Thursday, April 17, 2014

Blavatsky and Australian Art

Christian Waller's “Destiny” , 1916
The name of Christian Waller may not be a well-known one outside Australia, but, with her husband, Napier Waller, the couple made an impressive contribution to Australian art history. P.Gaye Tapp provides a character study in her recent piece on Waller (1894–1954), who is remembered for her book designs and stained glass. At one point in her life “She turned deeper into Theosophy, shutting herself off from the world at large. Her doctrine held to its turn-of-the-century spiritual leader Helena Blavatsky. While critics have proven Blavatsky was part a charlatan and her supposed experiences with the paranormal faked—in the world Christian Waller inhabited they were real.”

Stained Glass by Napier Waller at the Australian War Memorial 

Christian’s book The great breath; A Book of Seven Designs (1932), is testament to her beliefs. A copy can be seen here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Madame Blavatsky in Russia

The Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin will be hosting a talk by Dr. Marina Potoplyak on “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky in Russia.”  According to the flyer for the talk: “Variously hailed as one of the greatest philosophers and spiritual leaders, a cunning impostor, a spiritualist with phenomenal psychic powers, and even a Russian spy, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was and still is a highly controversial and fascinating figure. Born in the Russian Empire in 1831, she studied in India and Tibet and traveled extensively around the world, establishing the Theosophical Society and proclaiming to have unveiled the most sacred mysteries of the Universe.”

This talk discusses Madame Blavatsky’s teachings and activities in Russia, including her table-tipping séances and a travelogue “From the Caves and Jungles of Hindustan,” which, unlike her other works, was written specifically for her Russian audience.  We will look at a variety of responses to her persona and ideas ranging from Vsevolod Solovyev’s exposé “The Modern Isida” (1892) to Leo Tolstoy’s favorable reception, and her wide-ranging influence on Russian fin-de-siècle culture.

It will be held Wednesday, April 16th, at 12 PM in Burdine Hall, Room 231, as part of the Religion and Spirituality Brown Bag Series.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blavatsky and Point Loma, California

The San Diego Reader of April 2 looks at the San Diego response to the establishment of Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical community at Point Loma, California. “On January 24, 1897, Edward R. Rambo and C.A. Griscom, Jr., purchased 120 acres of land on Point Loma three miles north of the lighthouse.” Ernest Hargrove, representing the American-based Theosophical Society, told reporters that the site would become a school “for the revival of the lost mysteries of antiquity.” 

Hargrove told reporters that Blavatsky (1831–1891) believed “there is no religion higher than truth.” She claimed that, in deep antiquity, truth thrived everywhere. Then came “centuries of darkness, ignorance, and bigotry.” Since the “pursuit of knowledge meant persecution and death,” science and philosophy “went into hiding.” The great mysteries, if known at all, were kept secret. 

Part 2 is to follow.

Theosophists laying the cornerstone at Point Loma, February 23, 1897

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  A piece on the spiritual climate of California, published in the March 29 London Observer, has been picked up as far away as the New Zealand Herald. The writer, Andrew Gumbel, after noting that “For more than 50 years, California has played host to every imaginable form of self-realisation and spiritual enlightenment, many of them talked up by Hollywood celebrities and musicians,” claims

The new age movement took off here. So did Scientology, meditation, yoga, the Krishnamurti Foundation and the modern incarnation of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. The credo of self-empowerment is everywhere: people who talk about living “in the moment” and “giving back to the universe”, people who say they are spiritual but not religious, people who finish their yoga practice with a bow and a namaste every bit as reverent as the amens they learned in church as children.

Many of the modern new age trends stem from two distinctly Californian sources. The first is the small mountain town of Ojai, an hour-and-a-half drive from Los Angeles, where the Theosophical Society set down American roots at around the same time that the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti paid his first visit, in 1922. To this day, Ojai remains a mecca for spiritual warriors seeking balance, crystals and enlightenment.

The second is the Esalen Institute, built around a hot spring overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur.

*  The Press Release for Die Marmory Show at the Deborah Schamoni in Munich prints the contents of an unpublished letter from Walt Kuhn, painter, organiser and promoter of the groundbreaking New York Armory-Show in 1913, who inspired the present exhibition. Writing to his wife Vera from Munich, October 24, 1912, he says

Yesterday afternoon on my way to the hotel I met Kandinsky, who convinced me to take part in a meeting of the theosophically-interested. He said that they met regularly to read from Helena Blavatsky’s books and practice applying her theories. Today was to be one of those evening’s of praxis.

These people, seven including me, assembled – Marianne von Werefkin, amongst others – in a bleak villa only a few streets from my hotel. I was welcome, however, I was requested in a serious tone of voice, only to speak if absolutely necessary and otherwise see to that I quickly adapt to the proceedings. It all began with an instructed exercise in concentration: on a snowflake obsidian. In the mean time, the outside strangely seemed to melt into the inside. Somehow, it was as if I were this stone or as if I had the same frequency as it.

