Blavatsky, H. P.

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BLAVATSKY, H. P. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891) was the principal founder of the modern theosophical movement. Blavatsky, née von Hahn, was born in Ekaterinoslav, Russia, of distinguished parentage. Her father, of German descent, was an army officer. Her mother, a popular novelist, died during Helena's childhood. Helena was raised largely on the estate of her maternal grandfather, then civil governor of Saratov. An unusual and gifted child, she read widely in her grandfather's library, taking a special interest in science and occultism. She also enjoyed riding vigorously with her father's regiment. In 1849 she married the middle-aged Nikifor Blavatsky, vice-governor of Yerevan, but quickly left him to make her way to Constantinople and, by her own account, to travel the world in pursuit of esoteric teachings, culminating with study and initiation in Tibet in the late 1860s under the tutelage of mahatmas (highly evolved teachers). Much of this period of her life is undocumented. But she asserted throughout her mature life that her work and teaching were guided by her mahatmas, and this is a key facet of her character. She was also by all accounts a colorful and unforgettable person, capable of tempestuous outbursts and great kindness, possessed of what many perceived as remarkable psychic talents, set apart by a certain air of mystery.

Helena Blavatsky came to America in 1873, where she met Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), a lawyer, journalist, and student of spiritualism. He, Blavatsky, and others founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, an organization initially devoted to the investigation of occult lore, both Eastern and Western. In 1877 Blavatsky's first book, Isis Unveiled, was published, based on her occult study and experience.

Then, in 1878, she and Olcott departed for India, believed to be a reservoir of the wisdom she was seeking. She remained in India until 1885. Those were years of rapid growth for the theosophical movement, but also of much controversy related especially to a critical report on Blavatsky published by the Society for Psychical Research in 1885. Returning to Europe that year, Blavatsky settled in London in 1887. Despite failing health, she produced several more major works before her death in 1891: The Secret Doctrine in 1888, and The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence in 1889. The Secret Doctrine presents, often in mythopoeic language, the fullest and most mature articulation of her outlook, tracing through two large volumes the evolution of the universe, the solar system, the world, life, and humanity by the interaction of matter and consciousness from the first light through various "root races" to its present state and beyond. The Key summarizes theosophical basics in question-and-answer form. The Voice is a guidebook for "the few" who follow a path of altruistic mysticism.

The underlying theme of Blavatsky's work was the recovery of what she often called "the ancient wisdom": primordial lore about the manifestation and inner nature of the universe and humanity. She believed that in recent centuries this wisdom had been largely obscured by dogmatic religion and doctrinaire materialistic science, being preserved only in a scattering of esoteric groups and reservoirs of ancient truth such as Tibet. However, certain adept teachers, those also called mahatmas or masters, were prepared to instruct select candidates in the path to this almost forgotten learning. These adepts were largely real persons living in out-of-the-way places on earth, but able to communicate psychically with one another and with students like Blavatsky.

Blavatsky's theosophy could be termed an enhanced naturalism. She said that the universe works by law and evolves naturally out of original oneness from within. But, in contrast with the prevailing scientific view, as she perceived it, that process includes consciousness, which has coexisted with matter eternally and is evolving with it. In her more picturesque hermetic language, the inner essence of each individual is the "monad" or "pilgrim," an entity of refined consciousness traveling from life to life, world to world, and state to state as it descends into the realm of experience and ascends upward again toward ultimate unity.

The ethical dimension of Blavatsky's teaching must be underscored. Especially in her later writings, she emphasized that her evolutionary outlook and the ancient wisdom concealed everywhere indicated the "brotherhood" of all humanity, the importance of kindness and justice, and the evil of dogmatism and persecution. The early theosophical movement clearly had a place in the reformism of the Progressive Era in areas like feminism, education, anticolonialism, and child and animal welfare.

The influence of Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society is difficult to assess precisely, but it is increasingly recognized as a significant element within twentieth-century modernism in art, music, and poetry. The tribute she paid to Eastern and other submerged religions and cultures in the heyday of European imperialism by describing them as important custodians of ancient wisdom played a role in subsequent spiritual revivals and national independence movements from Ireland to India and Sri Lanka. Theosophy was no less important in popularizing Eastern religious concepts such as karma and reincarnation in the West. Some aspects of her philosophy hinted at forthcoming insights in relativity, quantum, and evolutionary theory. More narrowly, her work has had a powerful impact on all later occult, esoteric, and New Age ideologies. Finally, as a woman of strong and independent personality, exercising international spiritual leadership outside established institutions, she could be considered a feminist prototype.

Blavatsky aroused intense controversy in her lifetime, and she has continued to do so ever since. Charges of psychic fraud and plagiarism have been made but not conclusively substantiated. In the end she must be assessed by the historical significance of her movement and the inherent worth of her teachings.

See Also

Besant, Annie; Theosophical Society.


Besant, Annie. "Theosophical Society." In Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 12, pp. 300304. Edinburgh and New York, 19081926. A concise summary of theosophical teaching and the early history of the Theosophical Society by a major disciple of Blavatsky.

Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings. 15 vols. Edited by Boris de Zirkoff. Wheaton, Ill., 19661991. Together with her major books, the fundamental sources.

Caldwell, Daniel, comp. The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky. Wheaton, Ill., 2000. A collection of first-hand personal impressions of Blavatsky by contemporaries of hers, the majority friendly but some negative.

Cranston, Sylvia (Anita Atkins). HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. 3d rev. ed. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1998. A modern sympathetic biography, uncritical but notable for its extensive documentation of Blavatsky's impact on modern art and letters.

Gomes, Michael. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. Wheaton, Ill., 1987. An empathetic scholarly study of Blavatsky and early theosophy in context.

Gomes, Michael. Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1994. An essential resource.

Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth. New York, 1980. A biography from an independent perspective, sometimes speculative as to psychological motivation.

Oltramare, Paul. "Theosophy." In Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 12, pp. 304325. Edinburgh and New York, 19081926. Largely on theosophy as a general category in the history of religion, but refers to Blavatsky briefly from a critical perspective.

Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America. London, 1993; New York, 1995. An entertaining portrait of Blavatsky and others by an "outsider," presenting Blavatsky as a colorful eccentric.

Robert S. Ellwood (2005)