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
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.
was esoteric or secret was ipso facto not Buddha's teaching; whatever
was Buddha's teaching was ipso facto not esoteric.
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
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
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
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
an anthropologist who works in the Buddhist and Tibetan field to do this
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,
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
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
"(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
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.