Now bend thy head and listen well, O Bodhisattva — Compassion speaks and saith: "Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?" — The Voice of the Silence, 71
I produce myself among creatures . . . of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness. — Bhagavad-Gita
The Theosophical Society was organized in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, and others, under the authority of certain Mahatmas or Masters of wisdom belonging to the highest Lodge of Adepts, as an agent or instrument through which the influence of the Theosophical Movement could reach humanity. The primary object of the movement is to bring about a universal brotherhood based upon the essential divinity of man.
The movement is greater than any society, for it includes and employs many organizations and agents, but if they become fossilized in dogma or betray their original purpose, the spirit of theosophy can no longer use them. As William Q. Judge says, the theosophical movement is moral, ethical, spiritual, universal, invisible save in effect, and continuous; while a society formed for theosophical work is a visible organization, a machine for conserving energy and putting it to use, though its unique and comprehensive scope is not easy to express.
Theosophy may be defined as a formulation of the nature and operation of the universe, including, of course, the nature of man, his origin and destiny. It is incomparably more comprehensive than what is generally known in the West as Eastern yoga, and it includes the problems of practical, everyday life in its scope. To quote the opening words of The Ocean of Theosophy, by W. Q. Judge:
Theosophy is that ocean of knowledge which spreads from shore to shore of the evolution of sentient beings; unfathomable in its deepest parts, it gives the greatest minds their fullest scope, yet, shallow enough at its shores, it will not overwhelm the understanding of a child. . . . Embracing both the scientific and the religious, Theosophy is a scientific religion and a religious science.
Theosophical literature contains, therefore, only a very partial presentation of a cosmic scheme which is far beyond ordinary human comprehension. There are, however, a few very highly evolved men who have penetrated more deeply behind the veil of nature and have realized, through initiation into the Mysteries, a far greater understanding of theosophia, the divine wisdom. Such men are called Mahatmas or Rishis in India, and those of the highest grade are believed to have attained the most sublime wisdom and knowledge that is possible for humanity in this stage of evolution. The Mahatmas must not be confused with minor adepts, lamas, yogis, or hermits in India or Tibet, such as are described by ancient and modern travelers who have met them on rare occasions. The Masters, as they are frequently called, stand far higher in spiritual and intellectual knowledge. The highest grade of Adepts have passed beyond the need of physical imbodiment, though their superior spiritual and intellectual wisdom is devoted to the welfare of mankind.
The theosophical ideal of brotherhood is neither visionary nor impracticable, though it will, of course, take a long time to realize. It is not limited to philanthropic, intellectual, or economic endeavor as commonly understood. Though it includes these activities, it implies something deeper. The form of brotherhood which it was hoped would spread gradually till it covers the earth must begin with the work and example of a body of men and women who have a profound desire to benefit humanity by giving out ideas which will change men's minds by changing their hearts, ideas based on the belief that this world is not an accident, that men are not creatures of chance with no past and no future, but that law and order reign in nature. In brief, to live in brotherly union is the only way to become truly human, because it is the fundamental basis on which the universe is built, and man is an indissoluble part of the universe. Brotherhood — interdependence — as a universal principle in nature is not a mere sentiment, and theosophy is not a sentimental or emotional system, but strictly scientific, as well as religious and philosophical. The universal tradition of a Golden Age is perhaps only a dream of the past, but it is the reality of the future; and if the constructive ideals of theosophy, the ancient wisdom, were universally practiced it would be here today.
The epoch in which the Theosophical Society appeared was one of confusion of ideas in the West, when the mental field was being plowed in preparation for the new cycle of transition in nearly every aspect of life. A few learned scholars in the West had begun to study and translate Oriental literature; a few liberal thinkers were courageously suggesting that the ancient philosophies of India and China were something better than "heathen foolishness"; Emerson was diffusing some of the light from the East. But few except specialists knew anything about the Eastern wisdom, and still fewer attached any importance to its spiritual significance. Hinduism was regarded as rank superstition and Buddhism as pure materialism or at best agnosticism. Max Muller was teaching that nirvana was annihilation!
Reincarnation was practically unheard-of in the West, or was misinterpreted as transmigration into animals. The law of karma (cause and effect) which makes a man responsible for his own destiny by challenging him "to work out his own salvation" had long been obscured by misleading notions like the vicarious atonement and the remission of sins by priestly mediation.
Science, in its heyday of materialism and self-exaltation, while quite properly breaking down medieval superstitions and illogical dogmas, was also, unfortunately, undermining the belief in the reality of man's spiritual nature. Darwinian evolution was replacing the Christian theory of the creation of man in the image of God by the mechanistic natural selection and survival of the fittest hypothesis. Thoughtful minds who were trying to harmonize the hard facts of science with spiritual interpretations of the universe were in difficulties. Even in India the established creeds were threatened.
