The Foundation of The Theosophical Society

Taken from H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement by Charles J. Ryan


The time had now come when it was necessary to speak plainly about the real interpretation of the spiritualistic manifestations. H. P. Blavatsky had gained the attention of the public by her brilliant intelligence, the charm of her striking personality, and her slashing attacks on materialism and other evils. Her voice would now be listened to and recognized as speaking with authority. She writes in her Scrap-Book in May, 1875:

Ordered to begin telling the public the truth about the phenomena and their mediums. And now my martyrdom will begin! I will have all the Spiritualists against me in addition to the Christians and the Skeptics. Thy Will, O. M.’., be done! H.P.B. — Theos., LIV, 330-1, Dec. 1932

On receipt of this order H.P.B. set Colonel Olcott to work to form a group of students into a society to discuss psychic subjects, which he rather disrespectfully called a “Miracle Club.” This proving a failure, a few weeks later urgent orders were received by H.P.B. from her Master to try again and enlarge the scope of the work. She writes:

Orders received from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious Society and choose a name for it, — also to choose Olcott. July 1875. — Ibid., 332

This shows the definite object for which the Masters started the Society — a center of spiritual energy which would be both philosophic and religious and, it might be said, scientific. It was not intended to be a mere “psychical research” association, however glorified. H.P.B. knew this perfectly, as can be seen from her letters to her friend Professor Corson of Cornell University, but it was not so obvious to others until some time after the Theosophical Society was established.

H. P. Blavatsky was the immediate agent of the Masters from the inception of the Society until her death, and every other associate was subordinate in real authority. But she received help and instruction from other Adepts as well as from M. and K.H. The words “from India direct,” which she uses in the memorandum just quoted, are significant as they evidently mean that the orders came from her personal Master, M. In her New York period she was largely under the protection of a Section of the Great Lodge which has its center in Egypt, and whose Chief was then privately spoken of as Serapis Bey. In several places Olcott makes interesting references to this occult group under the name of “The Brotherhood of Luxor,” and K.H. also mentions them in the Mahatma Letters (p. 116), but less is said about them than about the Tibetan Brotherhood.

A curious incident is recorded by Colonel Olcott in this connection. When E. Gerry Brown was struggling with financial difficulties the Masters wished to help his progressive journal, and Olcott drew up an attractive circular to advertise it. H. P. Blavatsky told him the Masters wished it signed: “For the Committee of Seven, BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR.” She did not dictate any of it, or see it until it was printed, but then she pointed out, to Olcott’s astonishment, that the initials of the six paragraphs spelt the name of the Egyptian Adept, Tuitit, under whom he was then working through H. P. Blavatsky (O. D. L., I, 72-6).

Ten years later, in 1886, this same Egyptian Adept is again referred to. In one of the Colonel’s letters to H.P.B. he asks her to request Tuitit Bey or one of his colleagues to arrange an exchange of studies between someone in Cairo and Subba Row in India (Blavatsky Letters, 326). K.H. also speaks of his Egyptian and Druse colleagues and their special duty in Egypt during the armed rising under Arabi Pasha in 1882 (Mahatma Letters, 116).

A brief outline of the formation of the Theosophical Society (the “philosophico-religious Society”) is all that is necessary here. It was first suggested in public on September 7, 1875, in H. P. Blavatsky’s rooms at 46 Irving Place, New York, after a lecture to an invited audience, on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians” by G. H. Felt. He was an original thinker whose studies had convinced him that the ancient Egyptians were adepts in magical science — a belief that was far more unorthodox in 1875 than it is now, when more than one distinguished Egyptologist is on record as taking Egyptian magic seriously, and responsible investigators report meeting adepts in Egypt of more or less advancement.

H. P. Blavatsky must have been especially interested in Felt’s remarks because he had knowledge of the existence in nature of elementals or nonhuman ‘spirits,’ an important factor in her teachings which the spiritualists at that time repudiated and ridiculed. Today their attitude is entirely different.

But H.P.B. knew the danger of ignorantly arousing these elemental forces, and soon had to take action to protect the infant Theosophical Society from becoming an Arcadia for elementals! (1)

The company were evidently much impressed by Felt’s address, for Olcott writes:

. . . an animated discussion followed. In the course of this, the idea occurred to me that it would be a good thing to form a society to pursue and promote such occult research, and, after turning it over in my mind, I wrote on a scrap of paper the following:

“Would it not be a good thing to form a Society for this kind of study?”

— and gave it to Mr. Judge, . . . to pass over to her [H. P. Blavatsky]. She read it and nodded assent. — O. D. L., I, 117-18

Olcott seems not to have known of the Master’s order directing the formation of a “philosophico-religious Society,” received by H. P. Blavatsky in the previous July; it is not mentioned in his voluminous writings. He says that even “the Brotherhood plank in the Society’s future platform was, therefore, not thought of” — nor the “philosophico-religious” one, it would seem! Not by him, of course, but one can imagine H. P. Blavatsky’s quiet smile when she nodded her head, knowing well the deep significance of the proceedings. Although the Society was not established by the Masters for the pursuit of psychic research, Olcott’s suggestion was well adapted to attract independent minds and, once a working organization was established, the real teaching could begin.

