The history of the modern day Theosophical Movement centers around H. P. Blavatsky and her public activity between the years 1874 and 1891. This period can be divided into three main sections:
- 1873-1878, centered in America;
- 1879-1885, centered in India;
- 1885-1891, centered in England.
Following the passing of Blavatsky the movement branched out, with greatly varying activities all over the world.
The Founding of the Theosophical Society
What is commonly referred to as the “Theosophical Movement” began officially and outwardly in 1875 with the founding of the Theosophical Society (T.S.) by Helena P. Blavatsky, Henry S. Olcott, William Q. Judge, and others in New York city.
Blavatsky had been sent to America in 1873 by her teachers “for the purpose of organizing a group of workers on a psychic plane.” She was directed to attend seances at the famous Eddy homestead where she met Olcott. Their experiences with the Eddys were recounted in Olcott’s book People from the Other World.
Over the following year Blavatsky was ordered by her teachers to begin disseminating some aspects of their philosophy (see CW 1:89). Some of this was done through spiritualist magazines, most notably in partnership with the Spiritual Scientist, operated by Gerry Brown. About a year after meeting Olcott, and after having drawn around herself a group of people interested in occultism (see the “Miracle Club”), Blavatsky “received orders from her Master and Teacher to form the nucleus of a regular Society.” Beginning in September of 1875 the foundations of what would become the Theosophical Society were laid.
For some details, see:
The Theosophical Society: Formation
“Preamble of the Theosophical Society”
“Inaugural Address of the President-Founder of the Theosophical Society”
“The Theosophical Society: Its Origin, Plan and Aims”
The T.S. was established with certain fundamental objectives. H. P. Blavatsky explained thus:
“In order to leave no room for equivocation, the members of the T. S. have to be reminded of the origin of the Society in 1875. Sent to the U.S. of America in 1873 for the purpose of organizing a group of workers on a psychic plane, two years later the writer received orders from her Master and Teacher to form the nucleus of a regular Society whose objects were broadly stated as follows:
1. Universal Brotherhood;
2. No distinction to be made by the member between races, creeds, or social positions, but every member had to be judged and dealt by on his personal merits;
3. To study the philosophies of the East—those of India chiefly, presenting them gradually to the public in various works that would interpret exoteric religions in the light of esoteric teachings;
4. To oppose materialism and theological dogmatism in every possible way, by demonstrating the existence of occult forces unknown to science, in nature, and the presence of psychic and spiritual powers in man; trying, at the same time to enlarge the views of the Spiritualists by showing them that there are other, many other agencies at work in the production of phenomena besides the “Spirits” of the dead. Superstition had to be exposed and avoided; and occult forces, beneficent and maleficent—ever surrounding us and manifesting their presence in various ways—demonstrated to the best of our ability.”
(see “The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society, by H. P. Blavatsky,” Collected Writings, Vol. VII, p. 145-171)
These objectives were adjusted several times during the early years of the Theosophical Society, and generally found themselves expressed as three main objects. For instance, as of 1890, the three fundamental objects had been refined to the following:
1. To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
2. To promote the study of Aryan and other Eastern literatures, religions, philosophies and sciences, and to demonstrate their importance to Humanity.
3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the psychic powers latent in man.
For some of that history, along with records of different iterations of the objects, see:
The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society (pp. 243-250) by C. Jinarajidasa
“Our Directives: A Study of the Evolution of the ‘Objects of the T.S.’—from 1875 to 1891” by Grace F. Knoche
Objects of the Theosophical Society
Early Work of the Theosophists
In these early years, the activities of the T.S. were kept largely secret, with membership involving certain pledges (see “To the Public”). The outward and publicized activities of the T.S. and its members centered largely around participation in aspects of the Spiritualist movement in America—in particular, theosophists levelled criticisms against specific claims and assumptions that formed the basis of the Spiritualist’s belief systems (see early theosophical writings on spiritualism). Theosophists, headed by Blavatsky and Olcott, did not deny the validity of some of the phenomena claimed by the Spiritualists (at the same time acknowledging instances of fraud), but denied the explanations they offered for such phenomena. The theosophists also pushed back against outright denunciations of all spiritualistic phenomena, whether those were based on strict materialism or religious dogmas.
One notable effort the early theosophists made to encourage a more scientific approach to spiritualistic phenomena was to gather and test mediums under scientific conditions. This was done by accepting applications by mediums willing to be tested (see “A Card to the American Public”). An agreement was then established with a group of Russian scientists in St. Petersburg, where the theosophists would send them a medium to be rigorously tested. Blavatsky, Olcott and others tested mediums in New York and settled upon sending Henry Slade to Russia. Slade was then tested in Russia and subsequently in Germany by Professor Zöllner (see “Dr. Slade’s Final Triumph”).
The theosophists thus placed themselves in the middle of two warring factions—Spiritualists and Materialists—and simultaneously between the two major forces of the day—Religion and Science. It is in Blavatsky’s early criticisms—of the spiritualists and religionists on the one hand and materialistic scientists on the other—that we find the first fragments of Theosophical doctrine made public.
A few ideas formed the core of the positions taken by the early theosophists. These include:
- that while paranormal phenomena do occur, they are misunderstood and their causes are misattributed;
- that there is such a thing as Occult Science, an anciently known system which can and does adequately explain such phenomena;
- that those who know and practice this science exist in the world as part of an organized “Brotherhood” of Adepts, who have existed from time immemorial and whose teachings lay behind the major religious and spiritual philosophies of the world;
- that Man is a composite being, not merely an animal body, nor limited to the duality of body and soul, but far more complex.
These, and related ideas, were first prominently argued by Blavatsky in her book Isis Unveiled in September of 1877.
During 1876 both Blavatsky, Olcott and the T.S. had withdrawn from much of their former public activity. In Spring-Summer of 1876 the founder’s relationship with the Spiritual Scientist periodical came to an end. In August, Blavatsky and Olcott moved into an apartment in New York which would become known as the “Lamasery,” where they would routinely entertain guests in the evenings, discussing occult and theosophical subjects. In November the T.S. ceased with official meetings. Only a few articles appear during 1876 and 1877, while Blavatsky spent most of her writing time working on Isis Unveiled. After the publication of her book, Blavatsky was thrust into a larger spotlight for a time, but overall the public activities of the movement remained minimal, and would remain such through 1878.
During these formative years Blavatsky had also been explaining her teacher’s philosophy to some members of the T.S. more directly, and had begun to speak more openly about the existence of the Adept Brotherhood. She had also begun an important process of gradually unfolding the occult perspective on the nature of Man. In many ways, the early years in America were years of sowing seeds, with the introduction of some key ideas, challenges to existing dogmas, and gathering of a handful of workers for future harvests.
The Adepts Make Themselves Known to a Select Few
It was during these years that Col. Olcott was introduced to certain Adepts—both eastern and western—some of whom were Blavatsky’s early teachers, and all of whom were working together to further the Theosophical Movement. These Adepts were living men, members of a world-wide fraternity or Brotherhood. When considered in general they preferred to be called “Brothers,” and when considered in the context of their role as teachers or gurus, they were often referred to by Blavatsky and others as “Masters.” Through his direct experience with these Adepts, Olcott became convinced of the beneficence of their work and pledged himself to work alongside Blavatsky for the furtherance of the Theosophical cause. He then became a chela (disciple) of the same Adept who was Blavatsky’s Master. A handful of others at the time were also introduced either directly to the Adepts, or at the very least to the idea and ideal of Adeptship. One notable example is William Q. Judge, one of the co-founders of the Theosophical Society, who at this time was also directly introduced to the Adepts, and who also became a chela to one of the Masters.
The Path of Adeptship—from our initial yearnings towards a more purposeful life, through initiations and discipleship, and on to the full Mahatma (“great soul”)—is of central import in the teachings of the “Brothers.” This subject was so central to Blavatsky and her mission that you could not be in her presence and avoid it. As Charles Johnston wrote:
“One simply could not know Mme. Blavatsky without getting one’s mind full of adepts and initiations, and reincarnations, and elementals, and mysteries, whether lost or found. These things were the air she breathed, and made you breathe, or smother. One had the feeling, in her presence, that it was quite unfashionable not to have been initiated,—like wearing a hat of a by-gone day, in a well-dressed crowd. So she gave you the sense of the Occult World,—the other half of things, and more than half; and reduced to due humility this self-assertive world we are all so fond of.”—“The Lord of the Three Worlds,” 1898
Man as a Trinity of Spirit, Soul and Body
One of the most important early points insisted upon by Blavatsky was the distinction between Spirit and Soul. Prior to this, Christianity had promulgated a view of man as a simple duad—body and soul. The result over centuries was that nearly all westerners, including the spiritualists, believed the terms “soul” and “spirit” to be synonyms.