Fortunately, however, freedom of thought was no longer prohibited, and new ideas were allowed a hearing. Therefore, when scientific materialism seemed on the eve of triumph, an audacious challenge was thrown by spiritualism. It at least demonstrated the existence of invisible and ethereal planes of substance and of life, other than the physical plane to which materialistic science then limited its universe, built of "hard billiard-ball atoms."
Several distinguished scientists, such as Crookes and Hare the chemists, Wallace the biologist, Wagner the geologist, Flammarion the astronomer, and a few others, with rare courage dared to look into psychic research and to satisfy themselves that some truth lay behind the claims of the spiritualists. The latter, however, offered no adequate philosophy or scientific analysis of their phenomena and, like their contemporaries in other fields, they never dreamed that the subject had already been thoroughly explored in past ages by advanced and fearless Oriental thinkers and other ancient researchers who had found that the phenomena fitted into a legitimate place in the scheme of natural law.
Even in the domain of the arts there was hardly any rational appreciation of the extraordinary greatness and the subtle spiritual background of Oriental accomplishment in that field, which is now so much more intelligently understood in the West.
Amid this welter of contending elements the Theosophical Society made its appearance, a strange meteor from an unseen source destined to make a far greater stir than its first modest proceedings suggested. As the famous French Orientalist, Burnouf, remarked, Theosophy was one of the three most important movements of the age. It fulfilled Schopenhauer's prediction that the most significant event of the nineteenth century would be, in the judgment of posterity, the introduction of the religious philosophy of the East to the notice of the West.
While scholars were mostly studying the technical side of Sanskrit literature, the theosophical movement brought the higher spiritual interpretation of it to the Western world.
A "New Order of Ages" (1) was at hand, and the Theosophical Society brought one entirely new idea, hitherto obscured, to the West: the actual existence on earth of perfected men, masters of life, elder brothers of mankind. Though many, or perhaps most, of these advanced Intelligences live and work on planes of being invisible to ordinary sight, they are not spirits in the ordinary sense, nor supernatural, though they are superhuman. They are the natural products of human evolution, though they have outdistanced their fellow men. Not only did theosophy proclaim their existence as facts and ideals, but it said that at certain cyclic periods they sent messengers to the world to revive its waning spirituality, and to strike the note of universal brotherhood anew. Furthermore, the unseen helpers, the "Guardian Wall" of humanity, were prepared to share a portion of their knowledge of the hidden laws of the universe with those whose lives proved that they were worthy and well qualified to receive it. Above all, theosophy brought the good tidings that the Mahatmas are nothing more than what every one of us may become in time if he will.
H. P. Blavatsky challenged the Western world with a formulated plan in which the universe was shown as a cosmos of order and of conscious activity, not an unreasoning or unreasoned chaos, and that man is, and always has been, an inseparable part of the universe, no accidental visitor here today and gone tomorrow. She showed that while the archaic wisdom, preserved and handed down by the Guardians of the human race, is found hidden under worldwide symbol, allegory and legend, it was plainly though secretly taught in the schools of the Mysteries, whose portals even today will open to earnest and unselfish workers who give the right knock.
The history of the Theosophical Society is intimately interwoven with that of a few prominent men and women who have in various ways helped or hindered its progress. By far the most important personality is, of course, the founder of the Society, but the limitations of this brief outline do not permit a detailed and exhaustive study of her personal history. The simple facts about her life and character, however, stated and considered just as they are found, are a sufficient refutation of the unfounded libels and misrepresentations by which unthinking and occasionally vindictive writers from her time to our own have attempted to belittle if not destroy both her reputation and her life work.
1. In The Theosophist, V, 17, Oct. 1883, W. Q. Judge wrote in regard to the design for the unused side of the Seal of the United States, that it was intended to symbolize the building and firm foundation of "The New Order of Ages" (the motto on the Seal). Only one side — the one with the eagle — has been in use, and Judge said: "When the other side [with the motto and the truncated pyramid beneath the blazing eve] is cut and used, will not the new order of ages have actually been established? . . . the Theosophical Adepts . . . watch the progress of man and help him on in his halting flight up the steep plane of progress. They hovered over Washington, Jefferson . . . who dared to found a free Government in the West, which could be pure from the dross of dogmatism, they cleared their minds, inspired their pens and left upon the great seal of this mighty nation the memorial of their presence." The hitherto unused design of the seal has just (1935) been placed on the dollar bill. (return to text)