THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY TIMELINE
1831: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was born on August 12 or July 31, according to the Julian calendar, in Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Ukraine.
1832 (August 2): Henry Steel Olcott was born in Orange, New Jersey.
1849 (July 7): Blavatsky married Nikofor Blavatsky (1809 – 1887).
1849–1873: Blavatsky abandoned her husband and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Egypt over the next twenty-four years until her arrival in the U.S. in 1873.
1854: Charles Webster Leadbeater was born.
1873 (July 7): Blavatsky arrived in New York City.
1874 (October 14): Blavatsky met Olcott for the first time at the Eddy farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont to investigate Spiritualist phenomena.
1875: The Theosophical Society was proposed and organized.
1876: The “pagan funeral” and cremation of Baron de Palm took place.
1877 (September): Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled was published.
1878: The Theosophical Society converted from an open to a secret society.
1878: The Theosophical Society affiliated with the Ārya Samāj of Swāmī Dayānanda.
1878 (June 27): The London Branch of the Theosophical Society, known as the “British Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavart,” was established.
1878–1879: Blavatsky and Olcott departed New York harbor for India in December, with a stopover in England, and arrived in early January.
1879 (January 17): Interim officers for the New York Theosophical Society, including General Abner Doubleday as President, ad-interim were appointed.
1879 (February): Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Bombay.
1879: The temporary headquarters of the Theosophical Society was established at 108 Girgaum Back Road.
1879: The founders began their communications with A. P. Sinnett, editor of The Pioneer.
1879 (October): The first issue of The Theosophist appeared.
1880 (May): The first tour of Ceylon occurred. While in Ceylon, the founders took pānsil (conversion).
1880 (October): The Mahatmas began writing to A. P. Sinnett. These letters continued until 1886.
1881: A. P. Sinnett’s first major work, The Occult World, was published.
1882: The permanent headquarters of the Theosophical Society was established at Adyar, Madras.
1882: The Society for Psychical Research was founded.
1882: Anna Bonus Kingsford’s The Perfect Way was published.
1883: A.P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism was published.
1883 (May): Anna Bonus Kingsford renamed the British Theosophical Society the “London Lodge of the Theosophical Society.”
1884: The Hermetic Society became independent from the London Lodge.
1884: Blavatsky’s illness led to her initial resignation as Corresponding Secretary of the Theosophical Society.
1885 (June): S. P. R.’s Hodgson Report investigating the Mahatmas, their letters, psychic phenomena, and Blavatsky’s involvement were released.
1886: An incomplete manuscript of The Secret Doctrine, known as the Würzburg Manuscript, was produced.
1887 (May 19): The “Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society” was established in London.
1888 (October 9): A new society, “The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society,” was created with Blavatsky as “Head.”
1888: The Secret Doctrine was published in two volumes.
1891 (May 8): H. P. Blavatsky died at age fifty-nine.
1891: Annie Besant and William Q. Judge were selected as Outer Heads of the Eastern School of Theosophy.
1895: The separation of the American Section from the Theosophical Society (Adyar) took place.
1896: (March 21): William Q. Judge died.
1906 (May 17): Charges of immoral conduct were brought against C.W. Leadbeater, which led to his resignation from the Theosophical Society.
1907 (February 17): President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry S. Olcott, died.
1907: Annie Besant became the second President of the Theosophical Society.
1908 (December): Leadbeater was reinstated to membership in the Theosophical Society.
1909: Leadbeater discovered Jiddu Krishnamurti as the vehicle of the World Teacher.
1929: Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star and the claim to being the vehicle of the World Teacher.
1933 (September 20): Annie Besant died.
2014: Tim Boyd assumed the presidency of the Theosophical Society.
On July 7, 1873 a Russian immigrant and soon to be co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), [Image at right] arrived in New York City, explaining in a letter to Professor Hiram Corson that she was “sent by my Lodge on behalf of Truth in modern spiritualism…to unveil what is, and expose what is not” (Blavatsky n.d.:127–28). Born in Ekaterinoslav on August 12, 1831 as Helena Petrovna von Hahn, her earlier life was filled with travel and adventure. In 1848, she married a man over twenty years her elder, Nikofor Blavatsky (1809–1887), who she soon abandoned to embark on a journey. She claimed the journey was a search for esoteric truths and occult training, becoming what is sometimes labeled a magus, the shaman who lives in the modern world searching for esoteric or higher Truths. Her travels were extensive, including Asia and North America, beginning with her arrival in New York City and extending through the years 1848 to 1873.
Her initial meeting with Col. Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), [Image at right] one of the co-founders of the Theosophical Society, took place at the Eddy farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont, where reports of “spiritual manifestations” were reported. They soon became close colleagues and collaborators in the investigation of Spiritualism and, later, occultism. Although their backgrounds and interests were very different, their collaboration eventually led to the establishment of the Theosophical Society the following year, which was first suggested on September 7 and culminated with the Inaugural Address delivered by the new President, Col. Olcott, [Image at right] at Mott Memorial Hall on Madison Avenue on November 17, 1875 (Olcott 1974a:136).
The original purpose appearing in the Preamble and By-Laws of the Theosophical Society, “to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern he universe,” suggested that the knowledge collected could be both theoretical and practical. That it could be practical, an assumption that is often overlooked, is suggested by Blavatsky herself, who argued that the study of Occultism only through book learning was insufficient; personal experience and practice must accompany this study (Blavatsky 1988a:103). Furthermore, as early as September 1875, she mentioned that a journey to the Orient would “produce more rapid, better, and far more practical results, than the most diligent study of Occultism in books” (Blavatsky 1988b:133; Deveney 1997:44). Two years later she wrote: “We ask for truth in everything: our object is the realization of the spiritual perfectibility possible to man; the broadening of his knowledge, the exercising of the powers of his soul, of all the psychical sides of his being” (Blavatsky 1895:302; Deveney 1997:44, note 108). Of all these practices and spiritual attainments what stood out was the ability to project the astral body or “astral projection” because it was considered the “highest achievement of magic” (Deveney 1997:17).
