Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Russian Letter from Mme. Blavastky’s Husband

The Russian text of this November 13, 1858, letter from Nikifor Blavatsky has not been readily available before. An English translation from the original in the Adyar T.S. archives was published in The Theosophist, August 1959, pp. 295-96. Written to HPB’s aunt N. A. Fadeeva, it confirms the news of HPB’s return to Russia that year after a long absence. He writes: I ardently wish that our marriage be annulled, and that she may marry again.…I did my best, but Exarch Isidor refused to do it, acknowledging the difficulty of obtaining this in nineteenth century Russia, where divorce was almost impossible at that time, an agreed separation between the two parties being the alternative. As a historical curiosity a facsimile of the letter and the Russian text with some background by Leonid Danilov and a fractured English translation can be seen here.

Recognition for Mme. Blavatsky’s Secretary

The J. R. Ritman Library in Amsterdam, Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, has an online exhibition on Mme. Blavatsky’s secretary, G.R.S. Mead. Mead and the Echoes from the Gnosis focuses mainly on his pioneering series of Gnostic texts, eleven little books that comprised Echoes from the Gnosis, issued by the Theosophical Publishing House in London, 1906-1908, but there are examples of his other published studies as well. The set has been republished since then, most recently by Quest Books in America under one cover, and Mead has his own volume in the Western Esoteric Masters series of anthologies edited by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. The online exhibition, including the photo above, can be seen here.

Blavatsky at the Universities

Prof. Dr. Kocku von Stuckrad from Groningen University in the Netherlands was the guest lecturer on February 23, 2010, at Dr. Hans G. Kippenberg’s class, “Pioneers of Religious Revival,” at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. His subject was “Helena Blavatsky: Birth of Modern Esotericism.” The course description says:

The rise of the social power of religions in the modern world is closely linked to intellectuals who lend new credence to religious world views and practices. At the very same moment, when traditional authorities in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam were losing respect and support among the believers, charismatic often heterodox spokesmen mobilized them by speaking a new type of religious language, by transmitting their messages in non-traditional media and by critically reflecting on experiences of modern culture.

The course focuses on Muslim pioneers Abu Ala Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Fadlallah, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tariq Ramadan, Fathullah Gülen; on the Hindu spokesmen Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi; on Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society; on the Jewish thinkers Martin Buber, Abraham and Zvi Yehudah Kook; and on the Christian preacher Martin Luther King.

The first half of the class featured Dr. Kocku von Stuckrad, who, along with Prof. Kippenberg (Professor of Comparative Religious Studies at Jacobs University), offered an appraisal of HPB’s contribution. The course is part of the Integrated Cultural Studies program.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blavatsky Returns to Russia

“Madame Blavatsky” at the Hermitage

Mention was made of Goshka Macuga’s art piece “Madame Blavatsky.” It was recently displayed in the exhibition Newspeak: British Art Now from the Saatchi Gallery in London. The first part ran from October 29, 2009 to January 17, 2010, at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia.  According to the notice from the Hermitage, the exhibition features “some of the most exciting artists to have emerged in the UK in the last few years and are largely unknown in the wider art world.”  It is part of the Hermitage 20/21 project, which aims at “showcasing the best of contemporary art in the Hermitage and expanding the display of 20th century art.”  If you missed it at the Hermitage, the second part of the exhibition will be at the Saatchi Gallery in London, from June 2010 through January 2011.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Embarrassing Times

The Sunday Times of London for February 7, 2010, carries a review of an exhibition at the Tate Modern on the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg. Van Doesburg (1883-1931) was also a founder of the Dutch art movement, De Stijl.

Noting the acknowledged influence of Theosophy on the artist, the reviewer, Waldemar Januszczak, states:

The fact is, theosophy, founded by the fraudulent Madame Blavatsky in the 1870s, is embarrassing. If there is one thing you do not want your hardcore modernist to be, it is a member of an occult cult that believes in the essential unity of the cosmos, as proposed so battily by Madame Blavatsky. Theosophy takes art into Dan Brown territory. No serious student of art history wants to touch it.

Yet it was theosophy that turned Van Doesburg from a turbulent expressionist working in the Van Gogh style into a painterly seeker after universal truths. He discovered it via Kandinsky, also a theosophist, whose writings on the spiritual in art Van Doesburg read and absorbed in 1913, his year of change. Mondrian, the greatest painter in Van Doesburg’s circle, and a gorgeous contributor throughout this show, was a theosophist too. When Mondrian died, one of the few possessions left in his studio was a large portrait of Madame Blavatsky.

If the reviewer wants to talk about “embarrassing”, he might want to start with the corny title of this piece, “Theo van Doesburg made it hip to be square”. “No serious student of art history wants to touch it.” What “it”? Theosophy’s impact on art ? Yet art historians and curators have long acknowledged Blavatsky’s creative influence on the arts, as the four hundred page catalogue, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition a quarter century ago would seem to indicate. So would the testimony of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, Van Doesburg, Frantisek Kupka et al. Why the need to denigrate HPB just because you can’t comprehend or appreciate her work? This is the level The Sunday Times has descended to: name calling in the name of journalism.

The exhibition, “Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde,” is at Tate Modern, London, SE1, until May 16. The review in The Sunday Times, and readers comments, can be read here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Who was Mme. Blavatsky?

The painter Wassily Kandinsky says:

Mme. Blavatsky was the first person, after a life of many years in India, to see a connection between these “savages” and our “civilization.” From that moment there began a tremendous spiritual movement which today includes a large number of people and has even assumed a material form in the Theosophical Society. This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of inner knowledge.  

From Kandinsky’s 1911 Concerning the Spiritual in Art, English translation by Michael Sadler, London, 1914.  Sadler was an early collector of Kandinsky’s paintings and traveled to Munich in 1913 to meet the artist. Compared to later translations, e.g., the 1946 translation published by the Solomon R.  Guggenheim Foundation in New York, Sadler’s version holds up pretty well (this 1946 edition refers to “Mrs.” Blavatsky!). Sadler (1888-1957), who changed the spelling of his name to Sadleir, was also a great authority on Victorian fiction and the author of, among other things, “Dublin University Magazine; its History, Contents and Bibliography,” Dublin 1938.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

The Daily Beast is an American news website run by Tina Brown, formerly editor of Vanity Fair, with contributors like Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice. At times it gets as many as three million visits a month. Recently (Jan 6. 2010) it featured a piece on HPB by Simon Doonan, a fashion commentator known for his sharp tongue and also being an arbiter on what’s in and what’s out. Mme. Blavatsky, he says, is now cool. What he writes about her is of course a muddle of fact and fiction, blended together to shock.

The cool thing about La Blavatsky was not the fact that she made a living scaring the crap out of people by pretending to bring their relatives back from the dead. No, the cool thing is that, along with all the creepy bonkers extortionate stuff, Madame B and her Theosophism propelled groovy new concepts like racial equality and brotherly love into the brutality of the Victorian Imperialist Industrialist Age. She also popularized ideas about karma and positive thinking and—hello!—YOGA!

It doesn't matter that HPB had a noted antipathy to communicating with the dead. Why let Truth ruin a good smear. So, she was a con artist and mystic, who still has something of value to say to us today! Yet it is indicative of the level of awareness about HPB that someone like the writer of this piece even knows who Blavatsky is and that a site like The Daily Beast devotes so much space to her. The rest of his piece, and the comments it provoked, can be read here.

The Arabic Hermes

The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science by Kevin van Bladel. New York: Oxford University Press, August 26, 2009. Hardcover, 290 pages. $74.00.

Kevin van Bladel, the author, notes:

There are probably more works attributed to Hermes surviving in Arabic than in any other language, and the majority of them are still unknown and unpublished. Some of them definitely derive from ancient Greek sources through translation. Others, like many of the Latin Hermetica, are later works originally composed in Arabic. Yet even where the texts themselves are not of ancient origin, the idea of Hermes is. The problem then is to establish the means and continuity of tradition from the ancient Hermetica, and what people thought about Hermes, to the time of their attestation in Arabic.

The book continues on like this for over 200 pages. HPB featured the text of the Emerald Tablet in her first book, Isis Unveiled, and though she quoted other Hermetic texts throughout her writings, remained somewhat ambivalent. At the end of volume 1 of The Secret Doctrine, referring to the Hermetic texts that were circulating at her time, she says, “those texts are not the original Egyptian texts. They are Greek compilations, the earliest of which does not go beyond the early period of Neoplatonism.”

Though The Arabic Hermes mentions the early ninth century work of Pseudo-Apollonius, Sirr al-haliqa, where the text of the Emerald Tablet appears, no further information is given or exegesis or even a new translation of the most widely known piece to come out of the Arabic Hermetica. If one is interested in Harranian Sabian doctrines, this book is for you, for the rest, it is an opportunity to save $74.00.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

HPB’s Inscription in Leo Tolstoy’s Copy of The Voice of the Silence

The inscription in HPB's presentation copy to Leo Tolstoy of her 1889 translation of the Book of the Golden Precepts, a guide to the spiritual life used in her school, published as The Voice of The Silence, reads:

Графу Льву Николаевичу Толстому “Одному из немногих” от автора Е. Блаватской.    Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy / “one of the few”/  the author / E. Blavatsky

It is reproduced in the entry on Blavatsky in the Russian Wikipedia, translated here.

HPB thought highly of Tolstoy, referring to him as a natural Theosophist, “This great writer is a perfect model for all aspirants to true Theosophy,” and translated his writings in her magazine.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Books of Kiute, Part 2

Richard P. Taylor looks at the evidence and comes to the following conclusion:

While a few Western sources by Blavatsky's time had made brief mention of the existence of a Kålachakra Tantra and the existence of a "Gyut" section of the Buddhist canon, Blavatsky gave significantly more information, which has turned out to be correct. (1) Tibetan tradition does in fact have a record of more extensive and explanatory Tantras, which do not exist in the Tibetan Canon. (2) The Kålachakra system is largely cosmological and deals with the creation of the universe from space, through six elements, with extremely complex numerology and astrology. This is the subject of the entire volume one of Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine. (3) The Kålachakra is associated with the scholarly tradition of the Paˆchen Lamas, who are in fact considered the tutors of the Dalai Lamas. None of this proves that there is in fact a secret M¨la Kålachakra Tantra, or that Blavatsky (or her teachers) had access to it. But it does suggest that Blavatsky knew what the Buddhist Tantras were, knew their content and philosophical import better than any Western contemporary, and knew bona fide Tibetan traditions surrounding them. This alone gives strong reasons not to dismiss her claims out of hand.

This is perhaps an overstatement of the facts. HPB has gone on record that her teachers are not Tibetan monks. Their writings show a lack of reference to the orthodox canon, as someone within the tradition would have known; neither is there the familiar deity yoga prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism. It is a philosophical interpretation of ideas found throughout the trans-Himalayan region, a tribute to the area’s syncretism, though tinged with certain concepts connected with esoteric Tibetan Buddhism, such as “yogi of ‘Time’s Circle,’” a phrase having a specific context. Could a woman with minimal education have cribbed together a system so coherent that it still attracts a worldwide following a century after her death? Possibly. But this would make her one of the most remarkable thinkers of our time, deserving of even more attention.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Books of Kiute

According to HPB, the texts of Kiute are among the instructions given to those who belong to the Trans-Himalayan school she was connected with. It is the source of the Stanzas of Dzyan that form the basis of her Secret Doctrine. The earliest use of the term Kiute, which is a phonetic representation of the Tibetan rGyud-sde (Tantra), appears to be in Capuchin missionary Orazio della Penna’s 1730 “Brief Account of the Kingdom of Tibet.” It was translated into English as an Appendix to Clements R. Markham’s Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, published by Trubner and Co., London, 1876. It appears on page 334 where the 38 volumes of Khiute are mentioned, and then on page 338 where the following is found:

The other part of the thirty-six volumes of the law of Khiute gives precepts for practicing magic, and other foul matters of luxury and lust; and the monks and followers of this Khiute have monasteries and a temple, and rooms for the Lama or superior of the convent, but the monks eat and drink in common in the said temple. I have not read this infamous and filthy law of Khiute, so as not to stain my mind, and because it is unnecessary. For to confute it one must know in the abstract of what it treats, and there is little good or indifferent that is not mixed up with much more witchcraft, magic incantations, and obscenity.…This law of Khiute is the shortest road to holiness, but it is uncertain and rough, because those who observe well the precepts of this law, and practice that which it teaches, can became saint in one life without any other transmigrations.

Not much of a source to plagiarize from, as her critics charge. The entry in the Norwegian Wikipedia takes up the matter of the source of the book of Dzyan. A translation of the surprising results is here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blavatsky on the Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library that offers texts free of charge online. “Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format.” Protecting our right to know, exercising our right to remember, it believes that “open and free access to literature and other writings has long been considered essential to education and to the maintenance of an open society.”

The listing on its database of books available by or about HPB online, over a hundred titles in their original editions, can be seen here.

Of course there are many more titles than this by HPB online, but at the Internet Archive one can actually see what the original book looked like (and how many times they have been downloaded).

New Blavatsky Text Online

For years Mark Jaqua has been laboring in the Midwest of the USA for HPB. He published a magazine, Protogonos, in the 1980s and brought out small books such as a reissue of Margaret Thomas’s Theosophy versus Neo-Theosophy and a collection of George Cardinal Legros writings. He has now turned his talents to adding material online, and has recently transcribed HPB’s “The Durbar in Lahore.” One of her Russian serials, it was translated and edited by Boris de Zirkoff in The Theosophist, August 1960 through March 1961.

“The Durbar in Lahore,” published in Moscow in 1881, is perhaps the most political of HPB’s Russian pieces. It is an interregnum between the two parts of From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan and The Enigmatical Tribes of the Blue Hills. It illustrates her ability for factual reporting as she travels from Simla to Amritsar (visiting the Golden Temple), and then to the Durbar (ceremonial gathering) in Lahore for the new Viceroy of India, Lord Ripon, on Nov. 15, 1880. It is a tale of heat and dust, pomp and circumstance, as the assembled Indian princes and maharajahs vied to outdo each other in their finery and presentation.

It can be read here.

Mark Jaqua has also done a most useful and timely compilation of some 45 magazine articles of Alexander Wilder, HPB’s editor on Isis Unveiled, who she often cited, as can be seen here.

He also has a blog.