The Theosophical Society held its first regular meeting on November 17th, 1875 in New York City (Campbell 29). The Society had been envisioned only two months prior by its first President, American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, supported by his fast friend, the German-Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Campbell 27), or H. P. B., as she preferred to be called (Campbell 2). To distinguish itself from other organizations (Campbell 78), the Society claimed three essential goals: to create a universal brotherhood, to compare humanity’s diverse ways of knowing, and to gain a better understanding of the hidden laws of nature and the abilities which lay dormant within humans (Scott 179). Rather than asserting a single doctrine for its members, the Society embraced an eclectic method of research, examining all religions and the Absolute Truth being pointed to by each of them (Olcott 58). Merriam-Webster defines theosophy itself as a way of coming to know the divine through mystical experiences. Similarly, in India, it was translated as brahmavidya, meaning the study or knowledge of the divine (Ingalls 87). The Theosophical Society would go on to have broad influence across the globe, with special relevance to the revival of Hinduism in India, and its heightened popularity in the West.
The Society was inspired by a number of previous traditions, such as American Transcendentalism and Spiritualism, which were in vogue during the 1870s (Campbell 9, 20), as well as Occultism (Campbell 10) and Free Masonry (Campbell 12). While these traditions were in part a response to existing dilemmas within Christianity (Campbell 9), the Theosophical Society very quickly began to align itself more with Eastern traditions than those of the West (Campbell 87). This shift toward the “Orient” became clear in 1879, when founders Olcott and Blavatasky moved the headquarters of the Theosophical Society first to Bombay, and then on to Adyar, south Chennai (then Madras), Tamil Nadu, India in 1882 (Campbell 78, Cranston xiv).
The Society rapidly grew in size and influence after Blavatsky and Olcott’s arrival in India, due in part to the moderate success of their magazine, The Theosophist, which they had co-founded with Alfred Percy Sinnett (Morrisson 8), and to their deep reverence for India as well, which warmed many locals to their cause (Campbell 79). More than one hundred Theosophical Society branches were opened within five years of Blavatsky and Olcott’s arrival to India (Campbell 86). Most locals who joined the Society were of the Brahmin class, and had been educated in the British schooling system, which left them torn between the religion of their childhood and the rationalism in which they were trained (Bevir 104). The reconciliation, which the Society offered, between the ideologies of Hinduism and science (Bevir 104) was another significant reason for the rapid growth of the Society.
This ability to reconcile the “old” and the “new” was one of the characteristics of Neo-Hinduism, a movement which was instrumental in reigniting India’s passion for her own religious history (Bevir 105). The Theosophists were a major landmark on the map of Neo-Hinduism, along with the Brahmo Sabha and Arya Samaj movements (Bevir 105). Blavatsky’s choice to attribute the purest source of ancient wisdom to India, rather than Egypt or any other Eastern country, connected well with the Samajists in particular, who sought to bring back the sanatana dharma of the Vedas (Campbell 77). The Samajists and the Theosophical Society were already closely connected prior to Blavatsky and Olcott’s arrival in India, and united into a single organization for a brief period of time before Olcott and Blavatsky came to realize that the organizations had too many significant differences (Campbell 77). Their biggest concern was that the Arya Samaj organization, which was founded by Swami Dayanand Sarasvati in 1875 (Campbell 77), asserted the absolute superiority of Hinduism (Bevir 105), which went directly against the eclectic stance of Theosophy. Although their formal ties were dissolved, the impact of these Neo-Hindu organizations continued to shape the future of society and religion within India for many years to come.
In 1884, only two years after the move to Adyar, controversy overtook the Theosophical Society. Emma and Alexis Coulomb were old acquaintances of Madame Blavatksy’s, who had worked as members of the staff in Adyar until being discharged (Campbell 88). Seemingly in anger at their dismissal (Cranston 266), the Coulombs sent forty letters of reputed communication between Madame Blavatsky and Madame Coulomb to the Christian College Magazine; the letters indicated widespread fraud on Blavatsky’s part (Campbell 88). Although H. P. B. wanted to take the Coulombs to court, Olcott and the rest of the Society barred her from doing so, fearful of the trial becoming an attack on their beliefs rather than on Madame Blavatsky herself (Campbell 91, Cranston 280). Fierce debate on the authenticity of the Coulomb letters continued for some time thereafter (Cranston 270-272).
The fires of the debates around the so-called Coulomb Affair were fanned by Richard Hodgson when he released a damning report on the Theosophists for the British Society for Psychical Research in late 1885. He determined that everything he saw during his time with the Theosophical Society was deeply fraudulent (Campbell 93), despite his friendly opinion of Theosophy prior to his arrival in Adyar (Cranston 277). Although some have accused Hodgson’s report of being deeply biased (Cranston 277), his judgement had widespread influence on the court of public opinion. However, in an unexpected turn of events, this attack upon the Society went on to cause its global popularity to rise, rather than to diminish (Cranston 284).
