Famous People and the impact of the Theosophical Society

Inventory of the influence of the Theosophical Society

Katinka Hesselink 2006-2010

This list is a tentative inventory of the impact of the Theosophical Society on the world. It owes a lot to John Algeo's work. Some things have been included, even though my source for them is merely the theosophical grapevine. These obviously need further study. I have also (not yet) included proper source references. This will hopefully come in time. At the moment the list only includes people from the Theosophical Society Adyar. This is not a policy, but a reflection on my knowledge in this field. If anyone can come up with people from other theosophical organisations that had a significant impact on society, feel free to contact me.

I realize that this is a problematic field of study: what exactly constitutes influence? Still I think it is possible to give some sort of answer to the question of the influence of the Theosophical Society by doing an inventory of prominent cultural innovators who were members of the Theosophical Society. If one can find a significant number, it is plausible that the relatively small organization did have a relatively high influence on East and West. As the list shows it isn't always easy to show how the Theosophical Society or its ideals and teachings made a difference in a certain persons perspective or method. Still, I think it is useful to cultural historians to be aware of memberships of the Theosophical Society. For Theosophical Society-members it may be interesting to know the contributions Theosophical Society-members have made in the world.

Some people who made it on this list were never members of the Theosophical Society, in those cases a note has been added. They are on here because of their spiritual interests, or their contact with theosophists even if they never joined.

This list has become partly unnecessary because the Theosophical Encyclopedia also gives a decent inventory.

WRITERS

Lyman Frank Baum , American author of The Wizard of Oz and other children’s stories (1851 –1919)

Mohini Chatterji , on the Gita, Vivekachudamani, etc. (1858 –1936)

James Henry Cousins (1873 – February 20, 1956) was an Irish writer, playwright, actor, critic, editor, teacher and poet. He used several pseudonyms including Mac Oisín and the Hindu name Jayaram.[1] Cousins was significantly influenced by Russell's ability to reconcile mysticism with a pragmatic approach to social reforms and by the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. He had a life-long interest in the paranormal and acted as reporter in several experiments carried out by William Fletcher Barrett, Professor of physics at Dublin University and one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research. He also wrote widely on the subject of Theosophy and in 1915 Cousins travelled to India with the voyage fees paid for by Annie Besant the President of the Theosophical Society. (Source: wikipedia)

Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919 – February 3, 1988) was an American poet and a student of H.D. and the Western esoteric tradition who spent most of his career in and around San Francisco. Though associated with any number of literary traditions and schools, Duncan is often identified with the poets of the New American Poetry and Black Mountain College. Duncan's mature work emerged in the 1950s in the literary context of Beat culture. Duncan was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance. Duncan was born in Oakland, California, as Edward Howard Duncan Jr. His mother, Marguerite Pearl Duncan, had died in childbirth and his father was unable to afford him, so in 1920 he was adopted by Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes, a family of devout Theosophists.(Source: wikipedia)

William Butler Yeats , Anglo-Irish poet and playwright (1865 –1939)

George W. Russell (Æ) , Irish poet, painter, and agricultural expert (1867 –1935)

Talbot Mundy (1879 –1940)

Sir Edwin Arnold, British author of The Light of Asia and The Song Celestial

Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), author of the Alice books, Sylvie and Bruno, etc. (1832 –1898)

Kahlil Gibran (cf. Prophet : the life and times of Kahlil Gibran / Robin Waterfield. (New York : St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. 225.)

Sir Henry Rider Haggard, English novelist, King Solomon’s Mines, She, etc. (1856 –1925)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, British author of Sherlock Holmes stories, Spiritualist (1859 –1930). His theosophical interests are debatable. He looked into theosophy and was in touch with the Blavatsky Association about the Hodgson Report. 

Maurice Maeterlinck , Belgian Symbolist poet, playwright, and novelist, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1911 (1862 –1949)

Algernon Blackwood , writer on the supernatural and mystery tales (1869 –1951)

Jack London , American novelist (1876 –1916)

E. M. Forster , English novelist, Passage to India, etc. (1879 –1970)

James Joyce , Irish novelist, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake (1882 –1941)

D. H. Lawrence , English novelist, The Plumed Serpent, etc. “a religious writer who did not so much reject Christianity as try to create a new religious and moral basis for modern life” (1885 –1930)

T. S. Eliot , Anglo-American poet and critic (1888 –1965)

Henry Miller , Bohemian autobiographical novelist (1891 –1980)

John Boyton Priestley , English novelist and playwright, Time and the Conways, I Have Been Here Before, An Inspector Calls (1894 –1984)

