Thursday, March 29, 2012

T. Subba Row and Blavatsky

N. C. Ramanujachary announces in a March 25, 2012, post from Adyar, Chennai, India, that his 1993 monograph on T. Subba Row, the South Indian Vendantin scholar and early member of the Theosophical Society, A Lonely Disciple, can be accessed online. He writes

T. Subba Row (1856-90) was an earlier member of the Theosophical Society. He was greatly impressed by the work of Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, and entered into correspondence with her. His article “The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac” was written and published in the monthly journal The Theosophist, well before he formally joined as a member. He was instrumental for the visit of the Founders to Madras (now Chennai) and the formulation of the Society’s policies later on.

Having traced his Life and Work in a span of few years (1881-90) in two slim volumes, viz. “A Lonely Disciple” and “An Enduring Philosopher”, I am now working on his Ten Letters to his associates and am also attempting to abridge his “Lectures on Bhagavad-Gita”, which hopefully will be ready during the current year. His writings and philosophy need a close, insightful look.

photo of T. Subba Row courtesy of Michael Gomes

Further information on T Subba Row is provided by Henk Spierenburg in the Introduction to his edition of the T. Subba Row Collected Writings. His death was ascribed to an occult malignancy.

What is Enlightenment?

The blog Innerlight and Innersound, which posts a great deal from the Indian guru Osho, has a piece by him, where in the process of knocking some other gurus, he adds this

Madame Blavatsky used to play the same trick upon the Theosophists, and great Theosophists like Colonel Olcott and others were deceived. It was found out only later on that she had managed it through a servant; a servant used to hide on the roof. Just think... the roof of Buddha Hall and a sannyasin hiding there, and in the middle of the discourse a letter drops! And Madame Blavatsky used to claim that these letters had come from divine Masters, particularly from Master K. H., Kuthumi, who is the head of all the Masters, who is a direct mediator between God and the earth. Only later on did the servant confess before the court that he was hiding on the roof where there was a small place from which to drop the letters, and those letters were written by Madame Blavatsky herself. And then the experts on writing found out that that was true -- all the letters were written by Blavatsky herself.

Osho (aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) may have been wise in many things but in this piece of recounting of Blavatsky’s life he is misguided. “Kuthumi, who is the head of all the Masters, who is a direct mediator between God and the earth,” when no one other than Osho ever claimed such a thing, especially since the same “Kuthumi” wrote that “neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all in one whose pronoun necessitates a capital H.”

“Only later on did the servant confess before the court that he was hiding on the roof where there was a small place from which to drop the letters, and those letters were written by Madame Blavatsky herself.” It makes a juicy story but not much else. No one confessed anything in any court of law.

“And then the experts on writing found out that that was true -- all the letters were written by Blavatsky herself,” when, actually, the reverse is true about the Mahatma letters.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blavatsky and Philadelphia

“A Castle Of The Occult On Rittenhouse Square,” a March 23, 2012, post by John Vidumsky at Hidden City Philadelphia , offers a beautiful slideshow of the building owned by the United Lodge of Theosophists in Philadelphia. The piece also looks at Mme. Blavatsky’s stay in Philadelphia from November 1874 when she came to investigate the case of the Holmes mediums.

She quickly discovered that the Holmeses were con artists, but felt compelled at first to defend them anyway. Blavatsky had misgivings about popular Spiritualism, but was far more worried about the spread of skepticism. If Spiritualism was discredited, she feared that the public would lose faith in the existence of the soul and the afterlife. In early January 1875, a newspaper reported proof that Katie King [the spirit manifested by the Holmeses], at least, was a hoax. Despite this, Blavatsky, along with her friend, the famous journalist Henry Steel Olcott, defended the Holmeses in a series of fiery articles.

By May, Blavatsky despaired that the public had lost faith in Spiritualism, thanks to the Holmeses’ antics. So, too, had Blavatsky. Though bedridden with a gangrenous knee, she wrote and published a series of articles criticizing Spiritualism. She denounced it for meddling with dangerous spirits and also for missing the point: the spiritual side of life should be studied, she argued, not made into a carnival attraction. More importantly, in a stream of letters, she laid out the basic tenants of Theosophy. It seems that Blavatsky’s disgust over the Katie King affair had spurred her to break with Spiritualism and lay out her own system.

