[Madame Blavatsky introduced Eastern spiritual philosophy to the West, and was the founder of the Theosophy movement and the Theosophical University. Virtually all subsequent esoteric movements benefited from Blavatsky's work in Spiritualism, occultism, and theosophical research. - aaa]
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and her work attracted both attention and controversy because she credited the source of her information to Mahatmas, or Masters. She reported studying with Mahatma Morya, whom she called "the Hindu", as well as Mahatma Koot Hoomi, in Tibet, and later described experiencing a psycho-physiological change of "ensouling", whereby she began to understand and remember the life, the science, and the language of the Hindu, even when he was no longer present.
In addition, her own psychic powers attracted attention. She understood how to manifest phenomena through the power of her will, and this led her to discredit much of the spiritualism which had gained popularity during the 1870s, especially in America. Others in turn discounted HPB's writings by calling her a plagiarist and a fraud, so that she has often been portrayed as a charlatan.
Sylvia Cranston sets the record straight with her scholarly work, which took fourteen years to research and write. Some of her source materials were translated from Russian for the first time for the book, which pieces together the events of HPB's life's work and shows how it has influenced poets, philosophers and scientists for over a century.
What was HPB like as a person? Dubbed "the Sphinx" from one photograph in which her eyes look intently at the viewer, she also had a fun-loving, lighter side. Especially in her youth she had an active social life, loving to dance and attend parties, engage in witty conversation, joke, tease, and create a commotion. She was born in 1831 in the Ukraine, to Peter von Hahn, captain of a horse artillery battery, and Helena Andreyevna, a feminist and outstanding novelist. HPB's family moved often, and Helena and her younger sister Vera received the education of Russian nobility, supervised by their maternal grandmother, Princess Helena Pavlovna Dolgorukov.
By the age of 16, HPB had become preoccupied with the mystical books she found in her grandfather's library. At 17 she married Nikifor Blavatsky, a state official. HPB realized her impending marriage was a mistake, but was not able to stop the ceremony. She refused to grant "nuptial rights" and escaped from her husband with the intention of traveling back to her family. En route, she befriended a Russian lady of her acquaintance, and began her world travels by visiting Egypt, Greece and Eastern Europe. Being a married woman, she discovered, gave her new status and independence, because single women of her class were kept under the strict surveillance of governesses.
Throughout the book there are glimpses of adventure and hardship. There are references to HPB being wounded during the Crimean War, and to the fact that many times during her life she became very ill and close to death.
Cranston reports on numerous voyages HPB undertook during her 20s and 30s, including visits to America, Canada, South America, Ladakh, Tibet, Burma, and, via Java, Europe, where she stayed in France and Germany. She then returned to Russia.
Helena Blavatsky first briefly saw "M", her spiritual Master, on her 20th birthday in London, England, recognizing him from previous dreams. Cranston presents assorted evidence which pieces together HPB's subsequent stays in India, Tibet and Kashmir, where she stayed with Mahatma Koot Hoomi (KH), and met with her own Master Morya, who did not live there but traveled constantly. Both of these teachers, HPB explained, rarely came out into the world openly, but could project their form anywhere.
"KH's home was a large wooden building in the Chinese fashion, pagoda-like, between a lake and a beautiful mountain," wrote HPB in a letter. Much of her time there was spent learning English as well as Senzar, a secret sacerdotal language, the "mystery speech" of the initiated adepts all over the world. HPB, who was fluent in French, had learned only limited conversational English. Yet it would be part of her life's work to render the subtleties of esoteric philosophy and metaphysics into English.
HPB's knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism was greater than was then available to the public or to Western scholars, and she was also familiar with esoteric Buddhist practices. This knowledge was corroborated by Dr. D.T. Suzuki, who brought Zen Buddhism to the West in the next century and who stated that "undoubtedly, Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teaching."
During her 30s, after a physical and psychic crisis, HPB gained full control over her occult powers. In her youth, "phenomena" had often just happened around her, and her family grew used to "raps" or loud noises, the inexplicable movement of furniture and of objects through walls, the unopened letters which she would read verbatim, and so forth. Reading people's minds, she explained, she always did in full consciousness, simply by watching their thoughts as they evolved out of their heads, in a spiral of luminous smoke or radiant material which settled in distinct pictures and images around them.
It was in the last two decades of her life, in her 40s and 50s, that Blavatsky accomplished her public work, guiding the development of the Theosophical Society in the USA, India and England; publishing two magazines, The Theosophist and Lucifer, and writing her major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine.
In 1873 she went to New York on her Master's instructions, staying in the US for four years and becoming an American citizen. Here, with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and William Q. Judge and others, she founded the Theosophical Society, which had the following objectives:
1. to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color;
2. to study ancient and modern religions, philosophies and sciences, and the demonstration of the importance of such study; and
3. to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the psychical powers latent in man.