Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth
Click on image to enlarge.
by Marion Meade
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: Recklessly brilliant, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky scandalized her 19th century world with a controversial new religion that tried to synthesize Eastern and Western philosophies. If her contemporaries saw her as a freak, a charlatan, and a snake oil salesman, she viewed herself as a special person born for great things. She firmly believed that it was her destiny to enlighten the world. Rebelliously breaking conventions, she was the antithesis of a pious religious leader. She cursed, smoked, overate, and needed to airbrush out certain inconvenient facts, like husbands, lovers, and a child. Marion Meade digs deep into Madame Blavatsky's life from her birth in Russia among the aristocracy to a penniless exile in Europe, across the Atlantic to New York where she became the first Russian woman naturalized as an American citizen, and finally moving on to India where she established the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society in 1882. As she chased from continent to continent, she left in her aftermath a trail of enthralled followers and the ideas of Theosophy that endure to this day. While dismissed as a female messiah, her efforts laid the groundwork for the New Age movement, which sought to reconcile Eastern traditions with Western occultism. Her teachings entered the mainstream by creating new respect for the cultures and religions of the East--for Buddhism and Hinduism--and interest in meditation, yoga, gurus, and reincarnation. Madame Blavatsky was one of a kind. Here is her richly bizarre story told with compassion, insight, and an attempt to plumb the truth behind those astonishing accomplishments.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2001
eBookwise Release Date: August 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [624 KB]
Reading time: 379-531 min.
Helena Petrovna von Hahn Blavatsky led a mysterious life in exotic locales: Ekaterinoslav, Constantinople, Cairo. When she found her way to the United States in the steamy summer of 1873, without money or friends, she looked at the New World as the golden realm of opportunity she'd been seeking.
Unconventional even as a child, Helena Petrovna was the high-strung granddaughter of a White Russian princess. In an age when women kept the home fires burning, she already was marching to her own drummer. She fled her grandiose family for a life of adventure, without regard for the consequences. It was predicted she would come to a bad end.
Turning up in New York, Helena at the ripe age of 42 looked frizzy-haired and dumpy. Aside from piercing azure-colored eyes she was not the least bit alluring but she had zing. The quick-witted newcomer lost no time. First, she got married--a bad idea--and immediately got divorced. Then she steamrollered a married lawyer and Civil War veteran (Colonel Henry Steel Olcott) into being her acolyte, before turning her hand to writing and publishing. The book was Isis Unveiled, a complex study of science and theology seen in the light of ancient philosophy.
But most of all she became a celebrity by exploiting Spiritualism, the popular religious movement that believed the spirits of dead people can communicate with the living through mediums. New York has always had a taste for exhibitionists--P.T. Barnum, "Boss" William Tweed, the notorious Victoria Woodhull--yet the rotund, chain-smoking Madame Blavatsky was one of the most novel. The press was soon covering her ghostly séances in which she, unashamedly, offered to link people with their dead relatives. By means of these advertisements for herself, the self-styled "H.P.B." caught the public's attention. And meanwhile, she became the first Russian woman naturalized as an American citizen.
Together, she and the loyal Olcott founded an organization to promote her ideas. If one of the Theosophical Society's objectives was to investigate occult phenomena, a higher purpose was the study of eastern religions, using the wisdom of the ages to create a brotherhood of mankind. What she really wanted was to establish a new religion. Her New York sojourn ended when she moved on to India where she established the society's headquarters in Chennai (then Madras).
According to Helena's thesis, "all things that ever were, that are, or that will be, [have] having their record upon the astral light, or tablet of the unseen universe," adding that "the initiated adept, by using the vision of his own spirit, can know all that has been known or can be known." Craving for provocative ideas with intellectual grandeur, combined with Madame's charismatic personality, helped explain the huge appeal of Theosophy to Victorians seeking enlightenment. Her promise--offering nothing less impressive than the secret to life itself--could not help but kick up very strong emotions.
During her lifetime, and afterward as well, a great many speculated that Blavatsky was simply a particularly clever snake oil salesman, hugely charming, with a large repertoire of marvels. True to form, she objected, emphatically. "There is no miracle," she insisted. "Everything that happens is the result of law--eternal, immutable, ever active." Her admirers ranked her as a great intellect, a person of rare spiritual and psychic powers.
Truly one of a kind, Helena left behind a permanent legacy that she could not have foreseen. While dismissed as a female messiah, her efforts laid the groundwork for the New Age movement, which sought to reconcile Eastern traditions with Western occultism. Her teachings no doubt created new respect for the cultures and religions of the East--for Buddhism and Hinduism--and interest in meditation, yoga, gurus, and reincarnation. Among the VIPs impressed by her message were, for instance, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and Mohandas Gandhi. In the 21st century, as the world continues to shrink and become increasingly a synthesis of East and West, Helena must definitely deserve some of the credit.
From the viewpoint of biography, Madame Blavatsky's life journey must be viewed as uplifting. It is the story of a courageous young woman deeply in love with knowledge who struggled to use innate psychic abilities she did not understand. Blavatsky was middle aged when she embarked on her mission and only 59 when she died in 1891. Over that brief time she left her mark, heroic ideas that would inspire millions. The Theosophical Society, 135 years old, has branches worldwide today.
On the publication of this biography in 1980, I wrote that it was difficult to decide whether "she was a great person or not, one that I liked or did not." Was she merely a lunatic of considerable charm? Which was more relevant: the woman or her work? Since then I've sometimes asked myself, "What was the point in writing about her?" But I don't pretend to have an answer.
As any biographer will tell you, people are what they are. No more, no less. In Madame Blavatsky's case, she was listening to music the rest of us cannot hear. Possibly some future generation can figure it out.
New York City