Sunday, February 27, 2011

Blavatsky and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Pt 2

Donald Lopez, Jr., begins his recent biography of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) with an anecdote about his exchange with a journalist who was planning a piece on the text: “he wondered whether I could answer a few questions. ‘Is The Tibetan Book of the Dead the most important work in Tibetan Buddhism?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Do all Tibetans own a copy?’ No,’ I said. ‘Have all Tibetans read it?’ ‘No.’ I said. ‘Is it a work that all Tibetans have heard of?’ ‘Probably not,’ I said.”

The chance encounter with the text in Darjeeling, India, by Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965) at the beginning of the twentieth century was to make it the most recognizable of Tibetan works. A terma text, said to have been hidden by Padmasambhava in the eighth century and rediscovered by Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth, the Bardo Thodol dealt with the transit through the bardo, or intermediate state, between death and rebirth.

It is not a text Blavatsky referred to (for someone who visited Tibet she mentions little of the major religious scriptures of the country, the exception being Tsong-kha-pha’s Lam Rim, an important instruction of the Geluk group), though the term bardo appears in one of the Mahatma letters from 1882.

Although Lopez implies that Evans-Wentz used the text as a means of Theosophical propaganda, not all Theosophists were welcoming of it. A letter from Basil Crump (an associate of Alice Cleather, one of Blavatsky’s personal pupils), written from Peking in 1928 and published later in The Canadian Theosophist of August 1942, warned that the book was not consistent with Blavatsky’s teachings. While in Darjeeling, Crump says: “We warned the Dr. to be careful about the Red Doctrine but he paid no attention and persisted in that line of study.”  The Bardo Thodol was a leading text of the Nyingma school, also known at the Red Caps, a term Blavatsky used for those who practiced black magic.

Parts of The Tibetan Book of the Dead are meant to be read to the dying individual: “Having read this, repeat it many times in the ear of the person dying, even before the expiration hath ceased, so as to impress it on the mind [of the dying one].” This is at variance with the instructions given by Blavatsky’s teachers:  “Speak in whispers, ye, who assist at a death-bed and find yourselves in the solemn presence of Death. Especially have you to keep quiet just after Death has laid her clammy hand upon the body. Speak in whispers, I say, lest you disturb the quiet ripple of thought, and hinder the busy work of the Past casting on its reflection upon the veil of the Future.”—“Memory in the Dying,” October 1889.

Yet, at the same time, Evans-Wentz spoke highly of Blavatsky. He cited some parts from her Voice of the Silence (Book of the Golden Precepts) in his later Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, and says: “The late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup was of opinion that, despite the adverse criticisms directed against H. P. Blavatsky’s works, there is adequate internal evidence in them of their author’s intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings, into which she claimed to have been initiated.” It should be noted, however, that whatever she claimed to have learned in Tibet was of an esoteric nature, a term she consistently uses for oral teaching, outside the canonical scriptures.


Lopez, Donald S. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a biography. Princeton University Press, 2011. 173 p.

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford University Press, 2000. lxxxiv, 264 p.
Compiled and edited by Evans-Wentz, with new Foreword and Afterword by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Karma Lingpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Viking/Penguin, 2006. xlix, 535 p.
The largest selection of texts available in English, translated by Gyurme Dorje.

Cuevas, Brian J. The hidden history of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford University Press, 2003. 328 p. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Blavatsky and The Tibetan Book of the Dead

When W. Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Book of the Dead was published in 1927 it was regarded as a work of scholarship, Donald Lopez Jr.’s new book, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a biography, just out from Princeton University Press, indicates that it may no longer be so viewed by academics. The book’s main crime seems to be that it has become too popular, remaining in print.

Evans-Wentz was a member of the Point Loma Theosophical Society, and his text was interpreted through the eyes of a Theosophist. This gives Lopez the opportunity to take a look at Mme. Blavatsky and dismiss her. But along the way furthers a few myths of his own.

“Ancient Egypt and its mysteries had been particularly important to Madame Blavatsky; her first major work was entitled Isis Unveiled.” But the title was the publisher's. And anyone who has read the book knows that, in her view, Egypt was settled by colonizers from ancient India.

