Gottfried de Purucker: A Biographical Sketch

Sarah Belle Dougherty

Gottfried de Purucker, Leader of the Theosophical Society from 1929 to 1942, revivified the Society's public work and sought to promote brotherhood in the theosophical movement. His greatest contribution, however, was his elucidation of the concepts found in H. P. Blavatsky's writings.

One of a family of seven, Hobart Lorenz Gottfried von Purucker was born in Suffern, New York, on January 15, 1874. In 1881-2, while the family was living in Texarkana, Texas, he came down with a severe case of typhoid fever, and his doctor actually declared him dead at one point. In 1888 the family settled in Switzerland, where he continued studying under his father and various tutors, as well as at such schools as the College de Geneve. Speaking of his early life and education, G. de Purucker remarked:

I was destined for the church by my father, who was a clergyman of the Anglican communion, and pastor of the American church in Geneva. My father taught me Greek; he taught me Hebrew; he had teachers for me in other languages. Living in a French-speaking country, of course I spoke French; my mother being an American, of course I spoke English; my father being a German, of course I spoke German. I was also taught Italian and Spanish. I was likewise taught Anglo-Saxon. . . . When I was about fourteen years old, I remember translating, as a Christmas gift for my father, the entire Greek New Testament, and he said it was very well done. . . . When I was seventeen I translated from the Hebrew the book of Genesis, as a birthday gift to my father. — The Theosophical Forum, Sept. 15, 1929, p. 10

But even as a young man he was looking for something more:

when I was a boy I used to go to church. In fact, I had to go to church. I used to sit in the pew, unless indeed I sat in a chorister's seat, because I had to sing, too. I used to sit in one of the pews and look around and study the faces of the people; and I wondered what was the matter with everybody. They indeed seemed to be kindly, courteous people, sitting there 'on the job' — a sort of duty which some of them seemed to like and some of them didn't seem to like; and I had an instinct that something was either wrong with me or wrong with the system. . . .
Then, when I grew older and began to read a little of certain Oriental literature that fell to my hand, I realized that the instinct of my soul had been a true one; and after that, as I sat in the pew in church and looked around, I saw something which seemed to me new in the faces of my fellows. Oh, the spiritual hunger, the yearning, the unsatisfied yearning for light, that met my eyes! They were doing something more than merely being 'on the job.' They wanted truth. They wanted consolation. They wanted vision — and found it not. — Questions We All Ask (orig. ed.) 2:513-14

After coming across a translation of the Upanishads, he began to study Sanskrit. By 18 he knew he did not want to enter the church, and decided instead to leave school to travel in the United States.

GdeP in 1892 
G. de Purucker, 1892

Sometime in his late teens, whether in Europe or America, he encountered a book on theosophy which "startled" him:

I saw high thinking! I felt that there was more in this book than what an agnostic had seen. My years of study and reading of the literatures of the world — ancient literatures especially — had taught me to recognise ancient truth when I saw it. I was fascinated with something that I had always known in my heart; and it was this, that there has always existed, and that there exists today, a band, a company, a society, an association, of noble Sages, great Seers, "Wise Men of the East," as this book called them. — The Theosophical Forum, Sept. 15, 1929, p. 11

Its effect on him was profound:

my heart awoke, as my brain had awaked before. But now, from a study of the Theosophical literature, my heart awaking, I began to realize what there was, not only in me, but in my fellows; and I said to myself: Hereafter my life is consecrate to what I know to be the truth. No man can live unto himself alone; no man can tread the pathway — the still, small, old pathway — of the spiritual Self within him, alone. — Questions We All Ask 2:514

After a few months in New York, he traveled to California, where he worked on various ranches, finally settling in San Diego County. One evening in 1892 he attended a theosophical lecture there; the next day he visited the local theosophical library, and

from that day to this I have studied Theosophy daily, meditated upon it in the silence of the night time; and the more I think and the more I reflect, the more I see in it. . . . [It] took one human being out of unhappiness into a happiness which passeth the understanding of any man or woman who has not experienced it as I have . . . — The Theosophical Forum, Sept. 15, 1929, p. 11