Certainly, the attempt to achieve spiritual perfectibility was one of the main reasons, if not the only reason, behind the Theosophical Society becoming a secret society in 1878 or earlier. Secrecy allowed the practitioner to advance this work unimpeded by those who were unprepared or ignorant to its significance. The possible organization of the Theosophical Society as a secret society was mentioned as early as the latter part of 1875 or early 1876 in response to Professor Hiram Corson’s criticism of Olcott’s inaugural speech given on November 17, 1875. Olcott remarked that the Society was considering a secret society so that “we may pursue our studies uninterrupted by the falsehoods and inpertinences [sic] of outside parties” (Deveney 1997:49, note 123), the party in question being one of the participants in founding the Theosophical Society, Charles Sotheran (1847–1902). The announcement of this conversion to a secret society appeared in a circular dated May 3, 1878, additionally describing the Society as divided into three Sections, with each Section subdivided into three Degrees. The model for a secret society and its sectional divisions most likely was inspired by an older Royal Oriental Order of the Sât B’hai, a Masonic group of which several Theosophists, including Sotheran, were members (Loft 2018).
Although the Founders (Olcott and Blavatsky) remained in New York for only three years, a few significant events took place, the shift to a secret society being one these occurrences. Around the same time of its conversion to a secret organization, the Society united with the Ārya Samāj (founded in 1875) of Swāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī (1824–1883), [Image at right] the goals of which were also perceived by the Theosophical Society as being synchronous with its own goal. In the words of Blavatsky, the Ārya Samāj “was instituted to save the Hindus from exoteric idolatries, Brâhmanism and Christian missionaries” (Blavatsky 1988d:381). This association appears to give credence to the later declaration that the Society’s purpose was to spread Eastern thought, but from a novel perspective, that of the newly-minted “Brotherhood of Humanity” platform that first appeared in the May 1878 circular “The Theosophical Society: Its Origin, Plan and Aim” (Blavatsky 1988c:375–78). The phrase seldom occurs in the literature, but it is most likely that this notion began to take on significance from the publication of Blavatsky’s first major work, Isis Unveiled, in 1877, which alludes to this concept (Blavatsky 1982: II:238).
Three other occurrences took place during the New York years: the cremation of Baron de Palm, the publication of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, and the organization of the British Theosophical Society.
The cremation of Baron de Palm, a member of the Theosophical Society who died shortly after his induction, is an event not of especial significance in the history of the Society, but the “pagan” service devised by Olcott and other members of the Theosophical Society on May 28, 1876 and the disposal of the body by cremation on December 6 are significant only because of the considerable attention it aroused among the public. If nothing else, these actions kept the Society in the public eye during the latter months of 1876 (Olcott 1974a:147–84).
The following year witnessed the publication of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, a two-volume, 1268-page sprawling work intended to be “a master-key to the mysteries of ancient and modern science and theology.” Its publication in September 1877 created intense interest on the part of Spiritualists and those interested in the occult arts and sciences because of the volumes’ comprehensiveness and its key to understanding the Absolute and its manifestations through exposure to the hitherto little understood Divine Wisdom. As summarized in Volume two, Blavatsky (1982: II: 590) writes:
To sum up all in a few words, MAGIC is spiritual WISDOM; nature, the material ally, pupil and servant of the magician. One common vital principle pervades all things, and this is controllable by the perfected human will. The adept can stimulate the movements of the natural forces in plants and animals in a preternatural degree. Such experiments are not obstructions of nature, but quickenings; the conditions of intenser vital action are given.
Isis Unveiled emphasized the use of “magic” and not “Theosophy” as the label for Divine Wisdom, affirming that it encompasses both the promise of practical results in addition to simple knowledge of hidden natural forces that encompass Wisdom.
The third event to occur was the organization of the British Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj of Aryavart (Olcott 1974a:473–76; I.T.Y.B.a:82–84). As already mentioned, this occurred on June 27, 1878, its importance being that it was the first branch to be organized in Europe. (I.T.Y.B.a:97), the British Theosophical Society represented the beginnings of the institutional internationalization of the Society. The British Theosophical Society was especially important because of the number of noted individuals who joined the Society, including Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), William Crookes (1832–1919), and the two individuals who would in the coming years both lead and modify many Theosophical teachings, Annie Besant (1847–1933), and C. W. Leadbeater (1854–1934).
Sometime during the preparation of Isis Unveiled, Olcott came to the decision to settle permanently in India (Gomes 1987:159). Part of the reason was Olcott’s growing acquaintance with Asian correspondents, Asian literature, and Asian openness to Theosophy (Prothero 1996:62–63). One acquaintance, Moolji Thackersey, whom Olcott met as early as 1870 (Olcott 1974a:395), joined the Theosophical Society in 1877, the first Asian to do so. It was Thackersey who introduced his teacher, Dayānanda Sarasvatī (Johnson 1995:19–20), to the Founders, thus establishing the Society’s union with the Ārya Samāj. According to Prothero (1996:62-63), their decision to move to India subsequently changed the mission of the Theosophical Society from one of reforming Spiritualism to that of importing Asian wisdom to the United States (Ransom 1938:105).
With this shift of purpose and vision, Olcott planned for the continued functioning of the Society in New York City by issuing the “Foreign Order No. 1” on Jan. 1879 designating officers acting on Olcott and Blavatsky’s behalf after their departure. A recent recruit, General Abner Doubleday (1819–1893), a prominent Civil War general, was appointed President, ad interim. In addition, David A. Curtis, a journalist, was appointed Corresponding Secretary, ad interim, George Valentine Maynard Treasurer, and William Quan Judge Recording Secretary (Ransom 1938:124).
