Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Theosophy

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From volume 14 of the work.

107219Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) — TheosophyJohn T. Driscoll

(Theosophia = "wisdom concerning God")

Theosophy is a term used in general to designate the knowledge of God supposed to be obtained by the direct intuition of the Divine essence. In method it differs from theology, which is the knowledge of God obtained by revelation, and from philosophy, which is the knowledge of Divine things acquire by human reasoning. It is often incorrectly confounded with mysticism, for the latter is properly the thirst for the Divine, the aspiration for the invisible, and hence a natural manifestation of the religious sentiment. By intuition or illumination the initiated Theosophists are considered to be in harmony with the central principle of the universe. This knowledge of the secret forces of nature of the true relation between the world and man frees them from the ordinary limitations of human life, and gives them a peculiar power over the hidden forces of the macrocosm. Their exceptional faculties are alleged as experimental proof of their superior science: they are the only guarantee of the truth of their teaching. They are said to transmit this truth by way of revelation. Thus theosophy appeals to tradition but not in the Christian sense.

(1) India is the home of all theosophic speculation. Oltramere says that the directive idea of Hindu civilization is theosophic. This development covers a great many ages, each represented in Indian religious literature. There are formed the basic principles of theosophy. Knowledge of the occult laws in nature and in life, the intuitive method, superhuman powers, hostility to established religion are not all equally apparent in each age, but are present conjunctively or separately through the whole course of its history. The early Brahmanic writings contain the germs, which have gradually developed into a rich vegetation of ideas and beliefs. These ideas are organized into systems, not however homogeneous or autonomous but mixed with other belief. Then they leave the schools to act upon the masses, either in forming a religion, e.g. Buddhism, or in penetrating popular religions already existing, e.g. Hinduism. Thus the Upanishads teach: that the individual soul is identical with the universal soul, hence the doctrine of advaita, i.e. non-duality; that the individual existence of the soul is a state of suffering, hence the doctrine of samsara, i.e. metempsychosis; that the individual soul is delivered from suffering by its reunion with the universal soul, a reunion realized by seizing the consciousness of identity with it, hence the doctrine of moksa, i.e. salvation. The basic doctrines of the Vedanta and Saukhya systems are monistic Pantheism, intuition as the supreme means to reach truth, metempsychosis, the world of sense is only a very little part of the category of things, the theory and method of salvation strictly intellectual. These systems developed form the Upanishads. The final development is the Yoga. Yoga, i.e. "one who fits himself, or exercises", refers to the exercises practiced to free the soul from the body, which to it is like a string to a bird. Some of these exercises were: to rid one's self of moral faults (though the masters do not agree as to what these faults are); to sit in certain painful postures, check the breath, and reduce thought to a minimum by staring at the tip of the nose; to place the soul in a particular part of the body, and so gradually acquire mastery over it, or, rather, let the soul, the true self, acquire mastery over the body; to stave and learn to subsist on air or even without it; to concentrate thought by meditation, i.e. to think of nothing. Thyana, the highest state of which is the cataleptic trance samadhi, in which the mind is suppressed but the soul is in full activity. In this sate the person is a mahatma, i.e. master-soul and can enjoy a temporary release from the body which it leaves to go roaming about, performing wonderful feats on material nature and controlling other less powerful souls. This latter was the secret of the Yoga's real power and was supposed to be done by a transfer of soul. When the soul re-enters the body, the Yoga wakes and is like other people. By repeated exercises the soul can become so strong that is secures perpetual release from the body, thus, according to the older Yoga teaching, it flies to heaven where it enjoys great happiness, riding in a celestial car attended by lovely women and music; but with the latter Yogas, on breaking all bodily bonds it formed immediate absorption into the Supreme Soul.

(2) Theosophic teaching comes to the front in the third period of Greek philosophy. Hence it is found in the Jewish-Greek philosophy with the neo-Platonists. The theosophic atmosphere due to the influence of the Orient is plainly shown in Plotinus. The Gnostic systems reveal more theosophy than theology and in the Jewish Kabbala is found a theosophy mixed with various forms of magic and occultism. The Renaissance brought into modern thought neo-Platonism and the Kabbala, e.g. Reuchlin (d. 1492), Agrippa (d. 1535), Cardano (d.1576), Paracelsus (d.1540), Weigel (d. 1588). More important is the teaching of Jakob Böhme (d.1624). He taught that the "eternal dualism" of God is the ultimate cause of all evil; that there is a "dark" negative principle in God, which evil element makes manifest His goodness. Without this there would be no revelation. Further, were it not for this principle God could not know Himself. Böhme's teaching influenced Baader, Schelling, and Gegel. Theosophic principles colour the theology of Swedenborg, and are found in the group of modern thinkers, especially neo-Hegelians, who claim that the existence of God is know by direct intuition or by a special faculty of the soul.

