Lone Pine, CA (1965), Edited by Ron Leonard

Is Theosophy Authentic?

Franklin Merrell-Wolff

Part 1

Is Theosophy authentic? This question has arisen many times since the founding of the movement, and many answers have been given. Yet the question has arisen again by individuals who are genuinely oriented to the Enlightened Consciousness, who therefore must be viewed as entirely sincere. As a consequence the writer has felt himself called upon to face once more this query, which had been one in his own mind in earlier years. In the present instance the questioning has come from individ­uals who are sincerely oriented to the Buddhist Dharma and thus presents a different and, on the whole, a higher form of doubt than that expressed by those with a Western scientific or orthodox Christian orientation. Accordingly, here the problem will be approached with a primary reference to the relationship between Theosophy and the traditional Buddhist teaching as it exists available for an uninitiated student.

First, in order to clear the field, it will be desirable to determine in what sense “Theosophy” is to be understood. This is necessary since the word is old and can be traced at least to the time of Plotinus, and is not always employ­ed in the same sense. The word has been used from time to time by various societies belonging to the Christian milieu, once at least as early as the seventeenth century. Vaughan has identified “Theosophy” with philosophic mysticism, thus placing it in contrast with the non-rationalistic forms of mysticism.

If, then, Theosophy is not identical with Buddhism, Vedanta, or any other openly known philosophy or religion, what is it? The source works are definite on this point. Considering Theosophy in the sense of a doctrine or teaching, rather than in the other sense of “way of life,” it is said to be a partial statement emanating from pure Bodha or the Eternal Wisdom of which every authentic religious move­ment or philosophy is, in its origin, a partial statement. Bodha, in its essence and purity, is beyond name, form, and symbol, and is eternal; but, in variable degree and in less pure form, it is revealed in name, form, and symbol. The degree in which it can be revealed to the individual consciousness depends upon the purity and evolutionary development of the latter. Consequently, the higher aspect of the Revealed Bodha is unavoidably esoteric for most men. The open religions and phi­losophies are in the nature of stepped-down or exoteric statements, not for arbitrary reasons, but from the necessities imposed by the limitations of the understanding of most human beings.

The esoteric Bodha has existed in this world as long has man has existed. From time to time exoteric presentations have appeared throughout the whole history of mankind, but all such presentations have been only partial and, apparently, have always been subject to corruption and decay. From this source came Buddhism, the Vedanta, and all the other great religious and philosophical movements ever known among men. Theosophy, in its primary meaning, is identical with both the utterly pure Root-Bodhi and its esoteric manifestation, while, in the more objective sense, as a movement starting in 1875, it is another opening of the door of presentation. Such is the statement one finds in the source material.

The question as to whether Theosophy is what it claims to be does not concern us at this point. For the present we are interested only in its self-definition and its consequent relation to extant religions and philosophies, particularly historic Buddhism. As self-defined it is identical with the Root of all these religions and philosophies and, in especially marked degree, with the Root of Buddhism and Vedanta. Thus, in the FUNDAMENTAL sense, it claims to be identical with both Buddhism and Vedanta.

It may well that a scholarly study of the source literature of Theosophy would find a predominance of the Buddhist approach and language. If so, this is quite understandable, since the two intelligences most responsible for Theosophical literature are self-confessed Buddhists in their personal consciousness and background. Nonetheless, they do not affirm Truth as being the exclusive monopoly of historic Buddhism. It is also possible that there does exist some Buddhist sect in which the formulated Dharma exists in a greater state of purity than elsewhere. In any case, Theosophy is not identical with the whole of exoteric Buddhism, nor with any other Oriental philosophy or religion. It ties in with occidental currents as well.

Part II

The present challenge of the authenticity of Theosophy comes from persons who assume, or apparently assume, the primacy, at least within the limits of objectively known history, of the One who was known as Gautama Buddha. Theosophical literature gives abundant evidence that its authors gave the same valuation to the entity who was known as Gautama in one of his incarnations. The present writer testifies to his sharing in the same view, so we start with agreement at quite an important point. But, inasmuch as there are clearly discrepancies between the extant and accessible formulated Buddhist Dharma and the teachings of Theosophy, the question naturally arises as to which is authentic. The challenge to Theosophy lists a number of items, which are given below.

(a) Fundamental in the teachings of traditional Buddhism is the doctrine of anatman, the denial of a persistent self or soul. Since this doctrine is found very widely spread throughout the great divisions and sects of Buddhism, despite their divergence, and even incompatibility, on many other points, the conclusion seems ineluctable that this was a primary teaching of Gautama Buddha. In contrast, Theosophy seems to assert the reality of the Atman in certain senses while agreeing with the anatmic doctrine in other respects. An incompatibility is suggested that seems to force a choice.

