HPB: Looking Back after 100 Years

By Grace F. Knoche

One hundred years ago a small group of learned men and women decided to form an association for the investigation of the spiritual laws governing the physical universe. They met at the residence of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, now recognized as the inspiriting force behind the modern theosophical movement. That was in early September. By the end of October, Bylaws and a Preamble were adopted, and on November 17, 1875 at Mott Memorial Hall, New York City, the first president of The Theosophical Society, Henry S. Olcott, delivered the Inaugural Address, from which we quote:

In future times, when the impartial historian shall write an account of the progress of religious ideas in the present century, the formation of this Theosophical Society, whose first meeting under its formal declaration of principles we are now attending, will not pass unnoticed. This much is certain. . . .
What is it that makes me not only content but proud to stand for the brief moment as the mouth-piece and figure-head of this movement, risking abuse, misrepresentation, and every vile assault? It is the fact that in my soul I feel that behind us, behind our little band, behind our feeble new-born organization, there gathers a MIGHTY POWER that nothing can withstand -- the power of truth! Because I feel that we are only the advance-guard, holding the pass until the main body shall come up.

H. P. Blavatsky -- or HPB -- cannot properly be understood unless she is seen as the bearer of a message, the spokesman for those wiser than she, members of a Brotherhood of guardians and protectors of mankind, who hold in their custody the archaic truths about man, his spiritual origin and destiny and his close linkage with the solar cosmos whose offspring he is. Truths which are given out periodically when the cycle is ripe and the call from the hearts of men insistent enough to draw forth another great sage or master of wisdom. As the amanuensis of her teachers, themselves mahatmas of a high order, HPB has been called the messenger for the coming age, the Aquarian, now emerging in influence and power.

Believing absolutely in the "one infinite, changeless Spirit of Love, Truth and Wisdom in the Universe, as one Light for all" in which the whole human race partakes, "we are Brothers," she affirmed, and therefore we should "love, help, and mutually defend each other against any spirit of untruth or deception -- 'without distinction of race, creed or colour.'" This was the heart and core of her purpose, and that of the Society she nourished and sustained from 1875 until her death: the formation of a nucleus of men and women who would work toward the ultimate realization of a universal brotherhood. Further, to achieve this goal, to make brotherhood so all-embracing that people everywhere would begin to feel themselves one with the "smallest of the small, and the greatest of the great," called for a philosophy that would withstand the assaults of karmic reverses. Thus the dissemination of the ancient Wisdom-teachings in a fuller and more coherent form than had been given out for thousands of years became her sacred charge.

H. P. Blavatsky did not claim to have authored a new religion, a new system of philosophy; she was only a transmitter, she said, but one in the tradition of those who had gone before, a transmitter in modern language of "a few fundamental truths from the Secret Doctrine of the Archaic ages."

But what is theosophy exactly? The word is of Greek origin, theos, 'god,' and sophia, 'wisdom,' hence god-wisdom, or wisdom concerning divine matters. As a term it has a venerable history, Blavatsky and her cofounders having selected it because of its association by scholars with those esoteric groups and individuals -- from the Gnostics of pre- and post-Christian times on through to the middle of the 19th century, all of whom were, in their own way, "tenders of the Flame." In Alexandria, for example, it is reported that Ammonius Saccas formed a school of theosophy, the direct inspiration of what later was to become known as Neoplatonism, thanks to the writing down of his teacher's instructions by Plotinus (3rd century AD).

Then later on, prior to the Renaissance and after, there were the Qabbalists, the original bodies of Rosicrucians, Freemasons and Alchemists, who singly and in secret associations, continued the search for the spiritual solvent that would transform man's earth-element into the gold of solar essence. The flash of their track, illumined here and there by the dedicated lives of extraordinary individuals in different centers throughout Europe and Great Britain, is testimony to the inner current at work in the quiet.

This stream of theosophic endeavor, in teaching and in practice, had for the most part to remain "underground," due to the repressive spirit of the age. Giordano Bruno and others were martyred for daring openly to assert that man and all of creation had the divine potency within, "one simple divinity which is in all things . . . shines forth in diverse subjects," and for other advanced ideas about the nature of the sun and the planets, such as the "opinion of Copernicus, that the earth did goe round, and the heavens did stand still." (Giordano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition, by Frances A. Yates, pp. 213, 208.)

