Thursday, April 28, 2011

Gothic Egypt

As part of Museums at Night 2011, hundreds of London museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage sites are unlocking their doors for special evening events over the weekend of May 13-15. On Friday evening, May 13, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, at University College, London, will be offering a walk through titled “Gothic Egypt.”

Gothic Egypt is an attitude to Egypt. An image of Ancient (and Modern) Egypt based on ideas of decay, an obsession with death, a civilization alien to Western cultural norms. Egypt is related to and yet lies outside the ‘West’ and has been perceived as typifying Oriental excess.

Aside from the exhibits, there are notes on the motif of Egyptian horror, from Bram Stoker to the Hammer films of the 1960s. Referring to Mme. Blavatsky, the program guide says:

The Theosophical Society, originally for the study into medium and spiritualistic traditions and practices, was founded in New York in 1875. One of the founding members was Madame Helena Blavatsky who had lived in Cairo in the early 1870s and published the massive Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology in 1877. Blavatsky attributed the ancients, and in particular the Egyptians, with superior knowledge and wisdom and drew on ancient texts as well as current Egyptology. Of particular significance to her was the Book of the Dead as well as the divine figures of Osiris and Isis….The magical wisdom offered from Ancient Egypt by Queen Tera in [Bram Stoker’s] The Jewel of Seven Stars seems to embody the secret and lost spiritual knowledge revered by Blavatsky and others.

The program guide can be accessed here.

Enlightenment for Sale

The Chakra (, “the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of worldwide Dharmic-related news,” for April 28th has a piece of the popularization of Indian ideas through the New Age movement. “Modern Transpersonal Psychology, Consciousness Studies, the occult religion of Theosophy, Landmark Education’s The Forum and ‘est’ seminars with more than 700,000 graduates, Filmore’s Unity School of Christianity, occult religion of Eckankar, Scientology and many thousands of new-age schools and philosophies are in fact all crude derivatives and adulterated spin-offs of a mix of ancient Hindu concepts.”

More importantly, Madame Helena Blavatsky (founder of Theosophical Society) who has been considered one of the biggest pioneers and the ‘mother’ of new-age thinking has wielded a far reaching influence on occult thinkers and on Western mysticism as a whole. What is not commonly known however is that her magnum opus (book) ‘The Secret Doctrine’ that set the pulse for most of the new-age thinking was in fact inspired by Hindu theories on cosmic evolution and manifestation. She often quotes the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Puranas in her works and is even said to have travelled in India and studied under Brahmin teachers.

In response to this diffusion of Indian culture, there has been a move in India, it reports, to patent “nearly 900 yoga asanas (postures), to prevent European and American companies involved in fitness-related activities from claiming them as their own.”

Donald Lopez, Jr. on Mme. Blavatsky

Karl Pohrt posts on his blog,, an interview with Donald Lopez, Jr., that will appear in issue #48 of The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal (May through August 2011). The main topic is Lopez’s news book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, recently published by Princeton University Press. In the course of the interview, Pohrt asks:

Karl Pohrt: From our vantage point, it is easy to dismiss Evans-Wentz, who was born in Trenton, New Jersey and never learned the Tibetan language, or Lama Govinda, who was born Ernst Hoffman in Germany, or Madame Blavatsky, a Russian medium who started the Theosophical Society as—at best—romantic amateurs who misrepresented and twisted Hinduism and Buddhism to fit their own agendas. But is this too harsh a judgment? Maybe the window through which we observe others is always cloudy. Evans-Wentz, Govinda, and Blavatsky were also early western pioneers in the encounter with Asian religious traditions.

Donald Lopez: I agree entirely. I’ve often tried to talk about the importance, especially, of Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. In the late 1800s India and Asia were being overrun by Christian missionaries who were telling the Buddhists that their religion was idolatry and superstition. Madame Blavatsky, a Russian medium, and her friend Colonel Olcott, an American Civil War veteran, sailed to Sri Lanka to defend the Buddhists against the British and they went to India to defend the Hindus against the British. There’s something quite heroic about them. They believed that there is a single mystical tradition from which all religions spring, an idea that continues to this day. And so the fact that they were trying to see Hinduism and Buddhism through that lens is not surprising in the least.

