Thursday, December 4, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  Wendy Doniger reviews the latest release in the Princeton University Press series Lives of Great Religious Books: The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography by Richard H. Davis. Doniger draws attention to Davis’s narrative of the rise of the Gita as the Bible of India and the book’s subsequent appeal to the Western world. Both accounts leave out the Theosophical contribution, with inexpensive editions of The Bhagavad Gita by W. Q.  Judge and Annie Besant published by the Society in the 1890s, and the Theosophists’ allegorical approach. Readers looking for that information will have to rely on Catherine A. Robinson’s 2006 Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: The Song of the Lord, which draws on Eric J. Sharpe’s The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavad Gita a Bicentenary Survey from 1985.

Typeset In The Future, a site dedicated to fonts in sci-fi, devotes a post to the typography in the 1979 movie Alien. Looking at the keyboard used in the film, the writer points out certain novel features, such as keys marked “PRANIC LIFT 777” and HUM”:

designer Simon Deering needed some complex-sounding labels for the keyboard at short notice. He was reading The Secret Doctrine by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian philosopher and occultist, at the time of filming. Blavatsky's book attempts to explain the origin and evolution of the universe in terms derived from the Hindu concept of cyclical development. Deering found his inspiration in its pages, and the Nostromo’s odd keyboard was born. 

A list of References to Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine in the movie Alien is given at Alien Explorations, a site “Exploring the ‘Alien’ Movies”.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Nehru and Theosophy

On a visit to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, Ian Smith was surprised to see the reference to Jawaharlal Nehru’s involvement with Theosophy.

One thing I hadn’t known was that the young Nehru had links for a time with the esoteric philosophy of Theosophy, popularised by Helena Blavatsky in the late 19th century.  His boyhood tutor Ferdinand T. Brooks got him interested in it and he was initiated into the Theosophical Society at the age of 13 by the versatile Annie Besant, a friend of the family who wasn’t just a Theosophist but also a writer, socialist, women’s rights activist, supporter of home-rule for Ireland and India, and member (and later president) of the Indian National Congress.  Here’s a wall-display that’s dedicated to her.

Nehru’s involvement with Theosophy is covered in Michael Gomes’ “Nehru Theosophical Tutor” published in Theosophical History, vol. 7, no. 3, July 1998. It looks at the career of his tutor, F.T. Brooks, who influenced his interest in Theosophy.

Of his time among the Theosophists, Nehru writes in his Autobiography:

I have a fairly strong impression that during these theosophical days of mine I developed the flat and insipid look which sometimes denotes piety and which is (or was) often to be seen among theosophist men and women. I was smug, with a feeling of being one-of-the-elect, and altogether I must have been a thoroughly undesirable companion for any boy or girl of my age.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Blavatsky and the Harlem Renaissance

Forthcoming from Brill in 2015, Esotericism in African American Religious Experience: “There Is a Mystery”, edited by Stephen C. Finley, Margarita Simon Guillory, and Hugh R. Page, Jr., makes a major contribution to the new area of Africana Esoteric Studies (AES): a “trans-disciplinary enterprise focused on the investigation of esoteric lore and practices in Africa and the African Diaspora.” The book’s twenty essays cover a number of African American cultural trends from the nineteenth century to the present.

Jon Woodson’s chapter, “The Harlem Renaissance as Esotericism,” looks at the influence of Blavatsky on one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer:

It is often said that there was an occult revival in the 1920s and that the occult revival was prepared by the popularity of theosophy, a movement that began in the nineteenth century and that continued to be influential as modern cultural movements began to form. The founder of Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky was a prolific author whose books were widely disseminated by the Theosophical Society. Jean Toomer, the central figure in the introduction of esoteric thought into the African American community in the 1920s, had a deep appreciation for Blavatsky’s writings and he used her concepts to originate his revision of racial thought.

Toomer (1894—1967), an important figure in African-American literature, became a conduit for esoteric ideas to his circle that included Carl Van Vechten and Zora Neale Hurston. He later became interested in Gurdjieff, studying with A.R. Orage in America and travelling to France to meet Gurdjieff. According to Woodson, “The attraction of Blavatsky for Toomer was the authority with which she explicated the various stages of man's rise from the material to the ethereal.”

The volume also contains a chapter on “Paschal Beverly Randolph in the African American Community” by Lana Fineley.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Blavatsky and the Nazis

We have often wondered why Theosophists don’t take a more active role in the defense of their Founder, H. P. Blavatsky. The Internet has become a lawless frontier when it comes to accuracy about her. In our era the most pernicious charge against Blavatsky is that she was somehow responsible for an occult influence on the Third Reich and subsequent avowals by prominent Nazis. The claim on its face shows a lack of awareness of German culture. Nazis did not need Blavatsky for anti-semitic ideas; Martin Luther had already provided it. Léon Poliakov's The Aryan Myth: A history of racist and nationalist ideas in Europe, available in English since 1974, long ago showed the real sources of this idea. Yet fictions are often more welcomed than facts.

So we are happy to see the subject addressed by Carlos Cardoso Aveline, who usually spends his time pointing out the foibles of other Theosophists.  “Blavatsky, Judaism and Nazism: Message to an Author Who Did Not Study Theosophy” takes aim at the usual mentions of Blavatsky in connection with this subject:

You fail to see that the first and most important object of the theosophical movement is anti-Nazi. It establishes that all men and women of whatever race or caste, ideology or nation, are equal in rights and in brotherhood. This, main object of the movement is “To form a nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color”. 

You mention the svastika symbol of theosophical movement (which was founded in 1875). The svastika is Hindu. It is a most ancient symbol for the Kosmic evolution, and it is not a Nazi symbol, therefore. The Nazis misused it for their own anti-evolutionary purposes, and this is their karma.

His itemized list is worth reading and can be found here. Steven Otto’s “Liar, Racist, Antisemite, Satanist and Nazi!” can also be added to the literature countering the racism allegations, Nazi accusation, and Anti-Semitism brought against Blavatsky. As can the entry on the subject by the Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK here. These contributions offer a well-reasoned response by those who have actually read what Blavatsky wrote and deserve wider recognition by all who have an interest in a more accurate image of H. P. Blavatsky.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  The website of the International Gothic Association, which unites “teachers, scholars, students, artists, writers and performers from around the world who are interested in any aspect of gothic culture,” looks at Blavatsky in the light of Victorian culture. In ‘“I was sent to prove the phenomena and their reality”: The Gothic Madame,’ Miss Jamie Spears suggests that “If Madame Blavatsky had not lived, Victorian Gothicists would have invented her.”

So, why would the Gothicists of her time have invented her?  Blavatsky is, in effect, the perfect storm of societal transgression.  Her life represents a catalogue of Victorian social anxieties and fears concerning the conduct of women.  Though she never self-defined as one, she exemplifies the New Woman movement in her refusal to surrender her own agency and will to that of men.…It is relatively easy to imagine a character such as hers being dreamt up by an anxious, social-conservative writer at the end of the 19th century: a female immigrant who sought to revolutionise British religious practice was, for many, the stuff of nightmares.

Under the listing of Blavatsky’s Travels, Google Maps shows the places mentioned in Blavatsky’s Caves and Jungles of Hindustan written in the 1880s, starting in Mumbai (then Bombay) and ending in Allahabad. For most of her life, H.P. Blavatsky supported herself by writing lightly fictionalized accounts of her travels in India for Russian papers. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Anagarika Dharmapala

The President of India’s Twitter feed announces the release of a new stamp honouring Sri Lankan Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala. “The release of the commemorative postage stamp on Anagarika Dharmapala will contribute towards further strengthening the bilateral ties between India and Sri Lanka and bring the two nations closer,” said President Mukherjee.

