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The Early History of the Theosophical Society

Some information on the early history of the Theosophical Society and images of some of the early members and founders.


The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by two prominent individuals. The first was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who was the first Russian woman to have been naturalised as an American citizen. Her counterpart was Henry Steel Olcott, a prominent lawyer and journalist. Olcott became the first President of the Society. Others of note included William Q. Judge and Emma Hardinge Britten.

H. P. Blavatsky & H. S. Olcott

Madame Blavatsky, or known affectionately in the Theosophical Society as H.P.B., was of Russian noble birth. Her mother was a social novelist and grandmother an amateur scientist. With a deep thirst for wisdom at an early age, Blavatsky commenced traveling around the world, which was most uncommon for a young woman in her day. After many adventures and a period of time in Tibet, HPB was able to bring to the attention of the West the wisdom of the East and the ancient Western mysteries, synthesised into the modern exposition we now call "Theosophy. " - Divine Wisdom. In fact, this was the essence of all religions.

The co-founder of the society, Colonel Olcott, was a veteran of the American Civil War (1861-1865). He was famous for his investigations into corruption in the armed forces, and later, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, became a member of the commission appointed to investigate the death of that great American President. Olcott's contribution to the Theosophical Society and the world in general was his unique ability to apply the Ancient Wisdom, Theosophy, to the cultures of East and West, especially in a practical way. It was Olcott who saw the transformation of the society into an international organisation.

Another person of note was William Q. Judge, an attorney from New York, who contributed erstwhile support during the formation of the society. Other persons of note in those formative years was General Abner Doubleday, the founder of the American game of baseball, and later, the famous American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison. Since then many other people of note have been members of the Theosophical Society, with members in almost seventy countries.

The two principal founders of the Theosophical Society moved to India in 1879, and three years later established the headquarters in Adyar, what was then a suburb of the city of Madras (now called Chennai). This estate in Adyar eventually became famous for its lush gardens, monuments, library and unique colonial buildlings.

Olcott spent time in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, promoting education and social welfare amongst the oppressed Buddhist majority. He produced the Buddhist Catechism and founded a Buddhist Educational Association. Olcott also displayed remarkable healing powers and cured many people in his travels around Ceylon. To this day Olcott is regarded as a national hero in Sri Lanka. There are statues of him around the country (eg. Colombo railway station and in Galle city centre) and there have been commemorative issues of postage stamps in Olcott's honour.

In 1877 HPB published a singular work, Isis Unveiled, which attracted a myriad of people to the society. Under the care of Madame Blavatsky, The Theosophist, the international magazine of the society, also thrived. Blavatsky wrote many of the articles for the magazine and it is said that the Masters of the Wisdom contributed to the magazine.

Another early Theosophist of note, Charles W. Leadbeater, also joined the society and went on tour of Burma with Colonel Olcott. Olcottr had to cut short his journey because Blavatsky had taken ill in India. As a consequence of her illness, HPB left India and settled for a while at Wurzburg; HPB moved to London in 1877, which gave her the opportunity to complete her most famous work, The Secret Doctrine, and later started the magazine, Lucifer.

In 1888 Olcott left India to visit Europe, leaving Leadbeater in charge of The Theosophist. He toured Japan in 1889 and convinced the various Buddhist sects there to join in a Convention of Southern Buddhists with other countries such as Sri Lanka and Burma. At around this time, Annie Besant, a well-known British social reformer and freethinker, reviewed The Secret Doctrine for the publication, Review of Reviews. She was immediately attracted to the ideas in this extraordinary work and soon joined the Theosophical Society. Her largely materialistic attitudes had undergone a revolution and soon she used her great eloquence in the promotion of Theosophy. HPB continued to produce other works which are superb reading: The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence. After an incredible life dedicated to service, Blavatsky passed away on May 8, 1891.

Olcott continued his work for the society, writing Old Diary Leaves in 1892. Old Diary Leaves is an early history of the society, as well as Olcott's experiences during his travels. By the end of the following year Annie Besant arrived in India, which was the beginning of a new era in her life, participating in the Indian freedom movement and founding the Central Hindu College at Benares in 1898. George S. Arundale, later to become international president of the society after Mrs Besant, joined the College as a professor of history and then later became its principal. Another lecturer of note in the society at this time was the Ceylonese, C. Jinarajadasa, who started his lecturing career in 1904. Unfortunately, H.S. Olcott met with an accident on board a ship on his return from New York to India in 1906. He passed away in February, 1907 and the mantle of presidency passed on to Mrs Besant. It was Annie Besant who added practicality to the study of Theosophy and along with Leadbeater, focussed on human nature from an occult point of view. Annie Besant remained as president until her death in September, 1933. George Arundale soon followed as international president.

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