The word theosophy (from Greek theos “god” and sophia “wisdom”) can be translated, according to Helena P. Blavatsky (The Key to Theosophy, 1), as “Divine Wisdom such as that possessed by the gods.” Theosophy itself is several distinct but related things: (1) it is a body of teachings and practices set forth in the first place by or through H. P. Blavatsky, and elaborated by her colleagues and successors: Modern Theosophy; (2) it is a religio-philosophical approach to life involving both a tradition of teachings and a direct experience of super-sensible reality as practiced by various persons and groups throughout history: Traditional Theosophy; (3) it is the primordial Wisdom Religion, the Secret Doctrine, also known as the Perennial Philosophy, the Sanatana Dharma, or the Wisdom Tradition: Primordial Theosophy.
The term “theosophy” is often used in the writings of Modern Theosophy with intentional ambiguity among those three senses. The affirmation implicit in that ambiguity is that (a) the modern Theosophy of the Theosophical Society is a spiritual, if not a physical, continuation of the traditional theosophy of the Alexandrian Neo-Platonists and others and (b) traditional theosophy is itself an expression in various cultures and times of the Primordial Theosophy, which was the gift of superhuman agents and is the birthright of all humanity.
Modern Theosophy. The Theosophical Society was founded by H. P. Blavatsky, Henry S. Olcott, William Q. Judge, and others, but Theosophy derives from H. P. Blavatsky alone. Her writings and those of her teachers, as contained in The Mahatma Letters, are the basis of all modern Theosophy. During Blavatsky’s lifetime, the Theosophy of which she and her teachers were the primary exponents was paraphrased and adapted by several of her contemporaries, most notably Olcott, Judge, and Alfred Percy Sinnett. After Blavatsky’s death, modern Theosophy was further elaborated and to some extent reformulated by her successors, notably Annie Wood Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater in the Adyar Society and Gottfried de Purucker in the Point Loma Society.
Theosophy as expressed by Blavatsky is not a homogeneous and uniform doctrine, but evolved in its details and emphasis during Blavatsky’s life. Her writing career was brief, considering the extent of its influence on modern thought. Her first significant work was Isis Unveiled, published in 1877. Her writing came to an end with her death in 1891, having lasted a mere fourteen years, during which she produced the equivalent of some twenty-one large-sized volumes.
Although Blavatskyan Theosophy developed and changed in various details over its fourteen-year history, its essential features were relatively consistent and coherent. Among those features, the following may be recognized:
- Theosophy is philosophically monistic. It maintains the existence of a single ultimate reality, which in itself is absolute — impersonal, unknowable, and indescribable. This tenet is the theoretical basis for the first Object of the Society; for the universal brotherhood of humanity is a particular expression of the Oneness of all existence.
- Correlatively, the universe in which we live is manifoldly diverse, constantly changing, relative (each part having meaning and value only in relation to others), and illusory or “mayavic” (its reality differing from its appearance).
- The ultimate absolute is the source of all consciousness, matter, and energy, which are its three mutually necessary aspects in the manifest universe, present in every entity and particle.
The universe and everything in it are emanations or expressions of the ultimate absolute, not creations out of nothing by a personal creator.
- The universe is eternal, but with innumerable worlds periodically manifesting within it.
- The universe is pervaded by a collective intelligence, a cosmic mind, which is consciously expressed in varying degrees by hosts of creative beings.
- The universe is brought into being and evolved by a combination of unconscious natural forces and conscious directing intelligences, which are the individual expressions of the cosmic mind.
- The physical universe of which we are normally aware is only one aspect of the total universe, which consists of multiple levels, planes, or dimensions of being — coexisting, interpenetrating, and interacting aspects of the whole. Of the seven planes of our solar system, human beings function primarily on the lower three.
- The universe and everything in it are ordered, following patterns of regular periodicity, including alternating phases of activity and quiescence, governed by a universal principle of cause and effect or karma. In human life, the principle of periodicity is expressed, among other ways, by repeated rebirth or reincarnation.
- Every individual entity in the universe is an expression of the cosmic collective intelligence, which itself is an aspect of the Absolute.
- All individual entities evolve out of the collective consciousness of the universe and develop an ever-increasing awareness through their evolution in the universe.
- All entities are composite beings, consisting of a number of independently evolved principles or faculties whose development is one of the purposes of evolution. In the universe and in the human being alike, there are seven such principles.
- In human beings, the principles are grouped into a temporary, single-lifetime personality and an abiding, evolving individuality, whose integration is the driving force of human evolution.
- The process of evolution, which begins by unconscious impulse, must eventually become a conscious process directed by the free will and ever increasing self-awareness of the evolving entities. The conscious participation by human beings in evolutionary change is symbolized as walking a Path.
