Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Visionary Travels of Madame Blavatsky

Gananath Obeyesekere’s new book, The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience, just out from Columbia University Press, represents a paradigm shift in academic writing about Mme. Blavatsky. Obeyesekere, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and author of many other books, places Blavatsky in the context of the visionary experience, ranging from the Buddha to Christian mystics, from Blake to Blavatsky to Jung. In doing this, his book (at over 600 pages) functions as a Varieties of Religious Experience for the 21st century.

Recently, cross-philosophical knowledge has begun to make its appearance in a world where boundaries are gradually being effaced, but Western philosophical knowledge still dominates the world’s intellectual scene. And, when it comes to visionary thought in the West, we are posed with an immediate roadblock owing to the entrenchment of rationality, which discourages it. The European visionaries that I mention here unfortunately constitute at best a minor or neglected philosophical tradition.…Implicit in this book is a plea to open our minds to forms of intuitive understanding rather than shut the door on them. If that were to happen, Western thought might not only be receptive to the epistemological thinking of Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, but they might also be able to enrich their own philosophical and scientific traditions by opening themselves to the varied forms of visionary and intuitive thinking that appear in this essay.

His chapter, “Theosophies,” offers a retelling of Blavatsky’s life story worked into the framing of the visionary experience: “The Visionary Travels of Madame Blavatsky: Countering Enlightenment Rationality,” the significance of her production of psychic phenomena, “Colonel Olcott and the Return to Euro-rationality,” the nature of her teachers, and even a segment on Damodar Mavalankar, whom Obeyesekere believes perished in the Himalayas seeking his teacher.

While believing her teachers M and KH to be “‘composite images,’” that is a fusion of known and imagined persons found in dream images and normal memories,” he disagrees with Paul Johnson's explanation:

Johnson, in The Masters Revealed, makes the point that the so-called masters were real people whom Blavatsky had met and fictionalized in her writings. I find this an implausible hypothesis and a product of a simplistic empiricism that, in spite of Johnson’s sympathetic treatment of Blavatsky, effectively puts her in the company of charlatans and frauds.

H.P. Blavatsky in 1880

Interesting Articles, Links and Other Media continues it presentation of extracts from Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves relating to phenomena in the early theosophical movement. The years 1879-1883 in India have been done, there is a piece on A.P. Sinnett and his book, The Occult World, and now the years 1883-1887 are looked at. The post on Sinnett is graced with this photograph of H.P. Blavatsky credited as taken in Ceylon in 1880. In Blavatsky Collected Writings, volume 2, facing page 400, it is given just as H.P. Blavatsky in 1880, crediting the archives of the Theosophical Society at Adyar as its source. And since Blavatsky News needs little excuse to upload photographs of Blavatsky, especially one of the more unknown, here it is:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Blavatsky’s “Precipitated” Portraits

Mark Russell Bell continues his look at some of the phenomena attributed to Blavatsky. In a February 12 post on his blog Interesting Articles, Links and Other Media he describes her ability to produce pictures phenomenally. He gives three examples: the creation of a portrait of the British medium W. Stainton Moses, one of Chevalier Louis, the attributed author of the 1876 book Art Magic, and the portrait of an Indian yogi. His accounts are taken from Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves, but those who are not familiar with the original book may find it of interest.

Olcott describes how the portrait of the yogi, called Tiruvala by H.P.B., was produced in New York in December 1877:

Judge asked H. P. B. if she would not make somebody’s portrait for us. As we were moving towards the writing-room, she asked him whose portrait he wished made, and he chose that of this particular yogi, whom we knew by name as one held in great respect by the Masters. She crossed to my table, took a sheet of my crested club-paper, tore it in halves, kept the half which had no imprint, and laid it down on her own blotting paper. She then scraped perhaps a grain of the plumbago of a Faber lead pencil on it, and then rubbed the surface for a minute or so with a circular motion of the palm of her right hand; after which she handed us the result. On the paper had come the desired portrait and, setting wholly aside the question of its phenomenal character, it is an artistic production of power and genius.

