Reprinted by Blavatsky Study Center

What is Theosophy?
Some Fundamental Concepts

by John Algeo

This article has been excerpted from the book
Theosophy:  An Introductory Study Course by John Algeo
(4th ed.  Wheaton, Illinois, USA:  Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.)

The "Big" Questions of Life

Have you ever wondered about the “big” questions of life?

Who am I really?
Why is the world the way it is?
Where did I come from?
What am I doing here?
What comes next?
When will I find out all these things?

If you have ever wondered about these or other such apparently unanswerable questions, congratulations. Your ability to wonder proves you are human. We human beings are curious about ourselves and the world around us. That curiosity appears especially in little children, who are continually asking “what?” and “why?” As we grow older, we may learn to live with our unknowing and stop asking such questions—at least overtly. But, being human, we have a passion for knowing the meaning of things, and that passion cannot be wholly suppressed.

The human passion for understanding ourselves and the world around us puts us on a quest for self-discovery. The human species has various names to identify itself. We are, in the technical language of biologists, Homo sapiens “the intelligent human.” ....We might most appropriately be called Homo quaeritans “the questing human,” “the human who is on a search.”

Over the ages, humans have developed several approaches to answering their own questions—for pursuing their search. Three of the most important of such approaches are science, philosophy, and religion, each of which starts from its own assumptions and goes about forming its answers in its own way. Because of those differences, science, philosophy, and religion may occasionally seem to contradict one another. But because they are all trying to answer the “big” questions, their right answers cannot really be contradictory. Instead, we need to understand what causes the differences and how we can find the truth in common to these varied approaches.

And that brings us to Theosophy and the Theosophical Society....

What is the Theosophical Society?

The Theosophical Society was founded in New York City in 1875 by a number of persons who had gathered to discuss matters of mutual interest relating to the wisdom of the ancients, the unexplained mysteries of nature around us, and the implications of such things for contemporary people. Chief among these founders of the Society were Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott....

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a Russian woman who became a naturalized American citizen. She came of Russian nobility on her mother’s side and of Russian military officers on her father’s side....HPB, as she preferred to be called, had married as a young woman, but left the comfortable life of the Russian upper classes to seek an explanation for life’s mysteries by traveling around the world in search of wisdom. She eventually came into touch with some teachers, “Masters of the Wisdom,” of whom she had had dreams and visions since her childhood and who trained her in the tradition of which they were the heirs and custodians. They sent her to America for the purpose of founding an organization to serve as a nucleus to carry on the work of disseminating their wisdom to humanity....

Henry Steel Olcott was a lawyer who served his country during the American Civil War as an inspector, ferreting out fraud in the procurement of supplies (and is therefore often called “Colonel Olcott”). After the assassination of President Lincoln, he was on the commission that investigated it. Olcott had a varied career, for example publishing a seminal work on the cultivation of sugar-producing plants and editing a history of  America. He was a feature writer for New York newspapers and, as such, followed current events. In the later nineteenth century, Spiritualism (supposed contact with the souls of the dead through mediums) was a matter of intense interest; and some remarkable spiritualistic phenomena were being reported at a farm in Vermont. Olcott therefore went to Vermont to write a story on those phenomena, and there he met HPB, who had also come to witness the happenings and to meet Olcott.

Blavatsky and Olcott immediately struck up a friendship, and on their return to New York, Olcott began to attend gatherings at HPB’s apartment, where conversation often turned to esoteric and exotic subjects. When it was proposed to found a society for the further study of such matters, Olcott was elected President and HPB Corresponding Secretary. The new organization was called the Theosophical Society....

The Society received a good bit of publicity in the newspapers....But Olcott and HPB soon moved to the East. They had entered into correspondence with Buddhists in Sri Lanka and with Hindus in India and felt a call to extend Theosophical work into those countries. So in 1879 the two Founders sailed to south Asia, first establishing themselves in Bombay, but traveling widely to further the work of the new Society throughout the subcontinent. Three years later, they purchased an estate called Adyar near Madras (now called Chennai) in southern India for the international headquarters of the Society.

Olcott became very active in educational and social work on behalf of the exploited peoples of Sri Lanka and in promoting the worldwide revival of Buddhism. HPB continued an intense production of literary works, which would eventually fill more than twenty thick volumes.

...HPB was the idea woman who was largely responsible for formulating modern Theosophy, but she was also the object of curiosity by Europeans, who were intrigued by her ability to be the catalyst for phenomenal events of several kinds. Olcott was the organization man who mothered the Society through its first generation, but he was also the chief public spokesperson for Theosophy and the Society in Asia. HPB focused on the esoteric aspects of Theosophy; Olcott, on its public aspects and its role as a bridge between different cultures and religions. In America, William Quan Judge, another founding member, became the most prominent worker for the Society....

What is Theosophy?

