Thursday, February 28, 2013

“Mother and mentor from America...”

Options, the bi-annual magazine published by the Women and Media Collective in Colombo, Sri Lanka, for February 27 carries a piece turning our attention to an area that still needs further study. Vinod Moonesinghe’s “Theosophists and women in politics” looks at the impact of Theosophy on Sri Lankan women.

The Theosophists provided the impetus for the awakening of the island’s womanhood. Although the role of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott in the revival of Buddhism has been acknowledged in this country, the crucial part played in forming the B[uddhist] T[heosophical] S[ociety] by the main initiator of modern Theosophy, Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, is virtually ignored. Yet, at the time, the pre-eminence of ‘HPB’ was unchallenged.

His focus here is on the development of women’s education during the colonial period, an area he has already written about in his “Olcott, the Picketts and Buddhist women’s education” published in Colombo’s Daily News last year, and especially the role of Marie Musaeus Higgins (1855-1926), a Theosophist from America who came to Sri Lanka in 1891 to further women’s education. Musaeus went on to found Musaeus College for women in Colombo, and its work continues today. The Daily News carried a feature on her, “Musaeus, mother and mentor from America...” on November 19, 2012.

 Image circa 1899. Sanghamitta Girls’ High School, Darley Lane, Colombo 10

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Things to Come

The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, has announced the following program on “The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky” for March 15, 2013, 1 to 2pm.

Professor Garry Trompf, Dept. of Studies in Religion, University of Sydney will discuss The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky. To this day it remains a controversial book with esoteric and occult references attempting to reconcile ancient eastern wisdom with modern science, giving rise to the doctrine of theosophy. Some of the aspirations appear as topical today as when they were written and an interesting book for those who are interested in its views on materialism, and theories on human origins.

The event will be held at the campus’s Red Centre, Rm 3085. Garry Trompf is Emeritus Professor, Department of Studies in Religion, at the University of Sydney. His latest contribution to Blavatsky studies is the chapter “Theosophical Macrohistory” in Brill’s Handbook of the Theosophical Current.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

New Books

* Paul Ivey’s Radiance from Halcyon: A Utopian Experiment in Religion and Science is scheduled for an April 1, 2013, release from University of Minnesota Press.

 Radiance from Halcyon is an intriguing account of how the little-known utopian religious community Halcyon—located on California’s central coast in the early 1900s—profoundly influenced modern science. Paul Eli Ivey’s narrative offers a wide-ranging cultural history, encompassing Theosophy, novel healing modalities, esoteric architecture, Native American concepts of community, socialist utopias, and innovative modern music. 

Founded in Syracuse, New York in 1898, The Temple of the People moved to Halcyon in 1903 where it still exists. It has not received as much coverage as other Blavatsky inspired Theosophical groups, and Ivey, an associate professor of art history at the University of Arizona, will certainly remedy the situation with his new book.

* Up till now, Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898) has remained an elusive figure in the early history of modern Theosophy. He visited Mme. Blavatsky in New York in 1877, even delivering a lecture in her rooms (one of the few to do so).

Hong Kong University Press will be publishing the first full length study on him. The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo by Scott D. Seligman is scheduled for a June 1, 2013, release and features a chapter on his interaction with the Theosophists. He was one of the first to employ the term Chinese American. A web site for the book can be viewed here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Blavatsky News

* The blog Visions of Pat reconstructs books referenced in the music of Van Morrison. In “Van Morrison's Bookshelf” the writer looks at possible sources for one of Morrison’s songs, “Dweller on the Threshold”:  “the expression ‘Dweller On The Threshold’ was first used in 1842 in a book by Edward Bulwer-Lytton called Zanoni which was his interpretation of an ancient Rosecrucian manuscript. The dweller is an invisible and possibly malevolent spirit that attaches itself to a human being. It is also mentioned in books by Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky who was a big influence on Van in the 1980’s.

The Wikipedia entry on the song more correctly notes: "The album sleeve states that the lyrics on this song and part of "Aryan Mist" were inspired by the 1950 publication, Glamour —A World Problem by Alice Bailey and the Tibetan master, Djwal Khul, as described in Van Morrison's liner notes for the album.

A number of other books are referenced as possible sources of inspiration.

* Newtopia Magazine for February 15 carries a long piece by Ronnie Pontiac on “The Eclectic Life of Alexander Wilder: Alchemical Generals, Isis Unveiled, and Early American Holistic Medicine.” It is the second part of a series on the development of Neoplationism in America.  Part Three will focus on another individual known to Blavatsky, “Thomas Johnson: Pagan Philosopher of the American Frontier.”

Wilder enters Blavatsky’s life was the editor of Isis Unveiled for J.W. Bouton of New York. He seemed to have a genuine regard for her and remained sympathetic throughout his life. Pontiac writes that “Bouton bought the copyright for Isis Unveiled and refused to return it to the author.  Blavatsky wanted to give her book the fetching title A Skeleton Key to Mysterious Gates.  The mystery of why a book that has so little to do with Egyptian mythology should be called Isis Unveiled is solved by Wilder:

Mr. Bouton is entitled to that distinction. He was a skilful caterer in the bookselling world to which he belonged, but he had business ability rather than a sense of fitness. He once published the treatise of R. Payne Knight on Ancient Art and added pictures relating solely to Hindu mythology, entirely foreign to the subject. This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part. On the contrary, it is a dramatic representation peculiar to the religion and wisdom of Egypt.

Wilder also reveals the origin of one of the rumors circulating about Isis Unveiled at the time. His source was Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson, a wealthy widow from Boston, who related the following story to him:

Baron de Palm, a German gentleman, who spent some time in this country, had died in Roosevelt Hospital. He had devoted much attention to arcane subjects, and had written upon them. He was intimate with the party on 47th Street, and made them recipients of his property, but with the assurance that his body should be cremated. There was a woman in the household who seems to have become unfriendly and ready to talk at random. She told Mrs. Thompson that after the death of the Baron she was with Madam Blavatsky while examining the contents of his trunks. One of these, the woman said, was full of manuscripts. Madam Blavatsky looked at a few of the pages, and then hastily closed the trunk, making an effort to divert attention in another direction.  Mrs. Thompson apparently believed that this manuscript was the material of the work Isis Unveiled. Certainly she endeavored to give me that impression.

Olcott disposes of this story in the first volume of his Old Diary Leaves.

* For some unexplained reason the hockey site, NHL Hockey Rules, posts a long review of the growth of Buddhism in the United States from the 19th century to date.

The pioneer prominent American to publicly become Buddhism was Henry Steel Olcott. Olcott, a former U.S. army colonel over the Civil War, had grown increasingly keen on reports of supernatural phenomena in which popular in the late 19th century. In 1875, he, along with Helena Blavatsky and William Quan Judge founded the Theosophical Society, which has been dedicated to the research into the occult and was partly relying on Hindu and Buddhist scriptures….Although the vast majority of Theosophists appear to have counted themselves as Buddhists, they held idiosyncratic beliefs that separated them coming from all known Buddhist traditions; only Olcott was excited about following mainstream Buddhism. He would return to Sri Lanka on two further occasions, where he worked to market Buddhist education, and also visited Japan and Burma. Olcott authored a Buddhist Catechism, stating his look at the basic tenets belonging to the religion. 

Statue of Olcott in front of railroad station in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pictures at an Exhibition

Drexel University’s online journal, The Smart Set, carries a February 4 piece by Morgan Meis on the impact of the artists represented in “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibition’s catalog explains that “In 1912, in several European cities, a handful of artists—Vasily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Francis Picabia, and Robert Delaunay—presented the first abstract pictures to the public. Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 celebrates the centennial of this bold new type of artwork, tracing the development of abstraction as it moved through a network of modern artists, from Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp to Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, sweeping across nations and across media.” Meis comments:

Kandinsky was keen to show that contemporary developments in color theory were opening up new possibilities in man’s relationship to the divine. Kandinsky became a follower of Theosophy and the infamous Madame Blavatsky. Madame Blavatsky once said, “The chief difficulty which prevents men of science from believing in divine as well as in nature Spirits is their materialism.” Kandinsky saw his art as science, minus materialism, plus spiritualism. And this is exactly what Kandinsky argues in his book. In his Introduction [to The Spiritual in Art], Kandinsky wrote, “Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal.” The job of abstract art, for Kandinsky, was to break through that materialism using the tools of color theory derived from physics. Painting, for Kandinsky, hitherto lacked the ability to reveal inner essences and real spirit. Kandinsky dismisses art that is “a mere imitation of nature which can serve some definite purpose (for example a portrait in the ordinary sense) or a presentment of nature according to a certain convention (‘impressionist’ painting)…” 

“Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925,” will be on display until April 25 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Color study — squares with concentric rings,”
Vasily Kandinsky (1913)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Brill’s Handbook of the Theosophical Current

Brill’s Handbook of the Theosophical Current, edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothsein, scheduled for release last year, is finally making its appearance.

494 pages with index, the book is divided into three parts: 1. Theosophical Societies:

“Blavatsky and First Generation Theosophy” by Joscelyn Godwin; “The Second Generation Leaders of the Theosophical Society (Adyar)” by Catherine Wessinger; “Point Loma, Theosophy, and Katherine Tingley” by Tim Rudbøg; “The Third Generation of Theosophy and Beyond” by W. Michael Ashcraft.

Part 2: Religious Currents in the Wake of Theosophy:

“The Theosophical Christology of Alice Bailey” by Sean O’Callaghan; “Rudolf Steiner and Theosophy” by Katharina Brandt and Olav Hammer; “Sleeping Prophet: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Cayce” by Shannon Trosper Schorey; “The I AM Activity” by Tim Rudbøg; “The Summit Lighthouse: Its Worldview and Theosophical Heritage” by Michael Abravanel; “The Theosophy of the Roerichs: Agni Yoga or Living Ethics” by Anita Stasulane; “Mahatmas in Space: The Ufological Turn and Mythological Materiality of Post-World War II Theosophy” by Mikael Rothsein; “Theosophical Elements in New Age Religion” by Olav Hammer.

Part 3: Theosophy, Culture and Society:

“Western Esoteric Traditions and Theosophy” by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke; “Lost Horizon: H.P. Blavatsky and Theosophical Orientalism” by Christopher Partridge; “Mythological and Real Race Issues in Theosophy” by Isaac Lubelsky; “Theosophy, Gender and the ‘New Woman’” by Siv Ellen Kraft; “Theosophical Macrohistory” by Gary W. Trompf; “Theosophical Elements towards Science: Past and Present” by Egil Asprem; “Abstract Art as ‘By-product of Astral Manifestations’: The Influence of Theosophy on Modern Art in Europe” by Tessel M. Bauduin; “Theosophy and Popular Fiction” by Ingvild Sœlid Gilhus and Lisbeth Mikaelson.    

Theosophists may or may not recognize themselves in the representations served up in the 20 chapters of this book written by various academics.

Listing some of the key events in European religious history, the editors state: “We contend that the formation of the Theosophical Society, and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), and her immediate successors also belong to the short list of pivotal chapters of religious history in the West….These facts place Theosophy and its multiple off-shoots as one of the world’s most important religious traditions.” If somewhat confused, according to material presented here. The book sells for €168 euros / $234. dollars U.S.