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March 24th, 2010

Theosophy is a fusion of science, religion and philosophy, brought into prominence within the modern world by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late 1800’s.  With the motto “There is no higher religion than the Truth”, Theosophy entered into Australia during the 1890’s, inspiring followers such as then-Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, and fuelling a sense of ‘intellectual authority’ burgeoning within early Australian feminist movements.

Jill Roe is the Head of History at Macquarie University and author of Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia.  The following is an edited transcript of an interview between Jill Roe and Radio National’s comparative religions expert Rachael Kohn, with written excerpts from William Butler Yeats’ Memoirs and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

She was a big cigar smoking impoverished Russian, who claimed a noble family background and travelled the world giving clairvoyant demonstrations. Yet Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was destined to become the founder of an international esoteric movement, which drew to its bosom a galaxy of influential men and women. In 1875 at the age of 44 Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York, together with her friend Henry Olcott, a lawyer, journalist and retired Colonel.

The society promised a wisdom religion which was greater and older than Christianity, and ruled by Hidden Masters. Where were these Masters, also referred to as the Great White Brotherhood? They were secreted in the Himalayas, where according to Blavatsky, she had visited them and taken instruction. They were now in regular communication with her through clairvoyance.

Preposterous? Well, no more so than the doctrines of the churches she encountered in America.

“..The God of the Unitarians is a bachelor; the Deity of the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and other orthodox Protestant sects espouse this Father with one Son who is identical with Himself. In the attempt to outvie each other, in the erection of their sixty-two thousand and odd churches, prayer-houses, and meeting-halls in which to teach these conflicting theological doctrines, $354,485,581 have been spent… And now, with Pilate, let us inquire, What is truth? Where is it to be searched for amid these multitude of warring sects?” Madame Blavatsky

Madame Blavatsky was not the first in her time to raise doubts about the perplexing diversity of Christian beliefs, but she would subject them to her own form of examination.

“…Though we have no disposition whatever to trench upon the ground that has been so exhaustively gleaned by those learned scholars who have shown that every Christian dogma has its origin in a heathen rite… we propose to examine these facts from a different, and perhaps rather novel point of view: that of the old philosophies as esoterically understood… We will use them as the standard by which to compare Christian dogmas and miracles with the doctrines and phenomena of ancient magic and the modern “New Dispensation” as Spiritualism is called by its votaries”. Madame Blavatsky

Spiritualism, the practice of communicating with the dead through a medium, was popular in the 19th century. It was invariably attended by scandals, not a few of them surrounding Blavatsky herself. In fact, the prestigious Society for the Study of Psychical Research in London had declared her demonstrations fraudulent, which she vehemently denied.

Why should Spiritualists wonder that the presence of some strong sceptics or of those who feeling bitterly opposed to the phenomenon, unconsciously exercise their willpower in opposition, hinders, and often stops altogether the manifestations. Why wonder when the unconscious passive power of the medium is suddenly paralysed in its effects by another opposing one, though it also be as unconsciously exercised. Professors Faraday and Tyndall boasted that their presence at a circle would stop at once every manifestation. This fact alone ought to have proved to the eminent scientists that there was some force in this phenomena worthy to arrest their attention. Madame Blavatsky

By this time, Madame Blavatsky was already enjoying success with her publication of the massive tome, Isis Unveiled, an eclectic concoction of Hindu beliefs in reincarnation, Gnostic ideas of the Self as Divine, occult notions of spirits communicating from upper spheres, and a large swathe of quasi scientific claims. In fact, the rage for comparative religion studies is also evident in Blavatsky’s theory about the relationship between religion and science.

Before proceeding to show by diagrams the close resemblance between the esoteric philosophies of all the ancient peoples however geographically remote from each other, it will be useful to briefly explain the real ideas which underlie all those symbols and allegorical representations and have hitherto so puzzled the uninitiated commentators. Better than anything, it may show that religion and science were closer knit than twins in days of old; that they were one in two, and two in one from the very moment of their conception. With mutually convertible attributes, science was spiritual and religion was scientific.

Theosophy’s rather grandiose claims to scientific verity would cause some of its more avid members difficulty, like the poet William Butler Yeats, who said, ‘I was much among the Theosophists, having drifted there from the Dublin Hermetic Society. Like the Socialists, they thought little of those who did not share their belief, and talked much of what they called Materialism…

I was a member of their Esoteric Section, an inner ring of the more devout students which met weekly to study tables of oriental symbolism. Every organ of the body had its correspondence in the heavens, and the seven principles which made the human soul and body corresponded to the seven colours and the planets and the notes of the musical scale. We lived in perpetual discussion. Among the symbols of one of the seven principles was indigo, extracted from the plant in some particular way. I got with some trouble a bottle of this indigo and got various members to try experiments, fixing their minds upon the bottle and then [allowing them] to drift…

I was always longing for evidence, not ashamed to admit my longing, and having read in Sibly’s Astrology that if you burned a flower to ashes and then put the ashes under a bell of glass in the moonlight, the phantom of the flower would rise before you. I persuaded members of the Section who lived more alone than I, and so could experiment undisturbed, to burn many flowers without cease. Presently I was called before an official of the Section and asked with great politeness to resign. I was causing disturbance, causing disquiet in some way.

