Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
by Boris de Zirkoff
“Madame Blavatsky … stands out as the fountainhead of modern occult thought, and was either the originator and/or popularizer of many of the ideas and terms which have a century later been assembled within the New Age Movement. The Theosophical Society, which she cofounded, has been the major advocate of occult philosophy in the West and the single most important avenue of Eastern teaching to the West.” — J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark and Aidan A. Kelly, editors, New Age Almanac (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991), p. 16.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Chief Founder of the modem Theosophical Movement, was born at Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), a town on the river Dnieper, Ukraine, on 12 August 1831. She was the daughter of Colonel Peter von Hahn, and Helena de Fadeyev, a renowned novelist who died young. On her mother’s side, she was the granddaughter of the gifted Princess Helena Dolgorukov, a well-known scientist and writer. Through her, she descended from the historically famous line of Prince Rurik, and on her father’s side from the Counts Hahn von Rottenstern-Hahn, an old Mecklenburg family. After the early death of her mother, she was brought up in her grandparents’ house at Saratov, where her grandfather was Civil Governor.
Helena was an exceptional child, and at an early age was aware of being different from those around her. Her possession of certain psychic powers puzzled her family and friends. At once impatient of all authority, yet deeply sensitive, she was gifted in many ways. A clever linguist, a talented pianist and a fine artist, she was yet a fearless rider of half-broken horses, and always in close touch with nature. At a very early age she sensed that she was in some way dedicated to a life of service, and was aware of a special guidance and protection. When just eighteen, she married the middle-aged Nikifor V. Blavatsky, Vice-Governor of the Province of Yerivan, in a mood of rebellious independence and possibly with a plan to become free of her surroundings. The marriage, as such, meant nothing to her and was never consummated. In a few months she escaped and travelled widely in Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, on money supplied by her father. On her twentieth birthday, in 1851, being then in London, she met the individual whom she had known in her psycho-spiritual visions from childhood — an Eastern Initiate of Rajput birth, the Master Morya or M. as he became known in later years among Theosophists. He told her something of the work that was in store for her, and from that moment she accepted fully his guidance, both in her occult development and her outward work.
Later the same year, she embarked for Canada , and after adventurous travels in various parts of the USA, Mexico, South America, and the West Indies, went via the Cape and Ceylon to India in 1852. Her first attempt to enter Tibet failed. She returned to England via Java in 1853. In the summer of 1854, she went to America again, crossing the Rockies with a caravan of emigrants. In late 1855, she left for India via Japan and the Straits. On this trip she succeeded in entering Tibet through Kashmir and Ladakh, undergoing part of her occult training with her Master. In 1858 she was back in France and Germany, and returned to Russia unannounced on Christmas day of that year, staying a short time with her sister at Pskov. From 1860 to 1863, she travelled through the Caucasus, experiencing a severe physical and psychic crisis which placed her in complete control over her occult powers. She left Russia again in the fall of 1863, and travelled extensively through the Balkans, Egypt, Syria, and Italy. It is probable that she may have gone to Tibet once more during this period, though her movements are cloaked in mystery. In 1868 she went via India to Tibet. On this trip H.P.B. met the Master Koot Hoomi (K.H.) for the first time and stayed in his house in Little Tibet. In late 1870 she was back in Cyprus and Greece. Embarking for Egypt, she was shipwrecked near the island of Spetsai on 4 July 1871; saved from drowning, she went to Cairo where she tried to form a Societe Spirite which soon failed. After further travels through the Middle East, she returned for a short time to her relatives at Odessa in 1872. In the spring of 1873, she was instructed by her Teacher to go to Paris, and on further direct orders from him, left for New York where she landed 7 July 1873. Approximately from that time dates her public career.
