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Friday, 26 October 2018

Blavatsky's Influence and the Blavatsky Revival 1/3

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This is a revised, tweeked and generally cleaned-up version of a previously posted article, although with no claims to being systematic or thorough:
Blavatsky's Influence and the Blavatsky Revival
Since the new millennium, after a century of persistent slander, marginilization and seriously confused portrayals, the recognition of Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky has grown immensely, and so this text merely aims at skimming the surface of what has become a considerable body of historical research concerning her and theosophy. It seems that 20th century modern mainstream thinking was largely inimical to Blavatsky. Significantly perhaps, it was when a major crisis occurred in the modernist ideal in the mid-80s that Blavatsky finally started getting some wider recognition for her influence on contemporary spirituality, although the spiritual revival of the 1960s must have surely paved the way. I think she is much more suited to a post-modern perspective, and possibly one of the first signs of the turning tide in her favor can be found with none other than Kurt Vonnegut, who dubbed her “the Founding Mother of the Occult in America.” (“The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky,” McCalls, March 1970). That is not to say that her reputation has been completely rehabilitated; unfair, innacurate, and distorted ideas about Blavatsky still abound. Moreover, she remains a controversial figure and it seems that every positive reapppraisal is accompanied by a negative backlash. This study will focus on the positive aspects.
The early 1980s
It seems that the renewed interest in Blavatsky happened quite swiftly. Bruce F. Campbell’s 1980 Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.) is quite a solid pioneering study on Blavatsky and theosophy. In 1983, Robert Ellwood in his essay, “The American Theosophical Synthesis” in the anthology The Occult in America (University of Illinois Press, 1983) wrote a perceptive review of Blavatsky's contributions :"Theosophy’s program was through rational but not reductionist means to restore consciousness as a pervasive presence to the world described by science, and to liberate religion to enjoy its worldwide heritage and its ultimate compatibility with all that science discovers. To do so it must, HPB believed, draw models for reality undogmatically but forcefully from the wisdom of those the wisest in spirituality’s worldwide past. Something had once been known, she was convinced, that was lost amide the rise of competitive religion and one-dimensional science in historical times. We have seen what some of those models were, and what the more immediate sources for them were in traditions she thought be in touch with that past and its hidden but living present. The details are perhaps less important than the program in understanding the appeal of Theosophy, and its initial emergence as a synthesis attempting to contain an epochal crisis in the human spirit". (130-31) Then in 1985, with the completion of her fourteen-volume Collected Writings, spearheaded by Boris de Zirkoff, her stock was on the rise. 1985 also saw the creation of a theosophical history journal, founded by Leslie Price ( . Sylvia Cranston's 1985 biography, H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, is a thorough, well-researched work that gives Blavatsky due credit and clarifies many a misconception. It remains, arguably, the finest Blavatsky biography to date. Since then, the growth of historical studies on theosophy has continued to expand appreciably. 
The Coulomb-Hodgson Affair reappraisal
Another major step in rehabilitating her much-maligned reputation occurred in 1986, when a work by Vernon Harrison, a research worker of disputed documents, was published (S.P.R. Journal (Vol.53 April 1986)).  It was a thorough study of the notorious Hodgson report, issued by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1885 and has since been the primary source of misunderstandings concerning Blavatsky. Harrison concluded that the report's "errors of procedure, its inconsistencies, its faulty reasoning and bias, its hostility towards the subject and its contempt for the 'native' and other witnesses, would have become apparent; and the case would have been referred back for further study." Since Blavatsky "was the most important occultist ever" investigated by the SPR, the process was a “wasted opportunity”.(p33) (
The SPR also issued an accompanying press release in which a long-standing member of the S.P.R., Dr. Beloff states: "Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, we are pleased to offer him the hospitality of our columns and we hope that, hereafter, Theosophists, and, indeed, all who care for the reputation of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, will look upon us in a more kindly light." (
The New Millenium
After this early watershed which witnessed a major paradigm shift, interest in Blavatsky continues to grow steadily. The new millenium kicked off a spate of Blavatsky publications, including Daniel Caldwell's anthology The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky (2001), her Collected Letters, Vol. 1(2003), and the Esoteric Instructions (2005). Since 2006, Daniel Caldwell has been curating the Blavatsky Study Center web site (, an exhaustive archive of all things Blavatsky. Michael Gomes' 2004 abridgement of her Secret Doctrine by Penguins books brought this esoteric classic to a wider audience. In 2011, the publication of a lost transcription of Blavatsky's London study classes gave us a greater glimpse into Blavatsky's personality than ever before  ( Gary Lachman's 2012 biography is arguably the first reasonably neutral and objective mainstream Blavatsky biography. He states in an interview:"I think people think they know who and what HPB was about already, and accept the cliches and stereotypes about her, without really looking into who she actually was. She’s as important in the shaping of the modern world as Darwin, Marx or Freud, but the myths and half-truths that have been repeated over and over prevent us from seeing this. My book tries to redress this misunderstanding." (  Some have used the term 'Blavatsky Revival', such as in an interview with Michael Gomes ( Joy Dixon refers to an “explosion” in theosophical studies in academia (
A selective survey of areas of influence
