“Nothing of that which is conducive to help man, collectively or individually, to live… ought to be indifferent to the Theosophist-Occultist,” wrote H.P. Blavatsky in 1889. It was Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society (TS), co-founded with Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge over a decade earlier in 1875, that would go on to inspire the imagination and even lexicon (think “astral” travel or “Ascended Masters”) of modern spirituality. Nearly a century later, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut would call Blavatsky, “the Founding Mother of the Occult in America.” In a time rife with unrest concerning the stagnation of organized religion, and the proliferating marvels of Victorian science in the ever-quickening pace of modernity, Theosophy offered more than seances and spirit raps: it offered a philosophy and a metaphysics, a “religion that could meet the challenges of modern thought.”
Henry Miller would call Isis Unveiled, “the most extraordinary book any woman could have written,” and D.T. Suzuki—a Buddhist scholar who would go on to popularize Zen Buddhism in the West-—would write on Blavatsky’s The Voice of the Silence, “undoubtedly Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teaching and then gave out what she deemed wise to the Western world,” and also, succinctly: “Here is the real Mahayana Buddhism.” Standing in front of Blavatsky’s portrait, Suzuki is said to have remarked, “She was one who attained.”
The cultural influence of the Theosophical movement can hardly be understated: it boasted membership from the likes of Thomas Edison, and had appreciators as diverse as the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the abstract painters Kandinsky and Hilma af Klint, and even Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who credited Theosophy with helping to “lead them back to Hinduism.” Theosophy was even referenced considerably in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
The Theosophical Society had three goals,
1. To form a nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.
2. The study of ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study; and
3. the investigation of the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man.
Some of these notions may not seem especially innovative for our time (even though, sadly, they are hardly lived up to), but in the late 19th century, these ideas struck a cord with the public. Blavatsky’s biographer, Gary Lachman, in his excellent book Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, cites historian of esotericism Christopher Bamford’s claim that “she [Blavatsky] should be, counted with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as one of the ‘creators of the twentieth century.’” Religious studies scholar Mark Bevir would concur that, despite Blavatsky’s enigmatic, controversial and even deliberately self-obfuscating biography, it’s undeniable that she instrumental in giving “Occultism an Eastward orientation,” and helped to “turn Europeans and Americans towards Eastern religions and philosophies.” Long before Beat Zen, there was Theosophy.
“[Blavatsky was] a masterly creator of metaphysical and occult science fiction,” Alan Watts— himself a future popularizer of Eastern philosophy—would write, “perhaps she was a charlatan, but she did a beautiful job of it.” Rudolf Steiner, a tremendous figure in his own right who started off associating with the Theosophical Society before creating his own Anthroposophy, would say that she lacked “a consistency in her external behavior.” Another biographer would note that Blavatsky “rarely said exactly the same thing twice.” Another scholar that Lachman cites, K. Paul Johnson, wrote that Blavatsky made “a deliberate effort… to appear untrustworthy and suspicious and to render the biographers task impossible.” There’s a long history of enigmatic spiritual teachers, as Lachman rightly points out: From G.I. Gurfjieff and Carlos Castenada, to even the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, there is a precedent for mystics and occultists to occlude their own biographies into the obscurities of contradicting hearsay. The result, often enough, seems to amplify the allure of their biographies to the status of infamy or hagiography, or perhaps admixtures of the two.
Piecing Together a Metaphysical Biography
Madame Blavatsky was born “Helen Petrovna von Hanh” in 1831 to an aristocratic family in Ukraine. She didn’t stay there long. At the age of seventeen she was married to Nikifor Blavatsky. It is suspected that she did so to escape her parochial life more easily-—she did, and managed to flee to Constantinople. We know very little about what happened during these years—K. Paul Johnson refers to them as the “veiled years”—but we do know that historical documentation becomes more reliable in 1873, when she arrives in the United States. Most stories tell us that she was traveling extensively across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Blavatsky herself admits that she, “took care during my travels to sweep away all traces of myself wherever I went.”
According to HPB, at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first of the famous World’s Fair series, she met her first teacher, “Master Morya.” Morya, along with “Koot Hoomi,” were to be her only two teachers, “Adepts” of what she would call the Secret Doctrine. These teachings are described extensively in The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888), detailing a spiritual history of humanity and a form of perennial philosophy.
