Sunday, December 25, 2011

Blavatsky, Tibet and the Occult, Ctd

In connection with its exhibition, “Hero, Villain, Yeti,” illustrating our perceptions of Tibet as an occult place as conveyed through comic books, the Rubin Museum in New York will be offering a number of related talks and programs, including orchestrated scores based the exhibition’s themes, screenings of the 1937 and 1973 versions of Lost Horizon, and a discussion on January 18 with Michael Gomes and Mitch Horowitz on the extent of Madame Blavatsky’s contribution to the appreciation of Eastern ideas.

The program notes: A source of both inspiration and scandal, Madame Blavatsky’s interpretation of Asian philosophies provided to be a fundamental turning point in the West’s approach to the ‘mysteries’ of the East. Here contemporary writers discuss Blavatsky’s influence and the origins of the occult in America.

Ticket includes a tour at 6:15 p.m. of the exhibition Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics, in which Helena Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine is on display, as are Madame Blavatsky, Medium & Magician by John Seymour and The Morning of the Magicians: Secret Societies, Conspiracies and Vanished Civilizations by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier. There will be a book-signing session after the program.

Michael Gomes is the author of numerous works on Blavatsky and Mitch Horowitz is the author of Occult America: White Séances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation, published in 2010. Having researched the subject so thoroughly, no doubt they have thought deeply on this matter and will have some insight to share.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blavatsky, Tibet and the Occult

The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City recently opened an exhibition, “Hero, Villain, Yeti,” which traces the image of Tibet through one of the most popular mediums of our time: comic books. The collection, which is on view from December 9, 2011 to June 11, 2012, is curated by Martin Brauen. According to the catalog notes:

Characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse, the historical Buddha, Tomb Raider Lara Croft, and the Green Lama have something in common: Tibet. For more than sixty years Tibet has figured in comic books from around the world, at times creating and at times perpetuating notions of an otherworldly land roamed by the yeti, inhabited by wise and powerful lamas, or full of dark magic.

Hero, Villain, Yeti features the most complete collection of comics related to Tibet ever assembled, with examples ranging from the 1940s to the present. More than fifty comic books from the Belgium, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, and the United States reflect on the depiction of Tibet, tracing the historical roots of prevailing perceptions and stereotypes and their visual and narrative evolution over time.

Brauen was the curator of the 2000 exhibition, Dreamworld Tibet, in Zurich, and a beautifully illustrated book based on it was published in English in 2004. His feelings about Blavatsky are summed up in a December 11th interview with him in Salon:

Another person who influenced our notion of Tibet very much was a half-Russian lady called Helena Blavatsky. She was the founder of the Theosophical Society, and she had quite weird ideas about Tibet (for instance, she claimed she had been in Tibet, which is quite clearly not true). She said she had telepathic relationships with two so-called Mahatmas — sages living in Tibet — and that they would tell her what to do. Interestingly, these two Mahatmas were not Tibetans, but were Indians of Aryan origin. This is a subject that comes up in many comics again: a superhero or a “lama” who is very powerful, but in most cases — actually in all cases — is not Tibetan but white.

The segment of his book dealing with the influence of Mme. Blavatsky on our imaging of Tibet is online. Dr. Brauen comes down on the side of those who believe that she never went to Tibet and that her knowledge of its religion was a distortion. His reasoning can be seen here. Yet two of the highest religious figures of Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen and the Dalai Lama, have penned forewords to editions of her book The Voice the Silence, ethical injunctions used by the school she claimed to have belonged to.

In the foreword to the centenary edition of Blavatsky’s Voice the Silence the Dalai Lama wrote: “I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path.”

And Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, a prodigious translator of Tibetan texts, including the Tibetan Book of the Dead, was of the 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.”

So, we suppose, it is a matter of whose opinion carries more weight. Though it may be just a difference of perspective. In Europe and America Indic and Tibetan studies have been textually based; proficiency was shown by one’s ability to learn a language in one’s discipline, and translate a text.
Blavatsky was among the first to go to the countries she wrote about and study their philosophies as they were lived and practiced. As another traveler through that area, Alexandra David-Neel (whose narratives of her Tibetan journey were at first questioned by the experts of her time) wrote: “Who knows the flower best—the one who reads about it in a book, or the one who finds it wild on the mountainside?

