The Theosophical Society was co-founded by the Russian born Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and William Quan Judge (1851-1896) who was already a well-known intellectual mystic. They combined Eastern religious traditions, including the doctrine of reincarnation, with Western esoteric teachings (the Kabballah) to create a synthesis they called the Perennial Religion. Originally, Theosophy had much older roots than the version Blavatsky and Judge created, but they were the people mainly responsible for “modernizing” and popularizing it. This philosophy was particularly popular among intellectuals of the day, partly because of the esoteric nature of the teachings, and partly because of their belief that only reincarnation can produce a “Just Universe.”
For all practical purposes, theosophical beliefs now form much of the basis of New Age psychic lore. Theosophy acted as the bridge between Western Spiritualism with its medieval roots based on the Jewish Kabbalah and the Eastern concepts of reincarnation, spiritual bodies, chakras and spiritual energy currents, thus melding much of the world’s esoteric spiritual beliefs into a single coherent philosophy.
Depending on whom you want to believe, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was either a scholar of ancient wisdom, or a self-promoting fraud. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society was dedicated to spiritual research. Theosophy was defined as “the archaic Wisdom-Religion.” She and Judge felt that this philosophy was the “original religion”, a sort of ancient perfect spiritual philosophy which (according to them) was essentially bastardized in future ages, in order to form what Blavatsky and her followers felt were the degraded religious traditions of the nineteenth century. Theosophy strongly promoted the doctrine of reincarnation.
Her best known work was The Secret Doctrine, which draws together all of the arcane knowledge of the “wisest ancients” into one volume. She preached “The universal Brotherhood of humanity” which drew no distinction between people based on race, creed, sex, cast or color. Most mainstream religions of today preach non-discrimination, but in Blavatsky’s day, racial and other forms of discrimination were a part of the background of everyday life.
In 1946, Gertrude Marvin Williams wrote a book named “Priestess of the Occult: Madame Blavatsky”, which accused Blavatsky of being a fraud. The official biographies of Blavatsky cited her lineage as springing from Russian nobility. Class distinctions were very important in European culture during Blavatsky’s youth, and a noble background could give someone a bit of prestige that they would not otherwise have. That is probably why Blavatsky assumed this kind of conceit. However by 1946, the cachet had worn off titles of nobility, and Williams’ book accused Blavatsky of fabricating this history, as well as much of her philosophy. Blavatsky had died fifteen years earlier and could not have defended her reputation.
At the time of publication, The Priestess of the Occult was publicized and praised by large numbers of journalists. This was probably because the prevailing attitude of the elites was pronouncedly anti-spiritualist due to the backlash against spiritualism in response to the spiritualist fads and frauds that had swept the world in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. (See chapter 24 for a fascinating history of the Fox sisters and the birth of spiritualism.) Theosophists at that time might have labeled Williams’ book “fake news”, but mainstream journalists of the day were of one mind, and very much like journalists of today, that mind was “materialism”.
Since that time, the Theosophists have struck back, and have reformed madame Blavatsky’s image, but the stain on her reputation remains. This is partly because there is no proof that she was really descended from Russian nobility as she claimed, but mostly because materialist atheists have a vested interest in maintaining the taint.