism Wouter J. Hanegraaff distinguished the Blavatskian movement from its older namesake by terming it "modern Theosophy".(Hanegraaff 2013) Followers of Blavatsky's movement are known as Theosophists, while adherents of the older tradition are termed theosophers.(Godwin 1994) Causing some confusion, a few Theosophists — such as C. C. Massey — were also theosophers.(Godwin 1994) In the early years of Blavatsky's movement, some critics referred to it as "Neo-Theosophy" to differentiate it from the older Christian theosophy movement.(Poller 2018) The term "Neo-Theosophy" would later be adopted within the modern Theosophical movement itself, where it was used—largely pejoratively—to describe the teachings promoted by Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater by those who opposed their innovations.(Poller 2018)

According to the scholar of religion James A. Santucci, discerning what the term "Theosophy" meant to the early Theosophists is "not as obvious as one might think".(Santucci 2012) As used by Olcott, the term "Theosophy" appeared to be applied to an approach that emphasised experimentation as a means of learning about the "Unseen Universe"; conversely, Blavatsky used the term in reference to gnosis regarding said information.(Santucci 2012)

Beliefs and teachings

Although the writings of prominent Theosophists lay out a set of teachings, the Theosophical Society itself states that it has no official beliefs with which all members must agree. It therefore has doctrine but does not present this as dogma.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) The Society stated that the only tenet to which all members should subscribe was a commitment "to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color".(Dixon 2001) This means that there were members of the Theosophical Society who were sceptical about many, or even all, of the Theosophical doctrines, while remaining sympathetic to its basic aim of universal brotherhood.(Dixon 2001)

As noted by Santucci, Theosophy is "derived primarily from the writings" of Blavatsky,(Santucci 2006) however revisions and innovations have also been produced by subsequent Theosophists like Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater.(Campbell 1980) Blavatsky claimed that these Theosophical doctrines were not her own invention, but had been received from a brotherhood of secretive spiritual adepts whom she referred to as the "Masters" or "Mahatmas".(Johnson 1994)

The Masters

Hermann Schmiechen's 1884 depiction of the two Masters whom Blavatsky claimed to be in contact with, Koot Humi (left) and Morya (right).

Central to Theosophical belief is the idea that a group of spiritual adepts known as the Masters not only exist but were responsible for the production of early Theosophical texts.(Campbell 1980) For most Theosophists, these Masters are deemed to be the real founders of the modern Theosophical movement.(Campbell 1980) In Theosophical literature, these Masters are also referred to as the Mahatmas, Adepts, Masters of Wisdom, Masters of Compassion, and Elder Brothers.(Campbell 1980) They are perceived to be a fraternity of human men who are highly evolved, both in terms of having an advanced moral development and intellectual attainment.(Campbell 1980) They are claimed to have achieved extra-long life spans,(Campbell 1980) and to have gained supernatural powers, including clairvoyance and the ability to instantly project their soul out of their body to any other location.(Campbell 1980) These are powers that they have allegedly attained through many years of training.(Campbell 1980) According to Blavatsky, by the late 19th century their chief residence was in the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet.(Campbell 1980) She also claimed that these Masters were the source of many of her published writings.(Campbell 1980)

The Masters are believed to preserve the world's ancient spiritual knowledge,(Campbell 1980) and to represent a Great White Brotherhood or White Lodge which watches over humanity and guides its evolution.(Campbell 1980) Among those whom the early Theosophists claimed as Masters were Biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus, Asian religious figures like Gautama Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi, and modern individuals like Jakob Bohme, Alessandro Cagliostro, and Franz Mesmer.(Campbell 1980) However, the most prominent Masters to appear in Theosophical literature are Koot Hoomi (sometimes spelled Kuthumi) and Morya, with whom Blavatsky claimed to be in contact.(Campbell 1980) According to Theosophical belief, the Masters approach those deemed worthy to embark on an apprenticeship or chelaship.(Campbell 1980) The apprentice would then undergo several years of probation, during which they must live a life of physical purity, remaining chaste, abstinent, and indifferent to physical luxury.(Campbell 1980) Blavatsky encouraged the production of images of the Masters.(Introvigne 2018) The most important portraits of the Masters to be produced were created in 1884 by Hermann Schmiechen.(Introvigne 2018) According to scholar of religion Massimo Introvigne, Schmiechen's images of Morya and Koot Humi gained "semi-canonical status" in the Theosophical community,(Introvigne 2018) being regarded as sacred objects rather than simply decorative images.(Introvigne 2018)

Campbell noted that for non-Theosophists, the claims regarding the existence of the Masters are among the weakest made by the movement.(Campbell 1980) Such claims are open to examination and potential refutation, with challenges to the existence of the Masters therefore undermining Theosophical beliefs.(Campbell 1980) The idea of a brotherhood of secret adepts had a long pedigree stretching back several centuries before the foundation of Theosophy; such ideas can be found in the work of the Rosicrucians, and was popularised in the fictional literature of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.(Campbell 1980) The idea of having messages conveyed to a medium through by spiritually advanced entities had also been popularised at the time of Theosophy's foundation through the Spiritualist movement.(Campbell 1980)

The ancient wisdom religion

According to Blavatsky's teachings, many of the world's religions have their origins in a universal ancient religion, a "secret doctrine" that was known to Plato and early Hindu sages and which continues to underpin the centre of every religion.(Campbell 1980) She promoted the idea that ancient societies exhibited a unity of science and religion that humanity has since lost, with their achievements and knowledge being far in excess of what modern scholars believe about them.(Campbell 1980) Blavatsky also taught that a secret brotherhood has conserved this ancient wisdom religion throughout the centuries, and that members of this fraternity hold the key to understanding miracles, the afterlife, and psychic phenomena, and that moreover these adepts themselves have paranormal powers.(Campbell 1980)

She stated that this ancient religion would be revived and spread throughout humanity in the future, replacing dominant world religions like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.(Campbell 1980) Theosophy tended to emphasise the importance of ancient texts over the popular ritual and custom found within various religious traditions.(Dixon 2001) The Theosophical depiction of Buddhism and Hinduism however drew criticism both from practitioners of orthodox Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as well as from Western scholars of these traditions, such as Max Müller, who believed that Theosophists like Blavatsky were misrepresenting the Asian traditions.(Dixon 2001)

Theology and cosmology

Theosophy promotes an emanationist cosmology, promoting the belief that the universe is an outward reflection from the Absolute.(Campbell 1980) Theosophy presents the idea that the world as humans perceive it is illusory, or maya,(Campbell 1980) an idea that it draws from Asian religions.(Campbell 1980) Accordingly, Blavatsky taught that a life limited by the perception of this illusory world was ignorant and deluded.(Campbell 1980)

According to Theosophical teaching, each solar system is an emanation of a "Logos" or "Solar Deity", with planetary spirits each overseeing one of the planets.

According to Blavatsky's teaching, every solar system in the universe is the expression of what is termed a "Logos" or "Solar Deity".(Campbell 1980) Ranked below this Solar Deity are seven ministers or planetary spirits, with each of these celestial beings being in control of evolution on a particular planet.(Campbell 1980) In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky stated that each planet had a sevenfold constitution, known as the "Planetary Chains"; these consist not only of a physical globe but also of two astral bodies, two mental bodies, and two spiritual bodies, all overlapping in the same space.(Campbell 1980) According to Blavatsky, evolution occurs on descending and ascending arcs, from the first spiritual globe on to the first mental globe, then from the first astral globe to the first physical globe, and then on from there.(Campbell 1980) She claimed that there were different levels of evolution, from mineral on to vegetable, animal, human, and then to superhuman or spiritual.(Campbell 1980) Different levels of evolution occur in a successive order on each planet; thus when mineral evolution ends on the first planet and it proceeds on to vegetable evolution, then mineral evolution begins on the second planet.(Campbell 1980)

Theosophy teaches that human evolution is tied in with this planetary and wider cosmic evolution.(Campbell 1980) In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky advocated the idea of seven "Root Races", each of which was divided into seven Sub-Races.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) In Blavatsky's cosmogony, the first Root Race were created from pure spirit, and lived on a continent known as the "Imperishable Sacred Land".({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) The second Root Race, known as the Hyperboreans, were also formed from pure spirit, and lived on a land near to the North Pole, which then had a mild climate.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) The third lived on the continent of Lemuria, which Blavatsky alleged survives today as Australia and Rapa Nui.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) Blavatsky alleged that during the fourth Round of the Earth, higher beings descended to the planet, with the beginnings of human physical bodies developing, and the sexes separating.(Lachman 2012) At this point, the fourth Root Race appeared, living on the continent of Atlantis; they had physical bodies but also psychic powers and advanced technology.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) She claimed that some Atlanteans were giants, and built such ancient monuments as Stonehenge in southern England, and that they also mated with "she-animals", resulting in the creation of gorillas and chimpanzees.(Lachman 2012) The Atlanteans were decadent and abused their power and knowledge, so Atlantis sunk into the sea, although various Atlanteans escaped, and created new societies in Egypt and the Americas.(Lachman 2012)