“It was at the very beginning of a new cycle, in days when neither Christians nor Spiritualists ever thought of, let alone mentioned, more than two principles in man—body and Soul, which they called Spirit. If you had time to refer to the spiritualistic literature of that day, you would find that with the phenomenalists as with the Christians, Soul and Spirit were synonymous. It was H.P.B., who, acting under the orders of Atrya (one whom you do not know) was the first to explain . . . the difference there was between psyche and nous, nefesh and ruach—Soul and Spirit. She had to bring the whole arsenal of proofs with her, quotations from Paul and Plato, from Plutarch and James, etc. before the Spiritualists admitted that the theosophists were right.”—Mahatma K.H. to A.P. Sinnett in 1882 (see Mahatma Letter No. 81).
For the work of Blavatsky on this front, see Isis Unveiled, “Before the Veil,” etc.; and the articles “Madame Blavatsky on the Views of the Theosophists,” “Madame Blavatsky on Indian Metaphysics,” and “Erroneous Ideas Concerning the Doctrines of the Theosophists.”
Blavatsky’s insistence on Man as a trinity of Spirit, Soul and Body, was a key element in addressing shortcomings in the Spiritualist philosophy (in particular the details of after-death states), and paved the way for the later introduction of the theosophical view of Man as a sevenfold being (which simply expands on the tripartite approach).
In this we see that one of the most important fragments of Occult Science given out to the world under the banner of Theosophy is the vision of Man as a composite being. This idea is absolutely critical to a proper understanding of several related occult doctrines, most notably the teachings on after death states, reincarnation and karma. The composite nature of Man is also fundamental to understanding the occult views on evolution. Man as a complex being composed of several parts, conjoined during life, separated after death, is a teaching that is returned to again and again in theosophical literature, and it is upon this doctrine that hinges much of the rest. Blavatsky’s teachers had to introduce this idea gradually to the world, beginning first by marking the distinction between Spirit and Soul, and then later (see below) by expanding on the nature of what composes both Soul and Body.
Connection with the Arya Samaj
The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand Sarasvati, who taught the inner meaning of the Vedas (See Dayanand’s Rigvedadi Bhashya Bhumika, his commentary or introduction to the Vedas) and who was working towards returning India to authentic Vedic values through educational and societal reforms. “Among the reforms supported are eradication of child marriage and untouchability; reform of the caste system to be based on merit rather than birth; opposition to idol worship, animal sacrifice, and temple offerings; and equality of women. Adherents believe in one supreme being of whom Aum is the proper name, and in the equality of all human beings.” (see Arya Samaj.)
The Arya Samaj had an intimate relationship with the early Theosophical Society, beginning in 1878, even to the point of temporarily merging the two entities into one. Swami Dayanand was highly praised by Blavatsky and others, and for four years the Theosophists and Arya Samajists worked together in mutual sympathy.
The Founders Leave America
At the end of 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott left America and traveled to India. William Q. Judge, Abner Doubleday and others remained in NY to carry on the activities of the T.S. in America. However, the main focus and effort of the movement became centered in India over the coming years, and most T.S. activity (at least outwardly) all but ceased in America (see below for the resurgence of T.S. activity in America under W. Q. Judge’s leadership).
Upon arrival in India, Olcott engaged in several speaking tours, which drew much attention towards the theosophical cause (some of these were later collected and printed in A Collection of Lectures on Theosophy etc., 1883). In addition to his lecturing in India, Olcott engaged in work to revive the study and practice of Buddhism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which work has had a lasting influence both on that island and within Southern (or Theravada) Buddhism overall. During this time Olcott wrote The Buddhist Catechism (1881). On one of their visits to Sri Lanka, both Olcott and Blavatsky formally “took Pancasila,” i.e. the “Five Precepts,” thus formally identifying themselves as lay Buddhists according to the southern school.
In 1879 Blavatsky began publishing the first theosophical periodical, the Theosophist. As its editor, she now had a platform in which to demonstrate the theosophical position on various topics and issues, and it is in the Theosophist that we find the first direct explanations of what theosophy is and what are some of its key doctrines. The first two articles printed set the keynote, see: “What is Theosophy?” and “What are the Theosophists?”
Over the first couple of years in India many new branches of the T.S. were formed in quick succession, and the movement became vibrant and active. Both Blavatsky and Olcott drew much attention to the movement, and several people who would become well known in theosophical circles joined the Society. Among these were two Englishmen and two native Hindus, each of which would play key roles in shaping the direction of the movement and the unfolding of theosophical doctrines.
A. P. Sinnett and A. O. Hume
Sinnett and Hume were two Englishmen living in India at the time of Blavatsky and Olcott’s arrival and subsequent theosophical activity. Sinnett was the editor of The Pioneer newspaper, while Hume was an officer in the Bengal Civil Service. Both men were put in touch with two Adept-Brothers who were playing a central role behind the scenes of the theosophical movement. Sinnett and Hume entered into a correspondence with these Brothers (in late 1880) and were thereby taught certain fragments of the Brotherhood’s science and philosophy. At the same time, these two Brothers allowed their names to be used publicly, and became much more outwardly engaged in the activities of the Theosophical Society. Their correspondence with Sinnett and Hume became the launching point for their dissemination of certain doctrinal fragments into the world. Both Hume and Sinnett were permitted and encouraged to formulate their own understanding of those fragments and to present those publicly.
These years in India are also marked by the performance of what in today’s terminology we might call “paranormal phenomena” by H. P. Blavatsky. Sinnett, Hume, their wives, and several others were witness to these phenomena. In addition to this, Olcott, through the assistance of the Brothers, performed occult healing during his lecture tours. Other theosophists at the time were also treated to displays of occult phenomena. The correspondence between Sinnett and the Brothers was often itself performed through occult means, by the “precipitation” of letters. The exemplification of occult or paranormal phenomena by the Brothers, Blavatsky, Olcott and others, played an important role in convincing people like Sinnett and Hume of the genuineness of the Brothers and their knowledge.
The Occult World (1881)
The earliest public result of the above-mentioned correspondence and phenomena was Sinnett’s book The Occult World, in which he introduced the world more directly to the existence of the occult Brotherhood, and in which he recounted some of the phenomena witnessed by himself and others.
The popularity of the book spurred public debate on the claims made in its pages and elsewhere by Sinnett, Blavatsky, Olcott, Hume and others, especially in regards to the existence of the Brothers and the exercise of occult powers by them and by Blavatsky. This debate involved articles and letters published in various magazines and newspapers. In 1882 Sinnet published a 2nd edition of The Occult World in which he addressed some of this public debate, and in 1884 he again published a 4th edition with corrections and annotations. The public debate also encouraged Hume to enter the fray and publicly support the claims made by Sinnett. Hume began two series of writings, both of which involved his replies to specific letters of criticism. These two series were titled “Fragments of Occult Truth,” published serially in Blavatsky’s magazine The Theosophist, and “Hints on Esoteric Theosophy,” published in booklet form under the auspices of the Theosophical Society.
Fragments of Occult Truth (1882-1883)
While Hume had been given direct evidence of the existence of the Brothers, and did not doubt that existence, he did not agree with several of the methodologies and rules under which the Brotherhood operates, and this put him into repeated conflict with both the Brothers and their Chelas. This consistent friction eventually resulted in fracturing his relationship with the Mahatmas and the Theosophical Society.
In the fall of 1882 Hume resigned his post in the Simla Branch of the Society (see his Sept. 9th Letter to Blavatsky). The process of Hume leaving the movement is partly recounted in The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett (begin with Letter No. 16 and follow chronologically), and The Mahatma Letters (begin around Letter No. 85b and follow chronologically); see especially Mahatma Letter 43, in which we find K.H. withdrawing from his role as Hume’s teacher. For some of the public details, see the articles “C.C.M.” and Isis Unveiled and A Protest (Sept., 1882), along with the correspondence sections of the Theosophist in Oct-Nov 1882, and “A Personal & An Impersonal God,” Dec., 1882, with the reply article by T. Subba Row, Feb, 1883.
Following Hume’s departure, Sinnett stepped in to continue the “Fragments of Occult Truth” series, following up with five more articles. Thus in this series, Fragments 1-3 are by Hume, and Fragments 4-8 are by Sinnett. Sinnett’s efforts represent the first really successful presentation of the teaching of the Brothers. Along with Sinnett’s articles there appeared an Appendix on Devachan authored by K.H., and an Appendix on Karma attributed to Blavatsky. This series marks the first real attempt to systematically lay out certain occult doctrines. They garnered much attention and began an extensive conversation in theosophical literature on several core topics.
