Monday, 27 April 2015

Book Review - Gary Lachman - Helena Blavatsky - The Mother of Modern Spirituality I

We shall do a proper review of this most interesting book, but first, let's look at some of the things the author has been saying in various interviews:

As I argue in the book, HPB was a seminal influence on practically the whole of modern spirituality and esotericism.

Well, the Theosophical Society, in its many different forms, continues today. Much of what we think of as New Age really has its roots in Blavatsky’s early work. Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, as we understand it in the West, for example, emerged from her and her early followers. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who collected the funerary texts we know as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was a Theosophist, and much of his work is informed by Theosophical ideas. Also, our contemporary interfaith and multifaith sensibilities, our striving toward a broad religious tolerance, has its roots in Blavatsky’s belief that all the major religions have their source in an ancient, ‘secret’ doctrine. She was very much ahead of her time.

One reason is that Isis Unveiled is often overlooked compared to her other major work. I think it is a remarkable achievement. It is one of the first occult compendiums, a fascinating, if often exhausting, collection of what esoteric and occult literature and philosophy was available at the time. It is the source of so much of what we see as ‘alternative’ literature today. … Basically, with Isis Unveiled Blavatsky tried to resurrect the Hermetic wisdom, which had been in eclipse since the 1600s. If nothing else she deserves credit for formulating the first philosophical – not religious – criticism of Darwinian evolution in it;

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.

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.

Although she died more than a century ago, Blavatsky’s name still turns up in serious discussions about “ancient wisdom,” “secret teachings,” and “inner knowledge,” and it is generally agreed that her Theosophical Society, which she founded in New York in 1875, with her colleagues Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge, was more or less the officialtarting point of the modern spiritual revival. By “modern spiritual revival,” I mean our contemporary widespread interest in a direct, immediate knowledge and experience of spiritual reality, and in a more profound relationship to the cosmos than traditional religions and mainstream science can provide.

In fact, as early as 1970, in an article for McCall’s magazine, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut dubbed Blavatsky “the Founding Mother of the Occult in America.”

To press my point: Anyone who meditates, or considers himself a Buddhist, or is interested in reincarnation, or has thought about karma, or pursues “higher consciousness,” or has wondered about Atlantis, or thinks the ancients might have known a few things that we don’t, or reads about esotericism, or who frequents an “alternative” health center or food shop, would be aware of it if modern spirituality somehow became “HPB free.”
March against genocide - Saturday, May 3 begins at Westmount Park 2:30pm

Friday, 24 April 2015

Blavatsky Obituary

 1862  pen sketch from the talented Madame Blavatsky inspired by seeing Gounod's Faust
Only two days after her passing, William Q. Judge, who had a remarkably strong public reputation at that time, managed to place this exceptionally philosophical and reflective obituary for a mainstream publication, more of a poetically threnodic eulogy. How prescient his predictions turned out, each person can decide for themselves. This included in Caldwell's Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky.

Few women in our time have been more persistently misrepresented, slandered and defamed than Madame Blavatsky, but though malice and ignorance did their worst upon her there are abundant indications that her life-work will vindicate itself; that it will endure; and that it will operate for good. She was the founder of the Theosophical Society, an organization now fully and firmly established, which has branches in many countries, East and West, and which is devoted to studies and practices the innocence and the elevating character of which are becoming more generally recognized continually. The life of Madame Blavatsky was a remarkable one, but this is not the place or time to speak of its vicissitudes. It must suffice to say that for nearly twenty years she had devoted herself to the dissemination of doctrines the fundamental principles of which are of the loftiest ethical character. However Utopian may appear to some minds an attempt in the nineteenth century to break down the barriers of race, nationality, caste and class prejudice, and to inculcate that spirit of brotherly love which the greatest of all Teachers enjoined in the first century, the nobility of the aim can only be impeached by those who repudiate Christianity. Madame Blavatsky held that the regeneration of mankind must be based upon the development of altruism. In this she was at one with the greatest thinkers, not alone of the present day, but of all time; and at one, it is becoming more and more apparent, with the strongest spiritual tendencies of the age. This alone would entitle her teachings to the candid and serious consideration of all who respect the influences that make for righteousness.

In another direction, though in close association with the cult of universal fraternity, she did important work. No one in the present generation, it may be said, has done more toward reopening the long-sealed treasures of Eastern thought, wisdom, and philosophy. No one certainly has done so much toward elucidating that profound wisdom-religion wrought out by the ever-cogitating Orient, and bringing into the light those ancient literary works whose scope and depth have so astonished the Western world, brought up in the insular belief that the East had produced only crudities and puerilities in the domain of speculative thought. Her own knowledge of Oriental philosophy and esotericism was comprehensive. No candid mind can doubt this after reading her two principal works. Her steps often led, indeed, where only a few initiates could follow, but the tone and tendency of all her writings were healthful, bracing and stimulating. The lesson which was constantly impressed by her was assuredly that which the world most needs, and has always needed, namely, the necessity of subduing self and of working for others. Doubtless such a doctrine is distasteful to the ego-worshippers, and perhaps it has little chance of anything like general acceptance, to say nothing of general application. But the man or woman who deliberately renounces all personal aims and ambitions in order to forward such beliefs is certainly entitled to respect, even from such as feel least capable of obeying the call to a higher life.