Reporting on the occasion a number of South Asian news sources mentioned: Along with Henry Steel Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, the creators of the Theosophical Society, he was a major reformer and revivalist of Ceylonese Buddhism and an important figure in its western transmission. 

Events celebrating the 150th anniversary of Dharmapala’s birth were held in England and Sri Lanka in September. In London, An Exhibition on the Life and Work of Anagarika Dharmapala, Founder of London Buddhist Vihara, was held from September 14 to 20, 2014. Over the seven days guests included the Mayor of Ealing, the UK Sri Lanka High Commissioner, and the President of the Buddhist Society among others. In Sri Lanka a stamp was also issued commemorating his anniversary.

Previous coverage of Dharmapala (1864-1933) and his connection with Blavatsky can be found here. Steven Kemper’s Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, the first book length study of his career, to be released next month by the University of Chicago Press, will no doubt bring him renewed recognition. According to the publisher’s press release:

Drawing on huge stores of source materials—nearly one hundred diaries and notebooks—Kemper reconfigures Dharmapala as a world-renouncer first and a political activist second. Following Dharmapala on his travels between East Asia, South Asia, Europe, and the United States, he traces his lifelong project of creating a unified Buddhist world, recovering the place of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and imitating the Buddha’s life course. The result is a needed corrective to Dharmapala’s embattled legacy, one that resituates Sri Lanka’s political awakening within the religious one that was Dharmapala’s life project.

Chapter 1 deals with Dharmapala as a Theosophist.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Blavatsky and Mexican Politics

A Mexican President may not seem a likely reader of Blavatsky but journalist C.M. Mayo has shown this was the case with Mexico’s 33rd President Francisco Ignacio Madero (1873‒1913):

Francisco Ignacio Madero was the leader of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution and the democratically elected President of Mexico from 1911 until 1913, when, in a violent coup, his government was overthrown and he was murdered. Today Madero is best remembered as the “Apostle of Democracy,” the visionary leader who overthrew Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who had ruled Mexico, both directly and indirectly, for more than three decades.

Less known is that Madero was also one of Mexico’s leading Spiritists and a medium. Not only did he maintain an extensive correspondence with Spiritists in France and Mexico, but he was a organizer of Latin America’s first and second Spiritist Congresses held in Mexico in 1906 and 1908, respectively, and it was after the latter that he took upon himself the task of writing and publishing the ardently evangelical Spiritist Manual, albeit under the pen name, “Bhima.”

In her new book, Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual, Mayo gives a rare glimpse into the esoteric world that flourished in Spain and in Mexico in the early part of the 20th century.

In the late 19th century, though elite Mexicans more often traveled to, studied in and had business dealings in the Unted States, they tended to feel more comfortable with French language and culture. Unsurprisingly then, it was Kardecian Spiritism, rather than American Spiritualism, that first made inroads in Mexico. This was in 1872, thanks to Refugio González's translations of Kardec’s books, among other Spiritist works.

During this same period, the Russian mystic and co-founder of Theosophy, Helena Petrovna Blavatksy (1831-1891) published her seminal works, Isis Unveiled (1878) and the Secret Doctrine (1888), which were almost immediately translated into French and which infused Western esoteric thinking, including that of some of the Spiritists, with new strains of Eastern and neopagan thought.

Mayo’s findings after months spent going through Madero’s library in Mexico City offer an indication of the diffusion of these ideas outside the Anglo-European grid. The latter part of the book contains her English translation of Madero’s 1911 Manual Espírita, his attempt to fuse spiritist and theosophical ideas published under the name Bhima. More information about the book and an interview with the author commenting on the mixing of European esotericism and Mexican beliefs can be found here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Collected Writings of Charles Johnston

Charles Johnston (1867-1931) was one of the first western theosophists to start translating Indian scriptures from the Sanskrit. Johnston wrote close to 500 articles during his life, as well as pamphlets, booklets, and eight books. Jon W. Fergus, the compiler, in the biographical sketch that opens Volume 1 of Hidden Wisdom: Collected Writings of Charles Johnston, says “by quantity alone, Mr. Johnston, ranks among the most prolific theosophical writers. In quality he may, perhaps, likewise rank.”

The present work, in four volumes, represents all “theosophical” articles from the pen of Charles Johnston that have been located to date. These are drawn largely from Theosophical periodical magazines between the years of 1886 and 1932. The articles have been arranged by subject matter, and the volumes organized to reflect certain overarching themes.

Volume 1: Wisdom Traditions of East and West, a long section on the Wisdom of India; Volume 2: The Wisdom of India and Western Wisdom; Volume 3: In the Light of Theosophy, which covers articles related to Theosophy and symbolism, consciousness, etc.; Volume 4: Miscellaneous articles, including biographical sketches of Blavatsky and Olcott. Each volume is over 500 pages, some over 700 pages. 

Concurrent with it are publication of separate volumes containing his translations on the Bhagavad-Gita, Sankaracharya, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Upanishads, and the Tao Teh King, all of which can be obtained from Kshetra Books.

Added to his achievements was the fact that he was married to Blavatsky’s niece Vera Vladimirovna de Zhelihovsky.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Dane Rudhyar and Blavatsky

The Autumn 2014 issue of SPICA, the Postgraduate Journal for Cosmology in Culture from the Sophia Centre for the Study of Cosmology in Culture at the University of Wales, carries “A Critical Biography of Dane Rudhyar” by Sanaa Tanha, which looks at the influences on his multifaceted career as composer, artist, writer, and astrologer:

Antiphony, Dane Rudhyar, 1949
As assumed by his biographers, the theosophical influence on Rudhyar’s astrology cannot be understated, but evidence for a specification has emerged from this paper: he was primarily influenced by Theosophy’s basic tenets as divulged in Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, and had little patience for the later theosophical establishment of dogma. In particular, Rudhyar endorsed, elaborated and perfected Blavatsky’s concept of ‘wheels within wheels’ - of cyclic evolution and the consequent expectation of a ‘New Age’, in an elegant and all-embracing astrological teleology based on the cycle. 

Rudhyar’s career is given in detail at the Rudhyar Archival Project site which lists his books, articles, musical compositions and a catalogue of his art work. For Rudhyar (1895–1985) music was “a direct release of psychic energy whose source is an inner feeling or experience.” Rudhyar’s music was featured recently as part of the “Museum and Music” series at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University. The program connects with the exhibit on view, “Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape and the American West,” which includes paintings done by Rudhyar and other members of the Transcendental Painting Group that flourished in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1930s.

Dane Rudhyar, 1956

Blavatsky in Utah

Utah Public Radio gives a guided tour of the “Enchanted Modernities: Mysticism, Landscape and the American West” exhibit currently at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. “As we ascend the steps leading to the exhibit, we are first confronted by a large, looming black and white photograph of the Founder of Modern Theosophy, Madame Helena Blavatsky.”

One of the curators of the exhibition tells the reporter: The picture that greets you is one of her in her characteristic pose looking directly into the camera, unflinching. This is often a pose which is taken up by many Theosophists in photographs because they felt that this could show their power. You could see into their eyes and see into their soul. You have to begin with Blavatsky to understand Theosophy in the 19th and 20th century. Everything kind of flows from there. So the exhibition begins with Blavatsky as well.

