One of the most influential occult thinkers of the nineteenth century, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) left behind conflicting images of adventuress, author, mystic, guru, occultist, and charlatan. With the aid of Col. Henry Olcott and William Q. Judge, she founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875.
Born at Ekaterinoslav, Russia, on July 31, 1831, Blavatsky was the daughter of Col. Peter Hahn, a member of a Mecklenburg family settled in Russia. In order to gain converts to Theosophy, she felt obliged to appear to perform miracles. This she did with a large measure of success, but her methods were on several occasions detected as fraudulent. Nevertheless, her commanding personality secured for her a large following.
An enigmatic personality, Blavatsky was raised in an atmosphere saturated with superstition and fantasy. She loved to surround herself with mystery as a child and claimed to her playmates that in the subterranean corridors of their old house at Saratow, where she used to wander about, she was never alone, but had companions and playmates whom she called her "hunchbacks." Blavatsky was often discovered in a dark tower underneath the roof, where she put pigeons into a mesmeric sleep by stroking them. She was unruly, and as she grew older she often shocked her relatives by her masculine behavior. Once, riding astride a Cossack horse, she fell from the saddle and her foot became entangled in the stirrup. She claimed that she ought to have been killed outright were it not for the strange sustaining power she distinctly felt around her, which seemed to hold her up in defiance of gravitation.
According to the records of her sister, Blavatsky showed frequent evidence of somnambulism as a child, speaking aloud and often walking in her sleep. She saw eyes glaring at her from inanimate objects or from phantasmal forms, from which she would run away screaming and frighten the entire household. In later years she claimed to have seen a phantom protector whose imposing appearance had dominated her imagination. Blavatsky's powers of make-believe were remarkable. She possessed great natural musical talents, had a fearful temper, a passionate curiosity for the unknown and weird, and an intense craving for independence and action.
At the age of 17, she was married to General Blavatsky, an old man from whom she escaped three months later. She then fled abroad and led a wild, wandering life for ten years all over the world, in search of mysteries. When she returned to Russia she possessed well-developed mediumistic gifts. Raps, whisperings, and other mysterious sounds were heard all over the house, objects moved about in obedience to her will, their weight decreased and increased as she wished, and winds swept through the apartment, extinguishing lamps and candles. She gave exhibitions of clairvoyance, discovered a murderer for the police, and narrowly escaped being charged as an accomplice.
In 1860 Blavatsky became severely ill. A wound below the heart, which she received from a sword cut in magical practice in the East, opened again, causing her intense agony, convulsions, and trance. After Blavatsky recovered, her spontaneous physical phenomena disappeared, and she claimed that they only occurred after that time in obedience to her will.
Blavatsky again went abroad and, disguised as a man, she fought under Garibaldi and was left for dead in the battle of Mentana. She fought back to life, had a miraculous escape at sea on a Greek vessel that was blown up and, in 1871 in Cairo, she founded the Societe Spirite. It was a dubious venture that soon expired amid cries of fraud and embezzlement, reflecting considerably on the reputation of the founder.
Her closer ties with Spiritualism dated from her arrival in New York in July 1873. Blavatsky first worked as a dressmaker to obtain a living and, after her acquaintance with Col. Henry Steel Olcott at Chittenden, Vermont, in the house of the Eddy Brothers, she took up journalism, writing mostly on Spiritualism for magazines and translating Olcott's articles into Russian. "For over 15 years have I fought my battle for the blessed truth," she wrote in The Spiritual Scientist, published in Boston (December 3, 1874); "For the sake of Spiritualism I have left my house; an easy life amongst a civilized society, and have become a wanderer upon the face of this earth.'
Her second marital venture, which occurred during this period, ended in failure and escape. The starting point of her real career was the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875. It professed to expound the esoteric tradition of Buddhism and aimed at forming a universal brotherhood of man; studying and making known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences; investigating the laws of nature; and developing the divine powers latent in man. It was claimed to be directed by secret Mahatmas, or Masters of Wisdom.
Olcott, who was elected president, was a tireless organizer and propagandist. His relationship to Blavatsky was that of pupil to teacher. He did the practical work and Blavatsky the literary work. Their joint efforts soon put the society on a prosperous footing and, at the end of 1878, a little party of four left, under their leadership, for Bombay. Soon after the theosophical movement gained added impetus from the publicity launched by A. P. Sinnett, editor of the Pioneer, who had embraced Buddhism in Ceylon.
