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Deja Vu

FROM CHANNELERS TO CRYSTALS TO Shirley MacLaine, the "New Age" is the latest fad to sweep America. Yet, although marketing categories such as "New Age music" and "New Age books" may be recent arrivals on the scene, the New Age itself is hardly new. Nearly every spiritual or cultural phenomenon associated with the term dates back at least several generations and, as we'll see shortly, a striking number of them—including the occult concepts of "karma," "auras," "chakras," and "astral projection"— were first introduced to the public by a single little-known nineteenth-century organization and its offshoots.

The highest profile New Age phenomenon, channeling, dates back well over a hundred years to 1848, when the Fox family of Hydesville, New York, reportedly communicated with disembodied spirits that responded to questions with ghostly rapping and knocking noises. The Fox daughters ultimately went on tours demonstrating this "ability," and a spirit-rapping craze swept the U.S. In short order, mediums acquired the ability to receive far more sophisticated communiques from the dead, including spiritual teachings and materialized objects. Spiritualism as an organized movement had its ups and downs in the ensuing years as scandals over fraudulent mediums erupted and popular curiosity was satiated. Still, it persisted as a mass phenomenon into the 1920s, and a dedicated core of proponents remains to this day. The only things really distinguishing modem channeling from this earlier form of trance mediumship are the sophistication in marketing techniques that mediums such as J. Z. Knight (channeler of "Ramtha") have brought to the field, and the ability of all the '80s spirit guides to speak the lingo of the moment.

The phenomenon of Eastern gurus arriving on our shores to teach Americans the virtues of yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism isn't new either. It can be traced back to the World Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition. Along with Confucians, Shinto priests, and Buddhist monks, Swami Vive-kananda, a devotee of the Indian saint Sri Ramakrishna, came to that groundbreaking ecumenical conference and found the U.S. to be surprisingly hospitable to "new" religious teachings from other shores. The Parhament was the hit of the Exposition, and tumaway crowds attended the public lectures. The Vedanta Society of America, founded by Vivekananda the next year, continues to this day, the granddaddy of Eastern spiritual groups transplanted to the U.S. And in the early 1930s, the Indian teacher Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi, set up the Self Realization Fellowship in the Los Angeles area and ministered to the seekers of Southern California for decades, giving Americans one of their first practical tastes of yoga.

Even the term "New Age" begins to show its age with a little digging. The late Corinne Heline, a long-time mainstay of metaphysical bookshelves, founded her quarterly magazine, the New Age Interpreter, in 1940, well before most present New Agers were born. Even older. The New Age Magazine, the monthly magazine of the "Supreme Council, 33°, Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry of the Southern Jurisdiction," won its second-class mailing privileges in 1914, and has been publishing since the turn of the century! Clearly, the hope that we are entering or have already entered a new era of spiritual enlightenment and progress has been with us as we've gotten into and out of both world wars, seen the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, and experienced the onset of the "greenhouse effect." But then, perhaps the ability to sustain the expectation of a new beginning just around the comer is akin to the fundamentalist Christians' inextinguishable faith in an imminent Armageddon.
Influences and forerunners for the New Age abound, ranging from the Zen preoccupations of the '50s "beat" movement to the revival of witchcraft in England following World War II. However, when all is said and done, the single group with the most influence on today's New Age terrain is the little-known Theosophical Society.


Most people have never heard of the Theosophical Society (T.S.), while those few who have rubbed elbows with it tend to regard the T.S. as an aging holdover from an earlier era. Certainly anyone who has happened to stop by at the stately T.S. headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois, during the last twenty years will have been impressed with the quiet atmosphere in the grand brick headquarters building, where a seemingly endless supply of devoted octogenarians tiptoe around and whisper to each other in numerous offices. I know I was impressed when I paid a visit to the venerable San Francisco T.S. Lodge in the early '70s, stuck off in a comer several floors up in the downtown Native Sons of the Golden West building. Stepping out of the elevator and walking through the deserted and dimly lit anteroom into the ancient meeting hall, I happened upon three or four elderly ladies gathered around an old un-tuned piano, singing unidentifiable hymns of an inspirational nature. This may be as close as I've ever gotten to actual time travel, and the sensation was rather unnerving, believe me.

