THEOSOPHY, n. An ancient faith having all the certitude of religion and all the mystery of science. The modern Theosophist holds, with the Buddhists, that we live an incalculable number of times on this earth, in as many several bodies, because one life is not long enough for our complete spiritual development; that is, a single lifetime does not suffice for us to become as wise and good as we choose to wish to become. To be absolutely wise and good—that is perfection; and the Theosophist is so keen-sighted as to have observed that everything desirous of improvement eventually attains perfection. Less competent observers are disposed to except cats, which seem neither wiser nor better than they were last year. The greatest and fattest of recent Theosophists was the late Madame Blavatsky, who had no cat.
- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)
Theosophy was founded by Helena P. Blavatsky in the late 1800s, and achieved its greatest influence in the 1920s. It is an esoteric pursuit of faith-based beliefs considered knowledge dealing with the nature of the universe and the divine. It is a syncretic "religious philosophy": one drawing on a mix of ideas drawn from Spiritualism, Greek (mostly Platonic) ideas about the universe, and Indian Eastern Mysticism's ideas about the soul and reincarnation. According to Theosophy, all people have a "higher self" that is seeking to become perfect, and does so through reincarnation. As in Hindu reincarnation, there are different levels of existence, with human existence considered greater than animal or plant. Unlike, however, once a soul has achieved humanity, it cannot regress. To ascend further, it is necessary for a person to delve within him or herself to achieve wisdom, particularly vegetarianism, pacificism, asceticism, and all the other usual suspects.
Many of Theosophy's tenets were borrowed from Spiritualism, and many of its tenets, both original and from Spiritualism - have since been absorbed into the New Age movement. It was also rather influential on other mystical traditions, including the Golden Dawn, (Aleister Crowley's movement), and has also influenced neopaganism.
Spiritualists at that time viewed theosophy as unscientific and both occultist and cult-like, while theosophists viewed spiritualism as unsophisticated and uncosmopolitan; the chief differences of opinion between the two could perhaps be simplistically exemplified by Theosophy's incorporation of reincarnation and alien spirits into its peculiar brand of mysticism.
Theosophical Society buildings from Theosophy's heyday tend to have swastikas on the lintel, and its writers frequently used the term "Aryan" in Theosophical literature, though both the swastika and the term "Aryan" had very different connotations and denotations before the 1930s.
However, founder Helena P. Blavatsky, and many other members, did hold (then) fashionable ideas about race that would today be found distasteful, generally regarding the "white, Arab, and Chinese races" highly, while regarding other races with varying levels of disdain, ranging from suspicion, to outright denying their humanity (especially as in the case of aboriginal Australians and, predictably, Jews). Many of these theories of racial superiority find their way into the subtext of Theosophical literature concerning the supposed origins of man, and the racial qualities of Theosophy's spiritual utopias throughout their bizarre conception of history, which often relied heavily on Blavatsky's concept of Root Races and Sub-Races of varying humanity (with the Aryan race, predictably, being in Blavatsky's time the most highly evolved, to be followed by more highly-evolved races in the future.
Philosophy and Beliefs
Theosophist philosophy is heavily reductionist: regarding all religions as making the same claims and having the same goals. Theosophists thus view their philosophy as the distillation of the "fundamental truths" found in all religions. As a result, Theosophists like to deny the concept of diversity of religion, since according to them every religion is pretty much the same.
Theosophy promotes an emanationist cosmology, promoting the belief that the universe is an outward reflection from the Absolute. Theosophy presents the idea that the world as humans perceive it is illusory, or maya, an idea that it draws from Asian religions; accordingly, Blavatsky taught that a life limited to the perception of this illusory world was ignorant and deluded, with the aim of Theosophy's spiritual evolution to awaken and evolve humanity spiritually and empower its adepts to see into the higher truth of other planes of existence.
According to Blavatsky's teaching, every solar system in the universe is the expression of what is termed a "Logos" or "Solar Deity", with seven ministers or planetary spirits ranked below it, with each of these celestial beings being in control of evolution on a particular planet. (See Elder Gods.)
In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky stated that each planet had a seven-fold 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. 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. She claimed that there were different levels of evolution, from mineral on to vegetable, animal, human, and then to superhuman and ultimately spiritual, and 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. Theosophy teaches that human evolution is tied in with this planetary and wider cosmic evolution.