Following this dramatic period, Madame Blavatsky experienced a brief and life-threatening illness, and consequently resigned as the Theosophical Society’s secretary and leader of the Esoteric Section in March 1885. H. P. B. moved to Europe, where she bonded with Annie Besant, began to print her second magazine, Lucifer, and founded the Blavatsky Lodge of London in 1887 (Cranston xv). She remained in England until her death at age sixty on May 8, 1891 (Cranston 407). Colonel Olcott, however, had remained in Adyar after Blavatsky’s departure to Europe in 1885, touring throughout India and working to rebuild the Society’s reputation in the wake of the Coulomb Affair (Campbell 95).
Despite Olcott’s existing position as President, there was a four year struggle over who would lead the Esoteric Section of the Society following Madame Blavatsky’s death (Campbell 103). The struggle was ultimately ended when the man behind Theosophical expansion in the United States, and fellow competitor for the role of Esoteric Section leader, William Quan Judge, spearheaded a secession from Olcott’s Theosophy, declaring “The Theosophical Society in America” as separate in 1895 (Campbell 111). Olcott remained at the head of the Society at Adyar until his death in 1907, when the Englishwoman Annie Besant ran to succeed him as the Society’s President, and won by a large majority (Campbell 118).
Besant had been politically active in England, advocating for socialism, contraceptives, and atheism before ultimately aiming her sights on Theosophy (Ingalls 85). She moved quickly through the Society’s ranks, becoming so trusted that she would go on to speak as one of the representatives of Theosophy at the first World Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, only four years after she had joined the Society (Campbell 102). Mahatma Gandhi himself held Besant in very high esteem after having met her and Blavatsky in London, and had some of his own spiritual beliefs shaped by his time with the Theosophists (Bergunder 406). Annie Besant moved to India in the same year as the World’s Fair (Mortimer 61), where she became interested in Colonel Olcott’s early initiatives to improve the lives of the Dalits (Campbell 114).
Following Olcott’s death and her consequent election as President, Besant endeavoured to build upon the work which Olcott had previously started; she focused on reformation of religion, education, and problematic social norms in particular (Mortimer 61). Some of her most important accomplishments included founding the Central Hindu College in Banaras, the Adyar Library (Ingalls 86), raising the marriageable age of girls, and stoking the flames of Indian nationalism (Mortimer 61, 62). Besant also produced an exceptional amount of literature for the Theosophical Society, wrote a much respected translation of the Bhagavad Gita and studied other classical Sanskrit works; moreover, she declared India as her own land of spiritual origin, claiming to have lived there in at least nineteen of her previous lives (Ingalls 86).
Besant turned her focus to politics in 1913, when she formed the Brothers of India group and published a book entitled Wake Up India! (Mortimer 64). Shortly thereafter, she joined the Indian National Congress, and began publishing a weekly newspaper, The Commonweal, which outlined a plan of Indian independence (Verma & Bakshi 292). Besant then purchased and renamed the New India daily newspaper in 1914, using it to support an idea of Indian Home Rule (Mortimer 65) which she fashioned after the Irish Home Rule movements (Ingalls 87). Besant supported universal suffrage and a complex democratic system of jurisdictions and electorates (Mortimer 68), and worked tirelessly across India throughout World War I until she was placed under house-arrest by the government in June 1917 (Mortimer 73). This action pushed the debates on Indian independence to a breaking point (Mortimer 75); between August and December of 1917, the Secretary of State for India announced the imminence of the nation’s independence, and Annie Besant was freed and elected President of the Indian National Congress (Mortimer 76), the only Western woman ever elected to this position (qtd. in Bevir 112).
Throughout her life with the Society, Besant was closely tied to fellow Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater (Ingalls 88), an Anglican priest-turned-Buddhist (Campbell 114). Leadbeater’s reputation crumbled in 1906, when he was formally accused of pedophilia (Vas 1); the accusations, coming from young boys, centered around his recommendations of masturbation as an occult practice. While the Theosophical Society accepted his resignation in response to these allegations (Campbell 116), Leadbeater was controversially reinstated to the Society only a year later, following Besant’s election to the Presidency (Tillett 33).
Two years after his reinstatement, Leadbeater discovered the young Jiddu Krishnamurti living with his family at Adyar, and promptly declared him to be the next great World Teacher and vehicle for the Christ (Campbell 120). Annie Besant worked with Leadbeater to gain custody of Jiddu and his brother, Nityananda (Campbell 120), after which they sent the boys to England for further education during World War I (Ingalls 88). Although their father attempted to regain custody of his sons twice, once after their move overseas and once following Leadbeater’s alleged sexual assault of Jiddu, Mr. Krishnamurti’s attempts were unsuccessful, and Leadbeater remained very much a part of the boys’ lives (Vas 2).
