The Background to the Founding of the Theosophical Society


written by
Geoffrey Farthing


The above article first appeared in The Theosophist of February 1998


Geoffrey Farthing 2004


Most student members of the Society will be aware that at the time the Society was founded spiritualism was widespread, particularly in America. Spiritualism demonstrated that there was an inner, invisible side to Nature behind the physical existence of our ordinary senses. Little public attention was paid to the happenings at the many seances then being held. It was common, however, that those present would get messages from the dead; less commonly more interesting and significant things would occur. For example, the apparitional forms of dead people would appear and even talk. Their manifesting forms were often not just ethereal shapes but were 'solid'. At seances where Col. Olcott was present one of the spirit visitors would stand on a weighing machine which registered variously between 60 and 90 lbs. On other occasions a young Indian woman would appear and once allowed some of her hair to be cut off. She disappeared towards the end of the session but the piece of severed hair remained. It was examined and proved to be that of a healthy young Indian woman. These occurrences and others of great variety opened up a field of experience and investigation outside that of the normal communications with the dead.

Other phenomena of the time were some that could be included under the term 'occultism' or 'magic'. In the middle of the 19th century there was a number of schools or lodges of Occultism, many claiming origins in organizations of great antiquity. Each had a body of secret teaching divulged by initiates. These teachings were both theoretical or philosophical and practical. Practical meant that neophytes and members of the Lodges could develop in themselves powers beyond those ordinarily enjoyed. In other words, they could become clairvoyant, they could learn to mesmerize and according to their 'will' influence people; some of them claimed to have acquired remarkable healing powers and so on. For those who were interested, both in America and elsewhere, particularly in France, there was a considerable extant literature. The lodges were mostly modelled on Masonic lines and offered various degrees of initiation. One of these schools is mentioned in the Mahatma Letters wherein the Master K.H. said that he visited it to see what was going on. He was apparently not very favourably impressed.

Concerning what went on in these schools H.P. Blavatsky (H.P.B.) has two interesting paragraphs in an article entitled 'The Science of Magic' reprinted in Collected Writings Vol.I, 137/8, as follows:

The exercise of magical power is the exercise of natural powers, but SUPERIOR to the ordinary functions of Nature. A miracle is not a violation of the laws of Nature, except for ignorant people. Magic is but a science, a profound knowledge of the Occult forces in Nature, and of the laws governing the visible or the invisible world. Spiritualism in the hands of an adept becomes Magic, for he is learned in the art of blending together the laws of the Universe, without breaking any of them and thereby violating Nature. In the hands of an experienced medium, spiritualism becomes UNCONSCIOUS SORCERY; for, by allowing himself to become the helpless tool of a variety of spirits, of whom he knows nothing save what the latter permit him to know, he opens, unknown to himself, a door of communication between the two worlds, through which emerge the blind forces of Nature lurking in the astral light, as well as good and bad spirits.

In her writings H.P.B. mentions a number of people, e.g. Baron Du Potet, Regazzoni, and Pietro d'Amicis of Bologna, who, she says;

... are magicians, for they have become the adepts, the initiated ones, into the great mystery of our Mother Nature. Such men as the above-mentioned - and such were Mesmer and Cagliostro - control the spirits instead of allowing their subjects or themselves to be controlled by them; and Spiritualism is safe in their hands.

Another such occultist of the time was Eliphas Levi whose writings were quoted by H.P.B. One of his dissertations on the after-death states was commented on and annotated by the Master K.H.

H.P.B. lists a number of mediaeval 'Magicians' and then mentions the 'Hermetic Philosophers' who, she says:

never were ... taken by anyone for fools and idiots, as, unfortunately for ourselves and the Cause, every unbeliever takes ALL of us believers in Spiritualism to be. Those Hermeticists and philosophers may be disbelieved and doubted now, as everything else is doubted, but very few doubted their knowledge and power during their lifetime, for they always could prove what they claimed, having command over those forces which now command helpless mediums. They had their science and demonstrated philosophy to help them to throw down ridiculous negations, while we sentimental Spiritualists, rocking ourselves to sleep with our "Sweet By-and-By", are unable to recognize a spurious phenomenon from a genuine one ...

