Madame H.P. Blavatsky: Dawn of interfaith exploration

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.MILLIONS OF AMERICANS are celebrating the lives of visionary anti-slavery activists who dared to cross religious and cultural boundaries to build a nationwide coalition that finally led to freedom. We have published lots of stories about the 150-year milestones this year. See our interview with scholar Stephen Prothero as well as our overview of PBS Abolitionists series running all month. For nearly two centuries, prophetic American activists like Angelina Grimke were crisscrossing the religious landscape in pursuit of human rights. 

FLASH FORWARD A CENTURY and we celebrate interfaith pioneers like Huston Smith (public TV personality and author of major books), Jacob Needleman (scholar-philosopher charting new paths into religious diversity), Bill Moyers (bringing these themes to PBS), Karen Armstrong (historian and peace activist), the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II (hosts of global gatherings).

THIS WEEK, thanks to Gary Lachman—a talented author and historian—we invite readers to rediscover a giant from the dawn of interfaith relations: “Madame” H.P. (or Helena) Blavatsky.

TODAY, we recommend that you enjoy Lachman’s newest biography, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. If this is your first encounter with this larger-than-life woman, you are in for a treat! What’s more, you are learning about a true pillar in worldwide religious history. At first glance, she can appear to be an outrageously mysterious P.T. Barnum of spirituality! But historians and scholars of religion agree: Blavatsky’s promotion of non-Christian religions in the 1800s led directly to a wider American discovery of these huge religious groups. And, long after her death, the movement she founded played a role in helping Gandhi achieve freedom in India. Intrigued?

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Gary Lachman and here are …


DAVID: At first glance, Madame Blavatsky’s life seems more like an over-the-top novel than a serious matter for readers concerned about international peacemaking today. I’ve often described her as a kind of P.T. Barnum of world religions. She and her movement stacked up some amazing achievements—but she also cultivated this air of international mystery, didn’t she?

GARY: She was this kind of wild child who emerged out of Russia in the mid 19th century. She grew up in an aristocratic Russian family. Her grandmother was a princess, so she had a noble pedigree. Her father was a captain, and later a colonel, in the horse guards in the Russian Army. But, early in her life, she developed this appetite for the unknown. She had this strong sense that truth was out there in the world—answers to religious and metaphysical and spiritual questions. This desire to find those answers came to her at a very early age.

When she was 17 or so, she wed this Mr. Blavatsky who was older. He was in his 40s. The marriage was unconsummated and, after just a few weeks, she ran off and went on her quest into the unknown. Depending on how much you believe of the story she told, she went around the world a few times. Then, she landed in New York in 1873 and that’s when she surfaces on the public record. She goes to Chittenden, Vermont, to a place where a series of spiritual manifestations were reported.

Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott later in their lives. Photo from 1888. Learn more about the online archive of Blavatsky photos at the end of this article.DAVID: We’re talking here about the Eddy Brothers, who were hosting some séances that had received attention from around the world. One person attracted to the town was Colonel Henry Olcott, who had been a longtime journalist and was famous as a Civil War veteran and a member of the team that investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. We’ll be doing a lot of coverage of Lincoln this year. But, back in the 1870s, Olcott moves on to investigate the occult movement sweeping through parts of the American heartland and he winds up in Chittenden. Then, Madame Blavatsky shows up—and there is this historic convergence of these two major figures.

GARY: She had read articles by Col. Olcott, who was considered an American war hero. But, he also was a businessman, an insurance agent and he had a deep interest in spiritualism and what we would call today the paranormal. He was covering the story of the Eddy Brothers, who lived in Chittenden.

Madame Blavatsky sought out Olcott and their lives connected in a way we see happening in other important relationships related to religion and spirituality. A few decades later, the Russian esoteric master Gurdjieff would connect with P.D. Ouspensky, a well-known journalist and writer in their era, and their resulting relationship would become important to both of them in the early 20th century.