The fifth Root Race to emerge was the Aryans, and was found across the world at the time she was writing.(Lachman 2012) She believed that the fifth Race would come to be replaced by the sixth, which would be heralded by the arrival of Maitreya, a figure from Mahayana Buddhist mythology.(Goodrick-Clarke 2008) She further believed that humanity would eventually develop into the final, seventh Root Race.(Lachman 2012) At this, she stated that humanity will have reached the end of its evolutionary cycle and life will withdraw from the Earth.(Campbell 1980) Lachman suggested that by reading Blavatsky's cosmogonical claims as a literal account of history, "we may be doing it a disservice."(Lachman 2012) He instead suggested that it could be read as Blavatsky's attempt to formulate "a new myth for the modern age, or as a huge, fantastic science fiction story".(Lachman 2012)

Maitreya and messianism

Blavatsky taught that Lord Maitreya—a figure she borrowed from Buddhist mythology—would come to Earth as a messianic figure.(Poller 2018) Her ideas on this were expanded upon by Besant and Leadbeater.(Poller 2018) They claimed that Maitreya had previously incarnated onto the Earth as Krishna, a figure from Hindu mythology.(Poller 2018) They also claimed that he had entered Jesus of Nazareth at the time of the latter's baptism, and that henceforth Maitreya would be known as "the Christ".(Poller 2018) Besant and Leadbeater claimed that Maitreya would again come to Earth by manifesting through an Indian boy named Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom Leadbeater had encountered playing on a beach at Adyar in 1909.(Poller 2018) The introduction of the Krishmanurti belief into Theosophy has been identified as a millenarian element.(Poller 2018)

Personal development and reincarnation

Statue of Blavatsky and Olcott at Adyar

According to Theosophy, the purpose of human life is the spiritual emancipation of the soul.(Campbell 1980) The human individual is described as an "Ego" or "Monad" and believed to have emanated from the Solar Deity, to whom it will also eventually return.(Campbell 1980) The human being is presented as composing of seven parts, while operating on three separate planes of being.(Campbell 1980) As presented by Sinnett and often repeated in Theosophical literature, these seven parts are the Body (Rupa), Vitality (Prana-Jiva), the Astral Body (Linga Sarira), the Animal Soul (Kama-Rupa), the Human Soul (Manas), the Spiritual Soul (Buddhi), and the Spirit (Atma).(Campbell 1980) According to Theosophical teaching, it is the latter three of these components that are immortal, while the other aspects perish following bodily death.(Campbell 1980) Theosophy teaches that the Spiritual Soul and the Spirit do not reside within the human body alongside the other components, but that they are connected to it through the Human Soul.(Campbell 1980)

In The Voice of the Silence, Blavatsky taught that within each individual human there is an eternal, divine facet, which she referred to as "the Master", the "uncreate", the "inner God", and the "higher self". She promoted the idea that uniting with this "higher self" results in wisdom.(Campbell 1980) In that same book, she compared the progress of the human soul to a transition through three halls; the first was that of ignorance, which is the state of the soul before it understands the need to unite with its higher self. The second is the Hall of Learning, in which the individual becomes aware of other facets of human life but is distracted by an interest in psychic powers. The third is the Hall of Wisdom, in which union with the higher self is made; this is then followed by the Vale of Bliss.(Campbell 1980) At this point the human soul can merge into the One.(Campbell 1980)

Reincarnation and karma

Throughout her writings, Blavatsky made a variety of statements about rebirth and the afterlife, and there is a discrepancy between her earlier and later teachings on the subject.(Chajes 2017) Between the 1870s and circa 1882, Blavatsky taught a doctrine called "metempsychosis".(Chajes 2017) In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky stated that on bodily death, the human soul progresses through more spiritual planes.(Campbell 1980) Two years later, she introduced the idea of reincarnation into Theosophical doctrine,({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) using it to replace her metempsychosis doctrine.(Chajes 2017) In The Secret Doctrine, she stated that the spirit was immortal and would repeatedly incarnate into a new, mortal soul and body on Earth.(Chajes 2017) According to Theosophical teaching, human spirits will always be reborn into human bodies, and not into those of any other life forms.(Campbell 1980) Blavatsky stated that spirits would not be reborn until some time after bodily death, and never during the lifetime of the deceased's relatives.(Chajes 2017)

Blavatsky taught that on the death of the body, the astral body survives for a time in a state called kama-loka, which she compared to limbo, before also dying.(Campbell 1980) According to this belief, the human then moves into its mental body in a realm called devachan, which she compared to Heaven or paradise.(Campbell 1980) Blavatsky taught that the soul remained in devachan for 1000 to 1500 years, although the Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater claimed that it was only 200.(Campbell 1980)

