Blavatysky and Buddhism

Chapter One: Investigating H.P. Blavatsky



The method of this study is to take time as an organizing principle. H.P. Blavatsky claimed to be imparting an ancient, esoteric wisdom unavailable to the scholars of the West, or even to most seekers in the East. Her opponents, many of them very eminent Orientalists, accused her of appropriating secondary literature on Buddhism, available in translation (since allegedly HPB knew no canonical languages). One line of defense against this criticism, taken by Theosophists and sometimes by Blavatsky herself, was to point to the magnitude of the Theosophical teachings, their consistency and internal coherence, as demonstrating their validity. Well aware of the criticisms scholars would level at her teachings, Blavatsky attempted to document her "Wisdom Tradition" by marshalling thousands of supportive statements from the literature of the ancient world.

One of the greatest, and, withal, the most serious objection to the correctness and reliability of the whole work [her Secret Doctrine] will be the preliminary STANZAS: "How can the statements contained in them be verified?" True, if a great portion of the Sanskrit, Chinese, and Mongolian works quoted in the present volumes are known to some Orientalists, the chief work-that one from which the Stanzas are given-is not in the possession of European Libraries. The Book of Dzyan (or "Dzan") is utterly unknown to our Philologists, or at any rate was never heard of by them under its present name. This is, of course, a great drawback to those who follow the methods of research prescribed by official science; but to the students of Occultism, and to every genuine Occultist, this will be of little moment. The main body of the Doctrines given is found scattered throughout hundreds and thousands of Sanskrit MSS., some already translated-disfigured in their interpretation, as usual,-others still awaiting their turn. Every scholar, therefore, has an opportunity of verifying the statements herein made, and of checking most of the quotations.(45)

What may not have occurred to Blavatsky, however, is that using tiny fragments to point to the existence of a long-broken whole is a purely subjective method. The veracity of her individual and scattered quotations does little to objectively demonstrate the overarching hermeneutic she puts forward. What is "coherent" and indicative of a perennial philosophy to a Theosophist has obviously been considered "a melee of horrendous hogwash" by outsiders.

The only conceivable manner of adjuticating the dispute is to see what was available to HPB on Buddhism in any Western language up to and including the time of Blavatsky's death, and then closely comparing those presentations of Buddhism to HPB's work. Whatever in Blavatsky's writings cannot be traced to a Western source (particularly in English, French and Russian-languages she spoke fluently) must then be collated and compared to what is now known of Buddhism from its primary source documents and living traditions. This two step method allows the researcher access to what in Blavatsky was purely derivative, and what unique; then, of what was unique-what may now appear to be justifiable Buddhist doctrine and what may be unverifiable assetion.

It is important to note that just because a work was published in any Western language does not prove that HPB had access to it. One might justifiably argue that simply because Blavatsky refers to a Buddhist MSS., which had also been published in Western translation, there is no a priori reason to assume she had no access to a native source. However, such a line of argument (and the near impossibility of learning where HPB lived in what year, and what sources were available to her in that location or through correspondence) suffers by comparison to a higher line of reasoning. Any Buddhist text or doctrine which Blavatsky (or her alleged teachers in their letters) quotes, which was not available in any Western recension, is de facto proof that HPB was drawing either on an original language source (oral or written), or her own imagination. In most cases it should not be terribly difficult to distinguish the former from the latter in light of current knowledge.

To this end, a nearly comprehensive chronological bibliography has been drawn up, listing all books and articles written about Buddhism in every Western language, year by year from 1667 to 1891, the date of Blavatsky's death. Because of the overwhelming mass of data, only the most important works (especially translations from original languages) have been collated and attached to this study as Appendix I. Here one may see when important S¨tras were translated, when dictionaries for Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese became available, what travellers had remarked on lands HPB claimed to have visited, and what theories and predilections were prevalent before and during the time HPB wrote. With these in sight, Blavatsky's contributions will be easier to recognize.

The "Mahatma Letters," whose six volumes are kept in the permanent collection of the British Museum, deserve special mention, because they have been the nucleus of many a controversy surrounding Blavatsky.(46) They were written largely to the British editor of the Allahabad Pioneer, A.P. Sinnett, from 1880 to 1884, and contain essential Theosophical teachings as well as mundane comments on individuals, the Theophical Society, and various currents in the world at large. Dozens of authors have attempted to demonstrate that these letters were or were not written by Blavatsky herself, and to settle whether the letters did or did not appear through "occult" agency (appearing at their destinations by dropping from the ceiling, or materializing within books or other objects, etc. as well as by orindary post). (47) The Mahatma Letters are a primary source for our study of Blavatsky and Buddhism, because many of HPB's unusual doctrines and vocabulary, which are expounded upon in publication in 1888 with her Secret Doctrine, are found years earlier in these private letters. Yet it does not matter, for our current purposes, who wrote the Mahatma Letters, for the Buddhistic teachings contained therein will be held up to the same methodological scrutiny as those works which are undoubtedly Madame's.