All these efforts culminated when Sinnett compiled all he had learned from his teacher thus far and published them in book form. Much of the content of the “Fragments of Occult Truth” were incorporated into that book.
Esoteric Buddhism (1883)
Sinnett titled his book Esoteric Buddhism, a title that would cause a bit of a stir and would lead to some mistaken notions among theosophists, who began to equate Theosophy with known forms of Buddhism. In addition to the issue of the title, the fact of Sinnett being a very new student of occultism meant that he made certain mistakes in his interpretations of the teachings he had recieved. These mistaken notions would be later addressed directly by H. P. Blavatsky in her book The Secret Doctrine:
“Since the appearance of Theosophical literature in England, it has become customary to call its teachings ‘Esoteric Buddhism.’ . . . [which has led to] the prevailing double mistake (a) of limiting Theosophy to Buddhism, and (b) of confounding the tenets of the religious philosophy preached by Gautama, the Buddha, with the doctrines broadly outlined in Esoteric Buddhism. Any thing more erroneous than this could be hardly imagined. . . . Esoteric Buddhism was an excellent work with a very unfortunate title . . .” (SD 1:xvii)
“Esoteric Buddhism is . . . an excellent book, and has done still more excellent work. But this does not alter the fact that it contains some mistaken notions, and that it has led many Theosophists and lay-readers to form an erroneous conception of the Secret Eastern Doctrines. Moreover it seems, perhaps, a little too materialistic.” (SD 1:160)
In the Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky would dedicate a small section to dealing with some of Sinnett’s mistakes, where she clarifies the real occult teachings (see SD 1:152 etc.)
Blavatsky and her Teachers also made sure to explain to theosophists that the teachings embodied in Sinnett’s book were but fragments of the full doctrines, and by no means a complete system in themselves. Sinnett himself understood this much, but not all theosophists understand just how fragmentary the teachings given are. Here, for instance, is a selection from a letter by Blavatsky to Sinnett touching on this topic:
“You must know that instead of Esoteric Doctrine you have but half-a-dozen of stray pages, picked at random out of the six-and-thirty volumes of the secret books of Khinti [kiu-ti?]; that there are gaps between every tenet none of which is complete; and you have been told by the Mahatma in letters you showed us and told by me many times that you could not expect to be given that which pertains only to initiation. No Lay chela can get it nor can one understand the thing properly. Even about Devachan, something you have been explained more thoroughly than anything else, you have very vague ideas about it, I see. As ‘Fragments’ of Occult Science you have succeeded admirably and can claim to have given out to the world crumbs of genuine occult doctrines. As a whole—Esoteric Buddhism cannot of course be considered such, nor have you ever claimed it as far as I know to be the alpha and the omega of our Doctrine.” (BL 28)
However, the bulk of the teachings given in Esoteric Buddhism were favorably reviewed by Blavatsky and her teachers, and the book would become a staple among early theosophists. In his book, Sinnett would outline the main points on several key teachings, including: the Brothers or Mahatmas, the Constitution of Man, the Planetary Chain and our Evolution as a “Tide-Wave,” the teachings on after death states known as Kamaloka and Devachan, the nature of Adeptship and Nirvana, and the doctrine of Cycles.
Following its publication, theosophists around the world began to inquire about the Brothers and their teachings. One of these inquiries was singled out by the Mahatmas and replied to at length in the Theosophist. See: “Some Inquiries Suggested by Mr. Sinnett’s ‘Esoteric Buddhism’,” Theosophist, Sept., 1883 along with its numerous replies. The replies, written by the Brothers and their Chelas, address some very interesting aspects of occult teachings, as contrasted against the sciences of their time. Topics addressed included: the nebular theory, the nature of the Sun, the evolution of the monad, along with some historical issues, most notably the real date of Gautama Buddha and Sankaracharya drawn from the occult records.
All of the above writings and more (see the early Theosophist), gave an outline of certain occult doctrines that would become the basis of nearly all theosophical teachings given during the time in which the Brothers were publicly active in the T.S. In particular, the terminology and enumerations chosen by Sinnett became the standard for all public writings that followed.
For more context on the teachings given to Hume and Sinnett and outlined in the above-mentioned articles and books, see “Observations” by T. Subba Row.
Some of the central Teachings Introduced at this time include:
Man as a Septenary Being
The earlier distinction between Spirit and Soul and the resulting view of Man as a trinity (spirit, soul, body), made possible the introduction of a sevenfold view of Man. First, the notion of the body had to be explained in more detail, and the existence of an “astral body” introduced. To this is then added the fundamental life-force as a principle in itself. Soul must then also be viewed as composed of parts, or of different principles. Similarly to the Platonic approach, the theosophical view proposes three distinct “souls” in Man: the Spiritual Soul, the Human Soul, and the Animal Soul; or as they are given as principles: Buddhi, Manas, and Kama. The threefold view of Man is thus ultimately expanded into a sevenfold view, with Spirit or Self (Atma), three distinct “Souls”, and three principles related to form (Life-force, along with an Astral and a Physical Body).
For more, see: The Constitution of Man.
After Death States
The two post-mortem states (part of the overall Reincarnation cycle), called Kamaloka and Devachan, were outlined by Sinnett and later expanded upon by other writers, including Blavatsky. The teachings address what happens to each of the principles of the human constitution after the death of the physical body. The details given of these processes and conditions were instrumental in addressing the philosophical shortcomings not only in western religions and spiritualism, but also in the popular exoteric versions of Hindu and Buddhist teachings.
For more, see: Life After Death.
The Planetary Chain and Evolution
This is one of the more fascinating teachings of theosophy—that our physical Earth belongs to a system of globes that exist together on multiple planes of consciousness and substance, and that Man evolves in a cyclical or helicoidal fashion on and through these globes. Sinnett first gave the overall outline of these teachings, but this is one of the areas where he made some honest mistakes in his interpretations, which were later corrected and expanded upon by Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine.
The Path of Adeptship
Blavatsky, Olcott, Sinnett and several others laid the foundations for the modern theosophical view of Adeptship through their lectures and writings. This involves teachings as to the nature of the Brothers (or Mahatmas), the process of probationary and accepted Chelaship (discipleship), the idea of initiations, involving higher states of consciousness, subtler bodies in our constitution, and so on. It is a comprehensive teaching that was only really outlined by the Brothers, with very few real details given or explained.
These teachings were later embodied in Blavatksy’s The Voice of the Silence.
For more, see: The Path of Adeptship.
The Ideal of Chelaship
The Theosophical movement was established, in part, to impress certain ideals upon the minds of the public. One of these ideals is that of the Chela—the student or disciple on the path of Adeptship. In the early days of the Theosophical Society, there were several prominent Chelas working directly for the movement. Among these the most prominent were, of course, Blavatsky and Olcott. In addition to them, there was W. Q. Judge in New York, along with well known workers in India such as Mohini Chatterji, Babaji, Subba Row, Damodar Mavalankar, Bhavani Shankar, Djual Khool, S. Ramaswamier, etc.
To become a Chela is no casual matter. It is portrayed as a path of extreme difficulty, as one must stand face-to-face with their own inner demons, and, “either conquer or fail.” Some of the above-mentioned seem to have been succesful, while others failed at some stage on their path. But the ideal was both explained and demonstrated, and a lasting impression made. The ideal of the Chela remains today a central pillar of the theosophical movement.
For many students of theosophy, Damodar K. Mavalankar stands out as an exemplification of the Chela ideal. Damodar was a Brahmin by birth, but upon joining the T.S. he renounced his caste and the expectations placed on him by his family, becoming casteless and independent (see his article “Castes in India”). Shortly after, he took Pancasila with Olcott and Blavatsky, thus formally identifying himself as a lay Buddhist. He became a Chela of the Master K.H. and worked tirelessly for the movement. His writings are full of the most practical aspects of the path, and he demonstrated uprightness and high moral integrity in every task he undertook.
Following the tumultuous months at the end of 1884 and early 1885 (see below), Damodar was called by his Master to the Himalayas, apparently to continue his path and become prepared for some further work for the Brotherhood. He left in late February, 1885, and did not return. The circumstances of his departure and travel to Tibet are partly recounted in Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves, Vol. 3, pp. 253-268.
For biographies and his writings, see: Damodar K. Mavalankar.
T. Subba Row and Esoteric Vedanta
Another influential figure during the early years of the movement in India was T. Subba Row, an esoteric Advaita Vedantin and Chela to the same Master as H. P. Blavatsky. Subba Row wrote several articles for Blavatsky’s magazine The Theosophist, which garnered him a great deal of attention and respect. Throughout his writings he explains aspects of the esoteric Vedanta teachings, differing in many particulars from the common exoteric Vedanta doctrines. Among the most popular of his writings are his Notes on the Bhagavad Gita, The Aryan-Arhat Esoteric Tenets on the Sevenfold Principles in Man, The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, Sri Sankaracharya’s Date and Doctrine, etc.
