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Occultism is a word that derives from the Latin occultus meaning "hidden", "secret", and refers to the study of a deeper psychic and spiritual reality that extends beyond the realm of the physical senses. The first person to use the term "occultism" in English was H. P. Blavatsky, in 1877, in her book Isis Unveiled.[1] She defined true occultism as "altruism", the Great Renunciation of self, which is embedded in the principle that Divinity is concealed--transcendent yet immanent--within every living being.[2] In modern times, the word occultism has mixed meanings, and is sometimes applied to divination and a variety of practices aiming at invoking or manipulating unseen forces and entities, for beneficent or maleficent purposes.

General description

"Path of the Spiritual Warrior" by Reginald Machell.

In the common parlance, the word occultism is associated with psychic powers and phenomena, as well as with esoteric practices such as magic, astrology, palmistry, etc. However, the Theosophical literature uses this term in a different way. Most frequently, it refers to a path of spiritual development based on the Esoteric Philosophy. This path, according to T. Subba Row, is one of the two available to humanity in its evolutionary journey:

This philosophy recognises two paths, both having the same end, a glorified immortality.
The one is the steady natural path of progress through moral effort, and practise of the virtues. . . . It is the normal method followed by the vast mass of humanity. . . . The other road is the precipitous path of occultism, through a series of initiations. Only a few specially organised and peculiar natures are fit for this path.[3]

The path of occultism can be seen as an "accelerated" road that the disciple or chela traverses, guided and assisted by a Master of Wisdom:

Occult progress, growth along this path, is effected by the adept directing through the chela various occult forces, which enable him to obtain prematurely, so to speak, a knowledge of his spiritual nature: and to obtain powers to which he is not morally entitled by degree of his progress. Under these circumstances it may happen that the chela loses his moral balance, and falls into the dugpa path.[4]

In spite of the intrinsic dangers in this path, it is a necessity in nature because those who succeed become part of the Brotherhood of Adepts that guides the evolution of humanity.

The occult path involves a physical, psychological, and spiritual discipline, as well as the learning of the occult side of nature. The treading of this path ultimately leads to transcending the personal identity and realizing the essential unity of humanity, and, indeed, of all existence:

True Occultism is the destruction of the false idea of Self, and therefore true spiritual perfection and knowledge are nothing else but the complete identification of our finite “selves” with the Great All. It follows, therefore, that no spiritual progress at all is possible except by and through the bulk of Humanity. It is only when the whole of Humanity has attained happiness that the individual can hope to become permanently happy—for the individual is an inseparable part of the Whole.[5]

Annie Besant went on to say:

What is occultism? The word is used and misused in the most extraordinary ways. H.P. Blavatsky once defined it as the study of mind in nature, meaning by the word mind, in that connection, the study of the Universal Mind, the Divine Mind, the study of the workings of God in the Universe, the study therefore of all the energies which, coming forth from the spiritual centre, work themselves out in the worlds around us. It is the study of the life side of the Universe, the side from which everything proceeds and from which everything is moulded, the looking through the illusory form to the reality which animates it; it is the study which underlies all phenomena; it is the ceasing to be wholly blinded by these appearances in which we so continually move and by which we are so continually deluded; it is the piercing through the veil of maya and perceiving the reality, the one Self, the one Life, the one Force, that which is in everything and all things in it. So that, really, occultism, in the true sense of the word, may be said to be identical with that vision which, as you know, is spoken of in the Bhagavad-Gita, where Shri Krishna declares that "He who sees Me," that is, who sees the One Self, "in everything and everything in Me, verily he seeth".[6]

The occult path also stimulates the development of latent powers that can be used for good or bad purposes. Therefore, Mme. Blavatsky sometimes used the term "occultism" in a neutral way, adding the adjectives "white" and "black" to qualify the altruistic and selfish application of the occult knowledge, respectively:

Occultism is colorless, and only when used by man for the one side or the other is it good or bad. Bad Occultism, or that which is used for selfish ends, is not false, for it is the same as that which is for good ends. Nature is two-sided, negative and positive, good and bad, light and dark, hot and cold, spirit and matter. . . . Occultism is the general, all-inclusive term, the differentiating terms are White and Black; the same forces are used by both, and similar laws, for there are no special laws in this universe for any special set of workers in Nature’s secrets.[7]

In her writings, Mme. Blavatsky also differentiated between theoretical and practical occultism, "or what is generally known as Theosophy . . . and Occult science".[8] The study of the Theosophical teachings is regarded as part of the preparation to tread the occult path. The real truths of Occultism, however, are not to be perceived merely by a mental process but by entering into a spiritual state of consciousness. As Master K.H. wrote to Mr. Sinnett: "he who will not find our truths in his soul and within himself — has poor chances of success in Occultism".[9]

