Sunday, August 24, 2014

Remembering Ananda Guruge


The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka carries an appreciation of the late Ananda Guruge who died in California earlier this month at the age of 85. Renowned diplomat, author of Buddhist publications, UNESCO ambassador and university lecturer, he helped make accessible Anagarika Dharmapala’s literary output in his massive 1965 collection Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala. Nor did he shy away from the influence of Blavatsky on Dharmapala’s life.

The writer comments on his presentation of the Buddhist revival of the 1880s:

Guruge was a chronicler of this revival and an activist in it. His two collections of global correspondence from and to Sri Lanka in ‘From the living fountains of Buddhism: Sri Lankan Support to Pioneering Western Orientalists’ and ‘Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala’ provide nearly 1,500 pages of raw material for those interested in the revival. Not having seriously read this collection, our colonial anthropologists (I bought and read all their torturous writings) invented a fictional Protestant Buddhism for the revival. They claimed that Olcott and Blavatsky, two persons who were running away from Protestantism had introduced Protestant ideas to the revival. The situation was just the opposite as both arrived with intellectual begging bowls in hand. Blavatsky was mostly ignored and Olcott only used for the anti-colonial struggle, but rejected when he went against Buddhism and tried to infuse mystical theosophist ideas. Referring to the 1970 article by Gananath Obeyesekere, Guruge declared “Protestant Buddhism is an infelicitous term as it is misleading”.

A statement on his passing from the President of Sri Lanka can be read here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blavatsky News


*  The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Kandinsky: A Retrospective” will be on view until September 1, 2014. Debra Brehmer’s review “Kandinsky’s Cosmic Consciousness” sees Kandinsky’s stay at the Bavarian village of Murnau in 1909 as transformative:

The group was reading and thinking about Madame Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and theosophy. They retreated to this village to shun fin de siecle industrialization and materialism, replacing smoke stacks and factories with auras, astral bodies, and atoms. Theosophy represented a dimension outside the clutches of greed and development, a more utopian universalism, as did ethnographic sources ranging from Russian folk art to Oceanic, African, Japanese, and Native American art.


The exhibition offers one more big bang. Midway through the show is a constructed room of “wall paintings” that Kandinsky planned and executed in 1922 with students at the Bauhaus. In the 1970s, his surviving wife, Nina, orchestrated their re-creation from preparatory gouache studies for the grand opening of the Pompidou. They have never been shown in the US. One enters the room, engulfed floor to ceiling with enlarged Kandinsky collisions. By the 1920s, whiffs of Matisse, Klee, Miro and Malevich had synthesized into his own sandwich style: compilations and overlapping layers of gloriously colored marks, oozing clouds of fluff, shapes, lines, stuttering rhythms of dots and arcs — a veritable theater of formal inventiveness.

The exhibition is put together with the Centre Pompidou in Paris.


*  Christopher Loring Knowles offers an in-depth examination of “Lovecraft's Secret Source for the Cthulhu Mythos.” While mentioning Blavatsky and the stanzas of Dzyan, he seems to find more of an influence in the works of Alice Bailey.

H.P. Lovecraft claimed in a letter to Conan author Robert E. Howard that the Cthulhu Mythos was his own creation. Even diehard Lovecraft fans don't buy that anymore. Lovecraft was a voracious reader (meaning he was poor and not exactly prolific) and was a hardcore fanboy before fanboys were a thing. He famously wore his influences on his sleeve (Dunsany, Poe, etc), but maybe there were some he kept a bit closer to his vest.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blavatsky and Yoga


H.P. Blavatsky gets a short chapter in the latest addition to Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White. The chapter on “The Yoga of the Magnetosphere: The Yoga Sutra and the Theosophical Society” begins:

In 1875 the Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City together with fellow occultists William Quan Judge and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Accomplished spirit mediums themselves, the three were deeply committed to reforming the spiritualist movement…” 

But neither Judge nor Olcott made any claims to being mediums nor were they considered so by their contemporaries.

