The birth of theosophy

The origins of theosophy, a movement that would have an enormous influence over artists and scientists alike, can be found in late 19th century New York.

Public Domain

This essay will shed light on the historical and spiritual background of the Theosoph­ical Society, which was founded in New York in 1875 to promote and promulgate theosophy, the first western movement that tried to bridge the gap between eastern and western philosophies and spiritualism. The essay will deal with the first four years of the society’s activity in New York, until 1879, the year in which its two founders, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott decided to move to India.

The society was founded in an era saturated with spiritualism, particularly in the United States, the place that arguably gave birth to the modern interest in ghosts and the paranormal (as evidenced by the claims of communication with the ‘other world’ made by the Fox sisters in 1848). The society was influenced by various currents of philosophical, religious and scientific thought that preceded it. At the same time, it gave birth to other movements that headed similar quests, such as the Anthroposophical Society, founded in 1913 after its founder, Rudolf Steiner resig­ned as head of the Theosophical Society’s German section. The artist Hilma af Klint had a close relationship with Steiner and dealt with theosophical ideas throughout her life.

The Theosophical Society’s founders

Henry Steel Olcott was a New York attorney and a retired colonel who served in the Civil War. He was later one of the three­-member commission appointed by the US Congress to investigate President Lincoln’s assassination. He was interested in spiritualism, like many Americans of his time. This was the basis of his friendship with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who he met in 1874 when both attended the Eddy family farm in Vermont to witness the supernatural phenomena that had suppo­sedly occurred there. Olcott spent three months at the farm, during which, as he reported in a series of articles in the New York Sun and the Daily Graphic, he witnessed daily contacts with the spiritual world.

Olcott’s first meeting with Blavatsky struck him deeply. Her piercing gaze and compulsive smoking habit impressed him. He later described the encounter in his memoir: ‘I said: ‘Permettez moi Madame,’ and gave her a light for her cigarette; our acquaintance began in smoke, but it stirred up a great and permanent fire.’

Though dramatic, his description was accurate enough. The encounter engendered the creation of the Theosophical Society, which was destined to have a distinctive influence over western spiritualism, and generated the modern cultural practice currently referred to as the New Age Movement. As the Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraaff says, the movement represents the historically innovative phenomenon of a secular type of religion based upon a radically private symbo­lism.

Blavatsky was born Helena Petrovna von Hahn in 1831. In 1848 she married Nikifor Blavatsky, the deputy military governor of Erevan in Armenia. The marriage lasted only three months, after which Blavatsky ran away from her hus­band and wandered for many years before arriving in America. After a long stay in Egypt, she claimed to have spent more than seven years in Tibet, where spiritual teachers, whom she called mahatmas or masters, instructed her. These were, accor­ding to Blavatsky, members of a body called the Great Brotherhood; a succession of spiritual teachers who had influenced human history. From time to time, she claimed, they approached evolved individuals, such as herself, instructing her to create the Theosophical Society and advising her to visit the Eddy farm in order to meet Olcott, ‘whose Karma linked him to her as the co­agent to set this social wave in motion’, as she wrote later.

NYC foundation and early activity

In October 1874 Blavatsky returned from Vermont to New York, and Olcott joined her in November. Her apartment at 46 Irving Place, in lower midtown Manhattan, soon became a lively meeting place that attracted various, somewhat dubious, spiritual types. The two ‘chums’, as they used to refer to each other, imbued with a sense of mission, wanted to launch a society that would enable them to pursue their spiritual quest. The foundation of the Theosophical Society took place on Septem­ber 7, 1875, in Blavatsky’s apartment in the presence of seventeen guests, almost one year after the two first met. Olcott was elected president, Blavatsky corresponding secretary, and William Quan Judge, a junior advocate in Olcott’s law office, and the future president of the society, was elected as secretary. Once the society was founded, Blavatsky and Olcott rented two suites of rooms on West 34th Street, one above the other. These hosted further gatherings of occultists, and served as their main working space.

