Blavatsky and Buddhism

Chapter One: Investigating H.P. Blavatsky

 

 An Asian Worldview

What then are we to make of such disparate views of H.P. Blavatsky and her relationship with Indo - Tibetan Buddhism? Surely it is no coincidence that those who despise Blavatsky's writings are Western scholars and nonpractitioners of Buddhism, while those who look upon HPB favorably are often involved in Buddhist practice. What are scholarly critics seeing that practitioners are not? Scholars appear to be reacting in part to Blavatsky's mélange of vocabulary and meshing of academically quite separate religious movements: H.P.B. in her writing draws from Vedåntin, Mådhyamika, Theravådin, Gnostic, Platonic, Hebrew, Chaldean, Meso-american and other sources quite indiscriminately. In this way, scholarly indignation appears justified. No one can be an expert in all these fields, and the vocabulary and concepts generated by these religious and mystical traditions are deeply embedded in specific socio-historical contexts. But one typical example of Blavatskyan abandon will suffice:

The Svastica, the most sacred and mystic symbol in India, the "Jaina-Cross" as it is now called by the Masons, notwithstanding its direct connection, and even identity with the Christian cross, has become dishonored …. It is the "devil's sign," we are told by the Indian missionaries. "Does it not shine on the head of the great Serpent of Vishnu, on the thousand headed Sesha-Ananta, in the depths of Pâtâla, the Hindu Naraka or Hell"? It does: but what is Ananta? As Sesha, it is the almost endless Manvantaric cycle of time, and becomes infinite Time itself, when called Ananta, the great seven-headed Serpent, on which rests Vishnu, the eternal Deity, during Pralayic inactivity. What has Satan to do with this highly metaphysical symbol? The Svastica is the most philosophically scientific of all symbols, as also the most comprehensible. It is the summary in a few lines of the whole work of creation, or evolution, as one should rather say, from Cosmo-theogony down to Anthropogony, from the indivisible unknown Parabrahm to the humble moneron of materialistic science, whose genesis is as unknown to that science as is that of the All-Deity itself. The Svastica is found heading the religious symbols of every old nation. It is the "Worker's Hammer" in the Chaldean Book of Numbers, the "Hammer" just referred to in the Book of Concealed Mystery (Ch. I, §§ 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), "which striketh sparks from the flint" (Space), those sparks becoming worlds. It is "Thor's Hammer," the magic weapon forged by the dwarfs against the Giants, or the pre-cosmic Titanic forces of Nature …" etc. etc.(33)

Without stopping to justify or contextualize any of her refences, Blavatsky blazes ahead, seeing the evolutionary symbol of the svastika in the Hermetic Smaragdine Tablet, the myth of Prometheus, the Ignis of the Latins and the Vishvakarman of the Veda. Learned HPB may be, but difficult to take seriously in an academic sense.

But there are three things yet more offensive about Blavatsky, particularly to her contemporaries of the late 19th century. First, HPB was a woman, a fiercely independent and eccentric woman. This in itself was a problem. HPB left her husband, General Nikifor Blavatsky, at the age of 18, and traveled alone, from 1848 to 1873 through eastern Europe to Egypt, up to western Europe, across America to the west coast and down through South America, then across the ocean to Sri Lanka, India and back to Europe.(34) Additionally, Blavatsky smoked cigars, swore like a pirate, and spoke her mind bluntly, with little regard for the perceptions of others or the mores of the time. In short, Blavatsky's entire personality and independence from male control was an offense in Victorian Europe and its colonies.

Secondly, Blavatsky was stridently and vocally opposed to the gender, race and class prejudices of her day. One of her primary interests was to found "the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color." (35) This was not merely a passing fancy, but formed the first object in the charter of the Theosophical Society in 1875, and was considered the essential feature of Theosophy until Blavatsky's death. A letter purporting to be from the Guru of her Gurus, the "Mahåchohan," dated 1881, states,

If Theosophists say: "… the lower classes and inferior races cannot concern us and must manage as they can," what becomes of our fine professions of benevolence, reform, etc.? … Should we devote ourselves to teaching a few Europeans, fed on the fat of the land, many of them loaded with the gifts of blind fortune, the rationale of bell-ringing, cup-growing, spiritual telephone, etc., etc., and leave the teeming millions of the ignorant, of the poor and the despised, the lowly and the oppressed, to take care of themselves, and of their hereafter, the best they know how? Never! Perish rather the Theosophical Society …(36)

By the end of HPB's life the central platform of brotherhood appeared to be based on nothing other than the Mahåyåna doctrine of the bodhisattva's path:

Yea; on the Arya Path thou art no more Srotapatti, thou art a Bodhisattva. The stream is cross'd. 'Tis true thou hast a right to Dharmakaya vesture; but Sambhogakaya is greater than a Nirvanee, and greater still is a Nirmanakaya-the Buddha of Compassion.
Now bend thy head and listen well, O Bodhisattva-Compassion speaks and saith: "Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?" (37)

Brotherhood in the abstract no doubt appealed to the Christian powers which had colonized India as elsewhere, but the actual membership of the Theosophical Society was largely Indian, and this offended not only racial sensibilities but the very justification by which England ruled its Indian colony-that of the inability of the Indians to organize responsibly, and hence, to rule themselves.

Thirdly, and possibly the heart of the matter, Blavatsky had a Weltanschauung far more similar to Asian mythological worldviews than to missionary monotheism or atheistic rationalism. She neither championed a single religion or religious leader, nor did she attempt to discredit Asian philosophy, demythologize it, or reconstruct it along Western categories, like Beal, Müller, Rhys-Davids, or Oldenberg.(38) In contradistinction, much European scholarship on Asian thought during Blavatsky's time was pursued for the express purpose of ruining it. Samuel Beal writes in 1871,

In knowledge of the existence of this large and complete collection of the Buddhist Scriptures [the Chinese Canon], it is singular that so little use has been made of it, by missionaries or scholars generally.… it must be evident that so long as we are ignorant of the details of their [Buddhist] religion, they will not be induced to listen to our denunciation of it; nor can we expect that our indifference to their prejudices will tend to remove them.(39)

How frustrating then, that HPB spread her teachings for the express purpose of ruining Christian progress in Asia, as well as blocking the inroads being made the world over by scientific materialism! In 1888 she wrote,

Verily, the fiendish spirits of fanaticism, of early and mediaeval Christianity and of Islam, have from the first loved to dwell in darkness and ignorance; and both have made

"______ the sun like blood, the earth a tomb,
The tomb a hell, and hell itself a murkier gloom!"

Both creeds have won their proselytes at the point of the sword: both have built their churches on heaven-kissing hecatombs of human victims. Over the gateway of Century I of our era, the ominous words "the karma of ISRAEL," fatally glowed. Over the portals of our own, the future seer may discern other words, that will point to the Karma for cunningly made-up HISTORY, for events purposely perverted, and for great characters slandered by posterity, mangled out of recognition, between the two cars of Jagannâtha-Bigotry and Materialism; one accepting too much, the other denying all.(40)

Blavatsky saw Asian modes of thought as superior to all others, and in many ways "mythologized" herself and her work (from a Western perspective) just as Asian religious traditions did. Blavatsky's mythologization took many forms, all of which have parallels in Buddhism. She referred to esoteric texts like the Books of Kiu-Ti and the Stanzas of Dzyan, forbidden to the profane-similar to certain sections of Tibetan Tantras which require initiation, not to mention the Tibetan tradition of hidden texts called "terma."(41) HPB claimed inspiration and visions from hidden gurus, as have many yogis, including the "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama, and Maitreyanåtha's secret instruction of Asanga, founder of the Yogåcåra school of Mahåyåna Buddhism. She proposed a complex, mythological origin for the human race, causing ancient humanity to descend from godlike ancestors, not unlike the origin myths of nearly all ancient traditions. Blavatsky wrote about invisible hierarchies of intelligences behind the phenomenal world, not unlike the Buddhist någas, dakinis, yak?as, råk?as (and their kings), not to mention bodhisattvas of various grades, supervised by myriads of Buddhas. She claimed her teaching was derived from an ahistorical, perennial philosophy, similar to Hindu claims of a Sanatanadharma or the Buddhist doctrine of the timelessness of the True Law. On the other hand, HPB often gave allegorical explanations for popular myths and stories, as do some modern lamas. Sogyal Rinpoche, for example, explains the six (kåma-dhåtu) grades of incarnation in the Buddhist universe in sociological and economic terms, picturing the devas as "tall, blond surfers, lounging on beaches and in gardens flooded by brilliant sunshine …" (42)

It is important to state for the record that it may well be the case that none of Blavatsky's claims are true. Though many of her biographers, even her enemies, admit that her Mahatmas may have been real people-this too may be a myth or a lie. (43) For the purposes of this paper, it matters not a whit whether HPB forged letters from her hidden gurus, whether HPB ever visited Tibet, or whether her perennial philosophy really exists. The important issue at hand is how far, and in what way, Blavatsky has represented Buddhist ideas, teachings, and methods, and what significance this may hold for modern interpreters of Buddhism in the West.