Occult arts


The following quote by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke provides the definition of the term occultism that is most common in modern times:

OCCULTISM has its basis in a religious way of thinking, the roots of which stretch back into antiquity and which may be described as the Western esoteric tradition. Its principal ingredients have been identified as Gnosticism, the Hermetic treatises on alchemy and magic, Neo-Platonism, and the Kabbalah, all originating in the eastern Mediterranean area during the first few centuries AD.[10]

Mme. Blavatsky made a distinction between the path of occultism and the production of phenomena or the general use of psychic powers:

Occultism is not magic, though magic is one of its tools.
Occultism is not the acquirement of powers, whether psychic or intellectual, though both are its servants.[11]

She frequently used the term "occult arts" to refer to such disciplines as "alchemy, astrology, occult physiology, chiromancy", etc., and regarded them as branches of the "occult sciences". They are. . .

. . . arts based on the knowledge of the ultimate essence of all things in the Kingdoms of Nature--such as minerals, plants and animals--hence of things pertaining to the realm of material nature, however invisible that essence may be, and howsoever much it has hitherto eluded the grasp of Science. . .[12]

The occult arts, although dealing with "invisible essences", still operate in the material realm. They are regarded as no more than tools by the occult philosophy (identified in the next quote with the Sanskrit term ātma-vidyā):

All the others [the occult arts] may be mastered and results obtained, whether good, bad or indifferent; but Atma-Vidya sets small value on them. It includes them all and may even use them occasionally, but it does so after purifying them of their dross, for beneficent purposes, and taking care to deprive them of every element of selfish motive. Let us explain: Any man or woman can set himself or herself to study one or all of the above specified "Occult Arts" without any great previous preparation, and even without adopting any too restraining mode of life. One could even dispense with any lofty standard of morality. In the last case, of course, ten to one the student would blossom into a very decent kind of sorcerer, and tumble down headlong into black magic.[13]

Dangers of Occultism

"Magic Circle" by J. W. Waterhouse

In one of his letters, Master K.H. described the occult path to Mr. Sinnett as follows:

You were told, however, that the path to Occult Sciences has to be trodden laboriously and crossed at the danger of life; that every new step in it leading to the final goal, is surrounded by pit-falls and cruel thorns; that the pilgrim who ventures upon it is made first to confront and conquer the thousand and one furies who keep watch over its adamantine gates and entrance — furies called Doubt, Skepticism, Scorn, Ridicule, Envy and finally Temptation — especially the latter; and that he, who would see beyond had to first destroy this living wall; that he must be possessed of a heart and soul clad in steel, and of an iron, never failing determination and yet be meek and gentle, humble and have shut out from his heart every human passion, that leads to evil.[14]

The occult training eventually awakens psychic and spiritual powers that are latent in human beings. Although they are not the primary aim of the occult path, once developed they can be used by the occultist for different purposes. Their possession necessarily entails a responsibility and a potential danger of misuse. Thus the manipulation of these forces requires purity of intention if the practitioner is not to fall into black magic. In Mme. Blavatsky's words:

Occultism is not magic. It is comparatively easy to learn the trick of spells and the methods of using the subtler, but still material, forces of physical nature; the powers of the animal soul in man are soon awakened; the forces which his love, his hate, his passion, can call into operation, are readily developed. But this is Black Magic—Sorcery. For it is the motive, and the motive alone, which makes any exercise of power become black, malignant, or white, beneficent Magic. It is impossible to employ spiritual forces if there is the slightest tinge of selfishness remaining in the operator. For, unless the intention is entirely unalloyed, the spiritual will transform itself into the psychic, act on the astral plane, and dire results may be produced by it. The powers and forces of animal nature can equally be used by the selfish and revengeful, as by the unselfish and the all-forgiving; the powers and forces of spirit lend themselves only to the perfectly pure in heart—and this is DIVINE MAGIC.[15]

T. Subba Row wrote about this in a similar way:

This [occult] path is eminently dangerous to those who do not hold the talisman which ensures safety; this talisman is a perfectly unselfish, self-forgetting, self-annihilating devotion to the religious good of mankind, a self-abnegation, which is not temporal, but must have no end for ever, and the object of which is the religious enlightenment of the human race. Without this talisman, though the progress of the chela may be very rapid for a time, a point will come when his upward advance will be arrested when real moral worth will tell; and the man who progressed along the slow and steady path may be first to merge himself in the light of the logos.[16]

Based on these facts, theosophical occultists advised aspirants to apply their energies towards the purification of their natures before seeking to become occultists. In Annie Besant's words:

No man whose life is not pure, whose thoughts are not noble, whose character is not unselfish, should venture to touch occultism at all; for every fault he has will assail him, every failing will dig pits for his feet; and until he has laid his foundation of virtue he must not try to build on it the Temple of Occultism. Nor must he try to build that Temple until his emotions and senses are thoroughly under his control.[17]

For this reason, Master K.H. wrote to a member of the Theosophical Society "sigh not for chelaship; pursue not that, the dangers and hardships of which are unknown to you".[18] In the same vein, T. Subba Row wrote:

It is therefore wiser not to seek the path of chelaship; if the man is fit for it, his Karma will lead him to it imperceptibly and infallibly; for the path of occultism seeks the chela and will not fail to find him, when the fit man presents himself.[19]

Thus, when a person is spiritually mature to tread this path, he will be contacted on the inner planes by one of the Masters of Wisdom and put under probation.

Due to the power of the forces and processes put in action, the path of occultism requires a full commitment and a life consistent with the occult laws. Master K.H. wrote that "Occultism is not to be trifled with. It demands all or nothing".[20] Mme. Blavatsky wrote in similar terms:

As a rule, Occultism is a dangerous, double-edged weapon for one to handle, who is unprepared to devote his whole life to it.[21]

Occultism is a jealous mistress, and, once launched on that path, it is necessary to resolutely refuse to recognize any attempt to draw one back from it.[22]

The need for secrecy

Due to the danger associated with the use of psychic powers, the Masters of Wisdom do not openly divulge their methods of development. Instead, they set up a system of discipleship where only those who have proved themselves morally fit to use them in the right way are taught about this. Mahatma K.H. answered a student who complained about not having any "special powers" to do the spiritual work as follows:

I shall waste no condolences upon the poor "lay-chelas" because of the "delicate weapons they can alone work with." A sorry day it would be for mankind if any sharper or deadlier ones were put in their unaccustomed hands! Ah! you would concur with me, my faithful friend, if you could but see the plaint one of them has just made on account of the agonizing results of the poisoned weapons he got the wielding of, in an evil hour, through the help of a sorcerer. Crushed morally, by his own selfish impetuosity; rotting physically from diseases engendered by the animal gratifications he snatched with "demon" help; behind him a black memory of wasted chances and hellish successes; before him a pall of dark despair, — of avitchi . . . Be satisfied, friend, with your "delicate weapons"; if not as lethal as the discus of Vishnu, they can break down many barriers if plied with power. . . . I have only given you a glimpse into the hell of this lost soul, to show you what disaster may come upon the "lay-chela" who snatches at forbidden power before his moral nature is developed to the point of fitness for its exercise.[23]

Some occult teachings may not be about methods of psychic development but are potentially dangerous because they teach how to manipulate hidden forces of nature. As Mahatma K.H. wrote to A. O. Hume:

These figures as I have already said are so interwoven with the profoundest psychological mysteries that to divulge the key to such figures, would be to put the rod of power within the reach of all the clever men who would read your book.[24]

Similarly, Mme. Blavatsky stated in connection with the elementals:

If the constitution, field of action, and method of action of elementals were given out, there are some minds of a very inquiring and peculiar bent who soon could find out how to come into communication with these extraordinary beings, with results disadvantageous to the community as well as the individuals. . . .
It is wise to increase the knowledge of nature's laws, but always with proper limitations. All things will become known some day. Nothing can be kept back when men have reached the point where they can understand. But at this time it would not be wise to give them, for the asking, certain knowledge that would not be good for them.[25]

See also

Online resources




  1. Gilbert, R.A. (1993) Casting the First Stone: The Hypocrisy of Religious Fundamentalism and its Threat to Society, p22, Element 1993.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 254.
  3. Tallapragada Subba Row, Esoteric Writings, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 112-113.
  4. Tallapragada Subba Row, Esoteric Writings, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 113.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. XI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1973), 105.
  6. Annie Besant, Occultism, Semi-Occultism, and Pseudo-Occultism Adyar Pamphlet No. 19 (Adyar, Madras : Theosophical Publishing House, 1920), 4-5.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 400-F.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 156.
  9. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 126 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 425.
  10. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism, New York: NYU Press, 1985.
  11. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VIII (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1990), 14.
  12. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 252.
  13. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 252-253.
  14. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 126 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 422.
  15. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 156-157.
  16. Tallapragada Subba Row, Esoteric Writings, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 113-114.
  17. Occultism and Occult Training by Annie Besant
  18. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom First Series No. 9 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), ???.
  19. Tallapragada Subba Row, Esoteric Writings, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 114.
  20. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 59 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 155. See Mahatma Letter No. 59, Page 2.
  21. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. I (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1966), 101.
  22. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 10.
  23. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 111 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 373-374.
  24. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 66 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 174.
  25. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 112-113.