The rest of the interview can be read here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


The blog Art History Unstuffed continues its exposition of art and artists at the turn of the 20th century. Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) receives the treatment in a post on April 22:

An important indication of the underlying meaning of Mondrian’s art is one of his last representational paintings, the Evolution triptych of 1910, a symbolic evocation of a human journey to spiritualism. Mondrian had been an adherent of the pan-philosophy, Theosophy, since 1909, and embraced its idea that absolute laws rule the universe. Founded by Madame Hélène Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century, Theosophy attempted to explain why neither science nor religion could provide the answers to life’s mysteries. Theosophy was widespread and many early twentieth century artists, such as Kandinsky and Malevich and Klee, were adherents of the philosophy. The Dutch artist, J.L.M. Lauwerkis stated that, “The concepts of Theosophy are preeminently suited to be expressed by art because of their magnitude and profundity.”

His involvement with the Dutch art group De Stijl, “The Style,” and its influence on his style, can be read here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hume, Allan Octavian, “A small site that is interested in things botanical and historical, associated with the herbaria@home project,” posted a piece on April 13 about the post theosophical pursuits of A.O. Hume (1829–1912) as part of their series on British botanists. “During his latter years, he devoted time and money to the establishment of the South London Botanical Institute; this was and is based in a large house on Norwood Road, Tulse Hill.”

The piece, which has since been taken down, had the obligatory reference to Blavatsky and Theosophy: During his time in India, Hume become involved in the Theosophy Movement (Blavatsky and Olcott) but later dissociated himself from most of its tenets though he remained a vegetarian (and was a vice president of the British Vegetarian Society). Hume was not alone in the adoption of such beliefs—Mary Ann Atwood embraced theosophy, Wallace–Spiritualism, and H C Watson –Phrenology: the interpretation of bumps on the head.

Hume, along with A.P. Sinnett, was one of the recipients of what came to be known as the Mahatma letters. Some of the best-known letters were to Hume. He must have been a formidable personality. Critical of the British Government in India, he took early retirement after being demoted, got involved with the Theosophical Society in India, and, leaving that, went on to help start the Indian National Congress. A passionate ornithologist in India, he became an equally passionate botanist after he settled in London in the 1890s.

The South London Botanical Institute, which was founded by Hume in 1910, still exists, and according to their website: “the aims of the Institute have remained almost unchanged in 100 years. Hume’s lasting contribution has been to provide an environment where those interested in plants, be they amateur or professional, may meet and develop their knowledge of plants.” The Institute, at its original location in London, houses a library with an extensive collection of botanical books and journals, a herbarium, and impressive garden, and hosts a number of related events during the year.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Blavatsky’s Influence in Australia

An article in the magazine section of the Sunday April 17, 2011, issue of The Hindu newspaper of India carries the news that “the fastest growing religion in Australia is Buddhism.” Starting with the arrival of Chinese labourers in Adelaide in 1851 to the more recent immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Buddhism has been a presence in Australia.

The next link with Buddhism was through the Theosophists. Helene Blavatsky and Col. Henry Olcott, who had formally converted to Buddhism in 1880 in a temple in south Ceylon. Olcott spent several months on a lecture tour of Australia in 1891 and though there are many differences between Theosophy and Buddhism, his assertion at several lectures that the central aim of Theosophy was to draw attention to Buddhist philosophy led to a greater white Australian interest in Buddhism. Particularly as Alfred Deakin, a Liberal politician and later to be Prime Minister of Australia three times, was a Theosophist and chaired several of Olcott's meetings.

The paper reports that “The biggest stupa outside the countries with a significant Buddhist presence is being built in Bendigo, not far from Melbourne….The FPMT’s [Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition] Great Stupa of Universal Compassion will be 50 sq. m at the base, will rise to a height of 48 m. and resemble the Great Stupa in Gyantse, in southern Tibet, which dates to 1474. In the acres surroundings the Bendigo stupa there will be raised a monastery, a meditation centre, a hospice and accommodation for visitors.” The Dalai Lama laid the foundation on June 7, 2007, and the town “is expected to boom with thousands of visitors anticipated every year.”

