This page is linked with American Encounters with Tibetan Material Culture

Theosophy is a spiritual movement that was founded in the United States at the end of the 19th century by such figures as the Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky. The Theosophical Society relied a lot on Eastern religious traditions, and especially Buddhism. Its founders were called "the White Buddhists".

Theosophy emerged in a time of crisis in post Civil War America, a time when spiritual movements such as spiritualism, new Christian sects and communitarism met a growing audience among the American population. "Spiritualism occupied a central place in post Civil War America where it not only soothed the grief of bereaved relatives, but also gave assurance that there was, in fact, a world beyond death – a belief which science, with its insistence on tangible evidence, had called into serious question, and which religion, in its reliance on dogma and form, had failed to defend convincingly." [1]

Colonel Olcott, a notable, believed in spiritualism and in visitors from another world in the first place, giving legitimacy to this kind of belief. He met Madame Blavatsky at a spiritualist reunion. According to Madame Blavatsky, spiritualism was a stepping stone to a more important movement: theosophy.

In 1875, Colonel Olcott delivered the Inaugural Address of the Theosophical Society at Mott Memorial Hall in New York City: "The objects of the society are to collect and diffuse knowledge of the laws which govern the universe". Later in the 1880s, the Society stated its threefold Objects: "To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color; To study the ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstrations of the importance of such study; And to investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the psychical powers latent in man." [2]

Madame Blavatsky, who considered herself an "esoteric Buddhist" wrote books about Eastern history and philosophy and their relationship to modern science and philosophy, sometimes writing by way of 'possession'. In 1877, her first work, Isis Unveiled - A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, was published in two volumes and 2600 pages. Although it received very harsh critiques (it was qualified as "a large dish of hash" by the Springfield Republican, and "discarded rubbish" by the Sun), the first edition, which had a circulation of one thousand copies, sold out within ten days. Her second major work, The Secret Doctrine (1888) is supposed to derive from the Vajrayana.

Madame Blavatsky never went to Tibet, but she "contributed to the association of Tibet with a mystique of occultism and arcane doctrines" and "played a significant role in wedding Western esotericism and Eastern religious traditions and in popularizing concepts such as maya, karma, and meditation." [3]
In 1879, Olcott and Blavatsky made a trip to India that was a success and resulted in the creation of several branches of their Society. They eventually established the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Bangalore.

After Madame Blavatsky's death in 1891, multiple branches deriving from the Theosophical Society were created, in America, Europe and Asia.
The movement reached its strongest point during the 1920s: the Theosophical Society in the United States then comprised 7,000 members; the Indian section had more than 20,000 members.

In the context of war and crisis of Western civilization, many American and European artists and intellectuals developed an interest in Eastern culture and theosophy, like Aldous Huxley, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, Bertrand Russell, T. S. Eliot. In New York, theosophy was explored in a social circle of artists, travelers, scholars, scientists and aristocrats, among whom was Jacques Marchais, an actress who later founded a Center devoted to Himalayan culture on Staten Island (the present Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art).

Theosophy was also linked to the Indian independence movement. Gandhi was associated with 'theosophers', and the Indian National Congress was founded during a Theosophical conference.

Today, some legacy of theosophy can be found in the New Age movement.

[1] R. Fields, p. 83
[2] R. Fields, pp. 89-90
[3] H. Oldmeadow, pp. 131-132

Rick Fields, How the Swans Came to the Lake – A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala, 1981
Harry Oldmeadow, Journeys East – 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions, Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2004