An early picture of the Adyar Headquarters
"In future times, when the impartial historian shall write an account of the progress of religious ideas in the present century, the formation of the Theosophical Society, whose first meeting under its formal declaration of principles, we are now attending, will not pass unnoticed. This much is certain" - Henry Steel Olcott, President-Founder, of the Theosophical Society speaking at the Inaugural Address November 1875
H.P. Blavatsky (H.P.B.) pointed out that there were Theosophical Societies before our present one. She mentions in The Key to Theosophy an Eclectic Society set up by Ammonius Saccas, with the following objects:
To reconcile all religions, sects and nations under a common system of ethics based on Eternal Verities.
This reflects a statement of the objects of the present Theosophical Society given in its rules in 1880:
The object is further to establish a universal brotherhood founded on the general belief in the Great First Intelligent Cause and in the Divine Son-ship of the spirit of man, and hence in the immortality of that spirit and the fundamental brotherhood of the human race.
This statement was modified as the years went by to give us the objects of the Society as they now are, i.e. to establish a universal brotherhood, to encourage study of comparative religions, etc., and to investigate the powers latent in man, etc.
In the early days the main interest of the founders of the Society and people attracted to it was in spiritualistic phenomena about which H.P.B. gave out some information to explain what was really happening when messages came through mediums. This hinted at some elements of the great doctrine, Theosophy, which was later to follow. At that time there was also a close association among some founding members with Masonry. This obligated them to a vow of secrecy. Such a vow was also required of the then members of the Theosophical Society and as in Masonry they had a recognition hand clasp. One of the characteristics of the early Society was that it not only admitted women to its membership but they could also hold office, even the highest, in the then Lodges. It was a democratic Society.
The idea behind the secrecy was that, as H.P.B. had been trained in the Occultism of the East, she was possessed of secrets of the powers of Nature which it would have been quite unwise to have made public. Whether any of her knowledge, apart from what she later gave out in her massive literature, was ever conveyed to any of the members of her Inner Group we do not know. This Occultism, or Esotericism to use a word without the unfortunate connotations sometimes applied now to the word ‘occult’, was inherent in the Masters’ teachings, and in the fact of the existence of the Masters themselves who were Initiates in the hidden knowledge. This background of occult knowledge put a stamp on the whole Society which although it is not now acknowledged, does still condition the minds and aspirations of some students.
This recognition of the hidden side of things is of course instinct in the doctrine as given out, e.g. in the principles of man and the planes of Nature, together with the hierarchies of beings whose habitat is the inner cosmic planes. The teaching also stresses the fact that the inner and outer constitution of man reflects completely that of Cosmos. This also is not perhaps sufficiently appreciated. The highest states of being of which a man can possibly become conscious reflect those of the highest levels of cosmic order, and similarly all between them down to the physical plane.
The highest reaches of the cosmic scene and consciousness are divine. The knowledge of the processes of evolution whereby man can unfold his faculties to apprehend these heights is the very kernel of the theosophical teachings. It is also a justification for using the description of Theosophy, the Wisdom Religion. Because this ties us back to the very source of all being and all that is in it, i.e. Nature in its most comprehensive sense, it is Nature which is the true basis of all religion. Nature herself is devoid of any allegorical or mythical stories; she needs no interpretation. She never goes out of date in spite of her continual change. Further, because of man’s nature reflecting completely that of Nature herself, from the highest level down to the lowest he needs no priests or other beings to act as go-betweens between himself and his own divinity.
The teaching has it that this whole cosmic process which necessarily includes our solar system, our earth and all that is on it including ourselves, is governed by inherent law. Mysteriously, this law is the only ‘Entity’ that is both responsible for the formation of Cosmos and its government but it is also fundamentally within man’s constitution and not apart from or outside of him. The universe manifests a unity. As H.P.B. has said, “Existence is one thing”.
The principal aspect of this law is that of life ever-becoming, i.e. the evolutionary trend of all things in the manifest universe towards perfection. This is difficult to understand but the key to the mystery lies in the principle of unity. Every manifest thing is in itself the whole, and the whole is in the part, however small or however great that part may be. This concept again is difficult but it becomes understandable when it is realized that the subjective principles of being are dimensionless, at least relative to the physical one. For example, how big and where is an imagined object or picture? Yet it is not nothing: we can see it with our mind’s eye, but relative to our physical world it has no location nor dimension. This concept gives us a clue as to the universality of Life manifesting through all things and creatures regardless of size. Everything is living.
Other aspects of the law are those of cause and effect, i.e. the chain of causation whereby everything in existence at any moment has a whole chain of antecedents making it just as it is. Its appearance at this present time in the form that it is stems from what preceded it. This applies to us as to everything else. Further, this law maintains the harmony of the universe. This harmony gives time, within everything’s own time scale, for it to fulfil its function in the life of the whole scheme. The aggregate of all life activity is the activity of Cosmos but all the activities of all the myriad branches of characteristic lives are coordinated and made to fit a vast pattern wherein everything is fulfilling a role in its own special way.
These are some of the principal aspects of the grand teaching of Theosophy. They are illustrative of what the Society was set up to do, i.e. to promote a knowledge of it. According to H.P.B. in The Key to Theosophy (p 57, original edition):
It (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.
This enjoins every member to study the doctrine, to become familiar with it and as he or she does so, to expound it and let it be known as widely as possible to all those who are able and willing to receive it.
In the Preface to ‘The Secret Doctrine’ H.P.B. explains the purpose of that work together with her other writings: to “let it be know that such a thing as Theosophy exists” and what it is:
The aim of this work may be thus stated: to show that nature is not “a fortuitous concurrence of atoms”, and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the Universe; to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; and to uncover, to some extent, the fundamental unity from which they all spring; finally, to show that the occult side of Nature has never been approached by the Science of modern civilization.
H.P.B. also explains that much of what she wrote had never been made public before in the world’s history. The advent of Theosophy was a world event the significance of which, to the whole of humanity both now and in the future, cannot be over-emphasized. The great religions of the world and the ancient gnostic philosophers withheld their secrets, giving them out only to those initiated into their systems. Such for example were the initiated Brahmins, of whom Subba Row was one. He complained bitterly that H.P.B. in writing the S.D. was making generally known information up till then only in the hands of Adepts.
It is not too difficult for an earnest student to discover the areas of this hitherto undisclosed teaching but a discussion on them is not within the scope of this article. In an article entitled The New Cycle (21st March 1889) H.P.B. says:
The doctrine is barely sketched in our two volumes, and yet the mysteries unveiled therein concerning the beliefs of prehistoric peoples, cosmogony and anthropology, have never been divulged until now. Certain dogmas, certain theories, clash therein with scientific theories, especially that of Darwin; contrariwise, they explain and clarify that which was to this day incomprehensible, and fill more than one gap which, nolens volens, was left void by orthodox science. We had to present these doctrines, such as they are, or else never broach the subject. He who dreads these infinite perspectives and who would try to shorten them by means of the shortcuts and suspension bridges artificially erected by modern science over these thousand and one gaps, would do better not to venture into the Thermopylae of archaic science.
For any student wishing to discover the clear intentions of the Theosophical Society and who is aiming to play his part in the great work it was envisaged it should do, should read the whole of the article.
To end let H.P.B. speak for herself:
It is useless to leave it to chance and await the intellectual and psychic crisis which is preparing, with indifference, if not with crass disbelief, saying that at the worst the rising tide will carry us naturally towards the shore; for it is very likely that the tidal wave will cast up nothing but a corpse. The strife will be terrible in any case between brutal materialism and blind fanaticism on the one hand, and philosophy and mysticism on the other - mysticism, that veil of more or less translucency which hides the eternal Truth.
But it is not materialism which will gain the upper hand. Every fanatic whose ideas isolate him from the universal axiom, “There is no religion higher than Truth” will see himself by that very fact rejected, like an unworthy stone from the new Archway called Humanity. Tossed by the waves, driven by the winds, reeling in that element which is so terrible because unknown, he will soon find himself engulfed . . .
Yes, it must be so and it cannot be otherwise, when the artificial and chilly flame of modern materialism is extinguished for lack of fuel. Those who cannot become used to the idea of a spiritual Ego, a living soul and an eternal Spirit within their material shell (which owes its illusory existence to those principles); those for whom the great hope of an existence beyond the grave is a vexation, merely the symbol of an unknown quantity, or else the subject of a belief sui generis, the result of theological and mediumistic hallucinations - these will do well to prepare for the worst disappointment the future could possibly have in store for them. For from the depths of the dark, muddy waters of materialism which, on every side, hide from them the horizons of the great Beyond, a mystic force is rising during these last years of the century. At most it is but the first gentle rustling, but it is a superhuman rustling - “supernatural” only for the superstitious and the ignorant. The spirit of truth is passing now over the face of the dark waters, and in parting them, is compelling them to disgorge their spiritual treasures. This spirit is a force that can neither be hindered nor stopped. Those who recognize it and feel that this is the supreme moment of their salvation will be uplifted by it and carried beyond the illusions of the great astral serpent. The joy they will experience will be so poignant and intense, that if they were not mentally isolated from their bodies of flesh, the beatitude would pierce them like sharp steel. It is not pleasure that they will experience, but a bliss which is a foretaste of the knowledge of the gods, the knowledge of good and evil, and the fruits of the tree of life.
Surely all those members who are in earnest should heed these words.
The article first appeared in The Theosophist of November 2000