Thornton Wilder , American novelist and playwright, The Cabala, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town, The Matchmaker [ > Hello, Dolly!], The Skin of Our Teeth (1897 –1975)

Kurt Vonnegut , Jr., American author of satirical novels of social criticism (b. 1922)

Sir Thomas (Tom) Stoppard , Czech-born playwright of intellectual drama, e.g. Arcadia (1993), which brought together Fermat's Last Theorem, chaos theory, landscape architecture, and Lord Byron; also Indian Ink about Indian independence and Theosophists (b. 1937)

ARCHITECTS

Claude Bragdon , American architect and author  (1866 –1946)

Walter Burley Griffin , American architect and city planner, who worked in F. L. Wright’s studio and who designed the plan for the Australian capital, Canberra (1876 –1937)

SCIENTISTS AND INVENTORS

Sir William Crookes , theoretical physicist and inventor of the prototype of the TV tube and fluorescent lighting (1832 –1919)

Thomas Edison , American inventor of the electric light, phonograph, etc. (1847 –1931) (cf. The Theosophist, August 1931, p. 657)

Rupert Sheldrake , British biologist and proposer of morphogenetic fields. (b. 1942)

Alfred Russel Wallace , naturalist who developed a theory of natural selection independent of Darwin, excepted higher mental capacities from the theory, a Spiritualist (1823 –1913). His theosophical interests are debatable. “I have tried several Reincarnation and Theosophical books, but cannot read them or take any interest in them. They are so purely imaginative and do not seem to me rational. Many people are captivated by it. I think most people who like a grand, strange, complex theory of man and nature, given with authority- people who if religious would be Roman Catholics.” quoted from William Brock, William Crookes (1832–1919) and the Commercialization of Science, 2008 (originally in Marchant’s 1916 biography of Wallace - it comes from an 1897 letter by Wallace).

Camille Flammarion , French astronomer (1842 –1925)

Baroness Jane Goodall , scientist working with chimpanzees, Theosophical connection acknowledged in her recent book Reason for Hope (b. 1934)

Psychologists

Roberto Assagioli (Venice, February 27, 1888 - Capolona d'Arezzo, August 23, 1974) was an Italian psychologist, humanist, and visionary. Assagioli founded the psychological movement known as psychosynthesis, which is still being developed today by therapists, and psychologists, who practice his technique. His work in the field of psychology concentrated on spiritual needs, pertaining to the will and Ego. (Source: wikipedia)

William James , philosopher and psychologist

Carl Gustav Jung , founder of analytical psychology (1875 –1961). Was not interested in Blavatsky, Leadbeater or Besant, but was in frequent contact with G.R.S. Mead - after the latter had left the T.S. in 1909. 

Ian Stevenson , Professor of Psychiatry, University of Virginia and leading investigator of reported cases of reincarnation. Probably influenced by his theosophical upbringing.

Painters and other Artists 

Rukmini Devi Arundale: Revitalized Indian arts, especially dance and music. In her case membership of the Theosophical Society meant international contacts which made it possible for her to learn western dance and music, which in turn gave her the training necessary to breath new life into Indian dance. The way she ended up doing what she did is unthinkable without the contacts the Theosophical Society gave her.

Hilma af Klint , abstract painter. (cf for instance The Theosophist July 2006, p. 385-389)

Piet Mondriaan , Dutch painter, leading exponent of  “de Stijl” whose “neoplastic” style profoundly influenced modern art, architecture, and graphic design (1872 –1944) Member of the Theosophical Society

Beatrice Wood , artist, ceramicist (1893 –1998)

Paul Gauguin , French post impressionist, primitivist painter (1848 –1903)

Vassily Kandinsky , Russian founder of nonobjectivist art (1866 –1944) Influenced by theosophy, not a member.

Gutzon Borglum , monumental sculptor of the Mount Rushmore presidential heads and painter of a portrait of Blavatsky 1867 –1941)

Charles Rennie Mackintosh , Scottish art nouveau architect and designer (1868 –1926)

Paul Klee , whimsical Swiss artist of Der Blaue Reiter and the Bauhaus School (1879 –1940)

Nicholas Roerich , Russian mystical artist, friend of Henry Wallace (1874 –1947)

Harris, Lawren , Canadian painter was a member of the Toronto Lodge of the Theosophical Society in Canada. (October 23, 1885 – January 29, 1970)

Alex Grey. It seems unlikely this painter was influenced by the Theosophical Society, but he certainly sympathises with it as his link page testifies.