His proposition was received with enthusiasm and, after several conferences, the name, the Theosophical Society, was chosen, officers elected and bylaws adopted. H. S. Olcott was appointed President and W. Q. Judge, Counsel. H. P. Blavatsky chose the modest title of Corresponding Secretary. The Society was legally constituted on October 30, and on November 17, 1875, the president’s Inaugural Address was delivered at the Mott Memorial Hall, 64 Madison Avenue, New York. The latter date has by many been accepted as the official birthday of the Society. In regard to the name Theosophical it was said that the choice was the result of the casual finding of the word Theosophy in a dictionary when the subject was discussed. This, however, may not have been a fortuitous happening, for in one of her letters to Professor Hiram Corson H.P.B. writes in February 1875:

I am here in this country sent by my Lodge on behalf of Truth in modern spiritualism, and it is my most sacred duty to unveil what is, and expose what is not. . . .

My belief . . . springs out from the same source of information that was used by Raymond Lully, Picus della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, et cetera, etc., all of whom have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the “deepest depths” of the Divine nature, . . . I found at last, and many years ago, the cravings of my mind satisfied by this Theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them that the protoplast might know it for the aid of the human destiny. — Some Unpublished Letters of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 127-8

Here we find her employing the unusual word Theosophy in referring to the teaching which her “philosophico-religious Society” was soon to promulgate, more than six months after writing this letter, and which she had tried to introduce to the world when she started the unlucky Societe Spirite at Cairo. In the “Hiraf” letter, described in the next chapter, she uses the word Theosophists, months before the Theosophical Society was started.

A metropolitan paper in reporting the foundation of the Theosophical Society summarizes what Colonel Olcott had in mind at the time:

One movement of great importance has just been inaugurated in New York, under the lead of Colonel Henry S. Olcott, in the organization of a society, to be known as the Theosophical Society. . . . The company included several persons of great learning and some of wide personal influence. [Here follow names and descriptions.] . . . Col. Olcott . . . proposed to form a nucleus around which might gather all the enlightened and brave souls who are willing to work together for the collection and diffusion of knowledge. His plan was to organise a society of Occultists and begin at once to collect a library and to diffuse information concerning those secret laws of Nature which were so familiar to the Chaldeans and Egyptians, but are totally unknown by our modern world of science.” — O. D. L., I, 118-20

Among the early Fellows were Dr. Alexander Wilder, the well-known physician, scholar, and Platonist; Major-General Abner W. Doubleday of Gettysburg fame, also a distinguished inventor and the founder of baseball; Thomas Alva Edison; Dr. Seth Pancoast, learned Kabbalist; and other notable people. The purpose of the Society was briefly defined in the second bylaw, and it covers an immense field, spiritual, ethical, and physical; it reads:

The objects of the society are to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe.

Properly understood this includes a sincere effort on the part of the Fellows of the Society to gain a true understanding of the laws of life so that their conduct may become harmonious with them. A body of unselfish men and women thinking and acting in this light would indeed be a nucleus of universal brotherhood. When the Rules were revised in India in 1879-1880, the principle of brotherhood was emphasized, but it had never been far from the mind of H.P.B.

During the formative period of the movement in New York the publication of two circulars was authorized. The one displaying the name of the Egyptian Adept, Tuitit, in the form of an acrostic, has already been mentioned. The second one, not dated, but said to have been issued in 1878, is of greater importance because it is the first detailed statement for inquirers about the conditions of membership and, above all, of the chief object of the Society, brotherhood. It runs in part:

Its Fellowship is divided into three Sections, and each Section into three Degrees. All candidates for active fellowship are required to enter as probationers, in the Third Degree of the Third Section, and no fixed time is specified in which the new Fellow can advance from any lower to a higher degree; all depends upon merit. To be admitted into the highest degree, of the first section, the Theosophist must have become freed of every leaning toward any one form of religion in preference to another. . . . He must be ready to lay down his life, if necessary, for the good of Humanity, and of a brother Fellow of whatever race, color or ostensible creed. . . . Those who have not yet wholly disenthralled themselves from religious prejudice, and other forms of selfishness, but have made a certain progress towards self-mastery and enlightenment, belong in the Second Section. The Third Section is probationary; . . .

The objects of the Society are various. . . . The Society teaches and expects its fellows to personally exemplify the highest morality and religious aspiration; to oppose the materialism of science and every form of dogmatic theology, especially the Christian, which the Chiefs of the Society regard as particularly pernicious; . . . to disseminate a knowledge of the sublime teachings of that pure esoteric system of the archaic period, . . . finally, and chiefly, to aid in the institution of a Brotherhood of Humanity, . . . — THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY: Its Origin, Plan and Aims (Circular from Doubleday Notebook, no. 7).

