The Theosophical Society was formed 'to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities'.
The Theosophical Society was founded in America in 1875 when there was a considerable current interest in spiritualism. H.P. Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott associated themselves closely with the spiritualists. As most readers will know, they met at the homestead of the Eddy family in Chittenden, Vermont, where some remarkable phenomena were taking place. Olcott had written accounts of these for the New York papers. It was against this current interest in spiritualism that a group of people came together and eventually formed the Theosophical Society. A set of objects was drawn up which included a specific reference to psychic phenomena. These objects were later modified and eventually took the form they now have. It is interesting, however, that the objects make no mention of Theosophy: at that time it had not been formulated as a definite teaching.
H.P.B. in her Isis Unveiled and in her many articles and letters had hinted at the existence of a traditional Esoteric Science but had given very little indication as to its nature. This position persisted largely unchanged for some ten years but during that time some indications that such a traditional science existed, emerged. It was hinted that there was such body of knowledge in the hands of the esoteric Brotherhood. It was not, however, until A.P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism appeared that anything like a structured system was formulated. He did this from the information given to him in the Mahatma Letters. His book was a first attempt at such an exposition. Unfortunately for early students the Mahatma Letters disappeared on Sinnett's death, to be resurrected only in 1924 when A.T. Barker edited and published them. We know that Sinnett did not get some of the story quite right. Nevertheless he propounded a system of knowledge suitable for the general public, which had certainly not been attempted before.
During this interim period of ten years H.P.B. and Olcott, having met, formed a close bond with W.Q. Judge, who remained in U.S.A. when they journeyed to India, but not before H.P.B. had published her first magnum opus Isis Unveiled which constituted among other things a formidable attack on current materialism. In India, after about a year, they established the headquarters of the Society at Adyar. H.P.B. and Olcott set to work to consolidate the founding of the new Society. In a short time branches of it were established throughout the world. What there was then of theosophical teachings was propagated through H.P.B's numerous writings, and by Olcott undertaking a series of arduous, prolonged and far-reaching lecture tours.
During H.P.B's visit to London in 1885-6 the Coulomb affair blew up. She was accused by the missionaries in Madras and some sections of the press in India of fraudulently producing messages from the Masters. This has now been disproved but at the time for various reasons H.P.B.'s position at Adyar became virtually untenable. She returned to Europe, going first to Germany, then Belgium and finally to England.
Her leaving Adyar was at the time when plans for writing The Secret Doctrine were well advanced. There then followed the story of her superhuman efforts to complete the work. For much of that time her circumstances were unsettled, making writing such a massive work extraordinarily difficult. On top of these difficulties her health seriously deteriorated. However, so anxious were the Masters to have this huge task finished that they personally intervened and restored her to a semblance of health, well enough to enable her to continue her work. The task was to compile from numerous and scattered sources, from antiquity to modern times, all that significantly bore on the subject, to use as building blocks for the enormous edifice of knowledge which eventually became the background material to the content of her book.
The Secret Doctrine includes material from not only religious and philosophical but scientific writings up to the then present time, i.e. the end of the nineteenth century. It is an enormous work of collection and collation. A reference to the bibliography of it produced by Boris de Zirkoff shows in some sixty pages with twenty items per page that over eleven hundred works are referred to in the book. This in itself is an enormous feat by any standards. Eventually, however, the great work, at least as far as two volumes were concerned, was completed and published in 1888. H.P.B. remarks in the introduction to these volumes that there were two more volumes to come. Material for a third had been completed and it was nearly ready for the printer. A fourth volume was on the way. No material for this fourth volume was ever found but much material which fitted the description of what H.P.B. intended to put into the third was found by Annie Besant and later published as the third volume of the S.D. This third volume is the subject of much controversy among some members of the Theosophical Groups which, following W.Q. Judge, seceded from the Adyar Society. Valuable research work done by Daniel H. Caldwell, however, justifies Annie Besant.
The great work, The Secret Doctrine, not only collated a vast mass of information but it formulated the principal aspects of the Ancient Wisdom, relating it all to the principal tenets of ancient and modern religions and philosophies. In other words it justified itself against all those ancient knowledges, explaining and clarifying much which otherwise would have remained obscure.
Somewhere H.P.B. referred to this mass of material as a mine in which future students could quarry. After H.P.B's departure from Adyar, and although Olcott remained as President, the work there lacked her inspiration and impetus. It seems that conventional religions and traditional mystery school practices slowly but emphatically reasserted their old influence, with a 'superstructure', however, of brotherhood and nominal freedom of thought.
The Secret Doctrine as a book was first launched in 1888 in New York and then in London. It was written in English for the western world, although it contains teachings relevant to all humanity regardless of race or language. It propounded Theosophy, as a doctrine, for the first time.
Later, in 1889, The Key to Theosophy, which explains the main tenets of Theosophy and their application to the individual and to human society generally, and The Voice of the Silence, were also published in the West, in England. Although the Ancient Wisdom had its origins primarily in the East, its reaffirmation came to the West. How significant this was or what the repercussions of it were, can never be assessed.
It is apparent, however, from their voluminous writings that later authors in the Society in Adyar and elsewhere promoted teachings with a predominantly Hindu character. This is borne out to some extent by the fact that the experts consulted to write about Theosophy for the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it under the heading of Hinduism.
H.P.B. in the Preface to the S.D. says significantly:
But it is perhaps desirable to state unequivocally that the teachings, however fragmentary and incomplete, contained in these volumes, belong neither to the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Chaldean, nor the Egyptian religion, neither to Buddhism, Islam, Judaism nor Christianity exclusively. The Secret Doctrine is the essence of all these. Sprung from it in their origins, the various religious schemes are now made to merge back into their original element, out of which every mystery and dogma has grown, developed and become materialized.
It was this Doctrine that the Theosophical Society was founded to propagate. In The Key to Theosophy (p 48 Or. Ed.) it says:
What we have to do is to seek to obtain knowledge of all the laws of nature, and to diffuse it. To encourage the study of those laws least understood by modern people, the so-called Occult Sciences, based on the true knowledge of nature, instead of, as at present, on superstitious beliefs based on blind faith and authority.
And on p 57 it says:
Theosophy, finally, is the fixed eternal sun, and its Society the evanescent comet trying to settle in an orbit to become a planet, ever revolving within the attraction of the sun of truth. It was formed to assist in showing to men that such a thing as Theosophy exists, and to help them to ascend towards it by studying and assimilating its eternal verities.
This established Theosophy as something specific and the paragraph constitutes virtually a fourth object for the Society. Could there be a worthier one?
The above article first appeared in 'The Theosophist' Magazine,