Musicians

Cyril Scott , composer and author (1879 –1970)

Gustav Mahler , symphonic composer (1860 –1911)

Jean Sibelius , Finnish musical composer inspired by the Kalevala (1865 –1957)

Alexander Nikolaievitch Scriabin , Russian composer, “Theosophical ideas similarly provided the basis of the orchestral Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus (1911), which called for the projection of colours onto a screen during the performance,” (1872 –1915)

Elvis Presley , American rock and roll musician (1935 –1977)

Ruth Crawford-Seeg - composer

Dane Rudhyar - composer

Alexander Scriabin - composer

Actors

Florence Farr , actress, Golden Dawn, etc. (1860 –1917)

Dana Ivey , Broadway, screen, and TV actress

Shirley MacLaine , American film actress (b. 1934)

Politicians

Annie Besant , president of the Theosophical Society, prominent activist for the independence of India (was already an activist for many causes before she became a member of the Theosophical Society). Popular lecturer on many themes. Her popularity did a lot to enlarge the membership of co-freemasonry (which accepts men and women). Education in India for boys and girls (continuing the work started by H.S. Olcott, first president of the Theosophical Society)

Allan Octavian Hume , British administrator in India, one of the founders of the Indian National Congress (1829 –1912)

Alfred Deakin , framer of the Australian Federation and Prime Minister of Australia, 1903 –4, 1905 –8, 1909 –10 (1856 –1919)

Hernández Martínez , President of El Salvador (1882 –1966)

Henry Wallace , Vice President of the United States (1888 –1965)

Jawaharlal Nehru , first Prime Minister of India, 1947 –64 (1889 –1964) Ferdinand T. Brooks, a young theosophists, tutored Nehru as an adolescent. Nehru acknowledged in his autobiography that “ F.T. Brooks left a deep impress upon me and I feel that I owe a debt to him and to Theosophy. ” (Theosophical History Vol. VII, Issue 3, July 1998)

George Lansbury , leader of British Labour party, 1931 –5, (1859 –1940)

Mohandas K. Gandhi , Indian patriot, framer of satyagraha (1869 –1948) Gandhi certainly knew Annie Besant, had great respect for her, and the version of the Bhagavad Gita that first acquainted him with Indian philosophy was her translation. In his autobiography he describes his early acquaintance in London with Theosophy and the Theosophical Society. The two “brothers” he mentions there are almost certainly the Keightley uncle and nephew, whom others have mistaken for brothers as they were so close in age. His contribution: a reformulation of Hinduism into a passive activism. Contributed significantly to the independence movement in India and the breakdown of the castesystem.

Feminists

Clara Codd , A feminist who was imprisoned in England.

Matilda Joslyn Gage , American feminist and coauthor with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony of the History of Woman Suffrage (1815 –1902)

Gloria Steinem , American writer and feminist, editor of Ms., Theosophical influence acknowledged in an interview in Jewish News (b. 1934)

Religious Figures

Guy Warren Ballard (July 28, 1878 – December 29, 1939) was an American mining engineer who became, with his wife, Edna Anne Wheeler Ballard, the founder of the "I AM" Activity. Ballard was born in Burlington, Iowa and married his wife in Chicago in 1916. Both Edna and Guy studied Theosophy and the occult extensively.(Source: Wikipedia)

Alice Ann Bailey (June 16, 1880 – December 15, 1949), known as Alice A. Bailey or AAB, was an influential writer and teacher in the fields of spiritual, occult, esoteric healing,astrological, Christian and other religious themes. In 1915 Bailey discovered the Theosophical Society and the work of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Bailey, pp 134–136). Theosophical Society states that Bailey became involved in 1917. Theosophist Joy Mills states that in 1918 she became a member of the Esoteric Section of the society. (Source: Wikipedia)

Paul Brunton, (1898-1981) Author of A Search in Secret India, the book that made Ramana Maharshi well known. (source) Brunton was a member of the TS only for a short while, but the biography by his son reveals that he shared many of the more obscure ideas from the Secret Doctrine. [More about Paul Brunton and his books]

