The Theosophical Society may be said to have begun when H.P. Blavatsky (HPB), under instructions from her Adept-Teachers, returned from India in 1871 to found an organization through which the West and the world in general would benefit from the Wisdom Teachings known today as Theosophy.
The Society is Founded
Founders Settle in India
Blavatsky and Olcott tour widely
Enter Annie Besant
A New Era Begins
The Jubilee of the Society
After Dr Besant's Passing
Madame Blavatsky's first attempt to form a similar organization was made in Cairo. It did not succeed. She was then directed to meet Colonel H.S. Olcott who was investigating mediumistic phenomena at the Eddy Homestead in Chittenden, Vermont, USA, and publishing the results of his investigations in some newspapers. H.P. Blavatsky demonstrated that she could produce these phenomena herself, and suggested their real explanation. She wrote some strong and brilliant articles to newspapers and journals defending this 'true spiritualism' and exposing fraudulent mediums. In replying to an article on 'Rosicrucianism' she delivered what she characterized as her 'first occult shot', hinting at the sources of the great secret teachings of all times, guarded throughout the ages by the Wise Ones.
The Society is Founded
All this gave Madame Blavatsky great publicity, and her ideas on Occultism - a word she helped to make familiar to the world - heightened the interest in The Theosophical Society. Men and women of note thronged her rooms in New York. The formation of the 'Miracle Club' for private experiment was the next effort, which soon came to an end, as well as the backing of E. Gerry Brown's journal, The Spiritual Scientist, in 1878. A lecture by G.H. Felt on 7 September 1875 on 'The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians' led to the decision to form a society for the study of such subjects. 'The Theosophical Society' was the name chosen. The Society was to be truly eclectic and without distinctions. Several meetings were held to frame and pass Rules, and the present emblem was adopted. On 17 November 1875 Colonel Olcott gave his Inaugural Address, and this date was considered as the Foundation Day of The Theosophical Society.
In 1877, H.P. Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled, which, she said, was 'the fruit of somewhat intimate acquaintance with Eastern adepts and study of their science'. Its success was immediate throughout the world. Persons of note in many countries were interested; some joined and became well known in the Society.
Founders Settle in India
The two Founders were utterly determined to carry on the Movement. Late in 1878 they left New York for Bombay via England, and after their arrival in India great activity took place. They established the Headquarters of the Society in Bombay and their house was crowded with visitors. The Press gave them much notice, and the Colonel lectured in Bombay and elsewhere to overflowing audiences.
In 1879 Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott went on a tour in the North of India, and were warmly welcomed everywhere. In Allahabad they stayed with Mr and Mrs Sinnett, both of whom joined the Society. Mr Sinnett was editor of The Pioneer, then India's foremost paper, and he had willingly offered to publish any interesting facts about their work. Finding their correspondence becoming too heavy, they determined to found The Theosophist, the first issue appearing on 1 October 1879. In November a meeting was held to celebrate the Society's Fourth Anniversary, at which three hundred guests were present. During the year H.P. Blavatsky began to outline a book which was advertised as 'The Secret Doctrine, a new version of Isis Unveiled'.
At Benares in December 1879, a meeting of the General Council of the Society was held under the designation 'The Theosophical Society and Universal Brotherhood'. At this meeting the Rules were revised, in the first of which appeared the words: 'The Theosophical Society was formed upon the basis of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity'. Among the plans declared in Rule 8(c) appeared the following: 'To promote a feeling of Brotherhood among nations'.
Blavatsky and Olcott tour widely
In 1880 Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott visited Ceylon and were enthusiastically received by the Buddhists. They drew round them practically all the chief priests of the Island and formed the Buddhist Theosophical Society. While Colonel Olcott was the lecturer and organizer, the phenomena of Madame Blavatsky caused her to be the chief attraction. When in Simla in the same year, she gave striking demonstrations of her powers, which were reported and discussed throughout India and in other countries. These phenomena are described in Mr Sinnett's book The Occult World, published in 1881. In this year, while H.P. Blavatsky remained in Bombay to edit The Theosophist and teach, Col. Olcott went on another tour in Ceylon. He published his famous Buddhist Catechism and founded a Buddhist Educational Association.
In 1882 the Founders undertook further tours in India. Col. Olcott again visited Ceylon and, in curing a paralytic person, discovered his remarkable healing powers. For a few years he cured many others with extraordinary success. Madame Blavatsky went on a visit to Simla and from there journeyed into Sikkim to meet the two Masters who were the inner Founders of the Society. The seventh Anniversary of the Society was held in Bombay with thirty-nine Branches participating. The Founders then left to establish themselves in a permanent International Headquarters, thus creating the first spiritual centre of the Society at Adyar, Madras, now Chennai.