It was not until the publication of The Secret Doctrine in 1888 that the Mystery-doctrine concerning man and his sevenfold constitution, with its correlations to like qualities in the solar system, became known in the West. This teaching alone, taking root within the consciousness of an increasing segment of the thinking public, has in recent decades yielded dramatic results in the recognition that not only is our body a congeries of light-atoms, but our thoughts and emotions likewise project themselves in a multicolored aura or atmospheric envelope of light-particles, made visible to the naked eye now by photographic means. More significant still, every life form known to us -- mineral, plant, animal, organic and so-called inorganic -- is likewise observable as a focus of light, a channel for the self-same electromagnetic forces that flow to and through us from the sun and beyond.

Translating some hundred Stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, an ancient manuscript that is totally unknown to scholars, H. P. Blavatsky carries us back beyond time and space to the abysses of the Unknown, when "Darkness alone filled the Boundless All" and the universe was "still concealed in the Divine Thought." In majestic prose she traces the "reawakening of the universe," of suns and planets, earth, man and all the kingdoms that trail after him. "Darkness radiates Light, and Light drops one solitary ray into the Mother-deep . . . The root of life was in every drop of the ocean of immortality, and the ocean was radiant Light, which was fire, and heat, and motion" (S.D., 1, 27-9). To her there was not a particle in the fields of Infinity which was not a conscious life, vibrant with divinity and, as such, part of the vast evolutionary current which sees all things pressing forward toward ever greater unfoldment.

Theosophy to some may appear purely an intellectual system of thought, a source of intricate philosophical doctrines which relate to and explain celestial and terrestrial movements. In reality it is far more than this, for the unrolling or emanation of worlds from out of the Boundless unfolds a pattern of divinity in action so exquisite in structure and operation as to compel the hardiest of skeptics to acknowledge a divine substratum to universal being, a flow of command, as it were, from the supreme hierarch to the least of atomic particles.

Furthermore, no matter how grand and far-reaching her perspective, HPB never lost touch with the realities of human sorrow. All through her books, in her letters, in remarks made spontaneously at gatherings, in private interviews with those who sought her help or advice, her one impassioned plea was to work to alleviate the suffering of "poor, orphaned humanity." And this by assuring all men of their infinite possibilities of growth, that they were divine at heart, that life does not cease with death, rebirth for the soul being as natural and inevitable as the resurgence of sap every spring. Karma and reincarnation -- so long forgotten in the West -- were to her doctrines of immense hope, for they restore to man his sense of continuity, giving purpose and justice to a life otherwise meaningless.

It may be said there are as many interpretations of theosophy as there are people in search of truth. One of the most appealing came in a letter a few months ago from a young Nigerian whom I had met while in his country last year. He wrote:

I see theosophy as deep, if not deeper, than the deepest ocean; or better, as being wide as the sky. I am but a child. It is too profound a doctrine for anyone merely to intellectualize about, for its spirit is mightier than human intellect rolled together. I content myself in learning and making the effort to uphold all I can at present think or comprehend of it in my heart, as it truly is the doctrine of the heart. Theosophy is rich enough for all. Thus I have no fear of being left out of its wealth of abundance which will satisfy worlds, and yet remain enough for worlds yet unborn. My problem is myself -- the conquest of myself. . . .

In those simple words we have the poetry and depth of a "god-wisdom" that is all-encompassing, deep as the sea and wide as the sky, sufficient for worlds still unborn, yet inclusive of every human heart. When Jesus said that not a hair of our heads but was counted by the divine, was he not saying that the heart of nature is compassion, the ultimate law of Being?

There is no wish to venerate the past simply because a full century has come round since the birth of a movement that has now become worldwide in scope and influence. Nevertheless, the past has lessons and values for the present, and if indeed the Theosophical Society was originally "chosen as the corner stone of the future religion(s) of mankind," the seminal ideas given forth by Blavatsky and her teachers, ideas that have already catalyzed the thought climate of our world even within the brief span of a hundred years, could prove viable for centuries to come. Honor is due those who dare to mark new pathways for others. It is in this spirit that we offer a salute to a great soul -- H. P. Blavatsky -- in grateful recognition of the cosmic vision she restored a world sadly in need of it.

(From Sunrise magazine, November 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)

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