- The evolving entities of the universe include intelligences both less and more advanced than human beings, of whom the more advanced (the Masters or Adepts) may serve as helpers and guides to the less advanced.
- The key to the advancement of human evolution is a dedication by the individual to the service of others, that is, altruism, in an awareness of brotherly unity and a forgetfulness of personal separateness.
- Evolution, which is the result of an inner and intelligent guidance expressed through personal effort, is good, has purpose, and follows a plan.
- The pain, cruelty, and frustration we may experience in life are the result of ignorance, unbalanced actions, relative dislocations, or change; they are not independently existing evils.
- The end of evolution is a sublimation of material differences, an increase of awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings, and a realization of the grounding unity underlying all existence.
- It is possible, as a result of individual effort in this life, for human beings to come by intuitive knowledge or mystical experience to a full awareness of their non-separateness from the one absolute Self.
- The fundamental underlying absolute unity is realized in diverse hierarchical, that is, ordered and interdependent, structures in the manifested universe.
- Correspondences, analogies, meaningful connections, and patterned repetitions exist among all entities in the universe, by which it is possible to discover the unknown from the known.
- Behind the exoteric or public forms of all religions and religious philosophies there exists an esoteric or inner teaching.
- These principles constitute the “Secret Doctrine” or “Wisdom Religion,” which is the unifying basis of science, philosophy, and religion and has been expressed in diverse ways by the sages of all ages and climes, including those thought of as “primitive” by the modern technological West.
The foregoing list of principles, based on Blavatsky’s exposition in The Secret Doctrine and other works such as The Key to Theosophy and the Voice of the Silence, could be abbreviated, expanded, and otherwise modified in various ways. It is not a definitive statement but only a suggestive list of basic concepts in the Blavatskyan tradition that underlie her often far more explicit and detailed exposition of ideas.
Those more explicit ideas include what are often thought of as characteristic theosophical teachings: details about reincarnation and karma; the various after-death states and experiences; the seven human and cosmic principles; the planes and subplanes of the cosmos; the chains, globes, and rounds of worlds; the continents, root races, and subraces of human evolution on earth; the Brotherhood of Adepts; the practice of specific spiritual exercises like meditation; warnings against other practices like hypnotism or certain yogic exercises; and so on.
These more explicit ideas and practices are not less important than the general principles, especially in the popular sense of what modern theosophy is about. Indeed, they are what loom largest in the awareness of both the general public and most theosophists. However, it is in the more explicit ideas that the greatest variations exist, both in Blavatsky’s own developing understanding of the concepts and in their expression by her successors. Two examples will illustrate.
In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky’s treatment of reincarnation was so circumspect that some readers have understood her to be denying its reality altogether. In fact, she seems there to have been concerned with refuting certain naive concepts of reincarnation that imagine a survival and rebirth of an individual’s personality. In The Secret Doctrine, the fact of reincarnation is assumed, but the details are not of much concern. In The Key to Theosophy, which was intended for a general and popular readership, more particular attention is paid to the subject. In the work of second-generation theosophists like Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, reincarnation assumed the focal role it has had ever since in much theosophical thinking and was given detailed attention in works like Leadbeater’s Lives of Alcyone, in which the rebirths of some individuals were clairvoyantly traced over long periods of time.
The analysis of the human constitution into distinct components or principles is characteristic of Theosophy, but in Isis Unveiled, only three major components (body, soul, and spirit) are recognized. In The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett and afterwards, the component principles are seven in number, but their exact identity varies to include various of the following: (1) stula-sarira (dense physical body), (2) linga-sarira (subtle vital body, variously named “double,” “astral body,” and “etheric body”), (3) prana (vital energy), (4) kama (desire or passions, later also called “astral body”), (5) manas (mind), (6) lower manas (concrete or empirical mind), (7) higher manas (abstract or pure mind or “causal body”), (8) buddhi (intuition or intelligence), (9) the auric egg or envelope, and (10) atma (Self). Second-generation theosophists tended to talk less about such coordinate principles than about a single consciousness functioning through a variety of vehicles or bodies, an option also sometimes used by Blavatsky (following the lead of T. Subba Row, who favored a five-fold system).
Because the explicit ideas are thus variable in their formulation and expression, it is to the more general and stable concepts that one must look for the basis of Blavatskyan as well as later modern theosophy.
Traditional Theosophy. Modern theosophy sees itself as a present-day exponent in the line of traditional theosophy, whose earlier exponents include Pythagoras and his school (6th century BCE), Gnostics like Valentinus and Basilides (2nd century), Neo-Platonists like Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, Porphyry, Hypatia, and Proclus (2nd–5th centuries), medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260 – ca. 1328), Renaissance mystics like Nicholas of Cusa (1401–64), Paracelsus (ca. 1490–1541), Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mystics like Jakob Boehme (1575–1624) and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). Western movements like Kabbalah, Hermeticism, and Alchemy have strong theosophical components. In the East, the Vedic Upani±ads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Mahayana Buddhism, Sufism, and Taoism are all pronouncedly theosophical.