On August 16, 1893, Purucker joined The Theosophical Society, and in 1894 he met William Q. Judge, then Vice-President of the TS. At the San Diego Lodge he organized a class on The Secret Doctrine, "moderating and guiding the studies of the members, most of whom were considerably older than he" (Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. vi). Another young man, Abbott Clark, remembered him as "modest & retiring & keeping himself well out of sight but diligently at work. All day at the [TS] library, in a far corner of the lecture hall, he studied Sanskrit & the Secret Doctrine." Out on a walk together, Purucker pointed across the bay "to that bold and barren headland & said that on the crest of Point Loma we should build a great international Theosophical, educational institution where the sublime philosophy of the Wisdom Religion would be again established on earth for the benefit of all future generations. All this was before Mme. Tingley was known or began her work." (Abbott Clark, "History of Theosophy in San Diego," November 1934, TS Archives, Pasadena.)

In 1895 Purucker returned to Europe. There in September 1896 he met Katherine Tingley while she was in Geneva on her first world tour:

I never shall forget the effect that the great Theosophical Teacher produced on me — an impression of strength, reserve power, compassion, and of a mind that looked through one. I was instantly and strongly drawn to her. Our conversation lasted for an hour or more, during the course of which she invited me to accompany her party on their tour. To my lasting regret, I felt obliged to refuse. I now wish that I had accepted her invitation. It would have meant my immediate union with the Theosophical forces. — The Theosophical Forum, Sept. 15, 1929, p. 11-12

At this meeting he provided information instrumental in obtaining the site of the future International Headquarters at Point Loma, California (for more details, see "Rebirth of the Mysteries" by W. T. S. Thackara, Sunrise, Apr/May 1998).

In 1897-8 he traveled extensively in South America, returning to Geneva via New York in early 1899. He then spent several years in Paris, where in 1899-1900 he worked on the editorial staff of the Paris Daily Messenger. As he wrote in a letter to H. N. Stokes on July 21, 1931,

all my early life, up till nearly thirty, was passed in the whirl of social and diplomatic and literary and artistic circles, in Geneva, Paris, and other European capitals and big cities. I hated this life, as you can imagine, and when the word came to me from the "Bosses" to pack up and go to Point Loma into years of retirement and training, I felt like a prisoner released from jail, and going home.

Katherine Tingley had moved the Society's International Headquarters from New York City to Point Loma in 1900, and in 1903 Purucker joined the headquarters staff, working closely with Mrs. Tingley. In 1903-4 he accompanied her on her second world tour, visiting Europe, Egypt, Japan, and several other Oriental countries. He also accompanied her to Europe in 1908, 1912, and 1926. He took part in controversies with local clergymen, and acted in the dramas she presented in the Greek Theater. He was appointed to the executive committee which administered the Society's activities while she was absent on her numerous tours. Working in the editorial department, he was chief assistant editor of her principal magazine, after July 1911 titled The Theosophical Path, and oversaw new editions of Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.

GdeP in 1912

G. de Purucker, Katherine Tingley, and Iverson L. Harris, Jr. in Italy, 1912

At Mrs. Tingley's request he gave lectures on theosophy, both publicly and to her private students. Between 1924 and 1927, for example, he gave a series of lectures to one of her esoteric groups on H. P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. His task, he explained to his audience, was to bring out the book's esoteric aspects and touch "if possible, upon every main doctrine therein contained," so as to "produce a record and interpretation of its teachings which all minds can understand." These lectures were later printed as Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy. In 1927 he gave a series of talks on "Theosophy and Modern Science" broadcast live over San Diego radio station KFSD, which were later printed in two volumes (condensed in 1941 into the one-volume Man in Evolution).

Beginning in 1913 he taught at the School of Antiquity, and also at Theosophical University after its founding in 1919. There he held the Chair in Hebrew and Sanskrit, and received a doctorate in literature in 1921. Many of the headquarters staff continued to address him as "Professor" after he became leader of the Theosophical Society.

