On Theosophy

By H. S. Olcott
[Compiled by S. B. Dougherty, from speeches collected in Theosophy, Religion and Occult Science (1885), and from Theosophical Siftings, vol. 4, no. 10 (1891).]

I had been a student of practical psychology for nearly a quarter of a century. From boyhood no problem had interested me so much as the mystery of man, and I had been seeking for light upon it wherever it could be found.

[On meeting H. P. Blavatsky,] our acquaintance at once ripened into a friendship. We found ourselves to be congenial in opinion, and she brought to our intercourse the great resources of a mind stored with a mass of erudition with regard to the arcane or esoteric philosophies of the ancient times. I found her the most intellectual woman I had ever met in my life, a very eccentric personage, but a person who compelled you to either like her very much or to be very antagonistic to her.

Besides these extraordinary literary and mental accomplishments of hers, she also possessed in a very striking degree psychical powers such as we read about in the accounts of the lives of ancient sages, and the proof of the reality of which powers was vouchsafed to many witnesses in America for years before we sailed from New York for India; so that naturally those of us who knew her in those times and subsequently, have been unaffected by all the imputations upon her character that have been so rife during the later years of her life. She was not perfect, yet conceding all her imperfections she was greater than her detractors and we loved her for herself and for her cause.

I now look back to that meeting as the most fortunate event of my life; for it made light shine in all the dark places, and sent me out on a mission to help to revive Aryan (1) Occult science, which grows more absorbingly interesting every day.

Little by little she opened out to me as much of the truth as my experiences had fitted me to grasp. Step by step I was forced to relinquish illusory beliefs, cherished for twenty years. And as the light gradually dawned on my mind, my reverence for the unseen teachers who had instructed her grew apace. At the same time, a deep and insatiable yearning possessed me to seek their society, or, at least, to take up my residence in a land which their presence glorified, and incorporate myself with a people whom their greatness ennobled. The time came when I was blessed with a visit from one of these Mahatmas in my own room at New York -- a visit from him, not in the physical body, but in the "double," or Mayavi-rupa. . . . This visit and his conversation sent my heart at one leap around the globe, across oceans and continents, over sea and land, to India, and from that moment I had a motive to live for, an end to strive after. That motive was to gain the Aryan wisdom; that end to work for its dissemination.

During the three years when I was waiting to come to India, I had other visits from the Mahatmas, and they were not all Hindus or Cashmeris. I know some fifteen in all, and among them Copts, Tibetans, Chinese, Japanese, Siamese, a Hungarian, and a Cypriote. But, whatever they are, however much they may differ externally as to race, religion and caste, they are in perfect agreement as to the fundamentals of occult science and the scientific basis of religion.

The Rishis knew the secrets of Nature and of Man, that there is but one common platform of all religions, and that upon it ever stood and now stand, in fraternal concord and amity, the hierophants and esoteric initiates of the world's great faiths. That platform is Theosophy.

Many practical problems which seem insoluble to individual thinkers can find their solvent only in an altered disposition of mankind. All religions seek to effect this change of disposition in the individual consciousness. But nearly all religious systems have preferred their specific and distinctive tenets to their true universal basis and inherent tendency, and have thus become the most discordant of influences in the world they would regenerate. Therefore it is that the Theosophical Society has no room for propagandists of any exclusive creed.

Religion is most strictly a personal affair: every man makes his own religion and his own God: . . . after all, when it comes to your actual religious experience, it will be your experience, measured and limited by your own personal, psychical and theosophical capacity.

[Religion] is also something sacred, something not to be rudely interfered with and pried into. The true moralist will exert his influence to make his fellow-men live up to the best features of their respective faiths; it is the most audacious of experiments to try and glue together bits of a number of good religions into a new mosaic.

We are advocating Theosophy as the only method by which one may discover that Eternal Something, not asking people of another creed than ours to take our creed and throw aside their own. We two Founders profess a religion of tolerance, charity, kindness, altruism, or love of one's fellows; a religion that does not try to discover all that is bad in our neighbour's creed, but all that is good, and to make him live up to the best code of morals and piety he can find in it.

It is time that we should try to discover the sources of modern ideas, and compare what we think we know of the laws of Nature with what the Asiatic people really did know thousands of years before Europe was inhabited by our barbarian ancestors, or an European foot was set upon the American continent. Suppose that, for a change, we approach the Eastern people in a less presumptuous spirit, and honestly confessing that we know nothing at all of the beginning or end of natural law, ask them to help us to find out what their forefathers knew. This has been the policy of the Theosophical Society, and it has yielded valuable results already [1880].

