A Life of Genius: H. P. Blavatsky

By J. T. Coker
[In Philadelphia, Judy Wicks bought a charming townhouse where H. P. Blavatsky once lived. She opened a restaurant on the ground floor and named it the "White Dog Cafe" because of an incident that had occurred to Mme. Blavatsky there involving a white pup. The Cafe has been recognized nationally, not only for its fine food and ambience, but for Judy's commitment to its serving as a focal point for her ideals. As part of her effort, the Cafe hosts breakfast seminars on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and on May 8 -- White Lotus Day -- which HPB's admirers set aside to commemorate her life and work. The following is an edited version of the 1989 White Lotus Day talk. -- EDS.]

Helena Blavatsky was born into the Dolgorouky family of the Russian nobility. Biographies and family information indicate she was powerfully psychic even as a child. She was also a powerful storyteller and writer. English was her third language, though she didn't really use it until she came to this country in her forties. On reading her English writings you'll be blown away at how well she conveys complicated, abstract ideas.

She was strong-willed and rebellious. When her parents wanted her to go to a fancy ball that she wanted nothing to do with, HPB plunged her foot into boiling water so she wouldn't have to go. She would have nothing to do with anything forced on her. She was a cultured person: reports tell of her playing piano concerts in Europe with well-known musicians and pulling it off quite well. Challenged that she couldn't even get "old man Blavatsky," a state official in the Caucasus, to marry her, she married him forthwith and then immediately left him, never consummating the relationship. She's reported to have said, "I never even gave him time to think about having a wife."

When she left Blavatsky, there's an extended period in which we don't know exactly what happened. She traveled the world, finally penetrating even into Tibet where nobody could go at that time. She learned many strange, occult things. She was in America for a while; she checked out voodoo in New Orleans. Then on through Central and South America at a time when there were no trains and few real roads. For a single individual, much less an unaccompanied woman, just making such a trip was an accomplishment.

HPB was a forerunner of the modern feminist movement: a female standing on her own, doing what she had to do in the face of ridicule and even danger; insisting on being considered as a human being. She was one of the first to look at other cultures, other ways of seeing the world, accepting them for what they were, not seeing them through the lens of Western ethno/culturocentric biases. She looked at all traditions, Western and non-Western, and saw them as related manifestations of human spiritual endeavor -- Hinduism, Buddhism, and the old Chaldean religion, ancient Zoroastrianism, Modern Parsiism, Christianity, Judaism -- seeing them as expressions, in different times, by different people of one underlying truth or reality from which we spring and to which we all return.

Even though she writes well, her books can be difficult to read. The Secret Doctrine can give you a headache! Reading her works can be a form of exercise, "pumping iron" with the higher part of the mind: not the part concerned with everyday life but the part concerned with the nobler side of humanity, where we can think about, comprehend, perhaps even manifest a bit of what she gave her life for -- universal brotherhood. That part of us gets exercise and it can get sore! It isn't necessary to completely understand or agree, just experiencing her work is strengthening.

HPB said she had been sent to America for a specific purpose: to impart a philosophical basis for understanding the phenomena of psychism, seances, spooks, and table rappings then rampant in the fledgling Spiritualist movement. The East has had thousands of years of experience dealing with psychic occurrences and their view differs from ours. As the waves of psychism swept over the West we began materializing spooks and tipping tables, and were elated: "Oh boy, this is spiritual!" But HPB said in effect, It's nonphysical. Does that mean it's spiritual? Let's define our terms. Then she brought everything she could find from ancient and modern sources to look at the phenomena and discern what they really were. Spiritualists did not take well to that, even though she supported them, not denying reality to their phenomena, only to their explanations for them. Our culture has similar phenomena now, channeling for example, that seem analogous in many ways. The philosophy HPB brought us places these phenomena in a perspective where they make a lot more sense. With that perspective we won't say, "that's all garbage" or "it's all wonderful," but will exercise our discrimination from a sound philosophic basis.

In 1875 she formed The Theosophical Society in New York City with Colonel Henry Olcott, William Q. Judge, and about a dozen others and worked in America for several years. Then she and Olcott went to India where they worked to help the people in India, Ceylon, and Burma regain respect for themselves, their religious beliefs, and culture. She pointed to the spiritual source of their native traditions, showing them that there was no need to let Western imperialism overrun them. She helped them remember who they were, and that the roots they spring from are what nourish them. The Buddhist religion in Sri Lanka might not be there now if it weren't for the work she and Olcott did to revive it. He traveled to England to intercede with the government so that colonial authorities would respect the Buddhist way of life. At that time, for example, Buddhists there had to be married in a Christian church. The theosophists changed that and the future of Buddhism by their philosophic and practical work. This was over a hundred years ago in the face of the British Empire. She was tagged as a Russian spy: to the secret police her activities were subversive. She got a clean bill of health on this and never stopped working to help people understand and respect the spiritual basis of their own cultures.

