Great question, and I’m amazed that it took 10 years for someone to ask us about theosophy!
First, for a more textbook definition of theosophy, this “religion” combines various philosophies ranging from Buddhism, Hinduism, occultism, and Western esotericism. As the Oxford Dictionary explains, adherents believe that “knowledge of God can be found through spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, especially the movement founded in 1875 as the Theosophical Society by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907).”
Theosophists believe in an ancient secret brotherhood of spiritual adepts, which they refer to as Masters, Mahatmas, Adepts, Masters of Wisdom, or Elder Brothers, who are centered in Tibet and who they believe have great supernatural powers and wisdom. This secret society is trying to revive an ancient worldwide religion that theosophists claim return and replace all existing religions.
As Philip Davis writes in Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality, at the time of its invention, “The [Theosophical] Society’s purpose was to combat both Christianity and materialistic scientism in the name of occult wisdom. Its three guiding principles were to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood, to promote the study of comparative religion and science, and to investigate the hidden laws of nature and the powers of humanity.”
Even though they insist their beliefs are not a religion, they borrow extensively from other religions such as the Hindu belief in reincarnation and karma. The founders taught that individual souls are “monads” or sparks of divinity which are trapped in human bodies and tied to the cycle of birth and rebirth until they acquire enough spiritual knowledge to free themselves.
This is one of the tamer beliefs of Theosophy, however. For example, the founders taught that the whole cosmos is guided, controlled, and animated by an “almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings”(Goddess Unmasked, pg. 218). They also taught that the universes pass through seven cycles in which every cycle has it owns “root race.”
For example, the first race on earth was created by extraterrestrials known as the “Lords of the Moon” and were projected like astral bodies from the moon gods. The second cycle produced a root race known as the Hyperboreans who were psychic. The third race was that of the legendary Lemurians who were allegedly part of a now-sunken continent in the Indian Ocean. This third root race was the first to develop a physical means of reproduction. From there, a fourth root race, which were the inhabitants of Atlantis, mutated into genders and acquired full physical bodies. Theosophists believe we are now in the fifth cycle which is when we will begin to ascend back into the spiritual heights from which we came.
If this sounds a bit fanciful, it should, because it essentially came from a bizarre woman named Helene Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91) who was the daughter of a soldier and his wife who was the granddaughter of a prince. Her aristocratic mother got tired of the military way of life and left her father, becoming a novelist to support herself. She died at the age of just 28 when Helena was just shy of her 11th birthday.
Helena appears to have acquired her mother’s skill at story telling. A high-strung and unmanageable child, she was very intelligent and headstrong and had an amazing ability to persuade people to believe what she said.
As Philip David, “She convinced her playmates that she could see spirits and enjoyed the company of invisible beings. At one point she had the family believing that she was channeling letters from a deceased woman named Tekla Lebendorff. This charade lasted until Mrs. Lebendorff’s real-life nephew paid a visit, and laughingly told them that his Aunt Tekla was still alive and that the letters were false.”
Blavatsky’s story-telling didn’t stop there, but continued throughout her life, even after she settled in New York. She managed to convince people that she knew of a secret wisdom of the ages that could be traced back to the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, and the Templars, all the way back to India, and that she had been personally summoned by the great Eastern sages – the Mahatmas – to come to India to acquire this wisdom which she claimed was the basis of all religious beliefs.
As impossible as it may seem, she acquired quite a few followers both in the United States and Europe. In India, theosophists made quite a few contributions to the betterment of the country such as building hospitals and schools which lent them credibility among the population. Theosophists also encouraged India’s independence from Britain and both Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had contact with what is now known as the Theosophist Society.
Nearing the end of her life, she named William Judge to be her successor, but by this time she had met Annie Besant, a British socialist and women’s rights activists whose unconventional religious beliefs caused her marriage to a clergyman named Frank Besant to end in divorce. Besant and Blavatsky became close friends. In fact, Besant actually took care of Blavatasky at the end of her life. As a result, there was a dispute over who would succeed Blavatsky. In the end, the European and Indian contingent of the Society followed Besant, and the Americans sided with Judge.
I could go on and on about the beliefs of this Society and the controversial figures who founded it, but I think you’ve heard enough to know that the differences between theosophy and Catholicism are simply irreconcilable.
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