Within a year of its [Isis Unveiled] publication, William Emmette Coleman, a critical scholar and member of the American Oriental Society and Pali Text Society, denounced Blavatsky for some two thousand instances of plagiarism he had found in her book.

Here William Emmette Coleman, a spiritualist who is known only for his relentless attacks on Mme. Blavatsky, is elevated to “a critical scholar.” Coleman’s criticism of Isis Unveiled appeared in 1891, the year Blavatsky died, and a resumé was published as an appendix to the 1895 translation of Vsevolod Solovyov’s A Modern Priestess of Isis.

And then:

hundreds of handwritten letters began to materialize in the shrine room adjacent to Blavatsky’s private living quarters.

Again, this was not the case. And so on, including giving the date of the publication of The Secret Doctrine as 1885 (once could be consigned to a typographical error, but not twice).

It is a shame that a study that strives to inform the reader about the evolution of the presentation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in the West (almost no coverage is given to its reception in modern India) should be itself a source of misinformation. Still, White credits Blavatsky as having “a more nuanced understanding of Raja Yoga” than her contemporaries.

It should be noted that at 273 pages, the book does not contain a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blavatsky News


*  Marc Demarest has discovered the earliest reference so far to Mme. Blavatsky in the American press. Published in the October 13, 1874,  issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the narrative, titled “A Heroine. A Lively Lady from Mount Ararat,” gives much background information on her as well exploiting exploits in her life. The piece was occasioned by the paper’s reporting on Blavatsky’s civil suit to recover money invested in what was to be a farm in Long Island. It predates what was previously known to be earliest account of her life, “Mme. Blavatsky’s Visit to the Daily Graphic Office,” in that paper’s November 13, 1874,  issue. That text was reprinted in Theosophical History, October 2003, from a version corrected by Blavatsky. This alone should be a warning against expecting verisimilitude from such a source. Mr. Demarest adds a number of notes with the text which can be read at his blog Chasing Down Emma.


*  The latest issue of Theosophical History, January 2014, features an examination by Erica Georgiades on the credibility of Blavatsky’s claim to have been on board the S.S. Eunomia when it exploded near the Greek island of Spetses on June 21, 1871. Ms. Georgiades gives the passenger list for that voyage which shows no one with the name of Blavatsky among the 140 people thought to be aboard, and offers three hypotheses as explanation of this. The article, “H.P. Blavatsky and the Wreck of the S.S. Eunomia,” dredges up some useful information on this obscure incident in Blavatsky’s life. This issue also includes the text of an article from a New York weekly, The Daily Star of September 30, 1886, titled “Buddhism in New York,” which mentions W.Q. Judge, President of the New York Theosophists, as a Buddhist. Jerry Hejka-Ekins who discovered it provides an introduction. Theosophical History was founded in 1985 by Leslie Price in London and has been edited since 1990 by James A. Santucci. Described as “an independent scholarly journal devoted to all aspects of theosophy (with and without a capital T),” unaffiliated with any Theosophical organization, it can be ordered here.


*  The program for the Conference on Theosophical History to be held in London Saturday and Sunday, September 20 and 21, 2014, has been put online. Presentations include “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the Mystery of Agardi Metrovitch's Identity” by Erica Georgiades (in absentia), “1880–When a British Agent Spied on Madame Blavatsky” by Paul Johnson (in absentia), “Mapping Madame Blavatsky? Towards A Chronological & Bibliographic Approach to the Evolution of Her Thought” by Barry Thompson, “Oriental Order of Sikha and the Sat Bhai, Yarker and Blavatsky” by Geraldine Beskin and Barry Loft. Other presenters include Tim Rudboeg, Boaz Huss, Erin Prophet, Jeff Lavoie, and John L. Crow.  The program will end with a presentation by Leslie Price on “Madame Blavatsky and the Seven Archival Mysteries.” Hopefully these talks/papers will be recorded for a wider viewership. The full program can be seen here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Blavatsky News


