Saturday, 7 May 2016

Blavatsky's Influence 3

Anna Bonus Kingsford
Alternative Science
Religious historian Olav Hammer discusses Blavatsky’s influence in the area of alternative sciences in his comparison of her scientific writings with Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: “Presumably less familiar is the fact that the broad outlines of Capra’s views on science are structurally similar to arguments made by Blavatsky almost a century earlier…The similarity with Capra is nevertheless most clearly apparent in another major facet of her discussion: the claim that the modern physical sciences point to the same reality as Oriental or occultist beliefs. As Blavatsky puts it, “all comes to science from ancient notions, all is based on the conceptions of archaic nations” (Blavatsky 1888, vol. I:506–7). This modern and inclusive science is thus merely rediscovering what ancient sages already knew; insights that they expressed, for instance, through the cryptic symbolism that one finds in Indian scriptures. (“Theosophical Elements in New Age Religion”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013, p. 250)
The importance of Blavatsky and the early Theosophical Society in the feminist movement has been the subject of a ground-breaking study by Joy Dixon entitled Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). According to religious historian Siv Ellen Kraft: “Theosophy downplayed the importance of marriage, insisted upon the spiritual independence of women, included women on all levels of the organization, and – last but not least – upheld the theological authority of a woman. Theosophy offered the historically rare case of a male founder being overshadowed by his female counterpart, and the equally rare case of women having formal religious authority. Henry Steel Olcott was the first president of the TS, but there would have been no Theosophy without the fertile mind of his co-founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. (Theosophy, Gender and the “New Woman”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013,p. 357) She notes that: “Blavatsky was clearly familiar with the writings of liberal Christian theologians in regard to “the woman’s question.” Like these theologians and other Theosophical feminists, she blamed Christianity and its male god for social corruption and the suppression of women. More specifically, she describes the suppression of women as typical of all religions, but as taken to the extreme by Christianity.(p. 368)

Social Causes
Kraft also notes that the early movement was involved with various socialist causes related to the feminist movement: “Several studies have described an overlap between these movements and also with Theosophy. Historian Diana Burfield, in an early article about Theosophy and gender, notes that Theosophical notions of brotherhood, sexual equality, progress, perfectibility, and tolerance were in harmony with socialist and feminist ideals (Burfield 1983: 35). There were“elective affinities between these groups, which were quite pronounced up to the First World War” (p. 359)

They were also concerned with food reform and animal welfare: “Theosophical interests in vegetarianism further strengthened the bonds to feminism and socialism. There is “plenty of evidence for vegetarianism within WFL [Women’s Freedom League] and the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union]” (Leneman 1997: 274). Many women in the latter group were also anti-vivisectionists (ibid: 277), and their ideological angle towards food reform and animal welfare overlapped with that of Theosophy, which promoted a “universal kinship” of living beings and a “practical desire to alleviate the wrongs of society” (ibid.: 282). Theosophists also tended to support social purity organizations, which in turn were supported by temperance workers, and overlapped extensively with women’s rights movements.” (p. 360)

Art, Music, Literature
Historian K. Paul Johnson observes that: “ Blavatsky’s ideas inspired leading figures in the development of modern art, most notably Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Theosophical influence in literature affected the Irish Literary Renaissance, in which William Butler Yeats and AE (George Russell) were prominent.” (Initiates of Theosophical Masters, State University of New York Press, 1995, p. 113. Nobel Prize laureate William Butler Yeats knew Blavatsky and wrote the following reminiscences: ““I remember how careful she was that the young men about her should not overwork. … I overheard her saying to some rude stranger who had reproved me for talking too much, ‘no, no, he is very sensitive’. … [She was] humorous, unfanatical, and displaying always, it seemed, a mind that seemed to pass all others in her honesty.”(Memoirs, New York, MacMillan, p.26)

In the world of music, the great Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was inspired by Blavatsky; according to Scriabin biographer Boris de Schloezer: “[Scriabin] felt greatly beholden to Mme. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine in his own development; indeed he felt tremendous admiration for Mme. Blavatsky to the end of his life. He was particularly fascinated by her courage in essaying a grandiose synthesis and by the breadth and depth of her concepts, which he likened to the grandeur of Wagner's music dramas. . . . The theosophic vision of the world served as an incentive for his own work. "I will not discuss with you the truth of theosophy," he declared to [de Schloezer] in Moscow, "but I know that Mme. Blavatsky's ideas helped me in my work and gave me power to accomplish my task" (Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, University of California Press, 1987).

Johnson continues: “Political activism in colonial India and Ceylon owed an immense debt to Theosophical influence. In the West, many social movements such as educational reform, women’s suffrage, and abolition of capital punishment were advanced by the efforts of early Theosophists. But in no field of endeavor has Theosophy’s influence been as great as in introducing Eastern religious ideas to the Western public.”(p. 113). Mohandas K. Gandhi met Blavatsky offered this reminiscence: “Theosophy is the teaching of Madame Blavatsky. It is Hinduism at its best. Theosophy is the Brotherhood of Man. … I recall having read … Madame Blavatsky’s Key to Theosophy. This book stimulated in me the desire to read books on Hinduism, and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition.” (An Autobiography, Boston, Beacon Press, 1957, p. 68.)

Overall impact
The influence of Blavatsky and the early theosophical movement is actually quite mind-blogging and, judging from the quantity and quality of recent important historical studies one could say that an ever-increasing understanding of this reality has been consolidating since the beginning of the new millennium. Astrologer Michael R. Meyer  observes: “The society’s revolutionary impact is central to any real understanding  of the fin de siècle, the gestation of Modernism, the ideology of the counter-culture of the 1960s and the late-twentieth century flowering of New Age and alternative spiritualities” (The Astrology of Relationships, London Continuum, 2009, p. 229.)  
Religious historians Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein contend that: “ the formation of the Theosophical Society (henceforth abbreviated TS), and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), and her immediate successors also belong to the short list of pivotal chapters of religious history in the West...These facts place Theosophy and its multiple off-shoots as one of the modern world’s most important religious traditions.” (“Introduction”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013, pp. 1-2)”.
see part 1
part 2