Article in The Theosophist of December 1994
by Geoffrey A. Farthing
Can Theosophy be defined?
For answer, let us hear the words of H.P. Blavatsky, the chosen instrument of Adept Instructors for the restoration of the Wisdom tradition to the western world.
At the formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875, no mention was made of Theosophy in its Constitution, and the aim of the Society was expressed simply as ‘to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe’. In 1878 a fuller statement of the Society’s Objects included the first mention of a Brotherhood of Humanity, the establishment of which was clearly the intention of the Mahatmas, according to their repeated statements in the Letters. However, no official document from the Society’s founders or later administrators has yet attempted to define Theosophy.
The first exposition of theosophical ideas came with the publication in 1877 of the two volumes of Isis Unveiled. This vast compilation, whose production engaged the assistance of six or more of H.P.B.’s Teachers, includes references to some thirteen hundred other works. It explores the esoteric or occult side of the world’s religions, philosophies and fields of scientific knowledge. Indeed, according to its Dedication, such exploration was the purpose of the Society’s formation two years earlier. As yet, however, the name of Theosophy had not been applied to ‘the fundamental principles of a the oriental philosophy’ summarised in the final chapter of the work.
Since the middle years of the nineteenth century, interest in spiritualism
had spread rapidly, and now H.P.B. was presenting explanations of
phenomena from the occult point of view which were quite at variance
with the then accepted ideas. By the time the founders arrived in
India, misconceptions about the nature of Theosophy were already so
prevalent that ‘a journal devoted to an exposition of the world’s
Theosophy’ had become a necessity (C.W.II, pp 87 et seq.)
The Theosophist was launched in October 1879. In its first
issue, H.P.B. expressly addresses the question ‘What is Theosophy?’
Here, after referring to various esoteric systems in which, before
the Christian era, the theosophical principles were taught in Egypt,
India and Greece, she introduces several definitions, elaborating
them to show the doctrines they embraced:
Theosophy is, then the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization. (page 89)
[Theosophy] is belief in the Deity as the ALL, the source of all existence, the infinite that cannot be either comprehended or known, the universe alone revealing IT ... (page 91)
To fully define Theosophy, we must consider it under all its aspects. The interior world has not been hidden from all by impenetrable darkness. By that higher intuition acquired by Theosophia - or God-knowledge, which carries the mind from the world of form into that of formless spirit, man has been sometimes enabled in every age and every country to perceive things in the interior or invisible world. (page 92)
Theosophy is the exact science of psychology, so to say; it stands in relation to natural, uncultivated mediumship as the knowledge of a Tyndall stands to that of a schoolboy in physics. (page 95)
And in a later article in The Theosophist, she insists:
Yes; Theosophy is the science of all that is divine in man and nature. It is study and analysis, within the known and the knowable, of the unknown, and the otherwise UNKNOWABLE. (Collected Writings of H.P.Blavatsky, Volume V, page 353)
The conditions under which ‘the great Knowledge’ - as the Mahatma K.H. calls it - was acquired and transmitted are clearly stated in a long article on ‘Theosophy and Spiritism’ published in the Société Scientifique d’Études Psychologiques in Paris. Referring to the difference between the knowledge of an Initiate or Adept and that obtained from ‘spirits’ at séances, H.P.B. asserts that the Initiates have the great advantage of not needing to avail themselves of ‘discarnate spirits or their “shells”’. For the Adepts, she says,
... the evidence is not second-hand, nor post-mortem, but really the evidence of their own faculties, purified and prepared through long years to receive it correctly and without any foreign influence. For thousands of years, one Initiate after another, one great hierophant succeeded by other hierophants has explored and re-explored the invisible universe, the worlds of the interplanetary regions, during long periods when his conscious soul, united to the spiritual soul and to the ALL, free and almost omnipotent, left his body ...
The mysteries of life as well as of death, of the visible and invisible worlds, have been fathomed and observed by initiated Adepts in all epochs and in all nations. They have studied these during the solemn moments of union of their divine monad with the universal Spirit, and they have recorded their experiences." The article continues by saying, "the truth has been established. A definite science, based on personal observation and experience, corroborated by continuous demonstrations, containing irrefutable proofs, for those who study it, has thus been established ...." [Collected Writings of H.P.Blavatsky, Volume V, page 51].
In 1880 there had begun the exchange of letters between the English journalist A.P. Sinnett and A.O. Hume, a senior government official, and the two Mahatmas known by the initials K.H. and M. The correspondence, which was to last for four years in the case of Sinnett but for only one year with his friend, developed from questions by the two Englishmen on different aspects of the occult philosophy. From the answers he received, sinnett put together, in The Occult World, an account of the phenomena that surrounded H.P.B. in the early years of the Society, together with an initial outline of the theosophical system. Then in Esoteric Buddhism he presented a fuller account of the teachings he had received in the letters of the Mahatmas.