Due to the broad, erudite, universalist, international, multi-cultural, comparative perspective, Blavatsky’s influence has been noted in a wide range of areas. What follows is an attempt at a brief sketch of some of the main areas.
For her contributions to the field of Gnosticism, Richard Smith (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977, Brill, p.537) notes that: "It was Madame Blavatsky who first claimed the Gnostics as precursors for the occult movement. In her program to divide speculative learning into esoteric and exoteric, truth and religion, the Gnostics were an obvious opposition to what she called "Churchianity." She absorbed the Gnostics, in her universal free-associative style, into a great occult synthesis."
For her contributions to the field of the Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, mentions Blavatsky In his book, Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, p. 85): "Scholem’s emphasis on the role of symbolism in a preeminently medieval literature such as Kabbalah is corroborated by other scholars dealing with medieval material in general, with Christian mysticism, and even with Kabbalah. So, for example, we find similar views, expressed long before Scholem’s characterization quoted above, in the writings of G.G. Coulton, W.R. Inge, and Madame Blavatsky. For our purpose it is sufficient to quote Madame Blavatsky, a follower of the Renaissance Christian kabbalists who formulated their conception of the Kabbalah in a way accepted and further developed by many modern scholars of the Kabbalah: “The Kabbalist is a student of ‘secret science,’ one who interprets the hidden meaning of the Scriptures with the help of the symbolical Kabbalah, and explains the real one of these meanings.”
Her use of astrology in her cosmology was innovative (beginning with her interpretation of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” in Isis Unveiled) and influential astrologer Sepharial (Walter Old) was a student of hers. Major astrology figure Alan Leo was a theosophist and met Blavatsky as well. According to Michael R. Meyer, the “re-establishment of astrology that took place during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first part of the twentieth century was promoted largely by theosophists including Sepharial, Alan Leo, Max Heindl, Charles Carter, Marc Edmund Jones, and Dane Rudhyar. (The Astrology of Relationships,London Continuum, p. 2009)
Influential and innovative astrologer and composer Dane Rudhyar, who was associated with diverse theosophical currents, observes: ”it may be sufficient to show that the one fundamental factor in trying to reach a deep understanding of the meaning and purpose of that life is the meaning and purpose of the occult trans-Himalayan Brotherhood whose agent she claimed to be. It may be impossible scientifically to prove the validity of that claim; it is as impossible to prove it was a hoax, considering the quite outstanding individuals who had firsthand experiential knowledge of the validity of her assertions. Even more convincing is the astounding character of the contents of her large books, especially The Secret Doctrine, which no ordinary mind could have produced without passing dozens of years studying and collating an immense mass of verifiable documents in many great libraries. At the same time, it is evident that H. P. Blavatsky, the woman, spent her life away from universities and national libraries.” (Occult Preparation for the New Age, Wheaton, Quest, 1975 -
Blavatsky has received a number of endorsements from several noted Asian Buddhists and scholars. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a prominent Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer who collaborated extensively with the theosophical movement and was highly appreciative of his contact with Blavatsky:”The path of perfection was shown to me by Mme Blavatsky in my 21st year”. (Diary, December 20, 1930); “Blavatsky gave me the key to opening the door to my spiritual nature”. (Diary, March 10, 1897) (quoted in Steven Kemper, Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, University of Chicago, 2015. pp.53, 59)
According to Walter Evans-Wentz: “The late Kazi Dawa Samdup was of the opinion that there is adequate internal evidence in them  [her writings] of their author’s intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings into which she claimed to have been initiated.” (The Tibetan Book of the Dead,  Oxford University Press, 1927, p. 7 footnote.) In 1927 the staff of the 9th Panchen Lama Tub-ten Cho-gyi Nyima helped Theosophists put out the "Peking Edition" of The Voice of the Silence and he wrote a short dedication. (Blavatsky H.P. The Voice of the Silence, ed. Alice Cleather and Basil Crump. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927. – P. 113) Zen Buddhism scholar D. T. Suzuki wrote: “The Voice of the Silence is true Mahayanistic doctrine. Undoubtedly, Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teachings and then gave out what she deemed wise to the Western world as theosophy." (“The Eastern Buddhist” vol. V no.4 July 1931) The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso wrote:"I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path." (Blavatsky Helena The Voice of the Silence. Centenary edition. Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1989. // Foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama). Sri Lankan academic, scholar and diplomat, Dr G.P. Malalasekera wrote that her “familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism as well as with esoteric Buddhist practices seems to be beyond doubt.” (Encyclopedia of Buddhism I, Taylor & Francis, 1973, p. 539).
Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge University Press, 1990) has become a major textbook on Buddhism, and Blavatsky gets her fair share of credit: "An important event occurred in 1880, when Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907), and Madame H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91) arrived in Colombo. In 1875, this American journalist and Russian clairvoyant had founded the Theosophical Society in New York. In 1879, they established the headquarters of this syncretistic religious movement in India. On arriving in Colombo, they appeared to embrace Buddhism publicly taking the refuges and precepts, thus giving a great confidence-boost to some Buddhists, due to their being Westerners". (pp. 290-91) "The Society had, however, been successful in introducing a number of key Buddhsit and Hindu concepts to people unfamiliar with scholarly writings". (p. 304)