The work of Madame Blavatsky has already borne fruit, and is destined, apparently, to produce still more marked and salutary effects in the future. Careful observers of the time long since discerned that the tone of current thought in many directions was being affected by it. A broader humanity, a more liberal speculation, a disposition to investigate ancient philosophies from a higher point of view, have no indirect association with the teachings referred to. Thus Madame Blavatsky has made her mark upon the time, and thus, too, her works will follow her. She herself has finished the course, and after a strenuous life she rests. But her personal influence is not necessary to the continuance of the great work to which she put her hand. That will go on with the impulse it has received, and some day, if not at once, the loftiness and purity of her aims, the wisdom and scope of her teachings, will be recognized more fully, and her memory will be accorded the honor to which it is justly entitled.
[Reprinted from the New-York Daily Tribune, Sunday, May 10, 1891, p. 6.]

Monday, 20 April 2015

Book Review - The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky - Daniel Caldwell

Insights into the Life of a Modern Sphinx - 2000 - Quest Books

And so our Blavatsky reading spree continues - Blavatsky’s picturesque life and personality has spawned a small cottage industry in biographical works, but this one has an original approach. This book is an anthology of first-hand reminiscences of Helena Blavatsky, arranged in chronological order. The research is quite thorough with over sixty-five acquaintances, major and minor, commenting on all the known phases of her life. Biographical notes on the contributors as well as historical summaries for each section which comprehensively covers all the major phases of Blavatsky’s life are provided. The extracts are well-arranged to successfully provide a flowing narrative of a vivid life story.

A survey of the plentiful references gives one an idea of the plentiful amount of such material that is available, and so condensing the accounts into a cohesive 400-page work must have been a challenge. It is also interesting to see how a remarkably consistent picture of Madame Blavatsky emerges – for a woman who spent most of her time in modest rooms occupied at writing, she still managed to impress people with her unique character marked by knowledge, wit, culture, and an explosiveness that most people generally tolerated. Also, there is a surpringly recurrent commentary on how beautiful and graceful her hands were.  Moreover, the documentation of the paranormal phenomena which she could apparently produce is striking in its quantity and variety. Some of the more interesting accounts are provided by various newspaper interview features included here.

Judging from the success of this format, one would assume that a similar version comprised of Blavatsky’s own extensive correspondence and biographical accounts would make for a compelling first-hand biographical work, yet another one. And apparently she had very nice hands.

For more Blavatsky reminiscences, check out:

Friday, 17 April 2015

Book Review: Helena Blavatsky - Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke 2004 2

Here are some of fine insights from the pen of Mr. Goodrick-Clarke:

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)
Theosophy’s particular achievement lay in combining the modern scientific idea of evolution, rephrased traditionally as emanation and return, with ideas taken from Oriental religions. (p. 15)

In the West, Theosophy was perhaps the single most important factor in the modern occult revival. It redirected the fashionable interest in spiritualism towards a coherent doctrine combining cosmology, modern anthropology, and the theory of evolution with man’s spiritual development. It drew on the traditional sources of Western esotericism, globalizing them through restatements in terms of the Asian religions, with which the West had come into colonial contact. Here Theosophy paved the way for the study of comparative religion, first exemplified by the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893. (pp. 17-18)
Blavatsky’s cosmology presents the prime characteristics of Western esotericism as defined by Antoine Faivre’s pioneering studies (Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany, New York: State University of new York Press, 1994), pp. 10-15). These characteristics comprise (a) correspondences between all parts of the universe, the macrocosm and microcosm; (b) living nature as a complex, plural, hierarchical and animate whole; (c) imagination and mediations in the form of intermediary spirits, symbols, and mandalas; and (d) the experience of transmutation of the soul through purification and ascent.  (p.141)

Blavatskyan Theosophy thereby combines features of Western esotericism familiar from the Hermetic, kabbalistic, and theosophical traditions of the Renaissance and early modern periods with the nineteenth-century interest in Eastern religions in the West. This syncretism demonstrates the modern development of Western esotericism in terms of its capacity to absorb new ideas and influences. Blavatsky’s universal wisdom-tradition of Theosophy involving both Western and Eastern sources gave an important impetus to a new global esotericism.  (p. 142)

Monday, 13 April 2015

Book Review: Helena Blavatsky - Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke 2004

The new millennium has quite been kind to Blavatsky. Quite a few important publications have seen the light of day, and I will endeavor to kick start a new book review feature this month by covering as many of them as I can.

