Post-Enlightenment Mystics: Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891)

This is an article by John R. Mabry on Madame Helena Blavatsky reproduced here with permission. I think you will find this has a very interesting perspective.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Post-Enlightenment Mystics: Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891)

In the Wizard of Oz, probably America’s most successful indigenous mythologies, L. Frank Baum tells of a Wizard who appears to a small band of adventurers who had gone to seek him; namely, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, The Cowardly Lion, and little Dorothy with her dog, Toto. The amazing thing is that, in the book, he does not appear to them at the same time, as he does in the film. First, he appears to Dorothy as a giant, scary, disembodied head. Second, he appears to the Scarecrow as a beautiful young woman with wings. To the Tin Woodman, the Wizard appeared as a terrible beast, with the head of a Rhinoceros, with five eyes, five long arms and five long, slim legs. It was covered with thick, woolly hair. The next morning the Great and Terrible Oz appeared to the Cowardly lion as a ball of flame.

Baum was trying to make a point in his story: great figures appear differently to different people. What one person may see as an innocent and intriguing woman, another may see as a terrible beast, while another may see her as the mouthpiece of disembodied wisdom. These images are not random, of course. L. Frank Baum was a Theosophist by religion, a religion founded by one extraordinary woman-or was she a beast? – Madame Blavatsky.

She was born in 1831, and named Helena Hahn. She was the daughter of a Russian colonel, who by ethnicity was part of a tribe of expatriate Tibetans who had migrated to Russia, and struggled as people of a minority religion in a Christian country. Her mother was the daughter of Princess Helena Dolgoroukov, although she died when our hero was only eleven. Her cousin was Sergei Witte, who would later become prime minister, and personal friend of Rasputin’s.

At sixteen she married middle-aged Count Nikifor Blavatsky, a famed world traveler twenty four years her senior, mostly to prove her nurse wrong. Her nurse told her that with her mouth, she’d never get a man. So she landed a Count, and promptly left him, never consummating the marriage. After this, she appeared in Egypt with an Italian opera singer, studied voodoo in New Orleans, lived among the Indians in Canada, journeyed by wagon train to consult with the Mormons, worked as a bareback rider in a circus, taught piano in Paris and London, served as a medium, and managed an artificial flower factory. Now, this is all from her own recollections, and the degree to which this bizarre resume is based in fact is a matter of speculation. Still, it is her story, her myth, if you will, and the spirit of such a resume is certainly true, even if some of the particulars are fanciful.

In 1873, at the age of 42, she found herself once again in America, which was in the grip of a spiritualist craze. Seances were never bigger than when she came on the scene. Table rapping, levitating trumpets, and mysterious voices were all the rage, as people traveled long distances to gain a comforting word from a departed loved one. Blavatsky reveled in this occult atmosphere, and it was at one such séance that she met her Platonic life partner-Colonel Henry Olcott. Colonel Olcott was Blavatsky’s mirror opposite. She was a large woman, he a diminutive man; she was a loud, brash chain smoker; he was a quiet, naive man with no visible vices. Together, they formed an association that would quite literally change the world: The Theosophical Society.

The Theosophical Society was born in 1875. The word “theosophy” is not original to them, of course. For many years the word was a synonym for “mysticism” in general and was applied to the work of many mystics we have already covered, such as Meister Eckhart, Jakob Boehme, and Paracelsus. But Blavatsky and Olcott made the term their own, and it has ever since been associated with their Society. The word literally means “the wisdom of God,” and it was their single-minded mission to make this wisdom available to the world.

Originally, the society had three stated goals:

  1. To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color;
  2. to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science;
  3. to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.

Now, if they had stopped there, the Society would have had long and appealing value. There is nothing in those three stated goals that I personally disagree with, and if that were all that the Theosophical Society promoted, I would probably be a Theosophist today. And indeed, many people were attracted to this initial formula.

But Blavatsky had too much of the showman in her, and her followers were fascinated with occult phenomena, which she was only too willing to provide. Soon letters began falling from the ceiling, appearing out of nowhere from one of several “Ascended Masters.”