In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky advocated the idea of seven "Root Races", each of which was divided into seven "Sub-Races". In Blavatsky's cosmogony, the first Root Race were created from pure spirit, and lived on a primal continent known as the "Imperishable Sacred Land". The second Root Race, known as the "Hyperboreans", were also formed from pure spirit, and lived on a land near to the North Pole (Hyperborea), which then had a mild climate. The third lived on the continent of Lemuria, which Blavatsky alleged survives today as Australia and Rapa Nui. Blavatsky alleged that during the fourth Round of the Earth, higher beings descended to the planet from Venus, with the beginnings of human physical bodies developing, and the sexes separating. 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. 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. 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. The fifth Root Race to emerge were the "Aryans", found across the world at the time she was writing. She believed that the fifth Race would come to be replaced by the sixth, which would be heralded by the arrival of Maitreya, a messianic figure from Mahayana Buddhist mythology. She further believed that humanity would eventually develop into the final, seventh Root Race. At this, she stated that humanity will have reached the end of its evolutionary cycle and life will withdraw from the Earth.
Modern Theosophists suggest that by reading Blavatsky's cosmogonical claims as a literal account of history, "we may be doing it a disservice", instead suggesting 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".
In later elaborations (seen, for example, in the work of William Scott-Elliot), the third "Root Race" were said to be evolved from semi-material, psychic giants of ethereal jelly, their bones barely able to support their vast height and bulk, who would evolve over time under the guidance and eugenic breeding programs of disembodied minds of ascended Theosophical Masters arrived from Venus via Astral Projection to occupy physical bodies on Earth for the purpose of enlightening evolving man, with these gelatinous giant Lemurian proto-humans losing their prodigious height as they became more solidly material and more spiritually aware, resulting in an evolved race what would eventually take the form of primitive men, in time for the fourth "Root Race" to inherit that New Age on Earth and begin its era on Atlantis under further guidance.
Also appearing in Theosophy is the secret city of Shamballah, hidden deep beneath the Earth (or in some cases hovering in the Astral Plane somewhere above the Earth, where the Ascended Masters dwell, controlling from a distance the destiny of humanity.
Occult theosophical practices and beliefs include
- Channeling spirits (generally more highly evolved spirits)
- Past Life Regression (generally to golden ages in Atlantis, Lemuria, Hyperborea, and even to other planets)
- Astral Projection
- Automatic Writing
- Spiritualism (a sort of "spiritual predecessor" to Theosophy)
- The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by Margaret Murray
- Richard Sharpe Shaver (a schizophrenic take on concepts originating in Theosophy)
- UFOlogy (which borrows many of Theosophy's concepts both directly, and indirectly through Shaver)
- Mysticism and New Age
Theosophy in the Mythos
"I've also been digesting something of vast interest as background or source material--which has belatedly introduced me to a cycle of myth with which I have reason to believe you are particularly familiar--i.e., the Atlantis-Lemuria tales, as developed by modern occultists & theosophical charlatans. Really, some of these hints about the lost 'City of the Golden Gates' & the shapeless monsters of archaic Lemuria are ineffably pregnant with fantastic suggestion; & I only wish I could get hold of more of the stuff. What I have read is The Story of Atlantis & the Lost Lemuria, by W. Scott Elliot."
- H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, vol. II, p. 58 (from a 1926 letter to Clark Ashton Smith)
"I'm quite on edge about that Dzyan-Shamballah stuff. The cosmic scope of it --- Lords of Venus, and all that --- sounds so especially and emphatically in my line!"
- H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters, vol. IV, p. 153 (from a 1933 letter to E. Hoffmann Price)
- Theosophical Society (cult) a fictional "Mythos Cult" take on the organization
- Ordo Templi Orientis (cult) and Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (cult), fictionalized versions of Aleister Crowley's cults
- Hermetic Order of the Silver Twilight (cult), a fictionalized version of Crowley's Golden Dawn cult
- Helena P. Blavatsky
- Annie Wood Besant
- Aleister Crowley
- Alice Bailey
- Charles Webster Leadbeater
- Mabel Collins
- William Walker Atkinson
- William Scott-Elliot
- James Churchward