A number of the Masters with whom both H.P.B. and Olcott were in contact at the time were members of a Brotherhood of Luxor (of which there were various Sections) but there was also a Brotherhood in America calling itself the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. H.P.B. described it as masonic but Olcott said it was 'spurious'. (See p 9 of 2nd Series of Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom compiled by Jinarajadasa; also Collected Writings Vol.X, p 125).

Periodically in their instructions the Masters would exhort aspirants who would contact them to TRY! In connection with that word H.P.B. once wrote as follows:

I am an initiated wretch, and I know what a curse the word 'Try' has proved to me in my life, and how often I trembled and feared to misunderstand their orders, and bring on myself punishment for carrying them too far or not far enough...

and then she adds a warning to Olcott who of course at this time was an aspirant:

You seem to take the whole concern for a child's play. Beware, Henry, before you pitch headlong into it ... There is time yet, and you can decline the connection as yet. But if you keep the letter I send you and agree to the word Neophyte, you are cooked, my boy, and there is no return from it. Trials and temptations to your faith will shower on you first of all.

Then there is a letter quoted from the Brotherhood of Luxor, Section the Fourth, to Henry S. Olcott:

We greet thee. He who seeks Us finds Us. TRY. Rest thy mind, banish all [ Word illegible in original manuscript] doubt. We keep watch over our faithful soldiers. Sister Helen is a valiant, trustworthy servant. Open thy spirit to conviction, have faith and she will lead thee to the Golden Gate of truth. She neither fears sword nor fire, but her soul is sensitive to dishonour and she hath reason to mistrust the future.

The letter continues and is signed Tuitit Bey.
Recently a book on the life of a man called Paschal Beverly Randolph has been published (by John Patrick Deveney, State University New York Press). It describes Randolph as a 19th century black American spiritualist, Rosicrucian and sex magician. He lived in the period just before the founding of the Theosophical Society and played a prominent part in American spiritualism. He obviously had contacts with the Brotherhood of Luxor. In France he met many of the 'magicians' mentioned above who were of course all known to H.P.B. She was acquainted with Randolph; she referred to him as half-initiated (see Index to Collected Writings). Another prominent spiritualist of the time was Emma Hardinge Britten, who outlived Randolph and was alive during the early part of the life of the T.S. (She died in 1899.) She had had contacts with a number of the English spiritualists who were also known to H.P.B. and Olcott. (She is mentioned in Isis Unveiled and Collected Writings.)

The above paragraphs demonstrate the connection between the Theosophical Society's founders and the spiritualistic and occult activities going on prior to its founding. The link between the occult Brotherhoods of the time and the T.S. is also significant.

One cannot get an objective view of the circumstances of the founding of the Theosophical Society only in terms of these historical events and personages. The background of H.P. Blavatsky is also important. This is a long story, but the significant part of it is that from her early childhood H.P.B. had considerable psychic powers. She was aware of having psychic connections with one whom she referred to in her early days as her 'Protector' because on two or three occasions he did in fact protect her from danger. It was not until 1851 that she actually saw him 'in the flesh' in London and immediately recognized him. It was her Master whom we now know as Morya. He was of Rajput stock (from India) and was seemingly from a different branch of the Occult Brotherhood from that at Luxor. So too was the Master whom we have come to know as Koot Hoomi who figures largely in the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett.

It is also interesting to discover that there were still other branches of this Occult Brotherhood. One of them is referred to by P.G. Bowen whose teacher was an Initiate of a branch in Africa. Reading between the lines it seems that this African branch was very ancient and probably associated with the ruins of Zimbabwe. Those interested in some of the grand teachings emanating from this source are advised to read the Sayings of the Ancient One.

One of the aids to clairvoyance recommended, used and purveyed by Randolph was the magic mirror. These apparently had to be made to a particular specification to be efficacious. That, however, did not accord with what one can read about the development of clairvoyance in the Mahatma Letters wherein trainees are seated in front of a polished copper wall and a magnet extended over their heads to develop 'clarity'. On p 221 of Mary Neff's Personal Memoirs of H.P. Blavatsky there is an interesting illustration behind a Master's head of a magic mirror, very obviously like the ones described by Randolph. This again is another theosophical connection with earlier 19th century practices.

It is significant that in the Mahatma Letters the Masters stressed that they wanted a Brotherhood founded, reminiscent perhaps of the Brotherhood of Luxor, and that the Brotherhood they sought was, as indicated in the Objects of the Society, to be a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of humanity.

