Taylor Richard P.

Chapter One: Investigating H.P. Blavatsky

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Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) has been a highly controversial – not to say inflammatory – figure in Western scholarship and culture ever since she first launched the Theosophical Movement in New York City, 1875. Claiming that she was instructed by certain "Mahatmas," allegedly Indo-Tibetan sages, to bring Eastern wisdom to the West, H.P. Blavatsky (or HPB) wrote voluminously and traveled extensively, taking Buddhist vows (pansil) in Sri Lanka and claiming initiation in Tibet. Meanwhile she worked feverishly to set up a publishing and teaching network around the globe for the spread of Theosophy, which she also referred to as the "Wisdom Religion."

Blavatsky's contribution to a Western understanding of Eastern thought is ambiguous, and public opinion of her is polarized. Those who notice Blavatsky's work at all either admire it or despise it; few observers take a middle ground. How is one to understand the confusion, devotion and loathing surrounding HPB? This paper begins by reviewing various superficial views of Blavatsky in order to highlight the special problems confronting the researcher.

Then, a methodology is laid out by which HPB's publications may be studied in relation to those of her contemporaries. In this way, a more thorough understanding of her motives and methods will emerge, sharply distinguishing her from Western scholars, missionaries, and colonialists. Finally, by carefully comparing Blavatsky's Buddhistic teachings and assertions to primary sources (sutras, tantras and commentaries), HPB's unique and troublesome contribution to Buddhist studies can be ascertained.

The Need for Such a Study

Because Blavatsky is so widely maligned among academics, and so widely dismissed as a shallow fraud who merits no further attention, one feels in the first place the need to justify a study of her life and work. Madame Blavatsky's influence on 19th and 20th century culture, East and West, may be measured in part by the long list of her admirers and students. These include, to name a few, Mohandas Gandhi[1], Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan (President of India), C. Jinarajadasa (Sanskritist), Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein[2], Dharmapala Anagarika (Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer), George Russell (or AE), William James, E.M. Forster, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum, Christmas Humphreys (Buddhologist), Edward Conze, Nicholas Flammarion (French astronomer), Sir William Crookes (chemist and physicist), Piet Mondrian, Maurice Maeterlinck (playwright), Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Mahler, Annie Besant (founder of the Indian National Congress), Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf schools and new agricultural methods) and Krishnamurti (philosopher). A recent volume contains over fifty reminiscences of Blavatsky from lesser known persons.[3]

Yet HPB's detractors are also many, even those who one might assume would be supportive of her paranormal proclivities. Investigated by Richard Hodgson for the Society for Psychical Research in 1885, Blavatsky was declared at the end of his 200 page report nothing more than a clever fraud:

For our part we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.[4]

Spiritualists, both Christian and agnostic, had long quarreled with HPB over reincarnation, as well as her refusal to admit that there was any communication with the souls of the dead in spiritualistic seances. After the SPR expose, most spiritualists still remaining within the Theosophical Society left in droves.[5]

Likewise, most academics in her time regarded H.P.B. as a dilettante and distorter of genuine Eastern religions. In 1893 Max Muller wrote a long and contemptuous review of Blavatsky's attempt to "found a religion" called "Esoteric Buddhism." Here, the preeminent Orientalist of the nineteenth century laid out what was and was not the real Buddhism, and how seriously Blavatsky had blundered in this regard.

Muller begins by noting HPB's "great shrewdness" in making the source of her doctrines 'esoteric' and in claiming that she drew from a secret and apparently oral tradition. He writes, "'Gautama,' we are assured, 'had a doctrine for his "elect" and another for the outside masses'." But rather than acknowledge the fact that all Mahayana Buddhist traditions make the same claim, Muller compares Blavatsky's statements to those of "Ctesias as to a race of people who used their ears as sheets to sleep in."

If I were asked what Madame Blavatsky's Esoteric Buddhism really is, I should say it was Buddhism misunderstood, distorted, caricatured. There is nothing in it beyond what was known already, chiefly from books that are now antiquated… I cannot give a better explanation of the change of Brahmanism into Buddhism than by stating that Buddhism was the highest Brahmanism popularised, everything esoteric being abolished… Whatever was esoteric or secret was ipso facto not Buddha's teaching; whatever was Buddha's teaching was ipso facto

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