Over a century after its founding Theosophy is still with us, and has spread all over the world. The New Age movement, based heavily on Theosophy, is more popular than ever. And Madam Blavatsky is still a figure of reverence today. At 1917 Walnut Street, her portrait dominates the lobby with its penetrating gaze. “She’s our teacher,” says Royce Pochos [a ULT associate there], “and she left us what we needed.”

“New Yorkers Get a New Look at Madame Blavatsky”

Under this heading the Spring 2012 issue of the Quest magazine from the Theosophical Society in America contains an account of the program at the Rubin Museum in New York in January on “Tibet and the Occult.” Mitch Horowitz, the author of Occult America, who was one of the presenters, writes:

An evening devoted to Blavatsky’s life attracted a sold-out crowd to New York’s Rubin Museum of Art in January. The Rubin, a world center for art of the Himalayas, sponsored the event as part of its current exhibit on “Occult Tibet,” which explores how images and ideas of Tibet—both fanciful and serious—journeyed to America.

Historian Michael Gomes and I discussed Blavatsky’s life and work before an audience that overflowed the Rubin’s more than 150-capacity theater. Gomes spoke about the legacy of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine and about his abridgement and annotation of the work in a new edition from Tarcher/Penguin. In particular, he noted similarities between developments in contemporary astronomical science and Blavatsky’s cosmology.

Gomes also covered the controversy surrounding the Masters and the question of Blavatsky’s travels in Tibet. Amid these debates, we explained, Blavatsky is rarely framed as a figure of spiritual seriousness, which obfuscates her legacy. Gomes saw the possibility of this changing in the present era, suggesting that we may be in the midst of a “Blavatsky revival.”

The issue also contains a guide to the historical archives at the American Section headquarters at Wheaton, Illinois, where it states that “during our 2012 Summer National Gathering, scholar Michael Gomes will be conducting a workshop on how to write a lodge history.”

Baron Ensor and Blavatsky

A recent post at the blog The World According to Mrs B reminds us that John Gheeraert’s book on the Belgian artist James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor, De geheime wereld van James Ensor [The Secret World of James Ensor], is still unavailable in English. “I think it should be translated because it recounts a very interesting period in Ensor’s life while Blavatsky was in Ostend writing her Secret Doctrine (published in 1888) and, according to Gheeraert, he was fascinated with her and her ideas. The book does teeter on the edge of fiction as it is not a full-blown biography, but still some interesting stuff.”

The author Gheeraart says: ‘The key to Ensor’s secret lies in his Brussels period. There he got into contact with the famous freethinker Ernest Rousseaux. I further discovered that the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky, between 1886 and 1887, lived a year in Ostend and wrote her “Secret Doctrine,” the bible of the theosophists, there. My research showed that Ensor, in his most creative period, much of the esoteric works were derived from Blavatsky. But Ensor was also friends with famous Asia-traveler, Alexandra David-Neel. She also spent some time in Ostend. I discovered such totally unexpected sources that provided insights about a painter whose life is usually seen as ‘boring’.

Ensor (1860–1949), a major figure in the Belgian avant-garde, noted for his use of colour, spent most of his life in Ostend.

James Sidney Edouard, Baron Ensor
Self-Portrait with Masks, 1899

Blavatsky News

* A draft of a paper by Marco Deyasi, “Community Without Borders: Symbolism, Theosophy, and Anti-Colonialism in France, c. 1890,” has been posted on the University of Idaho website. While Deyasi, who is an art historian at the University of Idaho, has done much reading in the French journals of the period, some of his assumptions are off, such as “Mme Blavatsky claimed that she had been contacted from the afterlife by two ancient Asian sages who revealed their wisdom to her,” which she never claimed. In fact, quite the opposite, she steadfastly maintained that her teachers were living men.