While Nityananda was accepted to Oxford, Jiddu was not, allowing him to train full time for the day when he would officially become the next World Teacher (Vas 3). He was thought to have taken on the role in 1925, and Annie Besant consequently suspended the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, deeming it unnecessary (Campbell 129). An organization was built around Krishnamurti, called The Order of the Star in the East (Campbell 121), which grew throughout the 1920s, but was dissolved by Krishnamurti himself in 1929 (Campbell 129). While he went on to be a prolific lecturer and author, Krishnamurti left the Theosophical Society in 1930 (Campbell 147). Annie Besant died only three years after Krishnamurti’s departure, allegedly of a broken heart (Ingalls 88); her position as Society President was filled shortly thereafter by George Arundale (Campbell 130). However, the success which Krishnamurti found throughout his adult life, until his death in 1986, left some wondering if he was the World Teacher that Theosophy had promised after all (Vas 5).
Krishnamurti’s international fame (Campbell 148) serves as an excellent example of the way in which the Theosophical Society and many of its charismatic members helped to revive Hinduism in India and to popularize it in the West. While the effects in the West may be less noticeable, they are just as influential. Perhaps most importantly, Krishnamurti’s beliefs regarding meditation became popular in Hollywood, drawing many celebrities to his side, including Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo (Altman 213). Much of Krishnamurti’s appeal seems rooted in the disillusionment which many North Americans were feeling with Protestant Christianity at the time; furthermore, the meditative, inward-looking nature of his teachings – and those of the other Yogic teachers active during the same period, such as Yogananda and Vivekananda – allowed Americans to participate in “Americanized” Hindu practices without their fellow citizens noticing (Altman 213).
By the turn of the century, Americans were well-acquainted with the Theosophical Society; William Quan Judge’s schismatic organization, the Theosophical Society in America, already had seventy-one active branches within the United States by the year 1900 (qtd. in Morrisson 8). Theosophical ideas, such as the universalism and Unitarianism that Krishnamurti championed, formed a kind of bridge between the American disenchantment with Protestantism and their embrace of Asian religions. One can see the powerful effects of these Theosophical ideas still influencing spirituality today, especially in the current vigour for “neo-Vedantic” spiritual discourses formed largely within the context of Hinduism, such as those of Amritanandamayi Ma, better known as Amma (Huffer 377, 378). Although Amma’s teachings are rooted in Advaita philosophy, and she praises many aspects of Hinduism, she promotes non-denominational spirituality above all else (Huffer 377) – much as the Theosophists would have done, and continue to do.
The Theosophical Society in America still functions within the United States and internationally, simultaneously with the Theosophical Society at Adyar. These organizations are only two of the many spiritual movements which can find their roots within the rich, albeit short, history of Theosophy and its membership.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Altman, Michael J. (2016) “The Construction of Hinduism in America.” Religion Compass 10 #8: 207-216.
Bergunder, Michael (2014) “Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and
Global Religious History.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 82: 398-426.
Bevir, Mark (2003) “Theosophy and the Origins of the Indian National Congress.” International
Journal of Hindu Studies 7 #1/3: 99-115
Campbell, Bruce (1980) Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Cranston, Sylvia (1993) H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky,
Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Huffer, Amanda J. (2011) “Hinduism Without Religion: Amma’s Movement in America.” Cross
Currents 61 #3: 374-398.
Ingalls, Daniel H.H. (1965) “The Heritage of a Fallible Saint: Annie Besant’s Gifts to India”
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 109 #2: 85-88.
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theosophy
Morrisson, Mark S. (2008) “The periodical culture of the occult revival: esoteric wisdom,
Modernity, and counter-public spheres.” Journal of Modern Literature 31 #2: 1-22.
Mortimer, Joanne Stafford (1983) “Annie Besant and India 1913-1917.” Journal of
Contemporary History 18 #1: 61-78.
Olcott, Henry Steel (1885) Theosophy, Religion and Occult Science. London: G. Redway.
Scott, J. Barton (2016) Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule.
Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
Tillett, Gregory (2012) “Modern Western Magic and Theosophy.” Aries 12: 17-51
Vas, Luis S.R. (2004) J. Krishnamurti Great Liberator or Failed Messiah? Delhi: Motilal
Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Verma, B.R., and S.R. Bakshi (eds.) (2005) British Policy and Indian Nationalism (1858-1919).
New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers.
Related Topics for Further Investigation:
Amma (Amritanandamayi Ma)
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott
Indian National Congress
The Order of the Star in the East
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic:
This article was written by: Jamie Lewis (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.