483: Interview on Madame Blavatsky, interfaith pioneer & Theosophy founder

Unity of mind-body-spirit. Spiritual quests. East-West connections. Ancient disciplines. Respect for world religions.
   All are commonplace today.
   And yet—all have roots in a tiny New York flat in 1875 where a circle of men and one larger-than-life, Russian-American woman, Madame Helena Blavatsky, committed themselves to the serious study of the world’s religious traditions. Their work touched countless lives, including figures as widely different as L. Frank Baum (the author of “The Wizard of Oz”), the Irish writer James Joyce—as well as some of the leading political figures who eventually joined Gandhi in the India-independence movement half a world away.
    “Today everybody knows the word karma. Now, everybody talks about mind-body-spirit connections in their lives. People everywhere talk about the unity of life around the world—and how we should do away with notions of class and race and religious bias. We can trace the popularity of a lot of those ideas back to this little group of people listening to lectures in their rooms in New York in 1875 and saying: This stuff is going to be important. We should study this stuff. We should tell other people about it.

    That’s Michael Gomes talking. He’s an author and historian who specializes in America’s largely overlooked religious traditions—like Blavatsky and what became known as the Theosophist Society. Gomes has just summarized this history in a handy introduction to Blavatsky’s masterwork, “The Secret Doctrine.” Then, he provides about 200 pages of excerpts from her 1888 book in which she celebrates global spirituality.
    We should thank Gomes, because the original edition of “Secret Doctrine” was 1,500 pages! Even Gomes admits that portions of the whopping original text don’t make a lot of sense today, including one big section in which Blavatsky critiqued scientific discoveries of her era. “Most of that scientific stuff is too out of date for people to appreciate today, so I left it out,” Gomes explains.
    But what Blavatsky did—and what you’ll discover in this new concise volume—is provide vivid glimpses of the richness within the world’s spiritual traditions. Open up her chapter (preserved in Gomes’ new edition) on “The Lotus, as a Universal Symbol,” and you’ll quickly whirl around the world, opening up lotus petals and envisioning far deeper truths within this potent floral image.
    She also was a seductive storyteller, weaving enticing claims about spiritual secrets 100 years before Dan Brown even dreamed of “The DaVinci Code.” Blavatsky wasn’t consciously writing fiction. She saw herself as a pioneer in the vanguard of a new worldwide movement that would appreciate all of the great religious traditions. She foresaw a day, which now has arrived, in which millions of Americans would tell pollsters they are making their own decisions about the religious disciplines they will follow.
    She’s a spiritual godmother whose image many of us should frame and hang on our office walls as an early saint of the modern interfaith movement.


    DAVID: I like this quote from an admirer of Madame Blavatsky, after her death in 1891: “She made it possible for men and women to believe at a time when belief was really being challenged.
    I can’t imagine a better way to describe her enduring importance. We’re looking for teachers like that, today, aren’t we?
    MICHAEL: She could have started her Theosophist Society anywhere in the world and, of course, later she moved to India and she worked in Europe. But she started the Theosophist Society here in America. I think that’s very important for us as Americans and for the world.
    The Beat poets and the Beatles and all those ‘50s and ‘60s people a century later who hit the road, who traveled to India, who renewed all those connections for us again—they really were step-children of Blavatsky’s first pilgrimage to India.
    DAVID: These ideas certainly are red hot, once again. Asian and Indian themes are among the most popular in our online magazine. In the new Pew research on American religious life, tens of millions of Americans say they don’t have a single religious affiliation anymore—partly because so many people are searching globally for spiritual answers. They’ve got more than one spiritual interest. As you put it, we’re talking about Madame Blavatsky’s step children.
    These questions also are huge again in popular culture—especially in best-selling novels. The Harry Potter series and the Dan Brown novels all depend on ideas of secret, esoteric traditions interwoven into our history. That’s Blavatsky, too.
    MICHAEL: I’ve heard Dan Brown’s publisher is planning a 5-million-copy first run of his next novel. We can laugh at some of the things he comes up with in his novels, but it’s part of this big interest in forgotten religious traditions.
    I think America is unique in the world because all of these traditions come together here. We have Native American traditions here. We have the esoteric interests of some of the founding fathers. America drew immigrants from East and West to form a uniquely American culture. This country holds unique potential for exploring these traditions.

    DAVID: Blavatsky is such an amazing woman that—well, if someone made a movie about her life, audiences would think it was pure fiction.
    MICHAEL: She had this really keen intellect. There were no women in academia writing about world religions like this until the middle of the 20th century. So many people who hoped to see a change in the world order came to this new movement she launched—people who were abolitionists, activists for women’s suffrage, creative people, writers, artists, musicians, political activists.
    She was a world traveler. She’s one of the first people to look at indigenous traditions and say they have enduring value for humanity. She was so ahead of her time in this, ahead of Joseph Campbell and all of these other people.