After heading the TS for over 30 years, Mrs. Tingley died at Visingso, Sweden, on July 11, 1929, from injuries sustained in a car accident in Germany on May 31. Officials announced on July 26 that G. de Purucker had assumed the offices of Leader of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society and of Outer Head of the Esoteric Section (ES). A newspaper reporter describes him at this time:

Frankly and freely he answered questions relating to the Society, and, when the queries stopped, he volunteered additional facts. No questions were too personal for frank answers.
A man of great scholastic attainment, Dr. de Purucker had no hesitation in employing what purists might term slang when he felt that such would make his meanings clearer. He was, in fact, rather of a revelation to one who had thought Theosophy and its principles a closely guarded citadel of silence.
Clad in a gray suit, with brown oxfords and brown socks, pinstriped shirt and semi-soft collar, Dr. de Purucker looked far different from what one might imagine a Theosophical Leader would appear. Iron gray hair fences the wide brow of the scholar and the blue eyes, while alive with intelligence, did not yesterday appear to be the eyes of anyone but a man keenly interested in his work and eager that the world know more of it. Clean-shaven, his face has the stamp of determination, softened by the thoughtful expression of the scholar. Over all he was the host, eager that his visitor be pleased and satisfied. He even lighted and smoked a cigaret as he talked, to remove any feeling of restraint that might exist. — The San Diego Union, Aug. 3, 1929

He began his administration by writing several General Letters addressed jointly to members of the Society and Esoteric Section: "it is a communion of hearts and of minds rather than a dissemination of knowledge of official matters which it is my great desire to achieve in writing these General Letters" (Third General Letter, October 21, 1929). In his First General Letter, written July 29, Purucker enthusiastically outlined his vision for the future. He assured the membership that HPB's teachers "are still working with the Society both inner and outer, and for it. . . . their interest in and love for the lofty work for human redemption which they inaugurated in founding our Society with its various sections, has in no wise diminished, but has increased."

As Mrs. Tingley's successor, he sought to carry out plans and hopes for the future that she had discussed with him over the years, and more particularly before leaving in April on her last trip to Europe. The most important of these was to bring the Society and the ES "more directly in line with the policy originated by H. P. B.," both in the teachings which he would give out, and in the method and form of promulgating them:

Many of our members perhaps have realized intuitively that practically the entire work of Katherine Tingley was one of mystic training, preparing the members both in heart and mind to receive the deeper, more mystic, more esoteric doctrines which the Theosophical philosophy comprises, and which even H. P. B. could give out only in part, for the members then were not ready, because they were not prepared . . .

In line with this objective, Dr. de Purucker announced in an August 12 bulletin that he had changed the name of the Society from "The Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society" back to "The Theosophical Society," which "was one of K. T.'s dearest wishes, expressed to me only a few short weeks before she passed into her unutterable Peace" (Second General Letter, Sept. 1, 1929).

Of critical importance in this "New Theosophic Era," he stressed, was the greatest possible increase in membership. He called on members to use all their creativity in this effort, and urged them to form local centers (lodges) instead of remaining isolated members-at-large as had been the case generally for the preceding 25 years. "Where two or three are gathered together in the proper Theosophic spirit of devotion and unquenchable energy, there is the Buddhic Splendor working with you, and you can, if you will, become channels for receiving it in full flood" (Third General Letter). Lodges began to form immediately. Because of this organizational expansion, he proposed changes to the TS Constitution which would give National Sections and Lodges almost complete autonomy. These and other changes were adopted at the Constitutional Convention held at Point Loma on December 5, 1929.

To foster interest in theosophy, Dr. de Purucker encouraged increased children's work, both through the Lotus-Circles — work with children under 14 years of age — and the Raja-Yoga School and Academy (soon renamed the Lomaland School). He also began a new children's monthly, The Lotus-Circle Messenger. In a related move, Mrs. Tingley's William Q. Judge Clubs for men and boys over 14 and H. P. Blavatsky Clubs for women and girls over 14 were reorganized as Theosophical Clubs, retaining separate men's and women's sections. The Raja-Yoga Messenger became Lucifer, the official Club magazine. Soon people of all ages were encouraged to join, and these groups acted as introductory theosophical associations until 1936, when they once again became youth clubs.