In the 1870s, Blavatsky met Olcott in Vermont and that changed both of their lives. In New York, she became this powerful figure in the occult community and the Theosophical Society was founded in 1875. But Blavatsky rarely stayed in one place. She stayed in New York for a while. Then, she had to leave for India by the mid 1880s because of scandal surrounding claims that she was a fraud. She spent the last years of her life, before her death in 1891, as a refugee in Europe.

She moves around so much in such a fascinating era that in my book about her, I try to help readers get a feel for the era and the places she traveled. For example, she was in London at the same era as the Jack the Ripper case and the gas-lit Sherlock Holmes stories were starting to appear in print.


DAVID: It’s easy today to make fun of some of the more bizarre twists and turns in early interfaith history. But, I tend to regard a lot of these early figures as good, intelligent people with a noble desire to expand humanity’s appreciation of religion. We have to remember that the typical junk Americans were reading about other world cultures was served up in pulp novels and penny newspapers and tended to regard other religions as savage and, by default, dangerous if not downright evil.

GARY: One way to describe Madame Blavatsky is: She’s the person who kick started modern spirituality.

DAVID: Yes, from what I know about her, I agree. But let’s talk about her own religious faith. She comes out of Orthodox Christian Russia, at least the aristocratic version of that church. But she left that affiliation far behind. How do you describe her personal faith?

GARY: She called herself Buddhist but she had her own particular meaning for that. This led to a complicated misunderstanding within the movement. She liked A.P. Sinnett’s book Esoteric Buddhism. But the truth is that his version is so esoteric that no Buddhist scholars had heard of it—and haven’t to this day. The author claims that he was writing about a primal teaching that Buddhism came out of. Blavatsky herself says that Buddhism was the kind of teaching that she found on tablets in a monastery. So, a lot of what they were talking and writing about was this esoteric version of Buddhism. However, we also can say that Blavatsky was the one who introduced Mahayana Buddhism to American culture in a popular way. Many of the figures we consider to be early popularizers of Buddhism in the West, like Christmas Humphreys, were part of the Theosophist movement at some point.

DAVID: She was rejecting a lot of aspects of mainstream Christianity in her era, right? She wanted to blow open the potential of spiritual exploration to include other world faiths.

GARY: I think she adopted her particular form of Buddhism militantly against the mainstream Christianity of the time. Think of her as banging her hammer against the citadel of bourgeouis Christianity in her day. She wanted to free people, in her view. She wanted to chip away at the kind of established Judeo-Christian view of the world in the West. There were some negative and even nasty theories that connected with the Theosophist movement, after her death. But, Madame Blavatsky was strongly into progressive movements, what we would call left-wing issues today.


Madame Blavatsky in 1877.DAVID: What was her appeal? Whatever else we may think about her, she had an intense appeal to many people. By the 20th century, a lot of the women who became very popular as evangelists were regarded as beautiful. I’m thinking of Aimee Semple McPherson, who appeared on stage in various costumes and cultivated her exotic beauty. Blavatsky wasn’t a beauty.

GARY: I think her appeal relates to her gravitas. You felt that she was for real—even when she was pulling your leg. Theosophy did have quite a few women in leadership. There was Anna Kingsford, another strong woman who had a less-dominant man attached to her as a colleague—like Blavatsky and Olcott. Another strong woman leader in the movement was Annie Besant. There also were strong men who emerged in Theosophy: Rudolph Steiner and then, of course, Krishnamurti.

Overall, I think we can say it was the strength of their ideas and their chutzpah or charisma that drew people to them. No, Blavatsky did not have any sexual allure. She described herself as having a volcano in her brain but ice in the lower sexual regions in her life. The rumors about her having illegitimate children were untrue. She felt that sex was a beastly trait in humanity and that we should wipe it out. Steiner was another famous celibate. This movement was very different than, for example, the esoteric ideas from someone like an Aleister Crowley who was, I would say, polymorphously perverse and wanted to take spirituality in a completely different direction.

DAVID: OK, so you’ve touched on something we should clarify for readers. When people encounter words like “occult” or “esoteric,” and they begin to scratch the surface of this whole movement—it’s not long before they bump into someone like Crowley with his silly-looking hat that he designed for his so-called Order of the Golden Dawn. In the lives of figures like Crowley there is, indeed, all the kind of wild behavior, including wild sex, that turns out to be the flaw in some of these movements. Crowley consciously tried to use what we would call today dark magic. That’s quite distinct from the Theosophists, as you’ve pointed out. But there were cross-over figures, too, weren’t there? W.B. Yeats for example?

