Overture and Opener of the Way

W. T. S. Thackara (1)

Tonight we are commemorating the anniversary of H. P. Blavatsky's passing 106 years ago on May 8, 1891, and her contribution as a philanthropist -- a lover of mankind -- and one uniquely gifted to re-present the perennial wisdom of the ages.

While many have read HPB's books, few perhaps may be aware of her first theosophical article which launched her public work in July 1875, two months before the founding of The Theosophical Society. The Latin word opera means "work," and an operatic overture is meant to prepare the audience for the play by alluding to the musical themes to come. On this criterion, HPB's first article is certainly her overture to the symphony which followed: a comprehensive interpretation of the ancient song celestial. The story of its presentation is the simple, ages-old drama of lighting a torch in a dark place and sounding a keynote of hope. Besides seeding the fundamental concepts of theosophy which she progressively unfolded in her subsequent writings, this article serves as a refutation of critics who suggest that HPB made up her philosophy piecemeal, adding features such as reincarnation, karma, and the brotherhood ideal, so she could advance her personal aims -- variously conjectured as political provocateur or (according to a recent "biography") ambition to exercise her occult powers. As context is important -- every jewel needs a setting -- this paper is divided into two parts: first the historical background and, second, selected excerpts from HPB's article with relevant commentary.

H. P. Blavatsky in New York, 1875

Leading up to the founding of every genuine spiritual movement is a chain of cause and effect resulting in a pivotal event -- and the birth of the modern theosophical movement is no exception. Premised on nature's law of cyclic renovation, theosophic tradition teaches the periodic appearance of avatars and sages whose mission is to restore the life-giving vision of our role in the universe; in short, a fundamental affirmation of our divine heritage, "together with so much teaching and instruction as is necessary" to protect and help humanity on its path to spiritual self-reliance. (2) Cyclic spiritual impulses may be discerned over the millennia, and there is a recognizable linkage between the zodiacal cycle of 2,160 years and the appearance of a prophet or sage -- for example, Moses and Aries, the Ram; Jesus and Pisces, the Fish. But there are other cycles as well which factor in the coming of teachers. HPB's mentors specifically linked the origin of the modern theosophical movement to a directive given in the 14th century that an attempt be made by their school each century to "open the eyes of the blind world" (The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 362).

The last quarter of this century has witnessed a profound resurgence of spiritual awareness; and we may well ask if it was purely by chance, also, that in the 15th century there came the reintroduction to the West of Platonic, Hermetic, and Kabbalistic philosophies which sparked the Renaissance, succeeded in following centuries by the Reformation, the rise of science, the introduction of Eastern philosophy, the flowering of Rosicrucianism and Masonry, as well as a more widespread acceptance of their ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the last century, several cycles converged: the end of the Piscean Age, the end of the first 5,000 years of the Kali-yuga or Iron Age, as well as the near completion of half a precessional cycle of 12,000+ years. Just as fields need to be prepared for planting in their due season, HPB's teachers felt the time had come for a new sowing. One of them commented in February 1882:

One or two of us hoped that the world had so far advanced intellectually, if not intuitionally, that the Occult doctrine might gain an intellectual acceptance, and the impulse given for a new cycle of occult research. Others -- wiser as it would now seem -- held differently, but consent was given for the trial. It was stipulated, however, that the experiment should be made independently of our personal management; that there should be no abnormal interference by ourselves. So casting about we found in America the man to stand as leader -- a man of great moral courage, unselfish, and having other good qualities. He was far from being the best, but (as Mr. Hume speaks in H.P.B.'s case) -- he was the best one available. With him we associated a woman of most exceptional and wonderful endowments. Combined with them she had strong personal defects, but just as she was, there was no second to her living fit for this work. We sent her to America, brought them together -- and the trial began. -- The Mahatma Letters, p. 263

Realizing that the dogmatic churches and scientific academies were unlikely to lend a sympathetic ear initially, HPB turned to the more receptive but fledgling Spiritualist movement as a first foothold to introduce theosophic ideas. She and Henry S. Olcott met in October 1874 while investigating Spiritualist seances in Vermont and thereafter became lifelong colleagues. In December HPB moved to Philadelphia, where she continued her investigations and wrote a few articles on Spiritualism, one of which -- exposing the fraud of a Dr. Child -- elicited an appreciative letter from and subsequent correspondence with Professor Hiram Corson of Cornell University. In her second letter to him, postmarked February 16, 1875, she wrote:

I am here in this country sent by my Lodge on behalf of Truth in modern spiritualism, and it is my most sacred duty to unveil what is, and expose what is not. Perhaps did I arrive here one hundred years too soon. May be, and I am afraid it is so, . . . for people seem to care every day less for truth and every hour more for gold, -- [and] my feeble protest and endeavors will be of no avail; nevertheless, I am ever ready for the grand battle, and perfectly prepared to bear any consequences that may fall to my lot. -- E. R. Corson, Some Unpublished Lettersof Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, pp. 127-8

In April HPB returned briefly to New York as plaintiff in a successful lawsuit concerning farm property on Long Island. She was represented by William M. Ivins, who became a good friend of hers. For two weeks as "guests in a dull country hotel," waiting for the judicial process to creak along, Ivins and his associate, a brilliant law student named William E. S. Fales, who had been appointed to translate HPB's testimony given in French, spent long hours with her discussing occultism, gnosticism, kabbalism, magic, Rosicrucianism, and the like.

In early May, shortly after organizing a small investigating committee called the Miracle Club, Olcott received his first letter from one of HPB's Egyptian teachers, known as Tuitit Bey. On May 21 HPB wrote to Olcott that she had been "intrusted with an arduous and dangerous task, Harry, to 'try' and teach you, having to rely solely on my poor, lame English." In the same letter she also mentioned that

The Lodge will send an article this week, No. 1 of the series of articles to come from Luxor. It is a sort of rudimental insight given by them to the world. It treats of what is a man on Earth and of the object of his life here or what it should be. It goes to prove that the first seven of our past, present and subsequent existences in different spheres are but a sort of embryonical essays, modellings of Nature . . . herself, who tries her hand for the final formation of the real, complete man, who can become only on the seventh sphere a perfect microcosmos or a miniature store house of samples of everything from the Alpha down to the Omega of the great Macrocosmos, whom he must represent to perfection before he steps beyond the seventh sphere. . . . All the seven spheres one after the other present the man in a state of more or less developed embryo according to his own exertions. . . . I'm at liberty to tell you that the articles in question have been ordered to be written by mere children of the Science, by the neophytes (of course they will be carefully revised), and such as they are, Tuitit thinks them too good for the green Americans, he says few will understand and many of the omniscient Spiritsts will pitch into them and feel shocked. -- HPB Speaks 1:37-43

A week or so later she wrote in her Scrapbook: "Ordered to begin telling the public the truth about the phenomena & their mediums. And now my martyrdom will begin! I will have all the Spiritualists against me in addition to the Christians & the Skeptics! Thy Will, oh M [symbol] be done!" (H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings [BCW] 1:89-90).

Before she could do much along this line, however, HPB became deathly ill, owing to complications of a leg injury suffered the previous January. On and off through late May and early June those at her bedside noted that three or four times daily she lay as one dead for two or three hours at a time. Her doctor was pressing for amputation. "Mortification or sugar plums, I won't have it!" she retorted. "Fancy my leg going in the spirit land before me!" But "two days of cold water poultices, and a white pup, a dog by night laid across the leg, cured all in no time" (HPB Speaks 1:81-2, 93). Her recovery was amazingly swift because by July 8 she was strong enough to travel to Boston where she completed a lengthy reply to an article on Rosicrucianism sent to her for publication in the Spiritual Scientist, a leading Spiritualist journal she and Olcott had been supporting.

The article was written under the pen name "Hiraf" and, judging by its Editorial Note -- no doubt largely written by HPB -- she probably knew it had come from William Fales, who had translated her testimony at Long Island. What she may not have known was that "Hiraf" was the name of a five-member club composed mainly of lawyers -- HIRAF being an acrostic of the first letter of their last names -- formed to discuss literature, especially philosophy, theology, and related matters. Years later William Ivins revealed that the Rosicrucian article had been jointly composed by fellow Hiraf members Frederick W. Hinrichs, William Fales, and himself. Hinrichs wrote that "we young men had little reverence, some learning, and some power of expression." Although impressed by HPB, they apparently were not so impressed by Spiritualism and esoteric science and, at the time, regarded their effort as a "test [of] human credulity" (BCW 1:97-100).

Whatever their motives may have been, HPB evidently found in the article what was needed to fire her "first occult shot," published in two parts, on July 15th and 22nd. (3) At that time, most of HPB's readers were steeped in church dogma and a limited, mechanical science. They knew nothing about quantum physics, black holes, or the Internet; and little if anything about Oriental philosophy, which was widely considered to be mysterious, heathen, and inferior. And yet, by virtue of reading a Spiritualist journal, each had interest in at least one question of ultimate concern: What happens to us when we die? HPB's article begins as follows:


[Comments by W. T. S. Thackara in brackets and blockquote.]


