Theosophy: a brief introduction

A more formal inquiry into Theosophy. ~ Dara


The Theosophical Movement was a major religious movement that drew upon mystical sources to bring about a true cross-fertilization of ideas between the East and West. Theosophy has taken many forms and many faces over the three centuries of its influence. In 1928 at its height, the Theosophical Society (the major exponent of Theosophical thought in the West) boasted some 45,000 members worldwide (Johnson, p. 9) Theosophy had a deep and lasting impact upon mysticism in the West, as most New Age ideas can claim Theosophical ancestry.

Let's explore the history of the Theosophical Movement, as this was a major focus of Theosophical thought in the 19th and 20th centuries, beginning with the major events and personalities involved in the movement. Next, a description of the major concepts of Theosophy, including an analysis of the elements of mysticism embodied in this system. Then, a brief discussion of some of the movements and schools of thought inspired by the Theosophical Society. Finally, we shall consider some implications and conclusions drawn from Theosophical study.

Theosophy is a strange mixture of Eastern and Western religions, including but not limited to: Egyptology, Hinduism, Sufism, Sikhism, Buddhism, esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah) and Mystic Christianity. Its ecumenical focus brought together teachers of many different traditions in a sense of holism and brotherhood, in keeping with the ideals of Theosophy. As such, Theosophy can be seen as mysticism with a political agenda, as the world of action is fully engaged as the means for self-perfection. The self is changed and purified through changing and purifying the world.

The sources of the key concepts of Theosophy reflect an inner mystic tradition that has moved throughout history. The etymology of "Theosophy" is theos - meaning divine, and sophia - meaning wisdom. Theosophy, then translates as "Divine Wisdom." In Theosophy, the aspirants seek to gain divine wisdom by turning within and drawing on innate sources of knowledge, as well as external sources. Because of this strong mystical bent, there is a strong subjective element that has led to misunderstandings, schisms and charges of fraud. Much Theosophical material is steeped in subjective mystic revelations of an inner world that cannot be demonstrated by usual means, yet their message has appealed to and inspired multitudes down to our present day. Ultimately, Theosophists say that the verity of their claims must be grounded in personal experience of these states.


Theosophy has its roots in concepts gleaned from the French Enlightenment era. It includes a universal view of history, mythology and world religions without the deleterious effects of fundamentalism and Christian dominance (Johnson, p. 2). The age of revolutions, Freemasonry and Mesmerism all marked the emerging Theosophical movement, imparting the ideals of equality of access (as opposed to clerical elitism), unity of humanity and a taste for esoteric teachings. This nucleus was further nurtured by the Spiritualism Movement of the 19th century, in which mediumship and channeling was widely popular.

A seminal figure in the Theosophical Movement was a Russian emigre known as Madame Helena Petronva Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky, or HPB as she was known in Theosophic circles, made a name for herself as a travelogue and medium. She traveled to the "Orient" and studied with several masters, gurus and teachers before returning to Europe to found the Theosophical Society with Henry Steel Olcott, a prominent Rosicrucian, in 1875. HPB was said to be an initiate of several esoteric orders, including: the Masonic Rite of Memphis, the Secret Teachings of the Druze (an offshoot of Isma 'ili' Shi'ism), as well as a likely member of the Carbonari. Her erudition, spiritual pedigree and charisma attracted thousands to the mystical movement. HPB claimed to be in contact with certain "Hidden Masters" who ceaselessly worked for the union of humanity and divinity. HPB saw herself as the agent of these masters, also known as the Great White Brotherhood (see Part III for more on this), and primary guardian of the true occult tradition. (Johnson, p. 4) Using her psychic powers, HPB claimed to have personal access to the masters, who's instructions she channeled for the benefit of humanity. At the end of 1878, HPB and Olcott moved the Theosophical Society's world headquarters to Bombay, India.

In 1885, HPB was accused of fraud by a prominent member of the Society of Psychical Research, by the name of Richard Hodgson. This controversy caused a schism within the Theosophical Society, but did not lessen the movements wide appeal for long.

In 1888, HPB founded the "Esoteric Section" of the Theosophical Society to avoid attempts by Colonel Olcott to take over the Society. It is during this time that HPB wrote the three tomes for which she is best known – The Secret Doctrine, Isis Unveiled and The Voice of Silence. These books describe the holistic worldview of Theosophy, interweaving myth, mysticism and ancient teachings, which were to fuel the occult and New Age movements of the 20th century.

