Thursday, December 27, 2012

Blavatsky News

* The New York Times for December 27, 2012, carries a piece on Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of the recent film, “The Master,” which chronicles the rise of a Scientology-like religion after World War II. The writer in the Times comments:

“The Master” is less interested in mocking it than in evoking the larger American tradition of spiritual questing and its endlessly regenerating cast of dreamers, visionaries, quacks and self-styled prophets. Mr. Anderson’s research was informed equally by scholarly tomes and self-help pseudoscience. “This stuff, it’ll make your head spin,” he said, pulling out books on psycho-cybernetics, the est movement and the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky.

* The Winter 2013 issue of Quest magazine from the Theosophical Society in America carries a page-and-a-half review of Garry Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality by veteran theosophist Joy Mills. The review is sympathetic, though Mills notes:

If one faults Lachman for anything, it may be for his all too frequent digressions, which sometimes confuse and tend to lead away from his central thesis. On the whole, however, Lachman has produced an excellent brief survey of the life and work of one of the most remarkable women of all time.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Secret Doctrine in Portuguese

Editora Pensamento in Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest publishers, has released a Portuguese translation of Michael Gomes’ 2009 abridged edition of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. The size of this version is similar to the English edition, and though the publisher tells us that “texto de acordo com as novas regras ortográficas de língua portuguesa,” the translation seems to be a compromise between what was written in 1888 and what is considered acceptable now. Parts of Gomes’ careful orthographic work seem to have been jettisoned for the more familiar but incorrect spellings like “paranishpanna” and “Dhyan-Chohan.” Reading this translation sometimes it seems half of one and none of the other. But the edition is useful to those who will never go through the book’s two volumes. The Portuguese book review site, Literatura de Cabeça, rates it, saying: “Sua introdução histórica e literária lança nova luz sobre algumas das fontes de A Doutrina Secreta e sobre a trajetória de sua brilhante e enigmática autora, uma das personagens mais intrigantes da história recente.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Theosophical Socialism and Radical Print Culture

Such is the chapter subheading in Elizabeth Miller’s Slow Print: Literary Radicalism and Late Victorian Print Culture set for release in January 2013 from Stanford University Press. The book looks at literary culture of Britain's radical press from 1880 to 1910, and chapter 5, “Enlightenment Beyond Reason,” focuses on later figures involved in Theosophy such as Annie Besant, Herbert Burrows, and A.R. Orage who were already activists in labour movements before their joining. Miller notes:

Theosophy was not a socialist movement, in the sense of demanding or requiring socialist principles among followers, yet in England many socialists were attracted to theosophy and found and affinity between theosophical and social ideals.” Besant, as can be expected, gets much space, but it is good to see that Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934) and his connection with Theosophy explored, a neglected area in his career. Orage later became a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff.

The connection between Theosophy and Socialism is an unexplored area; most claims have been with the movement’s assumed connection with Right Wing movements, though adherents of such positions seem to conveniently omit the main platform in Blavatsky’s Theosophical movement: To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, caste, or colour.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Blavatsky Podcast

Gary Lachman is interviewed for almost an hour on Madame Blavatsky and his new book on Benjamin Grundy’s December 7 Mysterious Universe podcast. Mysterious Universe, which originates from Australia, claims to provide “the latest news on topics as unorthodox as the UFO Phenomenon, Ghosts and Hauntings, and Cryptozoology, along with the latest in Science, Technology, and Astronomy,” and covers “the strange, extraordinary, weird, and wonderful and everything in between.”

Blavatsky is described by the interviewer as “the fountainhead of modern occult thought,” and Lachman counters, “everything goes back to her.” Though “No Buddhist scholar recognizes anything that she calls Buddhism as Buddhism.” “I not particularly interested in Theosophy, I am interested in her,” he admits. “I’m not so interested in the teachings as in the phenomena that she was and her impact on Western culture…”

He credits her with introducing the West to alternative spirituality, “she’s the one who brought it all together, made it into a nice package, and turned it into a religious movement that became global.”

Part of her mission…was to prove the reality of the phenomenon taking place at séances and spiritualist gatherings; but to show that the explanation for them was untrue, the source…the spirits of the dead.” For Lachman, “She wasn’t a medium, she was a magician. In the sense that she had control, she wasn’t passively letting herself being used as basically as a voice for these spirits from the other side…she commanding, she was able to make these things happen.”

He suggests that rolling her own cigarettes helped her focus her mind, and credits her with an eidetic memory. An interesting update on the recurring image of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky; but why, oh why, do the interviewer and Lachman keep claiming and then snickering that she was 200 or 300 (!) pounds when she travelled through trans-Himalaya in the 1850s and 1860s, when she was no such thing; in fact considered an excellent horseback rider till the 1870s? Commenting on the statement attributed to her that she had a volcano in her brain and a glacier down below, Lachman says, “Apparently no one melted the glacier.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Madame Blavatsky Reviewed, Ctd

* Nicholas Colloff at his blog Golgonooza calls Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spiritualitya measured, intelligent account of this extraordinary (and controversial) woman. Even if we discount what she believed - revealed in the dense, extravagant, compelling and long texts that are Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine - and the accounts of the paranormal phenomena that controversially accompanied her life, her life deserves both acknowledgement and gratitude for what it inspired on our usual (mundane) temporal plane.

* Lachman’s book stirs up an extended rumination at the New York based Paris Review on Blavatsky, described as a “fat, chain-smoking Russian noblewoman with a profane vocabulary and reputation for occult powers.”

