Thursday, January 28, 2010

Madame Blavatsky as Art

From the Saatchi Gallery in London comes this piece by Polish born artist Goshka Macuga depicting a levitating HPB, her head and feet resting on a chair. Her hands hold a medallion with the seal of the Theosophical Society. The 2007 work, “Madame Blavatsky,” is made of wood, fiberglass, and cloth. Thanks to Erica L. Georgiades for the lead. Further views can be seen on her blog here.

Blavatsky Biography [No Longer] Online

Sylvia Cranston’s 1993 biography, H. P. B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, is now [no longer] available online. The author, actually Anita Atkins under the pen name of Cranston, was a devoted Theosophist and life-long ULT member. “But if devotion was sufficient,” reminds the literary critic, Beatrice Hastings, “no doubt HPB would have been vindicated long since.” The book itself is rather the research assembled for a book about Blavatsky, as it is essentially made up of lengthy quotes from other authors. Showing her leanings, Cranston dismisses Hodgson’s 1885 report on the basis of Vernon Harrison’s paper on the handwriting in the Mahatma letters (an area the SPR committee thought that there might “probably” be “a very strong general presumption” for HPB’s involvement).

Surprisingly little in Cranston’s biography is devoted to the content of HPB’s literary output. Isis Unveiled is summarized by the ten numbered points in the last chapter of its second volume. But surely the book is about much more than that. In covering The Secret Doctrine, the theme that occupies most of the second volume and one of the more unique concepts in the book—the seven stages of human development—is not even acknowledged. Nor are much of HPB’s other writings—Caves and Jungles, the Voice, her massive magazine output—even considered. For Theosophists it will be the most comprehensive sympathetic biography yet. Academics have kept it at a respectful distance, regarding it as hagiographic.

The site featured English, Russian, and Italian editions (the Russian being the most accurate as it corrects some of the errors about Russian events in the English edition).

UPDATE: We can no longer recommend the Cranston biography, as the person claiming sole rights to Anita Atkins’ writings, and who has prevented other material about HPB from being published, has had the online text removed. The book was funded by Anita’s long suffering brother, Bob Atkins, who is in his 90s, and who funded her research and the present reprint and is half owner of Path Publishing that issues the book, and who now apparently has no say in the matter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Theosophical Pioneer Passes

Reed Carson, who pioneered the use of the Internet to disseminate HPB's teachings, passed away suddenly on Jan 26, 2010. Remembered by friends as generous and unassuming to a fault, Reed was always a passionate advocate for his interests. He founded the site that became a model for many others that followed. He was 66.

Blavatsky Studies in Greece

Blavatsky Studies, the Athens, Greece, group that uses HPB's writings as the basis of their programs, has announced the subject for its annual meeting to be held this May. The program on “The Mystery of Death” has yet to be finalized but will be held on Saturday, May 29, and Sunday, May 30, in Athens. Last year’s program was on Psychic Phenomena. Further information can be found here.

With the work of Aspasia Papadomichelaki and others at the ULT, Athens, and Erica L. Georgiades, Secretary of the TS in Greece, Athens has become a global center for the study of theos-sophia.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Knots of Fohat

In the second part of the Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge (published in 1891) reference is made to an illustration by the American artist Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) in the 1884 edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The passage in the Transactions, 2:28 (BCW 10:381) reads:

There is a remarkable illustration of Elihu Vedder to the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam, which suggests the idea of the Knots of Fohat. It is the ordinary Japanese representation of clouds, single lines running into knots both in drawings and carvings. It is Fohat the “knot-tier,” and from one point of view it is the “world-stuff.”  

As published it reads as Mme. Blavatsky’s answer to a question that was posed, and has no doubt been taken to be such for over a century. But in the soon to be published originals of the text this is not so. Bertram Keightley mentioned the Vedder illustration as a representation of the idea of the knots of Fohat. Then the President, Thomas Harbottle, who was the chairman (not William Kingsland as given in the published version), commenting on this allusion, adds:

Curiously enough, it is the ordinary Japanese representation, in their rough sketches, of cloudscapes; single lines running into a sort of knot, both in carving and in drawing. I have plenty of their woodcarvings, in which a bank of clouds is given in that way.

His statement was incorporated into the answer in the published version. It should put literalists, who hold every word attributed to HPB as sacred law, on notice that sometimes these words may not even be hers.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

N. Sri Ram

Nilakanta Sri Ram (1889-1973) was the fifth President of the Theosophical Society (Adyar). This alone would not be enough to merit much comment here. But two actions of his make him notable for readers of HPB. In 1956 he arranged for the Theosophical Publishing House (TPH) at Adyar to take up the publishing of the H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings series. As Boris de Zirkoff, the compiler of the series, noted in the Foreword to Volume VII: “It augurs well for the ultimate success of the entire venture, and contributes greatly towards an earlier completion of the task at hand.” Sri Ram also decided to have the Theosophical Publishing House issue Walter A. Carrithers’ Obituary: the “Hodgson Report” on Madame Blavatsky, 1885-1960 (published under his pseudonym Adlai E. Waterman), giving this attempt to rehabilitate HPB’s reputation a wider audience. This was not the sort of publication that could ever have been regarded as financially remunerative, but as Sri Ram noted in his Preface, it was the right thing to do.

