The Theosophical Society in America

To Whom Shall We Pray? HPB's War on the Personal Gods

Printed in the Fall 2015 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: CosbyJeff."To Whom Shall We Pray? HPB’s War on the Personal Gods" Quest 103.4 (Fall 2015): pg. 140-142.

By Jeff Cosby

God worship seems to be almost genetically ingrained into the human psyche. There is no culture, race, or polity existing on the planet today that does not encourage or at least condone the worship of a “higher power” in some form or fashion. Marxist-Leninist communism is the only atheistic political doctrine in history that specifically rejected and actively repressed the worship of deities, but as recent history has shown, it has not been effective in restraining this seemingly irrepressible human impulse to worship one god or another. Arguably the only truly atheistic polity remaining is North Korea, yet what we see there is the deification of the ruler, the cult of personality, which has simply replaced traditional god worship.

If one reads The Secret Doctrine at any length, it quickly becomes apparent that H.P. Blavatsky harbored an abiding animosity towards humanity’s worship of personal gods. She reserved a special hostility towards the Abrahamic faiths’ worship of Yahweh or Jehovah as their one God. We need only to sample a few of her comments from The Secret Doctrine to illustrate this point.

Christian theology has evolved its self-created human and personal God, the monstrous Head from whence flow in two streams the dogmas of Salvation and Damnation. (1:613)

The Biblical Jehovah, the spiteful and revengeful God of Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, who tempted the former and wrestled with the last. (1:440n.)

For both [Roman Catholics and Protestants] the Hierarchy of Being begins and ends within the narrow frames of their respective theologies: one self-created personal God and an Empyrean [Heaven] ringing with the Hallelujahs of created angels; the rest, false gods, Satan and fiends. (1:612; emphasis here and in other quotes is in the original)

So what does the term “personal God” mean in The Secret Doctrine? Many might assume that HPB was using “personal” in the possessive sense, as for example, some Christians refer to Jesus the Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” This would be wrong. HPB used the term in its descriptive sense, as in “existing as a self-aware entity, not as an abstraction, or an impersonal force; e.g., ‘Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in a personal God’” (The New Oxford American Dictionary). These deities are said to possess “personhood” in the sense that we as humans can somehow “know” them and comprehend their thoughts. HPB often accompanied “personal” with the term “anthropomorphic,” as is evidenced in her statement that:

The above is not a defense of Pagan gods, nor is it an attack on the Christian deity, nor does it mean a belief in either. The writer is quite impartial, and rejects testimony in favor of either. Neither praying to, nor believing in, nor dreading any such “personal” and anthropomorphic God. (1:468)

When we combine these two adjectives, we can begin to understand HPB’s vision of these deities — created or conceived in man’s own image, and possessing many of the same emotions and instincts of humanity.

So does this mean that HPB considered these entities as figments of man’s imagination? I think not, at least if you take her at her word when she states:

If we are taken to task for believing in operating “Gods” and “Spirits” while rejecting a personal God, we answer to the Theists and Monotheists: “Admit that your Jehovah is one of the Elohim, and we are ready to recognize him.” (1:492n.)

As most students of Theosophy probably know, HPB equated the Elohim with the secondary emanations and powers variously termed Dhyan Chohans, Creators, Sephiroth, and Adam Kadmon, among others.

It can be reasonably inferred from the above that HPB believed in the existence of these personal gods. But she objected to (1) their worship, and (2) humankind’s assertion that these gods were the one God, the origin of all things, or the ultimate One Principle.

In the section of The Secret Doctrine entitled “The Theogony of the Creative Gods” (1:424–445), HPB traces what one might term the corruption of the ancient truths regarding the One Principle from which all phenomenological experience emanates. She begins by stating,

To thoroughly comprehend the idea underlying every ancient cosmology necessitates the study, in a comparative analysis, of all the great religions of antiquity; as it is only by this method that the root idea will be made plain. Exact science . . . would call this idea the hierarchy of Forces. The original, transcendental and philosophical conception was one. But as systems began to reflect with every age more and more the idiosyncrasies of nations . . . the main idea gradually became veiled with the overgrowth of human fancy. While in some countries the Forces, or rather the intelligent Powers of nature, received divine honors they were hardly entitled to, in others — as now in Europe and the civilized lands — the very thought of any such Force being endowed with intelligence seems absurd, and is proclaimed as unscientific . . .

We firmly believe in the personality and intelligence of more than one phenomenon-producing Force in nature. [However], as time rolled on, the archaic teaching grew dimmer; and those nations more or less lost sight of the highest and One principle of all things, and began to transfer the abstract attributes of the “causeless cause” to the caused effects. (1:424-25)

So this is the essence of HPB’s “war” on the personal gods. It is not that such forces do not exist, but that many religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, have melded the One Principle, the “rootless root,” the “causeless cause” into those powers which, she asserts, emanate from it. Thus as she describes it, they are transferring “the abstract attributes of the causeless cause to the caused effects.”

