Helena Petrovna Hahn (also Hélène) (July 31, 1831 (O.S.) (August 12, 1831 (N.S.)) - May 8, 1891 London), better known as Helena Blavatsky (Russian: Елена Блаватская) or Madame Blavatsky, born Helena von Hahn, was a founder of the Theosophical Society. Although her role as a medium would prove controversial and the Theosophical Society would split following her death, her writing represents a significant contribution to the development of reformist and universal tendencies within Indian thought. Mahatma Gandhi wrote that her Key to Theosophy was one of the texts that stimulated him to ‘read books on Hinduism’ and ‘disabused [him] of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition.’  Perhaps the fact that Blavatsky was not in any way affiliated with the imperial project in India freed her of the obligation to value everything European at the cost of everything Indian.
She was born in the house of her mother's parents in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire). Her parents were Col. Peter von Hahn, a German officer in Russian service, and Helena Andreyevna Fadeyeva. Her mother belonged to an old Russian noble family and was the author, under the pen-name Zenaida R, of a dozen novels. Described by Belinsky as the "Russian George Sand," she died at the age of 28, when Helena was eleven.
Upon his wife's death, Peter, being in the armed forces and realizing that army camps were unsuitable for little girls, sent Helena and her brother to live with her maternal grandparents. They were Andrey Fadeyev (at that time the Civil Governor of Saratov) and his wife Princess Helene Dolgoruki, of the Dolgorukov family and an amateur botanist. Helena was cared for by servants who believed in the many superstitions of Old Russia and apparently encouraged her to believe she had supernatural powers at a very early age. Her grandparents lived on a feudal estate, with never less than fifty servants.
She was married three weeks before she turned 17, on July 7, 1848, to the 40-year-old Nikifor (also Nicephor) Vassilievitch Blavatsky, vice-governor of Erivan. After three unhappy months, she took a horse, and escaped back over the mountains to her grandfather in Tiflis. Her grandfather shipped her off immediately to her father who was retired and living near Saint Petersburg. He travelled two thousand miles to meet her at Odessa, but she wasn't there. She had missed the steamer, and sailed away with the skipper of an English bark bound for Constantinople. According to her account, they never consummated their marriage, and she remained a virgin her entire life. (For a counter-claim, see the section on Agardi Metrovitch.)
According to her own story as told to a later biographer, she spent the years 1848 to 1858 traveling the world, claiming to have visited Egypt, France, Quebec, England, South America, Germany, Mexico, India, Greece and especially Tibet to study for two years with the men she called Brothers . She believed that the Masters live among us but that they are hidden to most of us. She returned to Russia in 1858 and went first to see her sister Vera, a young widow living in Rugodevo, a village which she had inherited from her husband. The existence of the Brothers as well as the extent of her travels have been questioned by those who view Blavatsky as a charlatan.
About this time, she met and left with Italian opera singer Agardi Metrovich. Some sources say that she had several extramarital affairs, became pregnant, and bore a deformed child, Yuri, whom she loved dearly. She wrote that Yuri was a child of her friends the Metroviches (C.W.I., xlvi-ii ; HPB TO APS, 147). To balance this statement, Count Witte, her first cousin on her mother's side, stated in his Memoirs (as quoted by G. Williams), that her father read aloud a letter in which Metrovich signed himself as "your affectionate grandson." This is evidence that Metrovich considered himself Helena's husband at this point. Yuri died at the age of five, and Helena said that she ceased to believe in the Russian Orthodox God at this point.
Two different versions of how Agardi died are extant. In one, G. Williams states that Agardi had been taken sick with a fever and delirium in Ramleh, and that he died in bed April 19, 1870. In the second version, while bound for Cairo on a boat, the Evmonia, in 1871, an explosion claimed Agardi’s life, but H.P. Blavatsky continued on to Cairo herself.
While in Cairo she formed the Societe Spirite for occult phenomena with Emma Cutting (later Emma Coulomb), which closed after dissatisfied customers complained of fraudulent activities.