Under H.P. Blavatsky's direction The Theosophist continued to excite interest. In its pages appeared many valuable articles and comments by her, giving occult hints, and the Masters themselves sometimes contributed to its pages under pseudonymns. On the basis of letters received from the Masters, Mr Sinnett wrote his book Esoteric Buddhism, which was published in that same year and was very widely read. Both the founders visited Europe in 1884. Madame Blavatsky wrote a French version of Isis Unveiled while on the voyage.
In January 1885 H.P. Blavatsky received from her Teacher the plan of The Secret Doctrine but she fell seriously ill. Col. Olcott was recalled from his tour with C.W. Leadbeater in Burma. Under medical advice Madame Blavatsky left India. After reaching Europe she settled at Wurzburg to work on The Secret Doctrine. Meanwhile the Colonel made extensive tours both in South and North India and at Adyar made plans for the construction of the Adyar Library, which was formally opened in December 1886.
During 1886-87 Col. Olcott made further tours in Ceylon and India. Madame Blavatsky had gone to Ostend in 1886, and was working steadily on The Secret Doctrine. Again she fell very ill, made a strange recovery and was persuaded, in May 1887, to live in London. Here members assisted her in the preparation of The Secret Doctrine, the first two volumes of which were published in the following year. In July 1887 the Blavatsky Lodge was founded, in which Madame Blavatsky gave regular instruction. In September she started the magazine Lucifer.
Enter Annie Besant
In August 1888, the President-Founder decided to visit Europe, leaving C.W. Leadbeater in charge of The Theosophist. On the voyage he was told by one of the Masters to leave spiritual and occult matters to H.P. Blavatsky, while he should keep control over external and administrative affairs. The Esoteric Section of the TS was officially founded. H.P. Blavatsky was the sole person responsible for it and this Section had no official or corporate connection with the Society, save in the person of the President-Founder. Owing to the growth of the Society it was decided at the Convention to adopt the policy of autonomous Sections.
From January to May 1889, H.S. Olcott was in Japan to urge the twelve Buddhist sects to form a Joint Committee and combine with Burma, Siam and Ceylon to form a Convention of Southern Buddhists. After reviewing The Secret Doctrine for W.T. Stead's Review of Reviews, Annie Besant, well known as a Social Reformer and Freethinker, sought out Madame Blavatsky and consequently joined the Society. Very soon she was lecturing and writing on Theosophy, abandoning completely the materialistic philosophy she had held hitherto. From 1889 onwards H.P. Blavatsky was writing other important books, among them The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence.
On 8 May 1891 H.P. Blavatsky, the 'Light-Bringer', left her body. On news of her passing Col. Olcott, who was in Australia, left at once for England. After Madame Blavatsky's affairs were settled he traveled on the Continent and established the European Section, went on to the United States and returned to India via Japan. In 1892 he began to write Old Diary Leaves, his record of the history of the Society. In 1893 The Theosophical Society held a Congress at the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago. At the end of the year Mrs Besant was enthusiastically welcomed in India. At Adyar she started the famous Convention Lectures which, with the exception of a few years, were continued until 1930.
Annie Besant made her home in Benares in 1895, and there started her renowned religious, educational and social services to India. She opened the Central Hindu College there in 1898. At her request George S. Arundale accepted the post of Professor of History at the College. He latter became Headmaster of the Collegiate School, and afterwards Principal of the College itself until 1913. From 1895 to 1906 was a period of vigorous and steady growth for the Society. HSO and AB both travelled and lectured far and wide in many countries. Miss Lilian Edger was assisting the work in India. Mr C. Jinarajadasa started his career as an international lecturer in 1904, in America.
In 1898 the Society began to hold its Annual Convention alternately in Adyar and Benares, and also decided to hold periodic World Conventions outside India. Important Congresses were held in various Sections and the output of valuable literature was considerable.
In 1906 Col. Olcott went to New York and, when returning to Genoa on his way to India, met on board with a serious accident. On 17 February 1907, the great-hearted President-Founder of the Society passed away. In the exercise of his right to do so, the Colonel had nominated Mrs Besant as his successor, subject to ratification by the Sections of the Society.
A New Era Begins
With Mrs Besant a new era began. She gave a great lead in making Theosophy practical, urging members to apply the light of Theosophy to the various fields of human activity: religious, social, economic, political, etc. For this purpose she instituted The Theosophical Order of Service, and The Sons of India, in 1908. The Headquarters at Adyar were enlarged by the purchase of Blavatsky and Olcott Gardens.