The similarities that unite the thinkers and teachings of the foregoing list are widely recognized by scholars, who apply the term “theosophical” to them. A unifying factor among these otherwise diverse philosophies is the conviction that it is possible to have a direct or mystical perception of an inner reality or truth not conventionally available. Many of them also share certain other specific concepts. Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, for example, held that
- numbers are the essential nature of all things, expressed through musical harmony and proportions,
- the world is the product of the interaction of pairs of opposites, such as wet-dry and cold-hot,
- contemplation of symbols like the tetraktys, the golden section, and the harmony of the spheres can lead to the discovery of truth,
- the individual soul can be united with the divine through a process of spiritual purification (comparable to yogic discipline), provided by the study of philosophy,
- the soul progresses toward its divine union by a series of reincarnations,
- all beings are kin, hence the sexes are equal, slaves merit respect, animals deserve humane treatment, and
- the earth is a sphere that revolves around a fixed point.
The Gnostics were a diverse group, including Jewish, Christian, and pagan varieties. They are often associated with a form of dualism and particularly with an identification of matter as evil; but the essential feature of Gnosticism, as indicated by the name of the group, is its acceptance of a direct knowledge of reality (gnosis) as the means of salvation or enlightenment. The Gnostics taught that within the human being is a divine spark that has descended from the divine and that can be reunited with its source in the spiritual world. Some of the Gnostics developed elaborate schemata of emanations between ultimate reality and the phenomenal world and described the creation of the world by a demiurge, thus accounting for its imperfections.
The Neo-Platonists, with whom Blavatsky recognized a close affinity, held such typically theosophical doctrines as the following:
- The cosmos is a vast ordered system including many levels and types of existences.
- At the center of this order is the One or the Good, an incomprehensible, absolute Unity.
- The One emanates a divine mind or reason (Logos), which reflects the perfection of the One in a multitude of individual entities in the realm of Nous or Intellect.
- The Logos in turn emanates the World Soul, from which comes the sensible world of matter.
- Emanation from unity to multiplicity, as well as hierarchy and archetypal correspondences unite these four: the One, the Logos, the World Soul, the World.
- Human beings can rise by contemplation to the level of the intellectual world of the Logos and to mystical union with the One, which can be known only by such union.
NeoPlatonism, which was the last development of Greek pagan philosophy, has been the most prominent form of traditional theosophy in the Western world. It influenced major movements and figures like St. Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, Kabbalistic writers, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, John Scotus Erigena, the Cambridge Platonists, William Blake, and others in the tradition mentioned above.
Meister Eckhart was a Dominican mystical theologian who described four stages in our understanding of the relationship between the individual and the divine: dissimilarity (God is everything and the individual is nothing); similarity (the soul is an image of God), identity (the divine is internalized in the human so that the divine and the human are one), and breakthrough (the Godhead is beyond our concepts of God, which exist only because we do).
Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church who recognized that the earth is a sphere revolving on its axis around the sun, taught that ultimate truth is beyond our knowing. He also taught that humanity is the microcosm of God’s macrocosm and that the divine unites all apparent opposites, being, for example, both transcendent and immanent.
Paracelsus (Theophrastus von Hohenheim), a Swiss physician and alchemist, whose penname means “beyond Celsus” (a famous Roman physician), valued imagination as a magical, creative power above reason. At the same time he was a pioneer in pharmaceutical chemistry and stressed the healing powers of nature, to foster which, we need only prevent infection. He was an influence on Jakob Boehme, particularly in the theory of signatures, a type of correspondence in which a feature (shape, color, etc.) of a natural object indicates its nature and hence usefulness in medicine.
Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk burned by the Inquisition for heresy, distinguished between the unknowable absolute and the relative world, in which all perception depends upon the position from which we perceive. He taught that a divine principle pervades the world and manifests as the basic units of being or monads. He defended intellectual freedom and tolerance and was influential on later philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz.
Jakob Boehme was a shoemaker who in his mid-twenties had a brief mystical experience that was a turning point in his life. He saw God as the “abyss,” the no-thing and all-things, from which individual beings manifest. One of his works is entitled Six Theosophic Points.
Emanuel Swedenborg was a scientist and engineer who later in his life had visions in which he spoke with angels and other spirits and was instructed in the esoteric meaning of the scriptures. He held that the ultimate being of God cannot be comprehended but that his nature can be understood through the qualities of love and wisdom. The order of the universe is seen in “series and degrees,” a cosmic hierarchy. The end of creation is the formation of a “maximus homo” or “greatest human,” a collective of perfected human and angelic beings.
