The western esoteric tradition has no more important figure in the modern times than Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891). She and her Theosophical Society stand at the crucial historical moment when it seemed possible to unite science and occultism, West and East, in a “divine wisdom” (theosophy) for the modern age. In Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and, most of all, in the fourteen volumes of her Collected Writings, Blavatsky emerges as certainly the most learned, if not always the wisest woman of her century. For who is there to compete? Consider, first, her languages: Russian from her family, Georgian from their peasants, French and English from her governesses, Arabic from her travel companions, Italian from her comrades-in-arms, and then Sanskrit, in which her fluency was praised by a man (Dayananda Sarasvati) who lectured in it every day. Next, her travels: to name only the places where she settled for a while, there are Russia, Mongolia, India, Ceylon, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Syria, the Americas, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, England, and who knows, perhaps even Tibet. Then there is her uncanny ability to attract the information she needed for her writing, whether from books and magazines, from people, or from the less tangible sources with which the “channeling” phenomenon has reacquainted us. Add to this a body beset by physical illness and overweight, a fearsome temper, an undeniable psychic or mediumistic gift, and a tendency to assume multiple personalities, and you have the outline of HPB as generally known.
Paul Johnson’s book adds an entirely new dimension to this picture, and consequently to the history of the Western esotericism at its most complex moment. His starting point is the “myth of the Masters.” There are two very different views on this, just as there are two meanings to the word myth. One holds that, just as mythology embodies lost knowledge and higher truths than mere stories, the Masters with whom HPB claimed to be in contact were beings of ineffable spiritual development and wisdom. At the same time, they were mortal men whom she claimed to have known personally. The principal Masters in question were Koot Hoomi and Morya, supposedly residents of Shigatse in Tibet, whom HPB persuaded to write a number of letters in the 1880s to the influential Anglo-Indians A. P. Sinnett and A. O. Hume. These letters appeared in various mysterious ways, dropping form the ceiling or materializing in railway carriages, and were said to be not written, but “precipitated” by psychic means. Their bizarre variety of inks and calligraphies may be examined by the curious in the British Library. In the earlier days of the Theosophical Society, a Master named Serapis wrote in similar fashion to Blavatsky’s co-founder, Colonel Henry Olcott. Other Masters, less communicative, included Tuitit Bey, Hilarion, Djual Kul, and the Mahachohan. All belonged to an international fraternity of adepts often called the Great White Lodge. These august beings, so Theosophists were given to believe, were watching over the experiment to which Spiritualism has been the prelude, an attempt to crack the shell of Western materialism.
Now to other people, a myth is merely a tall story, and the myth of the Masters one of the tallest ever told. This was the conclusion of the psychical researcher Dr. Richard Hodgson, after an exhaustive investigation of the “phenomena” that were claimed to be happening around the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Adyar, Madras. In his report to the Society for Psychical Research, published in 1886, he deflated the Theosophical bubble to his own satisfaction and to that of many others, both outside the society and in it. Madame Blavatsky, he proclaimed, was an ingenious impostor, her Masters a fiction, and their letters written by her hand. Many people who had formerly been interested and even troubled by Theosophy took this report as their cue to drop the subject, retiring into conventional habits of through (Christian, materialist, or Spiritualist) or at least closing the door to the pretended wonders of the East.
Conventional habits of thought prevailed increasingly among the faithful Theosophists, as they lived through the traumas of the 1880s, the death of HPB in 1891, and the struggle for leadership of the society. In this case, the conventionality was that of religious believers, who adhered with childlike faith to whatever party line their sect adopted. One sect, with the advantage of numbers and of the Adyar imprimatur, came under the influence of Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater. Faith in this case was in the “revelations” that the sensitive Leadbeater produced, and in the avatar that the society’s leaders were preparing, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Leadbeater built his myth on the Masters of HPB, explained their previous incarnations, described their way of life, and seemed altogether on intimate terms with them. On the other side, the “Back to Blavatsky” movement repudiated the Adyar leaders and applied itself to the study of HPB’s own works and those of her American successor, William Q. Judge. To this sect, especially, HPB could do no wrong; she had of course had to use some subterfuge with her followers, as one does when bringing up children who cannot be faced too early with the facts of life. But her nobility of spirit, her morality, and especially her lifelong chastity were unassailable, as befitted an emissary of the Great White Lodge.
The writing of Theosophical history has been monopolized until recently by adherents and opponents of these groups. Every biographer of HPB has had an agenda either of exposing her as an impostor, however fascinating her achievements, or of exalting her, however visible her human frailties. How could it be otherwise? The writers were either Theosophists or they were not. But such a labeling missed that middle ground, where the truth is to be sought without fear of what it might turn out to be. If HPB took drugs, worked black magic, or bore an illegitimate child (and there is evidence for all of these), the Theosophists are horrified; they immediately cover it up or deny it. If on the other hand she had unequalled mediumistic powers, and if she knew more about occult philosophy than anyone alive, then the skeptics must laugh these achievements off, because according to their faith, such things do not exist (or, if they exist, do not matter).