Author of the article "Rosicrucianism"

By Madame H. P. Blavatsky

Among the numerous sciences pursued by the well-disciplined army of earnest students of the present century, none has had less honors or more scoffing than the oldest of them -- the science of sciences, the venerable mother-parent of all our modern pigmies. . . .

As a rule, Occultism is a dangerous, double-edged weapon for one to handle, who is unprepared to devote his whole life to it. The theory of it, unaided by serious practice, will ever remain in the eyes of those prejudiced against such an unpopular cause, an idle, crazy speculation, fit only to charm the ears of ignorant old women. . . . Ridicule is the deadliest weapon of the age, and . . . we would scarcely be likely to find one individual in the present times, who would be brave enough even to defy ridicule by seriously undertaking to prove the great truths embraced in the traditions of the Past.

[HPB then gives Hiraf credit for such courage, but indicates that her wish is to share with her readers]

a little of the little I picked up in my long travels throughout the length and breadth of the East -- that cradle of Occultism -- in the hope of correcting certain erroneous notions he seems to be labouring under, and which are calculated to confuse uninitiated sincere enquirers, . . .

In the first place, Hiraf doubts whether there are in existence . . . what we term regular colleges for the neophytes of the Secret Science. I will say from personal knowledge that such places there are in the East -- in India, Asia Minor, and other countries. As in the primitive days of Socrates and other sages of antiquity, so now, those who are willing to learn the Great Truth will find the chance if they only "try" to meet someone to lead them to the door of one "who knows when and how." If Hiraf is right about the seventh rule of the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross which says that "the Rose-crux becomes and is not made," he may err as to the exceptions which have ever existed among other Brotherhoods devoted to the pursuit of the same secret knowledge. Then again, when he asserts . . . that Rosicrucianism is almost forgotten, we may answer him that we do not wonder at it, and add . . . that, strictly speaking, the Rosicrucians do not now even exist, the last of that Fraternity having departed in the person of Cagliostro.

Hiraf ought to add to the word Rosicrucianism "that particular sect," at least, for it was but a sect after all, one of many branches of the same tree.

[According to HPB, these branches were all sourced in "the great Oriental mother-root" and its "primitive Oriental Cabala" -- Cabala meaning (esoteric) "tradition." Then she briefly traces some of its branchings, alluding to the Egyptian, Pythagorean, and Greek mysteries, primitive Christianity, its early Gnostic divisions, and their relation to the origin of the Rosicrucian brotherhood in the 13th century.]

As alchemists and conjurers they [the Rosicrucians] became proverbial. Later . . . they gave birth to the more modern Theosophists, at whose head was Paracelsus, and to the Alchemists. . . .

The Rosicrucian Cabala is but an epitome of the Jewish and the Oriental ones combined, the latter being the most secret of all. The Oriental Cabala, the practical, full, and only existing copy, is carefully preserved at the headquarters of this Brotherhood in the East, and, I may safely vouch, will never come out of its possession. . . . One who wants "to become" has to hunt for his knowledge through thousands of scattered volumes, and pick up facts and lessons, bit by bit. Unless he takes the nearest way and consents "to be made," he will never become a practical Cabalist, and with all his learning will remain at the threshold of the "mysterious gate." . . . . [Yet] the Oriental Rosicrucians, in the serene beatitude of their divine knowledge, are ever ready to help the earnest student struggling "to become" with practical knowledge, which dissipates, like a heavenly breeze, the blackest clouds of sceptical doubt.

"[K]nowing that their mysteries, if divulged," in the present chaotic state of society, "would produce mere confusion and death," they shut up that knowledge within themselves. Heirs to the early heavenly wisdom of their first forefathers, they keep the keys which unlock the most guarded of Nature's secrets, and impart them only gradually and with the greatest caution. But still they do impart sometimes!

[After a brief digression about the lofty doctrines of Christ, Buddha, Lao-tse, and others, HPB states the object of her article, which is "firstly, to show the slight differences between the two Cabalas -- that of the Rosicrucians and the Oriental one; and, secondly, to say that the hope . . . to see the subject better appreciated at some future day than it has been till now, may perhaps become more than a hope."
She then traces the origin of the "Rosicrucian Cabala" to the Jewish Cabala which, according to its own tradition, was written down by Simeon ben Yohai at the time of the second Temple's destruction in 70 AD.]