HPB devoted her life to the growth of the nobler aspects of humanity -- what it means to be human. The Society she founded has three basic objectives, the second being to study ancient and modern science, religion, and philosophy. If we actually did that with unbiased minds, we would open up intellectually and spiritually. The third objective is to study the laws of nature and the powers innate in man. People often assume that means psychism. We hear that she was a psychic par excellence, moving and materializing objects. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England branded her a charlatan, "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history," but a few years ago an article was published in its Journal stating that the 1885 report was unfair to her. (Vernon Harrison, "J'ACCUSE: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, April 1986.)

Whether HPB did or didn't produce certain phenomena is beside the point when considering the third object of the Society. The real power innate in man isn't psychic. It's the selfless aspect, the nobler side of humanity she spoke to. That is the real power innate in us: power to do for another, to see another's way as just as valid as our own. That was what she devoted her life to showing us.

The first object of the Society really says it all: to form a nucleus of people devoted to the principle of universal brotherhood, not just in words but in deed. As usual with her, she didn't tell how, she gave principles and reasons learned from her Eastern teachers and said to use them to develop our own understanding. She echoed Buddha: Don't believe because I say so, or because it comes from authority, or from a book. Check it out. If it makes sense in your life, if it's meaningful to you, apply it as best you can. If brotherhood, spirituality, and the nobility of being human make sense to you then find your own way to make it real in your life. If we all did that the world would turn itself around. Sure, there would still be problems but no unnecessary suffering. She didn't say you have to believe anything in order to do it. She said, If yours is the Hebrew tradition believe and do that. If you like Buddhism then do that; the same with Hinduism or Christianity -- it makes no difference which tradition you root yourself in. The important thing is to find your roots.

In the Society's early days there were different branches: Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Parsi, also agnostic and Freethinker branches exploring what it means to be human by their own lights. We all end up in the same place but we have to take different routes to get there. Through the search for our own individuality we'll come together in common cause for the greater good of mankind: and not just mankind but everything -- from a tiny electron to the greatest megagalaxy we can imagine -- they're ALL alive. She showed us a living, organic universe of which we're a small part, a microcosmic reflection of the universal macrocosm. It goes back to the Hermetic axiom "As above, so below." She said that nature reflects the same processes throughout: it is alive, organic, growing, and evolving.

Blavatsky wrote a synthesis of ancient and modern religion, philosophy, and science that leads to the underlying strata of truth in all expressions of the human spirit. Her perspective was spiritual, the one we had in the West was dying out, killed by the growth of materialistic science. We were seeking a rationale to satisfy the questions arising in a growing number of human minds, and a spiritual approach to life that would not be at odds with the discoveries of modern science. She doesn't agree with everything that science runs out, not by a long shot. She gives one idea that goes head on against Darwin, that man was here first and apes devolved from him! At first I found that weird, but on reading what she said about it I saw it makes as much sense as the currently accepted scientific way. All of a sudden my head opened up! I don't know the truth of it -- neither did Darwin, nor do you. But my perspective enlarged. That's what I meant by "pumping iron": a mental biceps expanded, enabling me to grasp a broader perspective.

On introducing these ideas to the West HPB never claimed that they were new or unique. She quotes Montaigne, saying she didn't create this beautiful "nosegay of flowers" but had "culled them" from the fields of human experience and thought. Hers was only "the string that binds them" together. She reintroduced into our thought stream ideas that had been current in the West at one time but had fallen into disfavor in the last 2,000 years: karma, reincarnation, universal cyclicality, everything being alive and having at its base a divine essence. It gives an uplift of spirit when we see ourselves, everyone, everything, as not just an object but in some mysterious way a manifestation of the divine in the universe. Each is a necessary part of the whole. Without those parts being what they are the whole can't function as well. In her books you'll find philosophic, scientific, and religious background and rationale for that point of view. There's theosophy's relevance today, or any day. If we can realize that everyone and everything is not just important but a needed manifestation of the spiritual side of the universe, all of a sudden it's a whole different ball game.