(b) Buddhist teaching is nastikata or nontheistic, viewing the ultimate as an impersonal “Suchness,” to take a term from the Shunyata (Voidness) form of the Mahayana. On this point Theosophy is in agreement in affirming the ultimate Root to be an “Eternal, Boundless, Omnipresent and Immutable PRINCIPLE, on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and can only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude.” But Theo­sophy does affirm the existence or a number of more-than-human intelligences, some trans-nirvanic, that may be, and at times have often been, called “gods.” The correspondent suggests a discrepancy here.

(c) Theosophy teaches, or seems to teach, the ultimate reality of Svabhava, or Svabhavat, as the one real element from which both spirit and matter are derived, whereas Buddhism teaches Svabhavashunyata, or that all things are empty. Thus Theosophy appears to give a substantive value to the Ultimate while Buddhism is radically non-substantive or positivistic in the noumenal as well as in the phenomenal sense.

(d) Theosophy teaches the existence of an esoteric doctrine requiring initiation for realization of it, while it is said that Buddha had no esoteric doctrine and repudiated the idea.

(e) Points are raised below the philosophic level chal­lenging the motives and integrity of H. P. Blavatsky and the authors of The Mahatma Letters. They involve the following contentions:

1. The phenomena reported to have been produced seem too much like card tricks and stage-magic to be authentic, with added doubt cast by the Coulomb affair and the SPR report in connection therewith.

2. No new Buddhist material translated and given to the public.

3.A particular translation given in The Mahatma Letters was only a paraphrase of Beal’s Catena of Buddhist Scrip­tures.

4.The Mahatma Letters are too argumentative and gossipy, and the philosophy is limited and has been better stated in other exoteric sources.

5.“Theosophy” uses nirmanakaya to mean a bodhisattva who is not physical but is working on the astral plane. The Buddhist nirmanakaya INCLUDES those living on the physical.

6.Theosophy, though claiming to be an esoteric doc­trine, does not rise to an elementary understanding of the publicly taught doctrines of Buddhism.

7.Hindu and Buddhist terms are mangled and jumbled up together without distinction.

8.Theosophy emphasizes saving the world in the face of a crisis, while Buddhism vows salvation as a perpetual problem.

9.Theosophy is activistic while Buddhism, along with Hinduism, is contemplative 

Other minor points are raised, but not of enough importance for consideration here.

The specific implication of the above queries is given explicitly in the question: Was H. P. Blavatsky a phony? Before undertaking the detailed consideration of the above points, the writer will briefly consider this last question.


Was H. P. Blavatsky a phony? The charge of conscious fraud is serious, yet, in view of the very great intelligence evident in the production of The Secret Doctrine, and its all but superhuman scholarship, the hypothesis that it was a massive but honest self-deception seems well nigh unthinkable. It would seem that we must either view the whole Theosophical conception as a fraud or else that it is just what it claims to be. Several considerations could be raised that discredit the hypothesis of fraud, but the writer will here consider but two, which in his mind are practically conclusive.

(a) There must be an adequate motive for the perpetuation of a conscious fraud. The labor involved in one work alone, i.e., The Secret Doctrine, is so vast that it seems unthinkable that a person of such ability could not have per­petrated a fraud that would have given her some tangible worldly advantage. Actually, all she got out of it in a material sense was work in poverty while enduring the pain of a body that was far from well and, withal, subjected to much adverse criticism and calumny. A motivation of lofty compassion seems the only one adequate to explain the willingness to put forth the Herculean effort in the face of so much pain. This seems enough to cover the point.

(b)  Some years ago the writer, in preparation for a lecture, made a comparison of the state of Western science as it was at the time of the publication of The Secret Doctrine and as it was at the time of the lecture, twentieth century physics having been well developed at that time. The special points noted were those in which The Secret Doctrine took exception to scientific conceptions and suggested a counter point of view based upon the occult teachings. The writer had little difficulty in finding twenty-four or twenty-five points in which the change in scientific views was definitely toward agreement with the occult teachings as given in the Theosophical literature. Some of the shifts were very important, whereas others were minor. The instances are noted below.

In the tenth letter or the second edition of The Mahatma Letters there is to be round the following statement: “Rejecting with contempt the theistic theory we reject as much the automaton theory, teaching that states of consciousness are produced by the marshalling of the molecules of the brain; and we feel as little respect for that other hypothesis—the production of molecular motion by consciousness. Then what do we believe in? We believe in the much laughed at ‘phlogiston’ (See article, “What is force and what is matter?” (The Theosophist, September, 1882.)), and in what some natural phi­losophers would call nisus, the incessant though perfectly imperceptible (to the ordinary senses) motion or efforts one body is making on another—the pulsations of inert matter—its life. The bodies of the Planetary spirits are formed of that which Priestly and others called Phlogiston and for which we have another name—this essence in its highest seventh state forming that matter of which the or­ganisms of the highest and purest Dhyans are composed, and in its lowest or densest form (so impalpable yet that science calls it energy and force) serving as a cover to the Planetaries of the first or lowest degree.”