Blavatsky wrote for several New York newspapers, winning a reputation for her­ self and the society. However, her writing abilities matured in her first book, Isis Unveiled, a 1,200 ­page work, published in 1877. The book generated great interest and was read by influential figures, among them Thomas Alva Edison, who joined the Theosophical Society in April 1878. Isis Unveiled is a difficult to read, confusingly written, and loosely narrated book, which makes one wonder about the actual number of people who have read it from its first page to the last. Nonetheless, it is certainly impressive in regard to Blavatsky’s exceptional imagination and her acquaintance with contemporary scientific publications. Its importance, academi­cally speaking, lies with Blavatsky’s orientation regarding the origins of occult lore. Until that point, occultists considered ancient Egypt as the source of esoteric wisdom. Blavatsky changed these currents of thought. Influenced by her academic research, which unveiled ancient Hindu culture by translating major Sanskrit scriptures, and located India as the cradle of Aryan thought, Blavatsky replaced Egypt with India as the source of occultism and made it the centre of her spiritual quest. This sharp curve was about to influence the western image of India, and make it an ongoing focal point for spiritualists worldwide.

Blavatsky’s skill in utilising the press for self­ promotion gave the Theosophical Society its early publicity. Nonetheless, it seems Olcott was no less familiar with this concept. The most intriguing example of this was a cremation ceremony, the first in the USA, which he conducted in 1876.

The first man officially cremated in the USA was Baron de Palm, who joined the Theosophical Society in 1876 and introduced himself as a Bavarian aristocrat. According to de Palm, he was very wealthy and owned several properties in Chicago. The old Baron was already quite ill when he met Olcott, who invited him to stay in his apartment. Judge, the Theosophical Society’s secretary, was asked by the Baron to prepare a will for him in which Olcott was the main beneficiary. In the will, the Baron tasked Olcott with conducting his burial in a manner that would best fit the eastern belief in the soul’s immortality. Among his many other interests, Olcott was a member of the New York Cremation Society, which was founded in 1874, but had not yet had a chance to fulfil its mission. Baron de Palm’s death gave Olcott and the society their first opportunity to do so.

Olcott and Blavatsky scheduled the ceremony for June 1876. Olcott was granted permission to hold the cremation at the Masonic Lodge in Manhattan, and infor­med the press of his intentions. They went into a frenzy, publicising the event extensively, labelling it ‘a pagan funeral’. This created great interest and gave Olcott the chance to sell tickets. According to Olcott, demand exceeded all expectations, meaning the number of people attending would exceed the capacity of the hall: the police cancelled the ceremony. The cremation was finally conducted six months later, on December 1, 1876, in the first American crematorium, built by Francis Julius Le Moyne in Pennsylvania.

Following de Palm’s death, Olcott discovered the properties he owned existed only in his imagination; the Baron was in fact a pauper. The fiasco grew a year later after some of Blavatsky’s critics accused her of plagiarising Isis Unveiled from manuscripts she had supposedly found in de Palm’s suitcase after his death. Blavatsky said many years later that the only things she found in the suitcase were a bronze Cupid and several shirts stolen from Olcott.

These peculiar events may demonstrate the somewhat dubious atmosphere that characterised early theosophical activity in New York. However, Baron de Palm’s cremation helped Olcott and Blavatsky gain extensive press coverage and publicise their new society.

Strangely, the operations of the society declined after the publication of Isis Unveiled. Few people joined during this period, the most prominent being Thomas Edison, who sent Olcott his membership forms on April 4, 1878. He added a note, saying, ‘I herewith return signed, the forms of the Theosophical Society… Please say to Madame Blavatsky that I have received her very curious work and I thank her for the same. I SHALL READ BETWEEN THE LINES.’ (Edison’s emphasis.) Blavatsky replied, informing him that she had finished translating into Russian his article on the phonograph, and would try to use her contacts with newspapers in Odessa and St Petersburg to get it published. Several years later, in 1885, Edison denied any connection with the theosophists following the publication of a report by The Society for Psychical Research denouncing Blavatsky as a fraud. Yet his own records, as well as the attitude of Blavatsky and Olcott towards him, confirm that he was, if only for a while, a member. Blavatsky’s regard for Edison is evident in her references to him in a number of articles she published later in India and England.

The theosophical message in a nutshell

The Theosophical Society still functions as a global movement, based in India in Adyar, a suburb of Chennai (formerly Madras). Blavatsky and Olcott introduced to the world a new kind of ideological and spiritual movement, aimed at combining the philosophies of the orient with those of the occident, and proposed a global vision alongside a plan for individual spiritual development.