H. P. Blavatsky was then forty-two and in controlled possession of her many and most unusual spiritual and occult powers. In the opinion of those who had trained her, as expressed by them in later years, she was the best available instrument for the work they had in mind, namely to offer to the world a new presentation, though only in brief outline, of the age-old Theosophia, “the accumulated Wisdom of the ages, tested and verified by generations of Seers…,” that body of Truth of which religions, great and small, are but as branches of the parent tree. Her task was to challenge on the one hand the entrenched beliefs and dogmas of a discredited Theology and on the other tile equally dogmatic views of the science of her day. A crack, however, had recently appeared in this twofold set of mental fortifications. It was caused by Spiritualism, then sweeping America. To quote her own words: “I was sent to prove the phenomena and their reality, and to show the fallacy of the spiritualistic theory of spirits.”
Soon after her arrival in New York, she was put in touch by those who guided her efforts with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a man of sterling worth who had acquired considerable renown during the Civil War, had served the Government with distinction, and was at the time practicing law in New York. Soon after, she also met William Quan Judge, a young Irish lawyer, who was to play a unique role in the Theosophical work of the then immediate future. On 7 September 1875, these three leading figures, together with a few others, founded a society which they chose to call The Theosophical Society, as promulgating the ancient teachings of Theosophy, or that Wisdom concerning the Divine which had been the spiritual basis of other great movements of the past, such as Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and the Mystery-Schools of the Classical world. The Inaugural address by the President-Founder, Col. Olcott, was delivered 17 November 1875, a date which is considered to be the official date of the founding of the Society. Starting from a generalized statement of objectives, namely, “to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the Universe,” the Founders soon expressed them more specifically. After several minor changes in wording, the Objects stand today as follows:
- To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
- To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
- To investigate unexplained laws of Nature, and the powers latent in man.
In September 1877, a powerful impact was made upon the reading and thinking public by the publication of H. P. Blavatsky’s first monumental work, Isis Unveiled, which was issued by J. W. Bouton in New York, the one thousand copies of the first printing being sold within two days. The New York Herald-Tribune considered the work as one of the “remarkable productions of the century,” other papers and journals speaking in similar terms. Isis Unveiled outlines the history, scope, and development of the Occult Sciences, the nature and origin of Magic, the roots of Christianity, the errors of Theology and the fallacies of established Science, against the backdrop of the secret teachings which run as a golden thread through bygone centuries, coming up to the surface every now and then in the various mystical movements of the last two thousand years or so. The contents of this work are as timely today as on the date it first appeared in print, and the demand for new editions has never subsided.
On 8 July 1878, H. P. Blavatsky was naturalized, being the first Russian woman ever to become an American citizen, an event which received widespread publicity through various newspapers.
After another three years of work in the USA, H. P. Blavatsky and Col. Olcott left for Bombay, India, where they established their Headquarters. Soon after landing, they were contacted by Alfred Percy Sinnett, then Editor of the Government paper, The Pioneer of Allahabad. This contact proved of the utmost importance. The serious interest of Sinnett in the teachings and the work of the Theosophical Movement prompted H. P. Blavatsky to establish a contact by correspondence between Sinnett and the two Adepts who were sponsoring the Movement, Master Morya and Master Koot Hoomi, the latter a Kashmiri Brahman by birth. The replies and explanations given by these occultists to the questions sent in, by Sinnett are embodied in their correspondence from 1880 to 1884, published in 1923 as The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett.
After an extensive tour of India, the Founders returned to Bombay and started, in October 1879, their first Theosophical Journal, The Theosophist, with H. P. Blavatsky as Editor. The Society experienced then a rapid growth, and some very remarkable people were attracted to it both in India and elsewhere. In May 1880, the Founders spent some time in Ceylon. In May 1882, a large estate was bought at Adyar, near Madras, and the Headquarters moved there at the end of the year. This centre became soon the radiating point for a world-wide activity, to which the Founders with their small band of co-workers gave their all. They engaged in trips to various outlying districts, founded Branches, received visitors, conducted an enormous correspondence with inquirers, and filled their newly-founded Journal with most valuable and scholarly material the main purpose of which was to revitalize the dormant interest on the part of India in the spiritual worth of their own ancient Scriptures. It is during this period that Col. Olcott engaged in widespread mesmeric healings until, in 1834, he left for London to petition the British Government on behalf of the Buddhists of Ceylon. H. P. Blavatsky, then in rather poor health, went to Europe with him.
After brief periods in Paris and London, she settled at Elberfeld, Germany, in the fall of 1834, busily engaged in writing her second work, The Secret Doctrine. Meanwhile, a vicious attack on her by two of her servants at Adyar, Alexis and Emma Coulomb, was rapidly building up. She returned to Adyar late December 1884 to learn the details of the situation. She wished to sue the couple, already dismissed by the Committee left in charge before the attack began, for their gross libel on her concerning the supposed fraudulent production of occult phenomena. She was, however, overruled by the Committee, and in disgust resigned as Corresponding Secretary of the Society. In March 1885, she left for Europe, never to return.
The attack, as was later proved, had no foundation whatsoever. It was based on forged and partially forged letters, purporting to have been written by H. P. Blavatsky, with instructions to arrange phenomena of various kinds, letters which she was never allowed to see. A Christian missionary newspaper in Madras published some of them. The Society for Psychical Research in London, ignoring Mme. Blavatsky’s flat repudiation of the letters, sent an inexperienced young man, Richard Hodgson, to India to report on the Coulombs’ allegations. This Report, biased and inconsistent in its nature, was published in December 1885, and has been the basis ever since for all subsequent attacks on H. P. Blavatsky’s character, motives and objectives. In 1963, however, with the aid of hitherto unpublished documents, Adlai Waterman, in his definitive work entitled Obituary: The “Hodgson Report” on Madame Blavatsky, analysed the whole sad story, and to any impartial mind destroyed it utterly. On 8 May 1986, the Society for Psychical Research issued a press release: “Madame Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, was unjustly condemned, new study concludes.”
This vicious attack had a most unfavourable effect on H. P. Blavatsky’s health. She settled first at Wurzburg, Germany, then moved to Ostende, and in the spring of 1887, at the invitation of English Theosophists, moved to London. Oblivious of her poor health and of the many vicissitudes, she continued steadily to write her great work which was finally completed and published in two large volumes in October of 1888. Her indefatigable helpers in the transcription and editing of the MSS. were Bertram Keightley and Dr. Archibald Keightley, whose financial backing was also of immense assistance. The Secret Doctrine was the crowning achievement of H. P. Blavatsky’s literary career, an epoch-making work which is just now beginning to be appreciated by the leading minds of the day, and which, no doubt, will be even better known and valued in century the twenty-first.
As H. P. Blavatsky had virtually lost control of her first Journal, The Theosophist, she founded in 1887, in London, Lucifer, a monthly magazine designed, as stated on its title-page, “to bring to light the hidden things of darkness.”
In 1889, the European Headquarters of the Society was established at 19 Avenue Road, St. John’s Wood, London, and from this historic address H. P. Blavatsky published The Key to Theosophy, “a clear Exposition, in the form of Questions and Answers, of the Ethics, Science and Philosophy for the study of which the Theosophical Society has been founded,” and the devotional gem called The Voice of the Silence, containing selected excerpts translated from an Eastern scripture, The Book of the Golden Precepts, which she had learnt by heart during her training.
In 1888, H. P. Blavatsky formed the Esoteric Section for the deeper study of the Esoteric Philosophy by dedicated students, and wrote for them her Instructions. She also founded the Blavatsky Lodge in London which has been active uninterruptedly since 1887.
H. P. Blavatsky died on 8 May 1891, during a severe epidemic of flu in England, and her remains were cremated at Woking Crematorium, Surrey.
Against the background of her life, her character, her mission, her total dedication, and her spiritual powers, H. P. Blavatsky is destined to be recognized in time as the greatest Occultist in the history of Western civilization, a direct agent of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood of Adepts.