Madame blavatsky, p.1

Madame Blavatsky, page 1


Madame Blavatsky

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Madame Blavatsky

  Madame Blavatsky

  The Woman Behind the Myth

  Marion Meade


  This book would not have been written without the inspiration and encouragement of William Targ, who must be given credit for believing that H.P.B.’s story deserved to be told one more time.

  Many organizations assisted me in the gathering of information. Foremost I am indebted to theNew York Public Library for granting me the privilege of working in the Frederick Lewis Allen Room. I am also grateful for help given by staff members of the following libraries: the Butler Library of Columbia University; Monica Schulzetenberg of the Yale Divinity School Library; Kathleen Jacklin of the Cornell University libraries; the Olcott Library and Research Center of the Theosophical Society in America; the library of the New York Theosophical Society; Wayne Norman of the Eileen J. Garrett Library of the Parapsychology Foundation; the library of the Association for Research and Enlightenment; and the Department of Manuscripts of the British Library.

  I am equally indebted to those individuals who have helped me in various ways: J. Gail Cayce of the Edgar Cayce Foundation, Dr. Gideon Panter, Martha Hollins, Jerome Rainville, Diane Matthews, Thetis Powers, Two Worlds Publishing Co. of London, Hanna Loewy, Mary E. Sidhu, Nancy Sommershield, Julie Coopersmith, Karen Dent, the staffs of Samuel Weiser’s Bookstore, and Quest Book Shop in New York City, and Norman Goodman, County Clerk of the New York County Court House.


  Helena Petrovna von Hahn Blavatsky led a mysterious life in exotic locales: Ekaterinoslav, Constantinople, Cairo. When she found her way to the United States in the steamy summer of 1873, without money or friends, she looked at the New World as the golden realm of opportunity she’d been seeking.

  Unconventional even as a child, Helena Petrovna was the high-strung granddaughter of a White Russian princess. In an age when women kept the home fires burning, she already was marching to her own drummer. She fled her grandiose family for a life of adventure, without regard for the consequences. It was predicted she would come to a bad end.

  Turning up in New York, Helena at the ripe age of 42 looked frizzy-haired and dumpy. Aside from piercing azure-colored eyes she was not the least bit alluring but she had zing. The quick-witted newcomer lost no time. First, she got married—a bad idea—and immediately got divorced. Then she steamrollered a married lawyer and Civil War veteran (Colonel Henry Steel Olcott) into being her acolyte, before turning her hand to writing and publishing. The book was Isis Unveiled, a complex study of science and theology seen in the light of ancient philosophy.

  But most of all she became a celebrity by exploiting Spiritualism, the popular religious movement that believed the spirits of dead people can communicate with the living through mediums. New York has always had a taste for exhibitionists—P.T. Barnum, “Boss” William Tweed, the notorious Victoria Woodhull— yet the rotund, chain-smoking Madame Blavatsky was one of the most novel. The press was soon covering her ghostly séances in which she, unashamedly, offered to link people with their dead relatives. By means of these advertisements for herself, the self-styled “H.P.B.” caught the public’s attention. And meanwhile, she became the first Russian woman naturalized as an American citizen.

  Together, she and the loyal Olcott founded an organization to promote her ideas. If one of the Theosophical Society’s objectives was to investigate occult phenomena, a higher purpose was the study of eastern religions, using the wisdom of the ages to create a brotherhood of mankind. What she really wanted was to establish a new religion. Her New York sojourn ended when she moved on to India where she established the society’s headquarters in Chennai (then Madras).

  According to Helena’s thesis, “all things that ever were, that are, or that will be, [have] having their record upon the astral light, or tablet of the unseen universe,” adding that “the initiated adept, by using the vision of his own spirit, can know all that has been known or can be known.” Craving for provocative ideas with intellectual grandeur, combined with Madame’s charismatic personality, helped explain the huge appeal of Theosophy to Victorians seeking enlightenment. Her promise—offering nothing less impressive than the secret to life itself— could not help but kick up very strong emotions.