*  The weblog at the New Criterion looks at the exhibition on Kandinsky at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened June 27, 2014, and will be on view until the Spring of 2015:

It seems as if by titling the exhibition Kandinsky Before Abstraction, the curators were hoping to be able to present the artist before his introduction to theosophy, before his association with the occultists Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, before he became devoted to all the spiritual beliefs that we now deem silly and slightly embarrassing. Yet I do not think Kandinsky would have leapt so boldly towards the expressive use of color and abstraction if he did not sincerely believe, as many theosophists then did, that colors and shapes corresponded to particular spiritual values, or that the material universe was literally on the way to dissolution. Of course he was a diligent painter with a wide range of visual interests and references, but his sensibility and work cannot be explained solely through these means. We should not be embarrassed by his beliefs; other artists have believed things as dubious and far more sinister. But rarely have there been paintings so good or so singular.


*  The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art will be hosting an upcoming retrospective from October 11, 2014 to January 11, 2015 on countercultural icon Cameron (or Marjorie Cameron, 1922–1995). The site Flavorwire, which covers news about Art, Books, Photography, Film, Design, Television, the Web, Media, Theatre, Fashion, Music, Celebrity, and Pop Culture, says that “The exhibition offers a rare look at the life and work of a female occult practitioner — too frequently depicted as mere muse or lunatic, even though female-centric mysticism has existed for thousands of years,” and lists “a few other female occultists who deserve mention,” including H. P. Blavatsky. The notice on her is generic but the company she is placed in is telling.

Described as “A seminal figure within LA’s mid-century counterculture, Cameron’s work contains echoes of an important time that is also our time. A younger generation will be fascinated by her unique melding of surrealism and mysticism, and by her commitment to live her life as art,” explains guest curator Yael Lipschutz on the upcoming show at MOCA.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blavatsky and Alexandra David-Néel


In their “Persons of Interest” series, the site The Thinker’s Garden“a place to uncover Knowledge, marvel at strange Sights, and approach the Mysterious. It is not an academe, though we hope it will stimulate intellectual curiosity and it is not a forum, though topical discussion is encouraged. It is in its most basic sense an ambulatory and storehouse of ideas”—looks at the lives of Alexandra David-Néel and Helena Blavatsky.

The occult revivalist, feminist, and orientalist Helena Blavatsky was several years older than Néel and shared a strong and abiding attraction to Eastern mysticism. When she was a child, the young aristocrat appeased her bibliophilic appetite by constantly immersing herself in the volumes of esoteric literature within her great-grandfather’s library.… Critics to this day still question the veracity of her teachings and narratives; nevertheless as the patron and founder of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky presided over one of the first European organizations to transmit Indian philosophy to Western audiences.

Blavatsky in Dublin, Reviews


The Irish Times of July 5 reviews the A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin exhibition now on view at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. The piece, “Delving into the arcane: the legacy of Æ’s hidden murals,” looks at Blavatsky’s influence on Irish arts and the recent rediscovery of some of Æ’s theosophically inspired murals

Established in New York in 1875 by a small group of people centred on Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Dublin-born William Quan Judge, the society held that a body of ancient, hidden knowledge lay behind all the world’s religions and, similarly, that hidden laws lay beyond the bounds of conventional scientific thought.

In Ireland, George Russell (Æ), James M Pryse and others set up a branch in Dublin, based at number 3 Ely Place. “It was a kind of commune and in many ways idealistic, even utopian,” says [the curator Pádraic E.] Moore. “The theosophists were, and are, completely non-sectarian. They believe in universal freedom and equality.”

The Wall Street Journal in its review focuses more on the artists that comprise the show, though noting that

The popularity of Theosophy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was considerable, rapidly attracting a community of adherents worldwide from amongst the many disenchanted people who sought spiritual guidance and vital inspiration in an increasingly secular and industrialized world.