In February 1914, Mr Leadbeater left Adyar for a long tour in Australia, and decided to take up permanent residence in Sydney. Owing to the outbreak of War in Europe in August, Mrs Besant remained in India for the next few years, developing her momentous political work and arousing great interest throughout the country in Theosophical education. In 1919, she was still deeply engaged in political work both in India and England. The increasing life and vigour with which she continuously inspired the Society found expression in the First World Congress, held in Paris in 1921. For several years Mr Jinarajadasa had been making extensive lecture tours, and in 1921 was appointed Vice-President of The Theosophical Society in place of Mr Sinnett who had passed away.
Mrs, now Dr Besant, the honorary degree of D.L. having been conferred on her by the Benares Hindu University, found it necessary, in 1921, to visit Australia. Here strong opposition had occurred on the part of some members to the work of Mr Leadbeater as Bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church. A second spiritual centre was established at The Manor, Mosman, under the direction of Bishop Leadbeater. On her return to India the President opened the Brahmavidya Ashrama, for students the world over.
The European Federation Congresses had been held fairly regularly, except during the war period. From 1923 onwards they played a larger part in the life of the Federation, and at Geneva in 1930 began to receive civic recognition. The third spiritual centre was founded at Huizen, Holland, in 1924, and was initially under the direction of Bishop J. I. Wedgwood.
In London, 1924, a public tribute was paid to the President at a great meeting held in the Queen's Hall to celebrate her fifty years of public life. Eminent men and women spoke warmly of her great services in many fields of activity and messages were received from many countries. This meeting revealed how great was the influence she exercised upon people and movements, all directed to the service and enlightenment of humanity.
The Jubilee of the Society
The first fifty years of the Society's existence was celebrated at Adyar in the Jubilee Congress in December 1925. The widespread influence of The Theosophical Society and its rapid growth may be illustrated by the following data: Number of National Societies - 41; Lodges - 1,576; members - 41,779. The literature of the Society had, since 1891, been augmented and enriched by the contributions made by Dr Besant, Bishop Leadbeater, Mr Jinarajadasa and many others. An outstanding event of 1926 was the establishment of a Theosophical Broadcasting Station at the Manor, Sydney. The President toured India and attended the Annual Conventions of many European Sections. She then went on to the USA, where she remained until April of the following year, residing mainly in Ojai, California, and supervising the plans for the Happy Valley Foundation. The work of the Society continued to expand during the next two years, greatly assisted by the extensive tours of prominent members, chief among whom were Dr Arundale and Mr Jinarajadasa. In 1928 Dr Besant was re-elected for the fourth time as President. She nominated Mr A.P. Warrington as Vice-President, in the place of Mr. Jinarajadasa, who had resigned the post. A Third World Congress was held in Chicago in 1929, at which great enthusiasm was displayed.
In 1930 Bishop Leadbeater made his last European tour and everywhere received a very great welcome. Dr Besant presided over the European Congress held in Geneva. During the 55th Anniversary of the Society, Benares, she gave her last convention lecture, the subject being 'The Future of the Theosophical Society'.
After Dr Besant's Passing
On 20 September 1933, the great President passed away. Her loyal colleague, Bishop Leadbeater, joined her on 1 March 1934. Mr. A.P. Warrington, Vice-President, took control while the worldwide presidential election was carried out. There were two candidates, Dr George S. Arundale and Mr. Ernest Wood. The former was elected by a majority of 10,779 votes. Dr Arundale assumed office in June 1934. He immediately formulated a Seven-Year Plan, outlining what he hoped would be accomplished during his term of office. One of his first acts in 1934 was to establish the Besant Memorial School, a flourishing experiment in education, and the nucleus of a future College and University.
In autumn of 1935 Dr Arundale inspired a Campaign for 'Straight Theosophy', emphasizing the fundamental principles and teachings for which the Society as a whole may be said to stand. He presided at Adyar in December over an inspiring Diamond Jubilee Convention. The Campaign for 1936-37 was 'There is a Plan', and for 1937-38 'Understanding'. These campaigns have proved of great value to the National Societies in their public and Lodge work.
The President undertook an inspiriting tour in the British Isles and Europe in 1936, and in July presided over a splendid Fourth World Congress at Geneva, which received a fine civic welcome and to which many countries sent representatives. Its keynote was 'Justice'. The Young Theosophists' Movement, which came into existence at the Vienna Congress in 1923, began to spread quickly.
Throughout the year 1937 Dr Arundale remained at Adyar and devoted much of his time to the renovating and beautifying of our famous and much-visited International Headquarters - the 'The Masters' Home'.