The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 at a time when the West was just becoming seriously aware of the existence of religions and people elsewhere. Intelligent people could no longer classify Islam as devilish for instance, or Hinduism as barbaric. But what then? The serious study of religion was started at universities – the first professor of comparative religion got his post in 1875.
A history lesson
But what were ordinary people to do? Some thought that all these religions must have some common foundation, some common basis for morality and must be based on universal truths. A group of such people came together in New York and founded the Theosophical Society. The most active members: H.P. Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott soon moved to India. There they added the most important practical point to their list of goals: universal brotherhood – the ‘brotherhood plank’ it was soon called.
Imagine the times: colonialism was still normal and considered sane by most people. India was a colony of the British Empire (where the sun literally never set). The Indian people were reduced to being servants in their own home. From a religious perspective the situation was also hard: Christianity and science were taught in all the best schools. So if a parent wanted their son (daughters didn’t usually get educated even in the West back then) to get ahead, they had to send them to a school where their ancestral religion was talked down upon and Christianity was taught instead. On top of that, the scientific education of the day made religion itself seem irrelevant to many (yes, even then).
Themes spread by theosophists in the West
The following religious ideas were first brought to the West by theosophists (usually from the Theosophical Society with headquarters in Adyar):
In that atmosphere of distrust and colonialism – people were shocked at Olcott and Blavatsky: they mixed with the ‘natives’, sought out Indian gurus and did what flocks of people would end up doing in the ’60s of this century.
In other words: they were spiritual revolutionaries. They attempted interfaith dialog when the phrase hadn’t been invented yet. They attempted finding a universal religion – and called it theosophy.
But instead of telling people: this is what you have to believe if you want to join our Theosophical Society, they said: This is what we believe, you judge for yourselves. We only ask that you treat each other with respect, regardless of sex, cultural background or the color of your skin… Well, that’s what they would have said if they’d used todays words. But here are they words they ended up using as the three objects of the Theosophical Society:
To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Science.
To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.