In contrast to Damodar, however, Subba Row—who was a Smartava Brahmin—retained his caste and held strongly to some traditional aspects of their orthodoxy, most notably being their position of exclusivity in regards to esoteric teachings. This position—one also held by other Brahmin members of the early T.S.—caused some friction between himself and others, such as A. P. Sinnett and later H. P. Blavatsky.
Beginning in 1885, he and Blavatsky began an ongoing debate about the teachings of the principles of Man, with Blavatsky arguing in favor of the sevenfold constitution and Subba Row arguing in favor of the common fourfold view of the Taraka Raja Yoga system. The debate highlighted both the similarities and differences in approach between the two systems and allowed for the subject to be unfolded in more depth. However, behind the public statements in this debate there was much that could not be said by either party, owing to pledges of secrecy each had made in regards to certain doctrines, some of which would be later clarified by Blavatsky to her esoteric students.
In addition to this debate, Blavatsky had hoped to have help from Subba Row in her later work on The Secret Doctrine, however he ultimately refused to help. Two main reasons have been cited for this: first, that Subba Row found the early draft to be “so full of mistakes that if he touched it he should have to rewrite it altogether” (Old Diary Leaves, Vol. 3, p. 398); and second, that “as a Brahman, he strongly disapproved of H.P.B.’s revelation of some of the inner meanings of the Hindu scriptures, hitherto concealed in the secrecy of the temples and utterly unsuspected by outside scholars” (Charles J. Ryan, H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement).Ultimately, these and related issues caused Subba Row to withdraw and finally resign from the Theosophical Society. In 1890 he fell ill, and in June of that year he passed away.
For many theosophists, Subba Row’s life serves as a unfortunately tragic tale, full of lost potential and hope (see, for instance, his aspirations to help real esoteric Advaita to spread in India—ref. BL 166). However, his writings have had well-deserved influence on the movement and he continues to be held in high regard in the theosophical community.
Opposition to the Theosophists
During the years in which Blavatsky resided in India there was constant warring between the theosophists and several groups. Arraigned against the theosophists were:
- The British Government, which for a time accused Blavatsky of being a Russian spy;
- The Christian Missionaries, who opposed the theosophists’s efforts to revive the native Hindu’s interest in their own spiritual traditions;
- Spiritualists, who continued to resent Blavatsky’s insistence on their errors in interpreting paranormal phenomena;
- Scientists, who opposed the theosophists’ insistence that some of that paranormal phenomena was, indeed, real;
- Orthodox Brahmins, notably the Brahmo Samaj and early Neo-Vedantins, but also including Brahmin ex-theosophists who came to view the theosophical movement as “Buddhist Propaganda” (see, for instance, the members of the Prayag T.S.);
- In addition to Orthodox Brahmin opposition, the once productive and mutually-supportive partnership between the theosophists and Swami Dayananda’s Arya Samaj came to a swift and resounding end in 1882 when Swami Dayanand attacked Blavatsky and Olcott in his magazine, stating that “the alliance between the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society has been broken off because the head Theosophists are now converts to Buddhism and no more for the Vedas.” Hence, the Aryas also came to oppose the theosophists because of a negative perception of the founder’s connection with Buddhism.
During Blavatsky’s time as its editor, the Theosophist magazine was constantly engaged in a war of words against all of the above factions. Their opposition to the theosophists came to a head in later 1884 and early 1885 with the famed charges of fraud against Blavatsky, formally produced in a report by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), in which the Christian Missionaries and the Scientists who opposed spiritualism each played central roles, and in which the accusation of being a Russian spy was again resurrected. The essence of the attack was an attempt to expose the existence of Blavatsky’s Adept-Teachers as merely the product of fraud (see “The Collapse of Koot Hoomi”). This was, of course, immediately accepted without question by Spiritualists, Scientists, Christians, Orthodox Brahmins, and others who opposed theosophy for their own reasons, despite ample testimony of individuals who had first-hand contact with the Mahatmas, independently of Blavatsky (on this, see A Casebook of Encounters with the Theosophical Mahatmas by Daniel Caldwell), or who could testify against the assumptions and conclusions made by the attackers. Several important theosophists came to the defence of Blavatsky, perhaps most notably A. P. Sinnet (see “The ‘Occult World Phenomena’ and the Society for Psychical Research”). The report in which the charges of fraud were detailed has since been thoroughly dissected and demonstrated to be extremely “flawed and untrustworthy” by the very SPR themselves.
Despite support from some key theosophists, Blavatsky was left unsupported by many others within the inner circles of the theosophical movement. The whole slanderous affair, and the lack of support by her friends and co-workers, eventually led to Blavatsky leaving India, and with her, the center or focus of theosophical teachings emanating from her and her teachers. The continuation of their efforts to unveil some fragments of their philosophy moved with Blavatsky to Europe, where a new and vivified effort was made, during which the most important writings of modern day theosophy were produced.
During the tumultuous year of 1885, further efforts to publicize occult teachings were made by the Brothers and their chelas. Principal among those efforts were the following three books:
Man: Fragments of Forgotten History (1885)
This book was a joint effort of two Chelas: Mohini Chatterji and Laura Holloway. It is an interesting and unique presentation of some occult ideas, but is most commonly viewed as having come up short of the task it set out to accomplish.
“Man: Fragments of Forgotten History . . . was an attempt to present the archaic doctrine from a more ideal standpoint, to translate some visions in and from the Astral Light, to render some teachings partly gathered from a Master’s thoughts, but unfortunately misunderstood. This work also speaks of the evolution of the early Races of men on Earth, and contains some excellent pages of a philosophical character. But so far it is only an interesting little mystical romance. It has failed in its mission, because the conditions required for a correct translation of these visions were not present.” (Blavatsky, SD 1:160)
Five Years of Theosophy (1885)
Five Years of Theosophy is a compilation of key articles from the first five years of Blavatsky’s magazine The Theosophist. The compilation was done by Mohini Chatterji. It became one of the standard books for early theosophists. It contains the series of replies to inquiries following the publication of Esoteric Buddhism along with several other noteworthy articles.
Light on the Path (1885)
This small treatise on the practical occult path was written by Mabel Collins (Mrs. Keningale Cook), who shortly before had also published The Idyll of the White Lotus. Light on the Path gives certain rules for the would-be disciple or chela, along with some explanation. The book quickly became a favorite among the more mystically-inclined theosophists, and remains quite popular to this day.
The Secret Doctrine
Having left India, H. P. Blavatsky traveled to mainland Europe, staying first in Naples, Italy, and eventually settling in Wurzburg, Germany in the summer of 1885. Once there she poured herself into writing what would eventually become her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. (For details of this project, see “The Writing of the Secret Doctrine: A Chronology.”) As noted in Mahatma Letters LMW2 No. 70 and LMW1 No. 19, Brothers M. & K.H. both played instrumental roles in the actual writing of the text. In the summer of 1886, Blavatsky relocated to Ostende, Belgium, where work on The Secret Doctrine continued.
In January of 1887, Blavatsky’s Master offered her the choice “to return to India to die this autumn, or . . . to form between this and November next a nucleus of true Theosophists, a school of [her] own . . . with as many mystics as [she] can get to teach . . .” Blavatsky chose the latter. The next month she was visited by Bertram Keightley, who implored her to relocate to London. The month after that Archibald Keightley came to her with the same request. At the same time, several theosophists of London wrote letters to Blavatsky with the same general appeal. One of the key points of these London theosophists is that they were uninterested in the occult phenomena which had garnered so much attention, but were primarily interested in the underlying philosophy, and desired to bring the attention of theosophists back to the ethics in that philosophy. At the end of April, 1887, Blavatsky left Ostende with the Keightleys and relocated to London, first staying with Mabel Collins (author of Light on the Path). The small core of dedicated theosophists in London eventually secured a residence on Lansdowne Road in London, which would become the headquarters of a new theosophical lodge—the Blavatsky Lodge. Once Blavatsky was settled, this small lodge became a great center of focus for theosophical work.
It is also around this time (1886-87) that W. Q. Judge began to scale up the theosophical work in America. He founded a new theosophical magazine called The Path, and began the work of outreach and the forming of new lodges. His work in New York would build up a core of theosophical workers parallel to the core being developed in London. In the years that followed, Judge would play an instrumental role both in regards to these newly formed nucleuses and also in regards to the spread and popularization of Theosophy in America.
