(Investigator 105, 2005 November)
Born Helena Petrov Hahn at Ekaterinoslav in the Ukraine, this dramatic Russian mystic's legacy still continues today as the Theosophical Society.
Given to hypochondria, fits of passion, and walking in her sleep, Helena was nevertheless a gifted child. Her mother died when she was eleven and Helena went to live with her grandparents at Saratow, where unmistakable signs of her psychic ability manifested itself.
A prolific reader, she took full advantage of her grandparents' enormous library to devour books between riding horses and getting up to mischief. She believed in spirits, and would hold long conversations with someone invisible, and through clairvoyance, would make dire predictions of death and misfortune for friends and visitors, unfortunately often coming to pass.
At seventeen, she married General Blavatsky, fifty years her senior, but after a stormy three months left him to begin travelling the world.
Her introduction to the supernatural started with a brief spell as an assistant to Daniel Dunglas Home, the spiritualist medium, and then in July 1851, she was shipwrecked when the steamship Eumonia sank after an explosion. She was rescued, and put ashore in Egypt where she made her way to Cairo and began her first serious study of the occult with an old Coptic magician.
With money sent to her by her father she continued her travels to Canada studying the occult with Red Indians, went on to Mexico, thence to New Orleans where her prime interest was voodoo.
Later she went to India, Nepal and Tibet where she had many strange experiences, among them, witnessing the "astral soul" of her guide separate from his body, and being rescued from the desert by a party of horsemen from a lamasery, whom she believed she had directed to her by her psychic powers.
Returning to Russia after an absence of ten years, she astonished everyone with her demonstrations of psychic power; raps, knocks, whispering sounds and furniture movements were commonplace, and visits from ghosts and apparitions were frequent.
Back in India, Madame Blavatsky became a chela, a devout student sitting at the feet of gurus and mystics, where she vowed to serve the masters of Eastern religion for the rest of her life.
In 1873 however, Mme Blavatsky returned to America hoping to gain patronage from wealthy families interested in psychic matters. She described the USA as "a most prolific hot-bed for mediums and sensitives of all kinds, both genuine and artificial." Keen to make the world more aware of spiritual truth, she organized meetings to disseminate the great philosophical truths of the East.
It was at one of these meetings that she met the Eddy brothers, two famous American mediums, and Colonel Henry S. Olcott, who suggested that she should form a society to present the spiritual truth to the world. The stage was thus set for an institution to be known as the Theosophical Society.
The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875, (Theosophy, meaning knowledge of God, or divine wisdom) and Mme Blavatsky spent the next two years, while smoking hashish, writing a book on this divine wisdom or body of truth concerning God, man and the universe, under the title of Isis Unveiled.
In essence, the book is a survey of the literature of magic, witchcraft, alchemy, Eastern thought and Western science, her aim — to rekindle an interest in magic. She postulated the doctrine of the Astral Light or vital ether, propounded the notion of a secret science known to the ancients, and claimed to have been in touch with the Tibetan section of the brotherhood, one of whom had written whole pages of Isis Unveiled for her when she was fast asleep.
Membership of the Society increased rapidly and visitors to her large apartment were witness to many strange events; extraordinary sights and sounds continued to occur, bells would sound and mysterious luminous balls would creep over the furniture. She wrote articles on Esotericism and Nirvana, and her weighty tome, Isis Unveiled.
William and Horatio Eddy were renowned for their extraordinary powers as mediums and their ability to summon a succession of spirit forms. Using a format common to the times, the medium would sit in a cabinet and the spirit manifestations would appear from behind a curtain.
Communication with the spirits was possible, and at some meetings the spirits danced with selected guests. That people could be fooled by these fraudulent charades is a matter of historical record, and as mystifying to me today as to those who investigated and exposed the mediums in the spiritualists' heyday for what they were.
In 1879 Mme Blavatsky again returned to India with a loyal band of disciples establishing the headquarters of the Theosophical Society at Breach Candy, in Bombay.
While Madame Blavatsky worked day and night pouring out articles, Colonel Olcott travelled about India forming new branches. Soon there were seventy-seven branches in India alone and another eight in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
In a new spacious house at Adyar near Madras, Madame Blavatsky settled down in her "occult room" to contact the Mahatmas and take down their teachings and advice to pass on to the faithful. What became known as the Mahatma Letters became the centre of a storm of controversy, when it was suggested in a report to the British Society for Psychical Research that she had written them herself.
Like other mediums, Mme Blavatsky also had a spirit "guide" or "control", called John King, but as interest in spiritualism declined she spoke less and less of John King, and other more god-like beings known as the Brothers or Masters became her guides, their powers allegedly unlimited.
In India, these supermen are known as Mahatmas, and they would occasionally drop a note on Colonel Olcott's desk telling him what to do for Mme Blavatsky, the notes ostensibly precipitated by occult means from the Brothers' Sanctuary in Tibet. One note suggested that the Colonel leave his wife and children and set up house with Mme Blavatsky at 46 Irving Place, New York City!
The Secret Brothers or Hidden Masters, were the driving force behind the "miracles" Mme Blavatsky was now performing on a regular basis, one of them, Koot Hoomi, was helping the Society by sending letters from Tibet to those sympathetically inclined towards Theosophy. That the letters came through Mme Blavatsky or simply materialized apparently aroused no suspicion.
Like others of her ilk who tried to fool all of the people all of the time, Mme Blavatsky's demise came midst scandalous revelations exposing her fraudulent activities, when the British Society for Psychical Research proposed to investigate her, "marvellous phenomena" and publish their findings. They examined Colonel Olcott's claims of astral travel, an Indian member of the Society who related the marvels he had experienced, and Mme Blavatsky herself, but before they had time to publish their findings a devastating blow was struck at the very core of Theosophy.
The Protestant missionaries in Madras published some very indiscreet letters allegedly written by Mme Blavatsky to Mme Coulomb, which clearly exposed the great Mme Blavatsky as a fraud, and her "marvelous phenomena" as the work of confederates, of whom Mme Coulomb was the most important.
The news of the scandal was published in the world press, the crudeness of the revelations astounding.
Mme Blavatsky, it was alleged, had got Mme Coulomb to carry a dummy of a man on her shoulders on moonlit nights to give the faithful the impression that it was Koot Hoomi hurrying by, and that it was Mme Coulomb who dropped the Mahatma letters (Mahatma's thoughts projected through the ether to form themselves into a material letter, written in ink, and enclosed in a Chinese envelope) through a slit in the rafters.
When the Society for Psychical Research finally issued their report, it succinctly summed up Mme Blavatsky in unflattering terms: "For our own part, we regard her as neither 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 imposters of history."
The scandal ended her life in India. Sick and demoralized, she moved to Italy, thence to Wurzburg in Germany, where she wrote her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. She suffered a severe attack of influenza in England in 1891, and died on May 8.
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