In her excellent book The Great Angel, biblical scholar Margaret Barker traces this development in ancient Judaism. She convincingly argues that the postexilic Deuteronomists repressed the worship of their original triune god: El, the Source; Asherah, the feminine aspect of the manifested deity; and Yahweh/Jehovah, the male emanation, one of the “host of the Elohim.” The Deuteronomists in effect melded these three into the one God — Yahweh/Jehovah. Barker’s views in some key respects resemble those of Blavatsky.

HPB made her feelings clear about this development:

The fact of choosing a deity among the pagan gods and making of it a special national God, to call upon it as “the One living God,” the “God of Gods,” and then proclaim this worship Monotheistic, does not change it into the one Principle whose “Unity admits not of multiplication, change, or form,” especially in the case of a Priapic deity, as Jehovah [is] now demonstrated to be” (1:6n.)

Christians who profess to believe in the Holy Trinity may claim that their dogma of Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit does in fact acknowledge the existence of HPB’s One Principle in the form of the Father. But this argument collapses under closer scrutiny, because nearly all Christian sects acknowledge the canonical authority of the Old Testament scriptures. By implication, then, they prostrate themselves before the same God as that of the Jews — Yahweh/Jehovah — this “third rate potency,” as HPB describes it (1:349).

So what is the Theosophist to do? I suppose that HPB would advise us to become Buddhists, as she and Olcott did. Many strains of Buddhism do acknowledge the existence of personal gods. Certainly Hinduism, with its pantheon of deities, not only acknowledges the existence of these intelligent Forces, but actively encourages and incorporates their worship into their religious practices.

The difference between these religions and Western religions, however, is that Buddhism and Hinduism recognize that these personal gods are not the One Source, the causeless cause, the rootless root, but rather are emanations therefrom and manifestations thereof. They are within time, and are thus finite in duration and in power.

What HPB was saying in essence is that we cannot have it both ways. The ultimate Deity, as stated in the First Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, is “an Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable Principle on which all speculation is impossible since it transcends the power of human conception . . . It is beyond the range and reach of thought” (1:14). She would even object to calling this entity “God,” as she makes clear:

Deity is not God. It is nothing, and darkness. It is nameless, and therefore called Ain-Soph. (1:350)

Hence its name — Ain-Soph — is a term of negation, “the inscrutable, the incognizable, and the unnameable.” (1:429)

HPB’s answer to those who wish to pray to or worship this entity is this:

The ever unknowable and incognizable Karana alone, the Causeless Cause of all causes, should have its shrine and altar on the holy and ever untrodden ground of our heart . . . Those who worship before it ought to do so in the silent and sanctified solitude of their Souls. (1:280)

If the One Principle is beyond propitiation, then might we turn to personal gods for exoteric prayer or worship? Unfortunately not, at least according to HPB:

Neither the collective Host (Demiourgos), nor any of the working powers individually, are proper subjects for divine honors or worship. All are entitled to the grateful reverence of Humanity, however, [and] man ought to be ever striving to help the divine evolution of Ideas, by becoming to the best of his ability a co-worker with nature in this cyclic task. (1:280)

I believe that in the end HPB would advise us to abandon our personal gods altogether and take her advice when she says:

The “still greater and more exacting divinity” than the god of this world, supposed so “good”—is Karma. And this true divinity shows well that the lesser one, our inner God (personal for the time being) has no power to arrest the mighty hand of this greater Deity, the Cause awakened by our actions generating smaller causes, which is called the Law of Retribution. (2:555n.)

In the final analysis, HPB would likely say that we create our own karma, and no amount of prayer or worship will change it. As the Third Truth of Mabel Collins’s Idyll of the White Lotus states, “Each man is his own absolute lawgiver, the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself; the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment” (Collins, 114).

So by all the above, dear reader, you may presume that I have become an opponent of prayer. This is by no means true. I still indulge, albeit somewhat guiltily, in the practice. I would certainly appreciate anyone’s suggestions as to how one might properly incorporate individual prayer into the Theosophical life. Until then, I will continue to utter my own, covertly, in the still, small silence of my heart.


Barker, Margaret. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1992.

Blavatsky, H.P. The Secret Doctrine. Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1988. Citations in this article are taken from this edition.

Collins, Mabel. The Idyll of the White Lotus. Wheaton: Quest, 1974.

Smoley, Richard. “God and the Great Angel.” Quest (Winter 2011), 24–28.

Another tool of incalculable value was J.P. Van Mater’s Index to The Secret Doctrine. I urge every serious student of The Secret Doctrine to obtain a copy of this incredible work. It will make these terribly complex volumes much more enjoyable and one’s study of them more productive. Van Hater also cites previous indices compiled by Boris de Zirkoff and the United Lodge of Theosophists, but I have not personally reviewed those.


Jeff Cosby holds a B.A. in political science from Wabash College and a J.D. from Valparaiso University School of Law. He has been a longtime participant in the TS’s Prison Outreach Program.