Esoteric Philosophy

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Esoteric Philosophy is a phrase frequently used in Theosophical literature to refer to a body of knowledge about the cosmos, the divine, and the human being, and does not take into account only their visible aspect but, more predominantly, their invisible, metaphysical, or spiritual dimension. Thus, Esoteric Philosophy often presents a synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy. Although some tenets of this philosophy have been made public, its real teachings are known only to the initiates.

General description

H. P. Blavatsky

In the late nineteenth century some scientists were claiming to be on the verge of being able to explain everything in the universe in terms of a mechanistic model; the implication being that there is not a place or need for the spiritual in a universe that runs automatically as a precise machine. Dogmatic religion, emphasizing blind belief, was unable to offer sound responses to these challenges. This caused a number of intellectual people to turn towards atheism and materialism. In connection to this, H. P. Blavatsky wrote:

The Esoteric philosophy is alone calculated to withstand, in this age of crass and illogical materialism, the repeated attacks on all and everything man holds most dear and sacred, in his inner spiritual life. The true philosopher, the student of the Esoteric Wisdom, entirely loses sight of personalities, dogmatic beliefs and special religions. Moreover, Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips every one of its outward, human garments, and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion.[1]

According to Mme. Blavatsky, the Esoteric Philosophy is a form of "objective idealism", the metaphysical view of which Plato is regarded as one of the earliest representatives in the West. This view is different from the subjective idealism of, for example, George Berkeley, the Anglo-Irish philosopher who postulated that no real objects exist, but only minds and mental contents. Objective idealism, while accepting that ultimately speaking everything we perceive is an "illusion," it still regards as "objective" the relationship between different entities, they themselves being illusory:

Esoteric philosophy, teaching an objective Idealism—though it regards the objective Universe and all in it as Maya, temporary illusion—draws a practical distinction between collective illusion, Mahamaya, from the purely metaphysical stand-point, and the objective relations in it between various conscious Egos so long as this illusion lasts.[2]
Illusion of movement
Maya or illusion is an element which enters into all finite things, for everything that exists has only a relative, not an absolute, reality, since the appearance which the hidden noumenon assumes for any observer depends upon his power of cognition. . . . Nothing is permanent except the one hidden absolute existence which contains in itself the noumena of all realities . . . but all things are relatively real, for the cogniser is also a reflection, and the things cognised are therefore as real to him as himself. . . . Whatever plane our consciousness may be acting in, both we and the things belonging to that plane are, for the time being, our only realities. As we rise in the scale of development we perceive that during the stages through which we have passed we mistook shadows for realities. . . . Only when we shall have reached the absolute Consciousness, and blended our own with it, shall we be free from the delusions produced by Maya.[3]

Although the Esoteric Philosophy can be regarded as essentially one and the same around the world, its expressions vary according to the culture or religion a particular brotherhood of initiates belong to. About this, Master K.H. wrote:

The true esoteric doctrine being identical in substance though differing in terms; all aiming at the same grand object, but no two agreeing seemingly in the details of procedure. It is an every day occurrence to find students belonging to different schools of occult thought sitting side by side at the feet of the same Guru. Upasika (Madam B.) and Subba Row, though pupils of the same Master, have not followed the same Philosophy — the one is Buddhist and the other an Adwaitee.[4]

Thus, we find references in the Theosophical literature to an "Arhat Esoteric Philosophy," which is connected to an esoteric Buddhist approach, while the "Aryan Esoteric Philosophy" has Hinduism as its religious background.

Arhat Esoteric Philosophy

The Sanskrit term arhat (Pali: arahant) means "one who is worthy, or deserves." In Buddhism, it is used to refer to a "perfected person" that has attained nirvana.

When Theosophical literature applies this term to one of the branches of the Esoteric Philosophy, it refers to the body of teachings held by the "trans-Himalayan Arhat Esoteric School" to which Mahatmas such as Koot Hoomi, Morya, and Djual Khool belong. These teachings have also been called "Chaldeo-Tibetan esoteric doctrines"[5] or "Arhat secret doctrine."[6]

Relationship to Buddhism

H. P. Blavatsky and some of the Mahatmas declared themselves to be "Buddhists" and to be associated in some form to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Based on this, they are sometimes criticized because some of their teachings do not agree with the Buddhism known to scholars, practitioners, and the general public. However, a complete agreement between the two systems should not be expected, since it is clearly stated that the Arhat Esoteric Philosophy transcends the Buddhist "exoteric" teachings. In her "Introduction" to the first volume of The Secret Doctrine Mme. Blavatsky deals at length with this question:

