Viewpoint: Are We Missing the Point

By Carol Nicholson Ward

[May 8, known as White Lotus Day, commemorates the death of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1891. The day is a time, among other things, for examining our ideas about her and her legacy. As a contribution to that examination, in this issue we offer a guest viewpoint of HPB and what she means to us. —Editor]

Carol WardHelena Petrovna Blavatsky, the main idea-person and one of the principal founders of the Theosophical Society, is often criticized because she was not known as an ascetic or model of spiritual purity. Yet the Mahatmas themselves tell us that she was "the best available" to create a bridge between East and West although they had searched for a hundred years to find a suitable person. From this information, we conclude that her personality flaws are what make her less than ideal as the leading spokesperson for the Theosophical Society. In that conclusion, I wonder, however, "Are we missing the point?"

Perhaps it was HPB’s foibles that made her the best choice. For Westerners, the model of growth put forth by many spiritual traditions is extreme. Light on the Path is likely to scare away those who aren’t sure of their commitment to a spiritual life; and The Secret Doctrine will deter all but the self-disciplined and intuitive reader. HPB’s body of writing is scholarly: it uses many languages fluently and covers an array of topics that are broad in scope as well as deep in their reach. The work itself is difficult to approach, much less to comprehend.

Yet Blavatsky herself was very approachable. She was fun, witty, high-spirited, and the life of the party. At a time when India was a British colony, an Eastern holy man (or woman) would have had a hard time entering the circles to which she had access. In their correspondence with the Mahatmas, the Englishmen A. P. Sinnett and A. O. Hume certainly did not treat those teachers with the respect—not to mention reverence—that many do today. Racial prejudice and a conviction of white superiority prevented the average European from considering a person of color (no matter how pure) to be an equal. HPB, aristocrat that she was, could be invited to all social events. She might not have been accepted by English society as one of their own, but she had the background to qualify her for any social circle.

Even HPB’s temper gave her color. Society said anger should be repressed, yet her favorite judgment was "flapdoodle" (the equivalent of an expression of disbelief not used even today in gentle society). Those who were with HPB got the real thing. She had no hidden parts that might come out as a surprise. She did not play games, plot, or scheme beneath a façade. In Jungian terms, she was fully in touch with her shadow side. She had the courage and moral fortitude to be who she was. She did not apologize for her anger or other traits we might call weaknesses. If people thought she should be different, the problem was in their expectations; she simply was who she was.

Today people talk about "owning your shadow." Yet in a society that is much freer than the Victorian age HPB lived in, we are still repressed in our emotions. We are so used to politicians telling us what we want to hear that Jessie Ventura gets credit for "at least being honest" when he says outrageous things. We fit into society by ignoring some basic parts of our selves—the parts society says are not acceptable. Yet HPB seems not to have gone through the psychological hurdles we make for ourselves. She was herself at all times—a self that was kind and loving, as well as angry and sometimes in ill health.

HPB’s use of tobacco is another bone of contention for some critics. Smoking and meat eating are frowned upon by many, not because they are unhealthy, harmful to others, or cruel, but because of the idea that, if you are serious about the spiritual path, you will give up such things. Perhaps our heroes, like those in the Bible, are unlikely. Some Biblical characters behaved appallingly on their way to proving their worthiness to God. Why should we hold HPB to a higher standard?

HPB didn’t follow conventional edicts, but that does not detract from her as a role model. We should not judge others for behavior of which we disapprove but instead realize that we may not perfectly fulfill our own responsibilities either. Even in our imperfect state, we can contribute significantly to the work of the Theosophical Society and the benefit of the world because perfection is not a prerequisite to being of service.

Even HPB’s ill health can be seen as a way for others to help her and thus learn to be of service. Because she suffered from various ailments during much of her life, many of her friends and students had the gift of taking care of her when she was ill. They took it as an honor to have her in their home to repay the tremendous debt felt by all those who knew her well. Serving a person one knows and loves makes it easier to be compassionate to those one does not know or love so well.

Does looking at HPB in this way make her less of a teacher? Does it decrease her status so that we must defend her and say that, because she lacked some of her "principles" (that is, aspects of her psychological make-up), she was not responsible for her actions? Her writings stand on their own merit and are still of interest more than a hundred years after her death. Her personality does not detract from that merit and interest. Perhaps her personality helps us to relate to her and to keep from treating her like a deity. If we are forgiving of the flaws in both her and ourselves, we can also understand the flaws in all of our fellow Theosophists. We aim at perfection, but compassion for others and ourselves, while we are all still works-in-progress, is part of the path also.

Carol Nicholson Ward, a national speaker for the Theosophical Society of America, has been a Theosophist all her life and is vice-president of the Pittsburgh Lodge and board member of Pumpkin Hollow Farm. She is pursuing her Master's Degree in Counseling with the long-term goal of becoming a Jungian Analyst.

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