The theosophical contribution to many fields is far from being fully appreciated today. It was the progenitor of what we refer to as the New Age Movement. It gave birth to other prominent movements including Steiner’s anthroposophy, Guy Ballard’s ‘I­AM’ and many others. It was the cradle out of which sprang famous modern spiritual teachers, such as the ‘world teacher’ Jiddu Krishnamurti, and it influenced thinkers and scientists such as Edison. It was also responsible for the birth of the Indian National Congress, founded by Allan Octavian Hume, a formerly devout disciple of Blavatsky. For many years there were close associations between the two groups – for example India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, initiated himself into theosophy in his youth. It inspired psychoanalysts such as Carl Gustav Jung. And it encouraged new artistic trends and influenced many artists, af Klint, of course, and also Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian.

So what actually is theosophy? What does it mean? And what are the aims of the Theosophical Society? Allow me to suggest several rather brief answers to these questions. Theosophy claims that all religions derive from one source. Individual religions, it says, have deteriorated with age, and as their establishments became larger and subsequently more corrupt. The theosophical aim, therefore, is to recol­lect the ancient kernels of truth still preserved in all religions, and to relocate them in their original form, in order to unveil a true religious doctrine.

Accordingly, theosophy’s perhaps most important contribution to modern reli­gious thought is the notion that the religions of the east – particularly Hinduism and Buddhism – are not inferior to the monotheistic Mosaic religions of Judaism and Christianity, but rather older than them, and therefore closer and more loyal to original ancient truths. This idea, nourished by Blavatsky at a time when India in particular and the east as a whole were considered primitive and loathsome, meant the Theosophical Society was possibly the first body to successfully bridge eastern and western cultures. It could be argued the turning point of one of the most prominent new age ideas – the quest for eastern spirituality – was set in motion by theosophy.

This might be evidenced by the tremendous interest in eastern religions that grew during the twentieth century in the west, and is still growing, or through the spread of practices such as yoga or meditation. It is certainly evidenced by the popularity of medical practices such as ayurveda, shiatsu or acupuncture, and in the widespread use of terms alien to western thought until the twentieth century, such as ‘guru, ‘chakras’ and many others. All of these originally owe their popula­rity to that bridge first built by the Theosophical Society.

Another crucial theosophical contribution to new age discourse is worth noting. What makes the movement attractive to many is the freedom of choice it enables. This is in contrast to established religions based on dogma. Theosophy emerged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, an era now defined as the heyday of a Victorian crisis of faith, and it gave its followers in the west an option to believe in what the Christian Church would have called heresy. Moreover, it enabled disciples to stay loyal to their church, but at the same time explore alternative religious ideas. The bottom line is theosophy set spiritual seekers free, and gave them a set of tools to continue their quest individually. No wonder the Theosophical Society gained popu­larity quickly, as it developed when the west became more tolerant to religious diver­sity and less tolerant to dogmatic thought. No wonder it attracted the minds and fired the imagination of many freethinking artists, such as af Klint, who sought alternative religious philosophies and found Blavatsky’s ideas not only interesting, but liberating. It is worth noting here that the Theosophical Society was founded, led and instructed mainly by women. It was first Blavatsky who contributed a prominent feminist agenda, being a single, strong and independent woman in a time when society was controlled by men, who, moreover, headed all religious establishments. Blavatsky’s successor, Annie Besant, who headed the society until 1933, was no less a feminist. In this sense, theosophy may be appreciated as a liberating philosophy for women, who found in it not only a home for free thought, but a place in which they could also be free from male domination.

A Passage to India

By 1877 Blavatsky and Olcott were dissatisfied with the society’s slow progress. Most esoteric movements devoted to the search for gnosis are selective and elitist, but not the theosophists, who sought the widest publicity. The slowness of its popularity – membership was in fact declining – seemed to them to reflect the materialistic degeneration of America, which they saw as impeding the reception of the theosophical message. Blavatsky maintained that a vast struggle between spirituality and materialism was taking place in her lifetime, and suggested the success of materialism resulted from the French Revolution and the decline of the Church. These ideas led Blavatsky and Olcott to the conclusion they ought to propagate the tenets of their new faith in a different geographical setting, one less tainted with materialism.

Blavatsky naturally looked to India as the lodestone of her dreams and plans. However, in the 1870s a journey to India entailed considerable financial and physi­cal efforts. Moreover, it was an unknown land for Blavatsky and Olcott, neither of whom were young.

