Doctrines Theosophical doctrine is largely a synthesis of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism with Western occultism. Blavatsky claimed to have channelled most of the teachings from Ascended Masters and Mahatmas in Tibet such as Kuthumi and El Morya, who represented the wisdom of the ages. She later described these beings as an association called the Great White Brotherhood, who mediate between humanity and the divine, occasionally incarnating to found new religions. Blavatsky and Olcott were the first Westerners to popularize Indian religion for Western seekers, including the now widespread twin doctrines of karma and reincarnation. The Society's motto is 'there is no religion higher than truth', and it claims that all religions have the same goal. Its three objectives are
  1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
  2. To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
  3. To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.

History The Theosophical Society was founded in America in 1875 by the Ukrainian-born Helena Blavatsky (1831-91), who had many psychic and spiritual experiences during her travels through India and Tibet, and Henry S. Olcott (1832-1907). It later established its headquarters in Madras, India. Several schismatic offshoots occurred after Blavatsky's death, including the Theosophical Society International and the United Lodge of Theosophists. It was also the main influence on Rudolf Steiner, who broke away from the Theosophical Society in 1913 to found Anthroposophy. Blavatsky's successors were Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, who further developed the teachings. The Society has been attacked for fraudulence since its early days. As a result it went into a decline and its function was largely superceded by the post-war Indian gurus. Nowadays it is generally perceived as old-fashioned, and its membership is largely elderly, although in its heyday it was considered revolutionary. However, it still has centres in 48 countries organized by its Indian headquarters.

Symbols Theosophical symbolism is highly esoteric and complex, drawn from Eastern mysticism and Western occultism. It is believed to comprise a secret body of doctrine open only to the elite few, though it has been collected in various books of which the best known are Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1889). Since it also takes members from all religions, it is open to the imagery of ritual of other traditions, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Kabbalah, shamanism, interspersed with the mythology of Atlantis and Lemuria. These symbols and rituals were further developed in a subgroup called the Esoteric Section. In the early days the key symbol, was the Maitreya, the Buddhist title for the forthcoming Buddha of the New Age, whom the Theosophists believed would be the World Teacher, although after Krishnamurti (q.v.) rejected this role it became less prominent in their teachings.

Adherents The Society estimates around 5-10,000 worldwide, 1000 in Britain.

Main centres
 Theosophical Society, Adyar, Madras 60020, India.
Theosophical Society, 50 Gloucester Place, London W1H 3HJ.