The rest of article can be read here.

model of The Great Stupa

Hilma af Klint

The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for April 17 contains the news about an exhibition at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm’s National Museum of Modern Art, planned for 2013. It will be a retrospective of Hilma af Klint, who was born in 1862 in Sweden and died there in 1944. While Kandinsky is credited with creating his abstract paintings as early as 1911, Hilma af Klint was working in the same way much earlier, as this exhibition will show. Using sketches, notes and diaries from the painter’s estate, “Diese Ausstellung wird Hilma af Klint als Urheberin des ersten abstrakten Bildes der Moderne auf den Plan der Kunstgeschichte bringen. (This exhibition will put Hilma af Klint as the author of the first abstract image of modernity on the map of art history.)”

Of course her interest in Mme. Blavatsky is mentioned. Theosophy is portrayed as a kind of Masonry for women: “Sie hatten plötzlich Zugang zur Metaphysik, den höheren Sphären also, die als unentbehrlich für die Schaffung großer Kunstwerke galten. (They suddenly had access to metaphysics, so to the higher spheres, which were considered essential to the creation of great art.)” Hilma af Klint also knew Rudolf Steiner. The rest of the article can be read here.

No doubt this exhibition will bring her work greater recognition. Hilma af Klint was never interested in selling her paintings or drawings. At her death in 1944, she willed her belongings to her nephew Erik af Klint. The will specified that her works should not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death. It took, however, 40 years before Hilma af Klint’s art was first shown to the public at an exhibit on spiritual art in Los Angeles in 1986. The first large separate exhibition in Sweden was in 1989 at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. In 1998, Södertälje konsthall had a large exhibit with focus on her anthroposophic period. The entire Paintings for the Temple series was shown at the Liljevalchs konsthall in 1999. Today, the collection is owned by the Hilma af Klint Foundation.

There was an exhibition of her paintings at BildMuseet, Umeå, Sweden, in 2004, titled “Geometry and Spirituality,” and one in the Netherlands in 2010.

Hilma af Klint, Diary page

Gustav Holst and Blavatsky

London’s Independent newspaper for April 15 has a revealing review of a film that will be shown on BBC 4 in the U.K. on Easter Sunday (April 24). The film, In the Bleak Midwinter, about the English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), “contains more than a few startling revelations about this apparently quiet and enigmatic figure.”

“Holst’s The Planets is one of the best-known pieces of classical music written by a British composer,” the reviewer notes.

But the central spur of the planned Seven Large Pieces for Orchestra was neither astrological nor political: it was Theosophy. This spirituality, pioneered by Helena Blavatsky, was immensely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influencing figures as diverse as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, the artist Paul Gauguin and the poet WB Yeats. It drew on Eastern philosophies, and Holst was involved in it enough to learn Sanskrit. Many of his works have an intense Eastern flavour, including the three-part suite Beni Mora, his Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda and the operas Savitri and Sita.

The rest of the review can be read here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

W.Y. Evans-Wentz and Blavatsky

Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup and Walter Evans-Wentz
photographed circa 1919

The online journal, Berfrois, for April 13 has a promotional piece by Donald Lopez Jr. for his The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography featuring much the same slant as in the book. Referring to W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who was responsible for bringing the text to public attention, he writes:

He was a devotee instead of several of the Hindu swamis of the day, and his deepest devotion was to the Theosophical Society, founded by the Russian medium Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the American Civil War veteran, Colonel Henry Olcott (1832-1907) in New York in 1875. Although largely forgotten today, the Theosophical Society was very influential in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially among European and American artists and writers (from William Butler Yeats to L. Frank Baum). They believed that the mystical traditions of all religions arose from a single core, set forth to the world by a series of Mahatmas or “great souls,” who included Jesus and the Buddha. Once living on the island continent of Atlantis, in recent centuries the Mahatmas, seeking to escape the increasing levels of magnetism elsewhere in the world, had congregated in Tibet.

