Spiritualism and the Contradictions of Madame Blavatsky [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes, 1 second. Contains 3005 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges! This is the newsletter where we climb a little into the abyss to make awkward surprise eye contact with tourists.
I’m your host, Stephen. Today’s surprise has been based on me wanting to get back in the saddle asap and hopefully a reduced schedule at work.
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Over the last few months, we’ve delved into the long history of religious heterodoxy in the USA. First with an introduction to the Background on the Cultic Milieu and then we discussed the term Cultic Milieu itself.
Today we’re using all that background to hit up one of the most consequential fringe organizations in long modern history: The Theosophical Society.
I’d wanted to bring us fully up to date with the fringe, but as is all too typical here, I’ve found too much shit to pass off or ignore.
As a friend put it: Helena Blavatsky was one of the three most influential mystics of the last 200 years alongside Aleister Crowley and George Gurdjieff (Oh, we’ll get to you, George. Oh yes). Former Blonde guitarist and occult historian Gary Lachman would add Rudolph Steiner to that list, but I’m not sure he really should be.
An awful lot of what we think of as fringe culture has passed through the Theosophical society, even when it came from someplace else. In fact, they’ve had an enormous influence on many groups who would openly scoff at them.
If you’ve ever heard the phrases “Spiritual evolution”, “World Teacher”, “Akashic Records”, or “Auric/Etheric/astral body” you’ve been touched by some of their core ideas.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 as a reaction to several forces: First, the slowing of momentum of Spiritualism (we’ll get to it in a sec). Second, The increasing availability and access to Indian culture & thought mainly due to British imperialism. And Third, the peculiarities of its leaders.
Spiritualism was a 19th-century religious impulse set around contacting the dead. That classic image you have of a bunch of rich people in a gloomy room with a crystal ball on the table? That’s from Spiritualism.
It’s a fairly big topic I have little interest in. Necromancy just isn’t my vibe. For our purposes today just know that it was a relatively progressive force for its time, though fraught with the same cultural context. Many Spiritualists date the beginning of their movement to March 31st, 1848 when the Fox Sisters of Hydesville New York reported making contact with a spirit. It almost immediately took off as first a fad and then a movement.
Almost as fast as believers showed up looking for a taste of the otherworldly, debunkers and scientists began to examine things a little more closely. Here’s a piece on Table-Moving written by Michael Faraday in 1853. I really appreciate this for its open-mindedness and apparent sincerity. Guess one of the century’s great students of electromagnetism was willing to give invisible forces a real shot.
So we have this ongoing conversation between the loose network of believers, books, lecture circuits, other familiar new-age type organizations, and a slew of different more skeptical investigators.
By the 1890s about 8 million people were still believers in the USA and there are still some Spiritualist Churches around today. As a movement, it mainly catered to the middle and upper class and its most famous adherent was Sarah Winchester. As the guilty heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms company, she made a lot of interesting decisions.
Y’all can tell this is gonna be a big one when we’re more than 600 words into an essay and we haven’t even started the main topic.
Anyway, Spiritualism was even fairly anti-racist for the time, even though it’s filled with what we’d now recognize as both cultural appropriation and other racist tropes. Which partially accounts for its popularity with Quakers.
Along with New Thought, Spiritualism was a major spiritual counterculture of the late 19th century. And both would go on to heavily influence Theosophy.
One of our protagonists, Helena Petrova Blavatsky, was a popular Spiritualist once she came to America.
So let’s get to know her a bit.
On The Trouble With HPB
Madame Blavatsky’s life and ideas are riddled with contradiction and paradox even for an occult figure. Like the more well known Aleister Crowley, she spent a lot of time cultivating controversy.
How convoluted are we talking here? Well, we can credit her with influencing both Adolf Hitler and the broader nazi milieu and Mahatma Gandhi. Her ideas (particularly in the secret doctrine, her second major book) are somewhat loaded with the contemporary racial hierarchy obsession of her era which obviously did not age well. But in her personal life, Blavatsky didn’t seem to express much prejudice.
The Theosophical Society’s mission statement, for example, is explicitly anti-racist:
To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or colour.
To encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
To investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.
As her influence over Gandhi suggests, she was deeply involved in the genesis of Indian Nationalism and both Hindu and Buddhist reconstruction. Doing some of the most important anti-colonial work any westerner ever has by helping those movements gain early legitimacy through the haze of colonial propaganda and gave Gandhi the title of Mahatma pesonally.
This too comes with some unsavory associations, unfortunately, as the Hindu Nationalist movement grew it’d end up having serious fascist undertones. Which are still in play in Indian politics today as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi has been in power since 2014. We don’t have anywhere near the time to unpack that history, but it’s worth mentioning that while Blavatsky was progressive for her time in many ways her influence has been felt more on the far right than on the far left.