The inscription reads “Ghostland or Land of the Living Brotherhood of T—Which?” The part showing the beard was damaged in India when a member there tried to use an eraser on the picture to test the quality of the artwork.

An extensive representation of Blavatsky’s work in this area, unique to her stay in America, can be found in John Patrick Deveney’s “H.P. Blavatsky as ‘Spirit Painter,’” a paper presented at the Works and Influence of H.P. Blavatsky Conference held at Edmonton in 1998 and published in their Conference papers.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement

When The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement was published in 1987 theosophical history was a neglected area of academic study and had received scant appraisal. The book helped usher in a renaissance of interest in the subject. Though it is still unsurpassed, there are now numerous academic publications relating to the matter. Commemorating the book’s quarter century of existence, the Theosophical Society in America will be hosting a live webcast with its author Michael Gomes on February 16 at 7 PM CST.

The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement brought together a mass of documents related to the founding of the movement, and has proved an enduring resource for the period. Its impact is still being felt and it continues to be cited: a recent example being Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience just published by Columbia University Press, which contains a chapter on Blavatsky along which other visionaries (and which will be reviewed in a subsequent post).

Gomes will talk about “the function of esoteric history, the use of tradition and lineage, and additional discoveries he’s made about the subject since 1987.” As the blurb for the event notes: “He is one of today’s most respected writers on esoteric movements, as well known to readers of occult and esoteric literature as to students and scholars of modern religion.”

Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945

The Toronto Theosophical Society was one of the most notable of the Theosophical groups, and Gillian McCann’s forthcoming book, Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945, due in May from Mcgill-Queen’s University Press in Canada, tells the story of this group “that introduced Victorian Toronto to Eastern thought and theology, vegetarianism, reincarnation, cremation, and the pacifism of Mohandas Gandhi.”

Vanguard of the New Age unearths a largely ignored dimension of Canadian religious history. Members of the Toronto Theosophical Society were among the first in Canada to apply Eastern philosophy to the social justice issues of the period - from poverty and religious division to the changing role of women in society. Among the most radical and culturally creative movements of their time, the Theosophists called for a new social order based on principles of cooperation and creativity. Intrigued by this compelling vision of a new age, luminaries such as members of the Group of Seven, feminist Flora MacDonald Denison, Emily Stowe, and anarchist Emma Goldman were drawn to the society.

Meticulously researched and compellingly written, this careful reconstruction preserves Theosophist founder Albert Smythe’s dream of a culturally distinct, egalitarian, and religiously pluralist nation. Gillian McCann is assistant professor in the Religions and Cultures Department at Nipissing University.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blavatsky News

* Interesting Articles, Links and Other Media, Mark Russell Bell’s blog, for February 5, 2012, culls a number of accounts from Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves to give a picture of Phenomena and Madame H. P. Blavatsky. “Olcott commented about HPB: ‘. . . she was from the first and continued to the end an insoluble riddle . . . On the hypothesis that she was a medium for the Great Teachers, only that and nothing more, then the riddle is easy to read . . . .’”

* “H.P.B. Was the Thread Linking the Ancient Eastern Wisdom to the Outer World,” so says N. C. Ramanujachary, a long-standing member of the Theosophical Society who lives in Chennai, India, in an article posted online.

She was, decidedly, the thread (Sutratma) of the Ancient Eastern Wisdom to the World and her work needs to be continued untarnished and undistorted. She was a facet of the attempts made by the Masters of the Wisdom, century after century, for the upheaval of Spirituality among humanity. The Wisdom made available to us, though a part of the whole, needs assimilation so that we become eligible to receive the further lessons.

Mr. Ramanujachary is the author of A Lonely Disciple, a monograph on the Indian chela T. Subba Row.