It was in 1873 that she emigrated to New York City. Impressing people with her evident psychic abilities she was spurred on to continue her mediumship. Throughout her career she was reputed to have demonstrated physical and mental psychic feats which included levitation, clairvoyance, out-of-body projection, telepathy, and clairaudience. Another alleged skill of hers was materialization, that is, producing physical objects out of nothing. Though she was reportedly quite adept at these accomplishments, she claimed that her interests were more in the area of theory and laws of how they work rather than performing them herself.
In 1874 at the farm of the Eddy Brothers, Helena met Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer, agricultural expert, and journalist who covered the Spiritualist phenomena. Soon they were living together in the "Lamasery" (alternate spelling: "Lamastery") where her work Isis Unveiled was created.
She married her second husband, Michael C. Betanelly on April 3, 1875 in New York City. She maintained that this marriage was not consummated either. She separated from Betanelly after a few months, and their divorce was legalized on May 25, 1878. On July 8, 1878, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
While living in New York City, she founded the Theosophical Society in September 1875, with Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge and others. Madame Blavatsky claimed that all religions were both true in their inner teachings and false or imperfect in their external conventional manifestations. Imperfect men attempting to translate the divine knowledge had corrupted it in the translation. Her claim that esoteric spiritual knowledge is consistent with new science may be considered to be the first instance of what is now called New Age thinking. In fact, many researchers feel that much of New Age thought started with Blavatsky.
She had moved to India, landing at Bombay Feb 16 1879, where she first made the acquaintance of A.P. Sinnett. In his book Occult World he describes how she stayed at his home in Allahabad for six weeks that year, and again the following year.
Sometime around December 1880, while at a dinner party with a group including A.O. Hume and his wife, she is stated to have been instrumental in causing the materialization of Mrs Hume's lost brooch.
In 1884, two staff members (a married couple) at Adyar accused Blavatsky of fabricating her messages from the Masters. The couple, Alexis and Emma Coulomb, were dismissed, but when the Committee failed to support legal action against them, Blavatsky withdrew from active participation in the Society. On March 31, 1885 she left India never to return. After spending some time in Germany and Belgium, she settled in England in May, 1887 where a disciple put her up in her own house. It was here that she lived until the end of her life. She was further estranged from some senior Theosophists in December, 1885 when the London Society for Psychical Research's Hodgson Report declared her a fraud.
In August, 1890 she formed the "Inner Circle" of 12 disciples: "Countess Constance Wachtmeister, Mrs Isabel Cooper-Oakley, Miss Emily Kislingbury, Miss Laura Cooper, Mrs Annie Besant, Mrs Alice Cleather, Dr Archibald Keightley, Herbert Coryn, Claude Wright, G.R.S. Mead, E.T. Sturdy, and Walter Old".
Suffering from heart disease, rheumatism, Bright's disease of the kidneys, and complications from influenza, Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky died at 19 Avenue Road, St Johns Wood, the home she shared, in England on May 8, 1891.
Her last words in regard to her work were: "Keep the link unbroken! Do not let my last incarnation be a failure."
Her body was cremated; one third of her ashes were sent to Europe, one third with William Quan Judge to the United States, and one third to India where her ashes were scattered in the Ganges River. May 8 is celebrated by Theosophists, and it is called White Lotus Day.
She was succeeded as head of one branch of the Theosophical Society by her protege, Annie Besant. Her friend, W.Q. Judge, headed the American Section. The split was caused by accusations that Judge had also fabricated messages from the Masters.
Much of Helena Blavatsky's writing contained strong racial themes. She regularly contrasts "Aryan" with "Semitic" culture, to the detriment of the latter, asserting that Semitic peoples are an offshoot of Aryans who have become "degenerate in spirituality and perfected in materiality" (The Secret Doctrine, Vol.II, p.200). Blavatsky also sorted the races of the world by their relation to the "Fifth Race" (the Atlanteans) putting the Aryans on the top and describing Aborigines (i.e., Native Australians and Tasmanians) as "semi-animal creatures."