I said, ‘By teaching an abstract system without experiment or evidence you are making your pupils dogmatic and you are taking them out of life. There is scarcely one of your pupils who does not need, more than all else to enrich his soul, the common relations of life. They do not marry, and nothing is so bad for them, as asceticism.’ He was a clever man, had taught himself much mathematics and written a great deal of bad poetry, and he admitted all I said, but added ‘that Madame Blavatsky had told him that no more supernatural help would come to the movement after 1897 when some cycle or other ended. At whatever sacrifice of the individual, they had to spread their philosophy through the world before that date. I resigned, and found afterwards that he had been urged to action by a fanatical woman – women do not keep their sanity in the presence of the abstract’.

Rachael Kohn: Rather than science, Theosophy was more like a magical mystery tour of exotic ideas, and it took root in Australia. Jill Roe is the author of Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia. Jill, the history of Theosophy in Australia goes a way back to the movement’s early phase, when Helena Blavatsky was still alive. But she never visited Australia.

Jill Roe: No, she didn’t, but her offsider, Henry Steele Olcott, her colourful Yankee, came over from India about 1890 I think. She died shortly after that and he had to go back, but he had quite a successful tour, made lots of speeches in lots of town halls and the like, so there was a very early association with the leaders of the movement. But the most important one came shortly after, when Annie Besant came to Australia in 1894. She succeeded that pair and became president of the society.

Rachael Kohn: I’d like to talk about Annie Besant in a moment, because she really revivified the movement in a big way. But even in that early phase, there were lodges around in Australia and especially in Queensland, which seemed to have a very important place in Helena Blavatsky’s racial theories.

Jill Roe: It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? Both Queensland and Tasmania, Hobart, had very early responses to the teachings of Blavatsky. The same thing occurred in New Zealand too, and even in Australia it’s not Sydney and Melbourne that there is a starting place, it is in fact Toowoomba and the Darling Downs, and also very early in Hobart. Now why is this? It’s a fascinating thing, isn’t it, but one thing you have to say is that the colonial cultures were livelier than people think, and the other is that there was something in that teaching which gained a response at the margins of the then world, perhaps in terms of race and culture.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, well I guess the dying days of colonialism, and also in that period you see a great interest in science, and it seems that Theosophy really fastened on to this, in a perhaps a more fantasy-oriented way, such as Helen Blavatsky’s belief in the Lost Continent of Lemuria and her notion of the evolution of races.

Jill Roe: It is post-Darwinian, the Darwinian revolution had this enormous effect, didn’t it, on religious thinking. And although you say fantasy, I might just enter in there that there is such a thing as Gondwanaland, and that a lot of things were not known, or known as we think of them, so the notion of lost continents has now become rather way out and whacky, but in the late 19th century when not too much was known about the migration of early peoples and the geological shifts that have occurred, especially in this area, there was a certain credibility in these hypotheses, and they fitted rather well. The notion that things had been lost fitted rather well into what were presented as critiques of the crude materialisms of Darwinism.

Rachael Kohn: The movement is post-Darwinian, but at one level Helena Blavatsky was not convinced by Darwin’s notion of evolution. She had a sort of other notion.

Jill Roe: Oh yes. It was post-Darwinian only in a chronological sense. It was in fact ante-Darwinian, although like a lot of late Victorian religious thought, it attempted to seize the evolutionary hypothesis and spiritualise it, so that the evolution of the soul and the spirit still retained their pre-eminence and supremacy in human endeavour, and for these people although it may have been true that the old God was there, and the old authority and creeds were indeed in ruins, nonetheless something had been lost, the secret doctrine actually was how Blavatsky in her amazing way thought of it, and it was this that was going to reconstitute on a scientific basis, the evolution of the soul of man which was not subordinate to a materialistic notion of evolution. But yes, science is very important, but as a method and a reaction.

Rachael Kohn: And of course Helena Blavatsky’s successor, Annie Besant, would introduce another ingredient, certainly a strong socialist one, because she was very well known in the Fabian Society.