Theosophy espouses the existence of karma as a system which regulates the cycle of reincarnation, ensuring that an individual's actions in one life affect the circumstances of their next one.(Campbell 1980) This belief therefore seeks to explain why misery and suffering exist in the world, attributing any misfortune that someone suffers as punishment for misdeeds that they perpetrated in a prior life.(Campbell 1980) In Blavatsky's words, karma and reincarnation were "inextricably interwoven".(Chajes 2017) However, she did not believe that karma had always been the system that governed reincarnation; she believed that it came into being when humans developed egos, and that one day will also no longer be required.(Chajes 2017)

Besant and Leadbeater claimed to be able to investigate people's past lives through reading the akashic record, an etheric store of all the knowledge of the universe.(Poller 2018) They for instance claimed to have attained knowledge of their own past lives as monkey-like creatures residing on the moon, where they served as pets to the "Moon-man" (a prior incarnation of the Master Morya), his wife (Koot Humi), and their child (the Lord Maitreya). When they were attacked by "savages" and animals "resembling furry lizards and crocodiles", Besant sacrificed herself to save Morya, and for that act made the karmic evolutionary leap to becoming a human in her next incarnation.(Poller 2018)

Morality and ethics

The Theosophical seal as door decoration in Budapest, Hungary

Theosophy does not express any formal ethical teaching,(Campbell 1980) a situation that generated ambiguity.(Campbell 1980) However, it has expressed and promoted certain values, such as brotherhood and social improvement.(Campbell 1980) During its early years, the Theosophical Society promoted a puritanical attitude toward sexuality, for instance by encouraging chastity even within marriage.(Godwin 1994)

By 1911, the Theosophical Society was involved in projects connected to a range of progressive political causes.(Dixon 2001) In England, there were strong links between Theosophy and first-wave feminism.(Dixon 2001) Based on a statistical analysis, Dixon noted that prominent English feminists of the period were several hundred times more likely to join the Theosophical Society than was the average member of the country's population.(Dixon 2001) Theosophical contingents took part in feminist marches of the period; for instance, a Theosophical group operating under the banner of Universal Co-Freemasonry marched as part of the Women's Coronation Procession in 1911.(Dixon 2001)


The Theosophical Society did not prescribe any specific rituals for adherents to practice.(Campbell 1980) However, ritualised practices have been established by various Theosophical groups; one such group is the Liberal Catholic Church.(Campbell 1980) Another are the meetings of the United Lodge of Theosophy, which have been characterised as having a "quasi-sacred and quasi-liturgical" character.(Campbell 1980)

Historical development

The American social situation from which the Theosophical Society emerged was one of great upheaval, and the religious situation was one of challenge to orthodox Christianity. The forces that had surfaced in spiritualism included anticlericalism, anti-institutionalism, eclecticism, social liberalism, and belief in progress and individual effort. Occultism, mediated to America in the form of Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism, was present. Recent developments in science led by the 1870s to renewed interest in reconciling science and religion. There was present also a hope that Asian religious ideas could be integrated into a grand religious synthesis.

— Bruce F. Campbell, 1980.(Campbell 1980)

The Theosophical Society was largely the creation of two individuals: Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott.(Campbell 1980) Established Christianity in the United States was experiencing challenges in the second half of the nineteenth century, a result of rapid urbanization and industrialization, high rates of immigration, and the growing understanding of evolutionary theory which challenged traditional Christian accounts of history.(Campbell 1980) Various new religious communities were established in different parts of the country, among them the Free Religious Association, New Thought, Christian Science, and Spiritualism.(Campbell 1980) Theosophy would inherit the idea — then popular in the United States — that emphasized the idea of free will and the inevitability of progress, including on a spiritual level.(Campbell 1980) It was also influenced by a growing knowledge about Asian religions in the United States.(Campbell 1980)

Prior to her arrival in the United States, Blavatsky had experience with esoteric currents like Spiritualism.(Santucci 2006) It was through Spiritualism that Blavatsky and Olcott met.(Campbell 1980)

In 1884, Olcott established the first Scottish lodge, in Edinburgh.(Shaw 2018)

In 1980, Campbell noted that Theosophical books were selling at record levels.(Campbell 1980)

In the United States, Judge had been devoting himself to the promotion of Theosophy with little success.(Campbell 1980)