It goes on from there. The rest of the story can be heard here. The exhibit will be on view until December 2014.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blavatsky News

*   England’s Independent reviews the recent BBC4 programme The Rules of Abstraction with Matthew Collings:

The artist and critic began his 90-minute programme by tracing the history of abstract art back to its origins in the fascinating 19th-century Theosophy movement of Helena Blavatsky. From here he moved on to the colours and shapes of Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko and more.

Artists still seem to be relating to Blavatsky. In a recent New York Times interview with conceptual artist Alexander Melamid, to make his point, he found it necessary to say:

Art is not only physical pollution, it’s intellectual pollution. Spiritual pollution. I belong to the down-the-drain generation. We were promised salvation by art. I was a passionate believer, until I realized it was one of those allegiances, like spiritualism or theosophy. All of this kind of semi-religious teaching, like Mary Baker Eddy or Madame Blavatsky.

*   Sam Harris's latest book Waking Up continues to garner attention. Perhaps it is the claim of the book's subtitle: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Chapter 1 can be read here. Mentioning Mme. Blavatsky, he says:

The conversation between East and West started in earnest, albeit inauspiciously, with the birth of the Theosophical Society, that golem of spiritual hunger and self-deception brought into this world almost single-handedly by the incomparable Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1875. Everything about Blavatsky seemed to defy earthly logic: She was an enormously fat woman who was said to have wandered alone and undetected for seven years in the mountains of Tibet. She was also thought to have survived shipwrecks, gunshot wounds, and sword fights. Despite the imponderables in her philosophy, Blavatsky was among the first people to announce in Western circles that there was such a thing as the "wisdom of the East." This wisdom began to trickle westward once Swami Vivekananda introduced the teachings of Vedanta at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

*   The following passage from W.B. Yeats’s The Trembling of the Veil on his experiences with Madame Blavatsky in London makes its appearance online:

Besides the devotees, who came to listen and to turn every doctrine into a new sanction for the puritanical convictions of their Victorian childhood, cranks came from half Europe and from all America, and they came that they might talk. One American said to me, “She has become the most famous woman in the world by sitting in a big chair and permitting us to talk.”  There was a woman who talked perpetually of “the divine spark” within her, until Madame Blavatsky stopped her with—“Yes, my dear, you have a divine spark within you and if you are not very careful you will hear it snore.”

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reginald W. Machell

The academic journal of esotericism, Aries, from Brill in the Netherlands, carries a piece in the Volume 14, no. 2 issue, by Massimo Introvigne on “Reginald W. Machell (1854–1927): Blavatsky’s Child, British Symbolist, American Artist”:

Reginald Willoughby Machell (1854–1927) was a promising young artist from a prominent family in North-West England when he was introduced to Madame Blavatsky in 1886. Machell joined the Theosophical Society, abandoned his academic style and decided to devote his life to creating a didactic art aimed at illustrating Blavatsky’s doctrines. When the Theosophical Society split after Blavatsky’s death, Machell sided with the American faction led by William Q. Judge and later by Katherine Tingley. In 1900, the artist moved to Lomaland, Tingley’s Theosophical colony in California, where he remained for the next 27 years of his life. He continued to paint Theosophical subjects and to write articles on the relationship between Theosophy and the arts. He also emerged as a successful wood carver and as a gifted teacher of younger Theosophical painters, who formed the so called Lomaland Art Colony. Best remembered for a single iconic Theosophical painting, The Path, Machell was extremely popular for several decades among all branches of the Theosophical movement. At the same time, his almost exclusive focus on Theosophy led to his marginalization in wider artistic circles, although other teachers recruited by Tingley for the Lomaland art school, including Maurice Braun (1877–1941), eventually managed to be accepted by the American art establishment.

An indication of the artist's popularity among Theosophists can be seen in this stained glass window version of Machell’s “The Path” in the Library of the Leeds Theosophical Society in England.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Blavatsky and Finland

Pekka Ervast's Rosicrucian jewel
The name of Pekka Ervast (1875-1934) may not be well-known outside Finland but at one time he was regarded as the Rudolf Steiner of Scandinavia. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1895 and soon became known to Col. Olcott and Annie Besant through his work for the movement there. When the Finnish Section of the Theosophical Society came into being in 1907 he was elected its first General Secretary. The connection was not to last; by 1920 he had left the organization and founded a Rosicrucian Society where he was to devote the rest of his life.

English readers may be familiar with his play on the life of H. P. Blavatsky: “H.P.B.” Four Episodes from the Life of the Sphinx of the XIXth Century translated into English and published by the Theosophical Publishing House of London in 1933. The website Lux Fennica which deals with all things Finnish and occult carries the following quote on its header:

June 1903: Pekka Ervast met in Stockholm Countess Constance Wachtmeister, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s associate for many years. She told him about Blavatsky’s prediction concerning Finland. “Ground seems to give way under everyone’s feet and darkness will reign in the whole world. Let the Theosophists then remember to turn their gazes towards the North, for the light will come from Finland. Thus spake Madame Blavatsky.” 

It should be noted that over time Blavatsky has been cited as saying similar things about the Irish and the Spanish.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Blavatsky News

*   The site Honor and Magic reprints an October 1874 letter from Blavatsky that starts her Collected Writings in English. The letter titled “Marvellous Spirit Manifestations” was published in the October 30, 1874, New York Daily Graphic. It lists the different materialized spirit forms she saw while at the Eddy mediums in Vermont, which led to her meeting Col. Olcott. Whether they were actually spirits of the dead was another thing, as she noted when pasting this article in her Scrapbook. The site has recently put up a guide to another American woman Theosophist of whom more needs to be known, Mrs. Josephine Cables Aldrich, “an author, editor, and philanthropist prominent in the early Theosophical Movement,” who led the movement from Rochester New York, and published one of the earliest occult magazines in America, The Occult Word. Copies of this scarce publication can now be read at the The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP) database.

*   The Montreal Theosophy Project has been charting the development of the recent rise of the recognition of  Blavatsky’s influence: “By the 1980s, with the publication of the entirety of her complete works, spearheaded by Boris de Zirkoff, HPB's reputation was on the upswing.  In 1985, a serious historical research project, the Theosophical History journal begins publication. Michael Gomes’ The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement in 1987 arguably brings a more objective and accurate level of research to theosophical publications. His 2009 Penguin Books abridgement of The Secret Doctrine  made a key Blavatsky work accessible to a wider audience.”

*   The Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK gives some background on an obscure female swami, “Maji”, whom Olcott and Blavatsky met in Benares at the end of 1879, and who offered independent testimony about the Masters. “Although apparently fairly well known in certain circles during her lifetime (1826-1898), she is very much unknown today, even in India and amongst the Hindus of Benares, now named Varanasi.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Illustrating Blavatsky’s Cosmogenesis

The site HIEROPHAGE carries an appreciation on September 3 of Ron Regé, Jr.’s new project: illustrating the stanzas of Dzyan from Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. Regé says he was inspired by the Michael Gomes abridgement of the book to create his picture of The Secret Doctrine. He concludes that

The fact that HPB and Theosophy in general isn’t more well known today is obviously a result of our Patriarchal age. There aren’t many female founders of spiritual thought, in ancient or in modern times, are there? The rumors and accusations and misrepresentations of Madame Blavatsky and her followers are the same sort that are made towards any founder of a system of belief. I think Madame Blavatsky wasn’t able to rise above it because she was a woman, and I think Theosophy ended up on the margins because of the threat of its inclusiveness. As well as anyone with any sort of new age beliefs, aspects of metaphysical science appeal to certain christians, as well as some scientific atheists. 

