Friday, 25 July 2014

Blavatsky's Influence I

The increase in interest in Blavatsky and early theosophy since the new millennium has been rather impressive and somewhat unexpected considering her previous controversial reputation. This series of three posts can only scratch the surface of the research that has been done.
The Blavatsky Revival
I think since around the mid-80s, Blavatsky has been getting wider recognition for her influence on contemporary spirituality. With the completion of her fourteen volume collected writings in the 1980s, spearheaded by Boris de Zirkoff, her stock was on the rise. Some have used the term 'Blavatsky Revival', such as in the interview below with Michael Gomes:
A major step in rehabilitating her much-maligned reputation occurred in 1986,  when a work by Vernon Harrison, a research worker of disputed documents, was published (S.P.R. Journal (Vol.53 April 1986)).  It was a thorough study of the notorious Hodgson report, issued by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1885 and has since been the primary source of misunderstandings concerning Blavatsky. Harrison concluded that the report's "errors of procedure, its inconsistencies, its faulty reasoning and bias, its hostility towards the subject and its contempt for the 'native' and other witnesses, would have become apparent; and the case would have been referred back for further study." Since Blavatsky "was the most important occultist ever" investigated by the SPR, the process was a “wasted opportunity”. (p33)
The SPR also issued an accompanying press release in which a long-standing member of the S.P.R., Dr. Beloff states: "Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, we are pleased to offer him the hospitality of our columns and we hope that, hereafter, Theosophists, and, indeed, all who care for the reputation of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, will look upon us in a more kindly light."
Historical Research
The 80s also saw the creation of a serious Theosophical history project, founded by Leslie Price. . The publication of Michael Gomes' The Dawning the Theosophical Movement (1987), brought a new level of objectivty and acuracy to theosophical publications. Sylvia Cranston's 1985 biography, H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, though critiqued for partisanship, is nonetheless a thorough, well-researched work that gives Blavatsky due credit and clarifies many a misconception. It remains, arguably, the finest Blavatsky biography to date.
Robert Ellwood in his essay, “The American Theosophical Synthesis” in the anthology The Occult in America (University of Illinois Press, 1983) wrote a perceptive review of Blavatsky's contributions :"Theosophy’s program was through rational but not reductionist means to restore consciousness as a pervasive presence to the world described by science, and to liberate religion to enjoy its worldwide heritage and its ultimate compatibility with all that science discovers. To do so it must, HPB believed, draw models for reality undogmatically but forcefully from the wisdom of those the wisest in spirituality’s worldwide past. Something had once been known, she was convinced, that was lost amide the rise of competitive religion and one-dimensional science in historical times. We have seen what some of those models were, and what the more immediate sources for them were in traditions she thought be in touch with that past and its hidden but living present. The details are perhaps less important than the program in understanding the appeal of Theosophy, and its initial emergence as a synthesis attempting to contain an epochal crisis in the human spirit". (130-31) Since then, the growth of historical studies on theosophy has continued to expand appreciably.
For her contributions to the field of the Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, a scholar of Jewish mysticism,  mentions Blavatsky In his book, Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, p. 85: "Scholem’s emphasis on the role of symbolism in a preeminently medieval literature such as Kabbalah is corroborated by other scholars dealing with medieval material in general, with Christian mysticism, and even with Kabbalah. So, for example, we find similar views, expressed long before Scholem’s characterization quoted above, in the writings of G.G. Coulton, W.R. Inge, and Madame Blavatsky. For our purpose it is sufficient to quote Madame Blavatsky, a follower of the Renaissance Christian kabbalists who formulated their conception of the Kabbalah in a way accepted and further developed by many modern scholars of the Kabbalah: “The Kabbalist is a student of ‘secret science,’ one who interprets the hidden meaning of the Scriptures with the help of the symbolical Kabbalah, and explains the real one of these meanings.”
For her contributions to the field of Gnosticism, Richard Smith (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977, Brill, p.537) notes that: "It was Madame Blavatsky who first claimed the Gnostics as precursors for the occult movement. In her program to divide speculative learning into esoteric and exoteric, truth and religion, the Gnostics were an obvious opposition to what she called "Churchianity." She absorbed the Gnostics, in her universal free-associative style, into a great occult synthesis."
Eastern Religions
Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism(Cambridge University Press 1990) has become a major textbook on Buddhism, and Blavatsky gets her fair share of credit: "An important event occurred in 1880, when Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907), and Madame H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91) arrived in Colombo. In 1875, this American journalist and Russian clairvoyant had founded the Theosophical Society in New York. In 1879, they established the headquarters of this syncretistic religious movement in India. On arriving in Colombo, they appeared to embrace Buddhism publicly taking the refuges and precepts, thus giving a great confidence-boost to some Buddhists, due to their being Westerners". (pp. 290-91) "The Society had, however, been successful in introducing a number of key Buddhsit and Hindu concepts to people unfamiliar with scholarly writings". (p. 304)
New Publications
The new millenium kicked off a spate of Blavatsky publications, including her Collected Letters, Vol. 1, Daniel Caldwell's anthology The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky  and the Esoteric Instructions. In 2011, the publication of a lost transcription of Blavatsky's London study classes gave us a greater glimpse into Blavatsky's personality than ever before. . Michael Gomes' 2004 abridgement of her Secret Doctrine by Penguins books brought this esoteric classic to a wider audience.
Western Esotericism
There was a bit of a breakthrough academic work on Blavatsky, in the field of western esotericism, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, North Atlantic Books (2004): "Widespread dissatisfaction with the hegemony of science in Western culture and its preoccupation with the concrete, the factual, and the substantive interacted with a lack of confidence in traditional Christianity, itself undermined by the very progress of scientific explanation. Theosophy, in the strict meaning of the movement founded by H.P. Blavatsky, addressed these concerns in a progressive way. Adapting contemporary scientific ideas to posit the idea of spiritual evolution through countless worlds and time-eras, Theosophy supplied dignity and purpose to man’s earthly life within a cosmic context. While spiritualism (a major movement from the mid-1950s) alleged survival after death, Theosophy located human destiny in an emanationist cosmology and anthropology that have their roots in both Neo-Platonism and Oriental religions." (pp.1-2)
Improved Mainstream Reputation
Gary Lachman's 2012 biography is arguably the first reasonably neutral and objective mainstream Blavatsky biography. He states in an interview:"I think people think they know who and what HPB was about already, and accept the cliches and stereotypes about her, without really looking into who she actually was. She’s as important in the shaping of the modern world as Darwin, Marx or Freud, but the myths and half-truths that have been repeated over and over prevent us from seeing this. My book tries to redress this misunderstanding."  

In conclusion, many people now agree that Blavatsky's contribution to and influence on modern spiritual thought has been important and considerable:"...Helena Petrovna Blavatsky... is surely among the most original and perceptive minds of her time ... Buried in the sprawling bulk of her two major books ... there lies, in rudimentary form, the first philosophy of psychic and spiritual evolution to appear in the modern West ... With all criticisms weighed up against her, HPB stands forth as a seminal talent of our time ... Above all, she is among the modern world’s trailblazing psychologists of the visionary mind. At the same historical moment that Freud, Pavlov, and James had begun to formulate the secularized and materialist theory of mind that has so far dominated modern Western thought, HPB and her fellow Theosophists were rescuing from occult tradition and exotic religion a forgotten psychology of the superconscious and the extrasensory.  Madame Blavatsky may be credited with having set the style for modern occult literature." (Theodore Roszak, The Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness, New York, Harper and Row, 1975, pp. 118, 124-125).