To be sure, it would be convenient for Blavatsky's followers if the Mahatmas were proven to exist, or further, materialized before the public together with their most precious posessions, "the sum total of sacred and philosophical works in MSS. and in type [throughout history]." (48) Alas, they have not chosen to do so. However, this paper will assume that the personages "KH" (or "Koothoomi Lal Singh") and "M" ("Morya") were indeed individuals distinct from HPB's famous creative faculties. Not only are these initials convenient monikers, but the content of the letters themselves betray a foreign author. They demonstrate an unfamiliarity with English and make simple mistakes that would be difficult to fake. For example, in one exchange, Mr. Sinnett complains that Colonel Olcott, President of the Theosophical Society, is a bumbler and out of touch with the social world of Anglo-India. KH responds that "Colonel Olcott is doubtless 'out of time with the feelings of English people' of both classes; but nevertheless more in time with us than either." (49) The next letter from the Mahatma makes it clear that KH has misunderstood both Sinnett's handwriting and English idiom:

… Did you write "tune"? Well, well; I must ask you to buy me a pair of spectacles in London. And yet-out of "time" or out of "tune" is all one, as it seems. But you ought to adopt my old fashioned habit of "little lines" over the "m's." Those bars are useful, even though "out of tune and time" with modern calligraphy. (50)

Blavatsky was neither in the habit of drawing bars over her "m's" nor so out of touch with English usage as to imagine that "out of time" and "out of tune" were "all one, as it seems." This is but one example among many, to say nothing of handwriting, style, or the fact that the Mahatma Letters routinely criticize HPB for her adle - brain, her emotional outbursts, and her unfamiliarity with the doctrines of those "beyond the Himalaya." (51) In reading the letters, one gains an ambivalent image of Blavatsky, one which is certainly not hagiographic. It is difficult to understand why HPB would forge private letters which made her look worse, not better, before her inmost admirers.(52) But acknowledging that the letters were (usually) written by other persons than Blavatsky, however, does nothing to prop up her claim that such authors were in fact "great souls … men of great learning, whom we term Initiates, and still greater holiness of life." (53) Max Müller gave full credence to the idea that HPB had been duped by unscrupulous Asians posing as perfected beings, and this only added to the calamity that was the Theosophical Society. (54)

But again, it matters not whether HPB was such a clever schemer as to forge not one but several sets of consistent handwriting, and arrange (through co-conspirators, no doubt) to have the letters of her Mahatmas delivered phenomenally to correspondents even while dwelling in the opposite hemisphere. Whoever may have written the letters, their contents will be treated as part of the corpus of Blavatsky's "Buddhistic" work, and judged accordingly, even though we attach different names for their authors.



(45) The Secret Doctrine, p. xxii-xxiii.
(46) Barker, A. T, ed. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. & K.H. 1st edition 1923. 3rd Edition: Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1979.
(47) Accusers and defenders include Coulomb, Emma. Some account of my intercourse with Madame Blavatsky from 1872 to 1884. With a number of additional letters and a full explanation of the most marvellous theosophical phenomena. (London: Published for the proprietors of the "Madras Christian College magazine", by Elliot Stock, 1885); Cranston, Sylvia. H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosphical Movement. (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1993); Fuller, Jean Overton. Blavatsky and her teachers : an investigative biography. (London: East-West Publications, 1988); Jinarajadasa, Curuppumullagae. Did Madame Blavatsky forge the Mahatma Letters? (Adyar, Madras : Theosophical Pub. House, 1934); Johnson, K. Paul. The Masters Revealed : Madam Blavatsky and the myth of the Great White Lodge. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994). Kingsland, William. Was she a charlatan? A critical analysis of the 1885 report of the Society for Psychical Research, on the phenomena connected with Mme. H. P. Blavatsky. (London: The Blavatsky Association, 1927); Meade, Marion. Madame Blavatsky, the woman behind the myth. (New York: Putnam, 1980); Solovyoff, Vsevolod S. A Modern Priestess of Isis. Abridged and translated on Behalf of the Society for Psychical Research from the Russian by Walter Leaf. (1st edition 1895. New York: Ayer Co., 1976); Williams, Gertrude Leavenworth Marvin. Madame Blavatsky, Priestess of the Occult. (New York: Lancer Books, 1946).
(48) Secret Doctrine, p. xxiii.
(49) Barker, Letter No. 4, p. 14.
(50) Barker, Letter No. 5, p. 19.
(51) In but one typical example, KH explains Blavatsky's excess zeal in producing psychic phenomena, and claiming that such phenomena was all her guru's doing, while claiming she had nothing to do with it. "Was, or rather is it lack of intellectual perceptions in her? Certainly not. It is a psychological disease, over which she has little if any control at all. Her impulsive nature - as you have correctly inferred in your reply - is always ready to carry her beyond the boundaries of truth, into the regions of exaggeration; nevertheless without a shadow of a suspicion that she is thereby deceiving her friends, or abusing their great trust in her. The stereotyped phrase: 'It is not I; I can do nothing by myself … it is all they - the Brothers … I am but their humble and devoted slave and instrument' is a downright fib." Barker's Mahatma Letters, p. 307.
(52) However, see Appendix III, where HPB admits in a sworn statement that she at times wrote Mahatma Letters herself (not merely transcribing them but composing them ex nihilo) when the subject matter was of a personal nature not related to philosophy or issues of a universal scope.
(53) Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, p. 289.
(54) Müller, "Esoteric Buddhism," p. 775.

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