Appreciating Madame Blavatsky as the matriarch of these ideas, and increasing interest in basic Theosophical thoughts might be a helpful and unifying goal for our struggling society. There are texts and systems and language we can use to help us talk to each other about these new ideas regarding consciousness. It’s Theosophy. 

The volume *COSMOGENESIS* is 40 pages / 5.5x8.5” / xerox on yellow paper A signed and numbered edition of the first printing of 125 copies is available here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Remembering Ananda Guruge

The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka carries an appreciation of the late Ananda Guruge who died in California earlier this month at the age of 85. Renowned diplomat, author of Buddhist publications, UNESCO ambassador and university lecturer, he helped make accessible Anagarika Dharmapala’s literary output in his massive 1965 collection Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala. Nor did he shy away from the influence of Blavatsky on Dharmapala’s life.

The writer comments on his presentation of the Buddhist revival of the 1880s:

Guruge was a chronicler of this revival and an activist in it. His two collections of global correspondence from and to Sri Lanka in ‘From the living fountains of Buddhism: Sri Lankan Support to Pioneering Western Orientalists’ and ‘Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala’ provide nearly 1,500 pages of raw material for those interested in the revival. Not having seriously read this collection, our colonial anthropologists (I bought and read all their torturous writings) invented a fictional Protestant Buddhism for the revival. They claimed that Olcott and Blavatsky, two persons who were running away from Protestantism had introduced Protestant ideas to the revival. The situation was just the opposite as both arrived with intellectual begging bowls in hand. Blavatsky was mostly ignored and Olcott only used for the anti-colonial struggle, but rejected when he went against Buddhism and tried to infuse mystical theosophist ideas. Referring to the 1970 article by Gananath Obeyesekere, Guruge declared “Protestant Buddhism is an infelicitous term as it is misleading”.

A statement on his passing from the President of Sri Lanka can be read here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Kandinsky: A Retrospective” will be on view until September 1, 2014. Debra Brehmer’s review “Kandinsky’s Cosmic Consciousness” sees Kandinsky’s stay at the Bavarian village of Murnau in 1909 as transformative:

The group was reading and thinking about Madame Helena Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner, and theosophy. They retreated to this village to shun fin de siecle industrialization and materialism, replacing smoke stacks and factories with auras, astral bodies, and atoms. Theosophy represented a dimension outside the clutches of greed and development, a more utopian universalism, as did ethnographic sources ranging from Russian folk art to Oceanic, African, Japanese, and Native American art.

The exhibition offers one more big bang. Midway through the show is a constructed room of “wall paintings” that Kandinsky planned and executed in 1922 with students at the Bauhaus. In the 1970s, his surviving wife, Nina, orchestrated their re-creation from preparatory gouache studies for the grand opening of the Pompidou. They have never been shown in the US. One enters the room, engulfed floor to ceiling with enlarged Kandinsky collisions. By the 1920s, whiffs of Matisse, Klee, Miro and Malevich had synthesized into his own sandwich style: compilations and overlapping layers of gloriously colored marks, oozing clouds of fluff, shapes, lines, stuttering rhythms of dots and arcs — a veritable theater of formal inventiveness.

The exhibition is put together with the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

*  Christopher Loring Knowles offers an in-depth examination of “Lovecraft's Secret Source for the Cthulhu Mythos.” While mentioning Blavatsky and the stanzas of Dzyan, he seems to find more of an influence in the works of Alice Bailey.

H.P. Lovecraft claimed in a letter to Conan author Robert E. Howard that the Cthulhu Mythos was his own creation. Even diehard Lovecraft fans don't buy that anymore. Lovecraft was a voracious reader (meaning he was poor and not exactly prolific) and was a hardcore fanboy before fanboys were a thing. He famously wore his influences on his sleeve (Dunsany, Poe, etc), but maybe there were some he kept a bit closer to his vest.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blavatsky and Yoga

H.P. Blavatsky gets a short chapter in the latest addition to Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography by David Gordon White. The chapter on “The Yoga of the Magnetosphere: The Yoga Sutra and the Theosophical Society” begins:

In 1875 the Russian émigré Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City together with fellow occultists William Quan Judge and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Accomplished spirit mediums themselves, the three were deeply committed to reforming the spiritualist movement…” 

But neither Judge nor Olcott made any claims to being mediums nor were they considered so by their contemporaries.

Within a year of its [Isis Unveiled] publication, William Emmette Coleman, a critical scholar and member of the American Oriental Society and Pali Text Society, denounced Blavatsky for some two thousand instances of plagiarism he had found in her book.

Here William Emmette Coleman, a spiritualist who is known only for his relentless attacks on Mme. Blavatsky, is elevated to “a critical scholar.” Coleman’s criticism of Isis Unveiled appeared in 1891, the year Blavatsky died, and a resumé was published as an appendix to the 1895 translation of Vsevolod Solovyov’s A Modern Priestess of Isis.

And then:

hundreds of handwritten letters began to materialize in the shrine room adjacent to Blavatsky’s private living quarters.

Again, this was not the case. And so on, including giving the date of the publication of The Secret Doctrine as 1885 (once could be consigned to a typographical error, but not twice).

It is a shame that a study that strives to inform the reader about the evolution of the presentation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra in the West (almost no coverage is given to its reception in modern India) should be itself a source of misinformation. Still, White credits Blavatsky as having “a more nuanced understanding of Raja Yoga” than her contemporaries.

It should be noted that at 273 pages, the book does not contain a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  Marc Demarest has discovered the earliest reference so far to Mme. Blavatsky in the American press. Published in the October 13, 1874,  issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the narrative, titled “A Heroine. A Lively Lady from Mount Ararat,” gives much background information on her as well exploiting exploits in her life. The piece was occasioned by the paper’s reporting on Blavatsky’s civil suit to recover money invested in what was to be a farm in Long Island. It predates what was previously known to be earliest account of her life, “Mme. Blavatsky’s Visit to the Daily Graphic Office,” in that paper’s November 13, 1874,  issue. That text was reprinted in Theosophical History, October 2003, from a version corrected by Blavatsky. This alone should be a warning against expecting verisimilitude from such a source. Mr. Demarest adds a number of notes with the text which can be read at his blog Chasing Down Emma.

*  The latest issue of Theosophical History, January 2014, features an examination by Erica Georgiades on the credibility of Blavatsky’s claim to have been on board the S.S. Eunomia when it exploded near the Greek island of Spetses on June 21, 1871. Ms. Georgiades gives the passenger list for that voyage which shows no one with the name of Blavatsky among the 140 people thought to be aboard, and offers three hypotheses as explanation of this. The article, “H.P. Blavatsky and the Wreck of the S.S. Eunomia,” dredges up some useful information on this obscure incident in Blavatsky’s life. This issue also includes the text of an article from a New York weekly, The Daily Star of September 30, 1886, titled “Buddhism in New York,” which mentions W.Q. Judge, President of the New York Theosophists, as a Buddhist. Jerry Hejka-Ekins who discovered it provides an introduction. Theosophical History was founded in 1985 by Leslie Price in London and has been edited since 1990 by James A. Santucci. Described as “an independent scholarly journal devoted to all aspects of theosophy (with and without a capital T),” unaffiliated with any Theosophical organization, it can be ordered here.