Such appearances can be deceiving, however, for over the years the T.S. has played a pivotal role in fostering the openness to alternative spirituality, Eastern religions, and psychic powers that are associated with the present New Age movement. It has also seen more than its share of grandstanding, schisms, sex scandals, and just plain eccentricity. For the uninitiated, what follows is a short history of the T.S. and its considerable of modem occultism.


The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in the fall of 1875 by a group of solid middle-class citizens whose mutual interest in the occult had brought them to the evening salons held by the mysterious Russian emigre, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky (or H.P.B., as she was often referred to) was a portly woman with a commanding presence and a larger-than-life reputation. Her earlier exploits were said to have included a stint as a circus equestrian in Constantinople, piano teacher in Paris, factory manager in Tiflis, and traveler to India, Tibet, and Egypt. Upon her arrival in the U.S. in 1873, she immersed herself in spiritualist circles where she met Col. Henry Olcott, who was to become her primary collaborator in matters esoteric over the next two decades.

From almost the start of her sojourn on the East Coast, H.P.B. claimed to be in touch with distant adepts and secret societies. First there was a mysterious spirit named "John King," whom she contacted through her mediumistic talents. King was shortly followed by the Brotherhood of Luxor, supposedly "an Egyptian group of the Universal Mystic Brotherhood," as H.P.B. explained to Olcott. However, this group was soon succeeded by the two Tibetan adepts (usually referred to as the "Masters" or the "Mahatmas") known as Koot Hoomi and Morya. These Masters were to become the special guides of the T.S., communicating telepathically through Blavatsky and via mysterious letters sent to various T.S. members. The Masters would also psychically dictate H.P.B.'s two enormous books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.

In 1878 Col. Olcott made contact with a recently formed Hindu reform group in India, the Arya Samaj. Their attention tumed to the East by this contact and by the Masters, who supposedly lived in Tibet, Olcott and H.P.B. set sail for India at the end of the year. For the next seven years, H.P.B. spent most of her time in India, establishing and then presiding at the T.S. world headquarters in Adyar. While there, H.P.B.'s contacts with the Masters continued, as did a variety of psychic phenomena including the sounds of astral bells and materialized letters and flowers. These manifestations culminated in an investigation by the British Society for Psychical Research, which concluded that at least some of the phenomena were produced fraudulently. The S.P.R.'s star witnesses were Mr. & Mrs. Coulomb, the former handyman and housekeeper of the Adyar estate, who alleged that they had connived with H.P.B. to produce various psychic marvels. An enormous stink was raised in India, much to the T.S.'s embarrassment. Shortly thereafter, in 1885, H.P.B. and Olcott departed India for good and regrouped their forces in England, though Adyar would remain the official headquarters of the T.S.

Another scandal accompanied the publication of H.P.B.'s two masterworks. These gargantuan volumes, which were said to have been dictated by the Masters, succumbed to textual analysis by a spiritualist critic, William E. Coleman. His study of Isis Unveiled (1877) revealed that over two thousand passages were lifted intact from other books without credit. Similar charges were leveled against The Secret Doctrine (1888), which was said to derive primarily from just three other books.

The final years of H.P.B.'s life were marred by her poor health and power struggles with Col. Olcott for control of the T.S. While Madame Blavatsky had the charisma, the good Colonel had the administrative abilities, and like a pair of battling Siamese twins, neither seemed quite comfortable with sharing the power. H.P.B. died from influenza in May 1891.

