The Theosophical Society was officially founded on November 17th, 1875, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, and others. Initial intentions seem to indicate an emphasis on the esoteric or occult, however, this quickly evolved into the organization as it is known today – with a focus on universal brotherhood, the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science, and an interest in the inner potentialities of the human being.
The mid-to-late nineteenth century was a pivotal time in history. Drawing from the legacy of the past various scientific theories, including Darwin’s theory of Evolution, began to seriously undermine the dominance of many religious and spiritual worldviews. The rise of Scientific Naturalism specifically questioned the relevance of spiritual insights into the world. Many scientific disciplines professionalized during this period with the establishment of university chairs in various specialties. It was also during this colonial period that many of the religious and spiritual writings of the world, specifically Asian texts, began to be translated and published in the West. The birth of comparative religion is often dated to the early 1870’s with the works of F. Max Müller. An important counter-impulse to the materializing trends during this period was the rise of Spiritualism. Spiritualism, described as one of the most important trans-continental movements of the day, was re-animated in its modern form in 1848 in Hydesville, New York. So important was the Spiritualist movement viewed that in 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was founded in England by prominent scientists of the day to investigate the phenomena. These diverse trends formed the background from which the Theosophical Society emerged, and they are still the impulses which underlie our contemporary world.
In 1879, H.P. Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott moved to India and the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society (Adyar) was established in Chennai, India – where it still resides. The history of the Theosophical Society is multi-faceted with various divisions and developments occurring. Other main Theosophical Societies include the Theosophical Society Pasadena, and the United Lodge of Theosophists. All the Societies remain committed to the original intentions of the founders, though they are pursued in slightly different ways.
The current president of the Theosophical Society Adyar is Tim Boyd.
The Theosophical Society has been in South Africa for well over a century. The Johannesburg Lodge received its Charter in 1899. The Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban Lodges followed and received their Charters in 1904.
The literature of the Theosophical Society is voluminous. Brief mention is made here of the three founding texts of H.P. Blavatsky: Isis Unveiled (1877), The Secret Doctrine (1888), and The Voice of the Silence (1879). Isis Unveiled is composed of two volumes, entitled, ‘Science’, and ‘Theology’. This references the larger debates of the day and represents H.P. Blavatsky’s first major attempt to synthesis the knowledge fields of the day. She does this by engaging the scientific theories of the day and by resuscitating the wisdom of the past. Drawing on the mysterious Stanzas of Dzyan, The Secret Doctrine is acknowledged as Blavatsky’s magnum opus. Also consisting of two volumes, the first deals with ‘cosmogenesis’, while the second is her statement on ‘anthropogenesis’. Here is found Blavatsky’s mature thoughts on the Wisdom Tradition of past ages, and how it intersects with the knowledge fields of her day. The Voice is the Heart statement of the Theosophical Society. Endorsing the paths of practice, meditation, virtue, and the Bodhisattva ideal, the Voice is seen as the crown of Blavatsky’s writings.
This is the outer, or exoteric story of the Theosophical Society. The esoteric narrative is one of cycles and compassion. The end of the nineteenth century coincided with several cycles, two of which are: the messianic cycle of approximately 2160 years, and the end of the first 5000 years of the Kali-Yuga. It is also indicated that in the last quarter of every century the Adepts attempt to enlighten and bring forth enough of the Wisdom Tradition to assist humanity in its evolution. The Theosophical Society is said to be one of three impulses initiated by the Brotherhood in this direction in the late nineteenth century. Under karmic law and impulse H.P. Blavatsky was specifically selected and trained in Tibet for her task. It is said that it will be some time before more of this Wisdom Tradition is given out to the world.