According Theosophical mythology, the Ascended Masters were once human, but through endless cycles of reincarnation, have become enlightened beings who guide the spiritual evolution of humankind from their remote hermitages in the Himalayas. This myth took on a life of its own, especially after Blavatsky and Olcott relocated their headquarters in Adyar, India. There they found a culture predisposed to believe in gurus, even disembodied ones, and even for those in Europe and America, odd spiritual wisdom was easier to swallow when coming from alleged Ascended Masters than it was coming from a chain-smoking Russian medium.

Many notable people were attracted to Blavatsky’s teachings. Journalist A.P. Sinnet was the recipient of many letters from the Ascended Masters, and he believed in them whole-heartedly. Eventually enough of the letters were produced to be published. THE MAHATMA LETTERS runs seven volumes, and the originals now reside in the British Museum. Yeats was also under Blavatsky’s spell for a time, and Sherlock Holmes inventor Arthur Conan Doyle was also an avid Theosophist, and published regularly in Theosophical journals.

But not everyone was so enamoured. The Society for Psychical Research sent an investigator to India after hearing from Blavatsky’s estranged housekeeper. The investigator was not surprised to find that the “shrine” in which the Masters’ letters appeared shared a wall with Blavatsky’s bedroom, and a secret panel between the two was discovered. Blavatsky went into a rage and insisted that the housekeeper’s husband, a carpenter, had put the secret panel there just to discredit her.

But the faithful were not deterred. Blavatsky herself laments promulgating the Ascended Masters myth in her later letters, relieved that the investigator had simply declared her a fraud. That was better, after all, than him discovering the truth about her masters. The truth, according to one researcher, was that her masters were indeed real, but instead of enlightened, once-human beings living in remote places, they were, in fact, her real-life mentors; even the paintings of the Ascended Masters bore remarkable resemblance to the men who trained and guided her.

That she was ready to dispense with this mythology is clear in that she published a parody of the doctrine in one of the Theosophical journals, in which she herself appears as a gigantic disembodied head. Now, the fact that L. Frank Baum had the great and powerful Oz appear to Dorothy in exactly the same way is no accident-I believe it is a direct reference to this parody. And Oz is found out by Dorothy and her companions. He is discovered to be a “humbug” a fraud, with no magical powers at all. Dorothy is incensed and tells him, “I think you are a very bad man!” (p. 162) But listen to his reply, “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”

Perhaps the same can be said for Oz’s model, Madame Blavatsky. For upon leaving India and the myth of the Ascended Masters behind, she went to Europe and composed her magnum opus, THE SECRET DOCTRINE. This amazing work ran over 1,500 pages, and is a very rewarding work indeed. For in it, Blavatsky proposes an evolutionary scheme that made Darwin’s seem miniscule by comparison. For in it she posits that we are not the products of random chance, but the recipients of a grand cosmic plan designed to lead us to greater and greater spheres of enlightenment, until the whole of the universe is aware of its own divinity.

In formulating this plan, she distills the spiritual wisdom of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Taoism, Egypt and the Western Mystery traditions into one great, lumbering system that is as staggering in its scope as it is incomprehensible. Blavatsky was thus the first of a long line of synthesizers that tried to shoehorn various religious and mystical traditions into one coherent system, always with mixed results. After her, Aleister Crowley would create his own synthesis, followed by many others, all the way up to Ken Wilber in our own day.

The problem with the synthesis approach is that these are different systems, and were not intended to be pasted together, but according to the synthesizers, Truth is One, and by looking at the disparate elements of many traditions, one can gain a greater grasp of the whole, of the elusive truth that every tradition points to but none can encompass. THE SECRET DOCTRINE attempts to encompass this Truth, certainly, but only succeeds in being an unruly mess, albeit a brilliant one indeed.