But Blavatsky’s presentation appealed to the needs of her time. The concept of an evolving universe seemed to square Darwinism with religion, and the emphasis on an individual’s ability to propel herself upwards echoed an Emersonian ethos of self-improvement. Blavatsky also had a penchant for a social progressivism, as expressed in the first principle of the Theosophical Society: “To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” For educated, liberal, middle-class people disillusioned with Christianity and disappointed by Darwin, she was an attractive alternative.

* Theosophists are already irate. Under the headline, “New Book is Good for Recycling. Recent H.P.B. Biography Is Not Totally Useless,” the November issue of The Aquarian Theosophist tells its readers:  “A new biography of Helena P. Blavatsky has been published which seems (from its cover) to be theosophical. A warning should be made for people not to waste money,” it continues. “In spite of its nice title, the book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman, is useful mainly as raw material for those who recycle paper. The good news is that it has not been published by any theosophical publishing house. It has not been confirmed whether Vatican-related institutions are sponsoring this sort of ‘literature’.

* While at the website Theos-talk Daniel Caldwell says in a Nov. 23 post: “In my opinion, Mr. Lachman relies too heavily on K. Paul Johnson's books about HPB and the Masters. These books are filled with far too many vague speculations without any good evidential substantiation. Unfortunately, Mr Lachman does NOT refer the reader to any of the critiques of Johnson's books.” 

More is sure to follow.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bulwer-Lytton and Blavatsky

“Musings on Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni, and Fiction as a Source of Theosophical Beliefs” is the title of a recent post by John L Crow, a grad student at the Department of Religions at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Among other things he poses the question:

Do we simply claim she was myth-making based on Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction? Okay, maybe that is true. But so what? Blavatsky’s assertion informs Theosophical Doctrine and many Theosophists take these statements as fact. [C. Nelson] Stewart claims that Zicci and A Strange Story “were based rather upon what we should now call ‘astral experiences’ beginning in [Bulwer-Lytton’s] early youth.” In all these Theosophical assertions, fiction acts to reveal and conceal what Theosophists see as occult truth. Those who have the eyes to see and can read between the lines see in Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction the truth of occultism and the works become manuals. Terms such as “The Dweller on the Threshold” enter occultism and become topics of Theosophical doctrine. Fiction becomes the seeds that sprout into assertions about occult truth. So what?

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s occult fiction is outlined in John Henry Montgomery’s 2000 Masters Dissertation “Bulwer Lytton’s Mystic Novels: On the Margins of the Invisible” at Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg). Unfortunately he repeats statements like “Madame Blavatsky would shamelessly plagiarise him [Bulwer Lytton] in her Isis Unveiled,” without giving the slightest evidence.

R.A. Gilbert reminds us in his chapter “‘The Supposed Rosy Crucian Society’ Bulwer-Lytton and the S.R.I.A.” in Ésotérisme, Gnosis & Imaginaire Symbolique (2001) that “Joscelyn Godwin rightly points out that ‘There is nothing in Zanoni that a voracious reader of occult literature could not have learned at second hand.’”

Certainly Mejnour and Zanoni, the adepts of the novel Zanoni (1843), are not creations unique to Bulwer-Lytton, who died the same year Blavatsky arrived in America, 1873. They owe something to their predecessors depicted in earlier novels like Vathek (1786) and Sethos (1731) and one of Blavatsky’s personal favourites, Le Comte de Gabalis (1670). In her childhood Blavatsky would already have been familiar with the volkhv, wizard, of Russian folklore, a word used to describe the Three Kings in Russian translations of the gospel of Matthew.

The mahatmas have also commented on this identification of their roles:

I hope that at least you will understand that we (or most of us) are far from being the heartless, morally dried up mummies some would fancy us to be. “Mejnour” is very well where he is — as an ideal character of a thrilling — in many respects truthful story. Yet, believe me, few of us would care to play the part in life of a desiccated pansy between the leaves of a volume of solemn poetry. We may not be quite the “boys” — to quote Olcott’s irreverent expression when speaking of us — yet none of our degree are like the stern hero of Bulwer’s romance.

Vathek, 1815, from the 2004 exhibition 
Les livres anglais du duc d’Aumale
at the Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Blavatsky in Hong Kong

A recent post at the blog The Dark World’s Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War is a good example of the sort of writing that only blogs can provide. Though somewhat afield of our subject (Mme. Blavatsky is mentioned), “Herbert Edward Lanepart (1): Theosophy in Old Hong Kong” opens up like never before the development of Theosophy in Hong Kong in the early part of the twentieth century. The account focuses on Herbert Edward Lanepart, who after being a devoted worker for Theosophy in Hong Kong, became a Nazi sympathizer. The author warns against jumping to unwarranted conclusions:

In fact, as every writer acknowledges, Nazism had many sources, and one of these was Christian anti-Semitism – even if, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued Nazi anti-Semitism is significantly different from ‘traditional’ European anti-Semitism it is impossible to imagine it coming in to being and so quickly taking hold of so much of German society without the ‘preparation’ of centuries of religious anti-Semitism (and those who like to point to Hitler’s interest in Blavatsky’s works might remember that Luther’s anti-Semitic ravings were amongst the most quoted ‘authorities’ in Nazi Germany). It would, of course, be obvious nonsense to suggest that someone became a Nazi because they had previously been a Christian.

When you see statements like: “The origin of Nazism can be traced back directly to Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society,” you immediately know that the writer does not read German. The Nazis hardly had to go to Blavatsky for racial theories; there were more than enough home-grown sources.

