Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blavatsky and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

When W. Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 it was regarded as a work of scholarship, Donald Lopez Jr.’s new book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a biography, just out from Princeton University Press, indicates that it may no longer be so viewed by academics. The book’s main crime seems to be that it has become too popular, remaining in print.

Evans-Wentz was a member of the Point Loma Theosophical Society, and his text was interpreted through the eyes of a Theosophist. This gives Lopez the opportunity to take a look at Mme. Blavatsky and dismiss her. But along the way furthers a few myths of his own.

“Ancient Egypt and its mysteries had been particularly important to Madame Blavatsky; her first major work was entitled Isis Unveiled.” But the title was the publisher's. And anyone who has read the book knows that, in her view, Egypt was settled by colonizers from ancient India.

“In 1894, she published in Lucifer a letter she had received from one of the mahatmas…” But, as she had died in 1891, this must have been a phenomenon in itself.

He quotes from the Society for Psychical Research Committee’s investigation on Theosophy as if it was the last word on the subject, with no indication that its credibility has slowly been eroding over the past century.

Spiritualism and Theosophy seem to be convertible terms for him, for he writes: “If we were to trace the lineage of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it would not be Walter Evans-Wentz back to Kazi Dawa Samdup to Karma Lingpa to Padmasambhava. It would be Walter Evans-Wentz to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to Colonel Olcott to the Fox sisters.”

Readers of Blavatsky News will be surprised to hear that “Madame Blavatsky, who inspired many of the greatest poets and painters of the turn of the century, is but vaguely remembered a century later.” Perhaps this may be the view from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Lopez teaches at the University of Michigan, but, as our coverage over the past year has shown, it is hardly the case in the outside world.

Lopez may have already provided an evaluation of his critique when he wrote in the Foreword to the Oxford University Press edition of Evans-Wentz’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 2000: “anything that a scholar might add today will only serve as material for a scholar some fifty years from now, who will demonstrate the biases and misunderstandings of a preface written fifty years ago, a preface that merely offers evidence of the fin de siècle zeitgeist of those who once called themselves postmoderns.” One may not have to wait that long.

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