Blavatsky and The Theosophist

Part 5

A Close Reading of the ‘Namestae’ note in The Theosophist, Vol.1 No. 1

As already noted, in this essay I will focus my attention and analysis on the first issue of The Theosophist. This initial issue was published in October of 1879 and printed in Bombay, India, by Cooper and Company, Booksellers and Publishers, and sold by the Theosophical Society by annual prepaid subscription, an innovation adopted from the American publishing industry, and so noted. The monthly issues were to contain “not less than 40 columns Royal 4 to each” meaning 20 two column pages per month. The first issue came in at more than half that much again, with 32 pages of material, the founders being true to form in their prolixity.

The Theosophist, October 1879.

Of primary interest here are the words of Mme Blavatsky, though unsigned, and likely co-authored with the help of her (still) faithful sidekick Col. Olcott, which appeared over the first eight pages — a series of articles which serve to introduce the magazine, the Theosophical Society, their collective purpose, and the philosophy which was held by the latter and which the former was designed to articulate. In essence, these statements were the public face of TS, presented as frontmatter to an ongoing and burgeoning movement, and served as a formal christening of an organization that was gradually becoming a media brand. She begins, following some preliminary statements on practical matters such as subscription fees and lecture dates with the single word, now ubiquitous in New Age and self help circles: “Namastae!” (The Theosophist, October 1879, p. 1)


Beneath this header HPB notes that the circumstances of the publication are to be found elsewhere, in the Prospectus (as of yet unseen by this author) which had preceded the publication. But the testimony of the principles, already noted above, shows the immediate purpose of the publication quite well, namely to relieve the founders from the necessity of burdensome correspondence while still providing a means of communication with a dispersed and growing circle of adherents and admirers.

The Great Temple of Buddha [Kandy, Ceylon] via The British Library.

A second justification is also given, however, immediately following a restatement of the above. The journal is designed to address “the necessity for an organ through which the native scholars of the East could communicate their learning to the Western world” (p.1). We can see here that, having spent the better part of the year in India, the Theosophical Society, or at least its primary spokesmen using its only means of mass communication, was now dedicated to promoting and advancing an awareness and appreciation of Eastern traditions, presumably at the expense of an expression of Western and Neo-Platonist philosophies which were originally part of the foundation of the Society principles. At the very least, an Eastward turn is here indicated, and a mission to advance an equivalence between two (or more) disparate traditions was now underway. 

A 2000 postage stamp dedicated to Arya Samaj via WikiPedia

Orientalizing mission statements notwithstanding, the Society shows itself at pains to declare an attitude of religious neutrality and a desire to protect the freedom of thought with respect to religious beliefs of members and contributors. The author notes, concerning contributors, that “they are protected in the enjoyment and expression of the same [private opinions]; and, as individuals, have an equal right to state them in the THEOSOPHIST, over their own signatures.” The editorial neutrality is evidenced by noting that some of ‘us’ (content reviewers?) are, after all, “known as Arya Samajists, some as Buddhists, some as idolaters, some as something else.” Together with an earlier lauding —  within the same paragraph —  of Aryan, Buddhistic, and Parsi religions, it might be taken as a subtle indication that it might be better, after all,  to avoid such signatures where religious opinion fails to carry a suitably eastern flavor (pp. 1-2).

Parsis from India, c. 1870
via WikiPedia

The proclamation of religious freedoms noted above are immediately followed by a rather harsh disclaimer prohibiting the use of society print for the promotion of religious propaganda. That this prohibition applies to Aryans and Buddhists alike is proudly noted, apparently those options fully representing the constituency of the editorial staff of two. The paper, it is also noted, is intended to represent the entirety of the Society aka the Universal Brotherhood, and this, it is clarified, is not a religion, church, or sect. 

These statements of welcome and principle are followed by short digressions concerning available typefaces, language requirements for contributors, and a description of the technical difficulties which had hampered the initial publication. These comments then  end the welcoming comments and lead into two articles which address, in turn, first, What is Theosophy, and second, What are Theosophists.

One key paragraph in the first segment addresses the ancient use of theosophy as terminology. Blavatsky and Olcott use this opportunity to name drop a bevy of ancient philosophers, primarily of the Neoplatonic school which was founded in Alexandria during the 3rd and and found it apogee during the early 4th century AD and continued on into the 5th and beyond. All of the usual suspects are here.  

Plotinus as depicted in Raphael’s School of Athens
via courgley

With Ammonius Saccas,the purported founder, Plotinus the great master and codifier, Iambichus the theurgist, Porphyry the student and biographer, and Proclus the commentator, she provides a veritable who’s who of this schools most important figures of antiquity. That Ficino is missing shows, perhaps, that the founders were less well versed in Renaissance manifestations of the school. There are some claims made about the intention of these early thinker’s desire to unify sects and ideologies under a single banner that would be instructive to examine, but which are currently beyond the scope of this examination. There is also some interesting verbiage where HPB speaks of these Alexandrian theosophists desire to “induce all men to lay aside their strifes and quarrels, and unite in purpose and thought as the children of one common mother…” (pg. 3) Such language brings up reminiscences of Mme Blavatsky’s relationship with her own mother who died so young, while also harkening back to the Isis image from her earlier work. This notion of a ‘common mother’ also is worth examining from an academic and mythological standpoint, as various mythographers and students of ancient religions have argued at various times about a prevalence of ancient matriarchies and fertility cults with primarily feminie deities. An attempt to situate this statement, if it can be shown to be more than just a simple turn of phrase and rather to be a point of common doctrine in early theosophy, in relationship to more academic efforts to identify mother goddesses and their worship in antiquity or pagan vestiges among folk religions, could be fruitful for more sustained intertextual exploration.  

19th-century Indian Zoroastrian perception of Zoroaster
via Wikipedia

Other paragraphs are equally rich in allusion. At one point there is talk of unifying and rationalizing such schools as Buddhism, Vedanta, Zoroastrianism, and ancient Greek polytheism with the theosophy of the Alexandrians. Lists of divine names and incarnations follow: Buddha, Nebo, Thoth, Hermes, Metis and the Gnostic Sophia are just a few of the entities that TS would seek to syncretize. Even Tuisto, a deity only mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania is mentioned, potentially providing an ‘in’ to ambitious Aryian supremacists, were there not an equal range of Kabbalistic and Yogic allusions to follow. Only so-called ‘primitive’ religions are left out of this moveable feast, perhaps only because anthropology was still at this point an arm-chair science and there were little details from which to draw. Among more modern influences are James Mill, Jacob Boheme, Sir W. Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society, Max Muller, who deserves an essay all his own,Burnouf, Colebrooke, Haug, another English Orientalist, and St, Hilare: the uniting feature being that these are all students of Indian religions and philologists and mythographers. 

There is much to be said and much to explore here, and what I have related is only at the superficial level. There is a tremendous scope here for intertextual analysis, especially if other HPB works actually proves that she is using her references in a consistent way and not just throwing in the kitchen sink at every point. Unfortunately, such details are beyond the ken of this analysis and must wait for other opportunities to arise. 

In conclusion a key feature of Theosophy is the desire to unify science and religions — all religions — with a single principle. Again and again disparate ideas are strung together and made to fit into a single schema. That such syncretism erases distinctive features and cultural diversity was not even a concern or an issue for the Victorian mindset. This doesn’t mean that the Theosophists were not sympathetic to the Indians and their plight, only that they saw it though a well polished lens of paternalism. It would be curious to know if they had ever requested secret teachings and been refused.

Another aspect that we cannot neglect to notice is how dependent this movement was upon print culture in its entirely expansive and all encompassing 19th century form. From the publishing of translations of ancient texts to the interpretive work of scholars to the ubiquity of magazines and newspapers, print wanders with our Theosophical seekers every step of the way. Print is how they met each other, with Olcott reporting on paranormal phenomena for New York newspapers and Blavatsky taking on all comers in the editorial sections of the same. The publication of Isis provided them funds and a level of legitimacy which would only be enhanced by their magazine, and reviews and advertisements in the press continued the book’s success. Even criticism and controversy fueled their fame, and scandal provided as much exposure as it did opprobrium. Finally, without the vast literature which was available to them at their time, cheaply and in quantity, it is clear that it would have been exceedingly difficult to even write in a style that owed as much to name dropping and reference as it did to original thought. The Theosophists were uniquely linked, then, to their time and place, a unique combination of the desire for unitary principle and a great diverse mass of literature which could be reinterpreted along those very lines. 

Müller on a 1974 stamp of India
via Wikipedia

Since the Theosophists were so fond of quoting, I too, will leave off with a quote from their admired Fredrick Max Müller, who tried, in vain,  to reclaim the word ‘theosophy’ from the duo of religious entrepreneurs who had appropriated it and the ideas of spiritualism with which it had become, perhaps disingenuously, associated:

“It seemed to me that this venerable name, so well known among early Christian thinkers, as expressing the highest knowledge of God within the reach of the human mind, has of late been so greatly misappropriated that it was high time to restore it to its proper function. It should be known once and for all that one may call oneself a theosophist, without being suspected of believing in spirit-rappings, table-turnings, or any other occult sciences and black arts.”

(Max Müller,1893, p. xvi).

Appendix: Bibliography and research tools