The remark about Christian dogmatic theology refers, of course, to the outmoded creeds and crude literal interpretations of the Bible, and not in the least to the teachings of Christ, of which H. P. Blavatsky always spoke with profound respect, affirming that in their esoteric meaning they were identical with the ancient wisdom taught in schools of the Mysteries. From the first, the Society has been absolutely unsectarian and nonpolitical. The belief in brotherhood and the sincere desire to promote it in every legitimate way is the only prerequisite of Fellowship. The study of Theosophy is held to be the best means of discovering the true nature of man and therefore of finding the remedies for man’s troubles, but Theosophy is not presented as a creed or a dogma.

The course of events in the presentation of this philosophy was not haphazard. “To collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe” was a highly condensed expression of a very wide-reaching program, which was not fully revealed at first, but among the principal teachings of Theosophy there is one that runs through the entire cycle of H. P. Blavatsky’s guidance. This, the most important of all, is that of the inner divinity in man and of the possibility of becoming united with it. This is the fundamental basis of universal brotherhood. H.P.B. had realized this mystical illumination in a high degree, and was therefore qualified to point the way to others. She speaks of

my inner Self which but for His [her Master Morya] calling it out, awakening it from its slumber, would have never come to conscious being — not in this life, at all events; . . . —Blavatsky Letters, 104

Writing to Dr. Franz Hartmann in 1885 or 1886, she quotes “the Chinese Alchemist” who speaks of the necessity of a living teacher, saying:

“If you covet the precious things of Heaven you must reject the treasures of the earth. You must kindle the fire that springs from the water and evolve the Om contained within the Tong: One word from a wise Master and you possess a draught of the golden water.” — The Path, X, 367, March 1896

H.P.B. continues: “I got my drop from my Master (the living one) . . . He is a Saviour, he who leads you to finding the Master within yourself.”

The symbolic seal shown below is the one H.P.B. always used on her stationery.

A modification of it was adopted as the public corporate seal of the Theosophical Society. When this was done, early in 1876, the coronet of nobility, the upper signs of Leo and Virgo, and the lower kabbalistic ones were removed, and her monogram in the center was replaced by the ansated cross, the Egyptian tau:

In its original and its present form, the Society design contains a synthesis of the basic teachings of Theosophy. It represents the universe expanding into manifestation, or evolution, from the central heart, and comprised within the serpent of time and space. The white triangle represents wisdom concealed and the black one wisdom revealed, as well as other things. The tau not only stands for the regenerated man but for life, and the circle hovering over the cosmic cross is the golden germ which will expand into future glory as the neophyte or ’embryo’ develops into the grown-up being. The swastika in the small circle may be taken for the great mill of the gods, the cycle of transformation, the “Wheel of the Law.” The broken ends of the swastika may turn either way without changing the symbolism.


1. Mr. Felt’s researches into the meaning of the Egyptian symbolic representations of the zodiacal constellations, etc., in animal forms and their possible connection with elementals or nature spirits of various orders, led him to the discovery of certain purely theosophical principles. Quoting from one of his letters:

“As a result I have become satisfied that these Zodiacal and other drawings are representations of types in this invisible creation delineated in a more or less precise manner, and interspersed with images of natural objects more or less conventionally drawn.

“. . . they formed a series of creatures in a system of evolution running from inanimate nature . . . to man, its highest development; that there were intelligences capable of being more or less perfectly controlled, as man was more or less thoroughly acquainted with them, . . . or as he was more or less in harmony with nature or nature’s works. . . . Purity of mind and body, I found to be very powerful. . . .

“I satisfied myself that the Egyptians had used these appearances in their initiations; . . .” — O. D. L., I, 128-9

In this letter Mr. Felt describes the strange effect which his work with certain Egyptian symbols had upon his cat and dog. He says that on a certain occasion, at an open meeting of the Society, when he was lecturing on the subject, H. P. Blavatsky “who had seen unpleasant effects follow” indiscriminate concentration on such matters, requested him to put aside his drawings and change the subject. He soon realized the absolute necessity of confining such studies to those only who were properly prepared morally and spiritually, and strongly supported the organization of different degrees in the T. S. In this he was, of course, well advised, and H. P. Blavatsky never stopped till she had taken the first steps to establish a real school of the Mysteries where earnest students could be taught the way to self-knowledge in preparation for effective work for the benefit of humanity. Her esoteric teachings were never directed to the development of psychic powers, and her suppression of Mr. Felt’s attempt to exhibit his occult experiments to unqualified persons, mere intellectual curiosity-seekers, of which his audience largely consisted, shows that even in the earliest days of the Theosophical Society she discouraged psychic practices within the Society and directed its course to spiritual and philosophical lines.