On December 18, the founders departed New York City for England on the first step of their journey, arriving on New Year’s Day. They then departed for Bombay on February 16, 1879, arriving on February 25. On March 7, they established their first headquarters at 108 Girgaum Back Road in Bombay, which was also to become the Society’s Bombay branch.
One of the first Anglo-Indians to greet and befriend the pair was Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840–1921), [Image at right] the editor of The Pioneer of Allahabad, an influential newspaper of record. Sinnett frequently reported on the founders’ activities after their arrival, including their plans to publish a journal, The Theosophist, its initial issue appearing in October 1879 (Gomes 2001:155). The Theosophist continues to be published in Adyar, Chennai (formerly Madras).
By May 1880, both Blavatsky and Olcott undertook a tour to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to establish a branch of the Society. While in Ceylon, both took pānsil (Pāli pañcasīla) or conversion to Buddhism on May 25. On the same day the Galle Theosophical Society was formed (Ransom 1938:143), which was the first of a number of the Sinhalese Branches established.
Blavatsky’s reputation for producing psychic phenomena preceded her arrival in India, an ability she willingly demonstrated. In addition, her frequent references to the “Brothers,” “Mahatmas,” [< Sanskrit mahā + ātma–: “Great-Souled” > mahātma-] or “Masters” led to a request that was to begin a series of communications by means of letters between two of the Brothers and Sinnett. The reason for this interest was due to Blavatsky’s claim that the Mahatmas, especially her teachers Koot Hoomi and Morya, were the founts of her teachings relating to the Divine Wisdom.
Interest in the Divine Wisdom and the desire to receive more clarification of its revelations naturally led to Mrs. Sinnett’s request, directed at Blavatsky, “to get a note from one of the Brothers.” This request, made on September 29, 1880, soon resulted in a return note from a Mahatma (Olcott 1974b:231–32). Shortly thereafter, Sinnett recounted that he addressed a letter to one of the Brothers or Mahatmas, which was then delivered through Blavatsky’s intervention. A response was then received on October 17, 1880 from a Brother who identified himself as “Koot’ Hoomi Lal Singh.” Thus began a regular correspondence between Sinnett and two Mahatmas (Koot Hoomi [K.H.] and Morya [M.]) numbering over 140 letters delivered between 1880 and 1886. Although the letters were not published in their entirety until A.T. Barker’s compilation in 1923, the impact of the letters received between 1881 and 1883 was consequential due to the inclusion of their philosophical contents in Sinnett’s book, Esoteric Buddhism, in 1883. In addition, the book displayed a coherence that was sometimes lacking in Blavatsky’s writings. Moreover, new or revised approaches to Theosophical teachings were introduced, such as the structure of the cosmos and a new understanding of reincarnation, as well as an added emphasis on Vedic, Vedāntic, and Buddhist teachings. Such a shift was reflected and greatly expanded in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (Blavatsky 1974), which, after its publication in 1888, became the major source of Theosophical teachings.
Although Theosophists fully accepted the veracity of the Mahatma’s existence as independent agents who were the ultimate source of Theosophical teachings, questions eventually arose, most particularly by the recently established Society for Psychical Research (1882). Two investigations of psychic phenomena within the Theosophical Society: the first a private “provisional and preliminary” report issued in December 1884 followed by an unambiguous public report submitted by the S.P.R.’s investigator, Richard Hodgson (1855–1905), [Image at right] the following year (June 1885), led to results that were both damaging to the Society and to Blavatsky’s reputation.
This second or “Hodgson” Report, concluded in no uncertain terms that the claims of the Society and Blavatsky were fraudulent. Hodgson spent three months investigating the claims of the Society at the Society’s new headquarters in Adyar, Madras. Included in Hodgson’s investigation were letters supposedly written by Blavatsky to the Coulombs: Madame Coulomb, an acquaintance and later Blavatsky’s housekeeper at the Adyar headquarters, and her husband, Alexis Coulomb, who worked on the estate as gardener and carpenter. Following their dismissal from headquarters, they approached missionaries associated with the Christian College Magazine and admitted opponents of the Theosophical Society and Blavatsky, claiming that Blavatsky committed fraud regarding spiritual phenomena associated with her and the Mahatmas Letters supposedly written by Blavatsky admitting to this fraud were published in the Christian College Magazine beginning with the September 1884 issue. Their publication was early enough for the S.P.R. investigators to mention them in the First Report, but not to make any definitive judgment concerning their veracity (First Report, p. 6).
In the subsequent report Hodgson investigated the claims of the Blavatsky-Coulomb letters, including the function of the “Shrine” or cabinet located in the “Occult Room” at the Adyar headquarters, where many of the letters were delivered, and other phenomena mentioned in The Occult World. In the report he rejected the veracity of the many witnesses claiming the existence of the Mahatmas, adding that Blavatsky was the actual writer of the Mahatma letters (The Mahatma Letters To A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. & K. H. 1998), and concluded that neither genuine psychic or occult phenomena could be ascertained or proven regarding the composition of the letters nor the means of delivering them from the Mahatmas (Hodgson 1885:312–13). To make matters worse for Blavatsky, Hodgson resurrected the British government’s suspicion prior to her departure from New York that she was a Russian spy and the assertion that the Theosophical Society was nothing more than a political organization.
The Hodgson Report, although considered by many to be the indisputable verdict on the Founders and the Society, was challenged a century later by a handwriting expert and member of the S.P.R, Dr. Vernon Harrison. In both an article appearing in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1986) and in a later publication (H.P. Blavatsky and the SPR), Harrison examined Hodgson’s analyses of the Mahatma letters and concluded that Blavatsky’s handwriting was distinct from the Mahatmas K. H. and M., suggesting that if she wrote the letters, she could not have done so “consciously and deliberately” but “in a state of trance, sleep, or other altered states of consciousness… KH and M might be considered sub-personalities of Helena Blavatsky.” As for Hodgson, Harrison had some harsh words for his investigative techniques, observing that “Hodgson was prepared to use any evidence, however trivial or questionable, to implicate HPB” and “ignored all evidence that could be used in her favour” (Harrison 1986:309; Harrison 1997:viii). Based upon these findings, Harrison regarded the case against Blavatsky as “NOT PROVEN—in the Scots sense” (Harrison 1986:287; Harrison 1997:5).