It is my happiness to not only help to enlarge the boundaries of Western science by showing where the secrets of nature and of man may be experimentally studied, and to give Anglo-Indians a greater respect for the subject nation they rule over, but also to aid in kindling in the bosoms of Indian youths a due reverence for their glorious ancestry, and a desire to imitate them in their noble achievements in science and philosophy.

As I see it, the young Hindus, outside the reformatory Samajes, are losing their old religious belief, without gaining, or being ready to embrace, any other. They are becoming exactly like the great mass of educated youth in Europe and America. . . . It is Science which undermined the foundations of Religion; it is Science which should be compelled to erect the new edifice. As an incomplete study of Nature has led to materialistic Atheism (2), so a complete one will lead the eager student back to faith in his inner and nobler self, and in his spiritual destiny. . . . We interfere with no man's creed or caste; we preach no dogma; we offer no article of faith. We point to Nature as the most infallible of all divine revelations, and to Science as the most competent teacher of her mysteries.

There is but one truth, and that is to be sought for in the mystical world of man's interior nature; theosophically, and by the help of the "Occult Sciences." . . . If physical facts can be observed by the eye of the body, so can spiritual laws be discovered by that interior perception of ours which we call the eye of the spirit. This perceptive power inheres in the nature of man; it is the godlike quality which makes him superior to brutes.

Every man who really did penetrate the mysteries of life and death got the truth in solitude and in a mighty travail of body and spirit. These were all Theosophists -- that is, original searchers after spiritual knowledge. What they did, what they achieved, any other man of equal qualities may attain to. And this is the lesson taught by the Theosophical Society. As they wrested her secrets from the bosom of Nature, so would we.

Essentially, a Theosophical Society is one which favours man's original acquisition of knowledge about the hidden things of the universe, by the education and perfecting of his own latent powers. Theosophy differs as widely from philosophy as it does from theology. . . . [It] professes to exclude all dialectical process, and to derive its whole knowledge of God from direct intuition and contemplation. This Theosophy dates from the highest antiquity of which any records are preserved, and every original founder of a religion was a seeker after divine wisdom by the theosophic process of self-illumination.

The lusts of the flesh, the pride of life, the prejudices of birth, race, creed (so far as it creates dogmatism), must all be put aside. The body must be made the convenience, instead of the despot, of the higher self. The prison-bars of sense that incarcerate the man of matter must be unlocked, and while living in and being a factor in the outer world, the Theosophist must be able to look into, enter, act in, and return from, the inner world, fraught with divine truth.

The Theosophist is a man who, whatever be his race, creed, or condition, aspires to reach this height of wisdom and beatitude by self-development; and, therefore, you will see that in a Theosophical Society like that we have founded -- to have one creed for our members to subscribe to, or one form of prayer for them to adopt, or any rules that would interfere with their individual relations to caste, or any other social and external environment not actually antipathetic to Theosophical research, would be impossible. . . . we are not preaching a new religion, or founding a new sect, or a new school of philosophy or occult science.

Now it has been remarked that this movement was floated on phenomena. To a certain extent that is true, but the fault probably is more with myself than with [H. P. Blavatsky]. The things she did were so novel and striking to me, they were so interesting to me as a veteran student of psychology, they had such an important scientific bearing upon the problem of the powers of man and the latent forces of nature, that naturally I urged her to continual displays of these powers before a variety of witnesses. Reluctantly she complied, and the result was most unfortunate; it vindicated the wisdom of that reticence which had been the policy of all the great sages and adepts in the past.

Neither pessimist nor optimist, I am not satisfied that our race is doomed to destruction, present or future, nor that the moral sense of society can be kept undiminished without constant refreshment from the parent fount. That fount I conceive to be Theosophical study and personal illumination, and I regard him as a benefactor to his kind who points out to the sceptical, the despairing, the world-weary, the heart-hungry, that the vanities of the world do not satisfy the soul's aspirations, and that true happiness can only be acquired by interior self-development, purification and enlightenment.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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    1. [Olcott always used Aryan in reference to Hindustan, and especially to its ancient sages; aryan comes from the Sanskrit word for "noble." -- Ed.] (return to text)

    2. Atheism, in the sense of disbelief of even the Universal Principle. -- HSO. (return to text)