Theosophy is a way of answering the “big” questions of life by trying to reconcile the varied approaches of science, philosophy, and religion, without limiting itself to any of their particular assumptions or ways. It relies on its own assumptions and ways, while embracing all that is true and valuable in other approaches.

Theosophy is both very new and very old. It is new because it can be applied to our curiosity about our own identity and the meaning of everything in the world around us today. It does that, not with a list of simple, pat answers, but by giving us a new way to look at ourselves and the universe, a way that provides a basis for developing our own answers.

Theosophy is old because it embodies principles that have been known and taught by the sages of the past all over the world. It has been called by many names....

The term Theosophy is derived from two Greek words, theos “divine” and sophia “wisdom.” However, Theosophy is not some system of thought prescribed by a deity ruling from on high, but the “Divine Wisdom” that dwells potentially and universally in the human spirit, unfolding gradually through the process of evolution. It is this “Divine Wisdom” within us that stirs our desire to discover who we are and to answer the other big questions....

In recent times, the term has come into more general use, beginning in the year 1875, with the founding of the Theosophical Society....

Although this Wisdom has been offered throughout the ages under various names and in many languages, its essence is fundamentally the same, however much its outer aspects and manner of presentation may vary. It especially points to the reality of brotherhood and the imperative necessity of practicing it; but it also gives insight into the unexplained around us and helps the development of our latent powers; and it is the inner harmony of religion, philosophy, and science....

The world abounds with differing religions, each addressed to a different people and time. The word religion comes from a Latin term whose root meaning is “to link back.” So different religions link their followers back in different ways to the ultimate source of life, whatever we call it: the Absolute, God, divine Reality, or the like.

Theosophy has been called “the Wisdom Religion,” because it also points the way to that linkage. But Theosophy is not a religion. It does not claim to be a complete and final statement of wisdom and truth, nor does it offer a single interpretation of what Divine Wisdom includes. Theosophy holds that all things, including the human mind, are evolving. We are in the midst of an unfinished world and are ourselves unfinished. Therefore the accumulated knowledge of any subject at any time is necessarily incomplete and can be added to. We are only in the middle of our development, so we still have a great deal to discover.

Theosophy does not bind an individual to any particular belief or creed, but it is dedicated to furthering humanity’s eternal search for the meaning and wholeness of life in a nonsectarian and nondogmatic way. The religions of the world offer methods of this search and are therefore subjects for Theosophical study.

Theosophy respects the Divine Wisdom basic to the inner side of all religious teachings.  It does not seek to convert any persons from the religion they hold, but rather to explain and interpret on a rational basis the inner meanings of various creeds and ceremonies....

Another aspect of Theosophy is scientific, particularly its attitude toward observation and experiment, hypothesis and investigation. Of course, there are also differences between science and Theosophy. Science limits itself to what can be quantified and tested by repeated, controlled, and objective experiments. Theosophy also deals with direct experience, but often of a more subjective and qualitative nature. Nevertheless, many of the concepts outlined in Theosophical literature parallel the emerging knowledge of modern science in striking ways.

The scientific method is basic to the discovery of how the physical world works, and its principal characteristic is an impersonal search for truth. But all thoughtful scientists today would probably agree with the statement of one of the great Eastern sages: “Every great discovery of science was at first a grand intuition.” Theosophy reaches into the area of these “grand intuitions,” many of which deal with factors beyond the scope of objective proof. But if they are truth, they can be confirmed by all of us who are willing to use our lives as a laboratory....

In still another aspect, Theosophy is philosophy because it postulates a logical explanation for the universe and its laws, as well as for humanity’s origin, evolution, and destiny.

In a message she sent to the American convention of 1888, Blavatsky wrote, “Theosophy [is] the philosophy of the rational explanation of things and not the tenets.”  That is, Theosophy is not a body of beliefs, but a way of explaining things—a philosophy.

Theosophy offers reasons for life left untouched by either religion or science. It holds that the universe is unified, orderly, and purposeful, that matter is the instrument for the evolution of life, that thought is a creative power which we can learn to use effectively, and that experience of both joy and suffering is the means by which we grow in character and ability and thus attain wisdom, compassion, and power.

We say that Theosophy includes aspects of religion, science, and philosophy, but those three approaches to truth, when rightly followed, are not contradictory. In fact they blend into one another. They are three ways of viewing the truth of the universe, and what at one time is religion or philosophy will be science at another time.

Some Fundamental Concepts of Theosophy

Theosophy—in its religious, scientific, and philosophical aspects—offers such [fundamental] concepts as the following for consideration:

Ultimate reality is a unified whole—absolute, impersonal, unknowable, and indescribable.

The universe in which we live is manifold, diverse, constantly changing, relative (which means that each part has meaning and value only in relation to others), and illusory or “mayavic” (that is, its reality differs from its appearance).

The ultimate reality is the source of all consciousness, matter, and energy, which are its three mutually necessary aspects in the manifest universe and are present in every being and every particle. There is no dead or unconscious matter.