During her lifetime, Blavatsky had suggested to many different persons that they would be her successor.(Campbell 1980) Three of the most prominent candidates — Olcott, Judge, and Besant — all met in London shortly after her death to discuss the situation.(Campbell 1980) Judge claimed that he too was in contact with the Masters, and that they had provided him with a message instructing him to co-delegate the Society's Esoteric Section with Besant.(Campbell 1980) Olcott however suspected that the notes from the Masters which Judge was producing were forged, exacerbating tensions between them.(Campbell 1980) Besant attempted to act as a bridge between the two men, while Judge informed her that the Masters had revealed to him a plot that Olcott was orchestrating to kill her.(Campbell 1980) In 1893, Besant came down on Olcott's side in the argument and backed the internal proceedings that Olcott raised against Judge.(Campbell 1980) A two-stage enquiry took place, which concluded that because the Society took no official stance on whether the Masters existed or not, Judge could not be considered guilty of forgery and would be allowed to retain his position.(Campbell 1980) The details of this trial were leaked to the journalist F. Edmund Garrett, who used them as the basis of his critical book, Isis Very Much Unveiled.(Campbell 1980) Judge then announced that the Masters had informed him that he should take sole control of the Esoteric Section, deposing Besant; she rejected his claims.(Campbell 1980) Amid calls from Olcott that Judge should stand down, in April 1895 the American section voted to secede from the main Society. Judge remained its leader, but died within a year.(Campbell 1980)

Besant with the child Krishnamurti

Olcott then sent Besant to the United States to gain support for the Adyar-based Society. In this she was successful, gaining thousands of new members and establishing many new branches.(Campbell 1980) Besant had developed a friendship with the Theosophist Charles Webster Leadbeater, and together they co-wrote a number of books.(Campbell 1980) Leadbeater was controversial, and concerns were raised when he was found to have instructed two boys in masturbation. The American Section of the Theosophical Society raised internal charges against him, although Besant came to his defence.(Campbell 1980) In a move probably designed to limit negative publicity for the Society, they accepted his resignation rather than expelling him.(Campbell 1980)

On Olcott's death in 1907, he had nominated Besant to be his successor, and she was then elected to the position with a large majority in June.(Campbell 1980) In her first years as the head of the Society, Besant oversaw a dramatic growth in its membership, raising it by 50%, to 23,000.(Campbell 1980) She also oversaw an expansion of the Adyar property, from 27 to 253 acres.(Campbell 1980) Besant was involved in various activist causes, promoting women's rights in India through the Women's Indian Association and helping to establish both the Central Hindu College and a Hindu girls' school.(Campbell 1980) Besant also began a campaign for Indian Home Rule, founding a group called the Home Rule League.(Campbell 1980) She established the New India newspaper, and after continuing to promote Indian independence in the paper's pages during the First World War she was interned for several months.(Campbell 1980) This helped to boost her status within the independence movement, and at the age of 70 she was appointed President of the Indian National Congress, a largely honorary position.(Campbell 1980)

In December 1908, Leadbeater was readmitted to the Society; this generated a wave of resignations, with the Sydney branch seceding to form the Independent Theosophical Society.(Campbell 1980) Leadbeater travelled to Adyar, where he met a young boy living there, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and pronounced him to be the next incarnation of a figure called the World Teacher. He subsequently took control of the boy's instruction for two years.(Campbell 1980) With Besant, Leadbeater established a group known as the Order of the Star in the East to promote the idea of Krishnamurti as World Teacher.(Campbell 1980) Leadbeater also wanted more ritual within Theosophy, and to achieve this he and J. I. Wedgwood became bishops in the Old Catholic Church.(Campbell 1980) They then split from that to form their own Liberal Catholic Church, which was independent from the Theosophical Society (Adyar) while retaining an affiliation with it.(Campbell 1980) The Church drew most of its membership from the Society and heavily relied upon its resources.(Poller 2018) However, in 1919 the Church was marred by police investigations into allegations that six of its priests had engaged in acts of paedophilia and Wedgewood — who was implicated in the allegations — resigned from the organisation.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}})

The Raja Yoga Academy and the Temple of Peace, c. 1915

In retaliation, a "Back to Blavatsky" movement emerged within the Society. Its members pejoratively referred to Besant and her followers as practitioners of "Neo-Theosophy", objecting to the Liberal Catholic Church's allegiance to the Pope, and to the prominence that they were according to Besant and Leadbeater's publications.(Campbell 1980) The main benefactor of the disquiet within the Back to Blavatsky movement was a rival group called the United Lodge of Theosophists.(Campbell 1980) One of the most prominent figures to switch allegiance was B. P. Wadia.(Campbell 1980) The United Lodge of Theosophists had been established in Los Angeles in 1909, when it had split from Judge's Theosophical Society in America, seeking to minimise formal organisation.(Campbell 1980) It focused on publishing new editions of Blavatsky and Judge's writings, as well as other books, which were usually released anonymously so as to prevent any personality cults developing within the Theosophical movement.(Campbell 1980)

