The words “occult,” “occultist,” and “occultism” can be found frequently throughout the voluminous writings of H.P. Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Movement, as also in the writings and teachings of numerous other Theosophists such as William Quan Judge, T. Subba Row, Robert Crosbie, B.P. Wadia, and in the published written teachings from the Masters of Wisdom themselves.
Modern misunderstanding of what this term actually means has led to misguided accusations and ignorant misrepresentations being made against Madame Blavatsky, against Theosophists in general, and against Theosophy itself.
What we must make clear is this: the word “occult” is simply a synonym for “esoteric.”
It comes from the Latin word “occultus” which literally means “hidden.” If we take a look at the dictionary definition for “occult” we find the following…
1. Of, relating to, or dealing with supernatural influences, agencies, or phenomena.
2. Beyond the realm of human comprehension; inscrutable.
3. Available only to the initiate; secret: occult lore.
4. Hidden from view; concealed.
5. a. Medicine Detectable only by microscopic examination or chemical analysis, as a minute blood sample.
b. Not accompanied by readily detectable signs or symptoms: occult carcinoma.
Occult practices or techniques: a student of the occult.
v. oc·cult·ed, oc·cult·ing, oc·cults
1. To conceal or cause to disappear from view.
2. Astronomy To conceal by occultation: The moon occulted Mars.
To become concealed or extinguished at regular intervals: a lighthouse beacon that occults every 45 seconds.
[Latin occultus, secret, past participle of occulere, to cover over]
Notice that amongst all those definitions, references, and examples, there is not the slightest mention of black magic, satanism, devil worship, or any of the other unsavoury and awful practices which are today commonly referred to as the “occult” and “occultism.”
The habit of equating occultism with dark and evil practices is a relatively modern development. During Madame Blavatsky’s lifetime, it was perfectly understood that “occult” simply meant “esoteric” and that a person being referred to as an “occultist” simply meant someone who was either interested in discovering the secret and hidden meanings and truths behind spiritual and philosophical teachings or someone who had indeed been actually initiated into such “concealed knowledge.”
So in its literal and proper meaning, occultism is the study of hidden knowledge and secret truths. One of the main purposes of the Theosophical Movement was – and still is – to point out and demonstrate that there is a universal esoteric (i.e. occult – hidden and concealed) Teaching which underlies all the world’s religions and which is in fact the archaic and primeval source of all religion, philosophy, and science.
It is obvious then that it is perfectly harmless, unless carried out and pursued for selfish or malevolent purposes but that is not the nature of Theosophy, since the constant underlying heartbeat and emphasis of all Theosophical teaching is complete and utter altruism, selfless service to humanity, and the Bodhisattva ideal. We have explained more about this in the articles The Yoga of Purity: The Living Ethics of Theosophy and The Two Paths.
But there are of course certain individuals who dislike it when people start trying to discover hidden truths or studying spiritual teachings which for long ages had remained secret and unknown to the masses. The Christian Church in particular dislike such things and it was largely they – in the 20th century – who caused the word “occult” to develop its current negative and sinister connotations, by deceptively equating occultism with black magic and satanism in an attempt to keep people away from anything which mentions occultism, the occult, and so on.
Because of the tarnishing of these perfectly innocent words of the English language, many Theosophists today prefer to use the word “esoteric” rather than “occult” in order to avoid being misunderstood or misrepresented. Anyone who reads Madame Blavatsky’s works will see that she used both these terms, applying them as synonyms, which is what they are.
Christians should remember though that even in their New Testament there are accounts of Jesus telling his disciples that the “Mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven” can be revealed only to them (the disciples) and not to the general public or the masses, who had to be taught mainly with parables and simple moral precepts instead. Thus, by his own admission, Jesus had an occult teaching, since occultism is simply esotericism.
This is what the word means and this is how it is used in Theosophy.