Madame Blavatsky Reviewed

Reviews are starting to come in for Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality.  London’s Magonia Blog and Review of Books, which favors anomalous literature, carries a laudatory review. As an aside, it adds:

Not only does this landmark book rehabilitate the Madame herself, but it also casts a completely new light on her close associate Colonel Olcott, traditionally thought of little more than her dupe and lap dog. Yet consider this:  

He was an astonishing healer, using the even then outmoded technique of making ‘passes’ with his hands over the sick, but it certainly worked. He cured at least 8000 Indians in a year, only stopping because the Masters told him to, as his own health was at risk. He devoted every ounce of his strength – and not just psychically - on behalf of the people he lived among, and in 1967 Sri Lanka issued a stamp in his honour. As Lachman also notes: ‘Streets in Colombo and Galle are named after him, and a statue of him stands outside Columbo Fort Railway Station. Olcott’s work inspired the Buddhist nationalist efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala, the great Sinhalese religious reformer…’ Some lap dog.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gary Lachman’s Madame Blavatsky

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864.
One of the things Helena Petrovna Blavatsky has been called (and she has been called many things) is the Sphinx of the Nineteenth Century. Like the sphinx she had an aura of mystery, ageless wisdom, and perhaps holding answers to the riddles of life. And like the sphinx in Greek mythology who destroyed those who unsuccessfully tried to resolve her riddle, the approach to Mme. Blavatsky is littered with the ruined reputations of those who have rashly tried to explain her. Time will tell if Gary Lachman’s recent attempt, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher 2012), will fare any better.

The book’s cover describes it as a biography, but more accurately it should have been titled “an account of Mme. Blavatsky in relation to the esoteric tradition,” as Lachman’s scope is wide enough to place her in the context of modern esotericism. Here his other biographies serve him well, Swedenborg, Steiner, Ouspensky, Jung, even Hermes Trismegistus, are cited to give relevance to Blavatsky’s experiences. But the book fails as a biography, for in spite of giving so much attention to the details in her life we are still no closer to understanding the mysterious Mme. Blavatsky, who is made a little more mysterious by this book.

Part of the problem lies in Lachman’s trying to accommodate all versions of her story, though the pros win out over the cons. Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled, gets a fair amount of attention but The Secret Doctrine that she is more famous for gets a two page digest. There is nothing on her voluminous magazine output or her Russian fiction, so that the reader is left not really knowing what she stood for.

Perhaps this is due to an undue reliance on second hand sources, for the book offers no new research material. His last chapter, “The Masters Revealed?”, references Paul Johnson’s 1994 book of the same title where Johnson concludes that Blavatsky’s Masters were a front for real Indian insurrectionists of her time. As interesting as this theory is, Johnson also gives no motive for Blavatsky’s actions. What caused Mme. Blavatsky to spend so many laborious days in this supposed expenditure which her writing and editing was a cover for? Until that is answered these speculations must remain in the realm of theory.

Lachman writes that Johnson’s book, perhaps more than anything else, is responsible for a kind of ‘Blavatsky revival’ taking place on the Internet, with scholars, Theosophists, and simply interested readers…” But the late Dr. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (an academic whom Lachman quotes approvingly) has more accurately pinpointed the “ Blavatsky revival” to the founding by Leslie Price of the journal Theosophical History, which in those pre-Internet days became the main means of exchange for a budding generation of theosophical scholars. This was in 1985 well before any version of Johnson’s book (Goodrick-Clarke, Theosophical History, Vol. XI July 2005, p. 23).

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality offers a useful retelling of a story that needs to be told, especially coming from Mr. Lachman who has written so extensively on the subject of the modern esoteric. It serves as a welcome continuation of Joscelyn Godwin’s earlier book The Theosophical Enlightenment, taking up where the latter leaves off.  Gary Lachman is now working on a biography of the British magician Aleister Crowley.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Blavatsky, the Swastika and the Nazis

Replying to some online critics of his new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (Tarcher 2012), Gary Lachman posts the following in the comment section of the web magazine Reality Sandwich:

It’s a shame that much of the conversation about HPB in this thread has been devoted to the musty old myths about her links to National Socialism. They are very tenuous indeed, and in many ways amount to the fact that she used the swastika and wrote about race. The swastika we know has been in use for millennia, by peoples as far apart as North America and India; we may as well say that Native American Indians were proto-Nazis because they used it. More to the point, some - and I repeat some - of HPB’s ideas were co-opted and embellished by undeniably creepy people in Austria and Germany in the early part of the last century. HPB did indeed write about race, but so did Francis Galton and his cousin Charles Darwin, and later people like H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Rudolf Steiner, and many others did as well - very nice and intelligent people in fact. In the vast corpus of Blavatsky’s writings - and just having written a book about her I have become quite familiar with them - race plays a relatively small part, and the tiny fraction she devotes to it has sadly become inflated to gargantuan proportions by hyper-sensitive and sensational attacks on her.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Misinformation Files

A New Age writer named Stuart Wilde has posted an online piece titled “Blavatsky’s Frauds, Satan & the World Teacher.” Here are some of his claims:

H. P. Blavatsky founded the Theosophists. (“Theosophists” existed before Blavatsky came along, she helped found the Theosophical Society.)

She did psychic readings for people. (Though there is no evidence for this except, perhaps, in the writer’s imagination.)