Around the time of the two S. P. R. reports, Blavatsky resigned her position as Corresponding Secretary due to illness (Olcott 1972:229–32), after which she departed India for Europe, eventually settling in Würzburg by August 1885. It was in Würzburg that she prepared an early manuscript, known as the Würzburg Manuscript, that would eventually be known as The Secret Doctrine (Olcott 1972:322–29). The original purpose of the work was to correct numerous errors that existed in Isis Unveiled, but when Esoteric Buddhism appeared in 1883 she determined that the latter was incomplete and not entirely accurate. The completed Secret Doctrine, which only appeared in the latter part of 1888 (Volume I) and early 1889 (Volume II), was the latest and most accurate description of esoteric teachings. Both volumes consisted of 1,473 pages and, like Isis Unveiled before it, would soon become the main Theosophical text defining Theosophical teachings (Santucci 2016:111–21).
Prior to the publication of the first volume of The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky was involved in two important projects: the “Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society” and the “Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society.” The Blavatsky Lodge arose in part from disagreements among the leaders and members of the British Theological Society, more specifically among those who followed Sinnett and those who followed Blavatsky and Olcott. This was not the first time that disagreements caused disruption in the British Theosophical Society, renamed the London Lodge in 1883. From 1880 to 1885, Theosophy was viewed as a more Westernized or Christian Theosophy by many of its members, and not the “Buddhist propaganda” espoused by Olcott and the “Oriental” teachings of Master “Koot Hoomi,” the latter popularized in Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism (Maitland 1913:104). This Christian Theosophy was best expressed in Anna Bonus Kingsford’s (1846–1888) major work, The Perfect Way, published in 1882. Sinnett, who now resided in London from 1883, following his years as editor of The Pioneer in India, took issue with Kingsford and Maitland’s criticism of his book. The disagreements between the Kingsford-Maitland view of Theosophy (i.e., “Esoteric Christianity”) and the teachings of the Masters, ultimately led to an arrangement devised by Olcott in the creation of an independent “Hermetic Society” in 1884, which appealed to those who followed Kingsford and Maitland. The arrangement made it possible for members to be exposed to both Theosophies by belonging to both the Hermetic Society and the London Lodge, a situation forbidden by earlier arrangements (Olcott 1972:100-01; Maitland 1913:186, note 3).
The situation in the London Lodge remained stable for the next three years until of Blavatsky’s arrival in London in 1887, leading to a new rivalry between the Sinnett and the Blavatsky-Olcott factions. The outcome resembled the events of 1884, with plans made during May 1887 to create a new Lodge that would be independent of the London Lodge. The creation of the Blavatsky Lodge initiated a new period of Theosophical history in Britain by relegating the London Lodge to a minor status (Olcott 1975:26, 450; Sinnett 1922:87–88). Furthermore, Blavatsky was to enter an area that was until this time exclusively within Olcott’s reserve, that of administration. She was now taking responsibility of disseminating Theosophical teachings through institutions separate from the official Adyar Society (including the Blavatsky Lodge, the subsequent Esoteric Section, and the European Section) and through her new magazine Lucifer, established in September 1887 with Blavatsky as co-editor with the author Mabel Collins (1851–1927).
The establishment of “The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society” on October 9, 1888, with Blavatsky as Outer Head, was in part an act of her independence from the Adyar administration. All of its teachings and activities were conducted in secret, and so it was reminiscent of the Theosophical Society’s conversion to a secret society in 1878. In this case, however, it was a separate organization under a separate leader. Subsequently renamed the Eastern School of Theosophy a year later, and later still the Esoteric School of Theosophy, the current Esoteric School retains the same status vis-à-vis the Theosophical Society.
Still another organization was organized almost a year before Blavatsky’s death in 1891, when she became the head of the European Section. This action was considered at the Extraordinary General Meeting of the British Section Council. It was proposed that that the “Continental Lodges and unattached members…place themselves directly under her authority,” and that the British Section join in this proposal “that the constitutional powers, at present exercised by Colonel H. S. Olcott in Europe, shall be transferred to H. P. B. and her Advisory Council, already appointed to exercise part of such functions in the United Kingdom” (Old and Keightley 1890:429). Blavatsky agreed to her appointment as President of the Society in Europe, the stated reason being the branch officers’ greater familiarity with Blavatsky rather than the officers in the Indian central administration. The European Branches that joined in this arrangement included the London Lodge and all the Lodges of the British Section, the Hermès Lodge (Paris), the Swedish Theosophical Society (Stockholm), the Societé Altruiste, Nantes, the Corfu Theosophical Society, the Spanish Theosophical Society (Madrid), and the Odessa Group. Olcott acceded to this decision by sending an order, dated July 8, 1890, affirming the Theosophical Society in Europe. Part of this order recognized the European Section to have complete autonomy to the same extent as the American Section (Olcott 1890:520).
Despite her newly-assumed administrative authority in her final years, her major contribution to the Society was as the forebear of Theosophical teachings. With her passing on May 8, 1891, one chapter of the Theosophical Society’s history came to an end. The recognized leaders following Blavatsky’s death with direct links to her teaching were William Q. Judge (1851–1896), the dominant Theosophical voice in America, and Annie Wood Besant (1847–1933), a recent recruit who would become its dominant spokesperson and representative voice for the Adyar Society.
Judge [Image at right] was born in Dublin in 1851, immigrated to America in 1864, became a lawyer, in 1875 was part of the group of sixteen who participated in establishing the Theosophical Society. Years later, he was considered, together with Blavatsky and Olcott, one of the three chief Founders, especially by those in American circles (Judge 2009:xix–xxii). What distinguished Judge from those thirteen “formers” of the Society was his persistence and loyalty to the Theosophical cause, advocacy of Theosophy, organization of the Theosophical Society in America, and leadership skills.
