Handbook of the Theosophical Current

Handbook of the Theosophical Current

Edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein
Leiden: Brill, 2013. xii + 494 pages, hardcover, $234.

Many Theosophists may not know that they are part of a current. For that matter, they may not know what exactly a current is in this context. According to the scholars who focus on esotericism, the Theosophical current is not only the TS and its splinter groups, but the vast array of movements and figures that have been influenced by Theosophy. These include Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy; Alice Bailey and her school; the "I Am" movement of Guy and Edna Ballard and its offspring, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant; the Agni Yoga of Nicholas and Helena Roerich; Edgar Cayce; and even some UFO cults.

Handbook of the Theosophical Current is a wide-ranging and impressive collection of articles on these topics. In their introduction, editors Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein contend, "The formation of the Theosophical Society . . . and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky . . . and her immediate successors . . . belong to the short list of pivotal chapters in the religious history of the West" They go on to describe Theosophy and its offshoots as "one of the modern world's most important religious traditions" Its concepts of spiritual evolution, subtle bodies, lost continents such as Atlantis and Lemuria, and karma and reincarnation have permeated "just about every nook and cranny of contemporary ‘folk' religious culture"

The book is divided into three sections. The first includes four articles that set out the history of Theosophical organizations, focusing on the TS (Adyar), from Blavatsky's time to the present; one piece, by Tim Rudbøg, also discusses Katherine Tingley and the Point Loma school. The second section explores currents and people that have been influenced by Theosophy, including Anthroposophy, Agni Yoga, Cayce, and the New Age. The final section describes the impact of Theosophy on culture and society, including the women's movement, abstract art, and popular fiction.

By and large the articles are of extremely high quality and compress a tremendous amount of information into a fairly short space. Two of the most impressive are in the third section. "Western Esoteric Traditions and Theosophy," by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, the late British scholar of esotericism, goes into some depth about the role of Hermetic and Kabbalistic influences in Blavatsky's Theosophy, particularly before her departure for India in 1878. It also explores esoteric Christian themes in the Theosophy of the early twentieth century. "Mythological and Real Race Issues in Theosophy," by Isaac Lubetsky, covers the vexed issue of racism in Blavatsky's works. Lubetsky concludes that HPB's thought certainly reflected some of the racism of her day: she characterized "Redskins, Eskimos, Papuans, Australians [i.e., aborigines], Polynesians, etc" as remnants of a previous Root Race that were doomed to die out. But Lubetsky is also careful to say that even so, Theosophy was "if at all, only indirectly a source for the more virulent racial ideologies of the first half of the twentieth century"

As is inevitable, essays in a collection are bound to be uneven. Probably the weakest article here is "The Theosophical Christology of Alice Bailey," which, in my view, overstates the similarity between Bailey's conception of the Christ and that of mainstream Christianity. But the level of scholarship is very high overall. It is a pity that the book's gargantuan price ($234) puts it beyond the reach of all but the richest and most avid students.

W. Michael Ashcraft's piece, "The Third Generation of Theosophy and Beyond," is hard to fault, but for many Theosophists it will make somewhat dismal reading. For Ashcraft, the third generation of Theosophy consists of those figures who succeeded Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater after their deaths in the early 1930s. Pointing to a decades-long decline in membership in all the Theosophical organizations, Ashcraft writes, "If the organizational forms of the movement are to play important roles in the spiritual developments of the twenty-first century, then at present those roles are not clear, and many observers will remain skeptical that the movement can have the deep and profound impact on Western thinking about spiritual matters that it had from the late nineteenth to the twentieth centuries" It is up to the current generation of Theosophists to prove otherwise.

Richard Smoley