This book can be considered a breakthrough in Blavatskian literature. After more than a century after her passing, Blavatsky has made it into the canon of western esoteric thinkers, deservedly so. Finally, her writings are considered worthy of serious academic study. The late, lamented Nicholas Goodrich-Clarke was one of the most qualified scholars to attempt this task and he does a creditable job, referencing the better academic works on theosophy that have emerged since the mid-80s and the most lucid and accurate theosophical publications. It is refreshing to see such a fair-minded, charitable, positive appreciation of Blavatsky’s works. Although at a modest 200 pages, the work cannot claim to be more than a basic introduction, Goodrich presents well-researched biographical accounts to frame the text selections of this anthology of her writings.

I will briefly list a few caveats that come to mind:

He basically follows the materialistic, highly skeptical, rationalistic approach established by Paul Johnson in the early 90s, which has become something of a status quo for academic research (although he is more open-minded about Blavatsky’s extensively documented capacity to produce diverse types of paranormal phenomena). I find that there are a number of semantic problems to this approach, but if that is the only framework that scholars are comfortable with at the moment, then so be it.
The author understandably sticks to his area of specialization, the western esoteric tradition, and so roughly two thirds of the work is devoted to Isis Unveiled  and earlier writings, whereas the work should probably only proportionally occupy no more than a quarter  of the space. However Isis is actually rather underrated for various reasons and is well-suited for an introductory study. He does a solid job with the remaining third, which covers what are the core aspects of Blavatsky’s oeuvre, although I find that it makes for a dense concentration of passages that are some of her most difficult, complicated, obtuse metaphysical and cosmological concepts that can appear inscrutably byzantine without the extensively documented arguments that Blavatsky generally takes pains to provide. He does however manage to provide a decent summary of the notoriously difficult Secret Doctrine.

I find that his references to the over-used W.E. Coleman (pp. 51-52, 132) to be outdated and not very pertinent, although he does refute him. His summary of her notions of human and geological evolution (p. 16) is a little inaccurate. A passage from the Key to Theosophy (pp. 105-06) has  a large concentration of outdated or innacurate references. (To her credit, Blavatsky takes pains to give a lot of references to suport her claims and she is pretty accurate, but sometimes they do not hold up to contemporary standards). Moroever, he does not necessarily give an indication of the complete, extensive scope of her writings (running to some 20-odd large volumes). So for example, his claim that she de-emphasized her references to the Kabbalah (p. 76) could be contradicted by pointing out several writings on the Kabbalah dating up to the end of her life.

On the more positive side, most of the major well-known diagrams, including the rare ‘meditation diagram’, are included. Chapters 5 (Mesmerism and Magic) and 6 (Hermetic Philosophers and Rosicrucians) are Goodrick-Clarke’s most incisive, original and well-documented contributions. My caveats do not prevent the book from being a fair, well-researched, accurate introduction to Blavatsky and it deserves commendation for being a pioneering, breakthrough effort in taking Blavatsky seriously as an important thinker. Consumatum Est!

Part 2 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

What is Occultism? William Q. Judge

A classic quote - One has to give Theosophy credit for making occultism a topic of popular interest - I think the term has garnered a lot of misconceptions since then, so let the following be considered to show that true occultism is based on principles of strong ethics, clean living, stable character, and clear thinking. \
What is occultism ?
Occultism is the not telling all that one knows;
but reticence.
Occultism is the not saying all one suspects;
but silence.
Occultism is the not speaking of all one "sees";
but reverting inward to the source of sight.
Occultism the not repeating of all one "hears";
but a closed mouth lest hearing should escape therethrough.
Occultism is the not speaking of faults of others;
but charity.
Occultism is the not setting of fixed plans;
but a fluidic position balanced in the good law.
Occultism is the not laying down for another his duty;
but self-watchfulness in performing one's own.
Occultism is the not doing what one wishes and
when one wants;
but discipline.
Occultism is the not listening to gossip or slander;
but good will to all, from which gossip and slander
can draw no sustenance.
Occultism is the not giving way to anger or impatience;
but calmness.
Occultism is the not being vain of one's learning, or proud;
but humility.
Occultism is the not hurrying one's daily affairs nor forcing one's progress;
but knowing the amplitude of time in all things.
Occultism is the not doing all the great work there is to do;
but the will to labor; the willingness to accept help or be a helper;
the joy that another does a task the best.
Occultism is the not striving to be a leader of men;
but to follow a line.
Judge Echoes of the Orient III, (260-61) (taken from Theosophy VIII, October 1920, pp. 353-54)

There's a pretty decent article on the subject: