Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The Year in Review

When Blavatsky News started a year ago, there was no one source for finding current information about Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, though there were sites that dwelt with her past. After the publication last year of Michael Gomes’ abridging of The Secret Doctrine for Penguin (a book whose global accessibility was remarkable for any text by Blavatsky—one could see it at the Higginbotham’s bookshop at Chennai airport in India, or at London’s mega bookshop Foyles, or at the Borders book chain in America, usually paired with Gomes’s other abridgement, Isis Unveiled) and a rise of interest in Blavatsky, it led us some of us to believe that this elevation of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the public consciousness was worth documenting.

It was a timely move. The appearance of references to Blavatsky in so many wide and various places, as our coverage this year has shown, even surprised us. And we thank all those who have contributed to this project.

Although only one-tenth of all references to Blavatsky reported on this year came from theosophical sources—an indication of her pervasive influence—theosophists proved our loudest critics. And we soon learned, as G.R.S. Mead pointed out in the London Occult Review of May 1927, that “It is always easier for fanaticism in ‘Theosophical’ matters to regard an honest opponent as an unscrupulous ‘enemy’ than to give up long-cherished convictions—no matter how flimsily founded.”

There were posts on theosophical sites reprimanding us for pointing out what we thought were flaws in their portrayal of HPB, which we felt misrepresented her, and if implemented would have enhanced their position. Imagine, being condemned by theosophists for wanting to improve the image of Blavatsky! Truly we are in the Kali yuga. They forget, or perhaps never knew, that “The office of Teacher was always considered as a very solemn and responsible one among our Asiatic ancestors, and the pupil was always enjoined to obedience and loyalty. Saith the Scripture: ‘He who wipeth not away the filth with which the parent’s body may have been defiled by an enemy, neither loves the parent nor honors himself.’”

There were other theosophists who felt it their business to tell us not only what we should and shouldn’t be doing at this site, but how we should run our lives. We thought such attitudes went out of fashion with the 1960s, but see it has found a home among theosophists. This is a very telling position to adopt, especially in a movement that has always stressed its having no dogma or creed forced on its adherents, even going to the point where one organization passed a resolution urging its members to uphold “Freedom of Thought” for the beliefs of others. We suppose it is now freedom of thought as long as you keep it to yourself. Or freedom of thought without expression. HPB warned that “every such attempt at the Theosophical Society has hitherto ended in failure, because, sooner or later, it has degenerated in to sect, [and] set up hard and fast dogmas of its own.”  Once you start condemning people for how they choose to live their lives you are betraying your own ideals and those that Blavatsky worked for. It also shows a lack of awareness of how other parts of the theosophical movement work, and even how esoteric groups function.

But, as we are happy to learn from any source, these attitudes have revealed to us why, when Blavatsky’s name recognition has reached such a level on the social indicator, it has not translated to adherents for the organized parts of the movement. If anything, membership is declining precipitously. And in America where these critics are, “membership in the American Section [of the Theosophical Society] has fallen by approximately two hundred and fifty members” in the past year, according to the latest information supplied by the international President at the Society’s recent convention in Adyar. Perhaps these critics should learn from Annie Besant’s words, when she was editor of Lucifer with HPB,  “Where members have shrunk from their defence of their Teacher, the Society has languished; where they have loyally supported her, the Society has flourished.”—“The Theosophical Society and H.P.B.,” Lucifer, March 1891, p. 61.

These people put us in the unenviable position, as one reader wrote in, of “having to choose between letting prominent charlatans mislead their audiences unchallenged, or else elevating them by engaging their blather and forgoing better conversations.” And all because of our holding up the mirror of truth and showing the ugly distortion it reflected.

We would remind such critics, who consider themselves theosophists, of Blavatsky’s words:

The efforts of those members who benefit the Cause should never be impeded by criticism on the part of others who do nothing, but all should be encouraged and as much help given as is possible, even if that assistance be limited through circumstances to mere encouragement. Every sincerely based work for theosophy will bear good fruit, no matter how inappropriate it may appear in the eyes of those members who have set to themselves and everybody else only one definite plan of action.

And you want to be an occultist?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Atlantis and the Cycles of Time

Atlantis and the Cycles of Time: Prophecies, Traditions, and Occult Revelations by Joscelyn Godwin; Inner Traditions, November 18, 2010, 448 pages, paperback. Joscelyn Godwin has turned his attention to the subject of Atlantis, and has written a new book about the various theories put forth by many of the great occultists and esotericists of the 19th and 20th centuries. An overview by him is available on Graham Hancock’s site. Dealing with Blavatsky and the Theosophical contribution, he notes:

Modern Theosophy has passed through two distinct eras, often mistaken for a single one. The earlier one is represented by the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and her contemporaries; the later, by Charles Webster Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Blavatsky made some remarks on Atlantis and prehistoric cultures in Isis Unveiled (1877), but it was a series of letters signed by the Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya that outlined the definitive scheme of human evolution from the occultist point of view. Blavatsky amplified it in The Secret Doctrine (1888), which chronicles five “root races” that have nothing to do with the colored races of French Atlantology, but are large-scale stages of human evolution. They begin with humanity in an ethereal or gaseous state (the first two root races) and devolve through a gradual coagulation and division into sexes (the third, called Lemurian) into full physicality with the fourth root race (Atlantean). With the fifth (Aryan: our current state), we are on the long return journey to spiritualization.

The rest of his reflections on the subject can be read here.

Lucifer Online!

The Theosophical Network site has now uploaded the first ten volumes of Lucifer, 1887-1892, the volumes that carry H.P. Blavatsky’s name as editor. Selected volumes of the journal have been available on line, but this is the first time that this much has been accessible. Hopefully it will encourage further research in this area now that this source material is so readily available. Thanks to the work of Marc Demarest and Joe Fulton it can be accessed here. [Update] The link at the Theosophical Network site no longer gives access to
Lucifer. Marc Demarest has archived the first 20 volumes, from 1887 to 1897, at The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals.

The Theosophical Society in Australia has indexed the journal’s run and it can be seen here. A 224 page topical index, compiled by Ted G. Davy for volumes 1 to 20 (1887-1897) of Lucifer, was issued by the Edmonton Theosophical Society in Canada in 1997.

Unlike The Theosophist, where Blavatsky was restrained by Olcott, in Lucifer she was able to express herself more volubly than before, as shown in some of her more forceful editorials during this time. "We hope next month to give in Lucifer a detailed examination of this pretentious volume and to exhibit, by quotations and parallel passages, the outrageous character of its wholesale plagiarisms and the emptiness of its claims to authority," she wrote in one. And her last written article, “My Books,” took on a critic who tried to slander and misrepresent her: "I will not name him. There are names which carry a moral stench about them, unfit for any decent journal or publication. His words and deeds emanate from the cloaca maxima of the Universe of matter and have to return to it, without touching me."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Theosophist Online

The Theosophical Network site has uploaded the first six volumes of The Theosophist, 1879-1885, the volumes that carry H.P. Blavatsky’s name as editor. Selected volumes of the journal have been available on line, but this is the first time that this much has been accessible. Hopefully it will encourage further research in this area now that this source material is so readily available, thanks to the work of David Reigle, Marc Demarest, and Joe Fulton. There are plans to make Blavatsky’s London journal, Lucifer, similarly available online. The first six [update: now 14] volumes of The Theosophist (which is still published from Madras/Chennai, and which recently celebrated its 130th year), can accessed here.

[Update] The link at the Theosophical Network site no longer gives access to The Theosophist. Marc Demarest has archived the first 22 volumes, from 1879 to 1901, at The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals.

The Theosophical Society in Australia has indexed the journal’s run up to 2005, and it can be seen here. A 246 page topical index for the first six volumes of The Theosophist also exists, issued by the Edmonton Theosophical Society in Canada in 1998.

An Age of Radical Seeking

The December 23, 2010, Huffington Post has an interesting overview of the philosophical current that Mme. Blavatsky was part of. The writer, Kingsley Dennis, notes in “An Age of Radical Seeking (Part One)”:

The modern world has witnessed a different type of consciousness emerging over the past 150 years, a post-Industrial Revolution cognitive mind. New technological innovations that helped to alter our perceptions of the dimensions of space and time in the world began to birth a psychological consciousness; a consciousness that wanted to look beyond the borders and horizons of the physical frontier. The end of the 19th century was also a significant period in the rise of spiritualism and mediums, general interest in esoteric matters, and the public emergence of occult movements.

Around the same time as the interest in spiritualism was peaking, the Theosophy Society was established in New York City by Helena Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, and William Judge in 1875. Theosophy heralded a revival in western occultism and in perennial wisdom. It was also a forerunner to later movements that sought to bring eastern teachings and traditions to a western audience. Theosophy has had a large impact upon western mysticism as it brought forth many personages who later found their own individual channels for teaching, most notably Annie Besant, Alice Bailey, Krishnamurti, and Rudolf Steiner (who went on to establish the Anthroposophical Society). By the end of the 19th century, spirits were well and truly out of the closet.

The rest of the piece can be read here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

American Veda

American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation How Indian Spirituality Changed the West by Philip Goldberg; published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Crown Publ. Group, Nov. 2, 2010, $26.00, 416 pp. Foreword by Huston Smith.

Chapter 3, Section: The Madame and the Mahatmas, pp. 30-32, gives a fair approximation of Blavatsky’s life (except for the sentence: “When her second husband died she left her homeland for good”), stressing her contribution to the Western understanding of Eastern thought.

She died in 1891, a controversial figure considered by some to be a spiritual genius and even a saint, and by others to be a charlatan or a self-deluded poseur. The hundreds of books written about her have not settled the argument, but there is no doubting her impact. “Blavatsky played a significant role in wedding Western esotericism and Eastern religious traditions and in popularizing such concepts as maya, karma, and meditation,” says scholar of religion Harry Oldmeadow.

The chapter then goes on to discuss two individuals whom the author feels were influenced by Theosophy: M. Gandhi and J. Krishnamurti. The rest of the book is a fairly straightforward retelling of the impact of Indian thought on and through a select group of Americans (to say, “on American culture,” would be an overstatement). Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Eddy, Blavatsky, New Thought, Vivekananda, Yogananda, the Beats, the Beatles, Muktananda, Bhaktivedanta, Iyengar, Satchidananda, Deepak Chopra, and others are just some of the names the reader will come across. Since this is a book meant for a mass audience, it lacks the in-depth apparatus that one would find in the works of Diana Eek, Carl Jackson (whose 1981 The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations remains an excellent resource), Thomas Tweed’s similar work on Buddhism in America, and that of Robert Ellwood. The book is blessed by the addition of a selection of photographs of some of the people mentioned, an adequate portrayal of the level of celebrity that Eastern spiritual teachers have attained.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Theosophical Writing

Without much fanfare the site, Theosophical Writing, has been uploading a mass of early theosophical literature, mainly from the series Theosophical Siftings. In November 46 items were made available. Theosophical Siftings was an attempt to reach a wider audience through worthwhile reprints from theosophical periodicals. Issued by the Theosophical Publishing Company of London from 1888 to 1895, the series eventually comprised seven volumes of eighteen pamphlets. The subjects cover a wide array, not only dealing with theosophy, but also hermeticism, kabbalah, and even giving one of the earliest layouts for reading the tarot. Theosophical Writing faithfully reproduces the illustrations, as can be seen here.

There is something for everyone’s taste. A Sketch of the Theosophic Organization Compiled from the "Theosophist" and Official Reports by Anonymous from Theosophical Siftings, Volume 2, 1889, one of the earliest attempts of the organization to define itself, yields this tidbit:

The finger of historic prophecy points to Russia as the home of the sixth Sub-Race, and to America as the cradle of the sixth Root-Race.

Editorial intervention is at a minimum, such as suggesting the identity of the person who wrote as Nizida was “likely Louise Off.” Theosophical Writing can be accessed here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mondrian/De Stijl Exhibition

Paris is digging out from under the most snow it has had since 1987. Traffic has been a mess, and many people were stranded on the highways. Since this may limit those who were planning to go to the Mondrian/De Stijl exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, we are happy to make available the Press Pack for the event. Not only is there an outline of the exhibition but also a listing of related events that will be held in conjunction with it, which can be accessed here.

Hindu Responses to Darwinism

Science & Education, Volume 19 (2010), Numbers 6-8, has an interesting article by C. Mackenzie Brown, “Hindu Responses to Darwinism: Assimilation and Rejection in a Colonial and Post-Colonial Context.” He posits “Modern Vedic Evolutionism” as

one of a number of types of Hindu responses to Darwinism clustering at one end of a spectrum arrayed according to the degree of their acceptance or rejection of Darwinian evolution. Modern Vedic Evolutionism, as I use the term, encompasses a variety of responses to Darwinism that are characterized by two general claims: on the one hand, evolution, including Darwinian evolution, can be found in the ancient Vedic literature, and on the other, Darwinian evolution—while accepted as true on some level—is found to be incomplete in the light of Vedic revelation.

The roots of Modern Vedic Evolutionism can probably be traced back to the founder of Theosophy, Madam Helena Blavatsky, who saw in the ancient Hindu mythology of the ten avatars or incarnations of the god Visnu an anticipation of Darwin’s theory. The incarnations, in their traditional order as found in such Puranas as the Bhagavata, progress from a fish, to an amphibian (a turtle), to a mammal (a boar), to a half-human (a mythic man-lion), to a dwarf (an early form of humankind), and then through various human forms representing stages of cultural and spiritual evolution. [K.C.] Sen developed his own version of avataric evolutionism apparently inspired by Blavatsky.—p. 715.

The reference is to Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, 2: 274-75. Brown includes an informative chart on page 714, comparing and contrasting the responses of various figures like Vivekananda, Dayananada Saraswati, Tagore, and Aurobindo, which can be seen here.

Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism

Equinox Publishing Ltd, an independent academic publisher based in London, will be releasing Isaac Lubelsky’s Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism next May. According to the product notes:

In 1917 Annie Besant (1847-1933), a white Englishwoman, was elected president of the Indian National Congress, the body which, under the guidance of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), would later lead India to independence. Besant—in her earlier career an active atheist and a socialist journalist—was from 1907 till her death the president of the Theosophical Society, an international spiritual movement whose headquarters' location in Madras symbolized its belief in India as the world's spiritual heart. This book deals with the contribution of the Theosophical Society to the rise of Indian nationalism and seeks to restore it to its proper place in the history of ideas, both with regard to its spiritual doctrine and the sources on which it drew, as well as its role in giving rise to the New Age movement of the 20th century. The book is the first to show how 19th century Orientalist study dramatically affected the rise of the Theosophical ideology, and specifically demonstrate the impact of the work of the Anglo-German scholar, Friedrich Max Muller (1833-1900) on Mme Blavatsky (1831-1891), the founder of the Theosophical Society.

Isaac Lubelsky teaches New-Age thought at Tel Aviv University (the comparative Religion Program), and modern Indian history at Tel Aviv University and Haifa University (Departments of East Asian Studies). He is a research-fellow at the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, Tel Aviv University, where he coordinates (since 2006) the Marriane and Ernest Pieper Research Seminar on worldwide Racism. His fields of research are diverse, and include the history of East/West encounters during the last three centuries, alongside the history of occultism, esotericism, and modern New-Age religions.

Annie Besant, and, of course, A.O. Hume are the names of Theosophists most associated with the rise of Indian nationalism, so it will be interesting see how well Lubelsky succeeds. In Indian portrayals, the sadistic British official is now a stock figure, as shown in the Tamil blockbuster released this year, Madrasapattinam, which takes place in Madras on the eve of Indian independence. The film opened and stayed at No.1 in Chennai box office charts for 3 weeks. Or 2005’s equally successful Mangal Pandey: The Rising (Indian title) or The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey, based on the story of a Sepoy whose actions helped spark the Indian rebellion of 1857.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Blavatsky and Friends at the Centre Pompidou

The new Mondrian/ De Stijl exhibition that opened December 1 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris has brought Mme. Blavatsky name to the fore again. The exhibition firmly places Mondrian’s work in perspective (notably lacking in his paintings). It starts by focusing on the philosophical basis for the De Stijl (The Style) movement: theosophy, a belief popular in the early 20th century, which held that the universe is underpinned by geometrical principles applicable to all cultures. Members of the De Stijl movement sought a “universal and rational pictorial language” to illustrate it, one reviewer noted. The show offers glimpses into the lives of Mondrian and his De Stijl colleagues, notably Theo Van Doesburg, through photographs, letters, publications and a reconstruction of Mondrian’s Paris studio (pictured below).

There was actually an in-depth introduction to Mondrian and the De Stijl movement, overlooked as example of Blavatsky’s influence, by the local TFI News, which can be seen here. It gives separate chronologies for Mondrian and the De Stijl movement. The exhibition continues until March 22, 2011.

Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge

Cambridge University Press has announced that it will be issuing a forthcoming Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge (also listed as the Cambridge Library Collection on Magic and the Supernatural), starting in January 2011.  Some twenty books, most published in the nineteenth century, will be released over the next three months. The initial set of titles include Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, Joseph Ennemoser’s The History of Magic, Daniel Dunglas Home Incidents in My Life, William Howitt’s The History of the Supernatural in All Ages and Nations, Sir Walter Scott’s Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Richard Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, and Annie Besant’s An Autobiography. Some of these would have been immediately familiar to Mme. Blavatsky, as she also cites them. Prices range from $20. U.S. to $50. U.S. The list can be seen here.

Not only are older titles like these being recognized again, but the very way we approach these texts appears to be changing. New resources in the field of research are being developed in the area of Victorian studies. As Dan Cohen notes in his keynote address, Searching for the Victorians, at the Victorians Institute Conference, held at the University of Virginia on October 1-3, 2010:

Many humanities scholars have been satisfied, perhaps unconsciously, with the use of a limited number of cases or examples to prove a thesis. Shouldn’t we ask, like the Victorians, what can we do to be most certain about a theory or interpretation? If we use intuition based on close reading, for instance, is that enough?  

Should we be worrying that our scholarship might be anecdotally correct but comprehensively wrong? Is 1 or 10 or 100 or 1000 books an adequate sample to know the Victorians? What we might do with all of Victorian literature—not a sample, or a few canonical texts, as in [Walter] Houghton’s work, but all of it.

Cohen goes on to describe his work with Fred Gibbs on a Google digital humanities grant “that is attempting to apply text mining to our understanding of the Victorian age.” If we were to look at all of these books using the computational methods that originated in the Victorian age, what would they tell us? And would that analysis be somehow more “true” than looking at a small subset of literature, the books we all have read that have often been used as representative of the Victorian whole, or, if not entirely representative, at least indicative of some deeper Truth?

Using 1,681,161 books that were published in English in the UK in the long nineteenth century, 1789-1914, he provides a number of graphs for words, such as science, religion, sacred, faith, divine, churches, universal, truth, which can be seen here. Techniques like this, he says, will play a part in the debate about how we know the past and how we look at the written record that I suspect will be of interest to literary scholars and historians alike.

Matthew Bevis, lecturer at the University of York in Britain, comments that scholars should also remember that the past contains more than the written record. Fewer references to a subject do not necessarily mean that it has disappeared from the culture, but rather that it has become such a part of the fabric of life that it no longer arouses discussion. He quoted Emily Dickinson: “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our mind?”

Alice Jenkins, professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, feels that “Close reading will become even more crucial in a world in which we can, potentially, read every word of Victorian writing ever published.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hiding Behind Double Standards

photo by Jay Fine

K. Paul Johnson has added a communication from Leslie Price to his controversial post at History of the Adepts. Mr. Price, who is connected with a website that promotes mediums and spiritualism, adds his voice to the chorus (albeit a very small one) that K. Paul Johnson has been attacked, and probably outrageously so. Mr. Price’s communication indicates that in Mr. Johnson’s career this must now be for the umpteenth time, an issue he brings up after much angst over the way K. Paul Johnson should have been treated in the past because of what he wrote. So this is not the first time and we suspect not the last either. Though it has somewhat peaked our interest to what these attacks were, most of Mr. Price’s statements really have nothing to do with our post.

When Dr. John Algeo spent fifteen pages in a critique of Paul Johnson’s book, The Masters Revealed, noting: “The book’s thesis is not history. It is an imaginative reconstruction of the past on the assemblage of miscellaneous facts that have no demonstrated connection with each other. It is like a jigsaw picture composed from pieces of half a different puzzles that make a marvelous pattern, even if they don’t fit,” and adding that “a pattern of carelessness in such trivial matters does not inspire confidence in more substantive ones”Theosophical History, July 1995, p. 246—was this an attack? It couldn’t have been, for Leslie Price’s name appears as an Associate Editor of the journal where it was printed and he made no comment at the time.

Yet our simple observation of Paul Johnson’s post mentioning Blavatsky, “While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims he does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf,” is portrayed as an attack. We will not engage Mr. Price’s comments, preferring not to prolong this “unpleasantness” to K. Paul Johnson, but, since Leslie Price has chosen to interject himself into the discussion, only note that the Theosophical History Conferences he organized in London would not be our definition of an academic conference, belonging rather to that twilight zone that exists where theosophical research ends and academic inquiry begins. As far as the journal, it became so after Dr. James Santucci took over as editor, publishing a number of well-known academics. We say this with all respect.

The new thing that comes out of all of this (we already know that Paul Johnson has been attacked—we get it) is that Leslie Price believes that Blavatsky bashing is OK and should be able to be done with impunity. And that any questioning can be dismissed as an attack. This is no invention of our making. When she died the N.Y. Tribune of May 10, 1891, published an editorial that began: “Few women in our time have been more persistently misrepresented, slandered, and defamed than Madame Blavatsky.” If Mr. Price believes in fairness to Paul Johnson why can he not extend that courtesy to Mme. Blavatsky herself? Is K. Paul Johnson the only person to be protected?

We would draw Mr. Price’s attention to a paper to be published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, “Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory,” which we link to here:

Individuals thinking on their own without benefiting from the input of others can only assess their own hypotheses, but in doing so, they are both judge and party, or rather judge and advocate, and this is not an optimal stance for pursuing the truth. Wouldn't it be possible, in principle, for an individual to decide to generate a variety of hypotheses in answer to some question and then evaluate them one by one, on the model of Sherlock Holmes?

K. Paul Johnson Gets a Clarification

As I am at present ombudsman at Blavatsky News, I have be asked to adjudicate on our piece of November 25, 2010, that commented on a post at the site, History of the Adepts. “All posts at Blavatsky News are vetted by those who write here,” as has been stated. I also read Harry’s piece before it went through the editorial steamroller and did not regard it in any way as being an attack on K. Paul Johnson or the Church of Light. That is not what this site was started for or how it functions.

Going to the site History of the Adepts, at the date of the post one finds Mr. Johnson’s name absent as the originator of the posts; the only thing indicating the source of the material is that it is “Sponsored by the Church of Light.” As it stands it would lead to the impression that the Church of Light sanctioned or “sponsored” the comments. Harry did a bit of investigative journalism and after some searching revealed that K. Paul Johnson was the person behind it. Even Paul Johnson found it necessary to clarify the relation of the Church of Light to his comments after we reported on the site. Where is the attack in this?

Two statements give some perspective for the reader about Paul Johnson. (Not everyone who reads Blavatsky News is involved the theosophical/esoteric/occult world.)

1: Paul Johnson has been struggling for relevancy in the theosophical world for some time, and having gone through a number of groups has now found a home at the Church of Light. Is this an attack?

2: For years Johnson has been defending his theory that Blavatsky’s Masters were a mask for Indian insurrectionists. Is this an attack on Paul Johnson?

In analyzing Johnson’s post, Blavatsky News noted: While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims he does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf. Let us look at Paul Johnson’s post to see if this is an accurate statement.

The longest piece of documentary evidence he gives in it is an extensive quote from a missive attributed to Blavatsky. He introduces it with the words: A letter dated May 22, 1878 from Blavatsky to Chintamon was transcribed by Eleanor Sidgwick and is now the archives of the Society for Psychical Research.This date is highly significant as the official date of the amalgamation of the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj.The transcription was published in the first volume of the Letters of H.P. Blavatsky. Sidgwick paraphrases at times but mostly the letter seems to be directly transcribed. 

But let us look at the way the letter was presented in the volume where it is taken from. The editor, John Algeo, states: The copies were probably made by Eleanor Sidgwick, who freely abbreviated and paraphrased the material and interjected personal opinions about it. She rephrased passages and described what she saw in the letters, often writing about HPB, rather than recording HPB’s actual words. Her general skepticism about paranormal matters, amounting to a prejudice that distorted her perception and judgment, has been noted by Brian Inglis (360-1). In her transcriptions, it is not always clear what is quotation from the letters and what is paraphrase or comment. The material in quotation marks was presumably quoted directly from the letters, but quotation marks are not used consistently. Some of the parenthetical commentary and summary is in square brackets, but most is not. —The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, 1: 401.

Here we have two different viewpoints about this material.

Hurrychund Chintamon (or Harischandra Chintamani) was a minor figure involved with the early Theosophical Society. He was head of the Bombay Arya Samaj and after the Theosophists arrived in India it was found that he had pocketed monies sent for the Arya Samaj. Col. Olcott mentions him briefly in his Old Diary Leaves, 1:20: I shall never forget the scene when HPB, at a meeting of the Arya Samaj, let loose at him the bolts of her scorn, and forced him to promise restitution. The money was returned, but our dealings with the man came to a sudden stop. HPB wrote to the Indian press about the experience of the Theosophists with him, and noted in her Scrapbook that he was “Expelled publicly from the T.S. for embezzling Rs. 600 of the money sent by us from America and England for the Arya Samaj. Ran away to England secretly after thus carrying away Rs. 4,000 of Dya Nand Saraswati.”—BCW 2: 48. He was on her radar for years after that for his name appears in her correspondence. He had a motive to discredit her character as a witness, and his offering this material to the Society for Psychical Research shows this.

Mrs. Sidgwick who selected the material in these letters was hardly an unbiased participant in this. Beatrice Hastings has shown how Mrs. Sidgwick, whose style she describes as “something between an oiled butcher’s knife and a rusty saw,” slanted evidence in the 1885 SPR Committee report. The SPR was still smarting after Annie Besant’s casuistic review in Time of March 1891, “The Great Mare’s Nest of the Psychical Research Society.” Richard Hodgson who wrote a large part of their report was forced to make a reply in the SPR Journal. There was an obvious attempt to amass new material that would substantiate their claim of Blavatsky being a fraud, forger, and spy. Interestingly, there was no mention of the extracts that Mrs. Sidgwick made of Hurrychund’s letters. Since accusations of forgery still abounded, Theosophists would no doubt have asked to see the full originals if published. We have nothing of what the Hurrychund part of the correspondence was like, so that there is no indication what his letters may have contained to elicit her replies.

So, these Hurrychund/Blavatsky letters are somewhat problematic, and fairness and scholarly ability should have noted this. At least a line or a footnote stating that their representation as an accurate account has been questioned, which Johnson’s statement: “Sidgwick paraphrases at times but mostly the letter seems to be directly transcribed,” does not fulfill. Ergo, in this piece, While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims he [Paul Johnson] does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf.  Is this an attack?

In her 1888 piece, “Is Denunciation a Duty?” indicating the code of conduct for Theosophists, Blavatsky noted: “A natural and truthful statement of facts cannot be regarded as “evil speaking” or as a condemnation of one’s brother,” however much unpleasantness it may cause. Nowhere in the piece now submitted to analysis is K. Paul Johnson vilified, his integrity challenged or his scholarship denied. Mr. Johnson’s work was held up to the same rigorous scrutiny we apply to others. He wrote a piece, Blavatsky News reported on it. That is all. The end.

We apologize to our readers for devoting so much space for a post that has gotten so little traction on this site, taking away from our reporting on real news. Ordinarily we would not have revisited it other than Mr. Johnson has made such a spectacle about it. We are reminded though of Blavatsky’s remark that one cannot always be waving a red cloth and complain when the bull charges at you. So far no one has addressed the central point of the original post at Blavatsky News: that in the piece under review “While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims he [Paul Johnson] does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf, which we hope we have adequately addressed here.

We are not for censorship. But if you raise issues, people will comment on them, especially at a news site devoted to the subject. We hold to Blavatsky’s dictum in Isis Unveiled 1: 120: “It is not alone for the esoteric philosophy that we fight, nor for any modern system of moral philosophy, but for the inalienable right of private judgment.” Some would deny us this right, preferring instead to revel behind the notion of an “attack” and fabricate a feud where none exists.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

K. Paul Johnson Needs a Clarification

All posts at Blavatsky News are vetted by those who write here. I read Harry’s piece on the references to Blavatsky at the site, History of the Adepts, before it was posted and did not regard in any way it being an attack on K. Paul Johnson or the Church of Light. More than one reader has written in asking if the “attack” was taken down, for they could not find it. No, the post is still there as written. We wonder if Mr. Johnson has ever presented a paper at an academic conference, for one of the conditions for academic progress is having your thesis questioned. Nobody ever takes it as an attack.

Since Mr. Johnson has solicited advice on “What needs to be addressed in my response to Blavatsky News?” And since he says has experienced “unpleasantness” because of it, we would earnestly ask him to take a moment to consider Dhammapada 1.3 and 1.5:

“He berated me! He hurt me!
He beat me! He deprived me!”
For those who hold such grudges,
hostility is not appeased.

In this world
hostilities are never
appeased by hostility.
But by the absence of hostility
are they appeased.
This is the interminable truth.

And then take a deep breath.

K. Paul Johnson Offers a Clarification

K. Paul Johnson has posted a clarification to his comments about Blavatsky at the site, History of the Adepts. At least we think it is Paul Johnson, as it is not given as coming from him. The person states that the posts are entirely his own and no one in the Church of Light reviews them in advance or necessarily agrees with them. This is good to know, but as all posts at that site are given under the pseudonymous “Admin,” and as Mr. Johnson’s name does not appear as their originator, and as the site still states that it is “Sponsored by the Church of Light,” this may lead to the conclusion that somehow the Church of Light sanctions what is given there. Perhaps they need to add a disclaimer that the opinions reflected in the posts of the pseudonymous “Admin” do not necessarily reflect the views of that organization.

We were somewhat surprised to see Mr. Johnson state in his blog that our review of his piece was considered an “attack” on him and the Church of Light, and an “outrageous” one at that. We fear he has misconstrued our remarks and intent. Perhaps, because he has been in the defensive mode for so long because of his writings and has been dealt with so harshly by some leading Theosophists, he has become overly sensitive and sees an “attack” (a word we never used in our piece, though often used by Theosophists in regard to his contention that Blavatsky faked the Mahatmas. Readers outside of the country should note that the word “attack” is used more freely in America than elsewhere: “out Constitution is under attack,” “our family values are under attack,” which translated into plain speak means that someone has disagreed with your viewpoint) where none is meant.

Surely Mr. Johnson is not saying that his writings are above critical inquiry? Or that any comment or criticism that may even suggest any other explanation than the one he gives is an “attack”? Over the past year and almost 150 posts, Blavatsky News has critiqued for our readers a number of academic and commercial publications mentioning Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Some of the authors have actually written to thank us for our suggestions and the recognition we have given their work. Mr. Johnson is the only person who has reacted with such hostility. Though he has noted that his statement about the Varleys belonging to HPB’s “Inner Group” needs clarification. And if this needed reconsideration after being pointed out by us, why not look at other areas?

But this is really not about Mr. Johnson or the Church of Light but about our observation that his portrayal of Blavatsky in the piece reviewed left out “any exculpatory evidence on her [HPB’s] behalf.” By playing the victim card and claiming that he (and the Church of Light) has been attacked, “outrageously” attacked, Mr. Johnson adroitly attempts to shift the conversation away from the fact that his piece bashes Blavatsky to himself personally. It is somewhat ludicrous though for someone whose name appears nowhere as the originator of the posts on the site, History of the Adepts, and who uses the pseudonymous cover “Admin,” to be telling us what we should or should not be doing at here.

K. Paul Johnson points out that elsewhere at Blavatsky News he was quoted with approvingly. So, obviously, he was known and wasn’t “attacked” then. Mr. Johnson would be surprised at the range of opinion by those who write for this site. We are not all idolaters here, Mr. Johnson, but we are united by the belief that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky had a remarkable cultural impact which is worth reporting on, and during the past year we have covered a wide spectrum of opinion on our subject. But any site aspiring to giving news instead of just repeating what people have said must ask those tough questions of “What about…” when other view points are possible.

Anyway, taking his clarification at face value, we are happy to amend the headline of our post from “The Church of Light Bashes Blavatsky” to “Church of Light [Member] Bashes Blavatsky,” for as long as the site says it is “sponsored by the Church of Light” with no disclaimer of the contents then there is some connection. No one would have had much to say if he posted this material on his own blog (a headline of “K. Paul Johnson Continues to Bash Blavatsky” really isn’t “news,” it is a view held by many theosophists. He may not think his presentation is so but the perception exists). And to make it clearer that our comments are referring to the post by “Admin” in the link given to History of the Adepts, we have indicated so in brackets. Our comments relate to this piece and not to the whole of Johnson’s writings, which are a challenging contribution to theosophical history.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Church of Light [Member] Bashes Blavatsky

We thought the era of purportedly esoteric groups trashing the reputations of the leaders of other groups had passed, but a new blog shows that tradition is still alive and well. The blog, History of the Adepts, though “sponsored by the Church of Light” is really the mouthpiece of K. Paul Johnson. Paul Johnson has been struggling for relevancy in the theosophical world for some time, and having gone through a number of groups has now found a home at the Church of Light. While giving a lot of material that may bias the reader against Blavatsky’s claims [at the link above] he does not cite any exculpatory evidence on her behalf. Using Marion Meade as his authority (!), he quotes her saying that during a visit by C.C. Massey to Blavatsky and Olcott while in England in 1879,“as Massey was preparing to depart, she told him to reach into his overcoat pocket. To his amazed delight, he withdrew an inlaid Indian card case.” What he doesn’t tell is that Massey had suggested the item, “and this I can state positively—that no one but myself left the room after I had asked for the card-case.” (Massey, Light, August 30, 1884, p. 360.)

Johnson is also wrong when he states that the artist John “Varley and his wife Isabella (aunt of William Butler Yeats) were members of Blavatsky’s Inner Group.” For years Johnson has been defending his theory that Blavatsky’s Masters were a mask for Indian insurrectionists. This drew a strong rebuttal from Daniel Caldwell—K. Paul Johnson's House of Cards? The writer Beatrice Hastings was also incredulous about the claim that Blavatsky was sending letters encouraging deception while in India. Speaking of the correspondence attributed to her by the Coulombs, Hastings writes: It must be admitted that by producing these letters, if genuine, Madame and Monsieur Coulomb conclusively prove that both Mr. Hogg [Post-Master General of India], and Major Henderson, Chief of Police, with the whole Indian C.I.D at his orders, were criminally below their appointments. Here was a highly suspected Russian woman sending conspiratorial letters galore, and this during the years when we were fearing a Russian invasion of Afghanistan. And nobody “pinched” her! (The “Coulomb Pamphlet”, p. 69.)

Perhaps there is also an element of professional jealousy. Blavatsky was a great critic of T.H. Burgoyne, the alias of Thomas Henry Dalton (1855?-1895?), who was jailed in Leeds, England, and fled to America, and who figures in the transmission of the Church of Light. The sordid story is told in Godwin, Chanel, and Deveney’s The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, pp. 33-39 (Dalton’s mug shot and police record is given on p. 351). Attempts like Johnson’s ultimately fail to satisfy for they do not answer the question that even Richard Hodgson had to acknowledge in his Report: “what has induced Madame Blavatsky to live so many laborious days in such a fantastic work of imposture?” (Hodgson, Report, p. 313.) Whatever it was, it wasn’t financial extortion.

The Maya of Imri

Imri, following the path, entered the fog of bewilderment. This is always a place where two roads meet. One road seemed the most inviting. It stretched away, smooth and fair, mounting evenly to brilliant skies, and at the summit line he could vision, glorified, Imri jeweled with light, beacon of guidance for the multitudes of men. (—From the Book of Images, p. 29.)

These words came to mind while looking at the newly uploaded text of The Secret Doctrines Commentaries here. Theosophists are always telling the world about their exalted code of conduct, but when a book still in copyright is put online by a third party not involved with the publishing and without the permission of the publishers, even copyright law says halt. We fear this may put a chill on the publishing of financially dubious projects like this one. Why bother going through the cost and energy of printing a book when anyone can pirate it if they feel like it.

What also needs to be considered is how much of what is esoteric should be made so easily available to the casual reader, to the curious, and to those who will take a passage out of context. Throughout HPB’s system is the notion that the prize must be won by effort and is not easily given. And those who betray those laws should be aware of the karmic price they must pay.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cenotaphs in Sound

Volume Two of the Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics for 2010 carries a paper by James Schmidt of Boston University on “Cenotaphs in Sound: Catastrophe, Memory, and Musical Memorials.” This paper examines the peculiar status of musical compositions that are intended to serve as memorials of victims of political violence. It considers four examples of this genre: John Foulds; World Requiem (1923), Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947), Steve Reich's Different Trains (1988), and John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls (2002).

Foulds [1880-1939] had a long-standing involvement in the various spiritualist and occultist movements that flourished in England during the first quarter of the twentieth century. His interests were shared by Maud MacCarthy [1882-1967], who had been a close associate of Annie Besant, the former socialist and feminist activist who, by the last decade of the nineteenth century, was a central figure in the dissemination of the ideas of Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of Theosophy.

Theosophy offered a non-denominational form of spirituality coupled with an allegedly scientific approach to occult phenomena that proved attractive to a broad spectrum of British intellectuals and artists during the period. Because of the prominence it gave to music as a means of apprehending higher spiritual truths, it held a particular appeal for musicians including, most famously, the composer Gustav Holst.

The paper can be read here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

135 Years of Theosophy

Radha Burnier, President of Theosophical Society, speaks at the
commemoration of the 135 anniversary of the Society held at its headquarters at Adyar,
Chennai, India, on Wednesday. In the background are statues of Blavatsky and Olcott.

Theosophical events may not be news elsewhere in the world, but in India it can still make the papers. The Hindu newspaper for November 18 carries a report of an event at the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Adyar in Chennai (Madras). November 17 was the 135 anniversary of the Theosophical Society, and after mentioning the words of Radha Burnier on the unity and brotherhood the organization stood for, the paper noted: Over a hundred theosophists paid floral tribute to the statues of the founders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, at the Headquarters Hall in the society's premises in Adyar. The rest of the article can be read here.

Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography

Due April 2011 from Princeton University Press: The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the most famous Buddhist text in the West, having sold more than a million copies since it was first published in English in 1927. Carl Jung wrote a commentary on it, Timothy Leary redesigned it as a guidebook for an acid trip, and the Beatles quoted Leary's version in their song “Tomorrow Never Knows.” More recently, the book has been adopted by the hospice movement, enshrined by Penguin Classics, and made into an audiobook read by Richard Gere. Yet, as acclaimed writer and scholar of Buddhism Donald Lopez writes, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death.” In this compelling introduction and short history, Lopez tells the strange story of how a relatively obscure and malleable collection of Buddhist texts of uncertain origin came to be so revered—and so misunderstood—in the West.

The central character in this story is Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), an eccentric scholar and spiritual seeker from Trenton, New Jersey, who, despite not knowing the Tibetan language and never visiting the country, crafted and named The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In fact, Lopez argues, Evans-Wentz's book is much more American than Tibetan, owing a greater debt to Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky than to the lamas of the Land of Snows. Indeed, Lopez suggests that the book's perennial appeal stems not only from its origins in magical and mysterious Tibet, but also from the way Evans-Wentz translated the text into the language of a very American spirituality.

Return to Oz

The mention of the connection between Blavatsky and Frank L. Baum, the author of the Wizard of Oz, seems to have become mandatory.

In a recent review of two books about Baum, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, and, The Real Wizard of Oz: The Life and Times of L. Frank Baum, Michael Patrick Hearn, the author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz, found it necessary to cite the author’s assertion that "the name of Dorothy’s 'spiritual guide dog,' Toto, came from Madame Blavatsky's phrase 'the Eternity of the Universe in toto as a boundless plane.' (Loncraine, too, believes it comes from 'in toto.)"Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2010.

Chelsea House Publishers, a leading nonfiction publisher of curriculum-oriented books for children and young adults, in the life of Baum published this year in their Who Wrote That series add a explanatory note headed “Did You Know”: Theosophy is a doctrine of religious philosophy and metaphysics that originated with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Frank and Maud Baum had long been intrigued by Madam Blavatsky’s ideas, and on September4, 1892, the couple was admitted to the Ramayana Theosophical Society. —L. Frank Baum by Dennis Abrams, p. 52.

Now comes news that Warner Brothers pictures is in talks with Robert Zemeckis, the director of Forest Gump, to direct a live-action remake of The Wizard of Oz and plans to use the original script from the 1939 classic (Warner Bros owns the screenplay). Disney is also in development for 2013 with Oz: The Great And Powerful, which will focus on the exploits of the wizard. Recent attempts at remaking the story for film have been far from memorable: 1978’s The Wiz (Diana Ross who played Dorothy was 33), Disney's 1985 Return to Oz (dreadful), and Tin Man a 2007 Sci Fi version (why?). Still, this will no doubt add to the ongoing commentary about Blavatsky and Baum.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blavatsky in the news

* One would not usually find Blavatsky’s name connected with sports news, but here it is. HPB is mentioned in passing on the “College Sports Newswire” Boxscore News in a November 11 piece on “Canadian Hockey At War 1914-18.” Attention is given to Conn Smythe and his role in making hockey Canada’s national sport. His father, A.E.S. Smythe, General Secretary of the Theosophical Society in Canada, was recently the focus of an article in The Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2010.

Constantine Falkland Cary Smythe was born on February 1, 1895 in Toronto to Albert and Amelia Smythe, a pair of Northern Irish immigrants who had arrived in Canada in 1889. Albert Smythe was a devoted member of the Theosophy Sect, a religious movement whose ideas of spiritualism and reincarnation were based upon the books of Madame Helene Blavatsky. The Smythes were not wealthy, though Mr. Smythe became editor of The Toronto World newspaper. His father ensured that Conn would mix in the best circles of Ontario society, having him educated at the elite private school, Upper Canada College, and then at the University of Toronto. Conn Smythe was an outstanding schoolboy and athlete, excelling at hockey.

* The name of Alexander Scriabin has been a source of renewed interest in Blavatsky. A Ph.D dissertation from Yale University this year, “Alexander Scriabin's theurgy in blue: Esotericism and the analysis of 'Prometheus: Poem of Fire' op. 60” by Anna Gawboy looks at this connection a little closer:

This dissertation relates Prometheus to three source texts known to have inspired the composer. Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and Viacheslav Ivanov's symbolist essays collected in By the Stars provide insight into the work's theurgic function, and Helena Blavatsky's Theosophical magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, supplies the work's esoteric narrative. The seven slow color stages in the luce [a lightboard created by Scriabin to accompany his music] correspond to Blavatsky's seven-stage conception of human evolution.

* The Albuquerque Museum's exhibition “Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art,” on till January 11, 2011, takes a look at how that Russian attitude impacted American art. One reviewer notes that

such synesthesia, the urge to paint sound and compose with color - as well as to taste shapes, smell light, etc. - seems a particularly Russian thing, or did at least in the pre-Soviet era. Scriabin's color-symphonies, Kandinsky's “improvisations,” and all manner of elaborate invention—not to mention neo-spiritual movements such as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy—spurred experiment in cross-media artwork throughout the western world about a hundred years ago.

Charles Burchfield, The Moth and the Thunderclap, 1961

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Secret Doctrine Commentaries Reviewed

Katinka Hesselink reviews The Secret Doctrine Commentaries:

Blavatsky had her own Secret Doctrine study-group in London in 1889. They discussed her Magnum Opus pretty much as we do today. With tangents, questions, and lots of discussion of terminology. This book is the best record we have of that and it is simply fun to read. For me it brings back the fascination I had with theosophy 15 years ago when I first picked up The Secret Doctrine.

From the perspective of theosophical history this is an important work as well. It shows the limitations of the previously published “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge.” That book was much more edited than this one is. In this one we get a feel for Blavatsky the human being: funny, not all-knowing, yet deeply profound. Like one would expect from Michael Gomes, this book has a good historical introduction, footnotes to clarify the conversation and a copious index.

The rest of her review can be read here. As usual there are a few theosophists, self-appointed nags, who gripe that the book was not published according to their liking or wishes, that it should have been done this way or that way, not dealing with the reality of what is. Greeted in this way it is no wonder that they have not received any new material over the years.

A Conference is Announced

Erica Georgiades has sent out an announcement and call for papers for a Conference on Esoteric Traditions in the Ancient and Modern World to be held in Alexandria, Egypt, July 12-24, 2012.

The purpose of the Conference will be to examine the source and foundations of the mystery and esoteric traditions; their expressions and nuances in the ancient and contemporary world along with the interface between ancient wisdom and modern scientific paradigms. As we will be returning to the cradle of so-called ‘Western Esotericism’ for this event, the Conference will be focusing upon the Hermeticism of Alexandria, neo-Platonism, former ancient Mysteries, and the modern Theosophical Movement; in view of their phenomenology, social impact, and nuances in the shaping of cultural and spiritual aspects of the contemporary western world. Special emphasis will be given to the Theosophical Society; its foundational structures and orientation, successions, impact, and its role as an artery in the continuation of esoteric culture and Higher Age teachings within the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Suggested topics include:  Ancient Mystery Traditions, The Hermeticism of Alexandria, Neo-Platonism, The Star-Lore of Ancient Egypt, Theosophical Connections with Egyptian Traditions, The Brotherhood of Luxor and its influence on the Theosophical Society, Successions in the Theosophical Society [The Judge Case, etc.], The Theosophical Movement in the 3rd Millennium, Ancient Wisdom & Modern Science, Modern Physics & the Secret Doctrine.

The announcement can be read here.

The Alexandria-Mediterranean Research Center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in conjunction with the New York Open Center has also announced a Conference in Alexandria for June 12-17, 2011, titled An Esoteric Quest for Ancient Alexandria, Greco-Egyptian Birthplace of the Western Mind. Meetings will at the Bibliotheca, on the site of the ancient library, with its state-of-the-art lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Conference presenters include David Fideler, “The Golden Thread of the Muses,” Scott Olsen, “The Philosopher Mathematicians of Alexandria,” Christopher Bamford, “At the Crossroads of Judaism, Platonism and Christianity,” Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, “The Church of the East,” Clare Goodrick-Clarke, “Gnosticism and Hermeticism,” and John Dillon, “Alexandrian Quartet: Callimachus, Philo, Origen and Cavafy,” among others.

Further information about this Conference can be found here.

Olcott Oration 2010

This year’s Olcott Oration was given by Ravinatha Pandukabhaya Aryasinha, Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union, at the Kularatne Hall, Ananda College, Colombo, on November 6, 2010. Sponsored by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association, the yearly event commemorates the founders of Ananda College. Ambassador Aryasinha spoke on the theme, “Moderating competing narratives: the challenge of recasting Sri Lanka’s image abroad,” and began by acknowledging the work of Olcott and Blavatsky in Sri Lanka.

In the years that followed, Col. Olcott, in addition to being responsible for the revival of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, was instrumental in founding “the Buddhist English Academy,” what we today call Ananda College, with the stated intention—to provide English language education to Buddhist students, who would otherwise have had to go to a missionary school in order to get education in the English medium. This was a time, according to Agarwal, when the British colonial administration was supporting some 805 missionary schools, as against only 2 Buddhist schools. Given the solidarity he built with Ven. Hikkaduwe Sumangala, Anagarika Dharmapala, D.B.Jayatilake, it could be argued that by the time of his death on 17 February 1907, he had ignited among Sri Lankans, both the passion and the organization required to struggle for independence.

The rest of his talk can be read here. Last year the Olcott Oration was delivered by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beatrice Hastings

The New York Times of November 2th reports the sale of a 1917 portrait by Amedeo Modigliani at Sotheby’s auction house for $68.9 million, which was well above the $40. million estimated for it. This brought to mind another painting by Modigliani from the same period, “Beatrice Hastings in Front of a Door,”1915, shown here. According to the brochure notes for the exhibition, “Modigliani and His Models,” at the London Royal Academy of Arts, "Between 1914 and 1916 Modigliani’s chief muse, model and mistress was the South African born British poet and critic Beatrice Hastings who modelled for at least fourteen of the artist’s portraits. From 1914 Hastings was the Paris correspondent of the English periodical New Age, to which she contributed a column entitled ‘Impressions de Paris’ until 1916." Their relationship was described as “tempestuous.”

If this was all that Beatrice Hastings had achieved, she would have attained a certain status and immortality. But this was not all that we know her for. She was an accomplished editor in her own right, having the published writers like T.S. Elliot and Ezra Pound.

And yet there was more to her than this. In 1937 Beatrice Hastings began the publication of her Defence of Madame Blavatsky series, small booklets that would reexamine the case for Mme. Blavatsky. One volume dealt with the Mahatma Letters and another with the Coulomb pamphlet, a third on the “shrine” at Adyar was announced and a fourth intended on Vsevolod Solovyov’s 1895 book, A Modern Priestess of Isis. She died in 1943 without anything being published. Fortunately, her notes on Solovyov’s book survived and were issued serially in The Canadian Theosophist, 1943-44, and can be read online here.

In the Introduction to her text, Michael Gomes writes: Beatrice Hastings brought a new impetus to the field of Theosophical research, and in the decades following her death, her insistence on thorough documentation proved a marked influence on other writers.

Yes, and Modigliani thought her interesting enough to immortalize her.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A.E.S. Smythe

The Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Volume 44, Number 1, Winter 2010, contains a long overdue recognition of A.E.S. Smythe’s position in Canadian intellectual and spiritual life. The paper, "A Pilgrim Forever: The Life and Thought of Albert Smythe,” takes as its subject the life and ideas of social reformer, journalist, and occultist Albert E.S. Smythe. Placing him within the milieu of turn-of-the-century Toronto, the essay examines the evolution of his ideas on social reform, just war, and pacifism. Smythe's work is also situated within the larger sweep of Canadian social amelioration and occult movements.

While the overall focus of the paper is Smythe’s political thought, enough material is given to convey his importance to theosophy in America. Smythe (1861-1947) met another Irishman, W.Q. Judge, on his voyage to America in 1884 and that led to a lifelong commitment to theosophy. Smythe was instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Section of the Theosophical Society in 1919, becoming its General Secretary, and editor of The Canadian Theosophist, until 1947. Under his editorship the magazine became a primary source for material on H.P. Blavatsky and her work, often contributed to by many of her former students.

Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in "Finnegans Wake"

Len Platt’s 2008 paper, “Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in 'Finnegans Wake': An Annotated List” from the James Joyce Quarterly 45 (2), pp. 281-300, can now be accessed online. Platt writes

The central argument of my analysis of the Wake and theosophy in Joyce, Race and ‘Finnegans Wake’ is that Joyce understood theosophy not just as an insignificant absurdity that had a curious currency amongst Dublin’s Protestant intellectuals, but in a wider cultural context and as a symptomatic discourse of modernity. In this respect theosophy, like the race discourses with which it can be closely identified, demonstrated key qualities of the modern — the faddist instinct, the capacity for trickery and sensationalism and, perhaps above all for Joyce, the irrationality and the turn that contemporaneity had taken away from the egalitarian instincts of a once progressive order. The point being not to deny the importance of the Irish context — clearly the involvement of the Dublin crowd with theosophy was central to Joyce’s analysis of Irish revivalism as a faddist and conservative culture — but, rather, to recognise that Joyce’s engagement with theosophy was also part of a bigger and more complex engagement with modernity and the ‘enlightenment project’. It is against this wider backdrop that theosophy becomes of particular importance to the Wake.

Over fifty allusions to Blavatsky and theosophical concepts from Finnegan’s Wake are given and can be read here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blavatsky and the Great Year

Robert Tulip’s paper, "Blavatsky and the Great Year: Astrology in the Bible", presented at the Sydney University Conference has been posted on his website and can be accessed here.

In his abstract he notes: The Great Year is the 25,765 year long period of precession of the equinox around the zodiac, caused by the wobble of the axis of the earth. Discussed by Madame Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine, and by other modern mystics such as Carl Jung in his book Aion, the Great Year provides a unifying cosmic framework for the esoteric wisdom of the perennial philosophy, summarized in the axiom ‘as above so below’. This paper analyses references in the Bible to show how the Great Year underpins Theosophy as a discipline that bridges theology, astrology and science, pointing to a new philosophical synthesis for a New Age.

Gurdjieff and Blavatsky

While the majority of papers at the Sydney Conference covered areas of general theosophical influence, especially in the arts, Johanna Petsche’s “Gurdjieff and Blavatsky” focused on the trajectories of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff.

G.I. Gurdjieff rebukes any direct connection to Theosophy, yet has been quoted as declaring that he laboured to obtain “the erroneous statements of Mme. Blavatsky’s ‘The Secret Doctrine’”, and that Mme. Blavatsky fell in love with him. Similarities between the lives, teachings, sensationalist claims and mysterious personas of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff are striking. Both born in southern Russia and exposed to the diverse religions and cultures of the Caucasus, H.P. Blavatsky (1831-1891) and G.I. Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949) claimed to have accessed hidden sources of esoteric knowledge, preserved for millennia by secret brotherhoods. Blavatsky affirms that the Mahatmas of the Great White Brotherhood, a fraternity of ascended spiritual masters, revealed this knowledge to her, whereas Gurdjieff claims that he found this knowledge through a series of “remarkable men” that he met during a twenty-year search across Central Asia and the Middle East. Gurdjieff’s teachings were formed in Russia in the early part of the twentieth century during the Occult Revival when Theosophical ideas were widely available. Some of his closest pupils had backgrounds in Theosophy such as P.D. Ouspensky, A.R. Orage, J.G. Bennett and Thomas and Olga de Hartmann. It is no surprise then that many of Blavatsky’s core ideas in The Secret Doctrine can be found in Gurdjieff’s writings. Blavatsky’s symbolism of three and seven, “four bodies of mankind”, “Ray of Creation”, four elements (“hydrogen”, “carbon”, “oxygen” and “nitrogen”), seven subtle bodies, identification of the Soul with the Over-Soul, and general merging of Western Occult Tradition with Eastern teachings, are clearly echoed in the writings and teachings of Gurdjieff. This paper explores synergies between the teachings of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff, and addresses the question of whether or not Gurdjieff was directly influenced by Blavatsky’s ideas or whether they were both simply drawing on common esoteric currents prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe.

Among those who visited Gurdjieff at his school at Fontainebleau, France, Johanna Petsche mentioned Maud Hoffman, A.P. Sinnett’s executor, responsible for placing the Mahatma Letters in the British Museum, and A. Trevor Barker, who transcribed and edited the letters for publication.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

H.P. Blavatsky: A Reappraisal

The University of Sydney hosted a two day Conference on The Legacies of Theosophy: Unveiling the Mysteries of the Creative Imaginary on Oct. 1-2, 2010. It drew together academics from a number of fields including Garry Trompf, Vras Karalis, Chris Hartney, Michael Gomes and others. HPB was mentioned throughout and we hope to present some of the abstracts of the papers featured, starting with Michael Gomes’ “ H.P. Blavatsky: A Reappraisal,” which was the presentation that focused most on her:

Any discussion of modern Theosophy must begin with the position of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, often referred to as the "mother of the New Age” movement, an amorphous set of practices that became popular in the 1980s and '90s. But her contribution goes deeper than this. In trying to understand her significance this paper will examine four areas where her impact can be delineated: 1, the transformation of nineteenth century spiritualism; 2, the import and export of esotericism in India; 3, the creation of a new vocabulary of the spiritual; and 4, her survival as a cultural icon. As so much contrary and conflicting information still circulates about Blavatsky, this study tries to raise the veil of mystery that too often has obscured her real influence.

Blavatsky came to public attention while involved with the spiritualist movement so prevalent in the 1870s. This movement attracted a wide range of people, including John Smith, when he was a professor at the University of Sydney. He like many others looked to spiritualism as offering scientific proof for the survival of the personality. Blavatsky’s explanation of elementals, astral bodies, and the persona of the entranced medium, did not meet with acceptance, and she transferred her sphere of action to India. Much has been made of her popularizing Indian spirituality, but she also helped bring ideas about western esotericism to India, and her Theosophical Society attained its largest membership there, one of the few non-Indian spiritual groups to be accorded such favor. Although Blavatsky's writings have been in circulation for over a century there has been no concise overview of the key philosophical points of her contribution. This paper will also provide such analysis, most important considering Blavatsky's place as a source of the modern esoteric revival.