Her work influenced Nazi ideology.
"Nazi 'science' has brought hoots of derision from those who hold to the Cartesian model. In place of psychology there was an occult frappe composed of the mysticism of Gurdijeff, the theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and the archetypes of Nordic mythology."
On the other hand, recognition of the universal brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity regardless of race, gender or color was a basic goal of the Theosophical Society.
The Society for Psychical Research, as part of their ongoing scientific attempts to study and document evidence of the supernatural realm, sent a researcher to investigate Blavatsky's claim to mediumistic tendencies. That researcher's report, issued by the SPR's concluded that Blavatsky "has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished and interesting imposters in history." (For further discussion see, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum). It should also be noted that SPR scientists were quite open and candid about the cases they were unable to debunk and therefore classified as true paranormal occurrences.
"Plagiarism is a marked characteristic of the writings alike of Mme. Blavatsky and of the mahatmas. In Isis Unveiled I have traced some 2,000 passages copied from other books without credit. Her Secret Doctrine is permeated with similar plagiarisms. The Voice of the Silence, claimed to be a translation by her of a Tibetan work, is a compilation from various Buddhistic and Brahmanical works—a wholesale plagiarism. The Book of Dzyan, another bogus translation of an alleged ancient work, is also a compilation from various uncredited sources—all of them 19th century books."
A modern researcher Vernon Harrison, Ph.D., and also a member of that same Society for Psychical Research, has reviewed the report and calls it "thoroughly bad," that the SPR evidently merely "rubber-stamped" what Hodgson wrote:
The Hodgson Report is not, as has been widely believed for more than a century, a model of what impartial and painstaking research should be: it is the work of a man who has reached his conclusions early on in his investigation and thereafter, selecting and distorting evidence, did not hesitate to adopt flawed arguments to support his thesis.
In her biography, Cranston tackles the claim of plagiarism . She states that HPB's plagiarism appears to consist of quoting primary sources without acknowledging the secondary sources from which they came. She states that a research assistant of hers took on the task of finding Coleman's alleged 70 passages that HPB plagiarized from World-Life, and could only find 6. Coleman himself, rather than being an authority on occult material, was a clerk in the Quartermaster Department of the US Army. Rather than being an impartial judge, he wrote to Coues on July 8, 1890 that:
"I emphatically denounced and ridiculed the theory of occultism, of elementary spirits, etc., before the Theosophical Society was organized [in 1875], and from that time to this I have strenuously opposed Theosophy all the time."
It was also the case that Blavatsky was not writing as an academically trained scholar, or from within the academy. She was not trained in academic protocol. She wrote as an amateur, albeit one with a great deal of knowledge. She drew on a multitude of sources. Rightly or wrongly, it is not uncommon for writers from such a background to ignore some of the conventions of formal scholarship.
Blavatsky was influenced by the following authors:
Blavatsky's works have shown their influence on the following leaders, authors, artists and musicians:
Her books included
Blavatsky’s writings remain in print. Several foundations and websites promote her writings and ideas. Her many articles have been collected in the Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky. This series has 15 numbered volumes including the index. The Theosophical Society continues to promote her fundamental conviction that the same truth informs the wisdom of the philosophers and religious teachers of the world. Theosophy itself helped to stimulate renewed confidence among many Indians in the richness and value of their religious and cultural heritage, countering the criticism of other Westerners who saw Indian culture as debased. In the West, too, theosophy has promoted interest in Eastern spirituality enabling some to synthesize Western and Eastern elements. Perhaps because she was more or less a free-lance writer, not affiliated with the imperial or missionary projects, she was able to disassociate herself from the European tendency to depict colonized cultures as desperately in need of Europe’s and of Christianity’s helping hand, so that imperialism and Christian mission could be justified. For a writer such as Washington (1995) she was a misfit but for many she opened up new possibilities about the universiality of the human consciousness.
All links retrieved February 11, 2013.
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