Olcott, though getting on in age, maintained leadership of the T.S. for the next few years as a new power struggle erupted. Predictably, a battle for successorship to the founders' mantle was taking shape. On one side stood Annie Besant, a birth-control advocate, free-thinker, and former Fabian socialist who had joined the Society in 1889 and risen quickly to leadership of the Esoteric Section founded by H.P.B. On the other side was William Q. Judge, a lawyer who had been in on the T.S.'s founding in New York and who had become leader of the American Section and T.S. vice president after Blavatsky and entourage left for India. With H.P.B. now dead, contact with the Masters was hard to come by, so when Judge claimed to possess new letters from the distant sages, he acquired considerable influence. Besant was initially impressed by Judge's communiqués, but a trip to India and a confrontation with some critical evidence convinced Besant that Judge's Mahatma letters were a fraud. A fracas ensued. The T.S. at large shilly-shallied back and forth for a couple of years until public exposure of the controversy compelled action. Judge was asked to resign as vice president and stand for re-election in 1894. Shortly thereafter, in April 1895, the American Section, six thousand members strong, voted to secede, and an independent "Theosophical Society in America" was formed with Judge as its head. Ironically, Judge died within a year of the schism, leaving the new group to thread its own way into the twentieth century. (In later years, the majority of American Theosophists found their way back into lodges affiliated with Adyar, and the Judge schism became a minority within the movement as a whole.)


With Judge out of the picture, Besant's star continued to rise without hindrance, and she shared leadership of the surviving T.S. with Olcott until the Colonel's death in 1907 at the age of 75. About the time of Judge's departure, another unique individual who was to wield great influence on the T.S.'s future returned to London after a 12-year stay in India and Ceylon. This was the clairvoyant Charles W. Leadbeater, formerly an Anglican priest, later converted to Buddhism, and later still a leading light in the peculiar strains of Theosophical Catholicism, Freemasonry, and messianism that swept through the T.S. Leadbeater and Besant collaborated on a number of celebrated clairvoyant investigations of the past lives of T.S. members, molecular chemistry, and the inner planes of consciousness.

Alas, it seems that Leadbeater also had a penchant for investigating the drawers of young boys left in his spiritual charge by trusting Theosophlcal parents, and he was eased out of the picture in 1906 after charges were leveled that he was schooling his lads in the mystical arts of masturbation. Leadbeater's eclipse was not to last for long, however, and within a year or two of Annie Besant's ascension to T.S. leadership, her clairvoyant collaborator was back. His official return precipitated mass resignations, including some of the T.S.'s most influential members, such as occult scholars G.R.S. Mead and A.P. Sinnett; but in due time Society membership was to rebound with a vengeance.

In a manner akin to that of today's most celebrated channelers, Besant and Leadbeater enthralled their public with clairvoyant revelations that have never been beat for colorfulness. When Leadbeater attended Mass, for example, he professed to see with his inner eye the influx of grace from heaven, flowing down the arms and body of the priest's vestments in orderly fashion. Such marvels were chronicled in his book, Science of the Sacraments (1920). Another book, Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigations (1901), co-authored by Leadbeater and Besant, included garish color prints of the vivid pinks and greens engendered by their colleagues' mental processes.

In due time, Leadbeater's nascent interest in the clerical profession returned, and he became a founding Archbishop of the Liberal Catholic Church, an independent Catholic denomination whose membership overlapped almost entirely with the T.S. Leadbeater and Besant also beat the drums for Co-Masonry, an irregular Masonic formation that admitted women for initiation, much to the chagrin of the staid Grand Lodge of England.


But the tour de force of the Besant-Leadbeater regime was their proclamation of the imminent return of "the World Teacher" (also known as Christ, but not to be confused with Jesus, you understand). In 1909, Leadbeater's penetrating clairvoyance revealed that this returning Great Being was due to take over the vehicle of Jiddu Krishna-murti, the young Brahmin son of a T.S. employee at the Adyar headquarters in India. Leadbeater and Besant proceeded to claim Jiddu and his brother as their special charges, much to the annoyance of the boys' father. Long drawn-out court battles ensued, and though Besant was otherwise a champion of Indian independence, in this case English paternalism won out, and on the third appeal Krishnamurti was allowed to continue with the special training that Leadbeater and Besant could best provide.