This seems to be the tenor of his life: expressing right ethical action. Pedro Oliveira, former International Secretary of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, and now Officer-in-charge of the Editorial Department there, has written a short biography of 223 pages, N. Sri Ram: a Life of Beneficence and Wisdom, just published by TPH. Using family narratives and personal recollections from those who knew N. Sri Ram, as well as his writings, Oliveira has managed to create a well-drawn portrait of a life devoted to theosophical principles. The history of the Theosophical Society during the last half of the twentieth century is so intertwined with that of the Nilakantha family as to be almost indistinguishable at times (Sri Ram’s sister, Rukmini Devi, a force to be reckoned with, ran in every presidential election during that time, and his daughter, Radha Burnier, is its present President), and Mr. Oliveira has furnished the future historian with a valuable tool for understanding the period.

University of Sydney Conference on Theosophy

The University of Sydney in conjunction with the Theosophical Society in Australia will be hosting a Conference on The Legacies of Theosophy: Unveiling Mysteries of the Creative Imaginary. The Conference will be held at the University, September 30 to October 3, 2010. The Call for Papers notes that:

This conference will explore the cultural legacy of Theosophy and the wider theosophical movement in terms of its considerable impact on twentieth century spirituality, modern art, music, literature, politics and science.  The works of H.P. Blavatsky sought to demonstrate the existence of a vast evolutionary scheme encompassing the whole of nature, physical and spiritual.  Taken up and augmented by the likes of Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, Rudolf Steiner and others, this broad outline, with its implications for the human potential, was highly influential.

The conference seeks to explore the continuity and continuous renewal of some of the key ideas regarding spiritual evolution circulating around the modern theosophical movement, many of which date back to antiquity.  It invites radical approaches to accepted perceptions and established ideas about Theosophy, the Theosophical Society, its offshoots and its key authors.  It asks for new understanding of the great theosophical leaders and spiritual teachers of the modern world, based on an objective and searching appraisal rather than undue bias whether positive or negative.

Those wishing to participate should send an abstract (minimum 200 words for a presentation of 30 minutes) to Associate Professor Vrasidas Karalis at Proposals are due March 20, 2010.

As far as we know, this will be the first Conference on Theosophy hosted by a major University (though there have been others that included theosophical subjects), and Dara Tatray, the President of the Theosophical Society in Australia, is to be congratulated on this achievement.

Theosophical Magazine Publishes Article “Against Blavatsky”

The Quest magazine is the journal of the Theosophical Society in America (Adyar). The Winter 2010 issue publishes an article by its editor, Richard Smoley, titled “Against Blavatsky: René Guénon’s Critique of Theosophy.” It deals mainly with Guénon’s 1922 book Le théosophisme: Histore d’une pseudo-religion, translated into English in 2003 as Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion. The article chronicles not so much Guenon’s criticisms of Blavatsky’s history, which form less than a third of the book, but his disagreement with theosophical teachings on karma, reincarnation, and spiritualism. So the use of HPB’s name in the title of the article is somewhat disingenuous, because the majority of Guénon’s book was equally critical of later theosophical leaders, Annie Besant, C.W. Leadbeater, and events like the proclamation by them of J. Krishnamurti as the coming world teacher. Guénon’s ideas about theosophical teachings were drawn from their books as well. Guénon (1886-1951) is regarded as something of a poseur today. By knocking “false” esotericists like Blavatsky, he made it safe for the academic world to recognize “true” esotericism. According to the writer of the article, the philosophical differences between Blavatsky and Guénon were not as great as Guénon made out.

The rest of the articles in the Quest, which no doubt reflect the interests of the group’s membership, are outside the purview of this site. One, “Roots and Shoots: Theosophy in the United States,” would have benefited by a peer review (the Blavatsky Association of London is given as an offshoot of American Theosophy !).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Max Müller and HPB

Mention was made of Dr. Cornelia Haas’s paper “Madame Blavatsky, Max Müller und die göttliche Weisheit des alten Indien” (Madame Blavatsky, Max Müller, and the divine wisdom of ancient India). It was originally presented at a Conference at the University of Jena, Germany, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Friedrich Schlegel’s On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians. Dr. Haas has provided us with an abstract of it:

Nineteenth century Orientalists generally had a very difficult relation with HPB. She was, in her own way, something like an Orientalist herself and had done a lot for the publication of Indian texts, and, in that way, for the growing self-consciousness of India under the British Raj. One of her critics was the great Indologist Max Müller, whose name is still famous in India today (the German "Goethe-Institutes" in India are called "Max Müller Bhavan"). He edited the Rigveda, and he was very sure that nothing like "Esoteric Buddhism," as HPB and Olcott called it, existed, and that all that HPB ever wrote on India was plagiarized. But in his Gifford Lectures series—published as a book called "Theosophy or psychological Religion"—he describes Indian religions as "theosophical" in the sense that their basic idea is one of unity of man and cosmos. According to him, this idea also can be found in early Christianity and in other (mystic) traditions. But Theosophy in connection with HPB and the TS was something very suspect for him, since HPB's knowledge came "from the Masters," which can't be accepted by an "orderly scholar." So he, though fascinated by the same things as HPB, refused to get connected in any way with "her" theosophy. Other points are their concurrence regarding the merits of India, and, sometimes even the question, who's knowledge of Sanskrit is worse, in spite of the fact that the scholars themselves were (and are) fighting about so many words and interpretations. Ironically, today the audience for the Adyar manuscript library at the Theosophical Society in Madras is usually Indologists from everywhere, whereas the "educated bourgeoisie" likes the cultural program of "Max Müller Bhavan" much more.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sinister Yogis

Sinister Yogis
by David Gordon White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 1, 2009. Hardcover. 374 p. $42.00.

More than any South Asian commentator or Western scholar, the thinker who cast the longest shadow on modern appreciations (both popular and scholarly) of yoga was Swami Vivekananda who, while indisputably a giant of neo-Vedānta reform, was a dilettante on the subject of yoga. This did not prevent him, however, from writing an extensive commentary on the Y[oga] S[ūtras], the “essence” of which he identified—following none other than the theosophist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—as the “classical yoga” of India, called rāja yoga.

David Gordon White’s book, Sinister Yogis, examines the qualities that defined the yogi in Indian literature. Much of modern ideas about yoga stem from theosophical interpretations and classifications he concludes (an idea already advanced by Elizabeth de Michelis in her 2005 book, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism), and his book looks at tales of the real talents of yogis, not as passive meditators but as wonder workers capable of transferring or merging their conscious with another person’s. His style is often digressive (like Blavatsky’s but here with academic sanction), drawing the reader’s attention to how a word is used, then its derivation and possible meaning, followed by a narrative of its use, yet always worth reading as it questions our readily held assumptions.

Friday, January 8, 2010

David Reigle vs T. Subba Row

David Reigle on his site, Eastern Tradition, has recently posted a lengthy 64 page piece, “Confusing the Esoteric with the Exoteric: T. Subba Row on Advaita Vedanta,” calling into question T. Subba Row’s knowledge (or rather ability to give an accurate account) of Advaita Vedanta. Subba Row (1856-1890) was a respected South Indian member in the early days of the Theosophical movement, and was supposed to have been a pupil of HPB’s teacher. They parted ways over her giving out too much esoteric teaching in her writings. In the West textual sources are the ultimate religious authority, but in the East it is the experiential nature as expressed in the teacher, or guru, that has the paramount claim. Not only are there six well-known orthodox schools in Indian philosophy but one of those schools, Vedanta, allows three distinct ways of interpretation. So it is quite possible that T. Subba Row put his own slant on the subject. Not enough has been written about the occultism of South India, which remains largely unexplored in the West because it is not in Sanskrit. That being said, Mr. Reigle’s site contains a wealth of information, as can be seen here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Theosophical History: XIV:1-2

A new issue of Theosophical History is out. It is a double issue for January-April 2008. This is not a misprint; that is the date it bears. James Santucci, the editor, states that a heavy teaching assignment plus other events have led to its delay. Though bearing a 2008 date it contains an obituary of Jean Overton Fuller who died on April 8, 2009, giving the journal an aura of horrible prescience. Miss Fuller gave the early issues of Theosophical History a literary bent. Rather than be limited by historical fact, her writings on various theosophists were always more in the area of extended opinion pieces. Leslie Price contributes a short notice of the lapses in a 2008 biography of the British scientist, Sir William Crookes, and Dr. Santucci reviews a Ph.D. dissertation on the development of theosophical oriented groups in Denmark at the end of the twentieth century. The rest of the issue—35 pages—contains a long critique of Jean Overton Fuller’s contention, in her biography of Krishnamurti, that a South Indian adept mentioned by Blavatsky as Narayan, etc., was the same person as a blind yogi named Nargaratnaswami who Ernest Wood met in the Madras Presidency and whom he writes about in his 1936 autobiography, Is this Theosophy. The writer, Govert Schuller, has assembled a mass of evidence to match his theory. If one is interested in following this arcane matter, fine, if not, it makes a very singular double issue.
For $16.00 it can be ordered here.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A New Picture of Blavatsky Emerges

We are happy to start the New Year with a new picture of HPB not well known. It comes from the digital archives of the New York Public Library, and thanks to Michael Gomes for the tip. The picture shows her in the later period of her life, ca. 1886-89.  (Click on photo to enlarge.)