Their main hope lay in the contacts they established with a number of Indian correspondents who showed interest in their new esoteric movement. In 1877 Olcott wrote to Moolji Thackersey, whom he had met in 1870 on board a ship returning to America from England. Olcott informed him about the Theosophical Society and its dream of blending the wisdom of the east with that of the west, and invited him to join. According to Olcott, Thackersey responded enthusiastically, and put him in touch with Hurrychund Chintamon, the president of the Bombay Arya Samaj [Aryan Association]. This had been founded two years earlier by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, a purist who agitated for Indian national revival in the belief this would be made possible by a religious reformation and a return to the ancient Vedic religion. Chintamon, who was granted honorary membership of the society, responded to Olcott’s letters, and put him in touch with Saraswati.

One interesting aspect of the spiritual-­national awakening in India at this time was the drive to forge links with the west, especially the United States. This was, to begin with, a protest against the coercive methods of the Christian missions in India, backed by imperial British rulers. The former had, from the 1830s onwards, become less tolerant towards Hinduism, convinced it was necessary to import English culture into the subcontinent and, as much as possible, suppress the study of local culture. Indian counter­action soon spread beyond England to the United States, where Hindu reformers sought to win material and political support for their cause, as well as to propagate their faith. The neo­-Hinduism reached its apogee towards the end of the century when centres for the study of Hinduism, still thriving today, were established in America.

Saraswati had similar ambitions twenty years previously. This accounts for his association with Olcott and Blavatsky. He must have hoped that the connection with the western theosophists would provide him with material and propagandis­ tic advantages. Blavatsky and Olcott viewed the connection in terms of their own goals – acquaintance with local Hindus in preparation for their journey to India, and a rare opportunity to expand the membership of their movement.

The correspondence of the pair with Saraswati led to the proposal to merge the Theosophical Society with the Arya Samaj. Olcott agreed to become, as he put it, ‘number two’ under Saraswati. Blavatsky helped this move by telling Olcott that Saraswati was actually a member of the Great Brotherhood, inhabiting the body of the Indian personage. This helped Olcott to accept the Hindu reformer as a spiri­tual mentor. A motion to merge the two movements was put to the vote, and in May 1878 Theosophical Society members approved it, resolving to change the name of the society to the Theosophical Society of the Arya Samaj. Shortly after this Olcott received an English translation of the Hindu movement’s principles. These caught him by surprise; he realised there was a certain distance between the theosophical faith and Saraswati’s ideas. In September that year the society rever­ted to its original name.

The ups and downs in the relationship with the Arya Samaj led to a refinement of the theosophical programme, and the formulation of the society’s three main principles, which remained the basis for theosophy in the future: The study of occult science; the formation of a universal brotherhood; and the revival of eastern literature and philosophy.

Late in 1878, Blavatsky and Olcott decided to go to India and join their new Hindu friends. A few months earlier, in July, Blavatsky had become a citizen of the United States. Olcott activated his old associations and won an official appoint­ment for the journey. In December he received two important documents – the first a personal letter of introduction signed by the President of the United States, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, the other a State Department appointment of Olcott as an official emissary of the US Administration. Armed with these, the pair con­stituted an official American delegation looking into expanding the commercial interests of the United States in Asia. On December 15 Olcott and Blavatsky threw a farewell party, to which Olcott invited Edison, although he did not attend. Nevertheless, Olcott used a phonograph produced by Edison to record greetings from the New York society to their friends in India.

Two days later, at midnight, the pair left home and boarded the British steamer The Canada. Olcott described in his journal how moved he was when, unlike the rest of the passengers who stood on deck to watch the American shore receding from sight, he remained in his cabin and located Bombay on a map of India.

Thus ended the first chapter in the history of the Theosophical Society, a history that would witness several quite astonishing chapters in future years. The society’s four formative years in New York gave it a solid experience in public relations, extending its membership and creating interest in its activities and ideas. The New York arena was left behind in the hands of the society’s secretary, William Judge, but was never to be returned to by the Theosophical Society’s founders, Olcott and Blavatsky.

This essay originally appeared under the title New York City, 1875: The birth of theosophy in Hilma af Klint: Visionary, Axess, 2019.


Isaac Lubelsky