A new importance of these teachings in modern thought is due to the school of Modern theosophy dating from the foundation of the Theosophical Society in New York City by Madame Blavatsky in 1875. She is the chief and only authority for the revelation of so-called Tibetan occultism. A.P. Sinnett however used the term Esoteric Buddhism. They claimed to have the true solution for the problems of the universe and of man from the Upanishads and Buddhist Sutras through Oriental savants, mahatmas, the faithful depositories of a profound and superhuman wisdom. In fact, a great part of their nomenclature is derived from India, and they seek there for a justification of teachings drifting about in modern thought and derived to a great extent, if not wholly, from neo-Platonic and Jewish sources through the Renaissance. The objects of the society are: to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour; to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man. This last clause gives occasion to include magic, the occult, the uncanny, and the marvelous in any and every form. Madame Blavatsky, with Colonel Olcott, went to India in 1878. Shortly afterwards her frauds were exposed through letters written by her and published by Columb and his wife, who had been in her service. This was acknowledged by the London Society of Psychical Research, which in Nov., 1884 sent R. Hodgson, of St. John's College, Cambridge to investigate (Edmund Garrett, "Isis very much Unveiled", London, 1895; Francis Podmore, "Studies in Psychical Research"). In spite of this, however, the teaching was continued and propagated by her disciples Mrs. Besant, Col. Olcott, A.P. Sinnett, and others.

Modern theosophy claims to be a definite science. Its teachings are the product of thought, and its source is consciousness, not any Divine revelation. As a science it is supposed to be based on investigation and experimentation of the occult laws in nature and in human life. Only those qualified for the inquiry can grasp these laws, and they gain from this knowledge certain superhuman powers. Mrs. Besant calls it the great synthesis of life, i.e. of religion, science, and philosophy, as old as thoughtful humanity, proclaimed in a new form suited to the present time. Its aim is that spirit is and can become the master of matter. Hence it is considered as a protest against materialism which teaches that thought and feeling are the results of the aggregations of matter. Theosophy on the contrary sees in matter an instrument of life, and in thought the creative and moulding power of matter.

The basic teaching of theosophy is the universal brotherhood of humanity. Hence springs the preaching of toleration to all persons and to all varieties of belief, e.g. Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, It considers the different religions as methods adopted by man in the search for God. They are of necessity various, because men differ in temperament, type, needs, and stages of evolution. Hence they are different and imperfect expressions of truth. As such it says: "we cannot afford to lose any of the world's religions, for each has its partial truth and its characteristic message which the perfect man must acquire." Hence theosophy appeals to men as the great peacemaker, for it teaches that all religions mean one and the same thing, or rather that they are all branches of a single tree. In this sense it attacks comparative mythology which tries to show that religion was originally the fruit of man's ignorance wand will disappear with the increase of knowledge, whereas in fact religion comes from Divine knowledge, i.e. theosophy.

The principle of universal brotherhood rest upon the 'solidarity' of all living, of all that is, in the one life and one consciousness. Solidarity springs from the belief in the immanence of God, the only and external life manifested in the multiplicity of creation. All forces are external; there is no supernatural, except the superhuman and supersensuous, i.e. powers greater that those normally exercised by man, which, however, can be developed. Ignorance therefore makes the miracle. Hence there is on personal God, and fro this reason Madame Blavatsky and Mrs. Besant say that theosophy is more readily embraced by Atheists and Agnostics. Hence also Colville could teach that the spirit or soul in man is the only real and permanent part of his being; everything else pertaining to him is illusory and transitory. Solidarity, i.e. the common life pervading all things, is thus made the basis of morality. Hence a wrong done to one is done to all, as e.g. an injury inflicted on one part of the human organism results in pain diffused and felt throughout. At the same time we are told that God is good and man immortal, that the "immanence of God justifies religion", i.e. the search after Him, that all things move to good and to man's benefit, that man must understand and co-operate with the scheme of things.