Saying, “She maintained that the world’s religions were fundamentally the same and that universal precepts could be revealed through wide-ranging study,” is really not correct. Her belief is that there was an ancient universal wisdom religion that modern religions are distortions of, though containing at their core a commonality, not that they “were fundamentally the same.” Sigh.

* The latest issue of the Toronto Journal of Theology, Volume 28, no. 1, has an informative article on “Theosophical Influences on the Painting and Writing of Lawren Harris: Re-Imagining Theosophy through Canadian Art” by Michael Stoeber.

Stoeber’s paper explores the nature and role of theosophical ideas in the visual art and writings of Lawren Harris (1885–1970), a prominent painter in Canada and the United States. “It clarifies and analyzes the way in which he drew upon theosophical theory in relating art to spiritual transformation and liberation, and in the development of his views of the soul, the artistic process, and intuitive and mystical experiences. It also illustrates how theosophical beliefs and ideas influenced and informed some of Harris’s paintings.” Harris became a member of the Toronto Lodge of the Theosophical Society in 1924, and their brand of Theosophy leaned heavily toward Blavatsky.

* The Smart Set, the online magazine covering culture and ideas, arts and science, global and national affairs from Drexel University, charts Henry Steel Olcott’s journey toward becoming the most notable Western Buddhist of his time. In “The Man from New Jersey,” Stefany Anne Golberg notes

Unlike Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott wasn’t particularly mystical. The Theosophical Society was much more interesting to Olcott as a platform for humanitarian causes and for the genuine study of life in all its natural, religious, scientific, and miscellaneous facets. But it was Blavatsky who got Olcott thinking about Eastern religions as well as the occult. And when he learned of Buddhism, it was a revelation.

Golberg’s piece draws a comment from Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Ninth Panchen Lama

An English translation of part of Fabienne Jagou’s research on the Panchen Lamas is now available. The Ninth Panchen Lama (1883-1937): A Life at the Crossroads of Sino-Tibetan Relations has been published by the the École Française d’extrême-Orient of Paris in conjunction with Silkworm Books of Chiang Mai, Thailand. The translation by Rebecca Bissett Buechel serves Ms. Jagou’s style well, for it manages within its mass of details to tell the story of its subject, Lozang Chöki Nyima Gélèk Namgryel. Jagou succeeds in providing enough background on the lineage of the Panchen Lamas and their influence during this time to put it into context.

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Panchen Lamas, whose reputation was equal to or surpassed that of the Dalai Lamas, took a growing role in the political life of Tibet, particularly as the Manchus and British increasingly made contact with them. The premature deaths of the Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Dalai Lamas combined with numerous intrigues of unscrupulous regents amplified this phenomenon. As a result, Tashilhunpo [the seat of the Panchen Lamas] enjoyed relative autonomy up until the beginning of the twentieth century, made possible by several factors: the distance between Shigatse and Lhasa; the monastery’s large holdings of arable land, which guaranteed enough agricultural production to establish its economic power base; the tax exemption it seemed to benefit from; and, finally, the high esteem and caution that foreign powers (Manchu and British) maintained towards the lineage of the Panchen Lamas.

A number of appendices clarify matters like the ecclesiastical lineages and successions of the Panchen Lamas (Jagrou follows the Tashilhunpo system of enumeration), the political role of the Panchen Lamas, a useful chronology of the Ninth Panchen Lama’s life, along with Tibetan spellings and Chinese sinography.

What is not told is the interaction of the Panchen Lama with the European community in Beijing during his stay there in 1925. Alice Leighton Cleather, a member of Blavatsky’s Inner Group, travelled to Beijing to meet him and secured an invitation to join him when he returned to Tashilhunpo, where Mrs. Cleather believed H.P.B. had studied. The Panchen Lama’s death in 1937 en route to their place of rendezvous put an end to these plans and Mrs. Cleather returned to India where she died in Darjeeling in 1938.