Sattapanni Cave
Furthermore, the records we mean to place before the reader embrace the esoteric tenets of the whole world since the beginning of our humanity, and Buddhistic occultism occupies therein only its legitimate place, and no more. Indeed, the secret portions of the “Dan” or “Jan-na” (“Dhyan”) of Gautama’s metaphysics—grand as they appear to one unacquainted with the tenets of the Wisdom Religion of antiquity—are but a very small portion of the whole. The Hindu Reformer limited his public teachings to the purely moral and physiological aspect of the Wisdom-Religion, to Ethics and MAN alone. Things “unseen and incorporeal,” the mystery of Being outside our terrestrial sphere, the great Teacher left entirely untouched in his public lectures, reserving the hidden Truths for a select circle of his Arhats. The latter received their Initiation at the famous Saptaparna cave (the Sattapanni of Mahavansa) near Mount Baibhâr (the Webhâra of the Pali MSS). . . Thus the reader is asked to bear in mind the very important difference between orthodox Buddhism—i.e., the public teachings of Gautama the Buddha, and his esoteric Budhism.[7]

An example of the above is the book Esoteric Buddhism, published by Mr. Sinnett. This book was based on letters received from Mahatmas K.H. and M.. Its teachings, being based on the Arhat Esoteric Philosophy, do not resemble regular Buddhist doctrines. In one of this letters, Mahatma K.H. states:

Yourself and Mr. Hume have received now more information about the A[rhat] E[soteric] Philosophy than was ever given out to non-initiates within my knowledge.[8]

For this reason, it is to be expected that a number of teachings propounded by the Arhat Esoteric Philosophy widely differ from "exoteric" teachings, even of the Tibetan schools. In Mme. Blavatsky's words:

The popular Lamaism, when compared with the real esoteric, or Arahat Buddhism of Tibet, offers a contrast as great as the snow trodden along a road in the valley, to the pure and undefiled mass which glitters on the top of a high mountain peak.[9]

Talking more specifically about the Prasaṅgika Mādhyamaka teaching, on which the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism is based, she claimed that in the course of history it "broke away from the purely esoteric schools."[10] She also said that the teaching they propose "is a semi-exoteric and very popular system among the literati and laymen,"[11] and that they offer "an anti-esoteric and most rationalistic system."[12]

She conceded that some of the Tibetan schools still had their "esoteric divisions." Their doctrines, however, are not known by regular monks:

The Prasanga School is surely the Advaita Philosophy of the land. It was divided into two: one was originally founded by Bhâvaviveka, the Svâtantrika Mâdhyamika School, and the other by Buddhapâlita; both have their exoteric and esoteric divisions. It is necessary to belong to the latter to know anything of the esoteric doctrines of that sect, the most metaphysical and philosophical of all.[13]

The Esoteric Philosophy seems to have a different interpretation even of most foundational exoteric teachings, as can be inferred from the following quote:

Alone the Initiate, rich with the lore acquired by numberless generations of his predecessors, directs the “Eye of Dangma” toward the essence of things in which no Maya can have any influence. It is here that the teachings of esoteric philosophy in relation to the Nidanas and the Four Truths become of the greatest importance; but they are secret.[14]

The student may wonder why some of the Mahatmas claim to be Buddhists, even if their teachings are different in many respects from what the world knows as "Buddhism." Master K.H. gave the following reason:

Many prefer to call themselves Buddhists not because the word attaches itself to the ecclesiastical system built upon the basic ideas of our Lord Gautama Buddha’s philosophy, but because of the Sanskrit word “Buddhi” — wisdom, enlightenment; and as a silent protest to the vain rituals and empty ceremonials which have in too many cases been productive of the greatest calamities. Such also is the origin of the Chaldean term Mage.[15]


It has been said the Arhat Esoteric Philosophy uses a secret language known as Senzar. Therefore, when some of its tenets were published to the general public, its exponents had to use the best terms available in known philosophies. However, the common meanings attached to them may be different from the intended esoteric meaning:

All the words and sentences placed in brackets in the Stanzas and Commentaries are the writer’s. In some places they may be incomplete and even inadequate from the Hindu standpoint; but in the meaning attached to them in Trans-Himalayan Esotericism they are correct. In every case the writer takes any blame upon herself. Having never claimed personal infallibility, that which is given on her own authority may leave much to be desired, in the very abstruse cases where too deep metaphysic is involved. The teaching is offered as it is understood; and as there are seven keys of interpretation to every symbol and allegory, that which may not fit a meaning, say from the psychological or astronomical aspect, will be found quite correct from the physical or metaphysical.[16]

In her interaction with students, Mme. Blavatsky stated on several occasions the fact that when teaching she was translating the technical terms used in the Esoteric Philosophy into words that people would understand.

See also

Online resources




  1. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), xx.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 631.
  3. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 39-40.
  4. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 120 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 410.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. III (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 400.
  6. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 575.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), xx.
  8. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 68 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 202.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 14-15.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 43.
  11. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Krotona, CA: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 260.
  12. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XIV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 392.
  13. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. X (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1995), 438.
  14. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 45.
  15. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 120 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 410.
  16. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. II, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 22.