“In 1894, she published in Lucifer a letter she had received from one of the mahatmas…” But, as she had died in 1891, this must have been a phenomenon in itself.

He quotes from the Society for Psychical Research Committee’s investigation on Theosophy as if it was the last word on the subject, with no indication that its credibility has slowly been eroding over the past century.

Spiritualism and Theosophy seem to be convertible terms for him, for he writes: “If we were to trace the lineage of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, it would not be Walter Evans-Wentz back to Kazi Dawa Samdup to Karma Lingpa to Padmasambhava. It would be Walter Evans-Wentz to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky to Colonel Olcott to the Fox sisters.”

Readers of Blavatsky News will be surprised to hear that “Madame Blavatsky, who inspired many of the greatest poets and painters of the turn of the century, is but vaguely remembered a century later.” Perhaps this may be the view from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Lopez teaches at the University of Michigan, but, as our coverage over the past year has shown, it is hardly the case in the outside world.

Lopez may have already provided an evaluation of his critique when he wrote in the Foreword to the Oxford University Press edition of Evans-Wentz’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 2000: “anything that a scholar might add today will only serve as material for a scholar some fifty years from now, who will demonstrate the biases and misunderstandings of a preface written fifty years ago, a preface that merely offers evidence of the fin de siècle zeitgeist of those who once called themselves postmoderns.” One may not have to wait that long.

Major Figures in Philosophical Theology

Courses referencing Helena Petrovna Blavatsky at the university level have been slow coming in the U.S.A. Other than those offered over the years by Prof. James Santucci at Cal State in Fullerton, California, they have been few and far between. So the following course listing offered this year at Drew University in New Jersey was particularly surprising:

HEPH 391 | Major Figures in Philosophical Theology
A seminar focusing on one major figure from the Western or Eastern traditions. Examples include, but are not limited to, Martin Heidegger, Charles Sanders Peirce, Helena Blavatsky, Sri Aurobindo, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and William James. Signature of instructor required for registration.

This is even more unusual considering that Drew University is a Theological School “rooted in the Wesleyan heritage and celebrates the centrality of Christ to our faith. The school does not require students to adopt a particular position or creed, but expects that students will remain in touch with and develop their own distinct faith tradition. Students take responsibility for articulating their own convictions, yet remain in dialogue with those of other faiths and with Christians who may think and believe differently. Students find many persons who share their faith experience and learn from persons who challenge them with their differences. In a world where diversity is often an excuse for hatred and a trigger for violence, Drew students learn to use diversity as a key to unlock the mysteries of a God beyond individual understanding, who is revealed more fully through our shared faith and experience.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Alexander Wilder on Blavatsky

Marc Demarest, who maintains the online Emma Hardinge Britten Archive, where one can find all things pertinent to the British medium Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), posts a link on his blog, Chasing Down Emma, to a piece by Alexander Wilder in the April 1907 Metaphysical Magazine eulogizing the late Henry Steel Olcott. While it is a memorial to Col. Olcott, Wilder also gives his impressions of Blavatsky:

At his [Olcott's] pressing invitation, I visited Col. Olcott’s abode on [West] 47th street. There he introduced me to Madame Blavatsky….Mme. Blavatsky was portly, large-chested, broad of abdomen—in short, what I conceive to be a Tartar figure. Her hair was golden like that of the goddess Aphrodite, her head large, the brow full, and other features well filled out. She knew well how to adapt her conversation to every one’s humour, but she did not scruple to denounce, or to speak contemptuously to individuals.

Parts of Wilder’s appreciation appear in his “How Isis Unveiled was written” published a in the New York theosophical journal, The Word, of May 1908. Compare what he wrote above with his description a year later:

She did not resemble in manner or figure what I had been led to expect. She was tall, but not strapping; her countenance bore the marks and exhibited the characteristics of one who had seen much, thought much, traveled much, and experienced much. Her figure reminded me of the description which Hippokrates has given to the Scyths, the race from which she probably descended….Her appearance was certainly impressive, but in no respect was she coarse, awkward, or ill-bred. On the other hand she exhibited culture, familiarity with the manners of the most courtly society and genuine courtesy itself. She expressed her opinions with boldness and decision, but not obtrusively. It was easy to perceive that she had not been kept within the circumscribed limitations of a common female education; she knew a vast variety of topics and could discourse freely upon them.

