Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter One Investigating H.P. Blavatsky



Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) has been a highly controversial - not to say inflammatory - figure in Western scholarship and culture ever since she first launched the Theosophical Movement in New York City, 1875. Claiming that she was instructed by certain "Mahatmas," allegedly Indo-Tibetan sages, to bring Eastern wisdom to the West, H.P. Blavatsky (or HPB) wrote voluminously and traveled extensively, taking Buddhist vows (pansil) in Sri Lanka and claiming initiation in Tibet. Meanwhile she worked feverishly to set up a publishing and teaching network around the globe for the spread of Theosophy, which she also referred to as the "Wisdom Religion."

Blavatsky's contribution to a Western understanding of Eastern thought is ambiguous, and public opinion of her is polarized. Those who notice Blavatsky's work at all either admire it or despise it; few observers take a middle ground. How is one to understand the confusion, devotion and loathing surrounding HPB? This paper begins by reviewing various superficial views of Blavatsky in order to highlight the special problems confronting the researcher.

Then, a methodology is laid out by which HPB's publications may be studied in relation to those of her contemporaries. In this way, a more thorough understanding of her motives and methods will emerge, sharply distinguishing her from Western scholars, missionaries, and colonialists. Finally, by carefully comparing Blavatsky's Buddhistic teachings and assertions to primary sources (s¨tras, tantras and commentaries), HPB's unique and troublesome contribution to Buddhist studies can be ascertained.

The Need for Such a Study

Because Blavatsky is so widely maligned among academics, and so widely dismissed as a shallow fraud who merits no further attention, one feels in the first place the need to justify a study of her life and work. Madame Blavatsky's influence on 19th and 20th century culture, East and West, may be measured in part by the long list of her admirers and students. These include, to name a few, Mohandas Gandhi (1), Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Radhakrishnan (President of India), C. Jinarajadasa (Sanskritist), Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein (2), Dharmapala Anagarika (Sri Lankan Buddhist reformer), George Russell (or AE), William James, E.M. Forster, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum, Christmas Humphreys (Buddhologist), Edward Conze, Nicholas Flammarion (French astronomer), Sir William Crookes (chemist and physicist), Piet Mondrian, Maurice Maeterlinck (playwright), Wassily Kandinsky, Gustav Mahler, Annie Besant (founder of the Indian National Congress), Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf schools and new agricultural methods) and Krishnamurti (philosopher). A recent volume contains over fifty reminiscences of Blavatsky from lesser known persons. (3)

Yet HPB's detractors are also many, even those who one might assume would be supportive of her paranormal proclivities. Investigated by Richard Hodgson for the Society for Psychical Research in 1885, Blavatsky was declared at the end of his 200 page report nothing more than a clever fraud:

For our part we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history. (4)

Spiritualists, both Christian and agnostic, had long quarreled with HPB over reincarnation, as well as her refusal to admit that there was any communication with the souls of the dead in spiritualistic séances. After the SPR exposé, most spiritualists still remaining within the Theosophical Society left in droves.(5)

Likewise, most academics in her time regarded H.P.B. as a dilettante and distorter of genuine Eastern religions. In 1893 Max Müller wrote a long and contemptuous review of Blavatsky's attempt to "found a religion" called "Esoteric Buddhism." Here, the preeminent Orientalist of the nineteenth century laid out what was and was not the real Buddhism, and how seriously Blavatsky had blundered in this regard.

Müller begins by noting HPB's "great shrewdness" in making the source of her doctrines 'esoteric' and in claiming that she drew from a secret and apparently oral tradition. He writes, " 'Gautama,' we are assured, 'had a doctrine for his "elect" and another for the outside masses'." But rather than acknowledge the fact that all Mahåyåna Buddhist traditions make the same claim, Müller compares Blavatsky's statements to those of "Ctesias as to a race of people who used their ears as sheets to sleep in."