In September of 1887, the Blavatsky Lodge founded a new magazine called Lucifer, which they published on a monthly basis. Alongside this, the members helped Blavatsky finalize the first two volumes of The Secret Doctrine, which were finally published in October-December of 1888. The publication of this book had a monumental influence on the theosophical movement and shifted the focus and attention of theosophists towards the philosophy and metaphysics of occultism. From that day forward, The Secret Doctrine has been the central text of modern Theosophy.
With The Secret Doctrine published, the members of the Blavatsky Lodge began holding meetings in which they posed questions to Blavatsky about the subjects treated in the opening volume. These were recorded, edited and published as the Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. Many years later, the complete records of those meetings were relocated and published complete and unabridged as The Secret Doctrine Dialogues.
The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence
In 1889, Blavatsky published two more books, each designed to address a particular need in the movement.
The Key to Theosophy provides an overview of certain fundamental teachings, along with explanations as to the nature of the Theosophical Society, of theosophical ethics, etc. While it plays the role of an introductory manual for new students, it also contains challenging depth and addresses in details some difficult conceptions. It stands to this day as one of the principal books of Theosophy.
The Voice of the Silence addressed the needs for a practical text on the occult path. According to Blavatsky, it was designed especially to meet the needs of “the few real mystics in the Theosophical Society.” The Voice of the Silence remains today the central “devotional,” mystic, or practical text in Theosophy.
It is worth noting here that both The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence provide the reader with Stanzas or Precepts drawn from what Blavatsky claims to be esoteric texts of the Brotherhood to which her teachers belong. These are, according to her, genuine occult texts that are unavailable to the world at large, from which she was permitted to make a judicious selection publicly available in translation. These two sets of selections—the Stanzas from the book of Dzyan, and the Fragments from the “Book of the Golden Precepts”—form the fundamental philosophical and practical basis of modern Theosophy.
Core Theosophical Teachings
We see, then, that the years in which Blavatsky resided in London were years of intense literary output, almost a whirlwind of non-stop writing and publishing. The material published during this time set the whole theosophical movement on a more firm basis in occult philosophy. The writings expanded greatly on the few Fragments that had been given out by Sinnett, Blavatsky, Olcott, Subba Row and others while the center of output was in India. These writings also served to clarify several early mistakes that were common among theosophists. In the public writings of this period some of the primary doctrines that were explored and expanded are as follows:
- The Process of Cosmogenesis, i.e. the development of a world-system, expanding greatly on the earlier teachings on the Planetary Chain. (See Vol. 1 of The Secret Doctrine and Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge.)
- The Evolution of Humanity on Earth, through its stages or “races,” including many details of our physiological and psychological development. (See Vol. 2 of The Secret Doctrine.)
- The Stages of the Occult Path, its dangers and challenges, along with details of the accomplishments necessary for success, etc. (See The Voice of the Silence.)
- The real basis of the Theosophical Society; what it stands for, how it ought to function, its ideal role in the world, etc. (See The Key to Theosophy.)
- The teachings on the principles or constitution of Man, what they are, how they function, how they are undertood in various traditions, etc. (See The Key to Theosophy, The Secret Doctrine, various articles, etc.)
- The teachings on after death states, with details as to the nature of each state, the principles involved therein, etc., which expanded on the teachings already outlined by Sinnett. (See The Key to Theosophy and various articles.)
As one will see, these later writings work with the same several Fragments as did the earlier efforts (most notably Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism). Even in such a monumental work as The Secret Doctrine, only small fragments of the full occult doctrine are given, as admitted by Blavatsky in several places throughout that work. However, these later books are written in such a way, or with such a methodology, that with long and intense study one begins to glimpse more aspects of that complete doctrine. However, it is very important to understand that the Theosophy taught to the world by Blavatsky and her teachers is not a complete explanation of their science and thus cannot be expected to answer all questions or address all topics.
Blavatsky’s Esoteric School
Behinds the scenes of the public efforts ongoing in London and New York, Blavatsky and her co-worker W. Q. Judge began to operate an “Esoteric Section” or “Esoteric School,” (E.S.) wherein they offered some more detailed occult instruction to those who applied and pledged themselves. In London, Blavatsky also formed her own distinct “Inner Group” (I.G.) of students to whom she taught some elements of practical occultism. However, even within the E.S. and among members of the I.G., the teachings offered are fragmentary and do not offer a complete system of Occultism. The esoteric teachings given by Blavatsky include some keys that help with understanding the exoteric or publicly available material, and introduce some subjects that are present but veiled in the public material. See “A Note on ‘Esoteric’ Sections or Schools” below.
This Esoteric School became the real nucleus behind the outer Theosophical Society, with nearly all really dedicated theosophical workers becoming members of the E.S., especially in New York and London. It therefore wielded a great influence over the doings of the outer Society.
H. P. Blavatsky passed away on May 8th, 1891. Many tributes and memorials followed and for a long while the body of the Theosophical Society mourned.
It is important to note that with the passing of Blavatsky came the end of verifiable teachings coming from the Brothers (Mahatmas). This does not mean that the Mahatmas necessarily withdrew all support or disengaged entirely from working with individuals within the theosophical movement, but that no new teachings that can be objectively verified to have come from them are available from that day forward. There have been, of course, many claims to that end, with no shortage of individuals who claimed to have been given teachings directly from the Mahatmas, but none of these have ever been independently or objectively verified by the Mahatmas themselves (i.e. no letters in their handwriting verifying those teachings, no further appearances of them in astral or physical bodies were made to independent parties, etc., as were done in earlier days).
The basis of the theosophical movement now rests on the material given through Blavatsky and other early Chelas and Lay Chelas. And among that material, by far the most prominent and important are the writings that were published during Blavatsky’s time in London.
Thus in many ways we see the above-given three periods—America (NY), India (Adyar), then Europe (London)—mark three distinct phases in the movement: a preparatory stage, followed by the first seeds of occult philosophy sown, followed by the harvest in the later years. With the final phase completed, the members of the theosophical movement were left with the opportunity and responsibility to carry on the work on the lines laid down. This, however, became a quite rocky road in no short time.
There are, of course, countless details that could be given regarding the theosophical movement from 1891 until the present, but we will here give only a simple outline.
Following Blavatsky’s passing, the Theosophical Society and its Esoteric Section became divided internally, eventually leading to external division into two distinct organizations: one centered in India (Adyar) led by H. S. Olcott, with Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater playing primary roles in its early direction; the other centered in America led by W. Q. Judge.
Within the former Society (Adyar) there arose a distinct following centered around J. Krishnamurti, which would eventually lead to further divisions and a new organization under his direction. Another group that branched off from this Society and gained popularity was that led by Alice Bailey. On the whole, the Adyar society has otherwise remained relatively unified and continues to be the largest Theosophical organization in the world.
Following W. Q. Judge’s death in 1896 the Society centered in America would itself become divided. Most of Judge’s inner circle of workers in New York formed one Society (known these days as the “Hargrove” or New York Group), which was publicly active for several decades and then withdrew from public work and notice. The vast majority of members followed Katherine Tingley and her “Universal Brotherhood” organization, which for several decades attempted a utopic experiment at Point Loma in southern California. The latter would eventually be led by G. de Purucker, but again experienced further division after his passing. This last split resulted in the Society now headquartered at Pasadena, and a small group that continued with the name of Point Loma.
The above organizations each retained the name “Theosophical Society,” leading to several organizations with that same designation, each considering itself to be a faithful continuance of the original T.S.
In addition to these divisions, Robert Crosbie (who belonged originally to the American society and later resided at Point Loma) branched out on his own to start the United Lodge of Theosophists (ULT) in 1909. This was centered in Los Angeles and later expanded worldwide, largely through the efforts of B. P. Wadia. Within the latter a significant internal division would also eventually arise, centered around the activities of R. N. Iyer. The ULT remains active today.
Several smaller organizations arose under the broad banner of the theosophical movement during the 20th century, especially in North America, and several others branched off from the main organizations (see, for instance, the Edmonton Theosophical Society). The movement also inspired numerous other groups to organize in their own way around teachings that show significant overlap with those found in theosophy.
H. P. Blavatsky has been called by some “the Mother of the New Age” due to the high degree of influence her teachings have had on western esotericism, occultism, western perceptions of eastern teachings, etc., and the resulting “New Age” movement. Her influence extends into the realms of science, art, psychology, science-fiction, etc., and has played a not insignificant role in the development of a new and broader worldview.
As the original Theosophical Society eventually led to several distinct organizations, each with their own style and interpretations of theosophical ideas, the 20th century saw these organizations and their members become often sectarian and combative towards one another. Because of the widely varying interpretations of theosophy by the most popular leaders of these groups, the essential result was what we might call distinct “denominations” of theosophy. It would not be a stretch to explain the theosophical movement in the 20th century as being composed of Judge-ites, Besant-ites or Leadbeaterians, Krishnamurti-ites, Purucker-ites, Crosbie-ites, Bailey-ites, and so on, each fervently believing in the legitimacy of their own “denomination” of theosophy while often outright rejecting the others and all too often blanketing them with terms such as “pseudo-theosophy.”
