The Theosophical Society and Transnational Cultures of Print

Theosophy in India

Lori Lee Oates
Memorial University of Newfoundland

It has long been established by historians such as Christopher Bayly and scholars of post-colonialism such as Leela Gandhi that theosophy was an important nineteenth-century intellectual current. Bayly, for example, credits theosophy with diffusing the Bhavagad Gita throughout India and bringing it to the attention of the wider world. However, what has been less well-established is how those ideas were moving across international lines or the links between theosophy and empire.

My recently published article in The International History Review drew on new primary sources to demonstrate that the Theosophical Society was actively building print networks to expand and move their occult philosophies across the globe. The article paid closer attention to how theosophical texts were moving internationally than previous research. It also demonstrated how Theosophical Society leaders were using expanding imperial networks such as steam ships, telegraphs, and international banking to grow the society across the globe.

Wouter Hanegraaff and Christopher Partridge had previously established that the contemporary New Age religion is grounded in intellectual processes that unfolded in nineteenth century. My research tries to establish that the modern engagement with commercialized religion is also rooted in empire and economic processes that evolved, particularly during the final decades of the nineteenth century. As such, an understanding of the movement of nineteenth-century occult philosophies can tell us something about how the modern world engages with religion. 

Gary B. Magee and Andrew S. Thompson have effectively documented how the expansion in British exports to India grew from 8.9 to 11.9 percent from the 1870s to 1913. Key to this expansion was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which cut travel time to India in half and increased traffic between Britain and India. The canal enabled the faster movement of things such as mail and texts. The ramping up of empire in India was also happening within the context of the widening of the use of telegraphs between Britain and India. This growth occurred following the Indian War of Independence in 1857, when it was seen as necessary to safety of British civil servants in India. It was not a coincidence that the Theosophical Society moved its headquarters to India in 1878, less than a decade after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Simon Potter has also noted that imperial networks were not always smooth. They were often uneven and not everyone had the same access to them. We must be cognizant of the fact that theosophy, like other nineteenth-century intellectual currents, did not manifest in the same way in all locations. However, the Theosophical Society created its own publishing systems in various locations across the world, while drawing on imperial networks such as steam ships and railroads to carry out its mission.

Annual reports from individual sections of the Theosophical Society, from across the world, demonstrate how publishing houses were a key aspect of society operations in many locations. Print was a critical to how theosophists financially supported the society. Helena Blavatsky was a founder of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. She started the Theosophist periodical in India in 1879. William Judge of The American Section started The Path in New York in 1886 and Blavatsky started Lucifer in London in 1887. Reports in Theosophical Society periodicals show its leaders actively discussing the use of translation of theosophical texts as a means of spreading their message across Holland, Belgium, and Sweden.

Theosophical Society emblem

Blavatsky was the author of two of its most important texts: Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. She was also the editor of periodicals like Theosophist. The Theosophical Publishing Society was started in London by the Countess of Wachtmeister in 1888 to publish The Secret Doctrine.

It has long been held that Blavatsky had both a hermetic (Western) and Eastern phase, as represented by her two landmark texts. My article tries to tease out that Blavatsky was already being influenced by her interest in India, that was so characteristic of the period, by the time she wrote Isis Unveiled. There was no sudden break with Western magic when she moved to India. Her earlier texts includes many references to India.

Helena Blavatsky

The Theosophical Publishing Concern was started in Chicago in the 1890s. In 1902, the Indian Section of The Theosophical Society completed work on a new building for the press. The Theosophical Publishing House was started in Adyar, India in 1911. Theosophical publishing houses and bookstores across the world link back to the society headquarters in Adyar to this day. In 1916, the Theosophical Book Corporation established a relationship with the Theosophical Publishing House in Adyar and in 1918 the assets were transferred to India.

There was a Buddhist Press located in Sri Lanka that was founded by Theosophical Society founder Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. It published a Sinhalese newspaper, the Sandaresa. By 1889 it was said to have moved from 2,000 copies to 5,000, within one year, making it the largest publication in Ceylon. However, the next year, it was reported to have printed only 4,000 copies.

International touring for theosophical leaders was also a critical part of the work the Theosophical Society, and key to its expansion. Annual reports show how a significant number of resources were devoted to the President’s tour in 1901. Steam ships were the infrastructure that made these tours possible. As well, train tours were important to the society’s expansion within India. The Theosophical Society Library in Adyar also used touring as a means of building its religious manuscripts collections.

Annie Besant became president of the international Theosophical Society, headquartered in India. Eventually, she also became president of the Indian National Congress. An experienced political organizer from her time in London, Besant actively engaged with socialist slow print movements and made this part of her work towards Indian independence. Her views on empire were made clear in her 1917 address to the Indian National Congress. She saw Indian independence as part of a democratic movement that was taking place across the world, including in locations such as Japan, China, and Russia.

Finally, it is important to note that the use of slow print by the theosophical leadership demonstrates their awareness of the dangers of a mass capitalist-driven press. This tells us that even those who understood the dangers of engaging with commercial networks and systems, were forced to rely on them if they were truly interested in expanding internationally. Furthermore, by engaging with these networks and systems, the Theosophical Society paved the way for even greater commercial engagements with New Age religion in the contemporary world.

 “This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in The International History Review available online at”.

Lori Lee Oates Ph.D. teaches in the M.Phil (Humanities) Program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She publishes on transnational cultures of print and is currently preparing her first monograph for SUNY Press.