Bhagwan Das (January 12, 1869 - September 18, 1958) was an Indian theosophist and public figure. For a time he served in the Central Legislative Assembly of British India. He became allied with the Hindustani Culture Society and was active in opposing rioting as a form of protest. As an advocate for national freedom from the British rule, he was often in danger of reprisals from the Colonial government. Born in Varanasi, India, he graduated school to became a deputy in the collections bureau, and later left to continue his academic pursuits. Das joined the Theosophical Society in 1894 inspired by a speech by Annie Besant. After the 1895 split, he sided with the Theosophical Society Adyar. Within that society, he was an opponent of Jiddu Krishnamurti and his "Order of the Star in the East". Das joined the Indian National Congress during the Non-cooperation movement and was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1955. With Besant he formed a professional collaboration which led to the founding of the Central Hindu College, which became Benaras Hindu University. Das would later found the Kashi Vidya Peeth, a national university where he served as headmaster. Das was a scholar of Sanskrit, from which he added to the body of Hindi language. He wrote approximately 30 books, many of these in Sanskrit and Hindi. Das received the Bharat Ratna award in 1955. (source: wikipedia)

Anagarika Dharmapala , a leading figure in the Buddhist revival (1864 –1933)

Gerard Encausse (July 13, 1865 - 25 October 1916), whose esoteric pseudonym was Papus, was the Spanish-born French physician, hypnotist, and popularizer of occultism, who founded the modern Martinist Order. He joined the French Theosophical Society shortly after it was founded by Madame Blavatsky in 1884 - 1885, but he resigned soon after joining because he disliked the Society's emphasis on Eastern occultism. In 1888, he co-founded his own group, the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix. That same year, he and his friend Lucien Chamuel founded the Librarie du Merveilleux and its monthly revue L'Initiation, which remained in publication until 1914. (source: wikipedia)

Violet Mary Firth Evans, born Violet Mary Firth (December 6, 1890 – January 8, 1946) and better known as Dion Fortune, was a British occultist and author. She was born at Bryn-y-Bia in Llandudno, Wales, and grew up in a household where Christian Science was rigorously practiced. She reported visions of Atlantis at age four and the developing of psychic abilities during her twentieth year, at which time she suffered a nervous breakdown; after her recovery she found herself drawn to the occult. She joined the Theosophical Society and attended courses in psychology and psychoanalysis at the University of London, and became a lay psychotherapist at the Medico-Psychological Clinic in Brunswick Square.(source: wikipedia)

Manly Palmer Hall (March 18, 1901 - August 29, 1990) was a Canadian-born author and mystic. He is perhaps most famous for his work The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, published in 1928 when he was 27 years old. (Source: wikipedia, which does not mention him being a theosophist, but does list him under 'Canadian Theosophists' and 'American Theosophists')

Max Heindel - born Carl Louis von Grasshoff in Aarhus, Denmark on July 23, 1865 - was a Christian occultist, astrologer, and mystic. In 1903, Max Heindel moved to Los Angeles, California, seeking work. After attending lectures by the theosophist C.W. Leadbeater, he joined the Theosophical Society of Los Angeles, of which he became vice-president in 1904 and 1905. He also became a vegetarian, and began the study of astrology, which gave him the key to unlocking the mysteries of man's inner nature. He founded The Rosicrucian Fellowship in 1909/11 at Mount Ecclesia, Oceanside (California).(source: wikipedia)

Alan Leo, born William Frederick Allan, (Westminster, 7 August 1860 - Bude, 30 August 1917), was a prominent British astrologer, author, publisher and theosophist, and is considered by many to be the father of modern astrology. Leo, who took the name of his sun-sign as a pseudonym, founded the Astrological Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1915. He is credited as being one of the most important astrologers in the 20th century because it appears that his work had the effect of stimulating a revival of astrology in the west after its general downfall in the 17th century. Leo was a devout Theosophist and he worked many of religious concepts such as karma and reincarnation into his astrology. He used the Theosophical Society’s vast international connections to publish, translate and disseminate his work across Europe and America and it was in these countries that astrology began to be revived.(source: wikipedia)

Venerable Balangoda Ananda Maitreya (August 24, 1896 - July 18, 1998), 'one of the leading figures of contemporary Buddhism, not just in Sri Lanka but throughout the world' (see: Chapter 9 in 'Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka', by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere).

G.R.S. Mead : introduced Gnosticism to popular knowledge in England and probably the world.

