Blavatsky and The Theosophist

Part 4

Contextualising The Theosophist and the Theosophical Society

HPB as quoted by her sister:

““Humanity has lost its faith and its higher ideals; materialism and pseudo–science have slain them. The children of this age have no longer faith; they demand proof, proof founded on a scientific basis — and they shall have it. Theosophy, the source of all human religions, will give it to them.””

(Jelihovsky, 2015, p. 13)

TS as a product of a print literate society:

Whatever else the Theosophists were or claimed to be, they were not least of all writers, readers, correspondants, printers, publishers, translators, collectors, consumers and purveyors of  texts of all sorts – the more obscure and esoteric the better. As such they were dependent upon their birth in the time in which they appeared. If they had appeared much earlier, they would have missed the crucial developments of telegraph, steam travel, and above all, the rise of philology as an academic discipline which gave them access to a wide variety of texts from around the world.  Moreover, their educational experiences must have been of the sort that gave with one hand and restrained with the other so that they were presented with the tools to pursue an eclectic autodidacticism but kept from the inner chambers of the ivory towers which caused them to pursue print with a fetishization of scholarship and syncretism.

The Hoe Rotary Machine illustrated here in Frederick Wilson’s A Practical Treatise upon modern printing machinery and letterpress printing (1888) was able to print 20,000 newspaper sheets per hour, bringing an increase in the size of newspapers in the 1860s. via British Library

One thing that immediately dawns  upon the reader when investigating the early Theosophists is that they were prodigious writers, especially those two here under consideration, Mme H. P.  Blavatsky and her loyal compatriot Col. H. Steele Olcott. Judging from the proliferation of quotes and citations (however poorly attested by scholarly standards) that fruit from the fecund hummus of their prose like toadstools after a spate of summer rains, they were likewise avid readers of print as well, consuming materials of greatly differing vintages, schools of thought, and provenance. In fact, though it may be bold to say, it seems that their very existence and idée fixe as an organization rests upon the easy availability of print, representing the very model of the super-user of type of their day — fingers black with newsprint and crusted with paste. 

Col. Olcott in Adyar Library
via Theosophy Wiki

The vast quantity of references which are strewn about like so many bangles ornamenting Blavatsky’s texts bring to mind questions of a bibliographic nature. Unfortunately there is no known master list of reference works that catalogues the library of the earliest days of the Theosophical Society as it existed during the authorship of Mme Blavatsky’s magnum opus. Isis Unveiled. The very range and scope of her quotations are used in a hagiographic sense by her biographers to show the supernatural nature of her writing. Such is the tack of Isis Unveiled introducer Mr Z who refers to the personal histories of Col. Olcott, Old diary leaves,  among other sources, to show the miraculous nature of her quotational skills. It is not my place or intent to examine the merits of such claims, an endeavor that would never convince the faithful and which could scarcely be carried forth at anyrate without an accurate accounting of her available source material, but rather I will use such space as I have available here only to not the most relevant fact that can be ascertained, namely that among the TS inner circle it was believed that such prodigious citation was a matter of supranatural origin and could be used as further proof of the genuine nature of HPB’s inspirations Whatever their origins, eidetic memory, spiritual transmission, or old fashioned research, these citations were adduced as proof of the Madame’s connection to the spiritual realm, the irony being that such citation rested, necessarily, upon the base material of print and paper which were the functional building blocks of such latter day manifestations of the divine. Any weight that could be added to these claims were ultimately valued only by their accuracy and referral to real physical books that existed in the libraries and books shops of the world since unpublished and spiritual writing wasof little evidentiary value in an age dominated by a vision of the world as a clockwork or physical and evolutionary forces. Print was the wedge which the TS used to open the door of scientism enough to allow them to squeeze through and make the suggestion that the world of psyche might be susceptible and analysable to codifiable laws in the same way as ancient languages or geology.