Meanwhile, through articles in The Theosophist and other magazines, H.P.B. was continuing to elucidate the teachings embraced by the term Theosophy. She calls attention to the ethical preparation that alone can fit one to approach its eternal verities, for ‘purity of deed and thought can alone raise us to an intercourse “with the gods” and attain for us the goal we desire.’ (Collected Writings of H.P.Blavatsky, Volume II, page 96) The widespread confusion that associated Theosophy with sectarian religion aroused her vigorous protest and led her once more to attempt a definition. In a long article in Lucifer in 1888, under the title ‘Is Theosophy a Religion?’, she explores the meaning of both words:
Theosophy, we say, is not a Religion ... the assertion that ‘Theosophy is not a religion’ by no means excludes the fact that ‘Theosophy is Religion’ itself ... the one bond of unity which is so universal and all embracing that no man, as no speck - from gods and mortals down to animals, the blade of grass and atom - can be outside its light .. Thus, unity of everything in the universe implies and justifies our belief in the existence of a knowledge at once scientific, philosophical and religious, showing the necessity and actuality of the connection of man and all things in the universe with each other; which knowledge, therefore, becomes essentially RELIGION, and must be called in its integrity and universality by the distinctive name of WISDOM-RELIGION. (Collected Writings of H.P.Blavatsky , Volume .X, page 159 et seq.)
When this article appeared, The Secret Doctrine had just been published. In its Introductory section, we find some twenty or so terms used as synonymous with Theosophy. These include the term used as the title of H.P.B.’s great work itself - the Secret Doctrine - and such others as the Wisdom-Religion, Archaic Science, Occult Philosophy and a dozen more. The sub-title of the work, ‘The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy’, shows clearly how she identified Theosophy with the Secret Doctrine as doctrine, that is, as a distinctive body of teaching, as is further borne out in the text: ‘The Secret Doctrine teaches ...’, ‘Esoteric Philosophy teaches ...’, ‘The Doctrine teaches ..’, ‘The Occultists assert that ...’
In the Summing Up at the end of the first part of The Secret Doctrine,
she informs the reader that
As a whole, neither the foregoing nor what follows can be found in full anywhere. It is not taught in any of the six Indian schools of philosophy, for it pertains to their synthesis - the seventh, which is the occult doctrine. (Secret Doctrine, Volume I, page 269)
The grand definition that follows repeats with important additions the assertions made in the French article quoted above concerning the conditions under which the Adepts acquired their knowledge:
The Secret Doctrine is the accumulated
Wisdom of the Ages, and its cosmogony alone is the most stupendous
and elaborate system:... But such is the mysterious power of Occult
symbolism, that the facts which have actually occupied countless generations
of initiated seers and prophets to marshal, to set down and explain,
in the bewildering series of evolutionary progress, are all recorded
on a few pages of geometrical signs and glyphs. The flashing gaze
of those seers has penetrated into the very kernel of matter, and
recorded the soul of things there, where an ordinary profane, however
learned, would have perceived but the external work of form. But modern
science believes not in the “soul of things,” and hence
will reject the whole system of ancient cosmogony. It is useless to
say that the system in question is no fancy of one or several isolated
individuals. That it is the uninterrupted record covering thousands
of generations of Seers whose respective experiences were made to
test and to verify the traditions passed orally by one early race
to another, of the teachings of higher and exalted beings, who watched
over the childhood of Humanity. That for long ages, the “Wise
Men” of the Fifth Race,... had passed their lives in learning,
not teaching. How did they do so? It is answered: by checking,
testing, and verifying in every department of nature the traditions
of old by the independent visions of great adepts; i.e., men
who have developed and perfected their physical, mental, psychic,
and spiritual organisations to the utmost possible degree. No vision
of one adept was accepted till it was checked and confirmed by the
visions - so obtained as to stand as independent evidence - of other
adepts, and by centuries of experience. (Secret Doctrine, Volume I,
To the Theosophical Society to study the subjects on which they treat.
A similar view is expressed in her last work, The Key to Theosophy, where she says that the Societywas 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. (page 57) Throughout this exploration of the question ‘Can Theosophy be defined?, the attentive reader will have noted not only H.P.B.’s several definitions but also her use of such words as knowledge, wisdom, science, doctrine, which must preclude as untenable the unfortunately widespread misconception, even within the Theosophical Society, that Theosophy cannot be defined or that it is more or less what one likes to think it is, a matter for speculation, belief or personal opinion. Our study shows that the eternal verities embraced in the word Theosophy relate to the origins of everything, including ourselves, the cyclic law observable in the operations of Nature, the occult constitution of man and the cosmos and consequently the facts concerning death and the future evolution of mankind. The student who discovers something of what Theosophy is may recognize that it must include all that is in the Society’s Objects. He may even see the desirability of adding a Fourth Object.,
To encourage the study of Theosophy and to disseminate a knowledge of it throughout the world.
After all, is not this implied in H.P.B.’s Dedication to The Key to Theosophy?
Dedicated by H.P.B. to all her Pupils, that they may Learn and Teach in their turn.
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