Biographical Sketch of Gottfried de Purucker

By Grace F. Knoche

G. de Purucker was Head of The Theosophical Society with international headquarters currently at Pasadena, California, from 1929 to 1942. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the theosophical movement was his elucidation of concepts underlying H. P. Blavatsky's writings.

Born on January 15, 1874 in Suffern, Rockland County, New York, de Purucker lived in the United States until the late '80's when the family moved to Geneva, Switzerland. His father, an Episcopal minister, had been appointed chaplain of the American Church there; a learned man and utterly committed, his inmost wish was to have his son ordained in the Anglican Communion. So he personally taught the boy Latin, Greek and Hebrew, had him tutored in modern European languages, as well as in the history and literature of Biblical peoples and of ancient Greece and Rome.

The youth applied himself with assiduity, but his was a profoundly inquiring mind, with a natural intuitive sense of what was spiritually true and what was counterfeit. He enrolled in the College de Geneve, but before he reached eighteen knew with certainty that he could not enter the church; that, in fact, no formal religion could ever bind him. The quest for the gnosis, the living wisdom behind the externals of rite and dogma, had taken powerful hold.

The shock to the parents was grievous: here was their son, destined from childhood for the ministry, able to read the Holy Scriptures in their original tongues, and trained in the functions and responsibilities of a pastor -- turned agnostic.

Deeply troubled, the young man left his home and studies in Geneva, sailed for America and, after spending a few months in New York, came to California where he worked on various ranches in San Diego County. All the while he continued his search, "looking around me, right and left, trying to find the clue to the mysteries of life and death which were bothering me so badly." He bought books on the Tarot as well as on mind-healing, to find they did not satisfy. When he came across a translation of one of the Upanishads, he set to work to master Sanskrit, just as he had earlier perfected himself in Anglo-Saxon, believing with the poet Heine that "with every new language, one wins a new soul."

Then one day, he tells us, a small book on Theosophy fell into his hands, and "it startled me":

I saw high thinking! I felt that there was more in this book than what an agnostic had seen. My years of study and reading of the literatures of the world -- ancient literatures especially -- had taught me to recognize ancient truth when I saw it. I was fascinated with something that I had always known in my heart; and it was this, that there has always existed, and that there exists today, a band, a company, a society, an association, of noble Sages, great Seers, "Wise Men of the East," as this book called them.

We do not know the name of the book, but we do know that on August 16, 1893, Hobart Lorenz Gottfried de Purucker (later known as G. de P. to his associates) joined the Theosophical Society then headed in America by William Q. Judge, co-founder in 1875 with H. P. Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott of the modern theosophical movement. As a member of the San Diego Lodge and a regular user of their library, de Purucker helped organize a Secret Doctrine Class, and though only nineteen soon was appointed "permanent reader," moderating and guiding the studies of the members, most of whom were considerably older than he. For the next 49 years, to the day of his death on September 27, 1942, G. de P. gave of the fullness of himself in the service of his fellow men -- a service which was to find magnificent expression in his elucidation of the spiritual principles of theosophy. Everything he said, in private or in public print, was an amplification of his youthful vision of the Oneness of the divine impress, and of the experiencibility of that Oneness by every human being.

In the mid-1890s he returned to Europe, visiting Brazil en route. For several years he worked on the editorial staff of the Paris Daily Messenger. In 1903 he joined the headquarters staff to work closely with Leader Katherine Tingley, who in 1900 had moved the international headquarters from New York City to Point Loma, California. He worked in the editorial department, toured abroad with Tingley, took part in the dramas presented in the Greek Theater, and gave lectures on theosophy, both publicly and to her private students. He studied and taught at Theosophical University, where he received a doctorate in literature and held the Chair in Hebrew and Sanskrit.

In July 1929, when Gottfried de Purucker succeeded Katherine Tingley to the leadership of the Theosophical Society, he initiated a series of esoteric studies for the purpose of stimulating altruism as well as of giving instruction in the deeper aspects of theosophy. No question was too simple or too complex for careful examination. He insisted, however, that the scientific-philosophical teachings be infused with the ethical-mystical, for only as one lived the teachings would they yield their esoteric content.

Under Purucker, the headquarters published periodicals such as The Theosophical Forum and Junior Theosophist, as well as works by H. P. Blavatsky, W. Q. Judge, Purucker, Mabel Collins, and others, along with selected Eastern philosophical classics. Theosophical University and the children's work throughout the world continued, but the Raja-Yoga schools were soon closed. The headquarters offered correspondence courses in theosophy and Sanskrit, and lodges were encouraged to sponsor study groups and lectures on theosophical philosophy.

Purucker also tried to establish good will among members of the various theosophical organizations and to arrange discussions among theosophical officials of different societies, a program known as Fraternization. Shortly before his death on September 27, 1942, he moved the international headquarters to Covina, California, near Los Angeles.

Purucker's writings are distinguished by a coherent, panoramic presentation of the fundamental ideas of modern theosophy. His approach and use of terminology ease the student's effort to arrive at his or her own evaluation and interpretation of theosophic, philosophic, religious, and scientific principles of all ages and cultures. He appeals repeatedly to readers to break the molds of their mind and step beyond their limiting habits of thought. Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, edited from lectures delivered to esoteric students in the 1920s, offers an excellent introduction. Beginning with the three fundamental propositions of The Secret Doctrine, it carefully develops the basic concepts that underlie HPB's masterwork. Rejecting the standard academic style, yet upholding careful scholarship, Purucker unfolds his material in a way that stimulates the student's intuition. The Esoteric Tradition, in two volumes, demonstrates the universality of past and present spiritual ideas, concentrating particularly on karma, reincarnation, death and rebirth, and theosophy's relation to relation to science, religion, and philosophy.

The Occult Glossary explains some 300 terms frequently met with in theosophical writings. Man in Evolution is a clear, detailed examination of theosophical ideas in relation to modern science, particularly the concepts of matter, life, and evolution. Golden Precepts discusses the wonder of life, spiritual growth, selfless love, old age and death, and compassion.

Perhaps Purucker's most profound work is Fountain-Source of Occultism, prepared posthumously from booklets issued by him for his private students. Its in-depth presentation of the concepts in The Secret Doctrine deals with the path of compassion, space and maya, cosmogenesis, hierarchies, invisible worlds, death and the circulations of the cosmos, and analogies between the human and cosmic. Additional material given to private students appears in the three-volume Dialogues of G. de Purucker. Other publications include Wind of The Spirit, Studies in Occult Philosophy, The Four Sacred Seasons, Messages to Conventions, and Questions We All Ask. (Many of these books are available online at the www.theosociety/pasadena website.)

One of Purucker's favorite grouping of teachings he called the "seven jewels": reimbodiment, karma, hierarchies, swabhava or self-becoming, evolution, the two paths of growth, and atma-vidya or self-knowledge, which includes subject of the One and the many. His overriding theme, however, is that the study of theosophical philosophy establishes personal ethics as a concrete expression and consequence of human and cosmic reality, rather than as rules imposed from outside -- that essential oneness with divinity is the fundamental fact of existence. It can be difficult to steer a course between careless thinking and intellectual fascination with the intricacies of metaphysical thought. Purucker demanded both rigorous thought and spiritual discipline, maintaining that a balanced study of theosophy will lead to the union of heart and mind and to the cultivation of compassion, which arises naturally from a realization of our oneness with all that is.

  • (Adapted and enlarged from the Preface to Fountain-Source of Occultism by S. B. Dougherty)

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