Theosophy: mix-and-match religion

Helena Petrovska Blavatsky (1831-1891)

Helena Petrovska Blavatsky (1831-1891)

Theosophy was the brainchild of Helena Petrovska Blavatsky (1831-1891), a charismatic character with a varied and colourful background (from sweatshop worker to circus bareback rider, from mistress of a Slovenian singer to professional pianist) and in the 1870s was living in New York, where she discovered that she could find easy work as a medium. In 1875 she and her then partner, Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), a New York lawyer who had left his family for her, founded the Theosophical Society and moved to India.

In 1882, Madame Blavatsky sent letters written by her alleged Master, Koot Hoomi Lal Sing (said to have ‘ascended’ in 1889), to an Anglo-Indian newspaper editor, although handwriting analysis later appeared to indicate that she had written them herself. Worse, some of the contents of the letters plagiarised the work of Henry Kiddle (1824-1891), an American educator and spiritualist, as he pointed out himself. The letters contained an eclectic mix of Western occultism, Indian mysticism and nineteenth-century popular science, revealing a seven-based cosmology in which there are seven planes of existence, seven Root Races of humanity, seven bodies possessed by each human being and seven cycles of evolution. The world, it turns out, is ruled by a secret Brotherhood of Mahatmas who beam occult energies from their hidden base in Tibet. This cosmology later formed the basis of a massive work, The Secret Doctrine (1888), written by Blavatsky in Europe after she had been forced to leave India when her unhappy ex-housekeeper had exposed her magic feats as fraudulent to a Mumbai newspaper in 1884.

Sunken continents, root races and other fantasies

Mme Blavatsky claimed that The Secret Doctrine was based on a lost Atlantean religious work, which she said was called The Stanzas of Dzyan, supposed to be the first book ever written. The Secret Doctrine works as a commentary on the Stanzas: it is also their only source. According to the Stanzas as revealed by Mme Blavatsky, the first humans (or ‘First Root Race’) had existed only on an astral plane, living in the ‘Imperishable Land’ at the North Pole. The Second Root Race also lived in the arctic, on the lost continent of Hyperborea. Like most other ‘lost continents’, Hyperborea broke up and sank, in this case beneath the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. The third Root Race comprised the Lemurians. They were bandy-legged, egg-laying hermaphrodite apes (some with four arms, some with eyes in the back of their head), 3.7 m (twelve feet) tall. They were contemporary with dinosaurs, which they kept as domestic animals. When the Lemurians discovered sex, their fate was sealed and the continent followed Hyperborea in sinking beneath the waves. The offspring of the Lemurians’ sexual adventures was the fourth Root Race: fully human Atlanteans, guided into human form by adepts from Venus. After the drowning of Atlantis, the fifth Root Race – modern humans – evolved; the sixth Root Race is about to evolve in North America, while the seventh will one day develop in South America.

The ordinary members of the Theosophical Society (who included otherwise perfectly rational and intelligent people) never seemed to see through Mme Blavatsky’s bizarre charade and regarded her exposure as a fraud as the machinations and lies of people with grudges. She had made little effort to cover her tracks and her true history is easily uncovered and confirmed by those who wish to do so, but the Theosophical Society’s official biography resolutely ignores the facts to glorify its founder. It continues to regard Blavatsky as a saint and her farrago of evolutionary history as a true account of human origins. The growing scientific understanding of archaeology, anthropology and geology has resulted in a chasm between the beliefs of Theosophy and scientific knowledge, exactly as it has impacted on other forms of religious fundamentalism. The Society still exists, but no longer has a large or influential membership. Nevertheless, it became an important source for much of the New Age belief system, with its eclectic mix of religious and pseudo-scientific philosophies.