Mr. Johnson’s work occupies the middle ground. He obviously has a great respect and admiration for HPB, but he has no illusions as to the mischievous and even dark sides of her personality. He observes the convention without which scholarship would be impossible, namely that of not imposing one’s own religious beliefs on the matter to be studied. But he evidently believes that HPB and her Masters achieved something of tremendous importance for the human race. I happen to share his attitudes, and that is why I have followed his research for several years with passionate interest.
Mr. Johnson brings Theosophical history out of the two deadends of hagiography and anecdotal biography, and reinstates it in proper place, as part of the cultural, political, religious, and intellectual history of modern times. In one respect, his work belongs to the broader movement that seeks to integrate the history of the occult sciences and of esoteric movements with those more established sub disciplines. Eminent contributors to this effort include Frances A. Yates in England, Allen G. Debus in America, and Antoine Faivre in France. But the Theosophical Society has fared badly with the “academic esotericists.” One reason is surely because its founder seems to them so uncouth; another, that its doctrines are too oriental to fit within the Western traditions of Rosicrucianism, Hermetism, and monotheistic Theosophia. A third reason is that it is too modern, lacking the patina of age that makes Ramon Lull or Paracelsus respectable subjects of study, and too close to the popular occultism and “New Age” of today. Mr. Johnson’s work shows, on the contrary, that the seriousness and complexity of HPB’s creation entitle it to the fullest consideration by intellectual historians.
The theme of this book is that HPB’s Masters were not the Himalayan sages whom she invented to distract her co-workers, but a large group of men and a few women who helped, encouraged, or collaborated with her, in a life’s work that was not only spiritual but socially idealistic and fiercely political. It was driven, of course, by HPB’s search for spiritual truth, which she found to her best satisfaction in Mahayana Buddhism, and for ways to give it to the world. But the emotional fuel for her activities came as often from a hatred of oppression, whether political, as of India by the British, or religious, as of a whole civilization by the Christian Church.
The first part of Mr. Johnson’s book shows how HPB shared these ideals to a greater or lesser degree with a surprising variety of Westerners and Levantines, and how she built up her international web of connections. In following HPB to India, part 2 breaks entirely new ground. The longest sections, based on the author’s own researches in Indian archives, treat a group of Hindu and Sikh leaders with whom HPB was apparently embroiled even before coming to India in 1879. Their political ambitions and administrative cares were never entirely detached from a concern for religious reconciliation, and even, after their fashion, for the promotion of a “brotherhood of humanity,” to which the Theosophical Society was vowed. But no one has ever suspected the depth of HPB’s involvement in the “Great Game” for (and against) the domination of India by the Western powers. Political historians will, I hope, take notice of the entry of this new player on their scene. Part 3 reports extensive documentary discoveries on HPB’s role in the “Great Game,” mostly from the India Office Library in London, that command the attention of all students of British Indian history.
To doctrinaire Theosophists, the revelations and theories of parts 2 and 3 will be less welcome. Mr. Johnson’s suggestion—and he makes it clear that is no more than that—is that the Mahatmas Morya and Koot Hoomi are fictitious Tibetan personae that conceal well-documented historical figured: Ranbir Singh and Thakar Singh. With the skill of a detective, he unearths HPB’s and Olcott’s relations with these men, and explains why they were thought so important as to be dignified in this way. At the same time, he faces the evident fact that the “Mahatma Letters” ascribed to Morya and Koot Hoomi cannot plausibly have been written by Ranbir and Thakar. Yet to imply that the letters were concocted by HPB, on the basis of what she had learned from every one of her Masters up to that point, is not to denigrate the spiritual teaching contained in them. The fact that she had to struggle and make silly mistakes, yet managed to found one universally eclectic religious movement that still survives, makes her as great as a human being needs to be, without having to postulate “perfect” Masters.
The myth of the Masters was started by HPB following the time-honored traditions of Rosicrucianism, Strict Observance Freemasonry, and Spiritualism (where the Masters were discarnate). But it is often forgotten how greatly it was inflated by Besant and Leadbeater, by Cyril Scott and Alice A. Bailey (who wrote under the direction of “The Tibetan,” Djual Kul), and more recently by Elizabeth Clare Prophet. If Mr. Johnson’s theory is correct, the whole edifice of those revealed or channeled teachings begins to totter. But it does not necessarily fall, any more than the Mahatma Letters become worthless if they are not by Tibetan Mahatmas. All this material remains to be judged on its own merits, which seems to me a healthier situation than to accept any of it with a quasi-fundamentalist awe. Theosophists would be the first to urge this attitude towards the reading of the Bible and the Quran. If they cannot face it in the case of their own scriptures and their own purported Masters, they are putting a religion “higher than Truth” in defiance of their society’s motto.
All Theosophists, it goes without saying, should pluck up the courage to read this book. But its importance goes far beyond them. One does not have to know anything more about HPB than Mr. Johnson tells one, in order to enjoy this kaleidoscopic journey around the globe, this parade of heroes and eccentrics who wanted to change the world. For those who respect the rules of objective evidence yet are not closed to spiritual influences in their own lives, the book presents that most delightful of mysteries—an esoteric whodunit. But it is the world of learning that has the most to gain from Mr. Johnson’s work, for it opens a whole field of future research, inviting a collaborative effort of scholars that will stretch well into the next century.
- K. Paul Johnson. The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.