ON THEOSOPHY AND MADAME BLAVATSKY
By Will Thackara [email@example.com]
[The following comments are written in response to a request from James S. Yungkans for "a rebuttal" to two brief essays on "Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky" by Matthew Mulligan Goldstein, posted on the Victorian Web at Brown University. As these essays are representative of a growing number of books and articles written in a similar vein, and because time prohibits analysis and criticism of each one individually, these remarks are more generally addressed, and include points not necessarily at issue in the Victorian Web articles.]
In 1969 Claremont Graduate School professor John A. Hutchison commented that "ours is an age of unprecedented religious illiteracy. This is particularly true of the American academic community. While religion, along with sex and politics, continues as a perennial subject for discussion, it is also true that in such discussion a shocking lack of ordinary factual knowledge is often shown. Men who would feel disgraced to be ignorant of science, art, or politics show no compunction about harboring the grossest and crudest misconceptions in the field of religion" (Paths of Faith, vii).
If this was true of religion nearly thirty years ago, it is acutely so today in the case of the modern theosophical movement and its principal founder, Helena P. Blavatsky. In spite of what Boston University's Stephen Prothero calls "a mini-boom in publishing on Blavatsky in the mid-1990s" (Religious Studies Review (23:3), July 1997, 257), there is an incredible amount of misinformed and deeply prejudicial "intellectual history" being written about Blavatsky and theosophy, often parading under the mantle of scholarship. In books, periodicals, and on the Web, one finds assertion after assertion based on factual error or uncorroborated hearsay -- much of it cloned from earlier publications that many present-day authors have incorrectly assumed or deemed to be reliable.1 To use an apt political phrase: repeat a rumor or allegation often enough, and it will become an accepted "truth" -- for a while. But this is hardly a contribution to scholarship or public education.
To itemize a few specifics, these writers need to be kindly admonished that when they mention the 1885 Hodgson Report, published by the British Society for Psychical Research, which brands Blavatsky an impostor, they are duty bound to mention in the same or following paragraph (not buried in a footnote) that the same SPR published a 1986 report by Dr. Vernon Harrison, an expert in detecting forgery, which finds the Hodgson Report to be inaccurate, riddled with bias, flawed, and untrustworthy -- "a highly partisan document forfeiting all claim to scientific impartiality."2
That when asserting adultery, an illegitimate child, and other defamatory charges originally published in 1890 in the New York Sun, to mention also the Sun's 1893 retraction which stated that it was "misled into admitting the article" (by a disgruntled ex-theosophist), and that their investigators had found the allegations to be "without solid foundation."
That when attributing a specific theosophic teaching to Blavatsky, to be certain it is found in her writings, and not one of the "flapdoodles" of a divergent tradition. Also to avoid garbling simple items like dates and events: HPB moved to Bombay in 1879, to Adyar in 1882, to Germany in 1885, Belgium in 1886, finally settling in London in 1887, then publishing The Secret Doctrine in 1888.
That when asserting Blavatsky's plagiarism is "well substantiated," to document, define, and prove the charge.3
That when estimating theosophical book sales (or worldwide membership figures), to note they are speculative at best. Theosophical University Press, for example, since its founding in 1886 has sold perhaps as many copies of Blavatsky's works as any other publisher and does not publish its sales data.
That when suggesting Blavatsky's post-1878 teachings -- in particular the concepts of reincarnation and the seven-fold nature of man's constitution -- are inconsistent with those given by her from 1875-78 in New York, to give some thoughtful consideration, in print, to the concept of preparatory study and the historical context in which these seemingly simple but technically difficult concepts were presented.
That when glibly asserting her teachings were "cobbled together" from a variety of eclectic sources, to give equal time and consideration to her premise of a universal theosophy which offers a tool of immense hermeneutic power, and which she presents through examples drawn from the world's sacred traditions.
Aside from these few but often-repeated items of academic and popular folklore, it is not quite jake either to constantly downgrade, trivialize, and generally give a one-sided account which so obviously caters to personal and popular prejudice.
The standards expected of a book or article on the philosophy, life, and character of Plato, for example, should apply equally to any other historical person and movement. At the very least, one would assume author competence in the subject: a reasonably thorough grasp of primary sources, as well as secondary sources and the historical context. Sit in at a professional academic meeting, and watch peers eviscerate their colleagues who are deficient. Where controversy exists, one likewise expects to find conflicting accounts marshaled, compared, and analyzed, and -- where called for -- judgments and interpretations offered as opinions, not as established fact.
Judging by the surfeit of publications which rely on books such as Madame Blavatsky's Baboon by Peter Washington or Ancient Wisdom Revived by Bruce Campbell, one can only be reminded of John Hutchison's lament, and hardly wonder at the abuse. The theosophy and H. P. Blavatsky of the primary sources are virtually unrecognizable in these second-, third-, and fourth-hand renderings. Their authors would have us believe that skepticism and objectivity are synonymous terms, while relegating any appreciative remark to the outlands of "hagiography." While skepticism is a powerful and necessary antidote for gullibility, it nevertheless contributes little, if anything to knowledge. Objectivity -- the ability to render fair and impartial judgment -- is, on the other hand, the fruit of a well-matured course of study, reflection, knowledge, and understanding. And how many of these present-day writers on Blavatsky and theosophy can justifiably claim that? Informed discussion and the public welfare depend upon a higher standard, and we should expect nothing less.
1. See "Notes on Madame Blavatsky's Baboon," Theosophical History (6:8), October 1997; on October 20 a somewhat expanded version of this paper will be online at www.theosophy-nw.org /theosnw/theos/baboon.htm and at www.greenheart.com/amsec/theo2b.html. (Return to text)
2. This paper has been reprinted together with a monograph based on further research in H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1997; a full-text online version is available at www.theosociety.org/pasadena/tup-onl.htm. (Return to text)
3. See Note 5, "Notes on Madame Blavatsky's Baboon." (Return to text)