If we turn to the article in The Theosophist, September, 1882, we find the following significant statement. “Neither an atom of silicon, nor an atom of oxygen, is capable of any further subdivision, into something else—they (the scientists) say. But the only good reason we can find for such a strange belief is that they have tried the experiment and failed. But how can they tell that a new discovery, some new invention of still finer and more perfect apparatuses and instruments may not show their error some day? How do they know that those very bodies now called ‘elementary atoms’ are not in their turn compound bodies or molecules, which, when analyzed with still greater minuteness, may show containing in themselves the real, primordial, elementary globules, the gross encasement of the still finer atom-spark—the spark of LIFE, the source of electricity—MATTER still!”

The phlogiston theory is one suggested by Stahl and advanced by Priestly in the seventeenth century. The phlogiston was conceived as “the matter of fire in composition with other bodies.” Ordinary burning, such as flame, was conceived as a release of this phlogiston. Subsequently, the theory was abandoned and replaced by the familiar conception that fire is an effect of oxidation and thus is not itself a kind of matter. In its original form the notion of phlogiston is outmoded in science, but it is not hard to see that the es­sence of this conception has returned in a subtler form in twentieth century physics.

Dampier Whetham (A History of Science) gives 1897 as the date at which the modern revolution in physics begins, fifteen years subsequent to the letter and article above quoted. Today we definitely view the atom as compounded and subject to disintegration both in nature and under conditions controlled by the scientist. Chemical elements have been transformed into other chemical elements, and even some elements synthesized that have not been found in nature. The atom bomb has publicized this fact to all of the world. In the explosion of the atom bomb there is a development of very intense heat and light and extensive radiation. Now, to be sure, this phenomenon is not fire in the ordinary sense of oxidation, yet it is very reasonable to view it as a kind of fire. May we not view the radiation as a “matter of fire in composition with other bodies?” Today science does view radiation as essentially a state of matter holding the property of “mass” in common with ordinary matter. Have we not at last found the real phlogiston?

Today the idea that matter and electricity are of one sameness is virtually a commonplace, and the idea that electricity and life are essentially the same is not strange. The point in this discussion probably has become clear. A view of matter advanced in Theosophical literature as early as 1882 has, in the period from 1897 to the present, become so dramatically established that the whole field of human life, political and otherwise, has been profoundly shaken. It would be a remarkable “phony” that could call a turn like that.

Another striking instance or rapprochement between the teachings of Theosophy and of Western science, during the period subsequent to the publication of The Secret Doctrine, is found in the change in the estimation of the age of the earth. Dempier-Whetham reports that Lord Kelvin estimated the age of the earth in 1882 as less than 200 million years, since it was in a molten state, and in 1899 shortened the period to between 20 and 40 million years. None of the astronomers and physicists gave figures sufficiently large to satisfy the needs of the geologists and biologists. In The Secret Doctrine (3rd ed., Vol. II, 71–73.) figures are given from the Tamil calendar, called Tirukkananda Panchanga, for the age of the earth that are said to agree approximately with the figures of the Esoteric Philosophy. The figure for the evolution of the solar system up to 1887 is 1,955,884,687 years. As is well known, The Secret Doctrine statement of the total period of earth-evolution is 4,520,000,000 years and the present is roughly at the halfway point. Hence, the round figure in either case is on the order of two billion years. In his book The Mysterious Universe the late Sir James Jeans, a top-shelf astronomer and physicist, gives the age of the earth as also on the order of two billion years, a result reached by two lines of evidence and calculation, one of which is particularly interesting. It appears that the age of a piece of uranium ore can be calculated by weighing the relative amount of uranium to lead in the ore, since the rate of decay of uranium to lead is known. The above figure is derived from uranium taken from the oldest known rocks.

Since today’s science is convinced, with good reason, that the source of solar energy is not shrinkage or solar combustion, in the ordinary sense, but radiation released from intra-atomic levels, the sheer mass of the sun is sufficient to supply radiation for much more than two billion years, so no difficulty arises because of the time indicated by the decay of uranium. Thus, in the light of present knowledge, the figures appear to be sound and, at the same time, are reached quite independently of either the Indian or esoteric figures.

The foregoing are two samples of correlations that the writer allows may be extended to several more instances. (Indeed, an exhaustive study along this line might prove very profitable.) However, we shall forego the examination of other instances here, as this seems enough documentation of the argument at the present time.

If, now, in twenty-five or more instances it can be shown that late science has developed in the direction of agreement with the teachings of Theosophy, when compared with the views of science in 1889, what is the probability that the Theosophical movement was a fraud or hoax? It is not hard to realize that the theory of probability would give us a very small fraction, particularly as some of the conceptions are quite complex. On this line of evidence alone it appears to the writer that the conclusion that those responsible for the basic Theosophical teachings had “something” is ineluctible. Also, that something must be pretty big.

It is not suggested that the basic Theosophical. teachings are to be viewed as beyond serious criticism, but any adverse criticism aimed at overthrow of the system as a whole would have to be a major and profound piece of work if it is to deserve serious consideration. The typical attacks that are based mainly, if not wholly, on the argumentum ad hominem are contemptible and should be received with scorn.

More in part IV
The last part (V, VI)