In the early years of the Theosophical Society there was a strong proclivity towards psychic phenomena, a facet that was increasingly abandoned as the Society grew. Was this due to a change in the aims of the TS? Was this a response to the public reaction to such phenomena? Or was this just a natural result of the evolution of the Theosophical movement? Let us explore the formative years of the Society and see if we can throw some light on these complex questions.
H.P. Blavatsky was born with remarkable psychic abilities and a strong spiritual inclination. In 1849, when she was eighteen years old, she began to travel around the world in search of the ancient wisdom. About three years later she met Morya, an Indian initiate whom she had seen in visions during her childhood. He offered to take on Blavatsky as a disciple and train her in the occult sciences and the esoteric philosophy. This training would not be merely for the purpose of personal development, but to help in an attempt to promote a deeper spirituality in the world. 
At the end of the nineteenth century, Western civilization was being torn between the opposing influences of materialistic science and blind religious belief. Scientists claimed that, by the end of the century, they were going to be able to explain everything in terms of material reality, thus proving spirituality a fantasy. Religion, incapable of responding to the awakening intellectual interest of the masses, denounced scientific knowledge as evil and something to be rejected. An impassable chasm between science and religion had been created, and many (especially the educated class) were turning to atheism and materialism.
The Mahatmas were planning to spread the forgotten accumulated wisdom of the ages, which would offer humanity a much-needed synthesis between science and spirituality. It was for this task that they chose HPB as their agent.
After spending the next twenty years undergoing occult training, gaining knowledge, and traveling around the world, HPB was now ready to begin her mission. But where would she find ears willing to listen? Religious people were too dogmatic, and those attracted to science were too materialistic. One of the few options left was the spiritualist movement, which was quite popular at the time. Through the phenomena witnessed at séances, this group of people had become familiar with a reality that did not fit within the frame of conventional religion or science. Hence spiritualism seemed a logical place to start.
The problem was that although many of the spiritualistic phenomena were real, they were not what the mediums of the time believed them to be. HPB’s first attempt was to explain the nature of phenomena from the deeper point of view of occult science. Thus, in 1871 in Cairo, Egypt, she formed the Société Spirite (“Spiritist Society”) for the investigation of the Spiritism of the French occultist Allan Kardec. Blavatsky’s sister Vera de Zhelihovsky, who was in correspondence with her during these years, wrote that HPB chose to start in this way “since there was no other [philosophy available]; to give people a chance to see for themselves how mistaken they were. She would first give room to an already established and accepted teaching and then, when the public would see that nothing was coming out of it, she would then offer her own explanations” (Algeo, 21). However, the Société Spirite did not succeed, as Blavatsky could not find honest and qualified mediums to do the kind of research she had envisioned.
In 1873 HPB received an order from her Indian teacher to go to the United States and to meet Henry Steel Olcott. He was quite a remarkable individual who had a notable career in agricultural science, served during the Civil War as a special commissioner investigating fraud and corruption, and became a successful lawyer. He was now about to become a journalist reporting on spiritualistic phenomena. It was in this capacity that, a year later, he met Blavatsky and they quickly became friends.
As Olcott began his instruction in the occult science and esoteric philosophy, he and Blavatsky started working together in connection with the spiritualist movement in the U.S., on similar lines to HPB’s attempt in Egypt.
During this time, HPB performed many phenomena that were supposed to be possible only for disembodied spirits, and published articles in different spiritualistic journals explaining the origin and nature of these psychic incidents. Most spiritualists were not pleased with her attempt at reforming their theories, sometimes quite radically. Nevertheless, she gained the attention of the public and attracted people to her teachings and occult abilities.
Under orders of “T.B.” (most likely Tuitit Bey, an adept belonging to the Egyptian section of the Brotherhood) Olcott and HPB formed an organization of their own.  The beginning of 1875 saw the formation of the “Miracle Club,” where the phenomena of spiritualism would be studied, tested, and demonstrated. This attempt also failed, because the medium that was to be involved wanted to earn money from this endeavor, something HPB always opposed. (Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 1:25-26)
After the failure of the Miracle Club, the Tibetan section of the Brotherhood came on stage. In July 1875, HPB wrote in her scrapbook: “Orders received from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious society and choose a name for it—also to choose Olcott” (Caldwell, 73). As we can see, the Mahatmas wanted the new society to be based not upon occult phenomena but upon spirituality and the esoteric philosophy. However, phenomena would still be prominent for about the next seven years.