Upon her death in 1891, HPB named Dr. Annie Besant and William Q. Judge as co-heads of the Esoteric Section of Theosophical Society. Annie Besant and William Q. Judge had a very public falling out, during which the American chapter of the Theosophical Society split in 1898. In 1907, Colonel Olcott died, leaving Dr. Annie Besant in charge of the world-wide Theosophical Society. Dr. Besant brought in Charles W. Leadbeater, who further mythologized and hierarchialized HPB's and Annie Besant's mediumship. In that same year, Leadbeater discovered a young man, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who he proclaimed to be the long awaited World Teacher, who would bring enlightenment to a blinded humanity. Krishnamurti was endorsed by Dr. Besant and the Theosophical Society, who undertook Krishnamurti's education and preparation for his life's work.

In 1929, Krishnamurti denounced the claims of the Theosophical Society that he was the anticipated World Teacher at the height of a messianic craze. Krishnamurti denied the claims of Dr. Besant and Leadbeater, stating he was not a savior. Yet, Krishnamurti did accept the role of guru, even thought he spoke out against the need for any other guru than the inner guide, which each person has subjectively within. Krishnamurti rejected a belief in hidden masters and world teachers, but allowed the faithful Theosophists to attend him. There were some allegations of sexual misconduct of Krishnamurti with members of the Theosophical Society. But these charges did not diminish Krishnamurti's popularity through to the 1980s. (Johnson, p. 11)

HPB, founder of the Theosophical Society, asserted the existence of a mystic hierarchical brotherhood who worked to raise the level of consciousness on Earth. Krishnamurti, the hand-picked World Teacher, denies their existence, instead putting the onus on each individual to actualize their own beings through their own efforts and inner wisdom. So, do these masters really exist or are they imaginary creations of a mystic Russian madwoman? The subjectivity of the material make it difficult to make a rational assessment. As HPB and Krishnamurti both would probably say, each person must discover for themselves the truth of these claims....

Key Concepts

I have distilled nine key mystical concepts of Theosophy. This list is by no means comprehensive or complete. But it will provide a rough overview of some of the major tenets of Theosophy. Most if not all of these concepts will be familiar to many mystical aspects of all world religions. I shall endeavor to illustrate connections between Theosophical concepts and the mystic concepts found in other traditional approaches to mysticism.

1) Unity of Life

All life proceeds from one boundless, eternal, unknowable source. The Universe is seen as a living, organic, intelligent, divine whole – the One that becomes Many. This is similar to the Nature Mystics view of the oneness of nature and the Hindu view that the entire Universe emanates from the one god, Brahma. All things are perceived to be manifestations of a single essence – God. As such, all things, material and non-material, are seen as extensions of God, whether conscious of their divinity or not. This single essence permeates the cosmos, granting life, consciousness and growth to rocks, bugs, animals, humans, planets, solar systems and galaxies. This idea was the progenitor of the Gaia Principle of the New Age movement, in which the planet is seen as a living organism. (Farthing, p.1)

2) The Law of Cycles

The world exists in alternating cycles of manifestation and rest. Every evolutionary motion is followed by a period of rest, in which energy is gathered for the next motion. The cycle consists of what is called the Arc of Descent, or the movement of spirit into matter, and the Arc of Ascent, or the movement of matter into spirit. These cycles are akin to the in and out of the breath, as the Universe folds itself into manifestation and releases into consciousness. In Hinduism, they correspond to the Days and Nights of Brahma, in which the Universe is dreamed into existence when Brahma sleeps, but disappears upon the god's awakening. (Judge, p. 3)

3) Progressive Unfoldment of Consciousness

All things are evolving to greater levels of consciousness, be they mineral, plant, animal, human, planets, suns, solar systems, galaxies or universes. As all things are enbued with the one essence, so that single essence seeks ever higher expression. This corresponds to the idea of "climbing the Tree of Life" in Kabbalism (Jewish mysticism), in which all things are working, consciously or not, towards the attainment of the next sephiroth, the next rung on the ladder of evolution of consciousness.

4) Karma and Reincarnation

This principle derives out of Hinduism and Buddhism, and holds that all beings deserve their fate through their choices and actions. This is a cosmic law of cause and effect. It is an impersonal law that operates similarly to the law of gravity, not subject to interference by human or God. All choices and actions determine the conditions of life not only in this incarnation, but in future incarnations as well. This concept leads to an emphasis on morality, as all choices will have a result, so it is in one's self-interest to treat others as they would be treated. It is through the principle of Karma, enacted and fulfilled through multiple lives, that the evolving soul is purified and transformed.