Inauguration of Adyar Library, 1886.
via Theosophy Wiki

Russian Roots:

HPB’s Russian heritage was certainly of major influence and import, firstly with respect to her mystical and religious turn of mind. “More than any other power, the Russian Empire had religion at its heart. The tsarist system organized its subjects through their confessional status; it understood its boundaries and international commitments almost entirely in terms of faith” (Figes, 2010, p.9). It is clear from accounts of her meetings with Orthodox religious figures and her later political support for her homeland in articles that she was greatly influenced by her native land, and retained sympathy for its traditions. For an account of how Blavatsky might have been influenced in her mystical thinking, not only by Orthodoxy but also by slavic shamanism, see Hutch (1980).

“And soon the soil of Russia disappears under an ever-increasing stream of Asiatic barbarians.”
Illustration from Histoire de la Sainte Russie by Gustav Doré, “a bestseller of 1854…” who’s main idea was “that Russia’s barbarism was the source of her aggression…” (Figs, 2010, p. 152).

In addition to spiritual matters, the western European powers had a history of Russophobia going back decades, to well before the Crimean War (1853-1856), that negatively affected their political and diplomatic relationships with that country and her citizens, a circumstance that lends credence to Mme Blavatsky’s paranoia about being falsely suspected of espionage by the British adminiters of the Raj. “The stereotype that emerged from these fanciful writings [about the ‘Russian menace’, i.e. the forged  ‘Testament of Peter the Great’] was that of a savage power, aggressive and expansionist by nature, yet also sufficiently cunning and deceptive to plot with ‘unseen forces’ against the West and infiltrate societies” [emphasis  and bracketed text mine] (Figes, 2010, p. 70). Mme Blavatsky was said to have wept upon abandoning her Russian citizenship for an American one, a sacrifice that she underwent only just prior to her departure for India. Naturalization was a  process that she underwent presumably in order to protect herself from further accusations of spying by the British. The attempt was unsuccessful, as it would seem, from both her own and Olcott’s accounts of their 1879 Indian tour

Tsar Alexander II of Russia (r. 1855-1881) via WikiMedia

Anglo-Russian relations were strained in the latter half of the 19th century, even with the Crimean War having been over for more than three decades. Indian officials looked suspiciously upon the Theosophical Society and it’s Russian expatriate leader, last minute acquisition of American citizenship notwithstanding. It was believed that Me Bkavatsky’s sympathies lay with the Russian Empire over and above that of the British Raj, and with nativist Indians as opposed to the Viceroy. This much was likely true, though, publicly at least, the TS did it’s best to preserve political independence and neutrality with respect to the ‘great game’ being waged in Europe and in her far flung colonies. In practice, however, the Theosophists were much lauded by the locals for their sensitivity towards native traditions, religions, and customs. 

In Ceylon, they directly challenged the status quo by supporting the founding of Buddhist schools, which, up until that point, did not exist. Previously, the educational needs of the native population had been exclusively administered by Christian Missionary schools, a situation that caused local resentments to fester, and made the charismatic and eccentric leaders of Theosophy all more popular among the colonized peoples of the island. 

1967 Sri Lankan (formerly Ceylon) stam commerating Col. Olcott, TS cofounder. via Theosophy Wiki.

Periodization and Social Environment:

The issue of periodization is another difficult issue to examine with respect to the Theosophical Society, its foundation occurring as it does during a transitional phase, between the genteel culture of the Victorian age and the fin de secile. A transition between what Hobsbawn calls the Age of Capital and the Age of Empire. The Society partakes, through the aegis of its founder, an outsider status, but HPB is in some ways quite conservative, bowing to academic pretension, being part of the decidedly wealthy if rustic ruling class of Russia, disdaining socialism while at the same time speaking to an apparently upwardly mobile and, at least partially, feminized readership. That her successor would be Annie Besant, a noted socialist and advocate for women’s rights, including the right of abortion, would mark a major point of decision for the Theosophical Society and its founder. That it was Bessant who gave up her radical ideology and that it was not Theosophy and HPB which was converted, provides ample evidence on the firmness of the founders’ opinions.

Eddy Farmhouse. via Obscure Vermont.