Before that, all the mysterious doctrines had come down in an unbroken line of merely oral traditions as far back as man could trace himself on earth. They were scrupulously and jealously guarded by the Wise Men of Chaldaea, India, Persia and Egypt, and passed from one initiate to another, in the same purity of form as when handed down to the first man by the angels, students of God's great Theosophic Seminary.

[This appears to be the first time HPB used the words Theosophist and Theosophic in public print, although in her February 16th letter to Hiram Corson, she stated that her belief "springs out from the same source of information that was used by . . . [all who] have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the `deepest depths' of the Divine nature, and show them the real tie which binds all things together. I found at last, and many years ago, the cravings of my mind satisfied by this theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them . . . for the aid of human destiny" (Corson, p. 128, italics added -- note brotherhood reference).
Respecting the origin and naming of the Theosophical Society, which took place in September 1875 -- seven months after the Corson letter and less than two months after the Hiraf article -- Olcott believed the idea of the Society originated with him and, when it came to finding a name for the new society, the traditional account has it that one of the founding members, high-ranking Mason Charles Sotheran, turned pages in the dictionary to the word theosophy. It is of some interest, then, that in her Scrapbook HPB wrote that she received in July 1875 "Orders . . . from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious Society and choose a name for it -- also to choose Olcott."
Returning to HPB's article, after explaining the source of the Oriental Cabala or "compound mystic textbook of all the great secrets of Nature," she turns to its philosophic content, contrasting its views on the origin of evil with that given in the Western Cabala. Here are the first hints of basic theosophic teaching elaborated in HPB's later works, in particular the Three Fundamental Propositions of The Secret Doctrine (1:14-17) which describe 1) the boundless Principle or divine source in which all things are rooted and which is rooted in all things; 2) the law of cycles or periodicity; and 3) the fundamental identity of all souls with the universal Oversoul, and the rebirths and reincarnations of all souls on the arcs of descent and ascent through the seven globes of the planetary chain.]

Oriental philosophy . . . denies that the great Ain-soph (the Endless or Boundless) who made his existence known through the medium of the spiritual substance sent forth from his Infinite Light . . . could ever create an endless, macrocosmal evil. It (Oriental philosophy) teaches us that, though the first three spheres out of seven -- taking it for granted that our planet comes in fourth -- are inhabited by elementary or future men (this might account for the modern doctrine of Re-incarnation, perhaps) and, though until they become such men they are beings without immortal souls in them and [are] but the "grossest purgations of the celestial fire" [i.e., the most elementary forms], still they do not belong to Eternal Evil. Every one of them has the chance in store of having its matter reborn on this "fourth sphere," which is our planet, and so have "the gross purgation" purified by the Immortal Breath of the Aged of the Aged, who endows every human being with a portion of his boundless self. Here, on our planet, commences the first spiritual transition, from the Infinite to the Finite, of the elementary matter which first proceeded from the pure Intelligence, or God, and also the operation of that pure Principle upon this material purgation. Thus begins the immortal man to prepare for Eternity.

. . . With our passage into each subsequent sphere, we throw off something of our primitive grossness. Hence, there is eternal progress -- physical and spiritual -- for every living being.

[HPB spent her remaining 16 years unpacking this paragraph with consummate skill and ability. Here she only added that upon this "primitive" original tradition were modeled the Jewish Cabala and the Hermetic and Rosicrucian systems, each elucidating in its own way:]

1. The nature of the Supreme Being;

2. The origin, creation, and generation of the Universe, the Macrocosmos;

3. The creation, or generation, o[r] outflowing of angels and man;

4. The ultimate destiny of angels, man, and the Universe; or the inflowing;

5. To point out to humanity the real meaning of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.

[Making allowances for its Western idiom, this list reads virtually as a table of contents of HPB's later works, particularly The Secret Doctrine, which interprets each point by the light of the Stanzas of Dzyan.]

As it is, the real, the complete Cabala of the first ages of humanity is in possession, as I said before, of but a few Oriental philosophers; . . . the location of their Brotherhoods will never be revealed to other countries, until the day when Humanity shall awake in a mass from its spiritual lethargy, and open its blind eyes to the dazzling light of Truth. A too premature discovery might blind them, perhaps forever.