Though Fabienne Jagou does not mention Blavatsky in the text, a result of Cleather’s meeting with the Panchen Lama appears in the bibliography. Under Blavatsky, the edition of The Voice of the Silence, edited by Cleather and published by Chinese Buddhist Research Society in 1927, is listed. Mrs. Cleather writes in her editorial foreword that “part of the work we undertook at his request for Buddhism was the present reprint, as the only true exposition in English of the Heart Doctrine of the Mahayana and its noble ideal of self-sacrifice for humanity.” It includes a brief text written by the Ninth Panchen Lama for the book, which can be seen in a previous post.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Headline of the Year (so far)

For those not in the know, Torquay is one of England’s small towns on its south coast. It has also been the butt of many jokes. Kevin Dixon’s “Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Torquay’s forgotten Stephen King, and the man who brought you Bovril” puts the spotlight on the town again by reminding us that Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) lived and died there. He gives an account of Bulwer-Lytton’s fame, while exercising a certain restraint:

Edward certainly had an in-depth knowledge of the occult and he included esoteric ideas in his work. This earned him the respect of the leading figures of the nineteenth century occult revival. Consequently, a number of societies claiming hidden knowledge have seen him as one of their own. He has been suggested as a member of, amongst others, the Rosicrucians, Theosophists and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Debate continues over how close he actually was to these groups.

One of his most popular excursions into the occult was Vril, the Power of the Coming Race (1871). This novel contributed to the birth of the science fiction genre - HG Wells was impressed and it has been quoted as the first of a dystopian tradition of oppressive future societies that led to George Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World.

It relates the story of a race of subterranean super beings waiting to reclaim the surface of the earth from the human race. It also features a source of energy called ‘Vril’, a force that can be used to heal, change, and destroy.

Oddly, some readers believed that its accounts were fact rather than fiction. For example, Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, claimed that Edward derived the idea of Vril from ancient Indian writings.

The rest of this piece of local history can be read at the site, This is South Devon. Bulwer-Lytton’s son was Viceroy of India during part of HPB’s stay there. Torquay was also the home of the writer Agatha Christie, who lived most of her life there.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Blavatsky Revealed?

Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement (Boca Raton, Florida: Brown Walker Press, $29.95 USD), published earlier this year, suffers from an unfortunate title, for the book is more about Mme. Blavatsky and explaining her escapades than the movement itself, as the era covered is limited to her lifespan. No doubt the book will find favour with Lavoie’s congregation, Calvary Baptist Church in Hanson, Massachusetts, where he is Senior Pastor. But why anyone else would want to buy a book that paints its subject as such a conniver, other than a select group of researchers who already know the material Lavoie has pulled from, is not clear.

Though he cites a vast number of sources the book offers nothing really new except his conclusion: “the author feels completely justified in claiming that the Theosophical Society remained completely inclusive and accessible to Spiritualists from the years 1875-1891 and could in fact have considered a Spiritualist organization during this time.” But an organization that styled itself as one that welcomed all regardless of race, creed, caste, sex or colour, could hardly discriminate against allowing membership to any particular group, so this is something of a non-issue. Nor is there any follow up on this idea, for if this was the case, as the writer suggests, and the early Theosophical Society was simply another Spiritualist group, was this concept maintained or rejected by theosophical organizations after Blavatsky’s death?

The book’s main contribution is in the chapter, “Spiritualists who Critiqued Theosophy,” which assembles the charges brought against Blavatsky by some of her main opponents: Arthur Lillie, “an elusive figure that history has nearly forgotten,” W. E. Coleman, Richard Hodgson (who is brought in as a Spiritualist because of his later interest though his report on Blavatsky is skimmed over), Emma H. Britten, and even Alfred Wallace, though Wallace’s early interest in the subject waned as his stature in the scientific world increased. Perhaps because of this, Lavoie believes that an 1878 letter from Wallace to Blavatsky acknowledging the receipt of Isis Unveiled and commenting on the “vast amount of erudition displayed in them” is a forgery, though by whom or for what purpose is not explained nor the seeming audacity of the Theosophists who published the letter in 1905 when Wallace was still alive.

Theosophists and students of Blavatsky’s writings will be surprised to hear the early Theosophical movement defined as a Spiritualist organization in spite of Blavatsky’s strictures about contacting the dead, which is one of her defining ideas.