As a charter member of the Theosophical Society, Judge served as the Counsel to the Society at its inception. By the time Olcott and Blavatsky departed for India in 1878, however, Theosophy in America was moribund and contracting in membership. The Acting President, Abner Doubleday, was given instructions from Olcott to keep activities at a minimum until the development of a spiritual motif and aims of the Society could be ritually expressed. This inactivity ended in 1884 when Judge became the General Secretary of the American Theosophical Society and Doubleday still remaining as President. From this point on, Judge began to take a more active role in the affairs of the Society. Despite his increasing influence and power, he soon was confronted with a rival in the person of Elliott Coues (1842–1899), an ornithologist and naturalist of repute who joined the Society in 1884 and who became a major player for a few years. He formed the Gnostic Branch of the Theosophical Society in Washington, D. C. and served as President of the American Board of Control, a new body intended to execute the work of the American Branches. He was a major concern of Judge’s, however, who often complained of Coues’ perceived animosity toward Judge. The rivalry between the two was compounded by Coues’ attacks on Blavatsky (Judge 2010d:150–51), which led to his expulsion from the Society in 1889, thus allowing for Judge to assume an even greater role in American Theosophy.
Although Judge’s leadership was highly regarded, problems arose concerning the direction of the Theosophical Society and the resulting rivalry of another esoteric group known as the H. B. of L. (Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor). The issue was whether the Theosophical Society was to operate more as a theoretical organization (one based upon study and intellectual pursuits) or as one that was more practical by advocating occult training techniques to acquire abilities associated with the “adepts” as described by Blavatsky. It was obvious that many members preferred the latter when it was discovered that a sizable percentage, including a majority of the American Board of Control, the ruling body of the Theosophical Society in 1885 and 1886, were also members of the H. B. of L. This challenge that the H. B. of L. posed for the Theosophical Society, especially in America, may have been the primary reason why Blavatsky founded the Esoteric Section. It was to counter the “practical occultism” of the H. B. of L. (Godwin, Chanel, and Deveney 1995:6–7; Bowen and Johnson 2016:197).
Despite these problems, the Theosophical Society expanded in America. Besides its success, Judge continued to accept the notion that the Aryan Theosophical Society in New York was the true Parent Society and not the Theosophical Society at Adyar. In a response to a query on “The Parent Theosophical Society,” Judge replied that if “there is in existence any ‘Parent Society’, then it is the Āryan, because its charter members are the only ones left here of the first Branch ever formed, while Mme. Blavatsky and
Col. Olcott are the founders of this Branch which became the Aryan after their departure.” (“Theosophical Activities” 1886:30). This assertion would assume significance due to events in 1895, when the American Section declared its autonomy from Adyar. The cause of this separation centers on Judge and a recent and increasingly influential member of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant. [Image at right] Besant only joined the Society in May 1889, but her debating talents and activism made her an effective spokesperson and representative voice for the Theosophical Society.
Following Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Besant, who was now the President of the Blavatsky Lodge in London, succeeded Blavatsky as Outer Head of the Eastern School of Theosophy (the new name for the Esoteric Section). Besant shared that office with W. Q. Judge, who was also the President of the Aryan Theosophical Society (New York), General Secretary for the American Section, and Vice-President of the Theosophical Society. As co-Outer Head of the E.S.T. Judge represented America, while Besant was the Outer Head for the rest of the world, an arrangement that would not last for long.
A series of events occurring in 1893–1895, popularly known as the “Judge Case,” was based upon Judge’s claim of transmitting genuine messages from the Mahatmas to various members, including his motives for doing so” (Forray 2016:14). The suspicion surrounding Judge’s claim of communicating the messages resulted in an internal investigation by a Judicial Committee in 1893 and 1894. No ruling came about since the investigation was out of its jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Mrs. Besant proposed a resolution at the Society’s December 1894 convention in Adyar that Judge resign his Vice-Presidency of the Theosophical Society. Rather than submitting to this verdict, Judge and the American Section voted to declare autonomy from the Adyar Society during the American Section’s convention in April 1895. The newly constituted organization, “The Theosophical Society in America,” appointed Judge President for life (Santucci 2005b:1119).
Following Judge’s death in 1896, Ernest T. Hargrove (1870–1939) became the new President of the Theosophical Society in America, but the true power devolved to the (unknown) Outer Head of the Eastern School of Theosophy associated with this organization. The Outer Head’s identity was soon revealed to be Katherine Tingley (1847–1929), who then replaced Hargrove as President 1897. Following an unsuccessful attempt to retake power during the 1898 convention, Hargrove formed his own group, proclaiming it to be the true Theosophical Society in America. Its headquarters remained in New York City, but its name was officially changed to “The Theosophical Society” in 1908 (Greenwalt 1978:14–19, 37–40).
Meanwhile, Annie Besant became increasingly involved with the activities of the popular lecturer and occult writer and psychic investigator, Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934) from the 1890s until well into her Presidency (1907-1933). Although not herself a psychic, it was due to his influence that her interests turned from religion to occult phenomena at this time. By 1895, a collaborative effort was begun to investigate a number of supra-physical phenomena, including reincarnation and the astral plane. The results of these joint investigations were a number of co-authored books including Thought Forms, Occult Chemistry, Talks on the Path of Occultism, and The Lives of Alcyone. Their interest also extended to developing a Theosophical interpretation of Christianity as early as 1898, leading to publication of Leadbeater’s The Christian Creed in1899 and Besant’s Esoteric Christianity in 1901. This collaboration was temporarily halted due to charges of immoral conduct brought against Leadbeater in 1906, resulting in his resignation from the Theosophical Society on May 17 (1906) (Ransom 1938:360). By the time he was reinstated in December 1908, Olcott was succeeded by Besant as President on June 28, 1907. By August of the same year, she and Leadbeater were again conducting occult investigations (Ransom 1938:373, 377–78). These investigations included claims to discoveries of the past lives of individuals, direct insight into the astral plane, clairvoyant observations regarding chemical elements, and thought forms.
