The Mysterious Madame B.

David Guy

In 1934, an unpublished middle-aged writer named Henry Miller, living in poverty in Paris, had what he termed “an awakening.” He had read occult literature all his life, had just been reading Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, but was not given to mystical experience. As he recalled years later,

One day after I had looked at a photograph of [Madame Blavatsky’s] face - she had the face of a pig, almost, but fascinating - I was hypnotized by her eyes and I had a complete vision of her as if she were in the room.

Now I don’t know if that had anything to do with what happened next, but I had a flash, I came to the realization that I was responsible for my whole life, whatever had happened. I used to blame my family, society, my wife . . . and that day I saw so clearly that I had nobody to blame but myself. I put everything on my own shoulders and I felt so relieved: Now I’m free, no one else is responsible. And that was a kind of awakening, in a way.

One suspects that Madame Blavatsky herself, the founder of Theosophy, would have delighted in this story; it has the same mysterious, inexplicable, slightly hokey quality of many of the stories from her own life. What credibility she has in the world today seems largely to rest with the people who were impressed and influenced by her: William James, Abner Doubleday, George Russell (the Irish poet �), and W. B. Yeats. Thomas Edison belonged to the Theosophical Society. Albert Einstein reportedly had a copy of the“Secret Doctrine”on his desk. Christmas Humphreys, founder of the Buddhist Lodge in London, was a devoted follower of Theosophy and an admirer of its founder. And his friend D. T. Suzuki, who was so influential in bringing Buddhism to the West, was once heard to say as he stood in front of Madame Blavatsky’s portrait, “She was one who attained.”

There seems to be little middle ground about Blavatsky. Of the two most recent books that concern her, HPB by Sylvia Cranston (Tarcher/Putnam, 1993) and Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon by Peter Washington (Schocken, 1995), one mentions spiritualist “phenomena” - spoons passing through walls, flowers falling out of the air - as if they were commonplace occurrences, while the other portrays Madame Blavatsky as a laughable charlatan, on a par with P. T. Barnum. Yet, regardless of what doubts may linger about her, it is impossible to deny Blavatsky’s influence on Buddhism, both in Asia and the West.

At a time when traditional Christianity was locked in a debate with Darwin over evolution, when people had to choose between blind faith and the laws of science, Madame Blavatsky proclaimed a spirituality that transcended both, and pointed toward the East. In the East itself, where science and Western colonialism were quickly diminishing the influence of traditional religious philosophies, Madame Blavatsky was at least partly responsible for reviving both Hinduism and Buddhism. In all her writing, with its wild speculations and elaborate mythologies, there is a core of truth that few others were proclaiming at the time. Even the basic tenets of the Theosophical Society, which seem commonplace now, were startling when she formulated them, in the 1870s.

People who regard her as a kind of snake-oil salesman need to confront the fact that Madame Blavatsky never grew rich through her work or particularly tried to, and that her dedication was extraordinary. As a near-invalid at the end of her life, under accusations of fraud from various quarters and having resigned from her officership in the society she had founded, she produced the 1,400-page book that is probably her most famous. There are countless contradictions in her life, but, among the many fervent believers in her work, first among them was Madame Blavatsky herself.

Born Helen Petrovna von Hahn in 1831 in the Russian district of the Ukraine, Blavatsky came from an aristocratic family. Her mother was a renowned novelist, her grandmother an artist and scientist. She lost her mother when she was eleven and, as her father was a military officer, her youth was marked by a great deal of dislocation and change. Her formal education was limited, but she was a great reader from an early age and had devoured her grandmother’s extensive library of occult literature by the time she was fifteen.

She was also precocious in other ways. “For Helen, all nature seemed animated with a mysterious life of its own,” recalled her sister. “She heard the voice of every object and form . . . and claimed consciousness and being . . . even for visible but inanimate things such as pebbles, molds, and pieces of decaying phosphorescent timber.” As a child she was friends with a centenarian named Barnig Bouyrak, known as a holy man, healer, and magician. “This little lady is quite different from all of you,” he told her sister. “There are great events lying in wait for her in the future.”

It is not clear why at the age of seventeen this unusual and strong-spirited young woman decided to marry Nikifor Blavatsky, a man she apparently never intended to have much to do with. Sylvia Cranston speculates that she was trying to flee the close supervision accorded young unmarried women in her day. She had planned to flee Russia via the Iranian border following her wedding, but her husband got wind of her plans and intervened. As it was, she lived with Blavatsky for just three months, reportedly denying him his conjugal rights. He finally sent his difficult bride back to her father, but on the way she boarded a small English sailing vessel bound for Constantinople. Her family would not hear from her for eight years.

We don’t know a great deal for certain about Madame Blavatsky until she shows up in New York in 1873. Her detractors claim that she spent her twenties leading an immoral life in the capitals of Europe. (Washington cites rumors of her affairs with a German baron, a Polish prince, and a Hungarian opera singer.) The more official version has it that she traveled in the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and Central and South America.

According to this version, Blavatsky was at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, when for the first time she saw her teacher, who was there with the Indian delegation. She had previously seen him in dreams, but never in the flesh. This was apparently Master Morya, one of two teachers that she would have in her life. (The other was the improbably named Koot Hoomi, and it should be noted that Blavatsky’s critics have doubted that either of these men really exixted.) He spoke to her only briefly, saying that he was undertaking some work that he wanted her help with. First, however, she would have to travel to Tibet.

Master Morya and Koot Hoomi were said by Madame Blavatsky to be “Adepts,” guardians of the Secret Doctrine itself. “There is beyond the Himalayas,” she said, “a nucleus of Adepts, of various nationalities. . . . My Master and KH and several others I know personally are there, coming and going, and they are all in communication with Adepts in Egypt and Syria, and even Europe.” It is to these teachers - with whom she communicated telepathically - that Madame Blavatsky ascribed the special knowledge that she acquired throughout her life.

Early in her twenties - still according to the official version - she had tried to enter Tibet from India but was prevented from doing so by the British authorities. Later, she returned to live with her family in Russia, where her psychic powers were much in evidence. “Raps and whisperings, sounds, mysterious and unexplained, were now being constantly heard wherever the newly arrived inmate went,” her sister tells us.

On another occasion, “All the lights in the room were suddenly extinguished, both lamp and wax candles, as though a mighty rush of wind had swept through the whole apartment; and when a match was instantly struck, there was all the heavy furniture, sofas, arm chairs, tables standing upside down, as though turned over noiselessly by some invisible hands.”

She left Russia again. It was during this period of her travels that she reportedly fought on the side of Garibaldi in Italy. “In proof of her story,” Colonel Olcott - her partner in the Theosophical Society - later said, “she showed me where her left arm had been broken in two places by a sabre stroke, and made me feel in her right shoulder a musket bullet, still embedded in the muscle, and another in her leg.”

It is also during this period that she claimed to have done her apprenticeship in Tibet. This was long before Alexandra David-Néel became the first Western woman to enter the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Blavatsky’s detractors insist that no white woman could have lived in Tibet, but Sylvia Cranston suggests that with her “Mongolian face and olive-yellow skin,” she could have passed. Blavatsky claimed to have studied with a lama, and no lesser authority than D. T. Suzuki has remarked, “Undoubtedly Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teaching.”

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