And so on and so forth, the rest of which can be read here. All this, by-the-way, for a text attributed to a semi-legendary figure, Padmasambhava, and “discovered” hundreds of years later and made the basis of a spiritual belief!

Western Pioneers of Buddhism

The blog, Jampa Tenzin, for April 11 looks at “Western Pioneers of Buddhism”: “The first people that made Buddhism known in the West were not Buddhists from Asia, but Westerners themselves. I would like to introduce you to western pioneers of Buddhism.”

However bizarre it now seems, Western interest in Tibetan Buddhism was first stimulated by a spiritual genius, Madame Blavatsky. She said that she had travelled to Tibet where she became the disciple of very special teachers, whom she called the Mahatmas. These teachers guided her by sending her telepathic teachings and sending her magic letters with instructions. Madame Blavatsky wrote books full of tales of her Mahatmas and thereby spread the notion of Tibet as a land of endless phantasmagoric wonders, meaning a land full of sprits and magicians.

The rest of the piece, which also mentions the work of “General” Olcott for the promulgation of Buddhism, can be read here.

Buddhism History for March 31 carried a piece on “A Brief History of UK Buddhism” by dharma, noting that “150 years ago, this response was primarily scholarly. The Buddha himself became well known as a moral and spiritual hero with the publication in 1879 of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia. Alongside this came the start of interest in Buddhism as a path of practice. This was pioneered by the Theosophists, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, and in 1880 they became the first Westerners to receive the refuges and precepts, the ceremony by which one traditionally becomes a Buddhist.”

The idea that the contribution of Blavatsky and Olcott to the Western awareness of Buddhism (and other eastern religions) was in viewing it as “a path of practice,” instead of just a scholarly pursuit, is an important one and too often overlooked in mere recounting of their colourful exploits.

“A Brief History of UK Buddhism” can be read here. While noting the founding of the Buddhist Society in 1924 there is no reference to T. Christmas Humphreys, who helped nurture it and was a potent force for the spread of Buddhism in England after the WWII as well as being a great admirer of Blavatsky, though there is acknowledgement of the work of the English Buddhist convert Sangharakshita, who formed the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) and who has acknowledged Blavatsky’s impact on his spiritual journey.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Blavatsky and Hinduism

Arvind Sharma in his new book, Hinduism as a Missionary Religion, to be released later this month from the State University of New York Press (176 pages, $70.00), questions whether this is so. In the course of his examination he turns to the Theosophical Society. “Some readers will doubtless wonder whether the Theosophical Society is to be regarded as a Hindu body. Whether in itself Hindu or not, there can be little doubt that the Theosophical Society constituted an element in the evolving neo-Hindu worldview. To be sure, it was founded in New York in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, but its headquarters were moved to Adyar, near Madras, in 1882.”

Looking at the evidence, he adds: “It is also significant that membership in the Theosophical Society did not involve severing connections with one’s ancestral faith. Indeed the claim was made that a Theosophist was enabled to penetrate to the heart of his or her own religious tradition….Thus—in its origin, aspirations, and influence—the Theosophical Society seemed to share the neo-Hindu ethos in which the non-desirability of conversion in general, and the non-missionary character of Hinduism in particular, are important ingredients.”

Arvind Sharma is Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. According to one estimate: “He has published over fifty books and five hundred articles in the fields of comparative religion, Hinduism, Indian philosophy and ethics, and the role of women in religion.” He is General Editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Indian Religions.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Lemuria Myth

Frontline, “India’s National Magazine,” for April 9-22, 2011, carries an article on “The Lemuria Myth” by S. Christopher Jayakaran. “There is an old, persistent Tamil tradition about a land that existed south of India called Kumari kandam (continent), a belief that is linked to the myth of the lost land of Lemuria, a figment of Western imagination. Accounts of the lost continent vary, but the common theme is that a large area went under the ocean as a result of geological cataclysms, a theory that geologists of today do not subscribe to,” he writes.