Wilder’s “Henry Steel Olcott” on pp. 371-77 of The Metaphysical Magazine for April 1907 is a good period piece, conveying something of the time by an eyewitness to the events, and, thanks to Marc Demarest, can be read here.

Alexander Wilder (1823-1908), whose editing shaped Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled, remains an unrecognized influence as one of the sources for the modern American esoteric revival. Mark R. Jaqua gives about all that is known of him in his introduction to his collection of Wilder’s magazine output, The Later Platonists, which can be accessed here.

Leander Edmund Whipple was editor of The Metaphysical Magazine at the time, which led us to wonder if he might be any relation to Edward Whipple, author of that monument to industry from 1901, A Biography of James M. Peebles, M.D., A.M.?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

February 17

The Sri Lankan Daily News reports that there is a move in Colombo for “the old building where Col. Olcott lived and used as the old Ananda College and the building where the Buddhist schools were administered to declare them a National Heritage by National Heritage Minister Dr Jagath Balasuriya.” February 17, the date of Olcott’s passing, is still a day of remembrance in Sri Lanka, and the paper features a piece by S P Weerasekara “Col Henry Steel Olcott: Great name in Buddhist history,” in today’s edition, giving some background on his accomplishments.

With a sense of pride and utmost we have to point out to the country at large that as a result of pursuing the thinking of Col Olcott, Colombo Buddhist Theosophical Society was able to establish 460 Buddhist schools, including leading colleges, such as Ananda, Nalanda, Dharmapala, Dharmaraja, Visakha, and Musaeus College. Amidst various adversities, difficulties, obstacles great men like Col Olcott who directed our nation in the proper direction towards advancement, during a stage when Sinhala Buddhists had forgotten their good culture and traditions, it is our duty to commemorate them with a sense of deep gratitude. The younger generation in particular must be knowledgeable about the excellent qualities of this great leader, about his life and history and follow his path leading to advancement of our country. We have to record our highest gratitude to Madam Helena Blavatsky who assisted him in all his endeavours.

The rest of the article can be read here.

Roxanne Cash on Blavatsky

The February 2011 issue of the monthly literary review, Word Riot, publisher of “the forceful voices of up-and-coming writers and poets,” contains an interview with the American writer Roxanne Cash. In response to the question “What book are you currently reading?” she says:

Today I am reading a book about Madame Blavatsky. I thought it would be a biography but it is more like a history of the occult in America. The author obviously doesn’t like Blavatsky much, but the dislike can’t temper Blavatsky’s outlandish personality. In the book it says that she “claimed to have ridden bareback in a circus, toured Serbia as a concert pianist, opened an ink factory in Odessa, traded as an importer of ostrich feathers in Paris, and worked as an interior decorator to the Empress Eugénie.” She also founded the Theosophical Society that runs Krotona, a place in Ojai, California I visited frequently with my friends during high school. Mostly because it was quiet there and we could wander, taking photographs of each other without anyone bothering us. I always imagined that Madame Blavatsky lived at Krotona because her name is on buildings up there and they have many of her books in the library, but according to the book I’m reading she never even went to California. Still. Her name is fun to say. Madame Blavatsky. And I would love to ride bareback in a circus, it sounds like fun.

Blavatsky Material at Harvard

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a feature titled “Ask a Research Librarian.” On Feb. 15, 2011, the question was asked: “Do you have any special collections related to Theosophy?” Here is the reply:

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library does have one of the largest collections of 19th c. Theosophical literature. The books, which are cataloged in HOLLIS, came mostly from members of the former Theosophical Society in America. We also have letters of an important Theosophical leader—Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. The Blavatsky collection includes correspondence between Madame Blavatsky and William Quan Judge, who was general secretary of the American Section of the Theosophical Society. Background information about these letters appeared in the October-January, 1992-1993, double issue of Theosophical History, and the letters themselves were transcribed and published in volumes 5-6, 1994-1996, of this publication. For more information about Theosophy sources, see Theosophy in the Nineteenth Century: An Annotated Bibliography (1994).

The Theosophical Society in America referred to was one of the independent groups that emerged from Judge’s American Section of the TS, not the present organization of that name. It's membership derived from those who were not willing to follow Katherine Tingley as leader. The group published the Theosophical Quarterly from New York from 1903 to 1938.

The Secret Doctrine Commentaries Reviewed

Mme. Blavatsky’s old magazine, The Theosophist, for February 2011 carries a four-page review of the recently published The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: The Unpublished 1889 Instructions by H. P. Blavatsky, The Hague, 2010. After giving some background on how the material came about (stenographic notes of the discussions with her at the weekly meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge, London), the reviewer, Dr. John Algeo, comments:

Until now, the full transcriptions of those early meetings and no records of later ones have been generally available. Now, Michael Gomes, one of our premier Theosophical historians, has produced a full and accurate edition of the 1889 discussions. It takes the place of the old Transactions [of the Blavatsky Lodge], which are neither complete nor adequate because they formalize the discussion, thereby disguising the spontaneity of exchanges. This new edition deserves a place next to The Secret Doctrine itself on the bookshelf of every serious student. It also merits the attention of even casual readers who want to know what The Secret Doctrine is about. 

Dr. Algeo gives examples of how the book can be culled for additional information on subjects written about by Blavatsky, and says: “This new edition also makes for charming reading: the banter and interchanges among the participants are often humorous and indicate the easy relationship they shared.

This edition is what is now called a ‘keeper’ (i.e., one suitable for or worth keeping). Indeed, it is an invaluable addition to our stock of Theosophical books.” What he does not mention is the price, 59 euros, which may keep it out of wider circulation. It is rumored that the Theosophy Company of Los Angeles, California, may finally come out with their edition this year and at half the price.

Blavatsky and Derrida

Room 56 at the Arts Faculty Building at the North Campus of the University of Delhi’s English Department was the venue for a talk by Gauri Viswanathan of Columbia University on January 31. Prof. Viswanathan outlined her theme, “Secrecy, Conversion, and Historicity,” in part as:

Obsessed with the notion of the secret in his writings on religion, Derrida uncannily evokes a predecessor with whom he has rarely, if at all, been compared—Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. My paper argues that Blavatsky's occult writings set the stage for the kinds of speculations on crypto-conversion, conscience, and responsibility that subsequently engaged Derrida. Both Blavatsky and Derrida develop the concept of the secret to signal the histories that have been occluded in the course of religious change. Occult writings unfold this process, and my talk considers a few exemplary texts engaged in producing an ethical knowledge of the effects of religious conversion and crypto-conversion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Inimitable Madame B.

EnlightenNext is the journal of American self-styled guru and “twenty-first century spiritual teacher,” Andrew Cohen. Issue 47 (no months are given) just out contains a nine-page article by Gary Lachman titled “The Inimitable Madame B.” It begins:

New York’s Irving Place isn’t a place we’d usually associate with the start of a new spiritual movement, but on September 13, 1875, that’s exactly what it was. In a room cluttered with oriental bric-a-brac in Manhattan’s bustling and often dangerous East Side, three people came together then to form an occult society that would have a profound influence.

Where to begin? Irving Place is not a location we’d usually “associate” anything with. At the time of Blavatsky’s brief stay the street was one of residential houses, with exclusive clubs at the north end where the street joined Gramercy Park (Col. Olcott’s Lotos Club was there). On September 13 a committee of four, which had been appointed at the September 8 meeting to draft a constitution and by-laws of what would become the Theosophical Society, reported progress. This was done after the conclusion of George H. Felt’s lecture telling of his discoveries on the Cabbala, but neither Blavatsky nor Judge, as the writer adds, were part of it. As far as the room being “cluttered with oriental bric-a-brac,” this is just imagination expressing itself in speculation.

In a number of places Lachman refers to H.P. Blavatsky’s mother as a “princess,” this is not so—it was her grandmother who had the title. Nor has the Society for Psychical Research ever “retracted Hodgson’s report a century later,” as he states. He gives as his source for this statement, Sylvia Cranston’s 1993 biography, H.P.B., page xvi, but in checking it we find she does not make that claim. “She [HPB] washed ashore in Cairo” in 1871 when the ship she was on, the S.S. Eumonia [sic], blew up. But as the explosion took place off the coast of Greece, it must have been a big bang and a mighty wave to send her across the Mediterranean and inland to Cairo.

