Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Blavatsky was the founder of the Theosophical Society which is known more generally as the theosophical movement. It originated in New York City in 1875. and soon became worldwide. It was innovative and controversial in Victorian society because it aimed to:
1. To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex or caste, or color.
2. The comparative study of ancient and modern religions philosophies and sciences.
3. The investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical and spiritual powers of human beings.
Blavatsky was a proponent of Eastern mysticism and is largely responsible for the introduction of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and beliefs to the West. She was initially taken under the instruction of the famous Dayanand Sarasvati, who she met on her first visit to India. He was the founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement of the Vedic tradition. Originating mostly in Western USA, a number of religious groups and movements based on her popularised version of Eastern thought and borrowing from Blavatsky arose and her legacy is noticeable still, especially in certain so-called 'New Age' sects and cults.
The Secret Doctrine' (supposedly a synthesis of science, philosophy and religion. She contended that the human being's identity was not the worldly person (or 'terrestrial ego') but his 'spiritual ego' or true Higher Self, an entity of divine nature and origin. She claimed that there is a spiritual hierarchy and that there existed Masters of Ancient Wisdom (somewhere in the Himalayas, it appeared) and that she had contact and guidance from them. She also published on many esoteric themes promoting speculative theories drawn from Eastern religion, such as Reincarnation and Karma and including one claiming to be a clairvoyant insight detailing the many alleged reincarnations of Jesus (know as 'Maitreya' - the title of this peculiar but fascinating illustrated account was 'The Lives of Alcyon' (limited edition), being obtained through alleged astral projection and reading of the akasic records. It recounted 80 (alleged) lifetimes of a reincarnating spirit of a high level of advancement with his various companions, claiming to describe their lives in societies from 80,000 years ago onwards. Blavatsky was close to her acolyte C. W. Leadbeater, who wrote an imaginative book about 'Invisible Helpers', about disincarnate spirits who assist mortals from other dimensions and his 'Masters and the Path' the supposed hidden sages of Tibet like Rishi Koot hoomi or Kuthumi being behind the theosophical movement). Blavatsky later identified the Indian boy from Madras called Jiddu Krishnamurthi as being the latest incarnation - in short, the Second Coming (!) an honour Krishnamurti eventually and famously rejected despite being worshipped by the entire Theosophical Society, firmly denying that he was any such thing.
Theosophy was summarised in the Encyclopedia Britannica by an article by Professor Carl Jackson
Controversies around Blavatsky were partly centered on her claims of clairvoyant access to eternal wisdom and the phenomena of spontaneous manifestations of objects, texts etc. in connection with her inaccessible 'masters'. This controversy has perhaps best been summarised in “The Mysterious Madame: A Life of Madame Blavatsky" by Ephesian' or C. E. Bechofer-Roberts. London (Bodley Head) 1931. The following notes serve as an abstract:-
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky b. July 31, 1831. (Russian Ukraine) d. May 8. 1891 (St. John‘s Wood). Married to a General Blavatsky in a fit of pique. Eloped with a Metrovitch. Re-married bigamously to an Englishman.
Referring to H.P.B.’s relations with Co1. Olcott: ‘They were ideal partners. She contributed imagination, audacity, and powers of bluff unequalled in the history of occultism, He provided what she most needed: a cool, worldly-wise, organizing talent, which saved her many times from the consequence of her headlong recklessness. and established on a businesslike basis her fabulous outfit of magic, inspiration, and direct communication with the "Masters".' (p.47)
Nevertheless. H.P.B. often referred to Co1. Olcott in disparaging terms, such as ”blockhead"; a “windbag full of vanity“, “a perfect bag of conceit and silliness“ a “psychological baby” and she also said that she had “so psychologised him that he did not know his head from his heels”. Of another associate in her immediate household like Rosa Bates: she described her“ as “a hole in the Cosmos in which a lot of garbage has been dumped“
At Adyar, The Shrine was a cabinet in the ‘Occult Room’, which was connected to B.'s bedroom through a clothes wardrobe by an opening in the intervening wall and a sliding panel in the cabinet of ’The Shrine’! This was revealed by her long-time associates and ‘collaborators’ in magic the carpenter and his wife, Mr. & Mrs. Coulomb when they were disaffected. All this was investigated at much length by the Society of Psychical Research
(S.P.R.) of whom Myers was the President. They sent Richard Hodgson ~ a young Australian graduate of Cambridge University to Madras in 1884 to investigate, which he did at great length with thoroughness and considerable neutrality. He had originally been well-disposed to Occultism and M. Blavatsky, he admitted.
The report (Dec. 1885) was over 200 pages with many letters, appendices etc. He found such fundamental variance from fact in the testimony of Col.- Olcott as to make it impossible to place the slightest value upon the evidence he had offered. Likewise Damodar, Babaji and Mohini were found to be thoroughly untrustworthy and hopelessly inconsistent. In the SPR Committee‘s summing up of their evaluation of the whole they wrote "We regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that-she had achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.”
Mrs. Annie Besant. at age 42, became converted overnight from Freethinking and Socialism (Charles Bradlaugh“s movement) to Mahatmic Theosophy on reading B's recently-published work The Secret Doctrine. She immediately “flung the Report aside with the righteous scorn of an honest nature that knew its own kin when it met them and shrank from the foulness of a lie” (her own words). Thereupon she very soon became Madame B‘s right hand and princess regent, even though she admittedly had no psychic or spiritual abilities whatever.
An American founder of the Society, Judge, outmaneuvered Olcott and became the sole representative of Blavatsky/the Masters etc. in U.S. and later managed to ‘share’ the reconstructed esoteric society with Besant after Blavatsky’s death.
The author concludes:
“One must remember he physical disabilities. A sickly child, subject to hallucinations; a hysterical adolescent; a woman tortured by painful diseases - her infirm body housed an abnormally nervous mind, as unstable and disjointed as it was imaginative and resilient. Such a combination doomed her to be either a lunatic or a genius, or a combination of both. By this internal urge, as much as by the force of circumstances. she was inevitably launched upon the strange career which eventually led her from the medium's chair to become the high priestess of an esoteric cult.
Her self~deception kept pace with her invention. until at last she believed. even to the point of certitude. that she was what she claimed to be; that she was labouring to spread a gospel of truth: that the Masters really existed; that They guided her, and that she must, by whatever means came to hand, proclaim Their physical presence and Their beneficent work for humanity.
Many people have speculated on the psychology of such as she: the question of conscious or unconscious fraud; the underlying motives of vanity, love of power. vicarious sexual gratification: and the possibility of a real mediumistic faculty with supernormal powers."
Blavatsky and Her Teachers by Jean Overton Fuller. 1988 East-West Publications (can get it from Samuel Weiser Inc.). This is the authoritative one... as far as research can reach into the mystery of Blavatsky. Not one-sided and very fascinating.
I found Blavatsky's most interesting writing about India to be From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. Part auto-biog, part 'artist's licence' or even sheer invention - as she later had to admit))... but still a most varied and entrancing trip.