GARY: Yates joined the Theosophist society. He became interested in it when he was living in Dublin and, when he was living in London, we know that he went to the meetings while Blavatsky was living there. Later, though, he wanted to experiment with what we could call practical magic. Blavatsky herself was against things like ceremonial magic. Yates was asked to leave and later he went on to join the Golden Dawn, the most famous occult society of the late 19th century. If you know all of this about Yates and you read his poetry, you can find many references to different ideas from Theosophy. Blavatsky sparked the imagination of many creative people. Wassily Kandinsky, who is considered to be the first painter to create purely abstract paintings, was deep into Theosophy and a lot of his theories about nonrepresentational art come out of ideas he found there.


DAVID: There’s a very long and fascinating history involving Gandhi and the movement toward Indian independence just after World War II. Blavatsky herself lived and worked in India. After her death, Theosophist gatherings were one place that Indians of all classes could gather and seriously talk about the importance of their culture—and their hopes for the future.

GARY: Yes, that’s right. In a fundamental sense, Blavatsky and the Theosophists re-introduced people in India to their own native traditions. They took Indian religious traditions seriously and they actually said: This is better than Western traditions. For Indians, it was startling to meet these influential Westerners coming to them and saying that the Hindu tradition was better then their own in the West. All the other Westerners were coming to tell them that they had to learn about Jesus and become Christians. Here were these eloquent Theosophists praising their traditions to the skies! This was an amazing boost to the self esteem of Indians and, yes, eventually this fed into the Indian indepdence movement.


DAVID: Another easy mistake to make, I think, is to read about some of Blavatsky’s own bizarre parlor tricks, we might call them, and to assume she was a fraud for profit. In your book, you describe a few of these things she did to amaze her followers. But, the truth is, she emerges as an amazing feminist pioneer. She was supremely self sufficient even though her thick spiritual books were close to financial flops. She had to work hard her whole life just to keep going.

GARY: This is absolutely true! She didn’t do this to make money! She worked hard her whole life to make a living. She had to fend for herself and, at one point, she developed an ink factory. She developed an artificial-flower factory. She found these trees with a certain kind of fungus that could be cut and sold to help people in starting fires. She was a very practical, resourceful character. And, she wrote an enormous amount—reams and reams and reams. She wrote her big books on spirituality. She wrote journalism. She even wrote some ripping tales about her world travels.

Blavatsky is a catalyst who comes into people’s lives and stirs up things. Olcott probably woundn’t have gone to india on his own, for example, but Blavatsky gets him to go to India and the Theosophist movement goes to India with them. Blavatsky’s message is this very positive forward-looking view of the progression of humanity out of slavery in the past into freedom. Even people like Thomas Edison took some ideas from Theosophy. People like Edison weren’t signed up to the full Theosophist creed, but they were attracted to some of the new ideas.

If you peel away all of the layers in Blavatsky’s life, you discover this real-life character who was influential in building our multifaith sensibility today and who promoted this whole idea of a universal pursuit of truth that should be open to everyone. She really was a liberationist. She’s was on the barricades fighting for what she saw as the best in the modern world.

Many other photographs of Blavatsky and early Theosophist meetings are collected at an online archive. Photos include some scenes of Blavatsky at gatherings in India.

Want more from Gary Lachman & esoteric realms?

Gary Lachman has a talent for combining historical research and an enjoyable narrative so general readers can begin to explore religious figures often considered esoteric or, in many cases, simply too difficult to understand. Lachman’s books are wonderful introductory readers—but these biographies also have substantial research behind each subject and real depth in the chapters. We recommend Lachman’s books as the first choice for exploring figures like Emanuel Swedenborg—we recommended Lachman’s biography of the Swedish scientist and philosopher last year. ALSO AVAILABLE NOW for the first time in a paperback edition is Lachman’s Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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