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"We assert that the divine spark in man being one and identical in its essence with the Universal Spirit, our "spiritual Self" is practically omniscient, but that it cannot manifest its knowledge owing to the impediments of matter. Now the more these impediments are removed, in other words, the more the physical body is paralyzed, as to its own independent activity and consciousness, as in deep sleep or deep trance, or, again, in illness, the more fully can the inner Self manifest on this plane. This is our explanation of those truly wonderful phenomena of a higher order, in which undeniable intelligence and knowledge are exhibited. " --Madame Blavatsky
"...we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell." --The Socrates of Plato's Phaedrus
To the philosopher, the body is "a disturbing element, hindering the soul from the acquisition of knowledge....What is purification but...the release of the soul from the chains of the body?" The Socrates of Plato's Phaedo
"Mme. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, a multivolume work, is such a melee of horrendous hogwash and of fertile inventions of inane esoterica, that any Buddhist and Tibetan scholar is justified to avoid mentioning it in any context." --Agehananda Bharati (Leopold Fischer)
Theosophy, or divine wisdom, refers either to the mysticism of philosophers who believe that they can understand the nature of some god by direct apprehension, without revelation, or it refers to the esotericism of eclectic collectors of mystical and occult philosophies who claim to be handing down the great secrets of some ancient wisdom.
Theosophical mysticism is indebted to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), Plotinus (204/5-270) and other neo-Platonists, and Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), among others. It experienced its last great Western philosophical burst in 19th century German Idealism. The mystical tradition continues to be a strong element in many non-Western philosophies, such as Indian philosophy.
Theosophic esotericism begins with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) usually known as Madame Blavatsky, one of the co-founders of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. The esoteric theosophical tradition of Blavatsky is indebted to several philosophical and religious traditions: Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the cabala, among others.
Her harshest critics consider Madame Blavatsky to be "one of most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history."* Her devoted followers consider her to be a saint and a genius. [They claim she discovered the true nature of light either by clairvoyance or intuition alone, without any need for scientific training or communication with other scientists.] Since these characteristics are not contradictory, it is possible she was both a fraud and a saintly genius. Much of what is believed about Blavatsky originates with Madame herself, her devoted followers or her enemies. Nevertheless, a few things seem less dubious than others. She seems clearly to have been widely traveled and widely read. Blavatsky claims she spent several years in Tibet and India being initiated into occult mysteries by various "masters" (mahatmas or adepts) especially the Masters Morya and Koot Hoomi, who had "astral" bodies. These Adepts were said to dwell in the Himalayas, Egypt, Tibet and other exotic places. They are known for their extraordinary psychic powers and are the sacred keepers of some mysterious "Ancient Wisdom". They are not divine, she said, but more highly evolved than the rest of us mere mortals. (Evolution, according to Blavatsky, is a spiritual process.) Their goal is to unite all humanity in a Great White Brotherhood, despite the fact that they dwell in the remotest regions of the world and apparently have as little contact with the rest of us as possible.
Blavatsky seems clearly to have had an overpowering personality. She was knowledgeable of the tricks of spiritualists, having worked for one in Egypt, and in the early days of the Theosophical Society seems clearly to have used trickery to deceive others into thinking she had paranormal powers. She most certainly faked the materialization of a tea cup and saucer, as well as written messages from her Masters, presumably to enhance her credibility. She certainly claimed to have paranormal experiences, but whether she really believed she was clairvoyant or possessed psychic powers, I can't say.
In 1875 she founded the Theosophical Society in New York City in collaboration with Henry Steele Olcott, a lawyer and writer, and W. Q. Judge. She met Olcott in 1874 while he was investigating the spiritualism of the Eddy brothers in Vermont. They continued to meet with other like-minded seekers and together founded their society. A few years later, she and Olcott went to India together and established Theosophical headquarters there. She left under a cloud of suspicion in 1885, having been accused of faking materializations of teachings from her Masters. Back in Europe in 1888 she published her major work The Secret Doctrine. The book "is an attempt...to reconcile science, the Ancient Wisdom, and human culture through...cosmology, history, religion, and symbolism." (Ellwood) According to Blavatsky herself, "The chief aim of the...Theosophical Society [was] to reconcile all religions, sects and nations under a common system of ethics, based on eternal verities."
She did not reject religions such as Christianity and Hinduism, but claimed that all religions have an exoteric and an esoteric tradition. The exoteric traditions are unique and distinct for each religion. The esoteric doctrine is the same for all. She claimed to be passing on the wisdom of the shared esoteric doctrines. And even though she had an early association with spiritualism, she eventually claimed that "the spirits of the dead cannot return to earth -- save in rare and exceptional cases...."
One might wonder why, if Theosophy is so ancient and universal, it was so unknown until 1875. Madame had an answer. This was due to "willing ignorance". We humans have lost "real spiritual insight" because we are too devoted to "things of sense" and have for too long been slaves "to the dead letter of dogma and ritualism." "But the strongest reason for it," she said, " lies in the fact that real Theosophy has ever been kept secret." There were several reasons why it was kept secret. "...Firstly, the perversity of average human nature and its selfishness, always tending to the gratification of personal desires to the detriment of neighbours and next of kin. Such people could never be entrusted with divine secrets. Secondly, their unreliability to keep the sacred and divine knowledge from desecration. It is the latter that led to the perversion of the most sublime truths and symbols, and to the gradual transformation of things spiritual into anthropomorphic, concrete, and gross imagery -- in other words, to the dwarfing of the god-idea and to idolatry." [The Key to Theosophy] One wonders, what in the world was any different in the late 19th century? If at that time humans were any less perverse, selfish, materialistic, profane, etc., than they had ever been, this should come as a great shock to all social historians.