In September 1875 Olcott and HPB organized a lecture by G.H. Felt entitled “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians,” in which Felt claimed to be able to make elemental spirits visible “by simple chemical appliances.” Because of the interest raised by the lecture, Olcott proposed “to form a society to pursue and promote such occult research.” This was the beginning of the Theosophical Society.
While the first years of the TS continued to show a marked interest in occult phenomena, there was also emphasis on the study of different philosophies, especially (though not exclusively) those of the East. In her first book, Isis Unveiled, published in New York in 1877, HPB wrote: “The object of its founders was to experiment practically in the occult powers of Nature, and to collect and disseminate among Christians information about the Oriental religious philosophies” (Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, 1:xli).
In a circular entitled The Theosophical Society: Its Origin, Plan, and Aims, distributed on May 3, 1878, the idea of universal brotherhood was already described as central for the TS. The circular states, “The objects of the Society are various” and after a lengthy description of a variety of related aims, it closes with the following objective: “Finally and chiefly, to aid in the institution of a Brotherhood of Humanity, where in all good and pure men, of every race shall recognize each other as the equal effects (upon this planet) of one Uncreate, Universal, Infinite, and Everlasting Cause” (Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 1:376–77).
In December 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky departed for India, where they established the international headquarters of the TS. Soon after their arrival in Bombay they made the acquaintance of A.P. Sinnett, the editor of The Pioneer, the leading English daily of India. Sinnett was interested in spiritualism and psychic phenomena. Thinking that HPB and Olcott were spiritualists, he invited them to come visit him and his wife in Simla. During their second visit to the Sinnetts’, in September 1880, Blavatsky produced some wonderful phenomena with the aid of the Mahatmas from the Tibetan section of the Brotherhood. (For a full account of these see Sinnett’s book The Occult World.) It was at this time that Sinnett and A.O. Hume began their famous correspondence with two of the adepts—Koot Hoomi (K.H.) and Blavatsky’s teacher, Morya (M.). Sinnett addresses his first letter “To the Unknown Brother” and suggests that the Brother produce an occult phenomenon that the world would be unable to deny or explain away. In reply, K.H. flatly refused to do any such thing. In his following letter Sinnett suggested a reorganization of the TS. He wanted to move away from the idea of universal brotherhood (which HPB and Olcott had evidently discussed with him) to focus on the occult. In October 1880 he received a second letter from K.H. saying:
You have ever discussed but to put down the idea of a universal Brotherhood, questioned its usefulness, and advised to remodel the T.S. on the principle of a college for the special study of occultism. This, my respected and esteemed friend and Brother—will never do! (Chin, 8)
This refusal must have sounded strange, since HPB had already produced many phenomena with the aid of these Mahatmas. Thus Hume wrote to K.H. saying that it was “the Brothers” who had set the stage for the phenomena that took place in Simla. In December 1880 K.H. answered:
If it has been constantly our wish to spread on the Western Continent among the foremost educated classes “Branches” of the T.S. as the harbingers of a Universal Brotherhood it was not so in your case…The aspiration for brotherhood between our races met no response—nay, it was pooh-poohed from the first—and so, was abandoned even before I had received Mr. Sinnett’s first letter. On his part and from the start, the idea was solely to promote the formation of a kind of club or “school of magic.” It was then no “proposal” of ours, nor were we the “designers of the scheme.” Why then such efforts to show us in the wrong? It was Mad[ame] B[lavatsky]—not we, who originated the idea; and it was Mr. Sinnett who took it up. (Chin, 30; emphasis here and in other quotations is in the original)
The Mahatma then says that, in view of HPB’s insistence, he had reluctantly given her his consent to try this approach:
But, this consent, you will please bear in mind, was obtained solely under the express and unalterable condition that the new Society should be founded as a Branch of the Universal Brotherhood, and among its members, a few elect men would—if they chose to submit to our conditions, instead of dictating theirs—be allowed to begin the study of the occult sciences under the written directions of a “Brother.” But a “hot-bed of magick” we never dreamt of.