Throughout the 1920s, suspense built in T.S. ranks as Krishnamurti's vehicle became ever more polished in preparation for the Second Coming. The Order of the Star in the East, an independent organization formed around Krishnamurti's messiahship, grew to 30,000 members at its peak. Probably in spite of, rather than because of, his acclaimed tutelage, Krishnamurti apparently had a profound mystical experience in 1922, and began to provide a spiritual guidance of sorts to his followers. This culminated in 1929 at the Order summer camp attended by thousands, when he delivered a shocking speech dissolving the Order, disowning religious organizations altogether, and indicating his primary interest in setting men "absolutely, unconditionally free." This came as a rude surprise to Besant, Leadbeater, and many in the T.S. who had hung all their hopes on the Theosophical messiah. The T.S. went into a period of deflation and the clairvoyant duo were both dead by the spring of 1934.

It would be fair to say that the Theosophical Society has never been quite the same since, and perhaps this is all for the better. The Society presidents who succeeded Annie Besant shared little of her verve or chutzpah, and the organization settled down to a low-profile role of "preserving and realizing the ageless wisdom," and promoting "understanding and brotherhood among people of all races, nationalities, philosophies, and religions." This it continues to do to this day, through a program of publishing, public lectures, and summer conferences and camps.


The deaths of Besant and Leadbeater also marked the end of direct T.S. communication with the Masters. The void this created in spiritual affairs was rapidly filled by a multitude of other claims of contact with the Masters. Undoubtedly the most flamboyant of these was promulgated by the "I Am" movement, led by Guy and Edna Ballard. Founded in 1934, the movement centered around the Ballards' contact with the "Ascended Masters," most prominent among whom was the Master Saint-Germain; but the Theosophical Masters were also included to round things out. The Ballards went stumping around the country holding meetings full of florid "decrees" in packed auditoriums. Donations poured in and the Ballards lived a luxurious lifestyle that foreshadowed a whole generation of TV evangelists to come. The bubble burst in late 1939 with Guy's death—an unexpected event, since this blessed messenger of the Masters was expected to "ascend" himself, not die like a mere human. An indictment for numerous counts of mail fraud hit widow Edna and son Donald the next year and the mighty "I Am" movement soon became "I Was," except for a few die-hard supporters hidden away in the hills of California.

Curiously enough, the 1950s saw a new married couple, Mark and Elizabeth Clare Prophet, alleging contact with the same Ascended Masters, using the same dated paintings of Saint-Germain, Koot Hoomi, and company that graced earlier "I Am" publications, and delivering similar purple-hued "decrees" to new throngs of seekers. Their organization, the Summit Lighthouse (now mainly known as the Church Universal and Triumphant), weathered Mark's death and "ascension" in 1973 far better than the "I Am" movement had weathered Guy Ballard's, and is today an active and prolific presence on the New Age scene.

Another independent contact with the Masters was maintained by Alice Bailey, who produced at least two dozen blue-bound books psychically dictated to her by "The Tibetan," a Master also known as Djwhal Khul (or D.K. for short). Alice and her husband, Foster Bailey, had been high officials in the American Section of the T.S., but left in 1920 after losing a mini-power struggle with the T.S. hierarchy led by Annie Besant. Bailey's trance-channeled volumes went into copious detail on the inner workings of the universe, and predicted their own "Return of the Christ" (not to be confused with Krishnamurti, of course). The Baileys founded the Arcane School, a correspondence course and esoteric lending library, and inspired the creation of an amorphous network of "New World Servers" who continue to publicize a non-sectarian prayer called "the Great Invocation," and to encourage meditation. Alice Bailey died in 1949.

In the 1970s, Benjamin Creme, an English follower of the Bailey teachings, established his own psychic contacts with the returning Christ (also referred to as "The Maitreya"), and began to release channeled messages and announcements, many of which promised the Christ's unveiling as an Asian immigrant in East London. Every few years, Creme would set off on a new lecture tour and run newspaper ads announcing that the Christ was about to go public, only to have the imminent date pass uneventfully. Perhaps this indicates uncommon wisdom on the Christ's part, since an actual public appearance would likely result in His disembowelment by fundamentalist Christians convinced that he was the Antichrist!