In the 21st century, this division and combativeness has waned considerably, as has membership in all of the above-mentioned organizations. Many efforts towards what we may call “non-denominational” study and practice of theosophical doctrines have arisen over the past few decades, and these are gradually having a transforming effect on the movement. Much of the latter effort centers around a “return to Blavatsky” approach, recognizing her, and the teachings given through her, as the shared center of all these later “denominations.”
Some scholars have suggested the use of terms like “Blavatskyism” for the set of doctrines associated with her writings, to be used in the same way in which we use terms like Platonism, Buddhism, etc. One familiar with Blavatsky’s writings and personal correspondence, may find such a proposal quite ironically humorous, since she herself insisted that these teachings were never her own creations or inventions. However, the underlying idea is worthy of consideration, i.e. that we may distinguish between those teachings which can be objectively verified to have come from Blavatsky and her Teachers, and those which cannot be so objectively verified. Further to this, as we’ve shown above, the doctrines verified to have been given out by her and her Teachers do not constitute a complete system in themselves, but are simply a few fragments of a complete “occult” (or “hidden”) system. These Fragments were presented to the world in a way that is suitable to our current mode of thinking, language and societal life, and so they must be assumed to be both partial and customized—i.e. they are but veiled versions of portions of the real occult doctrines (on this point, see SD 2:81 re: allegorical teachings). An accurate description of the teachings which can be verified to have come from Blavatsky and her Teachers would be to call them Fragments of Theosophy Customized for Today, rather than Theosophy per se. Everything under the banner of theosophy that came after Blavatsky can then be considered as outgrowths, interpretations, and attempts at elucidation or explanation of those Fragments. Each effort by individual theosophists—however highly regarded or derided they may have been—reflects their own attempts to penetrate into the unnamed ancient system that lies veiled behind those fragments.
It is worth considering that future teachings drawn from the very same unnamed ancient system, if given to societies and individuals with different modes of thinking, language and societal life, may appear on the surface to be quite different than those given out by Blavatsky and her Teachers. In fact, Blavatsky and her Teachers claim that such is exactly the case with the major religions of the world—i.e. that ultimately they can all be traced back to that very unnamed ancient system, but that having been given to different cultures with different needs, their outward appearances were and are necessarily quite different. We must be careful, then, not to dogmatize Theosophy into a rigid, self-contained system in which no new light can penetrate, but must leave open and flexible our own definitions of the word Theosophy itself and our understanding of the Fragments of the system given by Blavatsky and her Teachers.
In any case, all efforts that have occurred under the broad banner of the theosophical movement, however close or far each may be from the fountain-source, are available for students to sift through for themselves, and the onus is on each individual to determine what is or is not “Theosophy” in their own understanding. In the effort to explore and understand these teachings, one may be rightly advised to be on guard against dogmatization at every turn, to be skeptical of claims to authority or direct knowledge, and to always seek to penetrate into the realities underlying any presentation of doctrine.
Our work at Universal Theosophy, in particular our Online Study Classes, is one example of a non-organizational, non-denominational, study-focused effort, where students are encouraged to cultivate an attitude of independent thought and investigation alongside shared study and support.
A Note on “Esoteric” Sections or Schools
The original Theosophical Society was divided into “sections,” specifically: “three Sections, and each Section into three Degrees” (see H. S. Olcott, “The Theosophical Society: Its Origin, Plan and Aims,” May, 1878). These sections were then roughly outlined by Olcott thus:
Section 1: “the adepts themselves”;
Section 2: “pupils, like myself, who had withdrawn from [wordly interests] or were ready to do so”;
Section 3: “new members not detached from worldly interests.”
In the “Principles, Rules, and Bye-Laws of the Theosophical Society” (1880), we find the following explanations:
The Society consists of three sections. The highest or First Section is composed exclusively of proficients or initiates in Esoteric Science and Philosophy, who take a deep interest in the Society’s affairs and instruct the President-Founder how best to regulate them, but whom none but such as they voluntarily communicate with have the right to know.
The Section Section embraces such Theosophists as have proved by their fidelity, zeal, and courage, and their devotion to the Society, that they have become able to regard all men as equally their brothers irrespective of caste, colour, race, or creed; and who are ready to defend the life or honour of a brother Theosophist even at the risk of their own lives.
The administration of the superior Sections need not be dealt with at present in a code of rules laid before the public. No responsibilities connected with these superior grades are incurred by persons who merely desire ordinary membership of the third class.
The Third is the Section of Probationers. All new Fellows are on probation, until their purpose to remain in the Society has become fixed, their usefulness shown, and their ability to conquer evil habits and unwarrantable prejudices demonstrated.
Advancement from Section to Section depends upon merit only. Until a Fellow reaches the first degree of the Second Section, his Fellowship gives him but the following rights: (1) to attend the Society’s meeting, (2) access only to printed matter, such as books and pamphlets of the Society’s library, (2) protection and support by the President and Council in case of need and according to personal merit, (4) instruction and enlightenment upon what he reads and studies by Fellows of the Second Section; and this whether he remains at home or goes abroad and wherever he finds a Branch of the Theosophical Society: every Fellow being obliged to help the others as much as the circumstances in which he is placed will allow.
. . .
There are three kinds of Fellows in the Third Section, viz., Active, Corresponding and Honourary. Of these the Active only are grouped in degrees according to merit; the grade of Corresponding Fellow embraces persons of learning and distinction who are willing to furnish information of interest to the Society; and the diploma of Honourary Fellow is exclusively reserved for persons eminent for their contributions to theosophical knowledge or for their services to humanity.
We might summarize the three sections as:
2: Chelas (disciples),
3: General Theosophists.
As noted, each of these sections was itself divided into three degrees.
The 1st Section is that of the “Brothers” (or Mahatmas), who in the early days were often referred to as “Brothers of the 1st section of the Theosophical Society.” Blavatsky clarifies the nature of this section in an article, thus:
“It is true that a wholly esoteric section exists in our Society; but it is only a section, a very tiny part of the society which would perhaps be best defined if I call it at the outset—not only the trunk of the Theosophical tree or its seed—because it is to that section that our whole Society owes its origin—but the vivifying sap that makes it live and flourish. Without this section, composed solely of Oriental adepts, the Theosophical Society, whose ramifications are beginning to cover the five regions of the globe, would be nothing but a dead and sterile body, a corpse without a soul. And yet the Theosophists who have been admitted therein up to this time could be reckoned on the fingers of one hand.” (“What is Theosophy? [Qu’est-ce Que la Théosophie?]”)
The 2nd Section is where we can apply the term chela (disciple, student, servant). Throughout Blavatsky’s lifetime there were known to be lay chelas, probationary chelas, and accepted chelas, each connected to the Masters or Brothers. The term lay chela was only used for a few people, the most prominent among them being A. P. Sinnett. In a certain sense, we may view this as an exception to the general rule, as the Mahatmas point out that Sinnett was not constitutionally ready to take on the full life of a chela, and his life situation, being a family man with a wife and child, further restricted him. But he was taught directly by two of the Brothers and so was accepted by them as a lay chela (see the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnet). In another sense, Blavatsky points out that anyone who genuinely subscribes to the objects of the T.S. (at least during the time in which the Mahatmas were known to be active in it), can be called a “lay chela.” Such definitions aren’t necessarily written in stone. A number of early theosophists were given the opportunity to apply for probationary chelaship, an initial stage wherein the aspirant is placed on probation and is thoroughly tested. Of those who were accepted as probationers, some were noted to have failed, a few to have succeeded. Success in the probationary stage leads to accepted chelaship. Notable accepted chelas of the early movement include H. P. Blavatsky, H. S. Olcott, W. Q. Judge, T. Subba Row, Damodar K. Mavalankar, among others. Several statements by the Mahatmas hint towards levels or degrees of accepted chelaship, with terms such as “high chela” being used for some, but exact details as to such degrees were not openly discussed by them.