She brought us a top-down view of the universe as opposed to the bottom-up view of materialistic science. In a "random collocation of atoms" man's ideas, imaginings, and spiritual aspirations are "accidents" -- "Empty tears in a universe crying itself to sleep." She saw it another way: call it Ain Soph, God, Sat, Tat, Parabrahman, whatever you like, there's an unknowable divine and from it the universe unrolls in a cyclical manner. It evolves until it gets to the point where we perceive ourselves as humans -- and perhaps beyond. Then it rolls itself up, then back out again, aeon after aeon, perfecting itself and all that makes it up as it cycles back and forth. She gives a perspective that broad: the birth, growth, and death of universes, mega-universes, of the infinite giving birth to all manifestation and then drawing it all back in. Is it literally true? Do you want to take a vote? If it helps us become more inclusive, less exclusive, to expand our lives in a spirit of compassion and brotherhood, then what else is important?

HPB was a forerunner of modern ecology. She taught the interdependence and interconnectedness of all, what Buddha called the doctrine of "dependent origination": that I can't be here without every one of you and you've got nothing going without me. Every atom and galaxy is interconnected and interdependent. I recall a talk with our child, wondering at how bees and flowers aren't really different: bees being the mobile parts of flowers and flowers the parts of bees that stay in one spot. They can't exist as they are without one another. HPB saw and explained the universe that way.

Those who become involved with HPB seem to either go for it in a big way or are turned off. She is a savior or an impostor -- there's difficulty finding middle ground. The height of a building can be judged by the shadow it casts; HPB can be judged not by her shadow but by the light she cast across the world -- a light that still illuminates the spiritual darkness of our materialism. In dealing with modern spirituality or occultism you have to deal with what HPB did. You don't have to agree with or believe her but you've got to deal with her. Her influence has been felt by artists, scholars, and scientists, though it's not always directly observable. Albert Einstein kept a copy of her Secret Doctrine on his desk. I saw an example of her influence in a pool hall/pizza joint in rural Maryland. It was fundamentalist territory, so imagine the surprise when the juke box gave forth with Willie Nelson's country music twang singing "A little old-fashioned karma comin' down." Not even 100 years after she finished her work and cowboys are singing about karma! She's not the only one responsible, but she was the first to give a push to that idea in the West. There may be deeper levels of meaning to the idea than Willie brought out, but at least the idea is there acting as a leaven to our thoughts. No matter how imperfectly understood, that idea has reached the far corners of America. The profound ideas she brought have spread over the whole world but our understanding of them is shallow. The hot sun of materialism still bakes down and if we don't plumb the depths of these ideas they may dry up, or be forced underground again, leaving the land twice as parched as it was before HPB did her work. We need to help carry on that work in some small way if what she gave us is to remain meaningful.

Carl Jung declared that the West needed to find a yoga of its own. He felt it dangerous to thoughtlessly adopt methods not native to Western minds and needs. There are many yogas: bhakti, karma, and hatha yoga. There's also jnana yoga, that of expanding the higher portion of the mind so it links with the divine. HPB speaks of The Secret Doctrine as being a form of jnana yoga for Western minds. With our need for rationality the SD as a form of yoga is still relevant a century after it was written.

HPB showed principles by which we can take a self-conscious hand in our evolution rather than waiting out the aeons-long process of suffering and learning unconsciously. With them we can begin to wake ourselves up, just a little, and find a different way to do it. She doesn't give any "rules" for it -- "Let's all chant" or "Let's all do this asana," for each individual's path is unique to him. She lays down principles for us to use. A Tibetan proverb says "No truth is really true until you grasp it yourself." On the spiritual path Truth can't be passed on by words but, with principles that have worked for aeons, you can directly grasp the experience of spirit. Then you've got it and not someone else's version of it.

HPB had a sage's soul, a lion's heart, and an artist's sensitivity. Whether we agree with what she wrote or not, she had an amazing ability to help us help ourselves. Most amazing was her boundless capacity for compassion: caring about all people -- high, ordinary, or low -- whoever crossed her path. In her Voice of the Silence a verse sums up much of what HPB was urging us towards:

. . . let each burning human tear drop on thy heart and there remain, nor ever brush it off, until the pain that caused it is removed. -- p. 13

That moves the heart. Philosophy and rationality are great exercise and we can get much from them but . . . what HPB's life work truly embodied was that heart impulse. She urges us to try to live our lives, in some small way, up to that kind of nobility.

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, June/July 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)

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