Kabbalism (meaning in Hebrew “that which is received” or “tradition”) interprets the scriptures esoterically, especially by techniques of verbal and numerical equivalences, to reveal a system describing the emanation of the world from its divine source, the reincarnation of souls, and the redemption of the “sparks” from the fallen world. (See KABBALAH.)
Hermeticism was a system of metaphysical philosophy and of theurgy based on works attributed to the Egyptian god Thoth, called in Greek Hermes Trismegistus (Hermes Thrice-greatest). It was influential on third-century Neo-Platonists and seventeenth-century esotericists.
Alchemy in its vulgar form was concerned with transmuting base metals into gold or discovering an elixir to prolong life. In its philosophical form, however, alchemy dealt with the perfection of imperfect nature in all its forms.
The Upanisads are philosophical treatises interpreting Vedic concepts and practices in a symbolic way. A central Upanishaic doctrine is that the individual self (atma) is one with the Absolute (Brahman).
The Bhagavad-Gita is a philosophical and moral treatise reconciling the ways of action, devotion, and knowledge as paths to the realization of the individual’s unity with the divine.
Mahayana (literally, “the great vehicle”) Buddhism is so called because its adherents are supposed to aspire to bodhisattvahood, the renunciation of individual freedom until all beings are able to be liberated. Of the many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, some are markedly esoteric and theosophical in their teachings.
Sufism, a mystical school of Islam, celebrates the union of the soul with god in lyrical poetry and ecstatic accounts. A semi-monastic order centered in Persia, Sufism emphasizes a bhakti-like immediate experience of the divine.
Taoism is a form of philosophical quietism advocating action without effort by following the natural course of things (the Tao). Later developments of Taoism were influenced by esoteric Mahayana and Chinese alchemy.
These and other philosophies and movements, although diverse and culturally limited in their expressions, are sufficiently similar in certain interests and views to be grouped together as “traditional theosophy.” Nor does the foregoing list exhaust the candidates for membership in that tradition. William W. Quinn, Jr, in his study The Only Tradition, mentions as well the following: Thales, Heraclitus, Plato, Mencius, Philo, Clement, Origen, Iamblicus, Avicenna, Ibn ’Arabi, Psellus, Ockham, St. Bernard, Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, Ficino, Pico, Steuchus, Nostradamus, Fludd, Bacon, Law, St. Martin, Mead, Waite, Steiner, Coomaraswamy, Guénon, and Schuon.
Quinn also identifies as among the “first principles” of traditional theosophy (or simply “the Tradition”) the following:
- an amorphic and inexpressible absolute Unity,
- aeviternity, an “everlasting immanent duration,” the eternal here and now,
- periodicity or cyclicity, including reincarnation and evolution,
- polarity or duality, synthesized as a coincidentia oppositorum,
- cause and effect, and
- gnoseology, prajña, or intellectual intuition, the direct perception of truth, which implies
- hierarchy in the universe and the human constitution, correspondences, a spiritual elite, degrees of initiation, siddhis or latent powers, and so on.
Modern Theosophy, which includes all those principles, clearly belongs to this series as a contemporary expression, with its own focus and tone, of that tradition.
Primordial Theosophy. Primordial Theosophy by definition is something whose historical development cannot be traced and which can be known only by gnosis or through its reflection in forms of traditional theosophy. It is postulated by modern Theosophy as the basis of itself and of all other expressions of traditional theosophy. Its reality is affirmed by Blavatsky and her teachers in such statements as the following:
Wisdom Religion. The one religion which underlies all the now-existing creeds. That “faith” which, being primordial, and revealed directly to human kind by their progenitors and informing Egos . . . required no “grace,” nor blind faith to believe, for it was knowledge. . . . It is on this Wisdom Religion that Theosophy is based. (Theosophical Glossary 370–1)
The “Wisdom religion” is the inheritance of all the nations, the world over. (SD I:18)
The “Wisdom-religion” was one in antiquity; and the sameness of primitive religious philosophy is proven to us by the identical doctrines taught to the Initiates during the MYSTERIES, an institution once universally diffused. “All the old worships indicate the existence of a single Theosophy anterior to them.” (Key to Theosophy 4)
Doubt not, my friend: it is but from the very top of those “adamantine rocks” of ours, not at their foot, that one is ever enabled to perceive the whole Truth, by embracing the whole limitless horizon. (ML, p. 136)
From such comments, it is clear that Primordial Theosophy has a number of characteristics: It is universal. It is unified. It is comprehensive. It underlies all particular religious philosophies. It is conveyed to initiates in the Mysteries. It was in the first place revealed to humanity by spiritually advanced beings who were the culture heroes and in some sense the ancestors of our species. It is not accepted on faith but experienced as direct knowledge. And in that process, it is tested and proved anew by each Adept.
Primordial Theosophy is the timeless Truth expressed in manifold, supplementary ways in the religions, philosophies, and sciences of the world.
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