Blavatsky worshiped Satan. (As proof he cites her as saying in The Secret Doctrine:) “Lucifer represents, life, thought, progress, civilization, liberty and independence. Lucifer is the Logos, the Serpent, the Savior. It is Satan who is the God of our planet and the only God.” 

But these are not her words. It is hobbled together from two writers that she quotes in The Secret Doctrine: Mirza Moorad Alee Beg in vol. 2, p. 245, and Kingsford in vol. 2, p. 234, as giving their views.

She was investigated by the Society of Psychical Research, who found some indiscrete letters that Blavatsky had written to her maid, in which she detailed aspects of the frauds the two had perpetrated together. The Society of Psychical Research’s final report referred to her as one of the most ingenious and interesting imposters of history. (As if that was the final word and nothing has been written since.)

In the end Blavatsky was just a con artist, one that loved Satan.

We hope these words are not a testament to Stuart Wilde’s psychic abilities. For we note that his site offers for sale, Warrior’s Prayer Cards, advertising that “Stuart has touched and blessed each and every card. People use them as a form of remote healing and protection. They read the prayer and place the card on their body where there is pain, or on their heart if they are emotional or scared.” Each card sells for £2.00.

Mr. Wilde himself has not been without his critics and there is an internet thread titled “Why I dislike Stuart Wilde” along with a Stuart Wilde Exposed Facebook page.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Blavatsky at the Dorothy Restaurant

The blog, Lost Womyn’s Space, covers the Dorothy restaurants in London started by Isabel Cooper-Oakley, one of Mme. Blavatsky’s pupils in the 1880s. Citing Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, it says:

Dorothy’s was the initiative of one Mrs. Cooper-Oakley, another of London's leading feminists, who also ran a milliner's business in Wigmore Street called Madame Isabel’s. It was an innovation, a restaurant for women only. Although dining for upper- and middle-class women was already available at the various women’s clubs, and although some conventional restaurants provided ladies’ dining room discreetly in upper storeys or side-rooms, Dorothy’s was a bold modern proposition. Its door was right on the street, and it was open to all classes of women, from shop assistants to duchesses. Offering cheap wholesome fare for all, Dorothy’s liberated the former from having to eat a bun in a shop and offered the latter a new kind of experience. You just bought an eightpenny dining ticket on entrance, took a seat at one of the tables and waited for your 'plate of meat, two vegetables and bread' to arrive. For an extra couple of pence you could also get pudding, and for a further penny tea, coffee or chocolate.

There are some interesting links to Blavatsky in the account. At the opening of the restaurant at 448 Oxford Street on June 21, 1889, among those present were Mme. Blavatsky, Countess Wachtmeister, and other theosophical lady notables.

Background on Isabel Cooper-Oakley is provided at the blog The Oakleys of Salop and London. After her marriage to Alfred Oakley in January 1884, he added her surname to his, becoming Cooper-Oakley. She died in Budapest, Hungary, on March 3, 1914.

The presence of Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar Wilde, as part of the London theosophical scene, has already been noted by us here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Blavatsky on Buddhism and Anna Kingsford

Theosophical History, vol. XVI, no. 1, dated January 2012, has just been released. It features a reprint of a newspaper interview with Mme. Blavatsky from the New York Sun of May 6, 1877, titled “Catechizing a Buddhist,” where Blavatsky explains the tenets of Buddhism, and a reprint of two obscure pieces relating to the Anna Kingsford’s Hermetic Lodge of the Theosophical Society: its Prospectus and a December 21, 1883, letter from Blavatsky to Kingsford. The main article deals with the early years of Edward Arthur Wilson (1874-1934?), known as Brother XII, who ran a theosophically influenced group, the Aquarian Foundation, during the 1920s.

John Patrick Deveney who supplies the notes to Blavatsky’s “interview” in the N.Y. Sun points out that Blavatsky had written to her sister on June 8, 1877, saying she had finished an article on Nirvana and the conceptions of the ancient Buddhists concerning God, the immortality of the soul and cosmogony for a newspaper. So it may be less of an interview and more of a piece written by Blavatsky. This would explain the editorial note added to that day’s issue advising: “Don’t believe in Buddhism unless you are very sure what you are about.”

Some of the ideas attributed to Blavatsky presage her later pronouncements:

“Buddhism,” said Madame Blavatsky, “is the ‘wisdom religion,’ and it underlies all religions in their purity. It is perfect monotheism, for it accepts one boundless, infinite incomprehensible principle, which the intellect of man can not understand. It is a philosophy, as well as a religion, and you must be careful not to confound the philosophy with the myths and dogmas and inconsistencies and absurdities with which the superstition of many generations of worshipers has encumbered it.”

Single issues are available for $8.00 /£5.00 from Theosophical History.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Blavatsky and Blondie

Bianca Valentino’s Australian site Conversations with Bianca for September 26 carries an interview with Gary Lachman on his forthcoming book on Blavatsky. Having examined the lives of Swedenborg, Steiner, Jung, and others, he is no doubt prepared to take on Helene Petrovna Blavatsky. About his new project Lachman says:

Two things I try to do in the book is to show how all these misconceptions of her [Blavatsky] has piled up and gathered around her and to show just how influential she was and how important some of her writings were. She was really the first one to present a philosophical and intellectual essay criticism of Darwin Evolution, not a religious one, of course bishops and clergy was complaining about it but, she basically criticised it on philosophical grounds and had a good argument for it. That doesn’t get much press. That in itself should secure her an important position in the history of ideas, and she’s a woman doing it! I hope if the readership of the book goes beyond the people that know about her already and can somehow get out into the broader reading public that all these things about her might get picked up and it might lead to more interest.