The Adyar Society membership later peaked at 40,000 in the late 1920s.(Campbell 1980) The Order of the Star had 30,000 members at its height.(Campbell 1980) Krishnamurti himself repudiated these claims, insisting that he was not the World Teacher, and then resigned from the Society; the effect on the society was dramatic, as it lost a third of its membership over the coming few years.(Campbell 1980) Besant died in 1933, when the Society was taken over by George Arundale, who led it until 1945; the group's activities were greatly curtailed by World War II.(Campbell 1980)

Judge left no clear successor as leader of the Theosophical Society in America, but the position was taken by Katherine Tingley, who claimed that she remained in mediumistic contact with Judge's spirit.(Campbell 1980) Kingley launched an international campaign to promote her Theosophical group, sending delegations to Europe, Egypt, and India. In the latter country they clashed with the Adyar-based Theosophical Society, and were unsuccessful in gaining converts.(Campbell 1980) Her leadership would be challenged by Ernest T. Hargrove in 1898, and when he failed he split to form his own rival group.(Campbell 1980) In 1897, Tingley had established a Theosophical community, Lomaland, at Point Loma in San Diego, California.(Campbell 1980) Various Theosophical writers and artists congregated there,(Campbell 1980) while horticultural development was also emphasised.(Campbell 1980) In 1919, the community helped establish a Theosophical University.(Campbell 1980) Longstanding financial problems coupled with an ageing population resulted in the Society selling Lomaland in 1942.(Campbell 1980) Meanwhile, Tingley's death in 1929 had resulted in the Theosophical Society in America being taken over by Gottfried de Purucker, who promoted rapprochement with other Theosophical groups in what came to be known as the Fraternisation movement.(Campbell 1980)


Theosophical Society lodge building in Reykjavík, Iceland

During its first century, Theosophy established itself as an international movement.(Campbell 1980) Campbell believed that from its foundation until 1980, Theosophy had gained tens of thousands of adherents.(Campbell 1980) He noted that in that latter year, there were circa 35,000 members of the Adyar-based Theosophical Society (9000 of whom were in India), c.5,500 members of the Theosophical Society in America, c.1500 members of the Theosophical Society International (Pasadena), and about 1200 members of the United Lodge of Theosophy.(Campbell 1980) Membership of the Theosophical Society reached its highest peak in 1928, when it had 45,000 members.(Poller 2018)

Theosophical groups consist largely of individuals as opposed to family groups.(Campbell 1980) Campbell noted that these members were alienated in ways from conventional social roles and practices.(Campbell 1980)

As noted by Dixon, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Theosophical Society "appealed above all to an elite, educated, middle- and upper-middle-class constituency".(Dixon 2001) It was, in her words, "a religion for the 'thinking classes'."(Dixon 2001) Campbell stated that Theosophy attracted "unconventional, liberal-minded Westerners",(Campbell 1980) and according to Dixon they were among those "who constituted themselves as the humanitarian conscience of the middle classes, a dissident minority who worked in a variety of parallel organizations to critique the dominant bourgeois values and culture."(Dixon 2001)

Campbell also noted that Theosophy appealed to educated Asians, and particularly Indians, because it identified Asia as being central to a universal ancient religion and allowed Asians to retain traditional religious beliefs and practices within a modern framework.(Campbell 1980)

Reception and legacy

Hammer and Rothstein believed that the formation and early history of the Theosophical Society was one of the "pivotal chapters of religious history in the West."(Hammer Rothstein) The Theosophical Society had significant effects on religion, politics, culture, and society.(Campbell 1980) In the Western world, it was a major force for the introduction of Asian religious ideas.(Campbell 1980) In 1980, Campbell described it as "probably the most important non-traditional or occult group in the last century",(Campbell 1980) while in 2012 Santucci noted that it had had "a profound impact on the contemporary religious landscape".(Santucci 2012)

A Theosophical bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In approaching Asian religion with respect and treating its religious beliefs seriously, Blavatsky and Olcott influenced South Asian society.(Campbell 1980) In India, it played an important role in the Indian independence movement and in the Buddhist revival.(Campbell 1980) The Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi developed much of his interest in Hindu culture after being given a copy of the Bhagavad Gita by two Theosophists.(Campbell 1980) Alongside her support for Indian home rule, Besant had also supported home rule for Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.(Shaw 2018) Campbell suggested that Theosophy could be seen as a "grandfather" movement to this 20th century growth in Asian spirituality.(Campbell 1980) Given the spread of such ideas in the West, some critics have perceived Theosophy's role as being largely obsolete.(Campbell 1980)