She died on May 8, 1891, from a combination of many illnesses including heart disease, kidney disease, and gout, leaving behind a legacy that would continue to snowball long after her death. The Theosophical Society would continue to swell, reaching its apex in the 1920s, with millions of members worldwide. The myth of the Ascended Masters also outlived her, and even today there are many splinter groups that still honor the mysterious enlightened men in the Himalayas. Probably the largest of these is the gun-stockpiling Church Universal and Triumphant headed by Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

She was a remarkable woman, certainly, but in the end, can we say that she was much more than a charlatan? I believe she was much more than that. For although she used dishonest means, and was not above publicly ridiculing people she thought were too darn naïve for their own good, she was also a prophet with a timely message, even for us today. We might even say she was a soldier, fighting a spiritual war on two fronts.

First, she fought against Christian arrogance. If we are to believe her account, she was raised in a tribe of dislocated Buddhists in a Christian country, and railed all her life against the spiritual hubris of Christianity. It was her belief that the spiritual wisdom of the East was at least as valid as the wisdom offered by Western traditions, and she spent her life exploring and explicating these ideas, making them accessible to the average person. In this she was a popularizer of great skill, and we in the West are indebted to her, for it was partly through her efforts that the first Parliament of World Religions was held in Chicago over a hundred years ago; an event that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism to America, and fired the American imagination for esoteric wisdom. Her attack on Christianity would eventually come full circle, when thirty years after her death, the Theosophical Society spawned it’s own Christian tradition: the Liberal Catholic Church. As you probably know, St. Raphael’s Liberal Catholic Church meets in this very sanctuary every Saturday morning, sporting a high Anglican-style liturgy and a very Theosophical theology.

Blavatsky’s other war front was against modernism. She hated the idea that the universe could be compartmentalized, and explained piece by piece. She couldn’t stand the idea that science could explain away every mystery, and in her battle against this modern impulse she joined a long line of Romantics, such as Blake and Yeats, who felt that there was much more mystery in the world than could possibly be explained by science. In this particular war he had unwitting allies in the Christian fundamentalists, although I’m sure they would decline to drink from her canteen.

Her writings and the sheer force of her personality fostered a movement that rose above the petty table-rapping of the spiritualists and embraced a cosmic vision that gave hope to millions who were not being spiritually fed by their religious traditions. In doing so, she inspired artistic schools that led to non-representational modern art, pioneered the use of archetypes which foreshadowed depth psychology, posited layer upon layer of past civilizations which was amazingly close to modern theories of plate tectonics, and eschewed religious and scientific parochialism that presaged the theories of Einstein and Heisenberg, and the whole of post-modern relativism.

So, was Madame Blavatsky a charlatan? Probably. Was she at the same time a fearless spiritual adventurer? Most certainly, and we owe her a lot. It is safe to say that the entire New Age movement has its roots in the nineteenth-century occult revival she was so instrumental in bringing about. And whatever you may think of New Agers, the movement certainly provided a means for those who are turned off by traditional spiritual paths a way to discover new meaning for their lives and a deeper connection to the universe than they had known before. And as shallow and silly as so many New Age groups may seem, the sincere seeker can see through the proprietary jargon to the universal truths that may be there, and keep on seeking, as one guru after another falls away.

After all, it wasn’t until after the Great and Terrible Oz was revealed to be a humbug that he actually became a useful and productive person for Dorothy and her little band of Adventurers. Likewise, acknowledging Madame Blavatsky’s feet of clay should not dissuade us from appreciating the treasure that she also was, and continues to be, long after her death. Let us pray.

Lord of the Universe, you are the God of both saints and sinners, and most of us are not one or the other, but both at the same time, much like your servant, Helen Blavatsky. Help us to realize, as she taught, that truth is true wherever you find it, that no one religion-including science–has all the answers, and that we would all be a good deal better off if took our own culture with a dose of humility, and realized that every people has been granted wisdom, and that that wisdom is not their alone, but belongs to the whole of the human family. Help us to have a measure of her openness to other traditions, and an ounce of her chutzpah. For we ask this in the name of the Ascended Master we know best, even Jesus Christ. Amen.

 John R. Mabry


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