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.

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