The publicity had its disadvantages as well. The attention of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was aroused by reports of the theosophic marvels, and Richard Hodgson was sent to Adyar, India, where the central headquarters of the theosophical movement was established, to investigate. The investigation had a disastrous effect for Blavatsky and dealt a nearly fatal blow to Theosophy. Hodgson reported that he found nothing but palpable fraud and extreme credulity on the part of the believers. The Coulombs, a couple who had joined Blavatsky in Bombay in 1880 and were her acquaintances from the time of the Cairo adventure, confessed to having manufactured, in conspiracy with Blavatsky, a large number of the theosophical miracles: they revealed the secret of the sliding panels of the shrine in the Occult Room through which, from Blavatsky's bedroom, the "astral" Mahatma letters were deposited; disclosed impersonation of the Mahatmas by a dummy head and shoulders; declared that the Mahatma letters were written by Blavatsky in a disguised hand and that they were projected through cracks in the ceiling by means of spring contrivances; and they produced the correspondence between them and Blavatsky in proof of their self-confessed complicity. Hodgson's investigations, which lasted for three months, entirely demolished the first private and confidential report of the SPR issued in December 1884, which was theoretically favorable to Blavatsky's claims. Hodgson's conclusions were published in the Proceedings of the SPR.
The publication of the report, which followed the printing of the Coulomb letters in the Madras Christian Magazine, created an immense sensation. In response, Olcott, whose honesty was not impugned by the report, banished Blavatsky from Adyar. The proofs of her guilt were overwhelming, for the defense was built up with great difficulties. With the Theosophical Society thus discredited, recovery looked hopeless.
Nevertheless, Annie Besant, who would become Blavatsky's successor, and Sinnett valiantly took on the task. Hodgson answered and insisted on his conclusions. In the literature that subsequently grew up on the subject, V. S. Solovyoff claimed in A Modern Priestess of Isis (1895) that Blavatsky acknowledged her fraudulent practices to the author. Blavatsky's Posthumous Memoirs (1896) was a most curious artifact of the time that was said to have been dictated by Blavatsky's spirit. The text (which furnished strong, internal proofs of its apocryphal character) was obtained in independent typewriting on a Yost machine under the supervision of the spirit of its inventor, Mr. G. W. N. Yost.
Blavatsky nevertheless succeeded in living down every attack during her lifetime, continued her work, gained many new adherents to Theosophy, and published a work, The Secret Doctrine, which was claimed to have been written in a supernormal condition. Whatever conclusions are reached about her complex character, it must be admitted that she was an extraordinarily gifted individual and it does seem probable that she indeed possessed psychic powers which, however, fell far short of the miraculous feats she constantly aimed at. Even Solovyoff admits some remarkable experiences, and though he furnished natural explanations for many of them, the assumption that withstands challenge is that she had, as plainly pointed out by Olcott himself, unusual hypnotic powers.
Her famous feats of duplicating letters and other small objects are plainly ascribable to this source when common fraud does not cover the ground. She never troubled about test conditions. Most of her phenomena were produced under circumstances wide open to suspicion and strongly savoring of a conjuring performance. These included the finding of an extra cup and saucer at a picnic at Simla in 1880 in the Sinnett garden under the ground at a designated spot, the clairvoyant discovery of the lost brooch of Mrs. Hume in a flower bed, the astral dispatch of marked cigarettes to places she indicated, and the Mahatma scripts imposed over the text of private letters which the post had just delivered.
There is no end of these and similar miracles, and the testimony of the truth is sometimes so surprising that one can conclude that imposture occasionally blended with genuine psychic performance. The general character of Blavatsky's phenomena is of a different order from those of the Spiritualist medium. Her early physical phenomena subsided at a later age, although the power to cause raps remained. Once, in New York, Olcott claimed that he witnessed the materialization of a Mahatma from a mist rising from her shoulders. As a rule the Mahatmas were not supposed to depend upon Blavatsky's organism for appearance, and controlled her body but seldom. Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine were claimed to have been produced under such control.
Whereas there is a limit to the phenomena of every Spiritualistic medium, Blavatsky apparently knew none. From the materialization of grapes for the thirsty Col. Olcott in New York to the duplication of precious stones in India, or the creation of toys for children out of nothingness, she undertook almost any magical task and successfully performed it, to everyone's amazement.
The Hodgson Report left a deep shadow over Blavatsky's final years. Besant's conversion to Theosophy resulted after she had been requested by W. T. Stead to review The Secret Doctrine in 1889. Blavatsky suggested that she read the Hodgson Report before forming any firm conclusions, but Besant was not adversely affected and requested to be Blavatsky's pupil. Thereafter Besant provided a secure refuge for the aging Theosophist at her own home in London. In her last years, Blavatsky became the center of a memorable group of talented individuals. She died peacefully May 5, 1891.
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