And all this doesn’t even address her alleged superpowers, her synthesis of the occult secrets of east and west, her repeated attempts to get into Tibet, all those times she was probably caught as a fraud, her actual ideas, the secret masters, the way her ideas defined the New Age years later, and so on.
So yeah, she had an intense life who’s ripples are still clearly visible today.
Almost every time I’d come up with a real sense of who she was and what she did, I’d find more questions to ask.
My solution to a lot of this is to mostly… ignore her biography. Her biographers tend to skew heavily into two less than helpful directions: Stans and Haters.
The Stans defending everything and the Haters dismissing everything.
Which makes for a frustrating milieu to try and parse. And after more than a month poking around her life and ideas I find myself somewhat between both groups.
It seems pretty clear that Blavatsky (or HPB as she preferred her followers call her) was smart, extremely well read, and possibly psychic in ways which are hard to explain without throwing your hands up and assuming everyone involved is lying.
And she was also often hilarious: In her new york home, the “Lamasery” she had a stuffed ape she called Professor Fisk dressed in a tuxedo and carrying a copy of On The Origin Of Species. Objectively funny for 1877.
But she also pretty clearly committed several frauds and was plenty used to the kind of stage magic Spiritualists used to spice up their performances. Most famously, she pretty clearly faked the delivery of the “Mahatma Letters” for various Theosophists in India, eventually being caught using a trick cabinet with a false wall accessible from her locked bedroom.
The way to cut ourselves free of this mess is to avoid getting too deep into her life and times. The rest of this newsletter is going to run down a short introduction of her life’s story and a bit on the history of the Theosophical Society itself.
Born Helena Petrova
Most of what we know about HPB’s life comes from somewhat conflicting accounts she’d give people. Her Haters paint this as her talking herself up with fanciful stories where her stans spin it as using creative fiction to teach people and to make it harder to tell a linear story about her life.
Frankly, I kinda side with her haters on this one to a point. It’s clear she was definitely selling herself, but also I think it was as much a private joke for her as anything else. She sold The Mysterious as imminant and accessible.
For, uh, obvious reasons I can sympathize.
Because there aren’t really good records of where she was before showing up to New York in 1875, we only really have the dubious accounts of HPB and a few of her family members to go off.
Here’s what we can say for sure:
HPB was born in 1831 and died in 1891. She was born into the Russian Gentry under Czar Nicholas the first in what’s now Ukraine to a minor Russian noble, she spent her youth traveling around the empire and either staying with family or following her father’s various military postings.
From an early age her intelligence and interest in the supernatural were clear and some of the stories from that time sound like a collection of ghost tales.
As a teenager she deepened her psychic powers and her mother attempted to maneuver her into a marriage as was the custom. HPB was…. not thrilled by this but ended up marrying Erivan Province’s Vice Governer Nikifor Vladimirovich Blavatsky in mid 1849.
The marriage was both unhappy and unconsumated, and HPB fled “Old Blavatsky” a few weeks after they married. She escaped by ship to Constantanople and this is where things get real murky.
Because she largely traveled alone, with some arguing she had financing from her father or husband who both gave up on any hope of controlling her, the next 25 years of her life are shrouded in rumor and insinuation.
The story she tells is an epic quest for occult secrets leading all around the world. What might actually have happened was she spent a few decades touring Europe.
It’s hard to say for sure.
We’re not going to focus too much on this but to say that it’s here she claims to have been directed by one of her secret masters to go to Tibet for training. She made repeated attempts to get into Tibet without success because of her Russian passport, as Tibet was very much locked down in that era.
She may also have visited several groups of Native Americans looking for their own spiritual secrets, but was never accepted by them enough to get them.
9 years into these “veiled years”, she returned to Russia to visit her family with new superpowers like being able to make things too heavy to lift and having a lot of weird things happen around her.
After a few years in Russia reonciling with Old Blavatsky, she left again for western Europe, eventually receiving a letter from one of her masters to meet him in Constantanople where they’d leave for Tibet. This time she made it in and stayed with Koot Hoomi, and was instructed in their secret teachings.
It was at this point she was shown parts of the book of Dyzan, a probably fake ancient text written in the probably fake ancient language of Senzar.
The secrets she learned here would go first into her book Isis Unveiled and later The Secret Doctrine.
She claimed the masters she met there were a collection of learned and wise men from many nations who had developed fantastic powers familiar to any student of the paranormal: Remote viewing, telepathy, materializing objects, astral projection, and the ability to be in two places at once.
Basically, they’re spiritual superheroes secretly leading the development and evolution of mankind.