Aside from his writings on the occult Garry Lachman is known for penning one of the first popular songs using the word theosophies: “(I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” while a member of the group Blondie.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

News Flash: Academics discover Blavatsky

Brill’s forthcoming Handbook of Contemporary Japanese Religions, edited by Inken Prohl and John Nelson, contains a useful entry on “Theosophy and Related Movements in Japan” by Kenta Kasai. While the most of the focus is on later expressions of Theosophy in the twentieth century—Krishnamurti and the World Teacher movement, the Anthroposophic movement, and Alice Bailey—there is some coverage of the initial impact of Theosophy, which was at first seen as a Western form of Buddhism in Japan, and Colonel Olcott’s 1891 visit to the country. Olcott’s attempt to gain consensus between the different Japanese Buddhist schools deserves a study unto itself, but fails to get any attention here. The book, which is scheduled for an October release, is listed at €192. / $267. US.

Framed Framed picture of Olcott displayed at   
 the Henry Steel Olcott Memorial Sangika Dhane Ceremony held at
 the Sakamuni International Buddhist Center, Hachioji, Tokyo, Oct. 22, 2011

Also forthcoming from Brill is its Handbook of the Theosophical Current, edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein.

Few religious currents have been as influential as the Theosophical. Yet few currents have been so under-researched, and the Brill Handbook of the Theosophical Current thus represents pioneering research. A first section surveys the main people and events involved in the Theosophical Society from its inception to today, and outlines the Theosophical worldview. A second, substantial section covers most significant religions to emerge in the wake of the Theosophical Society - Anthroposophy, the Point Loma community, the I AM religious activity, the Summit Lighthouse Movement, the New Age, theosophical UFO religions, and numerous others. Finally, the interaction of the Theosophical current with contemporary culture - including gender relations, art, popular fiction, historiography, and science - are discussed at length.

If you are only considering works coming from academic presses or courses given at the university level as research, then the supposition that Theosophy has been “so under-researched” might have some validity. Theosophists, their critics, and supporters have had the results of their research published for over a century and a quarter. The price for the Handbook of the Theosophical Current, scheduled for November release, is €168. / $234. US.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

H. P. Blavatsky, V.I.P.

Mme. Blavatsky gets some coverage in Martin A. Lee’s new book, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana: Medical, Recreational and Scientific. He adds Blavatsky to his list of V.I.P.’s (Very Important Potheads): “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the mesmerizing grand dame of occultism, was a dedicated hashish imbiber.” He then cites the line attributed to her by A.L. Rawson, “Hashish multiples one life a thousand-fold.…It is a wonderful drug and it clears up profound mystery.” Lee continues:

At times under the influence of hashish, Blavatsky wrote lengthy tomes filled with esoteric lore, introducing such concepts as karma, yoga, kundalini, and reincarnation to a Western audience…. Believing that the end of civilization was imminent, Madame Blavatsky prophesied that a global catastrophe would usher in a Golden Dawn, after which the world would be governed by a beneficent psychic elite.

This claim has already been examined in Blavatsky News.

Lezley Saar, Unnamed piece 2012,
from her exhibition at Merry Karnowsky Gallery, 
Los Angeles, on view September 8th - October 6th

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Blavatsky News

* The Youtube site BackToTheArchives provides a narration of the short fictional tale, “The Ensouled Violin,” attributed to Blavatsky. Being able to hear it read gives the story a new dimension and brings to life Mme. Blavatsky’s talent as a gifted narrator. The story follows a struggling violinist whose promising career is challenged by the arrival of the famous musician Paganini (1782-1840), and the steps he takes to rise to the level of his rival. The tale was initially published in Blavatsky’s magazine The Theosophist of January 1880 and attributed to Hillarion Smerdis. A longer version was published in the 1892 collection Nightmare Tales. It is this version that is uploaded. Some background on the contents of Nightmare Tales is given by the Senate House Library, University of London.

* The publisher Tarcher has made available online the introduction to Gary Lachman’s new book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, an excerpt of which was published in the Autumn edition of the English Theosophical magazine Esoterica. Lachman writes:

my concern here is not to recount the many inaccuracies that crop up in “the Blavatsky story,” like potholes on a poorly maintained road, nor to excuse myself for not providing the reader with the “truth” about HPB. There are Blavatsky and Theosophical websites dedicated to those pursuits, and along the way the interested reader can find out how to reach them. My job here is to try to tell “the Blavatsky story” as best I can, and these preliminary remarks are offered as a general acknowledgment at the start that the following account, taken from a variety of sources, may or may not be true. If this seems like a lame excuse for poor research and an inability to “nail Blavatsky down,” so be it. My only defense is that I am not the only one to make it. As many have recognized, “the facts in the case of Madame Blavatsky” may indeed be doubtful, but without them, there would be practically no case at all.

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality
by Gary Lachman is set to be released October 25, 2012.

* The site 100bookseverychildshouldreadbeforegrowingup looks at The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. “Of the many beloved children’s books, none has been more embraced by American popular culture than The Wizard of Oz. Originally published in 1900, the book’s phenomenal success launched a slew of sequels, prompted Hollywood to create one of the most-viewed movies of all time, and inspired a number of wildly popular Broadway musicals.”

