Theosophy

There are groups of Gnostic ideas that may be classified as theosophical, appearing in one form or another in such movements as Rosicrucianism,* occultism, advanced forms of Spiritualism,* and Anthroposophy.* They include reincarnation, the development of psychic and occult powers, the belief in karma, the influence of spirits of several grades, and enlightenment from great Masters, Adepts, or Mahatmas, who have completed their cycle of incarnations and yet have chosen to return once more to guide events from behind the scenes. God is generally an unknown God, or else God and the universe are treated in a pantheistic sense.

The term “Theosophy”, however, is commonly identified with the Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875 by Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907) and Mme. H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1891). They claimed to have been prompted by the latter's Himalayan Mahatmas. They were succeeded as leaders by Mrs. Annie Besant* (1847-1933), who was converted to the movement in 1889, after passing from a romantic Anglo-Catholicism into free thought under Bradlaugh. She was assisted for a time by C.W. Leadbeater, who later became bishop of the so-called Liberal Catholic Church.

At an early stage Olcott and Blavatsky moved to India, where Annie Besant also spent many years. Hence their ideas were much influenced by Hinduism* and Buddhism.* In 1912 Mrs. Besant and Leadbeater proclaimed a Hindu boy, Krishnamurti, as the reincarnation of the Supreme World Teacher. This led to the defection of Rudolf Steiner, who thereafter developed a more Western Anthroposophy. Krishnamurti repudiated his role.

The stated aims of the society are: “1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour. 2. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science. 3. To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.” The works of Annie Besant fill twenty-four columns in the British Museum catalog.

H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (1888; abridged 1968); J.K. Van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults (1956); J. Symonds, Madame Blavatsky (1959); J.H. Gerstner, The Theology of the Major Sects (1960).