Theosophy (divine wisdom) is an eclectic blend of many earlier philosophies and cult teachings, all of which claim to have been handed down to contemporary seekers of spiritual truth by disciples of ancient wisdom. The Theosophical Society, cofounded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) in New York in 1875, is an esoteric blend of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Kabbalah, and the philosophy of Plato (c. 428 B.C.E.–c. 348 B.C.E.) and other mystics, combined with the teachings of mysterious masters who dwell in secret places in the Himalayas and communicate with their initiates through their psychic abilities and their projected astral bodies. Whereas Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) and Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) evolved their spiritual teachings primarily through their own revelations, inspirations, and psychic abilities, Blavatsky claimed to be able to draw upon the ancient wisdom of the Masters Koot Hoomi and Morya to abet the considerable knowledge that she had distilled from various mystery schools, Hindu religious thought, Jewish mysticism, and Christian sects. Many of the concepts and the spiritual eclecticism professed by Blavatsky in the 1880s would be revised on a large scale in the 1970s, in what has loosely been called the New Age Movement. In addition to such contributions as occult masters and guides, Blavatsky introduced the legend of the lost continent of Lemuria, the return of the Maitreya (world savior), and was greatly responsible for popularizing the concepts of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States.
At the time of her death in 1891, Blavatsky's detractors considered her to have been a hoaxster, a fraud, and a deceiver, while her followers revered her as a genius, a veritable saint, and a woman of monumental courage who had struggled against an incredible array of adversities and adversaries to fashion a modern mystery school without equal. Foe and follower alike conceded that she was a unique, sometimes overpowering, personality who had apparently traveled the world in search of spiritual truths and who had survived physical crises and challenges that would certainly have discouraged—or killed—a less indomitable individual.
Born Helena Petrovna Hahn on July 30, 1831, in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) in the Ukraine, she began displaying mediumistic abilities as a young girl. Just before her seventeenth birthday, she married the much older General Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia. Three months later, she left her husband and her homeland to travel freely and widely throughout the world, exploring the occult wisdom and teachings of many traditions.
In 1858, Blavatsky arrived in Paris, where she met the famous spirit medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–1886). By this time, she had herself acquired a modest reputation for mediumship, and she began to practice these talents more openly. In Cairo, Egypt, in 1871, Blavatsky founded a spiritualist group that was forced to disband after accusations of having produced fraudulent phenomena to deceive its patrons. In 1873, she settled in New York City and resumed the practice of her mediumship in association with the brothers William and Horatio Eddy, two wellknown materialization mediums. Her participation in numerous seances in New England brought her to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a newspaperman fascinated with psychic phenomena, who established a group centered around her mediumship.
In 1875, Blavatsky, Olcott, and William Q. Judge (1851–1896), an attorney, made the decision to move beyond the precepts of Spiritualism and create a more sophisticated approach to spirit contact and mysticism, which they named the Theosophical Society. The threefold purpose of the society was
In 1877, Blavatsky published her world-view of the occult, Isis Unveiled. In this work, she argues that the reason metempsychosis (reincarnation) has been ridiculed by scientists and orthodox theologians in the West is because it has never been properly understood. While learned individuals accept the indestructibility of energy, she reasons, how can they believe that
"man, the living, thinking, reasoning entity, the indwelling deity of our nature's crowning masterpiece, will evacuate his casket and be no more! Would the principle of continuity which exists even for the so-called inorganic matter, for a floating atom, be denied to the spirit, whose attributes are consciousness, memory, mind, love! Really, the very idea is preposterous.…If the Pythagorean metempsychosis should be thoroughly explained and compared with the modern theory of evolution it would be found to supply every 'missing link' in the chain of the latter. There was not a philosopher of any notoriety who did not hold to this doctrine, as taught by the Brahmans, Buddhists, and later by the Pythagoreans."
In 1878, Blavatsky and Olcott moved to Bombay, India, to be nearer the mahatmas and masters, the members of the Great White Brotherhood who appeared to her in their astral bodies to relay metaphysical teachings. After a turbulent period in India, which she left under charges of fraud to settle in London in 1887, Blavatsky began work on her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine (1888), a massive statement of her theosophical philosophy, including her views on reincarnation.
Only a constant series of rebirths of one and the same individual, passing through the "Circle of Necessity," can fully explain the age-old problems of good and evil and the apparent injustices of life, Blavatsky argues. Only a system wherein one is rewarded or punished for the deeds or crimes committed in a former life can explain the inequalities of "birth and fortune, of intellect and capacities." When a person's life is beset by injustice and misfortune, only the "blessed knowledge of Karma" can prevent one "from cursing life and men, as well as their supposed Creator." Those individuals who believe in karma have to believe in destiny, which, Blavatsky states in The Secret Doctrine,"from birth to death, every man is weaving, thread by thread, around himself, as a spider does his cobweb.…Karma creates nothing, nor does it design. It is man who plants and creates causes, and karmic law adjusts the effects, which adjustment is not an act but universal harmony.…Karma has never sought to destroy intellectual and individual liberty.…On the contrary, he who unveils through study and meditation its intricate paths, and throws light on those dark ways…is working for the good of his fellow men.…"