In his First General Letter Dr. de Purucker informed the members about his promise to Mrs. Tingley to change The Theosophical Path back to magazine format after a short experiment with newspaper size. It became a strictly theosophical magazine, as a monthly until July 1932, then as a quarterly. And in order to "weld the members into a closer unity," Judge's Theosophical Forum was immediately revived as a members' monthly filled with news, announcements, questions and answers, and selected documents from the Society's archives. In January 1936 these two magazines and Lucifer were consolidated into an enlarged Theosophical Forum, which continued publication until March 1951. Dr. de Purucker called on the members to do everything in their power to increase the circulation of theosophical publications, and exhorted them to "Declare yourselves boldly to be Theosophists, Fishers of the Souls of Men, and furthermore to be laborers in the great Cosmic Work of all time" (Second General Letter).

Secretary General Joseph H. Fussell in a letter to the membership dated February 10, 1930, summed up the themes of G. de Purucker's administration in three of his sayings:

Love is the Cement of the Universe.
Learn to Forgive. Learn to Love.
Each One of You is an Incarnate God. Be it!
These are the watchwords of the new era: the heart of the teachings of Theosophy. . . . We can take them so closely home to our hearts and make them the keynotes of our own lives, that they shall become a power to transform the life of the world. — The Theosophical Forum, March 15, 1930, p. 13

To bring his message personally to a wide audience, Purucker traveled in the United States and abroad whenever he could, spending considerable time in Europe. His first US-European lecture tour in 1931 lasted six months.

GdeP in 1931 

GdeP, Joseph H. Fussell, Elsie V. Savage,
Visingso, Sweden, August 1931

From September 1932 to October 1933 he transferred the official and secretarial staffs of the TS and ES to the outskirts of London, England, setting up the International Headquarters there while he carried on intensive work in Europe. He also visited Europe from August to October, 1937.

view of Oakley House

Oakley House, Bromley Common, Kent, England; International Headquarters 1932-3

One of Dr. de Purucker's primary themes was an attempt to establish good will among the members of the various theosophical organizations. Since H. P. Blavatsky's death in 1891 the theosophical movement had splintered into over twenty organizations, some larger, some very small. Many members of groups which had parted company — often with intensely held differences and personal acrimony — continued to feel bitterness, disapproval, and even enmity toward one another. This situation flew in the face of the prime object of promoting universal brotherhood. In the autumn of 1929 Purucker discussed with his staff trying to bring together the various factions of the theosophical movement on a basis of brotherhood and mutual respect, and in March 1930 he announced publicly what became known as the Fraternization Movement. He encouraged members to establish friendly relations with theosophists of other organizations and to undertake joint local activities. He subsequently invited officials and prominent members of several theosophical organizations to a convention in 1931 commemorating the centenary celebration of HPB's birth (see his speech, "Brotherhood in the Theosophical Movement"). Other meetings followed in the 1930s and '40s. While Purucker did not achieve his goal in full, ill-feeling among members of various theosophical groups lessened, laying foundations for the future.

Theosophical literature also received much emphasis in Purucker's administration. Besides the periodicals, Theosophical University Press continued to publish works by H. P. Blavatsky, W. Q. Judge, and others, along with selected Eastern philosophical classics and a new set of introductory manuals. Two large publishing projects stand out, though neither was completed in Dr. de Purucker's lifetime: The Complete Writings of H. P. Blavatsky and the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary.

Beginning in 1924, staff member Boris de Zirkoff collected as much of HPB's published material as he could, largely completing work on documents from 1874-79 by the summer of 1929. He then brought up with Dr. de Purucker the idea of publishing a uniform edition of all HPB's writings, and a committee was formed. In 1930 they sought the cooperation of other theosophical organizations, and the TS Adyar proved particularly helpful. In 1931 the project was publicly announced as a Centennial Edition; the first and second volumes appeared in 1933, and subsequent volumes in 1935 and 1936. After Dr. de Purucker's death, work on the series continued, and eventually 14 volumes of Blavatsky's Collected Writings, with revised editions of volumes 1 through 4, were published by the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, of the Adyar TS.

