The Word Foundation


Harold W. Percival



Section 29

The Theosophical Movement. The teachings of Theosophy.

One of the signs of the times is the Theosophical Movement. The Theosophical Society appeared with a message and a mission. It presented to the world what it called Theosophy, old teachings which until then had been reserved to a few: of a brotherhood of students, of karma and of reincarnation, of a sevenfold constitution of man and of the universe, and of the perfectibility of man. The acceptance of these teachings allows one a glimpse of himself as few other doctrines do. This revelation of ancient knowledge was given out as coming from certain teachers called by the Sanskrit name Mahatmas, who had renounced nirvana or moksha and remained in human bodies, to be of help as Elder Brothers to the “souls” who were still bound to the wheel of rebirth.

The source through whom these teachings came was a Russian woman, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who was the only person, it was stated, who was psychically fitted and trained, and who was willing, to receive and to spread them. Her assistants from the first were two New York lawyers, Henry S. Olcott and William Q. Judge. These teachings referred for corroboration to Sanskrit literature and used many of its terms, and so started the Eastern Movement with its missionaries to the West. Only Sanskrit had a terminology which, though foreign, would lend itself to express aspects of the inner life which were unknown in the West. Not only Sanskrit but many other records are mentioned; however, the influence of the Indian literature prevails.

The Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875, was the first to plow the ground. It had to do hard work in unfriendly times. It had to bring to general notice teachings which were foreign and unusual. H. P. Blavatsky produced psychic phenomena which, though insignificant in themselves, attracted and held the attention of people until a general interest was created. The teachings presented in the literature are mere outlines, but they set people to thinking as nothing else had done.

By the light of these teachings man is seen to be not a puppet in the hands of an omnipotent being, nor to be driven by a blind force, nor to be the plaything of circumstances. Man is seen to be the creator and arbiter of his own fate. It is made plain that man may and will attain through repeated “incarnations” to a degree of perfection far beyond his present conceptions; that as examples of this state, reached after many incarnations, there must be now living in human bodies, “souls” who have attained to wisdom and who are what the ordinary man will be in the future. These doctrines were enough to satisfy human needs. They offered what the natural sciences and religions lacked. They appealed to the reason, they appealed to the heart, they placed an intimate relation between the intellect and morals.

These teachings have made their impress on many phases of modern thought. Scientists, writers and followers of other modern movements borrowed from this fund of information, though not always consciously. Theosophy, more than any other movement, shaped the tendency to freedom in religious thought, brought a new light to searchers and made for a kindly feeling towards others. Theosophy has largely removed the fear of death and of the future. It has given to man a freedom which no other form of belief had conferred. Even though the teachings are not definite, they are at least full of suggestions; and where they are not systematic they were more workable than anything proclaimed in religions.

Those that could not stand the light that shone through the information and suggestions of Theosophy, were often its enemies. The most active enemies in the early days were Christian missionaries in India. Yet some theosophists have done more than any enemies could do to belittle the name of Theosophy, and have made its teachings appear ridiculous. Becoming members of a society did not make people theosophers. The charges of the world against members of the Theosophical Society are often true. Thinking and feeling brotherhood would at least have brought the spirit of fellowship into the life of the members. Acting instead from the low level of personal aims, they let their baser nature assert itself. The desire to lead, petty jealousy and bickerings, split the first Theosophical Society into parts after the death of Blavatsky, and again after the death of Judge.

Pretenders, each assuming to be a mouthpiece of a Mahatma, quoted Mahatmas and presented messages from them. Each side, claiming to have messages, assumed to know their will, much as the bigoted sectarian claims to know and to do the will of God. Impostors and spooks are more likely to have been the moving spirits of some of these theosophical societies. It seems incredible that the claims printed in some of the theosophical magazines and books since 1895 should have been made. The doctrine of reincarnation in its theosophic sense has been made ridiculous by such theosophists, who asserted a knowledge of their past lives and of the lives of others,—indeed giving absurd lines of descent through past “incarnations.”

Most interest was shown in the astral states and the display of psychic phenomena. The attitude of such theosophists made it appear that philosophy was forgotten. The astral states were sought and entered by some; and, coming under its glamour, many became victims of that deceptive light. From the publications and actions of these people it would seem that many of them were in the slums and lees of the astral states without seeing the better side.

Brotherhood appeared only in print on ceremonial occasions. The actions of the theosophists show that its meaning has been forgotten, if ever understood. Karma, if talked about, is a stereotyped phrase and has an empty sound. The teachings of reincarnation and the seven principles are repeated in hackneyed and lifeless terms and lack the understanding required for growth and progress. The members cling to terms they do not understand. Religious formalism has crept in.

The Theosophical Society of 1875 was the recipient and dispenser of great truths. The “karma” of those who have failed to perform their work in the Theosophical Society will reach farther than that of those in the psychic or other mental movements, because members of the Theosophical Society had information of the law of karma, action.