This is not the place to determine whether the Masters might be considered an enduring hoax or represent an actual force for good at work behind the scenes. In a recent study, Steve Richards (see bibliography) has dug up some intriguing circumstantial evidence suggesting that the original Masters behind the T.S. were actual members of the Tibetan Kargyu sect, supporting the early Theosophists' assertions that the Masters existed in flesh and blood, commonly writing letters with normal pen and ink. At what point the Masters became "ascended" and accessible only by channelers is unclear, though Richards notes that a scheduled visit in 1917 by the Master Morya to H. Spencer Lewis, founder of a Rosicrucian group (The Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, or AMORC), was cancelled because "it turned out he [Morya] had died the very day he was supposed to arrive in New York"!


Movements as diverse as biodynamic farming and the Waldorf Schools owe their existence to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, who began his esoteric career by joining the T.S. in Berlin in 1902. He shortly became general secretary of the German Section and remained so for the next decade. Steiner's own views were much more aligned with Christianity and Western esotericism than were those of the T.S. elsewhere, and he ended up splitting from the T.S. over the issue of Krishnamurti, taking 55 of the 69 German Theosophical lodges with him. This was the t^enesis of Steiner's Anthroposophical Society, which remains active in Europe and the U.S. today.

Though the T.S. was never an advocate of magic (either black or white) itself, its atmosphere of inquiry into the occult gave various proponents of ceremonial magic their first taste of the arcane. The group most responsible for reviving the modem interest in magic, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, was founded by Masons operating in the Theosophical milieu, and the Order briefly considered affiliating with the T.S. W.B. Yeats, one of the Golden Dawn's most famous members, was a member of the Dublin lodge of the T.S. prior to joining the Order. Similarly, Dion Fortune, author of many popular books on magic and the occult, was a member of both the T.S. and a later offshoot of the Golden Dawn. Her own magical group, the Fraternity of the Inner Light, was originally fashioned as a special-interest lodge within the T.S., though that affiliation was short-lived.

Theosophy even left its stamp on modem art, playing a significant role in the formation of the aesthetics of Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian (who joined the T.S. in 1909), and numerous others. The major art exhibit organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1986, "The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985," documented parallels between the color representations of Besant and Leadbeater's "thought forms" and early abstract art, and noted the influence of Theosophical, alchemical, and mystical ideas on everyone from Hugo Ball and Jean Arp to Marcel Duchamp, Edvard Munch, and Hilma af Klint.


I would be remiss if the reader was left with the impression that the sometimes-humorous antics of various past T.S. leaders negates the positive influences of the T.S. on the rise of twentieth-century spirituality. The T.S. was instrumental in introducing many Eastern religious concepts to the West that we now take for granted, including reincarnation and karma. It also brought to the surface more esoteric metaphysical teachings such as those of the chakra system, the bodily aura, and the division of consciousness into several subtle planes—all concepts that have been embraced by New Age groups. In many cases, books published by Theosophical publishers on these subjects were the first of their kind, and many remain in print to this day.

Moreover, while the present T.S. may seem superficially less exciting than its predecessors, it is also a stabler and more reliable source of information about the esoteric streams of spirituality than in days past. The Olcott Library at the T.S. headquarters in Wheaton, which loans books by mail to the public, has arguably the best circulating collection of books on all aspects of metaphysics and the occult in the U.S. The monthly introductory letters that new T.S. members receive for their first two years in the organization are a uniquely succinct introduction to the basics of esotericism. New Age fads come and go; organizations and gurus rise and fall; and still the T.S. remains, calmly offering information and assistance.

I have no idea whether a planetary New Age is really in the offing (and frankly, I doubt it), but if it does arrive I'm sure that the Theosophical Society will deserve a
good share of the credit.


I am indebted to the following sources for much of the material that appears in this article. However, they should in no way be saddled with responsibility for my judgments or interpretations.

Anonymous. (The United Lodge of Theosophists.) 1925. The Theosophical Movement 1875-1950. New York: Dutton.

Bruce F. Campbell. 1980. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Michael Gomes. 1987. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1986. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985. New York: Abbeville Press.

Steve Richards. 1988. "The Mystery of the Great White Brotherhood," PEirts 1 & 2. The American Theosophist, March & April, 1988.

Gregory Tillett. 1982. The Elder Brother: A Biography of Charles Webster Leadbeater. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

James Webb. 1974. The Occult Underground. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Press.