Theosophy is a collection of mystical and occultist philosophies concerning, or seeking direct knowledge of the presumed mysteries of life and nature, particularly of the nature of divinity and the origin and purpose of the universe. Theosophy is considered part of Western esotericism, which believes that hidden knowledge or wisdom from the ancient past offers a path to enlightenment and salvation.
From the the term theosophy has generally been used to refer to the religio-philosophic doctrines of the Theosophical Society, founded in New York City in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, William Quan Judge, and Henry Steel Olcott. Blavatsky's major work, The Secret Doctrine (1888), was one of the foundational works of modern theosophy. As of 2015 , members of organizations descended from, or related to, the Theosophical Society were active in more than 52 countries around the world.[a] Modern theosophy has also given rise to, or influenced, the development of other mystical, philosophical, and religious movements.
Theosophy comes from the Greek theosophia (), which combines theos (?), "God" and sophia (), "wisdom", meaning "divine wisdom".
The term theosophia appeared (in both Greek and Latin) in the works of early church fathers, as a synonym for theology: the theosophoi are "those who know divine matters." The derived term theosophy was originally also a synonym for theology; however, it acquired various other meanings throughout its history. The adjective "theosophos" () "wise in divine things" was applied by Iamblichus to the gymnosophists (?), i.e. the Indian yogis or sadhus.
According to Blavatsky:
It comes to us from the Alexandrian philosophers, called lovers of truth, Philaletheians, from phil "loving," and aletheia "truth." The name Theosophy dates from the third century of our era, and began with Ammonius Saccas and his disciples, who started the Eclectic Theosophical system.
The term theosophy was used as a synonym for theology as early as the 3rd century C.E. The 13th century work Summa philosophiae attributed to Robert Grosseteste made a distinction between theosophers and theologians. In Summa, theosophers were described as authors only inspired by the holy books, while theologians like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Origen were described as persons whose task was to explain theosophy. Therefore, the terms were the opposite of the present-day meaning.
In Jewish mysticism, the theosophical doctrinal system of Kabbalah (Hebrew: "received tradition") emerged in late 12th-century southern France (the book Bahir), spreading to 13th-century Spain (culminating in the late 13th-century book Zohar). Kabbalah became the basis of later Jewish mystical development. The theosophical Kabbalah in Judaism was recast into its second version, Lurianic Kabbalah, in 16th-century Ottoman Palestine. From the Renaissance onwards, syncretic non-Jewish traditions of theological Christian Cabala and magical Hermetic Qabalah studied the Judaic texts, incorporating its system into their different philosophies, where it remains a central component of Western esotericism. Gershom Scholem, the founder of Jewish mysticism academia, saw Medieval and Lurianic Kabbalah as the incorporation into Judaism of Gnostic motifs, though interpreted strictly monotheistically. At the centre of Kabbalah are the 10 Sephirot powers in the divine realm, their unification being the task of man. In Lurianism, man redeems the sparks of holiness in materiality, rectifying the divine persona from its primordial exile.
During the Renaissance, use of the term diverged to refer to gnostic knowledge that offers the individual enlightenment and salvation through a knowledge of the bonds that are believed to unite her or him to the world of divine or intermediary spirits. Christian theosophy arose in Germany in the 16th century. Inspired to a considerable extent by the works of Paracelsus (1493-1541).. The term had not yet reached a settled meaning, however, as the mid-16th century Theosophia by Johannes Arboreus provided a lengthy exposition that included no mention of esotericism.
The work of the 17th-century German Christian mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-1624) strongly contributed to spread the use of the word "theosophy", even though Boehme rarely used the word in his writings. It is on account of the title of some of his works, but these titles appear to have been chosen more by the editors than by Boehme himself. Moreover, Boehme gave the word "theosophy" a limited meaning, making it clear that he was not conflating nature with God. There were relatively few theosophers in the 17th century, but many of them were prolific. Outside of Germany, there were also theosophers from Holland, England, and France. This group is represented by Jan Baptist van Helmont (1618-1699), Robert Fludd (1574-1637), John Pordage (1608-1681), Jane Leade (1623-1704), Henry More (1614-1687), Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), and Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680). Theosophers of this period often inquired into nature using a method of interpretation founded upon a specific myth or revelation, applying active imagination in order to draw forth symbolic meanings and further their pursuit of knowledge toward a complete understanding of these mysteries. In Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652), Kircher assigned the word theosophy to the metaphysics adhered to in ancient Egypt, and to Neo-Platonism, and thus he gave once again the word one of its most generally accepted meanings, that of divine metaphysics.