Of course, it should be noted that Blavatsky never claimed that the esoteric school that she belonged to represented orthodox Tibetan Buddhism. “Our Mahatmas…are neither ‘Hermits’ (now), for they are done with their ‘practice’ of Yoga; nor ‘Wanderers,’ nor ‘Monks,’ since they tolerate, but would never practice, exoteric, or popular, Buddhist rites.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Misinformation Files

With alarming regularity people seem to feel the need to write about and interpret the life of H.P. Blavatsky. It only takes a few sentences to show an unfamiliarity with the subject. In a recent post about “Madame Blavatsky and the New Age” at the site Unexplained Mysteries, William B. Stoecker writes:

She claimed to have occult powers, but the Society for Psychical Research claimed to have exposed her as a fraud,” and, “she said that she met her ‘ascended master’ in London when she was twenty.” Both statements are untrue. The Society for Psychical Research never “claimed” such a thing (as Leslie Price, a long time member of the SPR, has written: “any writer or speaker who says the S.P.R exposed Madame Blavatsky is only exposing his own ignorance”). And Blavatsky never used the term “ascended master.”

Such statements can be credited to a too ready reliance on second hand sources, but what is one to make of this: “she also claimed that the bringer of enlightenment was a spirit called Lucifer; the name literally means ‘light bearer,’ but Christians believe that this refers to Satan, a bringer of a false enlightenment,” which certainly is a misrepresentation of her ideas?

And then this gets thrown in for good measure: “Some researchers also claim that Hitler was personally influenced by Blavatsky, and kept a copy of The Secret Doctrine near him at all times. This, too, is impossible to verify.” Nothing is harder to verify than a fact. But any “researcher” who makes such a claim is writing fiction not providing factual evidence. It shows a remarkable naivety not only for what happened to theosophists and Blavatsky’s writings under the Third Reich but also about the nature of Blavatsky’s work (as if it can be boiled down to the use of a swastika).

This latest contribution to Blavatsky studies ends with: “But of course, Madame Blavatsky can hardly be held responsible for what even some of her followers did after her death, let alone a woman [Alice Bailey] who was expelled from the society. So we are left pretty much where we started: Blavatsky was an ambiguous person, probably something of a charlatan, but not necessarily evil. Yet, overall, her legacy has been a destructive one.” So, let’s see if we get this piece of logic right: the Gospels portray Jesus as saying many exemplary things but because the churches created things like the Inquisition we are accurate in saying:
Yet, overall, her [His] legacy has been a destructive one. Right?

No one is denying the ability of people to pen such things but asking us to take them seriously is another matter.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Olcott Honored

Col. Henry Steel Olcott has been much in the news this season. A life-size statue was raised on the grounds of the New Jersey Buddhist Vihara near Princeton (though Olcott was born in Orange New Jersey) on September 10. The member of the American Congress for this district, Rush Holt, in his greeting noted: “Although British rule limited options for Sri Lankans, Clonel Olcott’s schools made it possible for students to seek strong academic instruction while learning and practicing their faith. It is a tribute to Colonel Olcott’s commitment to culture and the pursuit of knowledge that he is being honored today.

A souvenir booklet, Henry Steel Olcott and the Revival of Buddhist Education, was issued in connection with the event by the Ananda College Old Boys’ Association—EastCoast. At 85 pages it contains a number of contributions focusing on Olcott’s work in the development of education in Sri Lanka and features some attractive color photographs of the schools (now colleges) established by him. While many of the testimonials offer nothing new they show Olcott’s memory is still warm in the hearts of many Sri Lankans. Sunil J. Wimalawansa who has a piece in the collection has also issued a short monograph, The American who revived Buddhism in Asia: Legacy of Colonel Steel Olcott. At 84 pages, it is also benefited by some attractive color photographs.

This year’s Olcott Oration delivered November 12 at the Auditorium of Ananda College, Colombo, by Professor Chandana Wirasinghe, Founding Dean (Emeritus), Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary, Canada, on the “Role of the Individual in National Development - Ananda Can Show the Way”, received much coverage as it coincided with the 125th anniversary celebrations of Ananda College, founded by Col. Olcott. In his address Professor Wirasinghe looked at Olcott’s life and the lessons that could be drawn from it for today’s world. Blavatsky is mentioned briefly in passing: “He came under the influence of a Russian woman called Helena Blavatsky who claimed many super natural powers. More than a decade later, The Society for Psychical Research who investigated her called her an ‘imposter’.”

Of course, in this he is in error, as the Society for Psychical Research has always claimed that the responsibly for the report rests with the Committee that issued it and not the Society. Perhaps as a nod to his audience and alma mater, Professor Wirasinghe concludes: “Having studied Olcott’s life in some detail, from birth to death, I can say to you today that he had many accomplishments, but the establishment of Ananda College is without any doubt his greatest achievement.”

The Olcott Oration for 2011 is now online and can be read here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Certainty

African Athena: New Agendas is the title of a forthcoming book this December from Oxford University Press. It contains a number of articles by various authors, most dealing with the impact of Martin Bernal’s 1987 Black Athena. Chapter 18, “Lay in Egypt’s lap each borrowed crown’: Gerald Massey and Late-Victorian Afrocentrism,” by Brian H. Murray contains the following mention of Blavatsky:

Perhaps the most influential esoteric of the day, and another Egyptophile, was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder the Theosophical Society and self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Egyptian Goddess Isis. Blavatsky cited Massey twenty-four times in her esoteric epic the Secret Doctrine and wrote an appreciate letter to him in November 1887, claiming to have ‘read and re-read’ his lectures. Massey would have certainly been familiar with Massey’s work, which like his own, portrayed Christianity as a literalized pseudo-history based on earlier Gnostic philosophy. Though Massey contributed some review articles to the Theosophical magazine Lucifer, he wrote a series of letters to the same publication in 1888 criticizing an article by Blavatsky on the ‘Esoteric Character of the Gospels’. By the 1880s Blavatsky had moved from an Egyptocentric model of religion and was increasingly promoting Tibetan and Sanskrit texts as the purest form of divine wisdom.

Brian H. Murray is completing his doctoral dissertation at King’s College, London, but he will not have much credibility if he continues to promulgate fictions such as Blavatsky was a “self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the Egyptian Goddess Isis.”

And that “By the 1880s Blavatsky had moved from an Egyptocentric model of religion and was increasingly promoting Tibetan and Sanskrit texts as the purest form of divine wisdom,” when, in her first book, Isis Unveiled (which was the publisher’s title), from 1877, in the last chapter of volume 1, headed “India: the Cradle of the Race,” she writes: “we affirm that, if Egypt furnished Greece with her civilization, and the latter bequeathed hers to Rome, Egypt herself had, in those unknown ages when Menes reigned, received her laws, her social institutions, her arts and her sciences, from pre-Vedic India; and that therefore, it is in that old initiatrix of the priests—adepts of all the other countries—we must seek for the key to the great mysteries of humanity.”

And yet Blavatsky is the one ridiculed for shoddy methodology!

Blavatsky and Fiction, Ctd

Spiritualism, Science and Suspense: Theosophy and the Supernatural Adventure Story is the subject of a recently completed PhD dissertation by Richard Michael Caputo at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Caputo states:

With Darwin’s publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859, the validity of the three major Western religions was called into serious question by science. In the wake of the scientific progress, made at breakneck speed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, it seemed as if science and spirituality were increasingly becoming mutually exclusive. However, Theosophy, a hybrid science-religion founded by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875, sought to reconcile science and the supernatural by using the former to explain the latter. For Blavatsky, the miraculous and the paranormal did not defy scientific explanation; they simply could not be explained through a contemporary understanding of science. Blavatsky’s Theosophy was predicated on belief in a secret knowledge, known to ancient civilizations but lost to modern man that represented a deep, true understanding of nature. When realized, this insight allowed for the accomplishment of the seemingly miraculous, not by magic but by science.

Theosophy’s influence on canonical, highbrow modernists such as James Joyce and W.B. Yeats is well known. However, its impact on the more widely read novelists of the day has been less studied and this dissertation in part fills that critical void. After an introduction to Blavatsky’s Theosophy, this project moves into a discussion of Dracula. An understanding of Theosophy provides new insight into the novel's conflict between science and the supernatural. It also provides a new way to view Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who embraces both the scientific and the unexplainable in much the same way Theosophy did. This project also includes a chapter on H. Rider Haggards most enduring literary creation, the femme fatale Ayesha. By examining, through the lens of Theosophy, all four Haggard novels in which “She” appears, I offer a new interpretation of this enigmatic character. Specifically, I argue that Ayesha is a fallen Theosophical adept. The final author included in this project is Marie Corelli, one of the worlds first bestselling authors. Much of her fiction seeks to reconcile spiritualist beliefs with traditional Christianity. She does so using science, and I argue that she borrows heavily from Blavatsky and Theosophy.

At 176 pages it runs a little thin.