By David P. Bruce
Originally printed in the MAY JUNE 2007 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bruce, David P. “A Brave Declaration of Principles.” Quest 95.3 (MAY-JUNE 2007): 100-105.
It is questionable whether the Theosophical movement would have seen the light of day without the heroic labor and self-sacrifice of HPB. Subsequent writers who were greatly inspired by her writings, and who in turn have inspired others, may not have written or published a single word of esoteric wisdom without the groundbreaking efforts of this singularly enigmatic Russian woman. Therefore, it is only fitting that Theosophists acknowledge the huge debt of gratitude owed to the principal founder of their Society. The day set aside in the Theosophical world to commemorate the memory and passing of HPB is May 8, also known as White Lotus Day.
H. P. Blavatsky remains a controversial figure, even today, but nobody disputes that she was a prodigious writer. This becomes all the more noteworthy when we recall that for much of her adult life she suffered from chronic ill health. Producing even a single book under normal circumstances is difficult enough for most writers. Producing a fraction of the pages found in the sprawling terrain of the Collected Writings—not to mention Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and shorter works such as The Key to Theosophy—while suffering from severe health issues would be a monumental, if not impossible, task for even the most ambitious of wordsmiths.
One of the many literary gems that flowed from Blavatsky’s prolific pen is “The Golden Stairs,” a set of spiritual guidelines found in her Collected Writings. It is essentially a short list of the qualities required for the spiritual aspirant to reach the proverbial Temple of Divine Wisdom. We may find it instructive to view our founder through the prism of “The Golden Stairs.” This is not to suggest that she was an exemplar of moral perfection; she was not. Helena had her faults and she would have been the first to admit as much. On the other hand, as students of Theosophical history, we should recognize that H. P. Blavatsky embodied many of the qualifications listed in “The Golden Stairs.”
One of the qualifications is an eager intellect. HPB was certainly not deficient on that score. Anyone who has read the Secret Doctrine or Isis Unveiled will recognize that these works are not the product of a mediocre mind. Blavatsky’s thirst for knowledge began at a young age and took her to remote parts of the world. At a time when women simply did not travel alone, she did so without trepidation, sometimes disguising herself as a man to avoid attracting attention. In her quest for knowledge, she traveled through certain regions of the world considered wild and dangerous. Many incidents from her travels are related in her book, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. In his book, The Occult World of Madame Blavatsky, Daniel Caldwell includes the testimony of a number of individuals who had personal contact with HPB. William T. Brown was among them. As a young man fresh out of law school, he became interested in Theosophy and traveled to India where he spent over a year at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. Although his interest in Theosophy was short-lived, his praise for Madame Blavatsky endures: “Never before have I met anyone who evidences such vast and varied learning, nor one who is more large hearted…” (159).
In the preface to Herbert Whyte’s H. P. Blavatsky: An Outline of Her Life, Charles Leadbeater marvels at her unusual mind, “Not a scholar in the ordinary sense of the word, yet possessed of apparently inexhaustible stores of unusual knowledge on all sorts of out-of-the-way, unexpected subjects. Witty, quick at repartee, a most brilliant conversationalist, and a dramatic raconteuse of the weirdest stories that I have ever heard—many of them her own personal experiences” (xii).
But the most obvious proof of Blavatsky’s inquiring mind lies in the collective corpus of her writings, which cover a staggering sweep of esoteric knowledge—and this in an age that preceded the word processor by nearly a hundred years. One cannot ignore the fact that her works have stood the test of time, and are avidly studied by contemporary scholars and students of the Ancient Wisdom.
According to Blavatsky scholar Geoffrey Barborka, Isis Unveiled contains references and quotations from 1,339 different works. Imagine gathering over thirteen hundred quotes in a time before Internet search engines such as Google. Mr. Barborka further calculates that The Secret Doctrine contains citations from 1,147 different works with many of those sources being quoted multiple times. Consider that many of the references were from obscure religious texts—some centuries old—found only in museums or on the dusty shelves of large research libraries. What is even more remarkable is that HPB seldom had more than two-dozen books in her personal library at any given time.