In the 18th century, the word theosophy came into more widespread use among some philosophers. However, the term "theosophy" was still "practically absent" throughout the entire eighteenth century in dictionaries and encyclopedias, where it only appeared more and more frequently beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. Theosophers themselves used the word theosophy sparingly, at least up until the middle of the nineteenth century.Johann Jakob Brucker (1696-1770) included a long chapter on theosophy in his monumental work Historia critica philosophia. (1741). He included theosophers alongside other currents in esotericism in what was then a standard reference in the history of philosophy. By the 18th century, the word theosophy was often used in conjunction with [clarify] The term theosophy is more properly reserved for the reverse process of contemplating the divine in order to discover the content of the concrete universe.
In England, Robert Hindmarsh, a printer with a Methodist background, formed a "Theosophical Society" in 1783, for translating, printing and distributing the writings of Swedenborg. This society was renamed in 1785 as "The British Society for the Propagation of the Doctrines of the New Church", consisting of Swedenborgian based beliefs.[b] In France, Denis Diderot gave the word theosophie more attention than other encyclopedias of this period by including an article on it in his Encyclopédie, published during the French Enlightenment. The article dealt mostly with Paracelsus and essentially plagiarized Brucker's "Historia".
Groups such as the Martinist Order founded by Papus in 1891, followed the theosophical current closely linked to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and Western esotericism. Theosophers outside of the initiate societies included people such as Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), whose views have been described as follows: "although empiricism and rationalism rest on false principles, their respective objective contents, external experience, qua the foundation of natural science, and logical thought, qua the foundation of pure philosophy, are to be synthesized or encompassed along with mystical knowledge in 'integral knowledge,' what Solovyov terms 'theosophy.'"
Theosophy actually designates a specific flow of thought or tradition within the modern study of esotericism. Thus, it follows the path starting from the more modern period of the 15th century onward. Faivre describes the "theosophic current" or theosophy as a single esoteric current among seven other esoteric currents in early modern Western thought (i.e., alchemy, astrology, Neo-Alexandrian Hermeticism, Christian Kabbalah, Paracelsism (i.e., the studying of the "prognostications" of Paracelsus), philosophia occulta and Rosicrucianism). Christian theosophy is an under-researched area; a general history of it has never been written.
Faivre noted that there are "obvious similarities" between earlier theosophy and modern Theosophy as both play an important part in Western esotericism and both claim to deal with wisdom from a gnostic perspective. But he says there are also differences, since they do not actually rely on the same reference works; and their style is different. The referential corpus of earlier theosophy "belongs essentially to the Judeo-Christian type", while that of modern Theosophy "reveals a more universal aspect". Although there are many differences between Christian theosophy and the Theosophical movement begun by Helena Blavatsky, the differences "are not important enough to cause an insurmountable barrier." When referring to the ideas related to Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, the word "Theosophy" is capitalized; otherwise it is not. Theosophy and theosophists refer to Blavatsky's philosophy while theosophy and theosophers refer to Christian theosophy. Some Theosophists were also theosophers. Blavatsky linked her use of the word theosophy to the Neoplatonists and Ammonius Saccas, rather than to the later Christian theosophers.
Theosophers engage in analysis of the universe, humanity, divinity, and the reciprocal effects of each on the other. The starting point for theosophers may be knowledge of external things in the world or inner experiences and the aim of the theosopher is to discover deeper meanings in the natural or divine realm. Antoine Faivre notes, "the theosophist dedicates his energy to inventing (in the word's original sense of 'discovering') the articulation of all things visible and invisible, by examining both divinity and nature in the smallest detail." The knowledge that is acquired through meditation is believed to change the being of the meditator.