Influence on the arts and culture

Many important figures, in particular within the humanities and the arts, were involved in the Theosophical movement and influenced by its teachings.(Santucci 2012) Prominent scientists who had belonged to the Theosophical Society included the inventor Thomas Edison, the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, and the chemist William Crookes.(Campbell 1980)

Theosophy also exerted an influence on the arts.(Hammer Rothstein) Theosophy was also an influence over a number of early pioneers of abstract art.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) The Russian abstract expressionist Wassily Kandinsky was very interested in Theosophy and Theosophical ideas about colour.(Campbell 1980) The Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian was also influenced by Theosophical symbolism.(Campbell 1980)

Theosophical ideas were also an influence on the Irish literary movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, with writers like Charles Johnston, George Russell, John Eglinton, Charles Weeks, and William Butler Yeats having an interest in the movement.(Campbell 1980) The American adventure fiction writer Talbot Mundy included Theosophical themes in many of his works.(Taves 1985) He had abandoned his previous allegiance to Christian Science to join the Theosophical faction led by Tingley, joining the Society in 1923 and settling at the Point Loma community.(Taves 1985)

Influence on other religious and esoteric groups

Bestsellers and television shows are devoted to Theosophical concepts such as reincarnation and spiritual evolution; the Internet overflows with references to Theosophical concepts such as the human aura (a Google search in May 2012 retrieved 47 million hits) and the chakras (12 million hits). Even truly mainstream media such as the National Geographic Channel present programs devoted to arch-Theosophical themes such as Atlantis, and the spiritual mysteries of Egypt. Terms and ideas created or mediated by spokespersons of the Theosophical Society have over time become household words, and the advent of Theosophy thus marked a fundamental change in the religious lives of countless individuals.

— Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, 2013.(Hammer Rothstein)

The founders of many later new religious movements had been involved in Theosophy.(Santucci 2012) Many esoteric groups — such as Alice Bailey's Arcane School and Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy — are "directly dependent" on Theosophy.(Campbell 1980) Although he had split from Theosophy when renouncing Leadbeater's claim that he was the World Teacher, Krishnamurti continued to exhibit Theosophical influences in his later teachings.(Campbell 1980) In 1923 a former Theosophist, the Anglo-American Alice Bailey, established the Arcane School, which also rested on claims regarding contact with the Ascended Masters.(Campbell 1980)

Another former Theosophist, the Austrian Rudolf Steiner, split from the Theosophical Society over the claims about Krishnamurti and then established his own Anthroposophical Society in 1913, which promoted Anthroposophy, a philosophy influenced by Theosophical ideas.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) Despite his departure from the Theosophists, Rudolf Steiner nevertheless maintained a keen interest in Theosophy for the rest of his life.[1]

As Theosophy entered the Völkisch movement of late 19th century Austria and Germany, it syncretised to form an eclectic occult movement known as Ariosophy.(Gardell 2003) The most prominent Ariosophist, the Austrian Guido von List, was influenced by Theosophical ideas in creating his own occult system.(Gardell 2003)

In the United States during the 1930s, the I AM group was established by Guy Ballard and Edna Ballard; the group adopted the idea of the Ascended Masters from Theosophy.(Campbell 1980) The idea of the Masters—and a belief in Morya and Kuthumi—have also been adopted into the belief system of the Church Universal and Triumphant.(Campbell 1980) The Canadian mystic Manly P. Hall also cited Blavatsky's writings as a key influence on his ideas.(Campbell 1980) Theosophical ideas, including on the evolution of the Earth, influenced the teachings of British conspiracist David Icke.(Robertson 2016)

Hammer and Rothstein stated that Theosophy came to heavily influence "popular religiosity" and by the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries was "permeating just about every nook and cranny of contemporary "folk" religious culture" in Western countries.(Hammer Rothstein) It was a major influence on the New Age milieu of the latter twentieth century.({{{1}}}, {{{2}}}) It played an important role in promoting belief in reincarnation among Westerners.(Chajes 2017)

Scholarly research

Theosophy Hall in Manhattan, New York City

A considerable amount of literature has been produced on the subject of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society.(Hammer 2001) Most early publications on Theosophy fell into two camps: either apologetic and highly defensive, or highly antagonistic and aggressive towards the movement.(Campbell 1980) As of 2001, the scholar of religion Olav Hammer could still note that books presenting the Theosophical doctrines were mostly apologetic in nature.(Hammer 2001) Examples of such works include William Q. Judge's 1893 book Ocean of Theosophy and Robert Ellwood's 1986 book Theosophy.(Hammer 2001) He noted that most of these works treated Theosophical doctrine as if it were a fixed entity and provided little or no discussion of how they have changed over the decades.(Hammer 2001) Many articles on the historical development of the movement have also appeared in the journal Theosophical History.(Hammer 2001)