In 1888, Helena Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophical Society, incorporated the concept of the lost continents of Lemuria and Atlantis in her controversial book The Secret Doctrine. Her information, it was claimed, was based on esoteric ancient books from the east and messages received through mystical transference and clairvoyant trances.

The article examines how the story entered into Tamil literature to the point where it is even taught in school textbooks. In trying to find a logical explanation for these ideas the writer believes that global warming between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago was the source for this story: “As the sea levels rose, resulting in periodic flooding and deluges, prehistoric settlements that were located in the low-lying coastal lands and the exposed continental shelf were inundated. The people who lived in the coastal area of the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka and who escaped the deluges perpetuated the oral tradition of a lost land. It is my considered opinion that it is this development that gave rise to the legend of Kumari kandam.”

The idea of a submerged landmass south of India with its narrative of a lost homeland now plays a part in Tamil identity, for it increases the antiquity of Tamil culture. This is nothing new. Sumathi Ramaswamy, Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, has written about it in The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories, which was published by the University of California Press in 2004. The article in Frontline, which covers the main points of the book, can be read here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Revisiting the Spiritual in Art, Ctd

The virtual symposium Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art continues online. Topics such as “The hidden spiritual dimension of American art,” “Some Formal Qualities of Visionary Art,” and discussions defining the “Spiritual,” have been among some of the areas covered by the panelists. In a post on April 3, “Steiner, Thought Forms, and Kandinsky,” Jeff Edwards gives the results of his investigations:

Kandinsky was very open about his appreciation for Helena Blavatsky. He was a lot more elusive about Steiner. I just took a quick look back through the Collected Writings on Art, and couldn’t find a single mention of Steiner anywhere in the texts. However, his name comes up several times in the editors’ introductions, and—most importantly—they cite Kandinsky’s attendance at several of Steiner’s anthroposophical lectures in 1908.

The rest of his post can be read here. He provides a link to a provocative piece on the exhibition “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction” at the Tate Modern in London in 2006 that describes its reception: “It was met with a mix of praise and hostility, ridicule of theosophy and a simplified reliance on the theory of synthanaesia, the ability to see music.”

The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka

Oxford University Press will be releasing a new study of the influential writer, Franz Kafka (1883-1924), later this year. The book, The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival by June O. Leavitt, will be out in October 2011. As the publisher’s announcement has it:

Kafka lived during the modern Spiritual Revival, a powerful movement which resisted materialism, rejected the adulation of science and Darwin, and idealized clairvoyant modes of consciousness. Kafka's contemporaries - such theosophical ideologues as Madame H.P. Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and Dr. Rudolph Steiner - encouraged the counterculture to seek the true, spiritual essence of reality by inducing out-of-body experiences and producing visions of higher disembodied beings through meditative techniques. Leaders of the Spiritual Revival also called for the adoption of certain lifestyles, such as vegetarianism, in order to help transform consciousness and return humanity to its divine nature.

Interweaving the occult discourse on clairvoyance, the divine nature of animal life, vegetarianism, the spiritual sources of dreams, and the eternal nature of the soul with Kafka's dream-chronicles, animal narratives, diaries, letters, and stories, Leavitt takes the reader on a journey through the texts of a great psychic writer and the fascinating epoch of the Spiritual Revival.

This comes at a time when Kafka’s papers are the source of a legal battle between the state of Israel and a German literary archive. In a lecture at the British Museum on February 7, 2011, Judith Bulter examined the case in her “Who Owns Kafka?” Kafka left his published and unpublished works to his friend Max Brod, “with the explicit instructions that the work should be destroyed on Kafka’s death. Brod refused to honour the request, although he did not publish everything that was bequeathed to him.” After Brod’s death in 1968 the manuscripts passed to his secretary. In 1988 she sold the manuscript of The Trial for $2 million. Her heirs are now planning to sell off the material by weight.

Butler cited a passage from Kafka’s parable “The Coming of the Messiah” which, in light of June O. Leavitt’s forthcoming book, The Mystical Life of Franz Kafka: Theosophy, Cabala, and the Modern Spiritual Revival, is worth repeating here: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary. He will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.