* Paul Johnson reprints an interview with him from a Greek theosophical publication. In response to the question: Since the publication of your book The Masters Revealed have you find [sic] more evidences to sustain the hypotheses that Ranbir Singh, Maharaja of Kashmir was Master Morya and Sirdar Takar Singh Sandhanwalia- founder of the Singh Sabba (Punjabi ally of the T.S.) -was K.H.”, he now says:

It would be more correct to state that Ranbir Singh and Thakar Singh were respectively prototypes for M. and K.H. rather than that they were these individuals. They correspond in some details to the portrayals of these Mahatmas, and no other plausible candidates have emerged since my books were published. But the nature of the evidence is such that any conclusive identifications are probably impossible.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ferdinand Schirren and Blavatsky

An exhibition on the Belgian painter and sculptor Ferdinand Schirren (1872-1944) is on view at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels until March 2012. The catalogue for the exhibition states that “Schirren, whose work is well represented in the Royal Museums’ holdings, is considered to be the first Belgian Fauve.”

His major work, completed early in his career, is a head of Helena P. Blavatsky, a crucial figure in the Theosophical movement. This astonishingly expressive portrait, acquired in 2007, is unique in Schirren’s multi-faceted sculptural output, and visitors will be able to discover it during the show. The Blavatsky bust is in a monumental vein, and could be understood as an interpretation that incorporates aspects of the fin-de-siècle Theosophical movement. However, Schirren’s abrupt shift to painting and drawing in 1904 introduces us to an early 20th century artist who gave pride of place to colour, which he used to render forms. By 1906, working in the quiet of the Brabant countryside, he succeeded in creating work reminiscent of the 1905 watercolours by Matisse, Manguin and Camoin.

Ferdinand Schirren’s  Portrait of Madame Blavatsky, 1898

Count Witte

Anders Björnsson’s review of Francis W. Wcislo’s biography of HPB’s nephew Count Witte, Tales of Imperial Russia, in volume 4 ( 2011) of Baltic World, the quarterly journal and news magazine from the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) Södertörn University, Stockholm, is now online. Headed “On the desirability of industrial capitalism and autocracy. A Russian road to modernization,” it gives a succinct overview of Witte’s professional accomplishments in Russian politics. The review notes

he had obvious intellectual inclinations — an aunt of his had written noted novels in the first half of the 19th century and Elena Blavatskaia, later active abroad as the famous theosophical guru (“Madame Blavatsky”) who could make the spirits talk and tables dance, was his cousin. In other words: he knew how to behave in the drawing room.

Our notice of the book from last year can be read here.

Modern Western Magic and Theosophy

The Volume 12, Number 1 (2012) issue of Aries, the “Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism,” publishes an article by Gregory Tillett on “Modern Western Magic and Theosophy.” Tillett argues that

The influence of the Theosophical Society on the development of modern Western esotericism can hardly be overestimated. Both directly and indirectly Theosophy functioned as a catalyst and resource for almost everything in the Western esotericism, which followed the publication of the teachings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875. While the influence of theosophy on Western esotericism is well documented, it is seen less often as a precursor of western magic. Although Blavatsky who provided what might be regarded as the underlying esoteric philosophy, ritual magic yielded to Charles Webster Leadbeater's (1854-1934) more practical, and actually more popular and more palatable, explanations of how and why they might be effective. His assertion that ritual magic is not just symbolic or psychological but caused a real transformation of the participants and the outside world has influenced most modern ritual magic texts and groups, and there is clearly apparent. It is a Theosophical influence, but not one that Blavatsky, the Theosophical or organizations which are often called ‘Neo-Theosophy’, refuse to recognize, would.

Violet Tweedale’s copy of The Secret Doctrine

The Hermetic Library Blog provides the following facsimiles of pages from an 1888 edition of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. The set, described as “A unique autographed association copy belonging to Violet Tweedale [1862-1936] with copious fascinating and erudite marginalia in pencil,” includes the Third Volume and the index issued at the time. “Tweedale, a British author, was a close associate of H.P.B., an initiate of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and a respected psychic. Tweedale herself published over 30 books on spiritualist subjects. Her comments should be of great interest to scholars in the field of esoterica generally and Theosophy in particular.”

Tweedale’s copy, autographed by her and bearing her notations in The Secret Doctrine, is for sale on eBay.