Thursday, October 31, 2013

Radha Burnier Dead

The November 1st edition of the Indian newspaper The Hindu carries the news from Chennai of the passing of Radha Burnier on October 31st. Mrs. Burnier was President of the largest surviving block of the Theosophical Society, elected in 1980. She died on October 31 at 9 PM local time at the Adyar estate of the Theosophical Society. She was also head of Blavatsky’s Eastern (Esoteric) School of Theosophy, a role she assumed in 1978. Members of her Society will no doubt mourn her passing. She was Director of the Adyar Library from 1959 to 1980, as well as General Secretary of the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society. A graduate of Benares Hindu University, she was trained in the Indian dance form Bharatanatyam by her aunt Rukmini Devi Arundale, an example of which can be seen in her role in Jean Renoir’s 1951 film The River. The body will be on view in the Headquarters Hall at Adyar, though present monsoon conditions may delay cremation.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blavatsky and Buddhism

Princeton University Press announces “the most comprehensive and authoritative dictionary of Buddhism ever produced in English.” With more than 5,000 entries totaling over a million words, it claims to be “the first to cover terms from all of the canonical Buddhist languages and traditions: Sanskrit, Pāli, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Unlike reference works that focus on a single Buddhist language or school, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism bridges the major Buddhist traditions to provide encyclopedic coverage of the most important terms, concepts, texts, authors, deities, schools, monasteries, and geographical sites from across the history of Buddhism.”

The entry on Blavatsky is neutral, mentioning that “Two of her most important works are The Secret Doctrine (1888) and The Voice of the Silence (1889); these provide an account of, and commentary on, the theory of spiritual evolution that she is said to have discovered in the ancient Book of Dzyan, written in the secret language of Senzar. Although this text has not been found, nor the Senzar language identified, The Voice of the Silence has been considered to be a Buddhist text by some prominent figures within the modern Buddhist tradition.”

Blavatsky is also mentioned in entries on Olcott, Dharmapala, Gunananda, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, the Roerichs, and terms such as dewachen, a phonetic rendering of the Tibetan bde be chan (the Tibetan translation of Sukhavati), popularized by Blavatsky for the after-death state, and dhyanibuddha.

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism is the project of Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. and the hardcover book runs 1304 pages and is priced at $65.00 / £44.95. It updates and expands the Oxford University Press 2003 A Dictionary of Buddhism, which had 2,000 entries. An attempt has been made to reconstruct the Tibetan sources in Blavatsky’s writings and the results can be seen at the site Prajnaquest.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blavatsky News

*  Len Platt’s “Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy in Finnegans Wake: An Annotated List” published in the Winter 2008 James Joyce Quarterly gives over a hundred citations listing terms and concepts derived from Blavatsky’s writings in Joyce’s Wake. Platt, a Faculty Member at the University of London, believes that “Joyce understood theosophy not just as an insignificant absurdity that had a curious currency amongst Dublin’s Protestant intellectuals, but in a wider cultural context and as a symptomatic discourse of modernity.” 

[M]uch of the Wake material alluding to Hinduism and Sanskrit was likely to have come from Isis Unveiled and The Mahatma Letters, rather than original religious texts like The Upanishads. The half dozen or so allusions to ‘Maya’ in the Wake, for instance, need not indicate any serious familiarity with Hindu philosophy and could easily have been generated by Isis Unveiled. This has many references to Maya, and defines the concept quite neatly — ‘everything that bears a shape was created, and thus must sooner or later perish, i.e., change that shape; therefore, as something temporary, but seeming to be permanent, it is but an illusion, Maya’ [IU, I: 290.]

The paper can now be accessed online here.

*  The new issue of the research journal Theosophical History is out, dated April 2012. The main feature is an extensive examination of “Theosophy and Anthroposophy in Italy during the First Half of the Twentieth Century” by Marco Pasi. Dr. Pasi was part of the team behind the recent Enchanted Modernities Conference in Amsterdam, and, among other things, Associate Professor in Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam.

In the same issue Dr. Tim Rudbøg, Copenhagen, Denmark, gives an in-depth review of Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement coming to much the same conclusions as reached here. Taking issue with the misleading title (among other things) Rudbøg opines: “The reader is nowhere told that it is a highly specialized study limited to only one facet of the Theosophical Society or Blavatsky’s spiritual, intellectual life, The thesis of this book is no doubt historically interesting but the attempt to demonstrate it is so forcefully pressed that the end result is a historically one-sided perspective of the background, activities, sources and philosophy of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society.”

Theosophical History is edited by Dr. James Santucci and can be obtained here.

*  Recently eBay offered for sale a bronze medal depicting a representation of Blavatsky on one side and the seal of the Theosophical Society on the other. It sold for $55.00 US. Aside from what is written in Cyrillic, any further information would be helpful.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blavatsky as a Horror Writer, Ctd

Perhaps it’s the nature of the month, but Mme. Blavatsky’s occult fiction continues to gather attention. Paula Cappa looks at Blavatsky’s 1880 tale “The Ensouled Violin” expanded in her 1892 collection Nightmare Tales:

Mme. Blavatsky brings us a story full of musical mesmerism, and Paganini is a major character drawn in full color. Paganini’s reputation for becoming bewitched by the devil in exchange for his brilliant career holds the central theme. The Italian was revered for playing his Witches Dance “pizzicato” with the left hand directly on the gut strings—without the aid of the bow. Was his superior talent singularly human?

Blavatsky was a seductive storyteller. She became famous for being a philosopher, spiritualist, pioneer in the occult, one of the first people to coin the phrase the sixth sense, and  was co-founder of The Theosophical Society in 1875.

May I suggest, for an added appreciation of this very extraordinary short story, you listen to Paganini’s Witches Dance at Classical Music Online. What could be better than a classic horror story and a magnificent piece of classical music to complement the experience? Well, perhaps a glass of wine, preferably in a cut-glass goblet. Magnifico!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Blavatsky as a Horror Writer

Over at Monster Librarian, a site “dedicated to all the books that are creepy, scary, and give us the willies” that serves as a resource for readers and librarians on the subject of horror, Paula Cappa charts “The Literary Ladies of Horror’s Haunted Mountain.” Cappa points out that in a genre known for its male writers—Poe, James, LeFanu, Lovecraft, Stoker, King, to name a few—women played a part and made their own contribution. There was Mary Shelley, of course; but also Ann Radcliffe, “who tore open supernatural paths with The Mysteries of Udolpho as early as 1794. Radcliffe’s writing of suspense about castles and dark villains influenced Dumas, Scott, and Hugo.” 

By 1865, Amelia Edwards’ The Phantom Coach cut popular tracks across the haunted mountain. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky cleared the way for future women writers with her collection of nightmare tales, The Ensouled Violin, as did Elizabeth Gaskell with The Poor Clare, which deals with a family evil curse, complete with witches and ghosts.

Subsequent writers like Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, down to Anne Rice indicate that this was not just a trend.

A seminar paper by Nico Reiher for a 2009 Popular Literature in America course at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, takes up one of Blavatsky’s tales, “The Cave of the Echoes,” “a vivid and colorful piece of occult fiction that features mysterious settings, some bizarre characters and supernatural happenings,” and submits it to literary theory. His paper, Between Occult Fiction and the Promotion of Theosophical Ideas, published this month by GRIN Verlag, looks at whether the story’s purpose was “simply to entertain its readers or does it serve other functions such as the promotion of the author's theosophical ideas and ideology,”

Blavatsky’s occult fiction was collected and published after her death as Nightmare Tales, London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1892.

Blavatsky News

Gordon Strong who has written on Merlin, the Arthurian legends, the Holy Grail, Stone Circles, Tarot, Magic and the Qabalah will be releasing a new book on Dec 13, 2013: Lion of Light: The Spiritual Life of Madame Blavatsky. Published by Axis Mundi Books, the paperback of 142 pages will sell for £9.99 / $16.95. According to the publisher:

Madame Blavatsky was a pioneering woman, and not only as a traveller, writer and spiritual teacher. She was an inspiration to men and women around the world in Victorian times who desired to follow an independent path. In our own times, the New Age owes most of its spiritual knowledge to her. Blavatsky’s travels in Russia, India and Tibet; her absorbing of many different cultures and her personal magnetism, are the stuff of celebrated legend.

*  Col. Olcott is also the subject of a new biography, this one in Sinhalese by Jayantha Wijewickrama. Olcott Charithaya is reviewed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer by Arjuna Kurukulasuriya, who conveys the status of Olcott in Sri Lanka.

 Once I was travelling in an intercity bus where I happened to be the only passenger. The driver being in a relaxed and jovial mood, seeing the statue standing in front of the Fort railway station [Colombo, Sri Lanka], turned to the conductor and asked whose statue it was. Neither of them knew the answer. I intervened and said it is that of Olcott's. At least they knew who Olcott was. This is an indication that the memory of the great hero is gradually diminishing. Our memory of the hero is kept alive by several statues and places named after him. Therefore, writing a biography of the late Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is a timely endeavour by Jayantha Wijewickrama. Though most of us knew that Colonel Henry Steel Olcott was instrumental in opening several Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka, little is known about him, except for a few stories.

Enchanted Modernities: Blavatsky, the Aura and Colour Theory

Orélia Astraea Revol assesses the recent Enchanted Modernities Conference in her blog at the Ritman Library: “For three days last week Amsterdam was the epicentre for anyone interested in the relationship between the arts and anthroposophical and theosophical currents. From September 25th – 27th the international scholarly conference Enchanted Modernities – Theosophy, Modernism & the Arts took place on two locations, the Singelkerk and Doelenzaal, bringing together more than 150 bright minds working in the fields of art, scholarship and Western esotericism.”

The piece, “Enchanted Modernities – Some Thought-Forms on the Metaphysical in Art,” provides a useful abstract of some of the talks, beginning with the keynote address on the first day by Prof. Raphael Rosenberg of the University of Vienna entitled “Mapping the Aura in the Spirit of Art and Art Theory: Blavatsky, Leadbeater, Besant, and Steiner.”

The concept of thought-forms as formulated by theosophists Annie Besant and later Charles W. Leadbeater including its series of abstract images seems to be connected with the phenomenon of synaesthesia, Rosenberg argued. This phenomenon was also discussed by Madame Blavatsky and attracted the attention of psychologists around 1880. According to Blavatsky, synaesthesia could be understood as a form of higher perception and clairvoyance. As such she went back to Swedenborg and Oetinger and their theories on higher perception. She regarded theosophy as superior since it allowed man to see with the ‘Naked Eye’ beyond the natural object or physical world: a domain of perception regular science did not have access to. It was synaesthesia, therefore, which proved there indeed existed a world beyond the physical realm. Blavatsky connected the phenomenon with the aura, claiming that the colours seen by people susceptible to synaesthesia are auratic. People with this ability can ‘see’ an oval extra-sensory aura surrounding every human being which reveals their feelings, moods and characters.

The rest of her impressions on the Enchanted Modernities Conference can be seen here.