5) Personal Responsibility

As we saw in the preceding concept, ethics and altruism is emphasized as in one's own best interest. This principle is seen in some form in all religions, and is summed up in Christianity as the Golden Rule, and in Judaism as Hillel's admonition to "do not to that which you would not have others do unto you." Ethics is seen as a means to awaken the higher self. This precept is radically egalitarian, as each individual is considered to have equal access to inner wisdom, without need to rely on priests or intermediaries. Universal brotherhood is based on the holism of the Universe. It is each individual's responsibility to do their part in helping the Universe to evolve through working on their own personal evolution. There is no separation between self and others, so that service is seen as an opportunity for personal growth and evolution through willing sacrifice. This concept is widespread in the New Age movement. (Farthing, p. 4)

6) Worlds within Worlds

The One manifests in multiple forms on infinite scales. The Universe is seen as an endless series of interpenetrating and interacting levels. This idea is very similar to the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah, in which each world has its own Tree of Life, and inside of each sephiroth is another tree, in an infinite regress. This idea of a multi-layered cosmos is also found in Gnosticism and Mystic Christianity. (Anon. p.4)

7) Analogy

Because of the unitary nature of the Universe, the same laws apply throughout the whole cosmos. "As Above, So Below, but like unto another manner." The same general principles permeate the Universe. Humanity is the Microcosm to God's Macrocosm. It is this principle of correspondence that allows humanity to come to know the nature of God through self-knowledge. This concept is found in all traditional forms of mysticism, although it is modified in Buddhism, which does not acknowledge the existence of a deity or a self. In Buddhism, one can come to know the true nature of reality, apart from samsara (or illusion) by turning within.

8) Hierarchy

The cosmos consists of a multi-leveled Universe, with a top-down power structure. On the planet Earth, the hierarchy consists of the Great White Brotherhood, a fraternity of inner adepts who have dedicated their lives to the project of evolution on this planet. The Great White Brotherhood shares its wisdom with initiates (such as HPB or Dr. Annie Besant), who then pass this wisdom on to the rest of humanity. This is very similar to Christian and Kabbalistic models of the Kingdoms of Heaven with the Orders of the Angels and the Four Worlds. (Achad, p. 28) This concept is prevalent in Gnosticism and Hermeticism. It is this doctrine that Krishnamurti found particularly distasteful and forcefully rejected, as he regarded this a clerical attempt to seek control over the spiritual progress of members of the Theosophical Society. (Johnson, p. 13)

9) The Nature of Humanity

Theosophical thought holds that humanity is in a privileged position on Earth, as only human (so far as we know) can self-reflect and thus have inner access to the higher orders of consciousness. Human nature is seen as a trinity of: 1) Body, 2) Soul and 3) Spirit. The Body is the realm of the senses, expressed by life energy and the lower mind. An aspirant must have a sound body and lower mind in order to reach any higher levels. The Soul is characterized as the higher mind, or the reincarnating ego that distills the lessons of multiple lives. The Spirit is the immortal monad/atman, which never departs from God. It is through this monad, or divine spark, that each being has direct access to the Whole (God). It is the Objective "I." According to Theosophic thought, we must have knowledge of these higher worlds in order to truly actualize our humanity. (Steiner, p. 18)

Offshoots and Successors

Many mystical and esoteric groups found their origins in Theosophy. I will name only a few known in the West.

Heirs to Theosophy include (but is not limited to):

  1. The Rites of Memphis and Mizram
  2. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor
  3. The Rosicrucian Society of America
  4. The Ordo Templi Orientis (Aleister Crowley's Hermetic group)
  5. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded by Israel Regardie)
  6. The Seekers of Inner Light (made famous by Dion Fortune and Gareth Knight)
  7. The Anthroposophical Society (founded by Rudolph Steiner)
  8. The Arcane School (founded by Alice A. Bailey)
  9. Summit Lighthouse (founded by Elizabeth Claire Prophet). (Johnson, p. 13 - 14)
Others less directly related but who share many similar Theosophical concepts are the Fourth Way schools founded by George I. Gurdjieff, the Seth Material channeled by Jane Roberts, as well as all other "channeled" teachings rife in the New Age movement, including the Course in Miracles, Abraham-Hicks, J.Z. Knight's Ramtha and Lazarus.

