Granddaughter of a Russian princess and co-founder of the Theosophical Society (TS), Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (also known as HPB) was born in the Ukraine, 1831.
A prolific writer, Blavatsky was a deeply polarising and controversial figure, seen either as a fraudulent charlatan by her detractors – or as a holy spiritual master by her followers.
Blavatsky frequently undermined her own authority – and increased her enigmatic reputation – by providing false or contradictory accounts of her life.
An overweight, sickly yet wilful and obstinate child, Blavatsky’s servants considered her unearthly and odd, crediting her with supernatural powers. This reputation remained throughout her life.
HPB’s early childhood experiences included visions of a mysterious Indian – Morya. She claimed they finally met in person during an 1851 visit to London. For Blavatsky, Morya was an elevated soul – a Mahatma – part of a small group of adepts living deep within the Himalayas who were guardians of ancient esoteric knowledge. Blavatsky believed they contacted her as part of her mission to accelerate a spiritual awakening in the West.
HPB was intrepid and widely travelled. Her journeys began aged seventeen, when, after just three months of marriage, she ran away from her husband – a man thirty years her senior.
Extensive tours across Europe, Middle East, North Africa, Mexico, Japan, North America, Tibet and the Indian subcontinent ensued. Blavatsky’s numerous claims during this period included work as a concert pianist, an interior decorator to the Empress Eugénie, a circus performer, a Parisian importer of ostrich feathers, and a soldier in Garibaldi’s army.
HPB relocated to New York in 1873. It was here that that reliable documentation of her life began, and where she met Colonel Henry Olcott. Together they founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.
By combining elements of Western esotericism with Eastern philosophies of Vedanta and Buddhism, they promoted the view that existence was governed by a ‘Universal Divine Principle, the root of ALL, from which all proceeds and within which all shall be absorbed’.
The TS soon spread globally, claiming thousands of members and branches across America, Europe and India, where Blavatsky and Olcott moved in 1879. By mixing with Indians and advocating the superiority of Eastern religions, Blavatsky upset and unsettled both the Anglo-Indian establishment and evangelical Christian missionaries.
Failing health precipitated a return to Europe in 1885, settling in London in 1887 where she died of influenza four years later. So morbidly obese and unwell in her later years, Blavatsky had to be ferried around by her followers in a wheelchair. Her penchant for smoking up to 200 cigarettes a day – and possibly also hashish – made her a striking figure.
While her reputation as an eccentric, fraudulent crank remains the typical one – and one to which she purposefully contributed – it is somewhat crude and simplistic.
One of the first to promote alternative spiritualities and Eastern philosophies, HPB has had a wide and long lasting impact on both Eastern and Western society.
By bringing many Eastern concepts to the West, including karma and reincarnation, she can be considered the grandmother of the New Age movement. More than just crystals and yoga, this has stimulated many Westerners to explore their own spiritualities in broader and deeper ways than the patriarchal Christian conception of God, the Church, and organized religion had previously allowed.
HPB’s promotion of Indian spirituality was also undermining to colonial authority. By encouraging Indians to rediscover their own spiritual heritage she playing an important and active role in reviving Hinduism, contributing to the awakening of an early Indian nationalist movement.
Crucially, it was TS members who gave Gandhi his first copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a text that was to become central to his life, and to his campaign for Indian Home Rule. Gandhi and Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, both saw their various interactions with the TS as fundamental in instigating their successful nationalist campaign.
HPB believed – and taught – that God was impersonal and sexless, and that motherhood was divinely sacred. Expressed during an era when women were actively discouraged from assuming positions of authority and influence, these views appealed to many ‘New Women’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Annie Besant (who became a TS leader and ultimately president of the Indian National Congress), radical feminist Mona Caird, social activist and suffragist Charlotte Despard, and Constance Wilde (Oscar’s wife) were all members.
Other famous members include poet W.B. Yeats, journalist W.T Stead, inventor Thomas Edison, author L.Frank Baum and social reformer and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Einstein was rumoured to keep a copy of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine on his desk.
As well as being one of the first to promote alternative and Eastern spiritual philosophies, Blavatsky’s cultural legacy has also exerted an influence on modern art, education, literature and quantum physics.
A powerful, independent and trailblazing woman – living in a time when females were expected to remain subservient, obedient and generally submissive to male control – HPB remains an important, but often unrecognised, figure.
Joy Dixon, Divine Feminine: theosophy and feminism in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Gary Lachman, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012)
Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky, the Woman behind the Myth (New York: Putnam, 1980)
Madame Blavatsky archives online http://www.blavatskyarchives.com/