What was this "Ancient Wisdom" which the theosophists promised to share? It is truly an eclectic compilation of Hindu, Egyptian, Gnostic and other exotic scriptures and teachings, neo-Platonism, and stories like the Atlantis myth. These are philosophies and stories for those who shake and quiver at the sound of such words as secret, special, spiritual, enlightenment, transformation, esoteric, occult, divine, ancient wisdom, cosmic, vision, dynamics, golden, Isis, mysteries and masters. They promise escape from the evils of the world, especially the body, while providing an explanation for Evil. They claim to know that the reason spiritual progress is so slow in coming is because of all this horrible stuff in the universe called "matter." They promise the power of divinity while providing an explanation for miracles which takes them out of the realm of the supernatural and puts the believer into the center of the spiritual universe. They promise union with some great moral purpose while offering membership in an isolated society of very special beings. But, probably the biggest attraction to joining such an esoteric society is that you don't have to go to college and you don't have to read Kant.
What you do need, though, is a penchant for the occult. This is dangerous stuff, according to Blavatsky, but theosophy can help.
When ignorant of the true meaning of the esoteric divine symbols of nature, man is apt to miscalculate the powers of his soul, and, instead of communing spiritually and mentally with the higher, celestial beings, the good spirits (the gods of the theurgiests of the Platonic school), he will unconsciously call forth the evil, dark powers which lurk around humanity -- the undying, grim creations of human crimes and vices -- and thus fall from theurgia (white magic) into goetia (or black magic, sorcery). [What Is Theosophy?]
According to Madame, "...no one can be a true Occultist without being a real Theosophist; otherwise he is simply a black magician, whether conscious or unconscious. " She even thought that mesmerism and hypnotism were occult arts.
Occult sciences are not, as described in Encyclopaedias, "those imaginary sciences of the Middle Ages which related to the supposed action or influence of Occult qualities or supernatural powers, as alchemy, magic, necromancy, and astrology," for they are real, actual, and very dangerous sciences. They teach the secret potency of things in Nature, developing and cultivating the hidden powers "latent in man," thus giving him tremendous advantages over more ignorant mortals. Hypnotism, now become so common and a subject of serious scientific inquiry, is a good instance in point. Hypnotic power has been discovered almost by accident, the way to it having been prepared by mesmerism; and now an able hypnotizer can do almost anything with it, from forcing a man, unconsciously to himself, to play the fool, to making him commit a crime -- often by proxy for the hypnotizer, and for the benefit of the latter. Is not this a terrible power if left in the hands of unscrupulous persons? And please to remember that this is only one of the minor branches of Occultism. [The Key to Theosophy]
Blavatksy may have thought she understood the secret of the divine essence, but it's more likely she just stumbled on the secret of hypnosis or mesmerism. However, I believe she was right when she claimed that "...the ecstatic trance of mystics and of the modern mesmerists and spiritualists, are identical in nature, though various as to manifestation." [What Is Theosophy?] I believe that none of these so-called "trance" states is a unique state of consciousness, though they are states of mind, states governed by social role-playing rules, a position argued for by many contemporary psychologists including Nicholas P. Spanos.
Where are the plaudits?
The reader may wonder why theosophy isn't universally recognized as the salvation of mankind. For some it may have been the messenger which kept them away. Many people are not likely to take seriously a Russian noblewoman who claimed to have had childhood visions of a tall Hindu who eventually materialized in Hyde Park and became her guru and advisor. Many skeptics scoff at her noble origins and subsequent employment as a circus performer and séance assistant, plus we take seriously the charges of deception for whatever noble motive. For others, it may be the doctrines which keep us away. Despite the stated moral goals, and the desire for peace on earth and good will toward men and women, there is the small problem of astral bodies, evolution of spiritual races, Aryans, paranormal powers, Atlantis, the so-called Ancient Wisdom, etc. To some this may seem better than the Incarnation, transubstantiation and the Trinity, but to skeptics this is just more metaphysical codswallop. Finally, others may be repelled by the self-discipline required of theosophy.
...the foremost rule of all is the entire renunciation of one's personality -- i. e., a pledged member has to become a thorough altruist, never to think of himself, and to forget his own vanity and pride in the thought of the good of his fellow-creatures, besides that of his fellow-brothers in the esoteric circle. He has to live, if the esoteric instructions shall profit him, a life of abstinence in everything, of self-denial and strict morality, doing his duty by all men.
"...every member must be either a philanthropist, or a scholar, a searcher into Aryan and other old literature, or a psychic student." (The Key to Theosophy)
It is not an easy life, pursuing the path of the mahatmas and the Ancient Wisdom, striving to unite all humankind into a Great Brotherhood of spiritually evolved beings with secret knowledge of such great vacation spots for astrals as Atlantis. Plus, perhaps there were inconsistencies or inadequacies in the secret doctrines, as the group seemed to splinter and dissipate after the death of Madame. Her dream of a Brotherhood of Man remains a dream, although there are Theosophical societies all over the world.
books and articles
"What Is Theosophy?" by H. P. Blavatsky
The Six Enneads of Plotinus