Sunday, June 3, 2012
Lost in Translation
Blavatsky News alerted readers in a December 9 posting about Isaac Lubelsky’s Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism due in May of this year. With such a provocative title we had hoped that it would offer some new insights into the part played by Theosophists in the development of Indian nationalism. Alas, we were misled. The first 76 pages are a straightforward retelling of “the birth of Orientalist study,” focusing on F. Max Müller. Another hundred pages are devoted to a straightforward retelling of Theosophical history until the time of Blavatsky’s death in 1891. There is a chapter on “The Sources of Theosophical Doctrine,” which seems to regard every esoteric text ever published as an influence on the development of modern Theosophy. The rest of the book deals with Annie Besant, especially in regard to J. Krishnamurti and the World Teacher movement, though without comment that sizable portions of the organization looked askance on the project. There is the brief mention of Besant’s tenure as President of the Indian National Congress, though next to nothing about her Home Rule movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.
We learn that the author first heard about the Theosophical Society in 1999. “I quickly learned of the ‘historian’s paradise’, awaiting in the relatively unexplored body of Theosophical writings, and in the personal stories of the Society’s leaders.” We suppose works like Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s thesis at Columbia University, published in 1930 as Theosophy: a Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom by Henry Holt and Company as part of their Religion in America series, don’t count for much, or the numerous studies done by Theosophists. We also learn that Lubelsky’s book was translated from the Hebrew of his unpublished thesis, so perhaps something is lost in translation.
There are some things that can’t be attributed to faulty translation. On page 109 Lubelsky makes the claim that “Emma Coulomb maintained that Blavatsky had abandoned a baby she bore during her stay in Cairo.” Unfortunately no source is given for this addition to Theosophical lore. While he may have read that someone attributed this statement to her, it does not appear in Emma Coulomb’s 1884/1885 tell-all pamphlet, nor in the two major sources of dirt gathered about Blavatsky, Elliott Coues’ 1890 newspaper piece and W. Emmette Coleman’s 1893 Critical Historical Review of the movement. Nor does Richard Hodgson bring this up in his 1893 “Defence of the Theosophists.”
What about his claim that Blavatsky received the “book of Dzian” from Swami Dayananda (p. 127)? Or the mixing up of the Theosophical Congress held during the 1893 World‘s Parliament of Religions with the Parliament itself? What a disappointment, for there is really nothing on what the book’s title suggests: “Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism”, especially since the hardcover version sells for £60. in the UK ($95.00 US) and £19.99 ($34.95 US) for the paperback. The book itself seems like some curious relic from the 1990s than from something one would expect today.