Blavatsky and the early Theosophical helped popularize two ubiquitous texts of Hindu philosophy: the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  According to J. Barton Scott:”The allegorical method of interpretation that that they developed for the Bhagavad Gita in particular would, moreover, eventually shape the larger global reception of the textual corpus. (Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule. University of Chicago press 2016, p. 192). Moreover, Gordon White observes: “In spite of its founders misadventures, the Theosophical Society may be credited with having projected yoga onto the magnetosphere of the late nineteenth- century Indian and Western consciousness” (The "Yoga Sutra of Patanjali": A Biography. Princeton University Press, 2014, p 105)

Part 2


  1. Hi Mark
    I just wanted to share my appreciation for this work that you are undertaking. It is both fascinating and important. Each of your categories should be engaged with seriously by the TS, as far as I am concerned. It would be great if there were some sort of accessible, constantly updated, central database of all studies referencing HPB and the TS. Rgds, Dewald

  2. Thanks Dewald - I'm not as connected academically as the previous Blavatsky News people, but I'll still be writing some pieces from time to time - I'll be doing a few pieces on the recently published Thomas M. Johnson/ Alexander Wilder letters - I did peruse your recently completed PhD Thesis, btw - very nice - interesting work - the idea of some academic survey report would be nice - I would imagine people like James Santucci and the people at FOTA would be geared for that kind of thing - - surely the Blavatsky revival deserves continued notice, I think of the recent Enchanted Modernities project - that was huge and reached a lot of people...

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