Conclusions and Implications

Like Krishnamurti, it becomes difficult to accept the existence of a divine hierarchy when those mouthpieces to whom God entrusted His wisdom are proven untrustworthy. But there are Sufi masters, known as the "Men of Blame," who do everything they can to discredit themselves, while maintaining the highest levels of consciousness. This is done for the benefit of their students, to prevent their followers from becoming too dependent upon them. In Zen Buddhism, this principle is found in the famous koan, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." This could be applied to HPB and Dr. Annie Besant, as well as Krishnamurti. And even if it was not a conscious effort on their part, if the hypothesis of an intelligent universe is followed, then it would seem to be a sometimes necessary step in the process if the students are to be encouraged to seek their own inner wisdom, without the mediation of teachers or gurus.

Theosophy popularized both mysticism and occultism, as both were seen as valid means of reaching the "Inner Planes." But it also discredited mysticism and occultism, as the movement's leaders endured accusations of fraud, and many promises made by prominent Theosophists, such as Dr. Annie Besant, failed to materialize.

Whether or not we accept the divine status of the channels through which this information became known, there is much to commend in Theosophy. The emphasis of unity, personal responsibility and ethics make it a practical belief system, worthy of serious consideration. The concept of interpenetrating planes of existence is shared by so many different forms of mysticism that it seems to be a fairly common mystic observation (i.e., so many mystics have had visions of these levels and the hierarchies that inhabit them, that it seems to be a key feature of mysticism in general), and so is unremarkable. Science is catching up with this idea with the Gaia Hypothesis, that holds that the planet is a network of interpenetrating ecosystems which combine to create an larger, intelligent system. The progressive unfoldment of consciousness gives aspirants hope for the future, as promised by the laws of karma and rebirth. We can keep trying until we finally get it right.

Theosophy is a truly ecumenical system that incorporates many of the best elements from East and West. Regardless of what is thought of the leadership of the movement, Theosophy allowed some of the first serious cultural cross-fertilization between the East and West. It is this movement that set the groundwork for the later blossoming of the Hindu/Christian hybrids of the 1960s, such as Bede Griffiths and Ram Dass. It is more fit for the active Western lifestyle, as all experiences are seen as grist for the consciousness mill. Aspirants need not withdraw from the world in order to work on their spirituality, indeed, the events and demands of life provide the opportunities for the application of Theosophic principles.

But if we are to take the Theosophical teachings seriously, then a whole cosmos of consciousness is "out there", awaiting our explorations. But only if we have the courage "To Know, To Will, To Dare, To Be Silent."


Achad, Frater Ancient Mystical White Brotherhood. 1976 Great Seal Press, Phoenix Arizona

Alder, Vera Stanley The Finding of the Third Eye. 1968 Samuel Weiser, Inc. York Beach, Maine

Anon. "What is Theosophy?"

Farthing, Geoffrey A. "Basic Ideas of Theosophy."

Godwin, Joscelyn The Theosophical Enlightenment. 1994 State University of New York Press, Albany

Johnson, K. Paul Initiates of Theosophical Masters. 1995 State University of New York Press, Albany

Judge, William Q. "An Epitome of Theosophy"

Krishnamurti, J. The Awakening of Intelligence. 1973 Avon Books, New York, NY

Steiner, Rudolph Theosophy. Originally published 1910, 1994 reprint Anthroposophy Press, New York, Gt. Barrington, MA

Wilber, Ken Up From Eden - A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. 1983 Shambhala Books, Boulder, CO

New! Comments

Have your say about what you just read! Leave a comment in the box below.

Ancient Wisdom Articles by Dara

A Glimpse at Some Ancient Greek Concepts

Seeking Wisdom: or, Looking for Socrates in All the Wrong Places

An Epicurean Manifesto

Theosophy: A Brief Introduction

Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction

Return to Consciousness

Return to
Province Of The Mind

Sign up to receive special offers, news and interesting tidbits for your mind!

Enter Your E-mail Address
Enter Your First Name (optional)

Don't worry — your e-mail address is totally secure.
I promise to use it only to send you Province of the Mind.

Ancient Wisdom Articles

A Glimpse at Some Ancient Greek Concepts

Seeking Wisdom: or, Looking for Socrates in All the Wrong Places

An Epicurean Manifesto

Theosophy: A Brief Introduction

Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction