Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blavatsky and Yoga

H.P. Blavatsky gets a short chapter in the latest addition to Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White. The chapter on “The Yoga of the Magnetosphere: The Yoga Sutra and the Theosophical Society” begins:

In 1875 the Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City together with fellow occultists William Quan Judge and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Accomplished spirit mediums themselves, the three were deeply committed to reforming the spiritualist movement…” 

But neither Judge nor Olcott made any claims to being mediums nor were they considered so by their contemporaries.

Within a year of its [Isis Unveiled] publication, William Emmette Coleman, a critical scholar and member of the American Oriental Society and Pali Text Society, denounced Blavatsky for some two thousand instances of plagiarism he had found in her book.

Here William Emmette Coleman, a spiritualist who is known only for his relentless attacks on Mme. Blavatsky, is elevated to “a critical scholar.” Coleman’s criticism of Isis Unveiled appeared in 1891, the year Blavatsky died, and a resumé was published as an appendix to the 1895 translation of Vsevolod Solovyov’s A Modern Priestess of Isis.

And then:

hundreds of handwritten letters began to materialize in the shrine room adjacent to Blavatsky’s private living quarters.

Again, this was not the case. And so on, including giving the date of the publication of The Secret Doctrine as 1885 (once could be consigned to a typographical error, but not twice).

It is a shame that a study that strives to inform the reader about the evolution of the presentation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in the West (almost no coverage is given to its reception in modern India) should be itself a source of misinformation. Still, White credits Blavatsky as having “a more nuanced understanding of Raja Yoga” than her contemporaries.

It should be noted that at 273 pages, the book does not contain a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

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