But Baum’s most original and complex creation was the Wizard. Stripped of his disguises, he turns out to be a meek and humble charlatan who is the victim of the world’s desire to be fooled. “How can I help being a humbug,” he said, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?” It should be noted that Baum had become a Theosophist only a few years before writing his first Oz book, and he cannot have been unaware of the charges of fakery leveled against Madame Blavatsky when she caused teacups to materialize and tables to levitate.

So now Blavatsky is a model for the Wizard of Oz?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Enchanted Modernities: Blavatsky and the Arts

The Leverhulme Trust in England has announced its new series of grants for 2012, among them £124,356 for Enchanted Modernities: theosophy, modernism and the arts, c. 1875-1960, a project that will bring together specialists from a number of institutions. “As well as a series of academic conferences and workshops in Amsterdam and New York, the Network’s research will be made available to international audiences through two exhibitions, a series of musical performances and a website.”

Founded in 1875 in New York, the Theosophical Society quickly went global, attracting a cosmopolitan community of adherents worldwide. Often treated as a footnote in modern cultural history, there has been very little research [!] about why this esoteric organisation was so popular with artists, musicians and writers in this period and, furthermore, what impact it had on their artistic endeavours. The Enchanted Modernities International Network will bring together scholars who are experts in the visual arts, music and sound, and literature from all over the world to explore what the visual, material and performing arts can tell us about the relationships between theosophy, modernity and mysticism c. 1875-1960. The research carried out by the Network’s partners will examine where and how artists, writers and performers came into contact with theosophy and other mystical practices, and how theosophical ideas, especially those of key figures in the society in this period – such as Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant – were given material, visual and audible form and shape.

Lee Mullican, The Ninnekah, 1951, oil on linen. The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Blavatsky and Buddhism in America

A new book, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the American News Media edited by Diane Winston, has a brief mention of Mme. Blavatsky in Nick Street’s chapter “American Press Coverage of Buddhism from the 1870s to the Present.” He cites a reference to Col. Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky in the New York Times of August 30, 1877 describing the visit of the Chinese missionary Wong Chin Foo. According to Street, “At this point in American history, media coverage of Buddhism—of most non-Christian religious practice, for that matter—was not so much a window into the unknown as a mirror reflecting the familiar and reassuring biases of America’s Protestant majority.”

From Madame Blavatsky’s bohemian apartment to Japanese American internment camps and from the Parliament of the World’s Religions to Veteran’s Administration hospitals, mainstream media in the United States have depicted Buddhism as a folly, a scourge, a fad, and a source of salvation. Journalism itself has been pinned with those labels at various times. At their best, Buddhist practice and reporting are pursuing the same end: to see things as they really are.

The book will be published August 29, 2012 by Oxford University Press, USA at $150.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blavatsky News

* The Enochian Frequency podcast #007: 2012-08-19 starts out with hosts Petter Mårtensson, Rodney Orpheus, and Paul Baker discussing latest developments in the gaming industry.

This time things don’t really follow the usual format, and our hosts actually start out early with discussing lore. Shambhala, an area in the game that turns up during the storyline and that contains a currently inactive battleground, is the topic at hand this episode. Expect a lot of talk about Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy and the fabled Secret Chiefs that according to some occult literature direct the evolution of mankind. Recommended reading this week is Karl von Eckhartshausen’s The Cloud Upon the Sanctuary and Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled.

Enochian Frequency podcasts can be found at CSICON, The Committee for the Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal, a site that focuses on the latest news and opinions regarding movies, television, gaming, tech, society, comics and other things that may or may not fall into the convenient umbrella term of “geek culture”.  

* An August 19 post on Mahesh’s blog, Maheshcorner, gives 10 places in London connected with Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi made five visits to London, spanning 43 years of his life; from young law student in 1888, to representative of the Indian National Congress in 1931. If you are going on a trip to London and want to follow in Gandhi's footsteps to gain an insight into his life, then take a look at these 10 places the great man visited.” Among them, the Blavatsky Lodge:

Through his newfound vegetarian friends, Gandhi was introduced to the Theosophical Society in 1890 and there he met Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky; two key members of the Society whose writings he keenly studied. The teachings of Theosophy struck a chord with Gandhi, who was particularly interested in its call for "universal brotherhood and consequent toleration". Blavatsky Lodge can still be visited in London if you want to find out more about Theosophy and the effect it had on Gandhi.

* The site People of Shambhala looks at the historical development of “Muslim-Buddhist Conflict in Asia: and how to understand it.” Pointing to the situation in Sri Lanka, it says:

The indigenous religion had virtually died out, but was revived with the help of Henry Steel Olcott, who had been one of the primary investigators of the Lincoln assassination, and a major player in the Theosophical Society (a semi-mystical organization that had been founded in New York by Russian émigré Mme Blavatsky). Olcott lobbied the British on behalf of the Buddhists, helped revive the Buddhist school system, wrote a Buddhist catechism (which is still in use), and helped to design the universal Buddhist flag.

Who Was Madame Blavatsky?

The Autumn 2012 issue of Esoterica, the journal of the Foundation for Theosophical Studies (for the Theosophical Society in England), has an excerpt from Gary Lachman’s forthcoming book on Blavatsky due in October. Prefacing the excerpt titled “Who Was Madame Blavatsky?”, Lachman says:

In it, I pose a question that runs throughout the book: why is that, although she was enormously influential, both in the esoteric worlds and in mainstream culture, to the wider public Madame Blavatsky still remains relatively unknown? One answer is that even within the spiritual and esoteric community she is not really well-known, by which I mean ‘accurately known. If anything, what most people know of her is the ‘Blavatsky legend,’ a collection of myths and misconceptions that she herself contributed to greatly.