Notable in Gomes’s presentation was his emphasis on Blavatsky’s starting her public work in Cairo. Egypt, before the foundation of the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875, and he gave much new material. In the discussion that followed, Vras Karalis, who is Greek, mentioned that he had discovered an account in one of the Greek newspapers dealing with the shipwreck that led to Blavatsky’s going to Cairo. The papers that were given at the Conference will eventually published in book form, and we look forward to this.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Theosophy and its Legacies

Below is the tentative outline for the Symposium on Theosophy and its Legacies, 1 – 2 October 2010, at the University of Sydney, Refectory Room, Main Quad.

Friday, October 1st, 2010
11.00-11.30 Conference Registration and Welcoming Addresses
11.30-12.30 Michael Gomes, H.P. Blavatsky: A Reappraisal
12.30-13.30pm Lunch
13.00-14.30pm Garry Trompf, Theosophical Macrohistory
14.30-15.00 pm Afternoon Tea
15.00-16.00pm Dr Dara Tatray, Theosophy and the Dissenting Western Imagination
Christopher Hartney, The Legacies of Theosophy: Unveiling the Creative Imaginary
16.00-16.30 Coffee break
16.30-18.00 David Pecotic, Growing Higher Bodies - Gurdjieff, Evola and Schwaller de Lubicz: Conditional Immortality and Spiritual Materialism in post-Blavatsky esotercism
Johanna Petsche, Gurdjieff and Blavtasky
Vrasidas Karalis, Gurdjieff and his Belzebub
Conference Dinner

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010
9.00-09.30 Conference Registration
09.30-11.00am Neil Anderson, On Rudolf Steiner's impact on the training of the actor
John Blackwood, Outcomes of work in the study of morphology put forward by Rudolf Steiner
Luke Fischer, Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner: The Poetic and Hermetic Imagination
11.00-11.30am Morning Tea
11.30-13.00pm Alex Norman, Spiritual Explorers: Theosophical Travellers to the East and Their Impact on Modern Spiritual Tourism
Zoe Alderton, ‘Roy de Maistre’s Colour in Art: Theosophy Finds a Place in Australian Modernism’
Fiona Fraser, The Nature Studies of Phyllis Campbell
12.45-1.30pm Lunch
14.00-16.00 Robert Tulip, Blavatsky and the Great Year: Astrology in the Bible
Al Boag, From Blavatsky to Krishnamurti: Hindu Chronology, Biblical Eschatology, Physiology
Morandir Armson, The Transitory Tarot: An Examination of Tarot Cards, the 21st Century New Age and Theosophical Thought
15.30-16.00 Afternoon Tea
16.00-17.00pm Discussion: Theosophy and the Modern World

Blavatsky News hopes to provide in-depth coverage for this historic event, the first academic conference on Theosophy.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blavatsky and Modernism

For years the Oxford Very Short Introduction series have offered concise introductions to a wide range of subjects—from religion to philosophical and political thinkers, from quantum theory to musical theory, from political movements to literary theory. 254 of these pocket-sized books have been published, roughly between 100 and 144 pages each. One of the latest, Modernism: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Butler, was published September 3, 2010, by Oxford University Press.  On page 48, Butler cites Blavatsky to illustrate his point:

Art since the late 19th century had claimed to go deeper than all such orthodoxies, towards the far deeper and enduring ancient wisdom to be found in the history of religious myth-making. As Mme Blavatsky, who inspired Yeats put it:

"It is perhaps desirable to state unequivocally that the teachings, however fragmentary and incomplete, contained in these volumes, belong neither to the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Chaldean, nor the Egyptian religion, neither to Buddhism, Islam, Judaism nor Christianity exclusively. The Secret Doctrine is the essence of all these. Sprung from it in their origins, the various religious schemes are now made to merge back into their original element, out of which every mystery and dogma has grown, developed, and become materialised."

Literature based on such premises had new responsibilities. Given the secularizing effect of modernity, the involvement of the modernists with myth and religion may seem surprising, but many of them…saw the claims of art as in some way contesting or complementing those of orthodox religion….This search for an inspirational authority within the high culture rather than within religious institutions is a prime legacy of the modernist period.

The quote by Blavatsky is from the Preface to The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. viii.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Blavatsky and Kabbalah, Again

Marco Pasi has a chapter on “Oriental Kabbalah and the parting of East and West in the Early Theosophical Society” in Kabbalah and Modernity: Interpretations, Transformations, Adaptations, a 452 page book edited by Pasi, Boaz Huss and Kocku Von Stuckrad. It was published by Brill in the Netherlands in June 2010 and sells for $185. U.S. Pasi looks at the role of the Kabbalah in the theosophical writings of H.P. Blavatsky.

Another relevant piece of research in the book is the Boas Huss contribution on Abraham David Salman Hai Ezekiel (usually referred to as A.D. Ezekiel in theosophical literature) in “‘The Sufi Society from America’: Theosophy and Kabbalah in Poona in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Ezekiel, from a well-connected Jewish family, met Olcott and Blavatsky on their visit to Poona, India, in 1882 and remained a member until his death in 1897. Ezekiel published as series of kabbalistic texts in Jewish Aramaic in Poona after meeting the theosophists, for as he says: “I was very much astonished that foreign people were experts in our wisdom of the Kabbalah, while we, the Jews, were barred from it.”

Huss quotes the following insightful letter from Gershom Scholem:

You are certainly too harsh on Madame Blavatsky, it is surely too much to say that the meaning of the cabala has been forgotten in the ‘Secret Doctrine’. After all, the Lady has made a very thorough study of Knorr von Rosenroth in his English adaption, and of Franck’s ‘Cabala Juive’. She certainly knew more about cabalism than most of the other people you mention….I think it would be rather interesting to investigate the cabalistic ideas in their theosophical development. There is, of course, a lot of humbug and swindle, but, at least in Blavatsky’s writings, yet something more.

There is also an entry by Wouter Hanegraaff on “The Beginnings of Occultist Kabbalah: Adolphe Franck and Eliphas Lévi.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Andrei Codrescu Replies

In a recent post we referred to a passage in Andrei Codrescu’s new book, The Poetry Lesson, mentioning Mme. Blavatsky. The Princeton University Press blog picked up this reference, and Andrei Cordescu has commented.

I have it from a psychic source that Madame Blavatsky received a Mont Blanc pen from the Future, whence so many of her messages came… Three material objects materialised for her from the Future her mind roamed: a rotund elongated wand with a tiny control panel not yet understood, a hat made from the feathers of an extinct bird, and the Mont Blank. A. Codrescu

The Romanian born Mr. Codrescu has some 50 titles to his name as poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, columnist on National Public Radio, and editor. As The New York Times Book Review says of him: “Mr. Codrescu is the sort of writer who feels obliged to satirize and interplay with reality and not just catalogue’s a measure of talent...” If you don’t know him by now, his new book, The Poetry Lesson, would be a good place to start.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How Others See Us

Andrei Codrescu’s new book, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton University Press, 2010) features the author’s description of a writing class where the professor lists, among the things the student will need, a “Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Mme. Blavatsky).” Why? Because

The best of all fountain pens is the Mont Blanc, but it’s terribly expensive because of its gold nib and reputation. A Mont Blanc that belonged to Madame Blavatsky would be the instrument through which the disembodied voices of angels and demons would have traveled into the many volumes dictated to her by these otherworldly entities. In other words, you would be possessing an angelic instrument that, should it turn up in eBay, would fetch easily one to three hundred thousand dollars. Your extra credit for owning such a pen would amount to one fourth of your final grade.

Since the company that produced Mont Blanc pens was not started until 1906, it would have been difficult for her to use one. It is known that she did have “an American Gold pen given to her by a New York Theosophist and made by John Foley, whose name is known to thousands of writers.” John Foley of New York, one of the leading manufacturers of the gold-nib pen at the time, was known for his craftsmanship. His pens were 6 1/2” long and the gold nib would have been engraved “John Foley New York” with the date. The picture below, taken with a Kodak camera in 1888, shows HPB at her desk at the beginning of her day, pen in hand.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Archives Online

The website CWL World that focuses on the life and work of Charles Webster Leadbeater has added an archive page with many documents relating to this controversial figure. Copies of his birth certificate, passport, and many handwritten items are included. Of special interest to readers of Blavatsky News is the following note from HPB to Leadbeater, which reads: “To my friend and brother, Ch. Leadbeater, and Indo-Ceylon Trimurti, generally. Happy New Year 1891 from their sincerely loving, old HPB.” As far as we know it has never been published before. The other items in collection can be seen here.