Oh, and if you’re thinking that a secret group of superhumans manipulating the world from the shadows sounds pretty ominious you are correct. This basis would dovetail nicely with anti-freemasonry conspiracies and even today some Theosophy-linked groups are alleged to be secretly controlling the UN for Satan.
We’ll be coming back to the Masters on Sunday.
In any case, she eventually left Tibet with a mission to bring this knowledge to the world to counteract the crass materialism of the age. So she set her sights on the crassest home of that materialism:
New York City.
The Birth of the Theosophical Society
Before we go further it’s important to note that unlike many of her peers in the world of creating your own religion and even despite some of HPB’s own frauds, Theosophy was never a cult in the worst sense. HPB was not L Ron Hubbard and even where it’s clear she was stretching the truth, she wasn’t really abusive on the scale these projects can become.
Theosophy was more of community built around occult ideas than a regimented religion and this gave it a flexibility & openness that many new religious movements lack.
That’s not to say she didn’t cultivate a cult of personality around her using forged miracles, but even as far as these things go it was benign compared to many other new religious movements. She did sometimes exaggerate things to gain patronage, and some of her miracles are likely frauds. But compared with other leaders in the cultic milieu, Blavatsky’s career looks downright positive without allegations of sexual abuse, secret police, group brainwashing, and so on.
She was probably a fraud, but this wasn’t Jonestown or Scientology. And for whatever it’s worth, even at the height of her making shit up in India, she also insisted that miracles were besides the point. Was that cover for not wanting to do them? Maybe so.
So, the Theosophical Society was created in 1875 and sprung out of the long friendship between HPB and her greatest student Henry Steel Olcott, a rennisannce man and journalist who’d been studying Spiritualists in Vermont when they met.
Olcott was impressed with HPB’s powers more than the Eddy Brothers and the two became close friends. A year later in November 1875 they were passing notes between each other at a lecture and by the end stood up and announced during the Q&A that they were founding a new Society to study man’s paranormal potential.
Hell of a flex, but most of the audience was interested and the Theosophical society was born.
They spent the next few years building the society in New York City centered around HPBs’ Lamasery residence on 47th st.
During this time HPB wrote and published Isis Unveiled, which we’ll talk more about next time.
The most important thing was that Spiritualism was somewhat decaying during this period as debunkers were in full swing and one big name after another were outed as frauds.
Blavatsky took a clever angle to this by saying that Spiritualism was both right and wrong. They were right in saying contact with other intelligences was possible, but wrong in labeling them spirits of the dead.
Instead they were other spiritual entities.
Theosophy is a branch of the perennial philosophy, the idea that all religions and spiritual practices have the same core of truth and are simply different expressions.
It synthesizes a huge range of practices from around the world into a somewhat coherent world view emphasizing the development of spiritual awareness as the key to the next stage of humanity.
Though nonsectarian on paper, it’s worth noting that the organization repeatedly has split into factions based on personality difficulties and distrust of various factions.
HPB and Olcott spent 3 years building the New York branch before moving to India to continue growing it there. It’s worth noting that Blavatsky’s most controversial claim, the Mahatma Letters, started in part to help convince Olcott to go with her to India.
Ugh, I’m out of time to write more today.
To finish up the bare bones: Blavatsky spent 6 years in various parts of India building up the Theosophical society there where she spent her time mostly cultivating an audience of Indians.
At the time she and Olcott were two of the first westerners to show both interest and respect for Indian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and both converted to Buddhism.
Olcott would also spend a lot of time in Sri Lanka and would help rebuild a living Buddhist tradition there. Obviously there was some messy cultural appropriation-y issues (he wrote a “Buddhist Catechism”) here, but he did play a significant enough role that he ended up on Sri Lankian money.
Blavatsky would find herself embroiled in lots of different scandals around this time, both after alienating some of her coconspirators and a damning report by the British Society for Psychical Research.
This lead to her coming in conflict with several different groups of Theosophical leadership and largely ruined her reputation.
By 1885 she left India for the last time and spent her remaining years writing in Europe on a relatively small pension given to her by the Society.
She completed her masterwork, The Secret Doctrine, which is what we’ll be spending most of Sunday’s newsletter on and died in 1891 of the flu pandemic.
Madame Blavatsky has some of the most interesting and convoluted personal history of anyone I know of. Even if 90% of it is false, she’s still basically a Jules Verne character come to life.
You can see echos of her everywhere and we’ll talk more about those on Sunday.
It’s so easy to focus on one or two aspects of her life and leave out the rest that I’ve got to suggest looking up more about her yourself. There are some crazy stories out there even without the supernatural stuff.
Anyway, we’ll be seeing you this weekend again.