If I were asked what Madame Blavatsky's Esoteric Buddhism really is, I should say it was Buddhism misunderstood, distorted, caricatured. There is nothing in it beyond what was known already, chiefly from books that are now antiquated.… I cannot give a better explanation of the change of Brahmanism into Buddhism than by stating that Buddhism was the highest Brahmanism popularised, everything esoteric being abolished.… Whatever was esoteric or secret was ipso facto not Buddha's teaching; whatever was Buddha's teaching was ipso facto not esoteric.… (6)

At which point Müller quotes very well-known passages from the - nota bene - Pali canon, demonstrating the complete absence of all esotericism in Buddha's teaching. Nor are there any hidden manuscripts: "The fact is, that there is no longer any secret about Sanskrit literature, and I believe that we in England know as much about it as most native scholars."(7) Müller goes on to show how, unlike Madame Blavatsky, the Buddha despised all miracles except one, that of confession.

And when his own disciples come to him asking to be allowed to perform the ordinary magic miracles, he forbids them to do so, but allows them to perform one miracle only, which everybody could, but nobody does, perform, namely, to confess our sins, and again not in secret, not in a confessional, but publicly and before the whole congregation. If Madame Blavatsky would have tried to perform that one true Buddhist miracle, if she had tried to confess openly her small faults and indiscretions … [she] might still [have done] some good.(8)

Finally, Müller candidly admits the great paucity of European knowledge regarding Buddhism, "particularly with regard to what is called the Mahåyåna, or Northern Buddhism." But according to this scholar, as according to all nineteenth century scholars, the locus of true wisdom is in the stable and printed text, not in a living (and sometimes ambiguous) tradition:

There are still several of the recognised canonical books of the Northern Buddhism, the Nine Dharmas, of which the manuscripts are beyond our reach, or which frighten even the most patient students by their enormous bulk. In that sense Madame Blavatsky would be quite right-that there is a great deal of Buddhism of which European scholars know nothing. But we need not go to Madame Blavatsky or to her Mahâtmas in Tibet in order to know this, and it is certainly not from her books that we should derive our information of the Mahåyåna literature. We should go to the manuscripts in our libraries, even in the Bodleian [Oxford], in order to do what all honest Mahâtmas have to do, copy the manuscripts, collate them, and translate them. (9)

Despite his obvious Christian leanings, despite the fact that Buddhism became "corrupted and vulgarised when it became the religion of barbarous or semi-barbarous people in Tibet, China and Mongolia," yet Müller writes that "I love the Buddha and admire Buddhist morality" and because of this, he cannot remain silent, and must put down Blavatskyism, especially when "the number of her followers … has become so large in India, and particularly in Ceylon."(10) Müller's academic exposé culminated what had been a long and sustained attack by Orientalists on HPB's productions, and few academics have taken her seriously since.

Nevertheless, Blavatsky has remained popular in some quarters and her work has played no small part in inspiring the New Age movement of the current fin-de-siècle. And thus HPB's "amateurish" production continues to frustrate professional students of Asia. In his article, "Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism," Agehananda Bharati apparently speaks for all scholars in once again attacking Blavatsky, claiming that her work culminates in the ridiculous output of The Third Eye and its sequels by "Lama Lobsang Rampa," (actually one Cyril Henry Hoskin):

Mme. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine, a multivolume work, is such a melee of horrendous hogwash and of fertile inventions of inane esoterica, that any Buddhist and Tibetan scholar is justified to avoid mentioning it in any context. But it is precisely because serious scholars haven't mentioned this opus that it should be dealt with in a serious publication and in one whose readers are deeply concerned with the true representation of Tibetan lore. In other words, since Blavatsky's work has had signal importance in the genesis and perpetuation of a widespread, weird, fake, and fakish pseudo-Tibetica and pseudo-Buddhica, and since no Tibetologist or Buddhologist would touch her writings with a long pole … it behooves an anthropologist who works in the Buddhist and Tibetan field to do this job….

I do not doubt that in her earlier years, Blavatsky must have been a highly eclectic, voracious reader. But as with all nonscholars in the field of religious systems, she did not unmix the genuine from the phony; she obviously regarded all sources as equally valid. Not knowing any of the primary languages of the Buddhist-Hindu tradition, she had to rely on whatever had been translated. And, as an epiphenomenon to the awakening interest in oriental studies, a large number of unscholarly writings emerged, produced by people who thought, or pretended, that they could get at the meat of the newly discovered wisdom of the East by speculating about it in their own way rather than by being guided by its sources, or by seeking guidance from authentic teachers in those eastern lands.(11)

It is not quite true, as Bharati implies, that all 20th century Buddhist scholars have completely ignored Blavatsky. She continues to receive small but steady notice even up to the present, for instance in a recent study by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., (1998) Prisoners of Shangri-la - although Lopez is no more charitable in his view than Bharati.(12) He focuses almost entirely on Blavatsky's unusual theories of anthropogensis (a relatively minor part of her 16-year oeuvre) while ignoring her fairly orthodox Buddhist views on the emanation of the universe, karma, reincarnation, skandhas, nirvåˆa, etc.