Leadbeater had introduced other elements that had little if any connection with Blavatskyan Theosophy, including the discovery of the physical vehicle for the coming “World Teacher,” the introduction of a “World Mother,” and the inclusion of a pro-clerical and ritualistic element in the guise of the Liberal Catholic Church. This division between the Theosophy of Leadbeater and Besant with that of Blavatsky might be termed “second-generation Theosophy” or as it was originally identified, “Neo-Theosophy.”
Leadbeater’s most consequential discovery occurred in 1909 when a young Brahmin boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1896–1986), was identified as the future vehicle of the World Teacher, also identified as Lord Maitreya and the Christ. Although talk of a Master of Wisdom appearing among humanity goes back to Blavatsky, the imminence of his appearance was new (introduced by Besant around the turn of the century) as was the identification of Maitreya and the Christ, which was apparently suggested by Leadbeater around 1901. By the end of 1908 Besant was quite explicit about a “Teacher and Guide” who would once again walk among humans. The expectation came to naught, however, when Krishnamurti rejected his role and dissolved the Order of the Star, the organization that advanced these claims, by declaring in 1929 that “Truth is a pathless land” and by turning his back on Theosophy and its leadership.
A parallel teaching introduced into Neo-Theosophical doctrine involved the notion of the “World Mother,” whose future appearance would be enabled through the vehicle Srimati Rukmini Arundale (1904–1986), the wife of George Arundale (1878–1945), the President of the Theosophical Society who succeeded Besant as President following her death in 1934. Although the one book devoted to the subject, Leadbeater’s The World Mother As Symbol and Fact, was published in 1928, the idea of the feminine associated or identified with the divine was already well known in the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Buddhist bodhisattva Guan Yin. Mrs. Arundale conceived the World Mother to be the equivalent to the Indian Jagadamba “Mother of the World.” Unlike Krishnamurti, however, Rukmini Devi never assumed the role of World Mother, so the movement never gained the popularity as that of the World Teacher.
Theosophists who were opposed to Neo-Theosophical teachings considered the alliance with the Liberal Catholic Church as a serious breach of the Theosophical teachings of the Mahatmas and Blavatsky. It was perhaps the most onerous element of Neo-Theosophical teachings because of the inclusion of what many considered conflicting elements into genuine Theosophical teachings, including the Church’s clerical and ritual (sacramental) elements and the teaching of the Apostolic Succession. The inclusion of the Liberal Catholic Church was introduced under Besant’s leadership, its the role assuming prominence around 1917. During the 1920s, attempts were made to combine the teachings of the World Teacher with the ritual of the Liberal Catholic Church, including the selection of twelve “apostles” of the vehicle. From 1929 on, following Krishnamurti’s abandonment of his role, the Church’s position was significantly weakened, although it continues to function, albeit loosely, as an ally of the Theosophical Society.
Besides her excursions into occult investigations, Besant also immersed herself in service to India by promoting a number of changes and reforms, such as encouraging and improving inter-caste and interracial relations, championing the cause of the “outcastes” and “untouchables,” and encouraging Indian women to engage in the public domain. These actions eventually led to her involvement in the struggle for Indian “home rule.” Once engaged in these reformist activities, she established the Home Rule League in 1916 (Nethercot 1963:219–20, 239–53; Taylor 1992:304–10), in imitation of the Irish Home Rule movement. As an outlet for her views, she bought an old and established paper, the Madras Standard, in 1914 and converted it into New India, which was “to embody the ideal of Self-Government for India along Colonial lines ….” Her activism soon identified her as the preeminent political figure in India between 1915 and 1919. Although popular, she was replaced by Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) by 1920, principally due to the greater attractiveness of his methods and goals to the Indian population. Besant, however, continued to participate in Indian self-rule throughout the 1920s and supported the Nehru Report (named after Motilal Nehru [1861–1931]) of 1928, which advocated Dominion Status for India. This position, however, stood in contrast to Motilal’s son, Jawaharlal’s (1889–1964), advocacy for complete independence.
Besant’s death in 1933 effectively ended Theosophical involvement in politics. The following year she was succeeded by George Arundale (1934–1945), who focused more on the internal affairs of the Society rather than the external work emphasized by Olcott (the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka and Buddhist unity) and Besant’s advocacy of Indian self-governance. During his tenure, his wife, Srimati Rukmini Devi (1984–1986), was responsible in establishing the culturally significant International Academy of the Arts. Later known as Kalakshetra (kalā-kṣetra), “the Field or Holy place of Arts,” and established as a Foundation in 1993, the latter had, among its five objects (“The Kalakshetra Foundation Act, 1993” 1994:Chapter 3) the revival and development of the ancient culture of India.
Following Arundales tenure came five successors. C. Jinarājadāsa (1875–1953; President from 1945 to 1953), Nilakanta Sri Ram (1889–1973; President from 1953 to 1973), John S. Coats (1906–1979; President from 1974–1979); Radha Burnier (1923–2013; President from 1980–2013), and the current leader Tim Boyd (1953-), becoming President in 2014.
The three objects of the Society, devised in their current form in 1896, are considered obligatory for candidates. These objects are:
To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy and science.
To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in humanity.
The first object reveals how Theosophists should view the cosmos and humanity and by implication how to act in conformity with this Object. The second object encourages investigation of the three major divisions of knowledge wherein Truth is discoverable. The third object emphasizes the means, either through study or by practice, by which the unknown micro- or macrocosmic forces can be discovered.