Faivre identified three characteristics of theosophy. The three characteristics of theosophy are listed below.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 with the motto, "There is no Religion higher than Truth". Its principal founding members were Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), and William Quan Judge (1851-1896).
After several changes and iterations its declared objectives became the following:
The emblem of the Theosophical Society includes seven symbols of particular importance to the Society's symbology: 1) the motto of the Society; 2) a serpent biting its tail (ouroboros); 3) the swastika; 4) the hexagram; 5) the cruxansata (Ankh); 6) the pin of the Society, composed of crux ansata and serpent entwined, forming together "T.S.", and 7) Om (or aum). The seal of the Society contains all of these symbols, except aum, and thus contains, in symbolic form, the doctrines its members follow.
The Society was organized as a non-proselytizing, non-sectarian entity. Blavatsky and Olcott (the first President of the Society) moved from New York to Bombay, India, in 1878. The International Headquarters of the Society was eventually established in Adyar, a suburb of Madras. The original organization, after splits and realignments, has (as of 2011 ) several offshoots; all of them accept the three objectives above, and the precepts put forth by Blavatsky. Blavatsky was influential on spiritualism and related subcultures: "The western esoteric tradition has no more important figure in modern times."
Helena Blavatsky was a charismatic, unconventional and controversial woman of mixed Russian and German descent, who had travelled extensively; she became the major proponent of both theoretical and practical Theosophy. Since its inception, and through doctrinal assimilation or divergence, Theosophy has also given rise to or influenced the development of other mystical, philosophical, and religious movements. Following Blavatsky's death, disagreements among prominent Theosophists caused a series of splits and several Theosophical organizations emerged.[c] One successor of the original Society is as of 2011 known as the Theosophical Society Adyar. After a split in 1895, William Quan Judge established a Theosophical organization in New York City which later eventually moved to Pasadena, California. It is known as of 2011 as the Theosophical Society Pasadena. The latter split yet again; another Theosophical organization, the United Lodge of Theosophists was the result, formed by Robert Crosbie in 1909.
Contemporaries of Blavatsky, including William Quan Judge and Alfred Percy Sinnett, and later exponents have contributed to the development of this Theosophy, producing works that at times expanded on the original concepts.[d] Through the various Theosophical Societies and Organizations, Theosophy remains an active philosophical school with presences in more than 50 countries around the world.
During the 1890s and 1900s, the international leadership of the Adyar Society and their circle became increasingly convinced that the appearance of an "emissary" from the Spiritual Hierarchy was imminent; the expected emissary was further identified as the so-called World Teacher or Maitreya, originally by Leadbeater, who "discovered" fourteen-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986) as the entity's probable "vehicle". Krishnamurti was groomed extensively for his expected messianic role, and a new organization, the Order of the Star in the East (OSE), was formed in 1911 to support him in this mission. The project received widespread publicity and enjoyed worldwide following, chiefly among Adyar Theosophists. It also encountered opposition within and without the Theosophical Society, and contributed or led to years of upheaval, power struggles and doctrinal schism within Theosophy. Additional negative repercussions occurred in 1929, when Krishnamurti repudiated the messianic status claimed on his behalf and dissolved the OSE; soon after he severed ties with the Society and Theosophy in general. The adverse reactions and mixed publicity generated by the entire World Teacher Project, and especially by its demise and aftermath, damaged the standing of Theosophy and of its institutions. However, Krishnamurti eventually established a worldwide reputation as an original and respected independent speaker and thinker on spiritual and philosophical issues.
Contemporaries of Blavatsky, as well as later theosophists, contributed to the development of this school of theosophical thought, producing works that at times sought to elucidate the ideas she presented (see Gottfried de Purucker), and at times to expand upon them.[e] Since its inception, and through doctrinal assimilation or divergence, Theosophy has also given rise to or influenced the development of other mystical, philosophical, and religious movements.
During the two decades that followed the death of Blavatsky, a number of leading Theosophists expanded or reinterpreted her own and other theosophical works. Prominent among them were Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), then considered the Society's main occult investigator, and Annie Besant (1847-1933), who became the International President of the Society in 1907, following the death of Olcott. Some of their (and others') prolific commentaries and newly introduced concepts became subjects of doctrinal debate and dispute; dissidents charged them with straying from Theosophical orthodoxy and derisively labeled such works Neo-Theosophy. However, in later usage the term came to signify presumed theosophical or quasi-theosophical thought advanced by people not directly connected to the Theosophical movement or its institutions, especially former Theosophist Alice Bailey and groups associated with her; and also the people and organizations mentioned below under the heading New Age Movement.
G.R.S. Mead was an early Theosophist. In 1909 he resigned from the Theosophical Society which was Orientalist. Prior to his break from the Society Mead had already begun emphasizing sources from the Western esoteric tradition in his writing. Mead was among the first Theosophists to explicate a "'Western' theosophy deriving from Alexandrian and Hellenistic sources in the early centuries A.D."
During the 1920s the Theosophical Society Adyar had around 7,000 members in the United States. According to a Theosophical source, the Indian section in 2008 was said to have around 13,000 members while in the US the 2008 membership was reported at around 3,900.
The Theosophical Society Adyar was closely linked to the Indian independence movement: the Indian National Congress was founded across the street in 1885 during a Theosophical conference, and many of its leaders, including M. K. Gandhi were associated with Theosophy. However, Hindu spiritual teacher and leader Swami Vivekananda has criticized Theosophy and Theosophists.
Some early members of the Theosophical Society were closely linked to the Indian independence movement, including Allan Octavian Hume, Annie Besant and others. Hume was particularly involved in the founding of the Indian National Congress.
Rudolf Steiner, head of the German branch of the Theosophical Society in the early part of the 20th century, disagreed with the Adyar-based international leadership of the Society over several doctrinal matters including the so-called World Teacher Project (see above). Steiner left the Theosophical Society in 1913 to promote his own theosophy-influenced philosophy, which he called Anthroposophy, through a new organization, the Anthroposophical Society; the great majority of German-speaking members of the Theosophical Society joined the newly formed Anthroposophical Society.
The present-day New Age movement is said to be based to a considerable extent on original Theosophical tenets and ideas. "No single organization or movement has contributed so many components to the New Age Movement as the Theosophical Society. ... It has been the major force in the dissemination of occult literature in the West in the twentieth century."
Other organizations loosely based on Theosophical texts and doctrines include the Agni Yoga, and a group of religions based on Theosophy called the Ascended Master Teachings: the "I AM" Activity, The Bridge to Freedom and The Summit Lighthouse, which evolved into the Church Universal and Triumphant. These various offshoots dispute the authenticity of their rivals.
Scholar Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote his thesis, Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom, on the subject - the first instance in which an individual obtained his doctorate with a thesis on Theosophy. It can called also Olav Hammer's and Arnold Kalnitsky's doctoral dissertations (in 2000 and in 2003 respectively).
Artists and authors who investigated Theosophy include Talbot Mundy, Charles Howard Hinton, Geoffrey Hodson, James Jones,H. P. Lovecraft, and L. Frank Baum. Composer Alexander Scriabin was a Theosophist whose beliefs influenced his music, especially by providing a justification or rationale for his chromatic language. Scriabin devised a quartal synthetic chord, often called his "mystic" chord, and before his death Scriabin planned a multimedia work to be performed in the Himalayas that would bring about the armageddon; "a grandiose religious synthesis of all arts which would herald the birth of a new world." This piece, Mysterium, was never realized, due to his death in 1915. Leonid Sabaneyev, in his book Reminiscences about Scriabin (1925), wrote that The Secret Doctrine and journals "Bulletin of theosophy" constantly were on Scriabin's work table. Scriabin reread The Secret Doctrine very carefully and marked the most important places with a pencil.[f] Artists reported to be Theosophists were Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.
Blavatsky presented her book The Voice of the Silence, The Seven gates, Two Paths to Leo Tolstoy. In his works, Tolstoy used the dicta from the theosophical journal Theosophischer Wegweiser. In his diary, he wrote on 12 February 1903, "I am reading a beautiful theosophical journal and find many common with my understanding."
As Revised in Session of the General Council, all the Sections being represented, at Adyar, December 27, 1890