Yet not all Buddhist scholars have dismissed HPB. The French Orientalist Emile Burnouf wrote supportively of the Theosophical Society in the Reveux des Deux Mondes last century. Protesting against Theosophists' attempts to distance themselves from exoteric Buddhism plain and simple, Burnouf wrote,

This [universal brotherhood] declaration [of the Theosophical Society] is purely Buddhistic: the practical publications of the Society are either translations of Buddhist books, or original works inspired by the teaching of Buddha. Therefore the Society has a Buddhist character.(13)

Likewise, several prominent Buddhologists this century (a distinct minority) have declared that H.P.B. was an accurate transmittor of Buddhist teaching, and a small number of Buddhologists actually joined the Theosophical Society. D.T. Suzuki wrote that H.P.B. was "one who had truly attained,"(14) and praised her work The Voice of the Silence as being "true Mahayana Buddhism."(15) Likewise Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup (who in the service of W.Y. Evans-Wentz, translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead) said that H.P.B. had "… intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings.…"(16) One of the most important Buddhologists of the century, Edward Conze, was a Theosophist. Mircea Eliade, in his published journal, wrote for January 15, 1964,

yesterday and today, almost the whole time with Ed. Conze. He gave two lectures on Buddhism-amusing and extremely well attended. Long conversations between us. I learned that he was, and still is, a theosophist: he admires The Secret Doctrine, and believes that Mme. Blavatsky was the reincarnation of Tsonkapa.(17)

The reasons for this great divergence of opinion on H.P. Blavatsky must be inquired into.



(1) Gandhi joined the Theosophical Society in London at the Blavatsky Lodge, March 26, 1891. (Pyarelal Nair, Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 1: The Early Years. Ahmedabad: Navajian Publishing House, 1965, p. 259. Theosophists gave Mahatma Gandhi his first copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, which was to become so important in his later life. Gandhi did not remain interested in Theosophy for more than a few years however.
(2) Quoted in Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky. New York, Putnam, 1993, p. xx fn 11 and 12. Einstein's niece visited the Theosophical World Headquarters in Adyar, Madras. "She had to see the place because her uncle always had a copy of Madama Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine on his desk. The same event is reported by Iverson Harris, The Journal of San Diego History, San Diego Historical Society, (Summer 1974) p. 16.
(3) Caldwell, Daniel, ed. The Occult World of Madame Blavatsky. (Tucson AZ: Impossible Dream Publications, 1991).
(4) Society for Psychical Research. "Report on the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 3. London: 1885, pp. 201-400. Controversy from within and without the SPR has followed this report since its publication, and in 1986, the SPR issued a lengthy press release entitled, "Madame Blavatsky, Co-Founder of the Theosophical Society was Unjustly Condemned, New Study Concludes." This study was by Vernon Harrison of the SPR (not a Theosophist): "J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, London, April 1986, vol. 53, pp. 286-310. A newer study by Harrison is H.P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885 (Pasadena: TUP, 1997).
(5) Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914, chapter five passim.
(6) "Esoteric Buddhism," Nineteenth Century Vol. 33 (May 1893) pp. 775-781.
(7) "Esoteric Buddhism" p. 767.
(8) "Esoteric Buddhism," p 784.
(9) "Esoteric Buddhism," pp. 786-7.
(10) "Esoteric Buddhism, p. 772.
(11) Agehananda Bharati, "Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism," Tibet Society Bulletin, Vol. 7, 1974.
(12) Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998, chapter two, passim.
(13) "Le Bouddhisme en Occident," Reveux des Deux Mondes, July 15, 1888.
(14) Eastern Buddhist (old series) vol. 5, p. 377.
(15) The Middle Way, August 1965, p. 90.
(16) The Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 7 footnote.
(17) Quoted by Cranston, H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, p. 501.

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