The universe and everything in it are emanations or expressions of the ultimate reality, not creations out of nothing by a personal creator.

The universe is eternal, but with innumerable worlds periodically manifesting within it.

The universe is pervaded by a collective intelligence, a cosmic mind, which is consciously expressed in varying degrees by all the beings in the universe.

The physical universe of which we are normally aware is only one aspect of the total universe, which consists of multiple planes, fields, or dimensions of being—coexisting, interpenetrating, and interacting aspects of the whole. Of the seven planes of our solar system, human beings function primarily on the lower three: physical, emotional, and mental.

The universe and everything in it are orderly, following patterns of regular cycles, including alternating phases of activity and rest, governed by a universal principle of cause and effect or karma. In human life, this principle of cycles is expressed, among other ways, by repeated rebirths or reincarnation.

Evolution, which is the result of an inner and intelligent guidance expressed through personal effort, is good, has purpose, and follows a plan.

Our material forms are evolving, but so are our conscious knowledge of the universe and our spiritual awareness of our basic unity with all life.

We are composite beings; we have a number of independently evolved principles or faculties whose development is a purpose of evolution. In both the universe and us, there are seven such principles.

We are threefold beings: (1) a temporary, single-lifetime personality, (2) an abiding, evolving individuality that reincarnates, and (3) a spark or direct emanation of the ultimate reality. The integration of these three aspects is the driving force of our evolution.

The process of evolution, which begins by unconscious impulse, must eventually become a conscious process directed by the free will and ever increasing self-awareness of the evolving entities. The conscious participation by human beings in evolutionary change is symbolized as walking a path.

The evolving entities of the universe include intelligences both less and more advanced than human beings, of whom some of the more advanced (the Masters or Adepts) may serve as helpers and guides to the less advanced.

The key to the advancement of human evolution is a dedication by the individual to the service of others, that is, altruism—an awareness of brotherly unity and a forgetfulness of personal separateness.

The pain, cruelty, and frustration we experience in life are the result of ignorance, unbalanced actions, relative dislocations, or change; they are not independently existing evils.

It is possible, as a result of individual effort in this life, for human beings to come by intuitive knowledge or mystical experience to a full awareness of their nonseparateness from the ultimate reality.

Correspondences, analogies, meaningful connections, and patterned repetitions exist among all things in the universe. By using those correspondences, we can use what we know to discover the unknown.

Behind the exoteric or public forms of all religions and religious philosophies there exists an esoteric or inner teaching that holds such concepts as those listed here.

H. P. Blavatsky...wrote: “Theosophy is the shoreless ocean of universal truth, love, and wisdom reflecting its radiance upon earth. . . . The Theosophical Society was formed to show mankind that it exists.” To be sure, this “shoreless ocean” is not the exclusive possession of the Theosophical Society; it exists everywhere and has always been available to the fearlessly questing mind. Some of the central concepts of this universal truth have, however, been formulated more specifically in the literature of Theosophy than elsewhere, and their totality is coherently set forth in Theosophy, which has a special relevance to our times....

Blavatsky has [also] been reported as saying that the study of the great universal principles of Theosophy requires a special kind of mental effort that involves “the carving out of new brain paths.” It is not always easy for us, with our conditioned minds, to submit to so rigorous an undertaking, but once we have overcome our reluctance and inertia, we may find it the most exciting adventure of our lives.

Suggested Reading

Abdill, Edward.  The Secret Gateway: Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2005.

Algeo, John. HPB’s Diagram of Meditation. DVD. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1992. 45 min.

———.   Theosophy:  An Introductory Study Course.  4th ed.  Wheaton, IL:  Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.  Buy Printed Edition         Online Edition

Barborka, Geoffrey. The Divine Plan. Adyar, Chennai: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.

Bendit, Lawrence J.  The Mirror of Life and Death. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.

Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. An Abridgement of The Secret Doctrine. Ed. Elizabeth Preston and Christmas Humphreys. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1967, c. 1966.

———. The Key to Theosophy: An Abridgement. Ed. Joy Mills. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.

Caldwell, Daniel H., comp. The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky. Wheaton, IL:  Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2000.  Buy  Printed Edition       Online Abridged Edition

Ellwood, Robert. Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1986.

McDavid, William Doss. An Introduction to Esoteric Principles: A Study Guide. 2nd ed.  Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1990.  Buy Printed Edition.       Online Edition.

Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. and K.H. Transcribed by A. T. Barker. Ed. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr. Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993.

Nicholson, Shirley J. Ancient Wisdom—Modern Insight. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1985.

———. A Program for Living the Spiritual Life: A Study Course. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989.

Schweizer, Steve. The Theosophical Society in America. DVD. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2000.

Taimni, I. K. Man, God and the Universe. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974, c. 1969.

———. Self Culture. Adyar, Chennai: Theosophical Publishing House, 1970.

Reprinted by Blavatsky Study Center