In 1930 Dr. de Purucker proposed an enlarged theosophical glossary which "must pass the test of scholarship and also meet the exacting test of fidelity to the universal wisdom-teaching as restated by H. P. Blavatsky" (Grace F. Knoche, Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary, Introduction). Most material was written by members of his Literary Committee, but as editor G. de Purucker reviewed every term, making corrections and additions until May 1941, and continuing to clarify various questions in 1942. This extensive glossary has not been thoroughly updated or printed, but the current working draft is available on the Theosophical University Press website.

The hallmark of Purucker's own writings is a panoramic presentation of the fundamental ideas of modern theosophy as given by H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers. Though sometimes considered controversial in his own time, particularly by theosophists of other organizations, his ideas and interpretations are firmly rooted in Blavatsky's writings; indeed, virtually everything he discussed can be found in her works, whether in passing or more fully developed. Again and again he appeals to readers to "break the molds of mind," to use their intuition and step beyond their limiting habits of thought. Particularly helpful in students' efforts to arrive at their own interpretations — not only of theosophic but of philosophic, religious, and scientific principles of all ages and cultures — is his thorough and clear explanation of technical terminology.

To rapidly meet the need for literature by G. de Purucker, transcripts were published of his ongoing public talks on Sunday afternoons at the Temple of Peace at the International Headquarters, where he would answer questions that were sent in to him. Two series totaling 84 lectures, delivered from July 1929 to April 1931, were published serially, and later collected, as Questions We All Ask. In many ways this original series reveals most clearly Purucker's personality. Theosophy and Modern Science (1930) and Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy (1932) were published from his two earlier lecture series, the latter first appearing in serial form in The Theosophical Path beginning in 1929. Headquarters staff member Geoffrey Barborka compiled two books from material in Purucker's speeches and talks: Golden Precepts of Esotericism (1931), which discusses the wonder of life, spiritual growth, selfless love, old age and death, and compassion; and Occult Glossary (1933), which explains some 300 terms frequently met with in theosophical writings, many from the Sanskrit. Purucker's two-volume The Esoteric Tradition appeared in 1935. It examines the universality of past and present spiritual ideas, concentrating particularly on karma, reincarnation, death and rebirth, and theosophy's relation to science, religion, and philosophy.

Purucker considered the Esoteric Section the heart of the Theosophical Society, and devoted a great deal of attention to its several degrees of students. As he told members in his Third General Letter of October 21, 1929:

Recollect, first, that the Head of the E. S. is one of the Masters of Wisdom and Compassion, or rather, I may say that there are two in fact who have, since H. P. B.'s time, devoted a certain amount of their energy and leisure from work still more sublime, to this. The E. S. is not merely a School in which the grander and more sublime and more profound teachings regarding the nature of the Universe and of Man and of the structure of each, are set forth, but more particularly is it intended to be a training School in Occultism, in Esotericism, in the Mystic Life, in the Life Beautiful; and the whole keynote of this esoteric training is self-forgetfulness in the service of others.
. . . those who are found in the future to be worthy, well qualified, and fit and ready, will be, in the very nature of things, placed in personal communication with either one of the great Teachers, or with one of that great Teacher's advanced chelas. This is a promise, but it is a promise of which the fulfillment depends wholly and entirely upon the E. S. student himself or herself. . . .
The situation, therefore, here lies briefly exposed to your scrutiny and merits your most careful and conscientious study. I repeat to you the words of one of the Sages of olden times, an Avatara: "Take, Eat!"