The article is illustrated by garish depictions of events in Blavatsky’s life, including one of her sitting at a table, apparently in a trance, while the rest of the circle look up at letters falling from above.

Lachman tries to present a sympathetic portrait, though burdened with the usual stereotypes about Blavatsky—weight, madcap ways, hashish smoking, etc. His sources are all the usual suspects and he adds nothing new, except, perhaps, when he writes things like: “the Christian College Magazine was only too happy to blow the whistle on the Madame.”

Lachman, an American living in England, is writing a biography of Blavatsky, though, if this is any indication of what is to come, those wanting an accurate portrayal of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky may have to look elsewhere.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The H.D. Book Reviewed

“Robert Duncan’s long-awaited meditations on H.D., modernism, and esoterica,” the recently published The H.D. Book, continues to garner favorable notice. Erik Davis provides an extensive review in the Feb/Mar 2011 issue of Bookforum under the heading of “The Shadow Catcher,” which can be read here.

Duncan cautiously praises the much-mocked Madame Blavatsky, recognizing her enormous Theosophical books—declared to be revealed wisdom but actually "midden heaps" of quotations and unacknowledged borrowings—as textual collages avant la lettre: "From what has been disregarded or fallen into disregard, genres are mixed, exchanges are made, mutations begun from scraps." This could, in part, describe The H.D. Book as well, a diffuse and heterogeneous matrix whose heaps of obscure references can, as with Blavatsky's books, become tiresome and overwhelming.

Perhaps to some, but not to others.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle (!)

The University of Alberta in Canada posts a PhD thesis by Charn Kamal Kaur Jagpal, “‘I Mean to Win’: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle,” awarded by its Department of English and Film Studies this year. “This dissertation explores Englishwomen‘s fictions of the nautch girl (or Indian dancing girl) at the turn of the century,” mainly between 1880 and 1920. While the subject might not warrant a reference to Mme. Blavatsky, it does here.

As one of many examples, writing in the 1890s, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky positions nautch girls (specifically devadasis) as an exception to the rule about Indian womanhood. She asserts that, out of the women in India, “Only the nachnis, the dancing girls consecrated to the gods and serving in the temples (a hereditary position), can be said to be free and happy and live respected by others.”

The citation is from Blavatsky’s Indian travelogue, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, 1892 (1975 edition, p. 231), and, if as a clarification, the writer notes

Critical of Western ideologies and practices, and disappointed with Western religions, many Europeans and Americans at the turn of the century “were increasingly turning to Asian goods, philosophies, arts and cultures” to define themselves and their modernist sentiments. Under this motive, movements like Theosophy, Transcendentalism, and Occultism gained ground, and promoted the values of eastern spirituality over western materialism. Theosophy was among the most popular, spreading internationally in the late nineteenth century through the work of scholars such as Max Müller, and the leadership of Henry Steel Olcott, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Besant. These theosophists elevated ancient civilizations to a utopian world, a counterpoint to the turmoil, change and scientific scepticism marking the urban landscape of Europe and America. Of particular interest were ancient Hindu beliefs, specifically those from the Vedic period and scriptures, that offered westerners hope of curing contemporary ills, of reinvigorating European culture through contact with the more benign faiths of Eastern cultures.

There is a brief mention at the end that “These theosophical beliefs led to the revival of the so-called classical dance of India, known as Bharatnatyam,” though no reference to the work of Rukmini Devi, a theosophist and sister of N. Sri Ram, President of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, who helped Indian dance gain its respectability as an art form, and whose school, Kalashetra, started in 1936 on the Adyar campus of the Theosophical Society, brought together performers, musicians, and designers. Rukmini Devi’s work is documented in two large volumes of photographs by C. Nachiappan (now Koviloor Swami) published by Kalashetra Publications, 2003, Rukmini Devi Bharata Natya and Rukmini Devi Dance Drama.

The entire thesis, “‘I Mean to Win’: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siècle,” can be read here.