However, they particularly stressed that they did not want the Society to become a school of magic, as such schools up till then had apparently been. Nevertheless they used H.P.B. to the limit of her powers to produce the massive literature which not only outlines the philosophy of Occultism as given in the most ancient literature through the Middle Ages up to the present, but adds information never before made public.

Prior to the founding of the Theosophical Society with its outpouring of information, the literature then circulating was derived from a number of classical sources such as Kabalism, Masonry, Rosicrucianism and Alchemy. It contained a wide variety of views on cosmology, the nature of the entities in the inner worlds, and on the inner nature of man, the life after death, and so on. On many important points, however, this literature did not have a common base for its various 'teachings'. There were many inconsistencies, omissions and obscurity, with much obvious suppositional guess-work, little short of pure superstition.

The founding of the Society was at a time when all this spiritualistic and 'occult' activity was rife. One of the first major happenings soon after the formation of the Society was the writing by H.P.B. of her first major work, Isis Unveiled, published in 1877. This was a work of enormous erudition wherein some 1,300 other works were quoted from, some a number of times. In the years since the book was written nearly all the quotations that H.P.B. used have been verified. The book takes the form of numerous essays on various aspects of spiritualism and occultism. It deals with the traditional tenets and practices in world religions both ancient and modern, and with philosophies going back into the remote ages. It demonstrates the vast amount of knowledge in these fields that had been accumulated over hundreds of generations. Apart from what was contained in the old writings, however, there was no attempt at systematization or collation. Readers were made acquainted with aspects of a vast field of knowledge which otherwise could never had been available to them. The work was something that far transcended anything that had up till then been put out from any other source.

It was in this setting that the Theosophical Society came into existence and its three Objects were soon to be determined. It is significant that at that time Theosophy was never even mentioned because no such thing had yet been formulated, although the Society was named the Theosophical Society from the start.

After the founding of the Society H.P.B. began her numerous and voluminous writings. (These have now been collected together into the Collected Writings series edited by Boris de Zirkoff and constitute fourteen large volumes.) In them bit by bit was revealed some of the coherent teaching of Theosophy. However, it did not appear as a comprehensive whole until the writing of The Secret Doctrine in 1888. In that great work the stupendous system of Theosophy was propounded. It was nothing less than a description of the nature and processes of the Universe from the beginning of time. That story necessarily included the history of Man on this planet; together with the origins of all that is included in his total constitution, inner and outer.

In their Letters to Sinnett the Masters refer to their teaching as 'theoretical'. As any student of the H.P.B./Master literature will know, it is massive to the point of being quite outside the capacity of any normal scholar to absorb or comprehend its depths in its entirety. Nevertheless, as H.P.B. said, having produced it it will remain a source of enlightenment for any seekers after Truth for generations to come.

It is not generally realized by students and certainly not by the body of general members of the Theosophical Society that the information contained in H.P.B's great works is not a matter of supposition, conjecture, belief or opinion. It is an expression of knowledge acquired by generations of great men who had perfected their inner vision - far transcending normal clairvoyance - to a point when they could ascertain as facts the origins and nature of all that went on behind the scenes of our physical world. They became familiar not only with the forces, energies and powers of that world but also with its formative processes, how the great archetypes of all that is in Nature had been formed. These archetypes gave rise to the innumerable prototypes of all the life forms in all the kingdoms of Nature including man. The great Adepts knew these things: they did so at the time they were inspiring H.P.B., and no doubt continue to do so. This stupendous scheme of things set out in H.P.B's writings became known as Theosophy.

The classical theosophical literature, then, particularly the two great works Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine were largely inspired if not written by a number of Masters (a student of Olcott's Old Diary Leaves could perhaps discover six or seven) which distinguishes them from the mass of literature on the subject that came later, and which makes them unique.

We have tried to show earlier that the Theosophy given us in the classical literature in itself contained as much as had up to its writing been available in the world's literature, with some further information added to make an incomparably vast and comprehensive scheme. To all this knowledge the Theosophical Society is heir and it was to promulgate it that the Society was founded. To do this, however, there must be students able and willing first to do the necessary work to discover it and second to disseminate a knowledge of it to the best of their ability to the outside world where it could complement and supplement all that is now being discovered by scientific research into so many aspects of Nature's workings. Such a collaboration could not only provide the keys to many mysteries but inform man of his proper place in the mighty scheme of things, and even show him the grand part he is destined to play in it.


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