Many early scholars of religion dismissed Theosophy as being not worthy of study; Mircea Eliade for instance described Theosophy as a "detestable 'spiritual' hybridism".(Hammer Rothstein) The academic study of the Theosophical current developed at the intersection of two scholarly sub-fields: the study of new religious movements, which emerged in the 1970s, and the study of Western esotericism.(Hammer Rothstein) A significant proportion of the scholarship on Theosophy constitutes biographies of its leading members and discussions of events in the Society's history.(Hammer 2001) In contrast to the significant amount of research focused on the first two generations of Theosophists, little has been produced on later figures.(Hammer Rothstein) Hammer also lamented that while scholarship on Theosophy was developing, it had not focused on the reformulation of Theosophy by Leadbeater and Besant or with the developing ideas of post-Theosophical writers such as Steiner or Bailey.(Hammer 2001) Hammer and Rothstein suggested that the "dearth of scholarly literature" on Theosophy was because "powerful individuals and institutions" in Europe and North America regarded the religion as "ludicrous", thus discouraging scholars from devoting their time to researching it.(Hammer Rothstein)

See also



  1. Paull, John (2018) The Library of Rudolf Steiner: The Books in English, Journal of Social and Development Sciences. 9 (3): 21–46.


Campbell, Bruce F. (1980). Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520039681. 
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Chajes, Julie (2017). "Reincarnation in H.P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine". Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 5: pp. 65–93. 
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Faivre, Antoine (1994). Access to Western Esotericism. SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 
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Further reading

Bednarowski, Mary Farrell (1980). "Outside the Mainstream: Women's Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America". Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48 (2): pp. 207-231. 
Bergunder, Michael (2014). "Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History". Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82. 
Bevir, Mark (1994). "The West Turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition". Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62 (3): pp. 747-767. 
Bevir, Mark (2003). "Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress". International Journal of Hindu Studies 7 (1): pp. 99-115. 
Bryson, Mary E. (1977). "Metaphors for Freedom: Theosophy and the Irish Literary Revival". The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 3 (1): pp. 32-40. 
Charjes, Julie (2012). "Metempsychosis and Reincarnation in Isis Unveiled". Theosophical History 16: pp. 128–150. 
Charjes, Julie (2016). "Blavatsky and Monotheism: Towards the Historicisation of a Critical Category". Journal of Religion in Europe 9 (2-3): pp. 247–275. doi:10.1163/18748929-00902008. 
Dixon, Joy (1997). "Sexology and the Occult: Sexuality and Subjectivity in Theosophy's New Age". Journal of the History of Sexuality 7 (3): pp. 409-433. 
Hammer, Olav (2009). "Sacred Schisms: How Religions Divide". in James R. Lewis. Sacred Schisms: How Religions Divide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 196–217. 
Hanegraaff, Wouter (1996). New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 978-9004106956. 
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (2017). "The Theosophical Imagination". Correspondences: An Online Journal for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism 5: pp. 3–39. 
Kirkley, Evelyn A. (1998). ""Equality of the Sexes, But…": Women in Point Loma Theosophy, 1899–1942". Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 1 (2): pp. 272-288. 
Kraft, Siv Ellen (2002). ""To Mix or Not to Mix": Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism in the History of Theosophy". Numen 49 (2). 
Lavoie, Jeffrey D. (2012). The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement. 
Neufeldt, Ronald (1986). "Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments". in Ronald W. Neufeldt. Karma and Rebirth: Post Classical Developments. Albany: State University of New York Press. 
Prothero, Stephen (1993). "From Spiritualism to Theosophy: "Uplifting" a Democratic Tradition". Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 3 (2): pp. 197-216. 
Prothero, Stephen (1995). "Henry Steel Olcott and "Protestant Buddhism"". Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63 (2): pp. 281-302. 
Prothero, Stephen (1996). The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 
Santucci, James A. (2008). "The Notion of Race in Theosophy". Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 11 (3): pp. 37-63. 
Scott, J. Barton (2009). "Miracle Publics: Theosophy, Christianity, and the Coulomb Affair". History of Religions 49 (2): pp. 172-196. 
Van Wormer, Stephen R.; Gross, G. Timothy (2006). "Archaeological Identification of an Idiosyncratic Lifestyle: Excavation and Analysis of the Theosophical Society Dump, San Diego, California". Historical Archaeology 40 (1): pp. 100-118. 
Vinitsky, Ilya (2006). "Where Bobok Is Buried: The Theosophical Roots of Dostoevskii's "Fantastic Realism"". Slavic Review 65 (3): pp. 523-543. 

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