    DAVID: What produced such a unique life? She was born in 1831 in what is today Ukraine into what seems like a fairy-tale family.
    MICHAEL: Her family would have been considered lesser nobility. Her mother was a very well-known writer in Russia. Her father was in the cavalry and they moved from town to town. She had a sort of free-wheeling childhood with no real fixed place she could call her own home—and then her mother died when she was 11 and she was sent to live with her grandparents in a very strict home. Her family was part of the cultured, learned, old aristocracy that eventually would fade away, of course. Her grandmother also was quite literate.
    Then, at the age of 17, on the eve of her 18th birthday, she marries this old Mr. Blavatsky who was about twice her age. We don’t know if this was a means of escaping that very strict life she had been living with her grandparents. We do know that she abandoned her husband after just a few months and began a life of travel.
    It’s still amazing to consider that this 18-year-old girl leaves Russia, goes off to Constantinople and from there she travels all over the world. She could have had a very easy life in Russia. Her husband was a lieutenant governor and she could have been a grande dame with servants. She could have established her own literary salon. She could have been a real starring light in Russian society—but something compelled her to start this life of restless travel.
    DAVID: While her family was strict and old-fashioned in a way, she also had some strong influences fueling her thoughts about women’s abilities, right?
    MICHAEL: She certainly would have known about her mother, who wrote things about women’s rights. Her grandmother also corresponded with a lot of scientists and philosophers of the day. Reading—and literature in general—would have been very important to her from an early age. The Russian aristocracy tended to learn French and she learned French from an early age.
    DAVID: What was her family’s religious background?
    MICHAEL: She was baptized into the Russian Orthodox church.
    DAVID: But soon she was making friends with people of every faith she could encounter around the world.
    MICHAEL: There are long gaps in the records of her travel, but we have documented stories about many of the places she visited. She visited Greece, areas that now are Turkey, Palestine, Egypt. Her name pops up in those areas. She claimed to have reached India and claims to have visited the lamas in the north during that period.
    She was an extremely willful person who enjoyed years of travel. But she also made a transition into this dedicated writer who could sit at a desk and write 12 hours a day.
    DAVID: Initially, she wasn’t known as a “writer.” The first of her two huge books, “Isis Unveiled” in 1877, pretty much surprised even her friends.
    MICHAEL: Her family was shocked because she showed no background as a writer. When they first heard she had written a book, they thought it was a hoax.
    But here’s what she writes about this: “I am but the reflection of an unknown bright light. However this may be, this light has gradually been incorporated into me, … it has, as it were, pierced through me; and, therefore, I cannot help myself that all these ideas have come into my brain into the depths of my soul; I am sincere although I may be wrong.”
    DAVID: I love that kind of sincere, enthusiastic, honest profession—with “I may be wrong” tacked onto the end. Clearly, she was eager to get some kind of larger movement going. She saw something important in the world and wanted more people involved.
    MICHAEL: She had tried, in 1872, to start some kind of spiritual society in Cairo, but it only lasted for a few weeks.
    Then, in 1875 she was in New York. It was September 7 in her rooms on Irving Place, which by the way now is Washington Irving High School—this place where she used to live. George Henry was giving a lecture on the lost canon of the ancients. She was hosting the lecture. At that meeting, they decided to start what would become the Theosophical Society. Then, on November 17 that year, Col. Henry Steele Olcott gave his inaugural address as president.

    DAVID: Their work became very popular within a circle of bright, creative people.
    MICHAEL: In her first major book, “Isis Unveiled,” she makes the case for what she calls the existence of an ancient wisdom that underlies all of the world’s religions and philosophies. She argues that there is a commonality between religions. She calls for discussion among all religions.
    Then, she travels to India and things take off. The Indians really adopt her ideas. By 1885, there were 130 lodges in India doing this kind of study and work. Remember, this was a time when India as we know it today didn’t exist. There were separate states and the British controlled some of this, but it was a hodge podge of different states.
    This idea of universal principles was very attractive. The society spread so quickly because it was one of the first all-India organizations. That’s why it had such an influence on people who later would work for India’s freedom from the British.
    This was one of the few places in India where people from all backgrounds could come and speak. The Theosophist Society’s first goal was forming a universal brotherhood regardless of race or class. They allowed Indians to come and speak with non-Indians and everyone was able to discuss ideas on an equal footing. This was a dramatic change for people who discovered this group in India.
    DAVID: “Isis Unveiled” was big and dramatic and innovative—but it also was somewhat difficult to read. She wanders between ideas pretty freely. Really, this second big book—this Blavatsky masterwork, “The Secret Doctrine”—was related to that first book, wasn’t it?
    MICHAEL: Yes, “The Secret Doctrine” was supposed to be a revision of “Isis Unveiled.” She finally went back and reread the entire first book while she was in India and she wasn’t satisfied with it. The style is very much a free association of thoughts. She’ll go off and tell you about one thing, then veer off and tell you about something else. So, she wanted to do another book and what she produced could have been just a revised, edited version of her first book.
    But it wasn’t. She wrote and wrote and wrote. She wrote for a time in Germany and by the time she later moved to London, the manuscript for this new book was over three feet high! The book that finally was published in 1888 was edited down.
    DAVID: And still it was huge! Thank you for your 200-page condensation. I’m especially interested in Madame Blavatsky’s revival because she restores some of the long-overlooked credit that should go to women for modern religious writing.
    It’s sad that she’s so little known. I’d like to see her portrait up on my wall along with other spiritual pioneers.
    MICHAEL: She did have a knack as a writer. She was one of the first people to coin the phrase “the sixth sense.” She describes it as a sense that’s latent and that we should develop.
    She was very creative. But her success ultimately was her failure.
    Now, you can walk into any community college and take a course in comparative religion. That’s Blavatsky’s legacy.
    Brotherhood—we all talk about that today. You’re not an appropriate member of today’s society if you don’t show some respect for the universal nature of humanity. Blavatsky encouraged that more than 100 years ago.
    Our assumption now that we’re multifaceted personalities? The idea that there’s a wholeness principle? Blatvatsky taught about this. And, so much more. These were ideas that permeated her work and were so influential to others around the world. Yet, today, not many people know the story of this woman who wrote about them so powerfully and convinced others to carry on the work.


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