The two co-founders met at a spiritualist demonstration at the well know Eddy farmhouse in vermont — a demonstrtion which HPB hijacked. Insistence is made that she was not a medium since she was in telepathic communication with ascended masters who were not dead, and because she was herself not lost to possession by the spirit, but was, in fact, in control and in communion by consent. Thus, like its relationship to historical period, the style of manifestation also occupies a liminal space, not entirely belonging to either the scientific rationalize world view, nor to the substratum of psychological manifestation that may have existed in parallel to material positivism among the less literate and less privileged classes, and which would have included remnants of witchcraft, native or african religious forms, snake handling, and communications with the dead. She was an adamant opposite of materialism, but when it came to challenging science she sought to do so on its home turf, daring to try and offer proof and repeatability as the backbone of her claims, and seeking to co-opt the concept of evolution from the Darwinists, the Social Progressives, and the Positivists and remodel it as just another manifestation of the Masters having their way with humanity.

A reaction to Darwinism and Positivism:

Caricature of Charles Darwin in Figaro’s London Sketch Book of Celebrities, 18 February 1874. via Wikipedia.

Part of Mme Blavatsky’s mission was engaging in a program of low intensity warfare against the spirit of the age, which, in the middle to late part of the 19th century, could be best described, pejoratively as materialism, or perhaps more optimistically as positivism. Whatever you called it, it was an age of mass secularization, in which the last remnants of Christianization was being stripped from government apparatus and academic thinking across the Atlantic World. That such influences were slow to reach the Eurasian heartland of Russia, Mongolia, and India is not without relevance. That the more traditional middle class families, and especially women, who were not directly exposed to the secularizing influences of elitist thinking which ruled the halls of power and science, only served to provide Theosophy with a built-in audience. And by capitalizing on advances in invisible powers like telephone, electricity as well as in the new frontiers of scientific thinking such as psychology, TS could shroud itself with a cloak of rationalism, even as it struck out against a clockwork vision of creation.

Of all the forces that were driving the intelligentsia towards a materialist worldview, socialism and darwinism were the most apparent. Of socialism, Blavatsky was disdainful — of darwinism she was partially derisive and partially resolved to capitalize on its universal impact. Notoriously, the Russian madame kept a menagerie of specimens of the taxidermist’s art in her 47th street salon. One of these was a baboon, arrayed with spectacles, coat and tie, and bearing a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species under his arm. But HPB didn’t entirely dismiss evolution, quite the contrary, what she wanted to do was co-opt it and see in its workings the hands of the Masters to whom she owed her fame. With this and other appropriations, Theosophy could enfold the sciences and make technology just another aspect of the esoteric arts. 

As one biographer  understood it: 

Spirituality itself was not in question, so much as a secure source of spiritual authority. It was this need for authority that made disciples so very vulnerable to charismatic teachers.

The problem of the source was intimately entwined with another nineteenth-century preoccupation, the search for a single key that would solve the mysteries of the universe.

(Washington, 1991, p. 9)

If there was to be only one source, then that source would have to be Theosophy, and Mme Blavatsky was determined to tap directly into its stream and control it.


“He who would seriously attempt to fathom the psychological science, must come to the sacred land of ancient Aryávarta [ie. India].” (Theosophist, October 1879: 5). As demonstration of this as necessity, Blavatsky and Olcott fell back on the discipline of philology which had recently determined not only the antiquity of Sanskrit, but the familial resemblance it shared with the classical languages of Greek and Latin, as well as its more distant relationship with the Germanic tongues and the much altered but still recognizable Romance language. 

Proto-Indo-European. via Vibrant Wiggle.

That the world of philology was at this time, largely through the efforts of Friedrich Max Müller, digging into Sanskritism with a newfound fervor, establishing theories of linguistics that joined all of Eurasia into a single cultural motif, translating the Sacred Books of the East in quantity, and by applying linguistic techniques (speciously as it would turn out) to mythology material propounding ideas of universal solar mythology could not help bu capture the attention of a group of seekers desiring a single unifying theory of mystic and occult powers while at the same time desiring a scientific gloss.

It was no great wonder, then, that, in search of legitimation and short on funds, they set their eyes on India, its antiquity being an obvious  source of its spiritual authority.

Part 5: Close Reading the Theosophist