From its inception, the Theosophical Society has been dedicated to uncovering the intrinsic source of the cosmos and humanity, that is, the functioning, manifested universe. It is assumed that the known and manifested universe reveals, at least in part, its unknown Source, since the manifested universe is but an emanation from the Unknown and that the presence of the Source in the evolved universe is best explained through the teachings of panentheism and pantheism. Such knowledge was once known in its entirety in every civilized country, and it was preserved and disseminated over the ages by spiritually advanced adepts. Although the complete teachings are only partially known today, they are partially preserved in the ancient and sacred texts of the traditional religions, philosophies, and sciences.
The contents of modern Theosophy comprise the complete corpus of writings of H. P. Blavatsky, especially her major work, The Secret Doctrine. Her writings and teachings are allegedly based upon the ancient religious, philosophical, and scientific sources containing elements of the Divine Wisdom and the teachings of her Masters, which were also publicized and organized in Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism. Most Theosophists now accept Blavatsky as the major source of Theosophical teachings.
This was not always the case, however. Following Blavatsky’s death and the ascendancy of Annie Besant and her colleague, Charles Webster Leadbeater, new teachings and practices were introduced which replaced the Blavatsky corpus for many years in the earlier part of the twentieth century. This period, known as Neo-Theosophy or Second Generation Theosophy, lost much of its popularity following Krishnamurti’s disavowal of his role as the eventual World Teacher and following Besant and Leadbeater’s deaths in 1933 and 1934 respectively. Although their role is reduced, their many contributions still are attractive for some Theosophists. This is in keeping with the official policy allowing members to determine, without restriction, whomever they believe is most suitable for understanding Theosophical teachings. There is no official dogma condoned by the Theosophical Society and no authority determining that dogma. This is confirmed according to the Resolution passed by the General Council of the Theosophical Society passed in 1924.
The emphasis on the first object of the Theosophical Society, the Brotherhood of Humanity, underscores the ideal for all to emulate. As summarized from W. Q. Judge (2010c: 77), Brotherhood is a practice, not simply a belief, aimed at removing those conditions that raise barriers and create dissension because of race, creed, or color; to seek Truth, wherever it is it is discoverable in the world; and to aspire to those ideals revealed by the Truth. More directly, one must avoid committing harm of any sort toward one’s fellow humans and honor “the absolute equality of human rights” (Judge 2010b:70). In other words, the Golden Rule is espoused because it is perceived as a Truth espoused in all traditional religions.
Moreover, actions have consequences; so Theosophy also accepts the South Asian teaching of Karma, which teaches, according to the Theosophical understanding of the term, that reward or punishment is assigned to every deed, good or bad. As Judge states, “The result of a deed is as certain as the deed” ((Judge 2010b:71).
Actions create the individual, and human destiny is defined by the actions committed. Yet, no destiny can be achieved in one’s lifetime; one must progress over many lifetimes. Therefore, the necessity for multiple births to continue one’s development until it is completed. This is the teaching of reincarnation, which plays an integral role in Theosophical practice (Judge 2010b:71–72).
Regarding the Society’s current institutional work, educational and welfare activities predominate. The Olcott Educational Society, which controls The Olcott Memorial School and Olcott Memorial High School, was established by Henry Olcott in 1894 to promote education of the underprivileged children in Chennai. The following year Olcott established a network of schools for outcastes or Panchamas, that is, the “fifth class.”
The Theosophical Order of Service, founded by Mrs. Besant in 1908, is an active program consisting of members who wish “to organize themselves for various lines of service, to actively promote the first object of the Society.
The Social Welfare Centre cares for infants of working mothers in the vicinity of the Headquarters. Other programs include the Vocational Training Centre for Women; and the Besant Scout Camping Centre. The Theosophy Society’s primary activity, however, is the dissemination of Theosophical teachings, not only those of Blavatsky but also those whom the Society deems appropriate.
Henry Steel Olcott assumed the role of President from the inception in 1875 until his death in 1907. Together with Blavatsky, they advanced the cause of Theosophy through numerous tours and speaking engagements throughout India, Asia, and Europe. For Olcott, however, his activities were focused on organization, administration, history, and promotion of the Theosophical Society. As an admirer of and convert to Buddhism, Olcott also favored championing its cause. Unlike Olcott, however, Blavatsky’s interests and activities were more focused on illuminating and defining Theosophy as a set of teachings; she was not interested in the Theosophical Society as an organization, nor was she focused on the advancement of Buddhism.
Annie Besant, the second President, in some ways encompassed the work of both Founders. She wrote extensively on a wide range of Theosophical topics and was deeply involved in the challenges (administrative, political, propagative, and revelatory) elements of the Society. Like Olcott, she applied Theosophical principles to a number of activist causes after her assumption of the Presidency. In many aspects, she was the Society’s most talented and charismatic leader who, nonetheless, was not adverse to controversies both within and without the Society. Her defense of Leadbeater despite the charge of pederasty, her advancement of Krishnamurti as the vehicle of the World Teacher, and her diminution of Blavatsky’s status did not help her standing with many within the Society. Furthermore, Besant must share some blame that resulted in the separation of the American Section from Adyar in 1895.
The succeeding Presidents became more administrators than innovators, the result causing the Theosophical Society to take on a more benign role on the world scene focusing on the recognized work of the Society, the study of the Ancient Wisdom as it is reflected in various philosophies and religions.
The leadership of the Theosophical Society includes President Tim Boyd, Vice-President Dr. Deepa Padhi, Secretary Marja Artamaa, and Treasurer Nancy Secrest. The headquarters remain at Adyar, Chennai, India. The membership numbers have never been large, averaging between 25,000 and 30,000 members. In 2016, the membership was 25,533. There are twenty-six National Societies and Sections, thirteen Regional Associations, and thirteen Presidential Agencies. The number of Lodges worldwide is 898.
The largest National Section is India, which has 11,323 members and 408 lodges, followed by the United States with 3,292 members, 38 lodges, and 47 centers. No other National Sections exceed 1,000 members, but Italian and English Sections have over 900 members. Italy has 934 members, twenty-nine lodges, and twenty centers; England has 908 members and thirty-five lodges (Annual Report of the Theosophical Society 2017).