Do you think it would be possible to recreate these kind of experiences in the exhibition?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Music Through Theosophy

The Utah-based string quartet, the Fry Street Quartet, will be touring the UK May 6 - 9 2014, performing a concert that “explores the connections between music and Theosophy as part of the Leverhulme-funded network Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy and the Arts, 1875-1960. This will include rarely heard works from the twentieth-century British composers Cyril Scott and John Foulds. Scott found inspiration in the writings of Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky, and Foulds worked for a time on behalf of the Society as director of music at the London headquarters. The concert will close with the music of Beethoven, a favourite musical topic in Theosophical journals and one of the composers often celebrated by Theosophists.”

The Quarter’s program, “Hearing Enchantment: Music Through Theosophy,” will be performed at Cardiff University, May 6, at the Theosophical Society in London, May 7, and at the University of York, May 9.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Blavatsky News

The Canadian Encyclopedia includes the following mention of Blavatsky in its entry on Theosophy in Canada, which it describes as a philosophical system based on a belief in a universal, eternal principle fundamental to all life. The mystical overtones of its proposition of the fundamental identity of all 'Souls with the Universal Soul' are similar to the doctrines of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Petrova Blavatsky and others, 'to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.' The society has also sought to encourage study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.

The first Canadian branch of the Society was formed in Toronto in 1891 by Algernon Blackwood, Dr Emily Stowe (the first Canadian woman to practise medicine in Canada), her daughter Dr Augusta Stowe-Gullen (the first woman to gain a medical degree in Canada) and newspaper editor Albert Smythe (father of the hockey magnate Conn Smythe), and drew prominent artists Lawren Harris and Roy Mitchell. Links are provided to entries on the Canadian Theosophists.

*  Pioneering Spirit: Maud MacCarthy - Mysticism, Music and Modernity,
an exhibition on view from February 7 to May 9 at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, UK, “explores the extraordinary life and career of Maud MacCarthy (1882–1967) and her networks in Britain and India in the first part of the twentieth century. MacCarthy/Foulds Family Papers archive collection held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.”

MacCarthy joined the Theosophical Society in 1900, and worked on behalf of the Society in many capacities before the First World War, including lecturing on Indian music, writing for its journals, and organizing weekly musical services at its London headquarters. In this last endeavour she collaborated with the composer John Foulds, whom she would later marry. The two also began a series of “Theosophical Experiments in Music”, communicating with suprahuman entities through music and beginning to instruct others how to do so.

In later life she became a swami, taking the name Omananda Puri, and wrote a book about her experiences, The Boy and the Brothers. The online program, which features a fifteen-page brochure on the career of Maud MacCarthy, allows one to “listen to music inspired by Theosophy.”

the New Zealand performing arts review, covers the opening of “Madame Blavatsky and The Astral Light” at this year's New Zealand Fringe Festival:

The play set-up inside the marquee is what the Fringe Festival is all about, but on opening night a cold northwesterly wind rips through the hillside, and I struggle to hear many lines from the front row. Outdoor theatre is always a struggle acoustically, but in this venue it is nigh impossible to hear at times. The volume levels improve as the performance goes on so perhaps the actors will do better as the season continues or maybe this is an exceptionally windy night? 

Blavatsky is certainly an interesting character to inspire a work of theatre, but the script gives very little insight into the woman at all, except through clunky exposition that at times sounds like encyclopedia entries read aloud. The dramatic action and conflict in the play are unclear. 

I really enjoy seeing plays with female protagonists — especially women whose stories history has often obscured — so I am excited by the raw material of Madame Blavatsky and The Astral Light. Though there were many promising elements to the performance, I look forward to seeing a reiteration of this piece with a developed script and in a venue where the technical elements are more manageable.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tales of a Tibetan Cosmopolitan Traveler

The University of Chicago Press has released an English translation of Gendun Chopel’s Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. Gendun Chopel, who was born in Tibet in 1903, was recognized as an incarnate lama as a boy. He traveled in India and translated a number of Sanskrit texts, including the Bhagavad-gita into Tibetan. His Grains of Gold sought to inform Tibetans of the state of India as he found it and as it had been. Of interest is his reference to Blavatsky in Chapter 17:

I think that she was some kind of incredible self-made yogini. In any case, she was someone who had attained magical powers. When she was a child, she was blessed in a dream by two Tibetan lamas named Mura [Morya] and Gutumé [Khoot Hoomi]. Then she began experiencing a kind of vision, until in the end she actually met them, like one person talking to another. They instructed her in everything, matters both subtle and coarse. When I carefully read her extensive stories about them, sometimes it reminds me of Guhyapati (Varjapāni) that appeared to Lekyi Dorjé.…As to making an unequivocal judgment about this, I have no idea.

The story of how the manuscript survived his death in 1951 as well as incidents in Gendun Chopel’s life is told by the translators, Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr, in their Introduction. The book contains a number of surviving watercolours that the author had planned for the text.