In August, 1881, Blavatsky mentions that these “esoteric sections . . . count but a very few ‘chosen ones’” (“Madame Blavatsky on ‘The Himalayan Brothers’”) and in March of 1882 she added the following candid assessment of the T.S. ranks:
“We maintain that, at the present moment, and ever since the spring of 1881, there is no more in the membership of the Theosophical Societies, than among the whole conclave of ‘secret societies’ of English and other Occultists . . . one single Adept, let alone ‘an advanced Initiate into the highest degrees.’ . . . There are yet in Europe and America some advanced students, some neophytes of the third and perchance of the second Section, and a few ‘natural-born seers.’ But like a gallant ship sinking under the weight of barnacles attached to it, even they lose ground daily, owing to the indiscretions of hundreds of self-deluded parasites, who would have people believe each of them brings to humanity a new Revelation from heaven! It is the adherents of the [false] ‘adepts’ of this latter class, who believe in and unwisely defend them, but who, deluding themselves, but delude others, who thus create all the mischief. And these, we say, are but an impediment to the progress of the Science. They only prevent the few true adepts, that remain, to come out and publicly assert the survival of the ancient knowledge and—their own existence.” (“Doomed!”)
These quotes illustrate how very few members of the 1st and 2nd Sections there were.
The 3rd Section consisted of all those members of the Theosophical Society who did not fit into either of the above categories. Thus, this section contained by far the largest number of theosophists, in fact, nearly all members of the T.S. were members of the 3rd Section. As noted above, the Active members of this section were divided into degrees based on merit, and could appeal to members of the 2nd Section for instruction.
While these sections were formulated from the very beginning of the T.S., there were continued conversations between the leaders on how best to organize the full body of theosophists, the whole T.S. being essentially an experiment constantly being adjusted as needs arose. See, for instance, the following from T. Subba Row in a letter to Blavatsky in February of 1882:
“We can in course of time, adopt some ritualistic system of Initiation for the 2nd Section; and I do not see any reason why we should not be able in future to have a certain amount of systematic occult training for those who are admitted into the said Section. I shall lay before you hereafter my scheme for doing so. I shall be very glad to see this section in future as a section composed of real initiates acting under the instructions given by the Adepts of the 1st Section.” (BL 161)
We know of no indications that such a plan was formally put into place, but the above demonstrates the flexibility and continuing adjustments that were taking place within that section.
Over time, some of the above approaches were modified. Note, for instance, that in the early years, admittance into the 3rd Section involved pledges of secrecy, signs and passwords, etc., but during the 1880s this was abandoned, and eventually membership into the T.S. did not involve any such pledges. The events of 1884-85 (see above), had a profound impact on the way in which the T.S. operated, and this is especially noted in the shift that took place in Col. Olcott in his perception of how the society ought to be managed. One primary result of that shift is that the T.S. began to purposely drift or separate itself from the influence of the 1st and 2nd Sections. On this subject, see the historical notes by C. Jinarajadasa in his introduction to the “Original Program of the Theosophical Society” as published in 1931.
Later in the life of the Theosophical Society (beginning in 1888), another distinct Section was created and advertised, under the sole leadership of H. P. Blavatsky. This was, in many ways, an attempt to return or rebuild an organized body of students along the lines of the Original Program, which had been to a large degree abandoned between 1884 and 1888. This new section was referred to generally as the Esoteric Section (E.S.) or the Esoteric School. This School was initially envisioned to be connected to and under the authority of the T.S. but was soon made to be entirely autonomous (see Echoes of the Orient (E.O.), 3:370, 421, 440), at which time it’s title was formally changed to “The Eastern School of Theosophy.” To apply to the E.S.T. (or E.S.) one needed to take a specific pledge, and further agree to be bound by certain rules, some related to the “living of the life,” others of a more organizational nature, and this also included the use of signs and passwords. Upon acceptance into the E.S., one was granted access to certain broad esoteric teachings given by Blavatsky. These are recorded in her “Esoteric Instructions” and other papers. Further to this, Blavatsky organized her own “Inner Group” (I.G.), or “Inner Circle” of students, who were also E.S. members, to whom she directly and personally gave more advanced instructions. See from her “Book of Rules” for the E.S.:
“In consequence of the different rates of progress of members, it has been found necessary to form an inner circle of Esotericists, who are deemed to have progressed sufficiently to receive more advanced teaching than those of the outer circle, and who are accordingly pledged to secrecy even as regards other members of the E.S. as well as conforming to a stricter mode of life.”
The E.S. involved an initial assessment of the applicants knowledge of public theosophical teachings (see E.O. 3:341), followed by a probationary stage, and then acceptance into full membershhip. Esoteric papers were given out gradually, with later papers being given only upon approval of the member’s satisfactory replies to examination questions (see E.O. 3:341, 3:355). The members of the E.S. were divided into “degrees” (E.O. 3:340, 3:377, 393), of which one may discern at minimum three, i.e. at least two “outer degrees” (E.O. 3:393) of the general membership, divided based on their level of advancement, and a third degree, or “members of the Inner Circle” (see E.O. 3:376) also known as the “Inner Group.” The teachings given directly to the latter by H.P.B. were later compiled and handed down to the more advanced general members, or those who “indicate a fitness to profit by them” (E.O. 3:341). So we see the same general pattern of degrees of advancement within this Section as we find to be the case among Chelas and Adepts.
An important distinction ought to be made between chelas of the Masters (whether probationary or accepted) and pledged members of the E.S. Students in the E.S. pledged themselves in a general fashion to their “Higher Self” and were taught by Blavatsky, herself being a chela to a Master. The third degree, or “Inner Group” members pledged themselves under a stricter set of rules with higher expectations on conduct and study. While in some aspects, the E.S. came into existence to replace the original role of the 3rd and 2nd Sections of the T.S., with their pledges and deeper dedication, the E.S. was not exactly the same as either of those sections, but instead represented a new effort to build a bridge between the Adepts with their Chelas and those theosophists who sincerely wished to put themselves within their influence and to learn their esoteric science.
On the subject of the distinction between chelas and members of the E.S., see the letter from Blavatsky to C. A. Griscom, dated Dec. 13, 1888, wherein Blavatsky herself marks that distinction, and refers to the E.S. as a probationary degree, just as the original 3rd Section had been so designated (The Esoteric Papers of Madame Blavatsky (E.P.), p. 37).
In The Key to Theosophy (pp. 22-23), Blavatsky partly clarifies the position of the inner group of esoteric students:
Enquirer: Are we to understand that the inner group of the T. S. claims to learn what it does from real initiates or masters of esoteric wisdom?
Theosophist: Not directly. The personal presence of such masters is not required. Suffice it if they give instructions to some of those who have studied under their guidance for years, and devoted their whole lives to their service. Then, in turn, these can give out the knowledge so imparted to others, who had no such opportunity. A portion of the true sciences is better than a mass of undigested and misunderstood learning. An ounce of gold is worth a ton of dust.
In this we see an outline of the general divisions and the method of handing down teachings: i.e. The Adepts -> their Chelas -> the students of the E.S. Thus the Chelas stood as mediators between the original 1st Section and the newly formed E.S., including it’s “Inner Circle” or “Inner Group.”
It is relatively easy to join an Esoteric School in today’s theosophical movement, but joining such a school does not automatically imply that one is on the path of chelaship. Many join such schools out of curiosity or other personal motives, and this was even the case in H.P.B.’s E.S. during her lifetime. But such personal motives will never be enough for chelaship. Note well Olcott’s definition of those who belonged to the original 2nd Section of the T.S.: “pupils, like myself, who had withdrawn from [wordly interests] or were ready to do so.” How many members of such Esoteric Schools can claim to have truly withdrawn from worldly interests?
An example of the distinction between the E.S. or I.G. members and chelas is highlighted in the case of W. Q. Judge, who was, at the time of the organization of the Esoteric Section, an accepted chela to a Master (and thus can be said to have properly belonged to the original 2nd Section of the T.S.). Although Judge played a prominent role in developing and organizing the Esoteric Section (even authoring its Rules), and though he provided teachings and guidance to its members, both during and after Blavatsky, he was never required to take the pledge of that body (neither E.S. nor I.G.), as he was already an accepted chela (see E.P., p. 40). In short: a chela might be simultaneously a member of an E.S. or I.G., but one does not equate to the other.
Thus it will be seen that the E.S. finds its place somewhat between what were originally referred to as the 2nd and 3rd sections of the T.S. (with perhaps some overlap in functioning and degrees), i.e. between the Chelas and the regular body of members of the T.S. The E.S. may be viewed, then, as a kind of bridge built between these two groups, in order to help ardent theosophists prepare themselves for the path, but E.S. membership ought not to be equated with chelaship itself, nor even with probationary chelaship. Perhaps it would be best to think of it as “pre-probationary,” while recognizing that acceptance into the E.S. in no way guaranteed that one would pass from it to probationary chelaship.
With all this in mind, we may thus divide the Movement generally in four divisions:
3. Esoteric Students,
4. General Theosophists.
As above-noted, following Blavatsky’s passing, divisions arose in the Theosophical Society, spawning several different organizations. It must be noted here that each of the major divisions that occurred in the movement first arose as a division within an Esoteric School, and that the outer divisions were the outer result of those inner divisions. Thus, while the Theosophical Society fractured into several organizations, this was actually the result of Blavatsky’s original Esoteric School becoming fractured. Over time the differences between the various and separate schools became more pronounced, each following the direction given to it by later theosophists who inherited the difficult role of guiding such endeavours. Some of these schools have since ceased their operations, others continue to this day. Thus, within the Theosophical Movement, there is a wide array of teachings which have been labelled as “esoteric,” some of which appear to relatively agree with those given directly by Blavatsky and her Teachers, others which seem to drift from the fountain-source. Again, in such a situation, it is up to each individual to determine for themselves what they deem to be genuinely esoteric teachings, especially as the original teachings are so easily open to interpretation.
It should also be noted that following the passing of Blavatsky, and aside from the specific cases of W. Q. Judge and H. S. Olcott, there ceased to be objectively verified accepted chelas within the movement, i.e. the Masters ceased to verify, whether in known letters or publicly, the chela status of any individuals in the movement. It may also be noted that of the accepted chelas who were publicly known during Blavatsky’s life, very few continued to openly work within the Theosophical Society after her passing.
One of the most important conclusions that we may draw from the history of the Theosophical Movement, is that while it continues to operate in the world to this day, it does so essentially without directly verified participation of either the Adepts or their Chelas. Thus, in today’s movement, the “highest” publicly verifiable section is that of the Esoteric Students and their various schools. The organizations that continue with an Esoteric School today thus generally have two main sections: the general members of their outer organization, and the members of their esoteric organization (which may or may not have its own internal degrees).
The main purpose in making the above statements and clarifications is to caution the reader against the idea that becoming a member of such schools equates to becoming a chela, or that such schools are necessarily operated under the known supervision of the Brothers or Mahatmas. It is also worth cautioning against any claims on the part of esoteric students as to their own direct connection with the Brotherhood, whether such claims were made in the past or are being made today.
On Esoteric Literature
While the esoteric material distributed in the E.S. was private, and members were pledged to secrecy as to the teachings and papers, most of the esoteric material given by H. P. Blavatsky to her students has since been made posthumously public. Firstly, several of the early documents had been leaked to the public by some members and former members (see E.O. 3:428 etc. and “Peace with Honor…”). Hence, even early on in the life of the E.S. certain teachings had been made public, though this was done by students who had broken their pledge of secrecy. According to W. Q. Judge, as of the end of 1894 the Mahatmas had ordered that the Instructions written by Blavatsky were no longer secret (see E.S.T. Order No. II, Dec. 3, 1894). This order is claimed to have stated that the papers themselves should remain private, but the teachings (with certain restrictions) could be spoken of openly. According to Annie Besant, it had been Blavatsky’s intention that her Instructions would eventually be publicly published (see SD 3:434). In accordance with this belief, Besant published much of the material—though with some editing—in her compilation of other MSS. of Blavatsky, which she titled The Secret Doctrine, Volume 3. Later, this material was included in Volume 12 of the Blavatsky Collected Writings series, though again with some edits and omissions from the original E.S. papers. Records of Blavatsky’s teachings to her Inner Group were eventually published as The Inner Group Teachings of H. P. Blavatsky, compiled and annotated by Henk J. Spierenburg. And finally, the most complete collection to date was published as The Esoteric Papers of Madame Blavatsky, compiled by Daniel H. Caldwell.
Many theosophists have objected to the publication of these materials, and arguments have been made both pro and con. However, the simple reality for students of today is that these materials are now publicly available. It is worth noting that in a joint-statement to E.S. members (dated April 1, 1891) both Judge and Besant had stated that “such a publication will do no harm, as the Instructions tend to promote spiritual growth and arouse high aspiration: on their face they do not divulge occult secrets, although deep students can, by looking beneath the surface, find in them that which H.P.B. wished to impart” (see E.O. 3:441).
A Final Note
At Universal Theosophy, as an independent collective of students, some of whom belong to organizations which currently operate “esoteric” schools, we view the study of this material in the following light:
All genuinely esoteric teachings given by a teacher to their students are given under the condition that one has made certain pledges and committed themselves to certain rules of conduct. The warning has always been made that to approach esoteric teachings without having satisfied that condition is fraught with dangers. Genuine Occultism is a serious endeavour, and the repercussions of “walking the path” can be intense and extremely difficult, in direct proportion to the devotion and sincere efforts of the student (see “pledge fever”; ref. E.O. 3:274-277, 279-280). The wise course of action is to view the initial steps into Occultism as one might approach the crossing of a newly frozen lake: with deliberation and caution, and with each step weighed carefully.
Because the esoteric papers issued to the E.S. by Blavatsky are now publicly available, the modern-day student is in a position where they must decide for themselves whether or not to venture into those teachings. This is quite different than the common way of things, where the esoteric teachings of a tradition are usually kept private and guarded and thus there is little danger for the public student. While the ideal may be that one finds a genuine school wherein one can take the pledge, we must be pragmatic and realize that this may not always be the case, while the material itself is now easily accessible. In this light, we encourage students of theosophy who feel themselves drawn to the study of esoteric material to first deeply consider the pledges and rules that were originally attached to that material by H.P.B., and to only continue with the study of said material after having genuinely taken the pledge included therein. Consider also, that whether one takes a pledge through the auspices of an organization with an “esoteric section” or school, or whether one takes a pledge on their own, it is the sincerity and seriousness of one’s pledge that is all-important.
In this light, the study of esoteric material ought to be viewed as a distinct endeavour from the general study of theosophy and its doctrines. Esoteric material is less about intellectual study than it is about deep transformations of our nature, and it is thus in a category of its own. It cannot be fruitfully approached with the same casual attitude one might approach scholarly studies or general theosophical readings. Thus: be daring, but approach with due caution, sincerity and honesty.
“Prepare thyself, for thou wilt have to travel on alone. The Teacher can but point the way. The Path is one for all, the means to reach the goal must vary with the Pilgrims.”—The Voice of the Silence
Selected Articles, etc. on the Theosophical Movement
- Preamble of the Theosophical Society
- Inaugural Address of the President-Founder of the Theosophical Society
- Erroneous Ideas Concerning the Doctrines of the Theosophists
- The Drift of Western Spiritualism
- Principles, Rules, and Bye-Laws of the Theosophical Society 
- [The Ceylon Delegation and Progress in India]
- The Number Seven and Our Society
- [A Republic of Conscience]
- The Leaven of Theosophy
- [Notes on the Theosophical Society, Christianity, Buddhism and Vedanta]
- [Note on Confusion about Theosophy and Theosophists]
- [On the Religious Neutrality of the T.S.]
- Dayanand Saraswati and his Followers
- From Madame Blavatsky to Mr. Joseph Cook
- Pert Questions and Plain Answers
- Friendly Chastisement
- [On the T.S. Policy of Eclectic Tolerance of All Creeds]
- The Philosophic Inquirer
- [Review: Pamphlet on the T.S. by Rev. Theophilus]
- Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research
- A Word with the Theosophists
- Theosophy and Miracles
- Col. Olcott’s Wonderful Success
- [Mrs. Anandabai Joshi, F.T.S.]
- [Re-Union of the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society?]
- Theosophy and Spiritism: Explanations Relative to the Controversy on Occultism
- From Theosophy to Shakespeare
- “Esoteric Buddhism”
- The Theosophists: As Photographed in the Imperial Census
- [The Sacred Brahmanical Thread]
- The Himalayan Brothers—Do They Exist?
- [Evidence of the Existence of Mahatmas]
- Existence of the Himalayan Mahatmas
- A Great Riddle Solved
- Observations on “A Letter Addressed to the Fellows of the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society, by the President and a Vice-President of the Lodge”
- From a Letter of an Old Friend and Theosophist
- Ghost Stories Galore
- [Note to “Practical Work for Theosophists”]
- The Metaphysical Basis of “Esoteric Buddhism”
- [On the Coulomb Forged Letters]
- Theosophy as a Cult in India
- A Prophecy About Theosophy
- Reticence of Mahatmas and Evolution of the Individual
- “The Second Wave”
- “The Theosophical Mahatmas”
- Re-Classification of Principles
- Theosophical Theories of the Microcosm
- Misconceptions: A Response to Various Criticisms
- [Review: Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research]
- [Reviews:] Theosophical and Mystic Publications
- [Review: The Theosophist]
- The Test of Theosophic Interest
- Blavatsky Still Lives
- Why the Theosophical Society is Poor
- The New Cycle (Le Cycle Nouveau)
- The Key to Theosophy
- Our Directives: A Study of the Evolution of the “Objects of the T.S.”—from 1875 to 1891
- The Corresponding Secretary