[Nevertheless, HPB wished to make clear that this fraternity's intent was gradually to reintroduce such portions of the sacred science as would]

dissipate these clouds and the unhealthy mists of a thousand religious sects which disgrace the present century . . . and recall into new life the millions of wretched souls who shiver and are half frozen under the icy hand of killing skepticism. Truth will prevail at last, and Spiritualism, the new world's conqueror, reviving, like the fabulous Phoenix out of the ashes of its first parent, Occultism, will unite for ever in one Immortal Brotherhood all antagonistic races; . . .

[This is as clear a mission statement as one could want, and its chief objective is equally clear: that of a universal brotherhood of all races --which need not be limited to the human races alone. We cannot appreciate how carefully HPB and her teachers had to introduce this thought into the deeply prejudiced mind of the late 19th century. Even so, it was not until after Isis Unveiled had been published -- not until May 1878 -- that the Theosophical Society adopted as its chief aim: "to aid in the institution of a Brotherhood of Humanity, wherein all good and pure men, of every race, shall recognize each other as the equal effects (upon this planet) of one Uncreate, Universal, Infinite, and Everlasting Cause." The historical record, both here and in the Corson letter, thus shows that the brotherhood objective was present from the beginning.
HPB closes her article -- coming full cycle to her opening theme --by asking, "what hope can there be for a modern Occultist, learned only in theoretical knowledge, to ever attain his object?"]

Occultism without practice will ever be like the statue of Pygmalion, and no one can animate it without infusing into it a spark of the sacred Divine Fire. . . . A Rosicrucian had to struggle alone, and toil long years to find some of the preliminary secrets -- the ABC of the great Cabala -- only on account of his ordeal, during which were to be tried all his mental and physical energies. After that, if found worthy, the word "Try" was repeated to him for the last time before the final ceremony of the ordeal. When the High Priests of the Temple of Osiris, of Serapis, and others, brought the neophyte before the dreaded Goddess Isis, the word "Try" was pronounced for the last time; and then, if the neophyte could withstand that final mystery, the most dreaded as well as the most trying of all horrors for him who knew not what was in store for him; if he bravely "lifted the veil of Isis," he became an initiate, and had naught to fear more. He had passed the last ordeal, and no longer dreaded to meet face to face the inhabitants from "over the dark river."

The only cause for the horror and dread we feel in the presence of death, lies in its unsolved mystery. A Christian will always fear it, more or less; an initiate of the secret science, or a true Spiritualist, never, for both of the latter have lifted the veil of Isis, and the great problem is solved by both, in theory and in practice.

. . . If people ask me for the proof, I will answer that it does not enter my province to teach others what they can learn themselves with very little difficulty, provided they give themselves the trouble to read and think over what they read. Besides, the time is near when all the old superstitions and the errors of centuries must be swept away by the hurricane of Truth. . . .

Spiritualism is but a baby now, an unwelcome stranger, whom public opinion, like an unnatural foster mother, tries to crush out of existence. . . . It belongs to the exact knowledge of the Occultist to explain and alter much of what seems "repulsive" in Spiritualism, to some of the too delicate Orthodox souls. The latter . . . will begin to prove that Occultism, if it does exist, is the forbidden "Black Art," the sorcery for which people were burnt, not so long ago. In such a case I will humbly reply, that there is nothing in nature but has two sides to it. Occultism is certainly no exception to the rule, and is composed of White and Black magic. But so is Orthodox religion, likewise. . . . Verily, we have White and Black Christianity, as well as White and Black magic.

[After showing that "there is scarcely a rite or ceremony of the Christian Church that does not descend from Occultism," HPB finishes her article with an intriguing statement:]

I will close by startling, perhaps, even orthodox Spiritualists by reaffirming that all who have ever witnessed our modern materializations of genuine spirit-forms, have, unwittingly, become the initiated neophytes of the Ancient Mystery; for each and all of them have solved the problem of Death, have "lifted the veil of Isis."

[In her Scrapbook HPB pasted a clipping of this article, at the end of which she wrote in pen: "Shot No. 1. -- Written by H.P.B. by express orders from S*********" (presumably Serapis Bey). Thus marks what we may call the formal beginning of the modern theosophical era. And, considering the work, the opera, that followed, what more could be required of an overture and a renewed opening of the way?]

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

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1. From a paper read at the Theosophical Library Center, Altadena, May 9, 1997. (return to text)

2. Plato, Statesman 274; cf. "Cyclic Renewals," Sunrise, April/May 1997, p. 158. (return to text)

3. Reprinted in H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings 1:101-118. (return to text)