Thursday, December 31, 2009

Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher’s Theatre of the World: The Life and Work of the Last Man to Search for Universal Knowledge by Joscelyn Godwin. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, September 3, 2009. Hardcover. 304 p. 11.2 x 10.1 x 1.4 inches. $60.00.

For years Joscelyn Godwin’s 1979 monograph on the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) published by Thames & Hudson remained the sole source on him in English. Dr. Godwin has now followed it up with a major presentation of Kircher’s literary output. Told through topic segments, the lavish illustrations from Kircher’s books are allowed to speak for themselves. Only an outline of Kircher’s life is given, the narrative being focused around the 410 images presented. Godwin’s book is a rare example of what the printing industry is still capable of in the area of graphics. HPB quotes Kircher approvingly as a source in a number of places in her writings, from Isis Unveiled to The Secret Doctrine, for he tried to place figures like Hermes and Zoroaster as part of the lineage of God’s pre-Christian revelation to the pagans and their writings as a valid contribution to religious life.

The Jesuits are Coming!

Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet by Trent Pomplun. New York: Oxford University Press, November 11, 2009. Hardcover. 320 p. $29.95.

Straw men in much European and American literature, both Catholic and anti-Catholic, members of the Society of Jesus have enjoyed a long run as horders, fanatics, meddlers, and murderers.…There has hardly been a corpus so literary in its vitriol as that directed against the Society of Jesus” (except perhaps against HPB). This is just one of the hurdles to be overcome by anyone writing about the work of the Jesuits says Trent Pomplun in his study of the life of Ippolito Desideri, S.J. (1684-1733), one of the first Westerners to reach Lhasa. During his stay in Tibet from 1717 to 1721, he learnt the language and translated primers on Christian doctrine written by him into Tibetan. HPB did not think much of him, citing him by name along with other missionaries whose writings “teem with the greatest absurdities.…And when could have been found any better opportunity to ventilate their monkish ill-humor and vindictiveness than in the matter of Tibet, the very land of mystery, mysticism and seclusion?” (“Reincarnation in Tibet,” Theos., March 1882, BCW 4:10.) Desideri’s writings lay forgotten till the 1870s, his narrative of his journey to Tibet being published in English in 1937. Pomplun’s book presents an informative commentary on Desideri’s travels through the land of mystery, allowing a glimpse into a turbulent period in Tibetan history. An interesting sidelight for readers of Blavatsky is the details it provides on the conflict between the Ningmapas and Gulukpas, now glossed over.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Occult America

Occult America: the Secret History of how Mysticism shaped our Nation by Mitch Horowitz. New York: Bantam Books, September 8, 2009. Hardcover. 304 p. $27.00.

There has long been a need for an overview on the influence of esoteric movements in America. Catherine L. Albanese’s 2007 A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion while exemplary in many ways is simply too detailed at 628 pages for anyone other than the specialist. In her approach occult, esoteric, and gnostic beliefs are subsumed under the larger rubric of metaphysical, and while acknowledging them with a passing reference they play no dominant part in the narrative. Mitch Horowitz attempts to rectify this with the colorful history of some of the leading exponents in occult America. Starting with the Shakers it quickly moves through the American reception of mesmerism, the development of spiritualism, the growth of Theosophy and New Thought, along the way dealing with charismatic figures like Andrew Jackson Davis (whom Olcott and Blavatsky knew), Edgar Cayce, and Manly Palmer Hall. His treatment of Theosophy is depicted through Olcott’s contribution, usually neglected, during its formative period, and since the focus is on America, leaves off after the departure for India. The portrayal of Blavatsky is neutral, though more sympathetic than works of this kind. The index contains 16 references to her. What Horowitz manages to do, and successfully so, is to show the contribution to the inner life of America by these often disparate figures who were united in their vision of a world made better by better people.

The European School of Theosophy: Budapest

Launched by the late Geoffrey Farthing and Ianthe Hoskins, The European School of Theosophy has been holding yearly classes since 1982. It provided courses in English for students in Europe who wanted to experience the teachings at a deeper level. It functions like a postgraduate degree in the ideas found in Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. Since the passing of Geoffrey and Ianthe, the yearly week of studies has been held in Edinburgh, Scotland, Athens, Greece, Venice, Italy, and this year in Budapest, Hungary from Oct. 8-14. The faculty included three of the best presenters of modern Theosophy, Stephan Hoeller, David Roef, and Michael Gomes. Over fifty people participated. Dr. David Roef, from Belgium, continued to impress with his presentations on Blavatsky’s ideas, and Michael Gomes gave a new way at looking at The Secret Doctrine. Thomas Martinovich, who heads the Theosophical group in Hungary, was on hand to make everyone feel welcome. Regulars Flemming and Birte Hansen, and Gunnar Larsen and Eija, gave a sense of continuity. Dr. Cornelia Haas, University lecturer in Wurzburg, Germany, was also present. She has just returned from doing research in India on the ULT. We hope to post a translation of her piece on Max Müller and Blavatsky.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Who was that White Lama?"

Who, in India, has not heard of the Banda-Chan Ramboutchi, the Houtouktou of the capital of Higher Thibet? His brotherhood of Khe-lan was famous throughout the land; and one of the most famous 'brothers' was a Peh-ling (an Englishman) who had arrived one day during the early part of this century, from the West, a thorough Buddhist, and after a month's preparation was admitted among the Khe-lans. He spoke every language, including the Thibetan, and knew every art and science, says the tradition. His sanctity and the phenomena produced by him caused him to be proclaimed a shaberon after a residence of but a few years. His memory lives to the present day among the Thibetans, but his real name is a secret with the shaberons alone.
                                                           — H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled

The Tibetan site, Tibeto-Logic, goes into extensive detail trying to answer this question and gives some interesting results. Although posted some time ago, it deserves wider notice and to be added to the list of sources discussing Blavatsky.

Read more here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

100 Years of Blavatsky in Los Angeles

For over twenty years students on the West Coast have been informally gathering on a yearly basis to meet and discuss topics related to the development of Theosophy. Over the past few years these meetings have become very large events. By 2004 a San Diego hotel and conference center was needed to accommodate the event. Since 2009 was also the centenary of the United Lodge of Theosophists, a group of students studying Blavasky’s writings, it was hosted at their historic building in Los Angeles, Theosophy Hall, and partly at the University of California LA campus nearby. From August 6-9 presenters covered a wide range, from Nandini Iyer (mother of the equally famous, Pico Iyer) telling about the work of B.P. Wadia, who spread the ULT aboard, and whom she knew, to panels with various students, including one with Herman Vermeulen, leader of the Theosophical Society, Point Loma, in the Netherlands, Ken Small, and Michael Gomes. Noted in the audience: Dara Eklund and Nicholas Weeks, Jerry Hejka-Ekins, who made the trip from northern California for the day, Will Windham from London, Pierre Wouters and Eva, and the ubiquitous Jerome Wheeler. Next year’s conference will be held in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Program info for 2010 is here.

Jerome Wheeler and Pierre Wouters

The Secret Doctrine

The reason for the sudden explosion of coverage about HPB is due the publication by Tarcher/Penguin of the abridgement by Gomes of The Secret Doctrine. Taking the book down from 1500 pages to a modest 255 page book (with index!) is an achievement in itself. But when the end result gives such a readable outline of the book, this is even more worthy for commendation. We are still going through it and hope to offer a comparison of this edition with previous ones. In the meantime, here are a few reviews that are out already.

Katinka Hesselink has a review online.

I do think what he created is one of the best introductions to The Secret Doctrine one could wish. He starts it out with a historical introduction that's factual yet easy reading. Throughout you'll find notes and references that bring this work into the 21st century. After all, the study of religion has come a long way since the 19th century when Blavatsky wrote The Secret Doctrine. There is, as one would expect of a scholar like Michael Gomes, a good index. Also, he checked the whole text against the oldest versions of Blavatsky's original text, so none of the spelling mistakes of the first edition had a chance of staying in.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

“Interview on Madame Blavatsky, interfaith pioneer & Theosophy founder”

There is a long follow-up interview with Gomes by the respected religion writer, David Crumm, on his website, Read the Spirit, for July 29, 2009. Crumm describes Blavatsky as

a spiritual godmother whose image many of us should frame and hang on our office walls as an early saint of the modern interfaith movement.

The interview can be found here.

Blavatsky on Coast to Coast

On Saturday, July 25, 2009, residents of the U.S. and Canada (and some of the armed forces) were able to hear three hours devoted to HPB on the commercial radio airwaves. A first for Mme. Blavatsky, for never before had she received such extended public accessibility. Aired on Coast to Coast AM, a late night radio talk show which is broadcast over 500 stations in the U.S., the program, “Madame Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine,” went from 2 in the morning till 5 in the East Coast and 11 PM to 2 AM on the West Coast. Michael Gomes, who the host of the show described as “the one guy in the country who can talk about it with authority,” was interviewed and took questions from the call-in audience. The first hour was devoted to her life, the second to her major book, The Secret Doctrine, and the third devoted to calls. On the whole it was a very balanced portrayal of HPB, stressing her cultural influence.

Though many were thrilled to hear HPB discussed on their local stations, there were those who were not as happy, mainly members on the Theosophical Society in America website—known for its trashing of peoples’ reputations—and fundamentalist Christianists. (Certain Theosophists, or rather, certain members of the Adyar TS in America, were irritated that she was not portrayed as infallible. So much misinformation was spread about this interview by them, that the historian, Paul Johnson, noted on his blog that “several theosophists owe Mr. Gomes an apology…The hostile atmosphere this exemplifies makes it impossible for anyone to be both a Theosophist and a historian without ending up attacked as a heretic.”)

Here is the link to hear audio from the show.

For those too cheap to subscribe, there are excerpts on YouTube.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An auspicious beginning

This blog, devoted to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), now sees its humble beginning as we cross the Solstice into renewal and the start of a new cycle of seasons....