Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Philosophical doctrine used as one source of inspiration by Mme. Helene Petrova Blavatsky (1831-1891), who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Theosophy has connections to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and is intrinsically related to Indian thought. As originally defined, theosophy is the common philosophical element within Eastern religions.

Early theosophical doctrines were essentially intellectual, constituting a way of thinking about religious questions. Mme. Blavatsky, a psychic and medium, gave the term a special connotation. In 1873, she met Henry Steel Olcott, who was captivated by her mediumistic performances and talk of occult knowledge. Blavatsky transmitted letters to Olcott from various unseen mystical adepts beginning in 1875 and, in that year, she, Olcott, and Charles Sotheran, a noted journalist and socialist, founded the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky's erudition, charisma, and alleged psychokinetic and extrasensory abilities attracted many followers and enabled her to overcome challenges regarding her leadership from Olcott and others.

Blavatsky's miraculous performances were revealed to be fraudulent by Dr. Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research. Although this debunking damaged the Theosophical Society, most of Mme. Blavatsky's core followers remained faithful, and she attracted new converts through her writings. After Blavatsky's death, Annie Besant and William Q. Judge, whom Blavatsky had appointed co-heads of the Eastern School of Theosophy, joined forces against Olcott and succeeded in obtaining his resignation. Society members accept the notions of reincarnation, karma, and transmigration; encourage the study of comparative religion; and advocate the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man. Esoteric doctrines include emphasis on hidden traditions that evolved from the magic of medieval Europe, the Knights Templar, Freemasonry, and a postulated secret society called the Great White Brotherhood. These doctrines have had important impacts on many modern mystical belief systems.

James McClenon


H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (Point Loma, Calif.: Aryan Theosophical Press, 1909)

S. Cranston, HBP (New York: Putnam, 1993)

F. E. Garrett, Isis Very Much Unveiled , 4th ed. (London: Westminster Gazette, 1895)

K. P. Johnson, Initiates of Theosophical Masters (Albany: SUNY Press, 1995)

J. B. Tamney, American Society in the Buddhist Mirror (New York: Garland, 1992).

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