The printed excerpt in Esoterica cites a lot of opinions on Blavatsky but does not answer the question. Perhaps Mr. Lachman is saving it for his book. As Blavatsky News has shown, scarcely a week goes by without some reference to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the media. Part of the problem is that too many “experts” have helped obfuscate the matter with disinformation.

Gary Lachman will be talking on “Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality” (the title of his book), at the Foundation for Theosophical Studies (the Theosophical Society in England) in London on Sunday September 30 at 6 PM.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Blavatsky’s Lost Continents

The publisher Brill in the Netherlands has added a new volume to their high-priced series of books. The Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (!), edited by Carole M. Cusack and Alex Norman of the University of Sydney, contains a section on the Theosophical Society, along with others on Mormonism, Anthroposophy, Gurdjeff groups, modern paganism, and Afro-Caribbean new religions. Three chapters comprise the Theosophical section: “Producing Lost Civilisations: Theosophical Concepts in Literature, Visual Media and Popular Culture” by Garry Trompf and Lauren Bernauer, “The Agency of the Object: Leadbeater and the Pectoral Cross” by Jenny McFarlane, and “Theosophical Bodies: Colour, Shape and Emotion from Modern Aesthetics to Healing Therapies” by Jay Johnston.

McFarlane’s chapter looks at the significance of a Pectoral Cross made for C.W. Leadbeater in 1917 for use in the Liberal Catholic Church, while Jay Johnston takes on the Theosophical concept of the sevenfold human temperaments, classified in Blavatsky’s writings as “principles” and in later Theosophical works as “bodies.”

The chapter by Garry Trompf and Lauren Bernauer provides an extensive chronicling of the impact of Blavatsky’s concept of previous continents and civilizations, primarily Atlantis and Lemuria. Its coverage of film and other digital media is especially current. The authors write:

Our concern is with images of a mysterious past, and more particularly with how the Theosophical Society, as a new religious movement, has sparked a whole range of cultural and material productions evoking or playing on the theme of forgotten truths, far distant achievements, and lost worlds….[Blavatsky] was seminal for endowing the key lost worlds of Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis, with a chronological ordering. 

The book, 790 pages plus a thirty page introduction, sells for €217.00 or $298.00 US.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blavatsky and Scriabin, Again

Research into the influence of Blavatsky on the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) continues. The current issue of the Music Theory Online, the journal of the Society for Music Theory, contains an in-depth analysis of Scriabin’s symphony Prometheus: The Poem of Fire by Anna M. Gawboy and Justin Townsend titled “Scriabin and the Possible.”

The original program for Prometheus printed in the booklet at the 1911 Moscow premiere revealed the work’s connection to Blavatsky. The text begins, “Prometheus, Satanas [sic], and Lucifer all meet in ancient myth. They represent the active energy of the universe, its creative principle. The fire is light, life, struggle, increase, abundance, thought” (translated in Bowers 1996, 206–7). This closely paraphrases Blavatsky’s description of the Lucifer/Prometheus figure from The Secret Doctrine: “Satan, or Lucifer, represents the active, or . . . the ‘Centrifugal Energy of the Universe’ in a cosmic sense. He is Fire, Light, Life, Struggle, Effort, Thought, Consciousness, Progress, Civilization, Liberty, Independence” (Blavatsky 1888, vol. 2, 245).

For Blavatsky, Prometheus’s theft of fire was an allegory for the acquisition of human intellect, a pivotal moment in the theosophic narrative of human evolution (Blavatsky 1888, vol. 2, 519–28). The Secret Doctrine described how the human soul began as an emanation of the divine spirit, a primal thrill of vibration that Blavatsky conceptualized variously as a breath, a sound, and a light. Like a dividing cell, this emanation underwent a process of differentiation over many eons, eventually resulting in a physically embodied being. Although humans had achieved full materialization at the midpoint of the cycle, they still lacked the “sacred spark which burns and expands into the flower of human reason and self-consciousness” (vol. 2, 95). The Promethean enlightenment would eventually allow humans to transcend their base material existence and begin the journey toward divine spiritual reunification.

Dramatic trajectory of the slow luce part.
a. Blavatsky’s diagram of involution and evolution (1888/2, 300)
b. The slow luce of Prometheus

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Blavatsky News

* Imagine doing a critical survey (published in two parts!) of an influential philosophical movement and relying only on one source. But this is what Michael Barker has done in his two part investigation, “The Roots of Theosophy,” at the online site Swans. And when the source is such a highly contested book, Peter Washington’s 1994 Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, one would expect at least an attempt at some sort of verification. Unfortunately Barker ends up serving Washington’s errors as fact: “Anna’s early death in 1885” [Anna Kingsford died in 1888].

According Michael Barker’s version, “when the full Society for Psychical Research report was released—[Blavatsky] was effectively forced by Olcott to leave her own Society, thereby ending their friendship. She traveled back to Europe in March 1885, eventually settling in London (in the spring of 1887). Here, cut off from the Adyar [sic] she was ‘supported by the rich and aristocratic friends who helped to sustain her last years,’ and they ‘helped to set up her journal’” [was she supposed to edit it for free?]. Unfortunately for Barker’s timeline, “the full Society for Psychical Research [Committee] report” was only released long after Blavatsky left Adyar.