Man has seven aspects, or rather is being composed of seven principles. These are viewed in two groups: the Quarternary, corresponding to our animal nature, i.e. soul and body, the mortal part of man, the products of evolution; and the Triad, corresponding to our spiritual nature, i.e. spirit, for theosophists say that Christian philosophy hold the threefold division of body; soul, and spirit in man. The Quaternary is made up of Sthula Sharira, i.e. physical body; Linga Sharira, i.e. astral double; Prana, i.e. principle of life; Kama, i.e. our passional nature. The Triad is composed of: Manas, i.e. mind or the thinker; Buddhi, i.e. the dwelling-place of spirit; Atnir, i.e. spirit. Hence we find Atnir-Buddhi used conjointly. This Triad is called the Immortal Triad. It is united to the Quaternary by Manas, in itself viewed as Higher Manas, sending out a Ray, which as Lower Manas is imbedded in Karma. Thus Kama-Manas is the link joining our animal to our spiritual nature, and is the battle-ground of life's struggles. Man is primarily divine, a spark of the Divine life; this living flame passing out from the Central Fire, weaves for itself coverings within which it dwells and thus becomes the Triad, the Atma-Buddhi-Manas, the Immortal Self. This sends out its Ray, which becomes encased in grosser matter, in the Kamic body, in the Astral Double, and in the physical body. The Astral Double, i.e. rarer matter, the exact double of the physical body, plays a great part in spiritualistic phenomena. The Manas is the real I, the reincarnating ego makes the human personality. The Quaternary as a whole is viewed as the Personality, i.e. the shadow of the self. In fact each principle or aspect may be considered a Personality in so far as it undervalues Atma, i.e. throws its shadow over Atma, i.e. the One Eternal Existence. The seer however knows that Atma is the one reality, the essence of all things, that Atma-Buddhi is the Universal One Soul, itself an aspect of Atma, that Atma-Buddhi-Manas is the individual mind or Thinker, that the shadow of Manas, our Atma-Buddhi, makes men say "my soul" and "thy soul", whereas in reality we are all one with Atma, the Unknown Root. After death all of the Manasic Ray that is pure and unsoiled gradually disentangles itself, carrying with it such of life's experiences as are of a nature fit for assimilation with the Higher Ego. The Manasic Ego united to Atma-Buddhi passes into the Devachonic state of consciousness, rapt in blissful dreams coloured by the experiences of the earth-life. This state is a continuation of the earth-life shorn of its sorrows, and a completion of its noble and pure wishes.

Theosophy is not only a basis of religion; it is also a philosophy of life. As such, its main teachings are reincarnation and the law of Karma. Karma is the outcome of the collective life, a law of ethical causation. In the past incarnation the ego had acquired certain faculties, set in motion certain causes. The effect of these causes and of causes set in motion in previous incarnations and not yet exhausted are its Karma and determine the conditions into which the ego is reborn. Thus inequalities of natural gifts, e.g. genius, of temperament and of character are explained. The law of progress is the law of involution and evolution, the returning of the Divine Spark into a unity with Spirit through various reincarnations, which are viewed as a process of purification. Sin, poverty, and misery are the fruits of ignorance, and are gradually removed as the spirit in us becomes freed from earthly dross. There is no heaven nor Hell. Death is the passage from this state of life to another. There is an evolution behind and before, with absolute certainty of final attainment for every human soul, i.e. to be one with the Absolute. As man advances in this process his spirit becomes stronger, and can develop latent powers, not shown in ordinary mortals.


In of a Christian ethical phraseology, theosophy in reality is a form of pantheism, and denies a personal God and personal immortality. Its appeal to the spiritual in man, and its striving after union with the Divine are based upon a contradictory metaphysic, an imaginary psychology, a system of ethics which recognizes no free-will, but only the absolute necessity of Karma. No evidence or proof is given for its teaching except the simple statements of its leaders. The denial of a personal God nullifies its claim to be a spiritualistic philosophy. Judging it as presented by its own exponents, it appears to be a strange mixture of mysticism, charlatanism, and thaumaturgic pretension combined with an eager effort to express its teaching in words which reflect the atmosphere of Christian ethics and modern scientific truths.

Wright, Modern Theosophy (Boston and New York, 1894): Besant, Theosophical Manuals (London, New York and Madras, 1892); Lectures on the History of Religons: Catholic Truth Society: V, Theosophy (London and New York, 1911); Hull, Theosophy and Christianity (Catholic Truth Society); De Grandmaison, Le Lotus Bleu in series Science et Religion (Paris); Busnelli, Manuale di Teosofia (Rome, 1910); Oltramere L'historie des idées théosophiques dans l'Inde (Paris); Clarke in The Month (Jan., Feb., March, 1897).

John T. Driscoll.