Other requirements in “The Golden Stairs” include a pure heart and a brotherliness for all. To those who knew her well, it was clear that this outspoken Russian aristocrat possessed a warm and loving heart. This claim may seem at odds with the feisty and even aggressive tone displayed in some of her writings, particularly in those cases where she was responding to the dogmatic religious and social attitudes that prevailed in her day, or when defending the young Theosophical Society from malicious partisan attacks. Despite the combative side of her nature, there is ample anecdotal evidence describing her kind and compassionate nature. For instance, The Occult World of Madame Blavatsky contains a glowing tribute by the Princess Helene von Racowitza:
Her contempt, nay rebellion, against all society forms and formalities made her sometimes . . . put on a coarseness not usual with her; and she hated and battled against the conventional lie with the heroic courage of a true Don Quixote. Yet whoever came to her poor and ragged, hungry and needing comfort, could be certain of finding a heart so warm and hand so freely and generously open as could be found with no other cultured human being however “good-mannered” he might be… (Caldwell 92).
Countess Wachtmeister also provided insight into Helena’s gentler side saying, “All who have known and loved HPB have felt that unique charm there was about her, how truly kind and lovable she was. At times a bright childish nature seemed to beam around her, a spirit of joyous fun would sparkle upon her whole countenance, and cause the most winning expression that I have ever seen on a human face” (Wachtmeister 42).
Another precept of “The Golden Stairs” is a readiness to give and receive advice and instruction. Is there any doubt that HPB was, among other things, a great teacher? Not a teacher in the academic sense, but one who had the ability to inspire, mystify, confound, and speak with authority of things that cannot be spoken of by those who are spiritually blind. Indeed, many individuals eagerly sought out audience with Madame Blavatsky, in the hope of gaining rare occult knowledge under her wise tutelage. Herbert Burrows, who studied for a time with her in London, fondly recollected:
For the first time in my mental history I had found a teacher who could pick up the loose threads of my thought and satisfactorily weave them together, and the unerring skill, the vast knowledge, and the loving patience of the teacher grew on me hour by hour. Quickly I learned that the so-called charlatan and trickster was a noble soul, whose every day was spent in unselfish work, whose whole life was pure and simple as a child’s, who counted never the cost of pain or toil if these could advance the great cause to which her every energy was consecrated. Open as the day to a certain point, she was the incarnation of kindness—silent as the grave if need be, she was sternness personified at the least sin of faithlessness to the work which was her life. Grateful, so grateful for every affectionate attention, careless, so careless of all that concerned herself, she bound us to her, not simply as a wise teacher, but as a loving friend (Caldwell 272).
For a brief time, the Gnostic scholar G.R.S. Mead served as the private secretary to Madame Blavatsky. One day she marched into Mead’s office, tossed a manuscript on his desk and said, “Read that, old man, and tell me what you think of it.” Staring at Mead was the third fragment of the Voice of the Silence, a spiritual guidebook that Blavatsky had translated from an ancient and obscure Tibetan work called “The Golden Book of Precepts.” Being a meticulous and self-respecting scholar, Mead was not in the habit of giving gratuitous praise. After reading through the manuscript, however, he confessed that it was “the grandest thing in all our Theosophical literature.” Mead describes her reaction to his words of praise:
But even then HPB was not content with her work, and expressed the greatest apprehension that she had failed to do justice to the original in her translation, and could hardly be persuaded that she had done well. This was one of her chief characteristics. Never was she confident of her own literary work, and [she] cheerfully listened to all criticism, even from persons who should have remained silent (Caldwell 275-6).
As one studies the writings of Blavatsky, it becomes increasingly clear that this writer possessed what “The Golden Stairs” calls an unveiled spiritual perception. Her inner vision was not clouded by the false glow of materialism. She was impervious to the allure of fame, money, and position. Had she desired such things she could have easily acquired them, but HPB saw such things for what they were, i.e., ephemeral toys with no inherent value. Madame Blavatsky was able to pierce the screen of earthly illusions and describe inner worlds containing subtle beauty and immense power. She expressed profound philosophical truths with familiarity and conviction. Not surprisingly, she had little patience for the orthodox conventions and religious pieties of her day. As Herbert Burrows noted:
Her absolute indifference to all outward forms was a true indifference based upon her inner spiritual knowledge of the verities of the universe. Sitting by her when strangers came, as they often did from every corner of the earth, I have often watched with the keenest amusement their wonder at seeing a woman who always said what she thought. Given a prince and she would probably shock him, given a poor man and he would have her last shilling and her kindliest word (Caldwell 272-3).
Being a bold and outspoken person who challenged the conventional wisdom of her day, Madame Blavatsky acquired many adversaries. There were those within the religious and scientific communities who made it their business to attack her reputation and discredit her work. As history shows, society often resists the introduction of new ideas. Light-bringers frequently face an onslaught of vicious personal attacks from those with a vested interest in the status quo. Hence, the importance of another quality found in “The Golden Stairs,” a courageous endurance of personal injustice. At her memorial service in 1892, William Q. Judge recalled an early conversation he had with HPB:
That she always knew what would be done by the world in the way of slander and abuse I also know, for in 1875 she told me that she was then embarking on a work that would draw upon her unmerited slander, implacable malice, uninterrupted misunderstanding, constant work, and no worldly reward. Yet in the face of this her lion heart carried her on (The Path, June 1891).
Similarly, in H. P. Blavatsky: The Mystery, Gottfried de Purucker describes HPB as a rare and unique soul:
How then could such a one as Helena Petrovna Blavatsky have been understood by her time? The slanders of her enemies are a tribute to her greatness: she will always be a mystery to a world that does not look towards the sources of light (de Purucker 29).
In publicly confronting her adversaries, Blavatsky often appeared fearless. Consider this statement from the Preface to The Secret Doctrine:
It is written in the service of humanity, and by humanity and the future generations it must be judged. Its author recognizes no inferior court of appeal. Abuse she is accustomed to; calumny she is daily acquainted with; at slander she smiles in silent contempt (SD viii).
But she was human and she did suffer. Reginald Machell, an English painter known for his mystical paintings, observed her anguish:
I saw that she suffered acutely from the slanders that were circulated about her former life, but I felt that no amount of calumny could turn her from the task which she had undertaken, and which she was carrying out under conditions of ill-health that seemed to make work of any kind impossible. It was obvious that her self-sacrificing devotion to the cause of Theosophy could bring to herself no other reward than denunciation and vilification…. (Caldwell 247).
In the face of ridicule, slander, and relentless attacks on her character, HPB continued on her mission of bringing the timeless principles of Theosophy to the modern world. Beyond any doubt, she possessed another qualification found in “The Golden Stairs,” a brave declaration of principles. As de Purucker, observed:
She offered her life on the altar of truth, and had little to support her but the power of the great doctrines that she brought with her; for the whole world was against her in the beginning. Through every phase and action of her career that superb courage shone which manifests in the world but here and there, in those whom we call the heroes. (de Purucker 30)
William Judge once described HPB as having “the power and the knowledge that belong to lions and sages.” When asked to describe the most conspicuous aspect of Blavatsky’s character, Charles Leadbeater did not need to utilize his powers of clairvoyance in order to respond:
If I were asked to mention Madame Blavatsky’s most prominent characteristic, I should unhesitatingly reply “Power.” Apart from the great Masters of Wisdom, I have never known any person from whom power so visibly radiated. Any man who was introduced to her at once felt himself in the presence of a tremendous force—to which he was quite unaccustomed. He realized with disconcerting vividness that those wonderful pale blue eyes saw clearly through him. . . Some people did not like to find themselves thus unexpectedly transparent, and for that reason they cordially hated Madame Blavatsky, while others loved her. . . with wholehearted devotion, knowing well how much they owe her and how great is the work which she has done. So forceful was she that no one ever felt indifferent towards her; every one experienced either strong attraction or strong repulsion (Whyte, xi-xii).