Jill Roe: Annie Besant is another wondrous figure, and at the time she met Helena Blavatsky in London she was very prominent in the socialist revival and in the ferment of the 1880s, but we know from private documentation that she was also very interested and perturbed by mental science, and was caught up in spiritualists and occult revivals that were occurring at that time. And before we say that this too is rather whacky, you have to see it in its historical context. We’re not yet anywhere near the Freudian revolution, we’re not yet out of 19th century notions of mental science, we’re somewhere in between, where it’s all wide open. I like to say that at this time in history, the late 19th century, for intellectuals and thinking people, religion formed the same focus of all their concerns and anxieties as sex seems to do today.

Rachael Kohn: One of the claims that Theosophy made was that it wasn’t a religion, but it was there to aid religion, to help religion. Now that would have been quite difficult to live out, because eventually it even attempted to establish its own church.

Jill Roe: Indeed. It was based on an historical perspective which noticed the decline, so-called decline, of Christian behaviour and practice. That is a sort of persistent thing, the notion that Christianity is in decline, and it comes and goes with intensity. In the 1960s it was intense, and it was intense again in the late 19th century in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, and so coming to the aid of religion, now how were they going to do that? I think of early Theosophy as seeking authority, intellectual authority, but that that authority wasn’t going to come from the old sources of revealed religion. It had to be reconstructed. We want to know upon what grounds [the Roman Catholics and Protestants] base their right to treat Hindus and Chinese spiritualists and kabalists in the way they do; denouncing them, in company with infidels – creatures of their own making – as so many convicts sentenced to the inextinguishable fires of hell.

Rachael Kohn:
Well Jill, Theosophy hasn’t exactly grown in leaps and bounds, but do you think it’s had a lasting influence, perhaps in the New Age?

Jill Roe: Oh the Theosophical movement is the starting point of the whole New Age impulse as we know it. With regard to influence, it’s always very hard, isn’t it to quite pin it down, but you can certainly locate significant Australians who were influenced, or indeed participants, in the movement.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, who are some of them? Alfred Deakin, the Prime Minister?

Jill Roe: Alfred Deakin took notice of everything happening in the religious world, and he was for a year a member of the society. The great feminist, Vida Golderstein, who later became a Christian Scientist, she took an interest. People just wanted to know what this new idea was. I’m thinking also of the Bean family, Edwin Bean and C.W. Bean are very well known, especially C.W. as really the originator of the Anzac legend. His brother, Jack Bean was a stalwart of the Theosophical Society. Everywhere in the intelligentsia I think you would find these influences. In the world of architecture, the best known one of probably Walter Burley, and Marion Mahony Griffin who actually finished up as Anthroposophists, yet were in an intellectual milieu where Theosophy as an influence, and they published in Theosophical journals in Australia.

Of particular interest too I think is Theosophy in the world of art. The most famous artistic Theosophist was Godfrey Miller, and as soon as you know that Sydney abstractionist Godfrey Miller as a member of the Theosophical Society you understand better his wonderful work.

Women artists and Theosophy is a story in itself, yet to be fully unravelled. The key example there is probably Ethel Carrick Fox, the wife of E. Phillips Fox. But there’s a whole array of women artists who take up these spiritual prescriptions.

Rachael Kohn: Well just finally, women in general would have been fairly inspired by the leadership of Blavatsky and then Besant I imagine. Was Theosophy a kind of precursor of the feminist movement, or at least a companion of it?

Jill Roe: It was inspiring in several ways, as providing role models, but also as providing teachings which were encouraging to women who thought of themselves not necessarily as feminists or suffragettes or anything harsh like that, but advanced. They were advanced thinkers and so new thought, the new life, the new world were very appealing, and I have myself written about the phenomenon of Theosophic feminism, which was best exemplified by that remarkable woman Bessie Rischbieth who was one of the two most prominent feminists in Australia in the inter-war years. Bessie was Adelaide born and Perth located, and a very important person in Australian cultural history. We don’t yet have a full biography of her, she’s not well enough known outside Western Australia, but a remarkable woman. So in terms of models and values, there was to be no distinctions of sex in Theosophy, along with class and race and gender. And if you happened to have believed in reincarnation as well, it gave you a great boost even if you weren’t getting along so well now, maybe next time.

After all, every wish and thought I can utter are summed up in this one sentence, the never-dormant wish of my heart: “Be Theosophists, work for Theosophy!” Theosophy first, and Theosophy last; for its practical realisation alone can save the Western world from that selfish and unbrotherly feeling that now divides race from race, one nation from the other; and from that hatred of class and social considerations that are the curse and disgrace of so-called Christian peoples. Theosophy alone can save it from sinking entirely into that mere luxurious materialism in which it will decay and putrefy as earlier civilisations have done. In your hands, brothers, is placed in trust the welfare of the coming century, and great as is the trust, so great is also the responsibility. Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s ‘Letter to the American Section, 1891′.

The full version of this transcript can be viewed online at Radio National’s The Spirit of Things site to be found at

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