He remarked in 1931 that "In our Point Loma Society, teachings have been given that have not been promulgated for thousands of years, . . ." (The Theosophical Forum, Dec. 15, 1931, p. 91). Today we can participate vicariously in some of these original esoteric meetings through the three volumes of The Dialogues of G. de Purucker (1948), composed of edited transcripts of meetings held at the International Headquarters from 1929 to 1933, plus later supplementary material. (See "On the KTMG Papers"). Other ES meetings resulted in his Fountain-Source of Occultism (1974) which, as Grace F. Knoche explains,

derives from twelve booklets of instructions privately printed in 1936. These had been compiled by a small committee under Dr. de Purucker's supervision from the stenographic reports of esoteric meetings held by him from 1929 to 1933, to which he added certain relevant passages from his published works, as well as a copious amount of fresh material on a wide variety of subjects. — Fountain-Source of Occultism, p. vii

Its in-depth presentation of concepts in The Secret Doctrine deals with, among other subjects, the path of compassion, chelaship, space and maya, cosmogenesis, hierarchies, invisible worlds, death and the circulations of the cosmos, and analogies between the human and cosmic.

On the winter solstice in 1931 Purucker inaugurated a series of special esoteric gatherings at the International Headquarters, and later also at other national centers, to be held on each of the solstices and equinoxes. The material he wrote for these gatherings appears in The Four Sacred Seasons (1979).

Shortly after Purucker's death in 1942, there appeared three collections of his material not yet in book form: Messages to Conventions (1943), containing official messages and letters concerning TS policies and purposes; Wind of the Spirit (1944), containing inspirational and practical writings; and Studies in Occult Philosophy (1945), deeper philosophical presentations of theosophy.

Throughout G. de Purucker's administration public work expanded greatly, despite severe financial problems brought on by the Great Depression (see "A Herculean Task"). However, in his Sixteenth General Letter (December 3, 1934) he cautioned that the world was in a dangerous situation because of "much as yet unexhausted" European and American racial karma, and urged members as "our supreme present duty: to do our utmost to bring back to the consciousness of the humanity of our day a keen and lively sense of the inevitability of karmic retribution — a sense which humanity has almost lost — and to make universal this sense or feeling of our responsibility towards each other and towards our fellows . . ." As the 1930s continued, deteriorating political conditions began to have an adverse impact on theosophical activities. In Germany, for example, one member remembered that in the mid-1930s

the government in Germany had prohibited the Theosophical Society, and G. de P., who was our Leader then, gave us the message that during this period each member in Germany would have to become his own center, his own Theosophical Society. You must know that in that time, dear Companions, circumstances were very difficult in Germany. Everybody was seized by the Gestapo, and it was prohibited to write a letter to another companion, or to meet him; and if we did so it was demanded that we inform the Secret Police after the receipt of a letter or a visit of a companion. . . . We learned then what it meant to keep the cause of theosophy, and devotion for the cause of the Masters, alive in our hearts. And . . . to remain connected inwardly with the International Headquarters. — Karl Baer, General Congress TS, Liverpool, Aug. 1, 1955

The German Section continued reporting activities — publications, translations, children's work, attendance at conventions — until the middle of 1936, when all mention of a German Section disappeared from theosophical publications. By the end of the decade war began to engulf Europe and Pacific Asia, and it was increasingly challenging to keep up public work amidst the disruption and chaos. But work did go on, even in some occupied countries; for instance, two members of the Shanghai Lodge in China broadcast a series of 15-minute radio talks in 1941.

GdeP at his desk

In 1942, after more than a year of negotiations, Dr. de Purucker sold the Point Loma property and moved the headquarters to a more compact 41-acre facility near Covina, California. He died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months later on September 27, 1942. Previously he had left instructions for the Cabinet of the TS to administer the Society for up to three years if no Leader declared him or herself, and if necessary to fill the post by election at the end of that period. In 1945 the Cabinet elected Colonel Arthur L. Conger, head of the American Section, as Leader of The Theosophical Society.

G. de Purucker left an invaluable legacy in his in-depth exposition of the ancient wisdom, not only in its intellectual aspects but more particularly in its intuitive and ethical reaches. He sought to inspire his listeners and readers to establish a balance between intellect, compassion, and intuition and to direct the limited, self-centered aspects of themselves by their universal spiritual self. This union of the human being with the inner god is each individual's great task. To bring to as many people as possible this "Vision Sublime" of the spiritual realities behind the material universe, of which each of us is an inseparable part, was his goal.

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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