Charles Johnston, another one of her contemporaries, and a scholar who translated several Sanskrit works into English, expressed a similar view:
There was something in her personality, her bearing, the light and power of her eyes, which spoke of a wider and deeper life… That was the greatest thing about her, and it was always there; this sense of a bigger world, of deeper power, of unseen might; to those in harmony with her potent genius, this came as a revelation and incentive to follow the path she pointed out. To those who could not see with her eyes, who could not raise themselves in some measure to her vision, this quality came as a challenge, an irritant, a discordant and subversive force, leading them at last to an attitude of fierce hostility and denunciation. When the last word is said, she was greater than any of her works, more full of living power than even her marvelous writings… (Caldwell 238).
The life of Madame Blavatsky was colorful, eventful, and even extraordinary. She had been given a mission by her Teachers that she carried out in heroic fashion while encountering fierce resistance and overt hostility from the established order of the day. Through it all she never wavered in her devotion to the Masters of Wisdom. Through it all she never faltered in her battle against the forces of materialism, bigotry, and small-mindedness. And she never abandoned what one of her Teachers described as a “forlorn hope”—a Society dedicated to forming a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity.
Many of her friends, colleagues, and students bore witness to her indefatigable spirit and unflagging determination. Dr. William Hubbe-Schleiden, first president of the German Section, visited HPB in October of 1885 as she had just begun working on The Secret Doctrine, and later recalled the encounter: “She was writing her manuscript almost all day, from the early morning until the afternoon and even until night, unless she had guests” (Wachtmeister 98-99).
Bertram Keightley, the General Secretary of the British Section of the TS, also spent some time with HPB while she was working on the same manuscripts. He describes her astonishing energy: “Her power of work was amazing; from early morning till late in the evening she sat at her desk, and even when so ill that most people would have been lying helpless in bed, she toiled resolutely away at the task she had undertaken” (Wachtmeister 78).
One of Madame Blavatsky’s most faithful friends, Archibald Keightley, often observed her working in spite of illness:
All through the summer of 1887 every day found her at work from six to six, with only brief intervals for meals, visitors, with very rare exceptions, being denied or told to come in the evening. Crippled with rheumatism, suffering from a disease which had several times nearly proved fatal, she still worked on unflaggingly, writing at her desk the moment her eyes and fingers could guide the pen (Wachtmeister 84-5).
Her life-long colleague, Henry Steel Olcott, admired her stamina and drive in this excerpt from the first volume of Old Diary Leaves: “I never knew even a managing daily journalist who could be compared with her for dogged endurance or tireless working capacity. From morning till night she would be at her desk, and it was seldom that either of us got to bed before 2 o’clock A.M.” (203).
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a complex individual and in some ways still remains a mystery. Whatever faults she had were dwarfed by her accomplishments and by the heroic features of her character. Indeed, Theosophists owe a huge debt of gratitude to the founder of the Theosophical Society. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, for lovers of the Ancient Wisdom to pay tribute to the memory of H. P. Blavatsky on the anniversary of her death, which is known as White Lotus Day. For without her, there would be no Theosophical Society and no Theosophical movement.
ReferencesBarborka, Geoffrey. H. P. Blavatsky, The Light-Bringer. London, England: Theosophical Publishing House, 1970.Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings, Volume XII. Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.Blavatsky, H. P. Collected Writings, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975.Blavatsky, H. P. The Secret Doctrine, Volume I. Chennai, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1979.Caldwell, Daniel. The Occult World of Madame Blavatsky. Tuscon, Arizona: Impossible Dream Publications, 1991.Judge, William Q., The Path, June, 1891.Lucifer. June, 1891.Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves, Volume I. Chennai, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974.Purucker, Gottfried de. H. P. Blavatsky: The Mystery. San Diego, California: Point Loma Publications, 1974.Wachtmeister, Countess Constance. Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine. Wheaton, Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976.Whyte, Herbert. H.P. Blavatsky: An Outline of Her Life. Chennai, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1920.