  During her lifetime, and afterward as well, a great many speculated that Blavatsky was simply a particularly clever snake oil salesman, hugely charming, with a large repertoire of marvels. True to form, she objected, emphatically. “There is no miracle,” she insisted. “Everything that happens is the result of law—eternal, immutable, ever active.” Her admirers ranked her as a great intellect, a person of rare spiritual and psychic powers.

  Truly one of a kind, Helena left behind a permanent legacy that she could not have foreseen. While dismissed as a female messiah, her efforts laid the groundwork for the New Age movement, which sought to reconcile Eastern traditions with Western occultism. Her teachings no doubt created new respect for the cultures and religions of the East—for Buddhism and Hinduism—and interest in meditation, yoga, gurus, and reincarnation. Among the VIPs impressed by her message were, for instance, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and Mohandas Gandhi. In the 21st century, as the world continues to shrink and become increasingly a synthesis of East and West, Helena must definitely deserve some of the credit.

  From the viewpoint of biography, Madame Blavatsky’s life journey must be viewed as uplifting. It is the story of a courageous young woman deeply in love with knowledge who struggled to use innate psychic abilities she did not understand. Blavatsky was middle aged when she embarked on her mission and only 59 when she died in 1891. Over that brief time she left her mark, heroic ideas that would inspire millions. The Theosophical Society, 135 years old, has branches worldwide today.

  On the publication of this biography in 1980, I wrote that it was difficult to decide whether “she was a great person or not, one that I liked or did not.” Was she merely a lunatic of considerable charm? Which was more relevant: the woman or her work? Since then I’ve sometimes asked myself, “What was the point in writing about her?” But I don’t pretend to have an answer.

  As any biographer will tell you, people are what they are. No more, no less. In Madame Blavatsky’s case, she was listening to music the rest of us cannot hear. Possibly some future generation can figure it out.

  Marion Meade

  January 2011

  New York City


  When Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was forty-five, she looked back on four-and-a-half turbulent decades and observed, “One cannot remake one’s past, one can only efface it according to one’s strength.” Actually she took pains to do both, and given her boundless energy, such efforts at revision were not entirely unsuccessful. For the last fifteen years of her life, she worked strenuously to re-create herself, erasing what she regretted having done, inserting new material, continually editing herself into the person she would have liked to have been. Thus at the age of fifty-four, in spite of two husbands, an indeterminate number of lovers and a child, she solemnly insisted she was a virgin.

  Because she was an eccentric who abided by no rules except her own, she had excellent reasons for trying to conceal a history scandalously inappropriate for a religious teacher who wished to be taken as seriously as Jesus or Buddha. As the originator of modern Theosophy and cofounder of the Theosophical Society, she saw her mission as sublimely messianic: to save the world. Theosophy, literally interpreted from the Greek, means divine wisdom or knowledge of God, and, pre-Blavatsky, had been associated with the Christian Gnostics, Hebrew Cabalists and the teachings of Jakob Bohme and Paracelsus. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy was nothing less than an attempt to synthesize Brahmanism, Buddhism and Occultism into a new religion. It a
dvocated a universal brotherhood of humankind and postulated the existence of Mahatmas or Masters, wise men of superhuman knowledge who lived in the Himalayas. It was her conviction that these men had trained her and then sent her out into the world with permission to disclose some of the secret knowledge that could light up a pitiless and incomprehensible universe.

  In this she failed, even though it was failure on a grand scale. Theosophy changed nothing, nor was it for that matter taken very seriously. Blavatsky’s attempt to bring Eastern wisdom to a West corrupted by materialism was doomed to failure, and probably no other individual, no matter how dedicated, could have succeeded where she failed. Madame Blavatsky misjudged the Western mind. It was not only the intelligentsia who rejected her doctrine, but also ordinary folk of common sense. Who could accept a philosophy marbled with parlor magic and the suspicious incense of hallucination, whose saints were invisible supermen hiding in Tibet and whose miracles were letters falling from the air? Although the nobility of her message remained inviolate, the grandeur was gone.

  If she failed as Buddha or Jesus, she succeeded in other roles she considered beneath her. The significance of the Theosophical movement in restoring to colonial India its own spiritual heritage and, eventually, its independence as a nation, should not be overlooked. At a time when few nonacademics placed any value on Eastern scriptures, it was the Theosophical Society that gave Gandhi his first English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, which would virtually become his bible.

  Not only did Madame Blavatsky inspire Hindus to respect their own roots but, more than any other single individual, she was responsible for bringing to the West a knowledge of Eastern religion and philosophy that paved the way for contemporary Transcendental Meditation, Zen, Hare Krishnas; yoga and vegetarianism; karma and reincarnation; swamis, yogis and gurus.

  Interestingly enough, her impact on our culture was not limited to religion and occultism. It also revitalized the European literary heritage by contributing to the “Irish Renaissance.” Writers such as Yeats and “A.E.” (George Russell) became members of the Theosophical Society, and their creativity was stimulated by Madame Blavatsky’s visions of the ancient wisdom-traditions. Even Joyce, who was less than enchanted with her philosophy, read her works and could not resist drawing upon them in Ulysses: “Yogibogeybox in Dawson chambers, Isis Unveiled... Crosslegged under an umbrel umber-shoot he thrones an Aztec logos, functioning on astral levels, their overshoul, mahamahatma. The faithful hermetists await the light, ripe for chelaship, ringroundabout him... Hesouls, shesouls, shoals of souls.”

  And yet, even if Madame Blavatsky had sparked none of this, she might still have captured a place in history as an extraordinary woman. When I embarked on this biography, I believed it necessary to decide whether she was truly a great person or not, one that I liked or did not. Before my research had progressed very far, it became clear that such an approach was doomed to fail. Like most people, H.P.B., as she was called, was a mixture of greatness and weakness. Only in that light is an appraisal possible. Regrettably, elements of her character are difficult to admire. But after careful study we can understand why she behaved as she did and can even sympathize without condoning her actions. At the same time, she possessed a genuine daring and a vastness of body and soul that compels admiration. In every way, she was an immense person. She weighed more than other people, ate more, smoked more, swore more, and visualized heaven and earth in terms that dwarfed any previous conception.

  One simply cannot make an informed judgment about her paranormal abilities. Madame Blavatsky lived in a markedly different world from ours, where the wall between reality and unreality was at least transparent, sometimes even nonexistent. For that reason, her fifty-nine years could more correctly be termed an experience rather than a life. From childhood, she exhibited mediumistic abilities: she heard voices, glimpsed unseen presences, and faced a variety of difficulties that the average person does not meet. In an earlier period, she would have had to use every bit of her considerable ingenuity to avoid ending up at the stake or in prison. As it was, she suffered her entire life from the jeers of those who believed her a liar or psychotic. It is to her credit that she tried to make sense of the puzzle that was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. If all the pieces refused to fit into a coherent picture, surely she could not be blamed. Perhaps this inability to understand herself was the reason she preferred to be called H.P.B. rather than her given name, which she said was only a label for her physical body.

  There have been a number of biographical treatments of her. The first was by her friend Alfred Sinnett, with whom she cooperated after her fashion: she put at his disposal a body of “facts” freshly minted for the occasion, but later disowned these “memoirs.” Posthumously, her interpreters have invariably fallen into one of two categories: those who approached her with hostility and ended by depicting her as a publicity-seeking charlatan, which at times she did seem to be, and those adherents of Theosophy who regarded her as a saint with a few minor failings. As for myself, I see Madame Blavatsky as an extremely intelligent woman trying to grapple with experiences that were inexplicable. My approach has been to collect the accessible facts about her, to weigh them as honestly as I could, and to present my conclusions, even though I am fully aware that those conclusions may not please every reader.

  It was H.P.B.’s ill luck to live in the nineteenth century when aggressive women were judged by harsher standards than today. More than once during the writing of this book, I have pondered whether her success as a religious teacher might have been greater had she been a man. The fact that she sometimes provoked the most intense outbursts of hatred very likely can be attributed to her sex, but ultimately this sort of conjecture is futile and very much beside the point. She herself refused to abide by sexual stereotypes. Indeed, she ostentatiously thumbed her nose at them unless, of course, it suited her purpose to do otherwise. And I suspect she would have regarded this line of investigation as “flapdoodle,” to use her favorite expression.

  She used to say that even though her contemporaries did not appreciate her, she would be vindicated in the twentieth century when her teachings and her person would finally be understood. While that prophecy has not been totally fulfilled, there is no doubt that we can understand her better than did the Victorians. Perhaps a final assessment of her must wait until the twenty-first century.


  Place of birth: Ekaterinoslav, Russia

  35:01 E. Longitude; 48:27 N. Latitude

  Date of birth:

  July 31, 1831, according to Julian calendar;

  August 12, 1831, according to Gregorian calendar

  Local Time: 1:42:00 a.m.

  G.M.T.: 11:21:56 p.m. (August 11)

  Sid. Time: 23:00:43

  Adjusted Calculation Date: February 2, 1831

  Magnifying and applying come I,

  Outbidding at the start the old cautious hucksters,

  Taking myself the exact dimensions of Jehovah,

  Lithographing Kronos, Zeus his son, and Hercules his grandson,

  Buying drafts of Osiris, Isis, Belus, Brahma, Buddha,

  In my portfolio placing Manito loose, Allah on a leaf, the crucifix engraved,

  With Oden and the hideous-faced Mexitli and every idol and image,

  Taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more,

  Admitting they were alive and did the work of their days,

  (They bore mites as for unfledg’d birds who have now to rise and fly and sing for themselves.)

  Accepting the rough deific sketches to fill out better in myself, bestowing them freely on each man and woman I see,

  * * *

  I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

  I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

  Walt Whitman, Song of Myself




  The Fadeyevs and the von Hahns

  In the fa
ll of 1878, soon after she had become the first Russian woman naturalized as a citizen of the United States, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky fired off one of her periodic attempts to establish the truth about herself.

  “To begin with,” she wrote caustically to a French journal, “I am not a Countess so far as I know. Without overlooking the fact that it would be more than ridiculous—it would be unconstitutional—in a citizen or citizeness of the Republic of the United States—who abjures all titles of nobility upon being naturalized—to claim one, above all which never belonged to him or her—I am too democratic, and I love and respect the people sufficiently, having devoted all my sympathy to them, and this without distinction of race or color, to trick myself out in any kind of title!”1

  This wordy, not entirely insincere, protest was delivered with the self-assurance of one whose predecessors are so respectable that she need not descend to vulgar social-climbing. She was not a countess; she was, however, the granddaughter of a princess, and her family, prominent in Russian history since the High Middle Ages, had produced its share of warriors, saints, and rascals.

  The noble family of Dolgorukov could trace its lineage back to the twelfth century canonized prince St. Mihail Vsevolodovich of Chernigov, and through him to the semilegendary Rurik, the first prince of Novgorod.2 St. Mihail’s great-greatgrandson Prince Konstantin Ivanovich, ruled over the town of Obolensk and founded the renowned Obolensky family. It was his fiery grandson Prince Ivan who won the nickname “Dolgorukoy,” which meant “long-handed” or “far-reaching”—a tribute to his talent for detecting hidden enemies.

  Until as recently as the early eighteenth century, the elder line of the Dolgorukovs continued to produce notable, and sometimes notorious, individuals: Prince Gregory, ambassador to Poland; Prince Yakov, the favorite of Peter the Great; Princess Katherine, who was betrothed to Czar Peter II and whose destiny was thwarted when Peter was poisoned on the eve of their marriage; Prince Serguey, executed for forgery and sundry political intrigues in 1739.

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