Regarding the structural composition of the Society, National Sections are composed of at least seven lodges with a minimum of seventy members. If the number of lodges within a National Section falls below five lodges, that Section will lose its status. Sections are empowered to elect general secretaries, who are then automatically allowed membership on the General Council.
Regional Associations are smaller entities. If a country or territory has up to five lodges, for instance, then that country can be “appointed” as a Regional Association. Examples of such entities are Canada (five lodges and four Centers) and Ukraine (five lodges and three centers).
A Presidential Agency has as its head a Presidential Representative appointed by the President of the Theosophical Society. This Representative conducts business and administration under the President’s instructions. The Presidential Representative is not a member of the Organizing Council (Artemaa and Kerschner 2018. Private Communication dated August 17).
Controversies have surrounded the Theosophical Society since its inception, some of which were associated with Blavatsky’s claims concerning the Mahatmas. These controversies may take on primarily an internal or external impact. Generally, those that are internal are more predictable and sometimes expected in most organizations. The number of internal issues is too numerous to detail here, but they generally reflect concerns surrounding the first object of the Society: Brotherhood. In this section, only those controversies that have had an impact on the broader esoteric community will be articulated, and these necessarily reflect H. P. Blavatsky. Specifically these include the accusations that she was a Russian spy, that she plagiarized passages in her first major book, Isis Unveiled, and subsequent publications, and that she was responsible for writing the Mahatma letters and was indeed was the creator of the Mahatmic personalities, especially her alleged teachers, Koot Hoomi and Morya.
Regarding the accusation of her being a Russian spy, Blavatsky was continually accused of being such since her becoming an American citizen on July 8, 1878. The suspicion originated in the British government, which was apprehensive about her true intentions for migrating to India. The charge was renewed in the Hodgson Report, which also provided a reason for her decision to become a spy: to “foster and foment as widely as possible among the natives a disaffection towards British rule.” Hodgson also conjectured in his report that she came to the U.S. in 1873 to procure U.S. citizenship because of the protection it offered against government surveillance. Although never proven a spy, there is evidence to suggest that she offered her services as a spy at the end of 1872 in a letter, discovered in 1998, written to the Russian “Third Section,” the Russian Tsar’s personal secret police. If the letter is genuine, and there is no reason to suggest otherwise, it proves intent if nothing else.
A second issue concerns the question of plagiarism. Did Blavatsky actually plagiarize her sources in Isis Unveiled? The one person who devoted much time to this issue was William Emmette Coleman (1843–1909), who appeared to make a career of attacking Blavatsky’s means and motives in the Spiritualist journals Religio-Philosophical Journal and Summerland. However, the one article that had the most impact appeared in Solovyoff’s A Modern Priestess of Isis. In his article “The Sources of Madame Blavatsky’s Writings” (Appendix C of the book), Coleman examined primarily the sources in Isis Unveiled, less so The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silence, and The Theosophical Glossary. It was his contention that Blavatsky relied on around 100 books and periodicals mainly published in the nineteenth century.
This charge has proven damaging to the reputation of both Blavatsky and the Society. Theosophists remained largely defensive of Blavatsky. Olcott maintained that she composed Isis from the Astral Light (that plane above the physical that records all events on both astral and physical planes) by her “soul-senses, from her Teachers.”
Despite this and subsequent defenses, plagiarism has remained as a blot on Blavatsky’s reputation. Recently, however, an M.A. thesis by Jake Winchester investigated Blavatsky’s use of Samuel Fales Dunlap’s works Vestiges of the Spirit-History of Man, Sod: the Mysteries of Adoni, and Sod: the Son of the Man. His conclusion confirmed Blavatsky’s plagiarism, but the type of plagiarism is related more to source plagiarism, taking the sources from works such as these three titles cited above rather than from the original source. This is a practice that I suspect occurs more frequently than one might suspect, but it is not as serious as claiming as one’s own passages that derive elsewhere.
A third controversy involved the Mahatma letters. Although letters were received by a number of individuals over a span of time that some Theosophists contend continues to the present day, those written to Sinnett were the most important to justify investigation both within and outside the Society. Suspicions regarding the actual composer of the letters were first raised by the accusations of Mrs. Coulomb, details of which are given above. The Hodgson Report agreed with Mrs. Coulomb’s assertion that Blavatsky was the writer of these letters and that the Mahatmas themselves were pure fiction. This Report became the dominant and accepted view of critics outside, and some even within the Society, including the 1936 study of the charges (the Hare brothers’ Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters?). This is perhaps one of the reasons why the Mahatma Letters never became as popular as one might expect, with some independent societies ignoring them completely. As mentioned above, Dr. Harrison has demonstrated that it is unlikely that Blavatsky hand-wrote the letters. This of course does not exonerate her, but it does question Hodgson’s motive and methodology employed in the Hodgson Report.
One final issue is one that I suspect is more of an ongoing concern with Theosophical leaders: the declining membership of the Society. In 1997, the official membership of the Society was given as 31,667, with the largest National Section, India, claiming 11, 939 members and the United States, the second largest Section, claiming 4,078. Six countries reported memberships of over 1,000 and five countries between 500 and 1,000. A slight decrease was recorded ten years later, to 29,015, but by 2015 the membership precipitately declined to 25,920. The following year, and the latest report available gives the figure as 25,533. Although Indian membership is consistent by remaining above 11,000 members, there has been a greater decline in the United States (about a twenty percent decline from 4,078 to 3,292), and New Zealand, England, Australia, and Italy all following below 1,000 members (Annual Report of the Theosophical Society 2017).
Image #1: Helena P. Blavatsky.
Image #2: Colonel. Henry Steel Olcott.
Image #3: Swāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī.
Image #4: Alfred Percy Sinnett.
Image #5: Richard Hodgson.
Image #5: William Q. Judge.
Image #6: Annie Besant.
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