Alexandra David-Néel born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David (born in Saint-Mandé, Val-de-Marne on 24 October 1868, and died in Digne-les-Bains, on 8 September 1969) was a Belgian-French explorer, anarchist, spiritualist, Buddhist and writer, most known for her visit to Lhasa, Tibet, in 1924, when it was forbidden to foreigners. David-Néel wrote over 30 books about Eastern religion, philosophy, and her travels. Her teachings influenced beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and philosopher Alan Watts. Born in Paris, she moved to Elsene at the age of six. During her childhood she had a very strong desire for freedom and spirituality. At the age of 18, she had already visited England, Switzerland and Spain on her own, and she was studying in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society.(source: wikipedia)

Christmas Humphreys , English introducer of Buddhism to Westerners (1901 –1983). On Christmas Humphreys work as a judge. Christmas Humphreys: an article for the Canadian Theosophist

Dr Walter Gorn Old (born 20 March 1864, at 2:06 a.m. LMT in Handsworth, England; died 23 December 1929 in Hove, England) was a notable 19th century mystic and astrologer, better known as Sepharial. An eminent English Theosophist, Sepharial was a well-known and respected astrologer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and wrote numerous books, some of which (particularly those on numerology) are still highly regarded today. He was editor of "Old Moore's Almanac", which is still published in the 21st century. In 1887 at the age of just 23 was admitted to the "inner sanctum" of the Theosophical Society. He was in fact one of the founder members of the Theosophical movement in England. Madame Blavatsky (whom he lived with until her death) called him "The Astral Tramp" because of his nightly explorations into the astral plane (Ref: Kim Farnell's book).

D.T. Suzuki , Brought Zen-Buddhism to the West. It has recently come to light that not only was his wife a central figure in the (small) theosophical scene in Japan, he himself was a member of the Theosophical Society when he lived in Japan. (Theosophical History Magazine, article by Adele Algeo)

H.S. Olcott , founding president of the Theosophical Society: Education in Sri Lanka and India, Composition of the Buddhist Catechism, Started a newspaper in Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese people. 'Sarasavi Sandaresa' [cf www.buddhistchannel.tv february 17th 2006], Buddhist flag (organization of committee and significant input in the final design)

Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (February 2, 1878 – July 17, 1965) was an anthropologist and writer who was a pioneer in the study of Tibetan Buddhism. He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and as a teenager read Madame Blavatsky's Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine and became interested in the teachings of Theosophy. Evans-Wentz is best known for four texts translated from the Tibetan, especially The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Evans-Wentz credited himself only as the compiler and editor of these volumes. The actual translation of the texts was performed by Tibetan Buddhists, primarily Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (1868–1922), a teacher of English at the Maharaja's Boy's School in Gangtok, Sikkim who had also done translations for Alexandra David-Neel and Sir John Woodroffe. Evans-Wentz was a practitioner of the religions he studied. He became Dawa-Samdup's "disciple" (E-W's term), wore robes and ate a simple vegetarian diet. He passed his final twenty-three years in San Diego, and provided finanancial support to the Maha Bodhi Society, Self-Realization Fellowship, and the Theosophical Society.(source: wikipedia)

William Wynn Westcott (17 December 1848 – 30 July 1925) was a coroner, ceremonial magician, and Freemason born in Leamington, Warwickshire, England.[1]. He was a Supreme Magus (chief) of the S.R.I.A and went on to co found the Golden Dawn. Wescott co-founded the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn with Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and William Robert Woodman in 1887, using the motto V.H. Frater Sapere Aude. Around this time, he was also active in the Theosophical Society. (source: wikipedia)

MISCELLANEOUS

Alonzo Decker (?? –1956), co founder of Black & Decker manufacturing company, joined T.S. in America April 3, 1929, member until his death.

General Abner Doubleday , legendary father of baseball (1819 –1893)

Maria Montessori , educator and founder of Montessori Method, based on a belief in the child’s creative potential, drive to learn, and right to be treated as an individual (1870 –1952)

Controversial / unsubstantiated

Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, Owen Barfield, Wallace Stevens, R. Tagore (he was at Adyar). 

Ken Wilber Publishes his first books through the TSA, but the first editions aren't published by Quest Publishing, so it's not clear whether this can be seen as a link between theosophy and his work. There are obvious similarities between his approach and the theosophical one, but there is no indication that he was ever a member, nor does he reference theosophical authors much. 

George Lucas, Elvis Presley, and Einstein are known to have read some books on Theosophy.

Groups

These groups started by theosophists or had as their most active members theosophists in their early days.

Co-freemasonry (See Annie Besant)

Amnesty International (source: theosophical grapevine)

Buddhist Society in England (was the Buddhist lodge of the Theosophical Society), was founded by the most famous and influential of Western Buddhists, Christmas Humphreys (see Christmas Humphreys), who was a member of the Theosophical Society early in his life and who wrote appreciatively about H.P. Blavatsky to the end of his life.

Sufi movement started by Hazrat Inayat Khan

Further reading