Just who is this Madame Blavatsky? If you are like me, you sometimes peruse the “Metaphysical, Mystical, UFO, Cryptozoological, Occult” sections of local bookstores and online booksites. You most likely came across this name, or saw a photo of the Madame on a book cover or spine.
Her Wiki entry gives us some starting information on this strange, oddly alluring woman with her large blue eyes, and purple signia-encrusted shawls…
Helena Blavatsky (Yelena Petrovna Blavatskaya) (1831 – 1891) was a Russian occultist, spirit medium, and author who co-founded the infamous Theosophical Society in 1875. Blavatsky gained an international following as the leading theoretician of Theosophy, the esoteric religion that the society promoted. She was a controversial figure during her lifetime, championed by supporters as an enlightened guru; and yet hounded as a fraudulent charlatan and plagiarist by critics. Regardless of her overall popularity, Blavatsky made a large impact on the world in many ways: her Theosophical doctrines influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West as well as the development of Western esoteric currents such as Ariosophy, Anthroposophy, and the entire New Age Movement.
Born into an aristocratic Russian-German family in Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine, Blavatsky traveled widely around the Russian Empire as a child. Largely self-educated, she developed an interest in Western esotericism during her teenage years. According to her later claims, in 1849 she embarked on a series of world travels, visiting Europe, the Americas, and India. She alleged that during this period she encountered a group of spiritual adepts, the “Masters of the Ancient Wisdom”, who sent her to Shigatse, Tibet, where they trained her to develop her own psychic powers.
By the early 1870s, Blavatsky was involved in the Spiritualist movement; although defending the genuine existence of Spiritualist phenomena, she argued against the mainstream Spiritualist idea that the entities contacted were the spirits of the dead. Relocating to the United States in 1873, she befriended Henry Steel Olcott and rose to public attention as a spirit medium.
While living in New York City, Blavatsky co-founded the Theosophical Society with Olcott and William Quan Judge in 1875. Then, in 1877, she published Isis Unveiled, a book outlining her Theosophical world-view.
Associating it closely with the esoteric doctrines of Hermeticism and Neoplatonism, Blavatsky described Theosophy as “the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy”, proclaiming that it was reviving an “Ancient Wisdom” that underlay all the world’s religions.
In 1880 she and Olcott moved to India, where the Society was allied to the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement. That same year,while in Ceylon she and Olcott became the first Westerners to officially convert to Buddhism.
Although opposed by the British administration, Theosophy spread rapidly in India but experienced internal problems after Blavatsky wasaccused of producing fraudulent paranormal phenomena.
Amid ailing health, in 1885 she returned to Europe, there establishing the Blavatsky Lodge in London. Here she published The Secret Doctrine, a commentary on what she claimed were ancient Tibetan manuscripts, as well as two further books, The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence. She died of influenza in 1891 in the home of disciple and successor, Annie Besant.
Pictured below: Madame Blavatsky in the purple shawl characteristic of her in photographs; and the first edition of her seminal work The Secret Doctirine.
We will discuss more topics surrounding Madame Blavatsky in future posts. So stay tuned! Until then…
Keep your mind wide open…