Or his statement: “Hodgson’s ‘report has not gone unchallenged by Theosophists, but their defense consists of arguments ad hominem, and Hodgson’s basic findings have not been refuted,’” all the while showing no familiarity with what has been published by even non-theosophists on the matter.

* The online newsletter Hermes carries an article by Jeffrey Lavoie where he argues that in Isis Unveiled Blavatsky plagiarized from the antiquarian Isaac Preston Cory’s compendium Ancient Fragments, a book made up of translations taken by Cory from diverse sources. In “Isaac Preston Cory, Isis Unveiled (1877) and Cosmology” he says:

Shortly after its publication in 1877, a source analysis of Isis Unveiled was performed by one of Blavatsky’s contemporaries- a disgruntled Spiritualist named William Emmette Coleman. Coleman concluded that while Blavatsky cited close to a thousand individual sources it seemed more probable that she had only consulted about a hundred separate works in compiling this work (Blavatsky seemingly conceded this point in a final article entitled ‘My Books’ written shortly before her demise in 1891).

Despite his harsh conclusion, the only proof Coleman offered for evidence was in the form of a short article published as an appendix to Vsevolod Solovyoff’s A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895) which listed some of the sources from which Blavatsky had allegedly borrowed (though in some cases Coleman was mistaken as Blavatsky used and cited these sources properly). Regardless of the veracity of Coleman’s conclusion one thing remains known- one of the sources that Coleman ‘revealed’ was Isaac Preston Cory and his Ancient Fragments.

“Shortly after” is stretching it. According to the material on Coleman given in Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century his earliest detailed attempt at refuting Blavatsky’s books appears in 1889, and here he is contrasting the shift in teachings from Isis Unveiled to The Secret Doctrine.

Although Lavoie says “the only proof Coleman offered for evidence was in the form of a short article published as an appendix to Vsevolod Solovyoff’s A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895),” this is not so. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century shows that he had an extended series from April to October 1891 in a small Spiritualist monthly (and to which HPB wrote her last article, “My Books”) where he listed passages in corresponding books. But even here he gave only 32 books, including the Bible.

* John L. Crow has an article in the September 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion on “Taming the Astral Body: The Theosophical Society's Ongoing Problem of Emotion and Control.” Understanding the praxis of nineteenth century Theosophy seems to be much under discussion at present, and Crow, a graduate student of American Religious History at Florida State University, adds his views.

In New York City in 1875, a group interested in Spiritualism and occult science founded what would become the Theosophical Society. Primarily the creation of Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society went through a number of early incarnations. One original version promised to teach occult powers. After Blavatsky found that she could not honor earlier promises to teach occultism, she shifted the focus of the Society to one that promoted Universal Brotherhood instead, highlighting notions of the body and demanding the control of emotion as a means to rebuff demands for training. With this refocusing, Blavatsky reestablished control of the Society and asserted herself as the central channel of esoteric knowledge. Thus, by shifting the focus from the attainment of occult powers to the more ambiguous “spiritual enlightenment,” Blavatsky erected an elaborate, centralized system of delayed spiritual gratification, a system contingent upon the individual's adoption of specific morals and values, while simultaneously maintaining control of the human body on all its levels: spiritual, social, physical, mental, and especially emotional.

* Vogue Australia in its July 27 online edition carries an interview with the creative minds behind Maniamania, accessories label known for its designs (typically of silver, bronze and crystals). They have just launched a new line, the Astral plane Collection:

This range is inspired by the symbols and visions of dreaming, and the notion of other planes of existence, and the film is a moving representation of that idea. It combines our stylistic influences of Art Nouveau and 60s iconography with the spiritual developments of dream philosophy. It is directly inspired by the visual devices of Jean Cocteau, as well as an homage to the concepts of Carl Jung and Helena Blavatsky.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Blavatsky and the Atheist

The Arts Section of Chennai’s English-language daily newspaper The Hindu (published continuously since 1878) in its July 19, 2012 edition draws our attention to three books recently published about Rangampalli Jagannathiah, an Indian theosophist who met Mme. Blavatsky in 1882. His great-granddaughter R.J Kalpana (pictured above) has penned his biography titled An Atheist Disciple—Biography of Rangampalli Jagannathiah (1852-1918) and compiled some of his writings in both English and Telugu, Rangampalli Jagannathiah - Collected Writings, in English and Shri Rangampalli Jagannathiah Rachanalu—Telugu Vyasa Samputi.

Initially, R. Jagannathiah had joined the National Secular Society of London and was elected its Vice President along with Annie Besant. “In 1882 he argued the tenets of Theosophy with Helena Blavatsky on a public platform. By the end of the week-long debate, he turned a believer of Theosophy,” informs Kalpana. R. Jagannathiah was also the founder of the Bellary Sanmarga Lodge and was associated with Adyar Theosophical Society. Getting the chronology of events right was important, his personal journals and correspondence which have been preserved helped in the process. “His correspondence with the founders of the Theosophical Society like Helena Blavatsky and H.S Olcott is well documented and sources of information. Gathering all the facts and cross referencing them took a lot of time,” explains Kalpana.

Jagannathiah, who wrote as“R.J.” and “Veritas” in The Philosophic Inquirer of Madras, was introduced to Blavatsky on December 27th, 1882. They spent three days in discussion and he says, “In three days she shattered my seven years’ knowledge of atheistic theories.” He became an ardent worker for Theosophy in India. He penned a memorandum about her in 1909, which can be read here. A biographical sketch, with the picture of him seated with his co-worker, T.S. Swaminatha Aiyar, is in the New York Path of December 1894.