*  The program for the Conference on Theosophical History to be held in London Saturday and Sunday, September 20 and 21, 2014, has been put online. Presentations include “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the Mystery of Agardi Metrovitch's Identity” by Erica Georgiades (in absentia), “1880–When a British Agent Spied on Madame Blavatsky” by Paul Johnson (in absentia), “Mapping Madame Blavatsky? Towards A Chronological & Bibliographic Approach to the Evolution of Her Thought” by Barry Thompson, “Oriental Order of Sikha and the Sat Bhai, Yarker and Blavatsky” by Geraldine Beskin and Barry Loft. Other presenters include Tim Rudboeg, Boaz Huss, Erin Prophet, Jeff Lavoie, and John L. Crow.  The program will end with a presentation by Leslie Price on “Madame Blavatsky and the Seven Archival Mysteries.” Hopefully these talks/papers will be recorded for a wider viewership. The full program can be seen here.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  The weblog at the New Criterion looks at the exhibition on Kandinsky at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened June 27, 2014, and will be on view until the Spring of 2015:

It seems as if by titling the exhibition Kandinsky Before Abstraction, the curators were hoping to be able to present the artist before his introduction to theosophy, before his association with the occultists Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, before he became devoted to all the spiritual beliefs that we now deem silly and slightly embarrassing. Yet I do not think Kandinsky would have leapt so boldly towards the expressive use of color and abstraction if he did not sincerely believe, as many theosophists then did, that colors and shapes corresponded to particular spiritual values, or that the material universe was literally on the way to dissolution. Of course he was a diligent painter with a wide range of visual interests and references, but his sensibility and work cannot be explained solely through these means. We should not be embarrassed by his beliefs; other artists have believed things as dubious and far more sinister. But rarely have there been paintings so good or so singular.

*  The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art will be hosting an upcoming retrospective from October 11, 2014 to January 11, 2015 on countercultural icon Cameron (or Marjorie Cameron, 1922–1995). The site Flavorwire, which covers news about Art, Books, Photography, Film, Design, Television, the Web, Media, Theatre, Fashion, Music, Celebrity, and Pop Culture, says that “The exhibition offers a rare look at the life and work of a female occult practitioner — too frequently depicted as mere muse or lunatic, even though female-centric mysticism has existed for thousands of years,” and lists “a few other female occultists who deserve mention,” including H. P. Blavatsky. The notice on her is generic but the company she is placed in is telling.

Described as “A seminal figure within LA’s mid-century counterculture, Cameron’s work contains echoes of an important time that is also our time. A younger generation will be fascinated by her unique melding of surrealism and mysticism, and by her commitment to live her life as art,” explains guest curator Yael Lipschutz on the upcoming show at MOCA.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Blavatsky and Alexandra David-Néel

In their “Persons of Interest” series, the site The Thinker’s Garden“a place to uncover Knowledge, marvel at strange Sights, and approach the Mysterious. It is not an academe, though we hope it will stimulate intellectual curiosity and it is not a forum, though topical discussion is encouraged. It is in its most basic sense an ambulatory and storehouse of ideas”—looks at the lives of Alexandra David-Néel and Helena Blavatsky.

The occult revivalist, feminist, and orientalist Helena Blavatsky was several years older than Néel and shared a strong and abiding attraction to Eastern mysticism. When she was a child, the young aristocrat appeased her bibliophilic appetite by constantly immersing herself in the volumes of esoteric literature within her great-grandfather’s library.… Critics to this day still question the veracity of her teachings and narratives; nevertheless as the patron and founder of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky presided over one of the first European organizations to transmit Indian philosophy to Western audiences.

Blavatsky in Dublin, Reviews

The Irish Times of July 5 reviews the A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin exhibition now on view at Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. The piece, “Delving into the arcane: the legacy of Æ’s hidden murals,” looks at Blavatsky’s influence on Irish arts and the recent rediscovery of some of Æ’s theosophically inspired murals

Established in New York in 1875 by a small group of people centred on Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott and Dublin-born William Quan Judge, the society held that a body of ancient, hidden knowledge lay behind all the world’s religions and, similarly, that hidden laws lay beyond the bounds of conventional scientific thought.

In Ireland, George Russell (Æ), James M Pryse and others set up a branch in Dublin, based at number 3 Ely Place. “It was a kind of commune and in many ways idealistic, even utopian,” says [the curator Pádraic E.] Moore. “The theosophists were, and are, completely non-sectarian. They believe in universal freedom and equality.”

The Wall Street Journal in its review focuses more on the artists that comprise the show, though noting that

The popularity of Theosophy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was considerable, rapidly attracting a community of adherents worldwide from amongst the many disenchanted people who sought spiritual guidance and vital inspiration in an increasingly secular and industrialized world.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blavatsky in Dublin

Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery announces the opening of a new exhibition influenced by Blavatsky. Titled A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin:

AE's Theosophical murals at the lodge
of the Theosophical Society in Dublin, 1895

This exhibition features contemporary artists whose works resonate with ideas central to the belief system of The Theosophical Society. The Society was founded in New York in 1875, espousing a doctrine synthesised from esoteric religious, philosophical, and scientific ideas and aspiring toward the formation of a universal community in which all religions, creeds, and races were equal. The popularity of Theosophy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was considerable, rapidly attracting a community of adherents worldwide from amongst the many disenchanted people who sought spiritual guidance and vital inspiration in an increasingly secular and industrialized world.

As one reviewer noted:   The ideas posited by A Modern Panarion, then, are not so much that a Theosophical Society is alive and kicking in Irish contemporary art, but that the traces of ideas raised by the Theosophists have perhaps been assimilated or passed down via pop culture. A lot of the Society’s thoughts on religion and philosophy would eventually resurface in new guises over the course of the 20th century – perhaps most notably during the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, and the science fiction of the 1970s. Through these third parties, connections can be drawn to the artists participating in the show.

The exhibition takes its name from a volume of Blavatsky articles issued soon after her death, A Modern Panarion. Its title comes from the Greek, meaning “Medicine Chest,” a famous work by the fourth century bishop of Salamis, Cyprus, Epiphanius, intended as a “stock of remedies to offset the poisons of heresy.”

The exhibition is curated by Padraic E. Moore, who has issued an accompanying publication To Seek Where Shadows Are that chronicles of the emergence of the Theosophical Society’s Dublin Lodge. A Modern Panarion: Glimpses of Occultism in Dublin will run from June 19 to September 7, 2014.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mondrian and Blavatsky

The online edition of London’s Financial Times for June 15 reviews the exhibition “Mondrian and his Studios” at the Tate Liverpool. One of the draws is a replica of Mondrian’s studio in Paris from the 1920s. Looking for influences, the reviewer says:

Mondrian’s chosen faith was theosophy. Championed at the turn of the 20th century by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, it was fallen upon by a clutch of artists who interpreted its credo – that the divine essence of reality was a union of spirit and matter – as a manifesto for an art that aimed at universal enlightenment. 

However esoteric it sounds, theosophy made for masterpieces. (Kandinsky was a fellow traveller.) It captured Mondrian’s imagination in 1909, while he was still in Amsterdam. In 1911 he left for Paris and his spiritual vision found its secular medium in cubism’s crystalline dissections.

“Mondrian And His Studios”, which commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Dutch artist’s death, is the largest UK exhibition of work by the abstract painter. It will be on view from June 6 to October 5, 2014.

Tate Liverpool’s recreation of Mondrian's studio in Paris

Blavatsky Related

The Lilly Library is the rare books, manuscripts, and special collections library of the Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington. The Library’s summer exhibition, “Spiritualists, Sorcerers, and Stage Magicians: Magic and the Supernatural”, “offers a view of how ideas of the occult, the unseen, and the supernatural have persisted and transformed throughout history, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Indeed, if popular entertainment is any indication, it seems evident that our interest in ghosts, ghost-hunters, witches, and devils has never really abated, despite the rationalism and disenchantment of the modern age.”

Highlights of the exhibition include 17th-century treatises on witchcraft; a wide array of texts representing the complex social networks of spiritualist mediums, stage magicians, and psychical researchers in 19th-century Britain and America; issues from the Lilly's newly-acquired archive of Weird Tales magazine; and correspondence between book collector Montgomery Evans and notorious occultist Aleister Crowley.

The exhibition will run from June 2 to August 30, with a special reception on Saturday, June 21 from 6:00-8:00 PM.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blavatsky News

*   The Jamaica Gleaner of Kingston, Jamaica, carries an extended look at the subject of reincarnation by Dr Glenville Ashby, “a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council, NYC”. In Part 1, which appeared on May 25, he says of the subject:  “Interestingly, this doctrine has seeped into Western religious teachings, courtesy of Helena Petrova Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society, after having spent many years in India.”

In Part 2, published June 1, he talks to a medium who lets him know: “And of Helena Blavatsky, the woman who single-handedly popularised reincarnation in the West, Ross says, ‘She has since communicated from the spirit world that she had erred in her belief in a fallacious doctrine.’” (!)

*   A Kindle edition of the Russian text of Vera Zhelihovskaya’s Truth About Helen Blavatsky is now available for those so interested. The text was initially published in the St. Petersburg paper Rebus in 1883 and deals with Blavatsky’s early life in Russia. An English translation in Mme. Blavatsky’s handwriting is in the archives at the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society, at Adyar, Chennai, India. Blavatsky’s translation was issued serially in The Theosophist, May to December 1991. Vera Zhelihovskaya was Blavatsky’s younger sister. 

*   The blog of the British arts and culture magazine Aesthetica reviews The Strange City, an installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov at The Monumenta, Grand Palais, Paris:

Inspiration for this soaring colour-changing installation takes its roots from the theory of the Russian musician, Alexander Scriabin, who created a colour organ, “‪clavier à lumières”, appropriated the synesthetic system, and who was influenced by Newton’s Opticks and theosophical theories of Jean Delville and Helena Blavatsky.

Of the Soviet-born American conceptual artist, the piece notes:  At the end of 1960s and beginning of 1970s he followed the interest in transcendental and irrational questions, Russian theosophy of 19th and 20th centuries. Moscow and Leningrad artistic communities were gripped by the thought of art as a medium of purely religious and philosophical ideas, and at that time Kabakov started his series of white paintings, where an artwork becomes a screen for transcendental light projection.

So it comes as no surprise that among the spaces included are” Manas” and “The Centre of Cosmic Energy”. “Manas is a reconstruction of a mystical Tibetian city, existing, as artists suppose, on two levels – the mundane and the celestial, and surrounded by mountains, which makes communication with other worlds possible.” It will be on view from May 10 to June 22, 2014.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Blavatsky in Hollywood

The Los Angeles Neighborhoods and Real Estate guide, Curbed LA, looks at “The Creation of Beachwood Canyon’s Theosophist ‘Dreamland’” that lasted from 1912 to 1924 when the community moved to Ojai, California, where they still reside.

The Theosophists were dreamers. “Theosophy, in its abstract meaning, is Divine Wisdom,” wrote movement founder Helena P. Blavatsky, who claimed to be a “missionary of ancient knowledge.” The Society soon became popular with educated, middle-to-upper class freethinkers in Europe, America, and India. 

Established in the Hollywood Hills as Krotona, “the community grew quickly along more haphazard lines, with architecture reflecting the Theosophist's ‘Eastern’ inclinations.” The rest of the piece covers examples of the architectural styles that have survived. With the departure of the group, “Most of the buildings at Krotona were quickly converted into apartments or continued on as private homes, and many still stand today, in various stages of repair. Crammed between the mish-mash of later Beachwood Canyon development, they still delight the eye and seem to be just a bit out of place.”

The history of the Krotona Theosophists has been devotedly chronicled in the volumes of Joseph Ross on the subject.

Krotona architecture today
A house on Temple Hill Drive designed by Marie Russak Hotchener

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  A post at The Smart Set blog at Drexel University reminds us of the upcoming 100 anniversary of the birth of the American musician known as Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914.

Cristian Blanxer, Barcelona, Spain
 oil on wood / 44 x 57,5cm /2014
Sun Ra believed that the whole of humanity was in need of waking up. He wanted to slough off old ideas and habits, brush off sleepy clothing and shake off drowsy food. Because present time mattered little to Sun Ra, they say he rarely slept. Even as a child, he would spend all his time playing the piano or composing. “I loved music beyond the state of liking it,” he once said. Sun Ra was just as obsessed with books — you couldn’t see the walls of his room for the books. Books contained words and the words held a secret code that, if unraveled, revealed truths about human existence. He read the ancient texts of Egyptians, Africans, Greeks, the works of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (with whom he once shared the initials H.P.B), Rudolph Steiner, P.D. Ouspensky, James Joyce, C.F. Volney, Booker T. Washington. He read about the lost history of the American Negro and studied the origins of language. Sun Ra knew Biblical scripture better than any preacher, read Kabbalah concepts and Rosicrucian manifestos. Through these texts Sun Ra learned it was possible for the chaos of human knowledge to be ordered. Theosophy, relativity, mathematics, physics, history, music, magic, science fiction, Egyptology, technology — all were keys to a unified existence. Ideas and music carried a reclusive black boy from Birmingham and transported him into outer space. But the most important idea Sun Ra learned from all his reading, from all the knowledge he acquired, is how puny knowledge is in the face of the unknown. We need the unknown, Sun Ra said, in order to survive.

*  Dr. Christopher Scheer will address the impact of Theosophy on developments in modern art and music. "Founded in New York City in 1875 by a group that included the mystic Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society united Western esoteric thought with Eastern philosophical and religious ideas in an attempt to understand the mysteries of the universe. The event “Art History: Enchanted Modernities-Theosophical Thought in the History of 20th century Art and Music” will be held Thursday, June 12, 5:30 pm at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, Ketchum, the oldest arts organization in Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Two New Blavatsky Books

David and Nancy Reigle announce the publication of an early surviving draft of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine. The manuscript, which is in the Archives of the Theosophical Society, headquartered at Chennai, India, was partially published in The Theosophist, August 1931 and October 1932 to November, 1933, and in 1897 as the Third Volume of The Secret Doctrine. It includes H. P. Blavatsky’s early translations of stanzas from the Book of Dzyan with her unrevised commentaries on them. There is a year by year chronology of the events leading to publication of The Secret Doctrine, and an extended study on “The Myth of the ‘Missing’ Third Volume of The Secret Doctrine” by Daniel H. Caldwell. The book, The Secret Doctrine Würzburg Manuscript, will sell for $18.95 and will be available through

*  The Theosophy Company of Los Angeles has announced the publication of The Secret Doctrine Dialogues, “taken from the same stenographic notes as The Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge.” This is essentially a reprint of the material published in 2010 as The Secret Doctrine Commentaries by the I.S.I.S. Foundation in The Hague but at a cheaper price: $35.00. Some typographical errors have been corrected and a new index added. All the careful Sanskrit transcription in the 2010 edition has been replaced by a mélange of dated 19th century terms, such as Parabrahm instead of Parabrahman, etc. Why Theosophists continue with such usage which makes their writings seem even more dated is beyond us. For those who want the original it is available online free from the publisher in The Hague here.

Unfortunately neither of these books will do much to make Blavatsky more accepted by the general public as the material contained in them is of a nature not to make easy reading. Specialists, no doubt, will be thrilled.

Plaque on the building in Würzburg, Germany, where Helena Petrovna Blavatsky 
once resided when writing The Secret Doctrine.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

How to pronounce Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Now you can learn how to do just that. The website has just added the pronunciation of Blavatsky’s name to the over 73,000 that they make available on YouTube. The speaker is Russian and one gets a heavily accented version. It would be interesting to hear other pronunciations of her name from other regions.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Blavatsky and Australian Art

Christian Waller's “Destiny” , 1916
The name of Christian Waller may not be a well-known one outside Australia, but, with her husband, Napier Waller, the couple made an impressive contribution to Australian art history. P.Gaye Tapp provides a character study in her recent piece on Waller (1894–1954), who is remembered for her book designs and stained glass. At one point in her life “She turned deeper into Theosophy, shutting herself off from the world at large. Her doctrine held to its turn-of-the-century spiritual leader Helena Blavatsky. While critics have proven Blavatsky was part a charlatan and her supposed experiences with the paranormal faked—in the world Christian Waller inhabited they were real.”

Stained Glass by Napier Waller at the Australian War Memorial 

Christian’s book The great breath; A Book of Seven Designs (1932), is testament to her beliefs. A copy can be seen here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Madame Blavatsky in Russia

The Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin will be hosting a talk by Dr. Marina Potoplyak on “The Mysterious Madame Blavatsky in Russia.”  According to the flyer for the talk: “Variously hailed as one of the greatest philosophers and spiritual leaders, a cunning impostor, a spiritualist with phenomenal psychic powers, and even a Russian spy, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was and still is a highly controversial and fascinating figure. Born in the Russian Empire in 1831, she studied in India and Tibet and traveled extensively around the world, establishing the Theosophical Society and proclaiming to have unveiled the most sacred mysteries of the Universe.”

This talk discusses Madame Blavatsky’s teachings and activities in Russia, including her table-tipping séances and a travelogue “From the Caves and Jungles of Hindustan,” which, unlike her other works, was written specifically for her Russian audience.  We will look at a variety of responses to her persona and ideas ranging from Vsevolod Solovyev’s exposé “The Modern Isida” (1892) to Leo Tolstoy’s favorable reception, and her wide-ranging influence on Russian fin-de-siècle culture.

It will be held Wednesday, April 16th, at 12 PM in Burdine Hall, Room 231, as part of the Religion and Spirituality Brown Bag Series.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Blavatsky and Point Loma, California

The San Diego Reader of April 2 looks at the San Diego response to the establishment of Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical community at Point Loma, California. “On January 24, 1897, Edward R. Rambo and C.A. Griscom, Jr., purchased 120 acres of land on Point Loma three miles north of the lighthouse.” Ernest Hargrove, representing the American-based Theosophical Society, told reporters that the site would become a school “for the revival of the lost mysteries of antiquity.” 

Hargrove told reporters that Blavatsky (1831–1891) believed “there is no religion higher than truth.” She claimed that, in deep antiquity, truth thrived everywhere. Then came “centuries of darkness, ignorance, and bigotry.” Since the “pursuit of knowledge meant persecution and death,” science and philosophy “went into hiding.” The great mysteries, if known at all, were kept secret. 

Part 2 is to follow.

Theosophists laying the cornerstone at Point Loma, February 23, 1897

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blavatsky News

*  A piece on the spiritual climate of California, published in the March 29 London Observer, has been picked up as far away as the New Zealand Herald. The writer, Andrew Gumbel, after noting that “For more than 50 years, California has played host to every imaginable form of self-realisation and spiritual enlightenment, many of them talked up by Hollywood celebrities and musicians,” claims

The new age movement took off here. So did Scientology, meditation, yoga, the Krishnamurti Foundation and the modern incarnation of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. The credo of self-empowerment is everywhere: people who talk about living “in the moment” and “giving back to the universe”, people who say they are spiritual but not religious, people who finish their yoga practice with a bow and a namaste every bit as reverent as the amens they learned in church as children.

Many of the modern new age trends stem from two distinctly Californian sources. The first is the small mountain town of Ojai, an hour-and-a-half drive from Los Angeles, where the Theosophical Society set down American roots at around the same time that the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti paid his first visit, in 1922. To this day, Ojai remains a mecca for spiritual warriors seeking balance, crystals and enlightenment.

The second is the Esalen Institute, built around a hot spring overlooking the Pacific at Big Sur.

*  The Press Release for Die Marmory Show at the Deborah Schamoni in Munich prints the contents of an unpublished letter from Walt Kuhn, painter, organiser and promoter of the groundbreaking New York Armory-Show in 1913, who inspired the present exhibition. Writing to his wife Vera from Munich, October 24, 1912, he says

Yesterday afternoon on my way to the hotel I met Kandinsky, who convinced me to take part in a meeting of the theosophically-interested. He said that they met regularly to read from Helena Blavatsky’s books and practice applying her theories. Today was to be one of those evening’s of praxis.

These people, seven including me, assembled – Marianne von Werefkin, amongst others – in a bleak villa only a few streets from my hotel. I was welcome, however, I was requested in a serious tone of voice, only to speak if absolutely necessary and otherwise see to that I quickly adapt to the proceedings. It all began with an instructed exercise in concentration: on a snowflake obsidian. In the mean time, the outside strangely seemed to melt into the inside. Somehow, it was as if I were this stone or as if I had the same frequency as it.

Do you think it would be possible to recreate these kind of experiences in the exhibition?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Music Through Theosophy

The Utah-based string quartet, the Fry Street Quartet, will be touring the UK May 6 - 9 2014, performing a concert that “explores the connections between music and Theosophy as part of the Leverhulme-funded network Enchanted Modernities: Theosophy and the Arts, 1875-1960. This will include rarely heard works from the twentieth-century British composers Cyril Scott and John Foulds. Scott found inspiration in the writings of Theosophical Society founder Helena Blavatsky, and Foulds worked for a time on behalf of the Society as director of music at the London headquarters. The concert will close with the music of Beethoven, a favourite musical topic in Theosophical journals and one of the composers often celebrated by Theosophists.”

The Quarter’s program, “Hearing Enchantment: Music Through Theosophy,” will be performed at Cardiff University, May 6, at the Theosophical Society in London, May 7, and at the University of York, May 9.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Blavatsky News

The Canadian Encyclopedia includes the following mention of Blavatsky in its entry on Theosophy in Canada, which it describes as a philosophical system based on a belief in a universal, eternal principle fundamental to all life. The mystical overtones of its proposition of the fundamental identity of all 'Souls with the Universal Soul' are similar to the doctrines of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Petrova Blavatsky and others, 'to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.' The society has also sought to encourage study of comparative religion, philosophy and science.

The first Canadian branch of the Society was formed in Toronto in 1891 by Algernon Blackwood, Dr Emily Stowe (the first Canadian woman to practise medicine in Canada), her daughter Dr Augusta Stowe-Gullen (the first woman to gain a medical degree in Canada) and newspaper editor Albert Smythe (father of the hockey magnate Conn Smythe), and drew prominent artists Lawren Harris and Roy Mitchell. Links are provided to entries on the Canadian Theosophists.

*  Pioneering Spirit: Maud MacCarthy - Mysticism, Music and Modernity,
an exhibition on view from February 7 to May 9 at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, UK, “explores the extraordinary life and career of Maud MacCarthy (1882–1967) and her networks in Britain and India in the first part of the twentieth century. MacCarthy/Foulds Family Papers archive collection held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.”

MacCarthy joined the Theosophical Society in 1900, and worked on behalf of the Society in many capacities before the First World War, including lecturing on Indian music, writing for its journals, and organizing weekly musical services at its London headquarters. In this last endeavour she collaborated with the composer John Foulds, whom she would later marry. The two also began a series of “Theosophical Experiments in Music”, communicating with suprahuman entities through music and beginning to instruct others how to do so.

In later life she became a swami, taking the name Omananda Puri, and wrote a book about her experiences, The Boy and the Brothers. The online program, which features a fifteen-page brochure on the career of Maud MacCarthy, allows one to “listen to music inspired by Theosophy.”

the New Zealand performing arts review, covers the opening of “Madame Blavatsky and The Astral Light” at this year's New Zealand Fringe Festival:

The play set-up inside the marquee is what the Fringe Festival is all about, but on opening night a cold northwesterly wind rips through the hillside, and I struggle to hear many lines from the front row. Outdoor theatre is always a struggle acoustically, but in this venue it is nigh impossible to hear at times. The volume levels improve as the performance goes on so perhaps the actors will do better as the season continues or maybe this is an exceptionally windy night? 

Blavatsky is certainly an interesting character to inspire a work of theatre, but the script gives very little insight into the woman at all, except through clunky exposition that at times sounds like encyclopedia entries read aloud. The dramatic action and conflict in the play are unclear. 

I really enjoy seeing plays with female protagonists — especially women whose stories history has often obscured — so I am excited by the raw material of Madame Blavatsky and The Astral Light. Though there were many promising elements to the performance, I look forward to seeing a reiteration of this piece with a developed script and in a venue where the technical elements are more manageable.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tales of a Tibetan Cosmopolitan Traveler

The University of Chicago Press has released an English translation of Gendun Chopel’s Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. Gendun Chopel, who was born in Tibet in 1903, was recognized as an incarnate lama as a boy. He traveled in India and translated a number of Sanskrit texts, including the Bhagavad-gita into Tibetan. His Grains of Gold sought to inform Tibetans of the state of India as he found it and as it had been. Of interest is his reference to Blavatsky in Chapter 17:

I think that she was some kind of incredible self-made yogini. In any case, she was someone who had attained magical powers. When she was a child, she was blessed in a dream by two Tibetan lamas named Mura [Morya] and Gutumé [Khoot Hoomi]. Then she began experiencing a kind of vision, until in the end she actually met them, like one person talking to another. They instructed her in everything, matters both subtle and coarse. When I carefully read her extensive stories about them, sometimes it reminds me of Guhyapati (Varjapāni) that appeared to Lekyi Dorjé.…As to making an unequivocal judgment about this, I have no idea.

The story of how the manuscript survived his death in 1951 as well as incidents in Gendun Chopel’s life is told by the translators, Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr, in their Introduction. The book contains a number of surviving watercolours that the author had planned for the text.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Blavatsky News

 *  Bucerius Kunst Forum in Hamburg has on view until May 11 the exhibition Mondrian. Color, which focuses on the painter’s use of colour and acknowledges the influence of Blavatsky on his theories. The exhibition includes 40 key works from the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. The German paper Weser Kurier in its review of the exhibition comments on Mondrian’s familiarity with Blavatsky:

Starken Einfluss übte auf ihn aber auch das 1888 erschienene Buch „Geheimlehre“ der deutsch-russischen Okkultistin und Gründerin der „Theosophischen Gesellschaft“, Helena Blavatsky, aus. Bilder wie das auratisch aufgeladene 1908 entstandene Mädchenporträt „Andacht“ in leuchtendem Orange huldigen der theosophischen Vorstellung eines im Universellen der Natur aufgehenden Individuums.

“Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History” by Michael Bergunder, in the January online issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, makes a claim that is not usually stressed:

There is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi's notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union.…it is argued that the impact of esotericism on global religious history, from the nineteenth century to early twentieth, needs to be investigated with more academic rigor.

*  New Zealand film and theatre maker Julia Campbell, one of the people behind the production on Mme. Blavatsky at this year’s New Zealand Fringe Festival, has posted copies of the flyers for her show “Madame Blavatsky and the Astral Light,” which will be performed February 13 to 16, 2 PM and 7 PM. Discussing her choice of Blavatsky as the subject of her show, she says:

Madame Blavatsky is the founder of the Theosophical society and widely regarded as the bringing new age religion to America. This colourful Russian heiress ran away from marriage to a much older politician at age 19 to travel the world. A highly accomplished and talented young woman, she met her “Master” in London and consequently followed him to India and Tibet where she studied Mysticism. Here her biography gets hazy and nobody is sure where truth meets fiction but she came to New York in 1873 to start the theosophy society.…Such an strong, defiant polarising woman should make a great subject for a show.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Charles Johnston Online

The name of Charles Johnston (1867-1931) may not be as well-known as that of other nineteenth century theosophists, yet to his contemporaries he was considered a main conduit for translations of Hindu religious scriptures, having become proficient in Sanskrit during his stay in India. The site Universal Theosophy has put up what must be the most comprehensive compilation of his writings: 265 items culled from turn of the century theosophical journals. The material is sorted by title, by type (book, pamphlet), and in chronological order, which allows a year by year indicator of his output, starting in 1886 and ending with his death in 1931.

Johnston, born in Ireland, was part of the Dublin theosophical scene of the 1880s that included George W. Russell (Æ) and W.B. Yeats among others. He married Blavatsky’s niece Vera Zhelihovsky in London in 1888, and in 1896 the couple moved to the U.S. where they would spend the rest of their lives. The Johnstons became actively involved in the cause of Russian refugees at the outbreak of World War I. Johnston is listed as “Teacher of English Language” at the New Jersey Seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1918. Among his written pieces are a number of interesting pen-portraits of his visits with Mme. Blavatsky.

Seated:  Mme. Blavatsky and her sister, Vera Zhelihovsky
Standing:  Vera Zhelihovsky Johnston, Charles Johnston, and Col. Olcott
London  1888

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Blavatsky and Pompeii

One of the crazier things written about H.P. Blavatsky was that her first book, Isis Unveiled, was derived from Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii. A very learned and reasoned study by S.B. Liljegren, Bulwer-Lytton’s Novels and Isis Unveiled, was published in Upsala, Sweden, in 1957; in it he argues that since part of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel describes the cult of Isis, and since Blavatsky’s book was titled Isis Unveiled, there is an obvious influence. No matter that the book’s title was chosen by the publisher, or that it’s editor could note that this choice was singularly unfortunate (“This work of Madam Blavatsky is largely based upon the hypothesis of a prehistoric period of the Aryan people in India, and in such a period the veil or the unveiling of Isis can hardly be said to constitute any part”), for Liljegren Bulwer-Lytton was her inspiration. Unfortunately in emphasizing this idea he diminishes or simply ignores the possibility of other possible influences.

The story of Pompeii, the Roman city near modern Naples, destroyed and preserved in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, has been a familiar motif in European literature and the arts since its rediscovery and subsequent excavation at the end of the eighteenth century. Bulwer-Lytton’s contribution, The Last Days of Pompeii, with its recreation of the life of an ancient Roman city broadened its popularity. Film has been especially kind to it with almost a dozen adaptations of the story of the doomed city and love amid the ruins. The news of still another recreation, Pompeii, to be released at the end of February 2014, shows that its charm has not lessened.