But this was not the interest of scholarly observers of Blavatsky last century. For promiscuously and ahistorically conflating world religions; for undermining the missionaries; for mocking scientism and its materialistic methods; for disdaining the "middle ground" of the Spiritualists; for aiding and abetting the natives; worst of all, for writing and mythologizing like native traditions - for all these reasons (and most of them not scholarly), I propose that Blavatsky was labelled an amateur, an adventuress, and a fraud by her colonialist contemporaries, and the judgment has since stuck, particularly among academics. No trained scholar has looked in depth at Blavatsky and her Buddhistic teachings since the nineteenth century. Buddhist practitioners this century, however, discovering Blavatsky for themselves as part of a religious search, have been for the most part unaware of the academic contempt in which HPB has been held; thus they have received her more favorably than scholars, on the whole, as Buddhist practitioners largely share the same Weltanschauung which motivated HPB. This explains, at least in part, the great divide in public opinion regarding H. P. Blavatsky.

But in light of the extensive additions to, and revisions in, Western Buddhology over the past century, it is high time for a re-examination of Blavatsky and Buddhism. Buddhist scholars today (one assumes) no longer share Victorian sensibilities, while having the additional advantage of a far more comprehensive access to native Buddhist traditions, especially in Tibet. HPB need no longer be judged on the basis of her personality, her anti-Christian zeal, or the danger her activities present to colonialism. Controversial and flamboyant she was, no doubt: the subject of over 30 positive and negative biographies and countless topical studies (the latter mostly written by Theosophists). Yet the focus of all of these works has been in investigating her supposed psychic powers; chronicling her cultural legacy; producing commentaries to her works; or attacking or defending Theosophy as a valid spiritual path. No modern study has yet evaluated H.P. Blavatsky's works purely on the basis of their merit as accurate or inaccurate representations of Buddhism, judged by the teachings of bona fide Buddhists themselves, in native and now translated primary documents. Specifically, while one very useful volume gathers up Blavatsky's statements about Buddhism (44), no scholar has yet attempted a systematic study of H.P.B.'s literary oeuvre and compared it to undisputed Buddhist doctrine contained in the Påli, Sanskrit, and Tibetan S¨tras, Íåstras and Tantras. This paper purposes, for the first time, to undertake such a systematic investigation.

 


Footnotes

(33) Secret Doctrine, vol. 2: 98-9.
(34) Cranston, pp. 36-38 and Parts II and III, passim.
(35)Pamphlet "The United Lodge of Theosophists, Its Mission and Its Future." The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, no date.
(36) Jinarajadasa, compiler. Letters from the Masters of Wisdom -1870-1900, 1:7-9.
(37) "The Seven Portals," in The Voice of the Silence, Theosophy Company edition, pp. 77-78.
(38) Hermann Oldenberg in particular was a champion of a "rationalistic and euhemeristic method." (de Jong, A Brief History of Buddhist Studies in Europe and America, p. 31.)
(39) Beal, A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, p. 2.
(40) Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, p. xli.
(41) See Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Hidden Teachings of Tibet, 1986, reprint 1997.
(42) Sogyal Ripnoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, quoted by Lopez, Prisoners of Shangri-La, p. 80. Lopez is particularly irritated at Sogyal Rinpoche and the apparent parallel with Madame Blavatsky: "[In Sogyal Rinpoche's book] there are quotations from Montaigne, Blake, Rilke, Henry Ford, Voltaire, Origen, Shelley, Mozart, Balzac, Einstein, Rumi, Wordsworth, and the Venerable Bede, which together create a cosmopolitan eclecticism around Sogyal's message, as if what the book conveys is not a Tibetan Buddhist tradition but a universal message, a perennial philosophy, that has always been known to those who know, a secret brotherhood not unlike Madame Blavatsky's Mahatmas. Indeed, the vast popularity of Evans-Wentz's and Sogyal's versions may derive from the way they homogenize the Tibetan text into an ahistorical and universal wisdom."
(43) For historical personages now identified (dubiously) with HPB's Masters, see Johnson, K. Paul. The Masters Revealed : Madam Blavatsky and the myth of the Great White Lodge. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
(44) Spierenberg, The Buddhism of H.P. Blavatsky. San Diego: Point Loma Publications, 1991. Considerable analysis of HPB's use of terms is given in footnotes, along with comparisons to modern studies, but the book presents no overall interpretation or evaluation of HPB as a Buddhist representative.



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