It is understandable that Sinnett and Hume thought the TS was meant to be a “school of magic”, since HPB had placed so much emphasis on phenomena. But why did she do this? And why did the Mahatmas agree to it? When asked about the purpose of occult phenomena some years later, HPB explained:
They failed to produce the desired effect…It was supposed that intelligent people, especially men of science, would, at least, have recognized the existence of a new and deeply interesting field of enquiry and research when they witnessed physical effects produced at will, for which they were not able to account. It was supposed that theologians would have welcomed the proof of which they stand so sadly in need in these agnostic days, that the soul and the spirit are not mere creations of their fancy, due to ignorance of the physical constitution of man, but entities quite as real as the body, and much more important. These expectations were not realized. The phenomena were misunderstood and misrepresented, both as regards their nature and their purpose…An occultist can produce phenomena, but he cannot supply the world with brains, nor with the intelligence and good faith necessary to understand and appreciate them. Therefore, it is hardly to be wondered at, that [a] word came to abandon phenomena and let the ideas of Theosophy stand on their own intrinsic merits. (Blavatsky,Collected Writings, 9:47-50)
The “word” could be a reference to a conversation one of the Mahatmas had with Blavatsky in February 1881. This visit took place a couple of months after the above mentioned letter to Hume. Olcott recorded in his diary:
A Master visited her on the 19th…One result of this visit was that, on the 25th of the month, she and I had a long and serious discussion about the state of affairs, resulting—as my Diary says—“in an agreement between us to re-construct the T.S. on a different basis, putting the Brotherhood idea forward more prominently, and keeping the occultism more in the background.” (Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, 2:294-95)
Sinnett travelled to England and published his book The Occult World. Upon his return in July 1881, K.H. began to instruct him in the esoteric philosophy, and the TS shifted towards metaphysics and spirituality.
According to M., the TS was founded as an “experiment” to see how the world would receive the esoteric philosophy. But to be successful, this kind of attempt cannot be imposed or forced by “external agencies.” This is why the Mahatma wrote to Sinnett: “It was stipulated, however, that the experiment should be made independently of our personal management; that there should be no abnormal interference by ourselves” (Chin, 125).
Thus the Mahatmas gave Blavatsky and Olcott general directions about what they wished, intervening only on relatively few and important occasions. In HPB’s words:
The two chief Founders were not told what they had to do, how they had to bring about and quicken the growth of the Society and results desired; nor had they any definite ideas given them concerning its outward organization all this being left entirely with themselves…But if the two Founders were not told what they had to do, they were distinctly instructed about what they should never do, what they had to avoid, and what the Society should never become. (Blavatsky, Original Programme, 2–3)
The formative years of the Theosophical Society provide a wonderful story of trials and errors, failures and successes, of learning and rectifying. But they are ultimately a tale of philanthropy and selflessness, of a group of people who did not spend their energies, time, and skills to gain position, accumulate money, or work for self-gratification, but devoted themselves to foster the spiritual evolution of humanity.
Notes According to Theosophical teachings there is a Brotherhood of Mahatmas (also called Brothers, adepts, or Masters) established in different parts of the world, who work to help the spiritual evolution of humanity. For more information on this subject see Quest, Summer 2011.
Algeo, John, ed. The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, vol. 1: 1861-79. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 2003.
Blavatsky, H.P. Collected Writings. Edited by Boris de Zirkoff. 15 vols. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977-91.
——–. Isis Unveiled. 2 vols. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.
——–. The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society and Preliminary Memorandum of the Esoteric Section.Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 2002.
Caldwell, Daniel H. The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 2000.
Chin, Vicente Hao, Jr., ed. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence. Manila: Theosophical Publishing House, 1998.
Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974-1975.Google+