Briefly, The Secret Doctrine proposes three principles underlying all spiritual traditions:
1. There is one absolute Reality which antecedes all manifested, conditioned being.
2. The absolute universality of the law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow.
3. The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul.
Blavatsky allegedly traveled to Tibet and studied with spiritual masters there. If this is true, it would make her the first modern Western woman to visit the country. “There is beyond the Himalayas a nucleus of Adepts, of various nationalities… My Master and KH and several others I know personally are there, coming and going, and they are all in communication with Adepts in Egypt and Syria, and even Europe.” These teachers, whether they were literally real in the historical sense, or not, were solely credited for her writing. Hyram P. Corson, a Cornell University professor, would write that “she herself told me that she wrote [the quotations] down as they appeared in her eyes on another plane of objective existence… she clearly saw the page of the book, and the quotation she needed, and simply translated what she saw in English.” Olcott, who met her in 1873, would claim that she wrote the book at an alarming pace of twenty-five pages each day.
With the founding of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, (Olcott would pass her a note during a lecture: “would it not be a good thing to form a society for this kind of study?”), Blavatsky would go on to write Isis Unveiled in 1877, and in 1879, publish The Theosophist, a journal and outlet for much of her writing.
After one of the Masters allegedly appeared before Olcott–leaving behind a turban as proof–HPB and the Theosophical Society moved to India. Even though modern-day scholarship would regard much of Blavatsky’s writing concerning Eastern mysticism as Orientalist in character (and that isn’t wrong), it’s worth recognizing the complexities of the colonized and the colonizer. Describing a ceremony that Blavatsky and Olcott performed in 1880 in Sri Lanka, “taking Pansil,” or the lay Buddhist precepts, David Guy cites Ricks Fields: “It was the first time the Sinhalese had seen [white people]… treat Buddhism with anything approaching respect, and it was (as far as we have been able to discover) the first time that Americans had become Buddhists in the formal sense.” Annie Besant (1847-1933), a socialist and early feminist who would assume a prominent leadership role in the Theosophical Society after Blavatsky’s death, would initiate the first Indian Prime Minister, Nehru, into Theosophy and openly advocate for Irish and Indian self-rule.
The 1880s were a challenging decade for Blavatsky. Her housekeeper Emma Coulomb, after attempting blackmail, came forward with claims that she had assisted Blavatsky in staging “supernatural” phenomena—secret panels in the walls, holes in the ceiling—for Theosophical attendees. The Society for Psychical Research (whose original UK branch still exists today) even took an interest. Richard Hodgson, wrote a detailed report of Blavatsky’s alleged deceptions, describing her as, “one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of history.” Hodgson’s report has since been rejected by the SPR, but journalistic claims (that she was, in reality, “five hundred years old and renews her in the Far East as often as necessary,” for example), or even slander from friends and family (her sister, Vera, oscillated between praise and slander) certainly did not help.
Although near the end of her life—she would die in 1891—Madame Blavatsky would continue to be prolific, a true creative force, penning the massive tome The Secret Doctrine (1888), as well as The Key to Theosophy, and The Voice of Silence before her passing.
“For Helen, all nature seemed animated with a mysterious life of its own,” Vera would write in a kind turn about her sister, “she heard the voice of every object and form… and claimed consciousness and being… even for visible but inanimate things such as pebbles, molds, and pieces of decaying phosphorescent timber.” Who was H.P. Blavatsky? A mystic, a fraud, “a masterly creator of metaphysical and occult science fiction?” In a conversation one evening with my wife about writing this article, I blurted out, “maybe you need the trick to have the treat.” I was referring to the scholarship of religious studies professor Jeffrey Kripal. “We are not very good at such paradoxical ways of thinking today,” he writes, “we tend to think of the imagined as imaginary, that is, made up, fanciful. But something else is shining through.” I certainly sense that is the case with Blavatsky’s life. That Albert Einstein allegedly kept a “well-thumbed” copy of The Secret Doctrine on his desk attests to something else, a “mysterious life,” fantastical and quicksilver, yes, yet nonetheless “shining through.”
David Guy. The Mysterious Madame B.
Matthew Wills. Spiritualism, Science, and the Mysterious Madame B lavatsky.
Gary Lachman. Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality.