H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Founder of the Modem Theosophical Movement

H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Founder of the Modem Theosophical Movement

by Sylvia Cranston
Jeremy TarcherlPutnam,1992; hardbound.

The late and great American spiritual philosopher Manly P. Hall wrote in The Phoenix: “Occultism in the Western world owes all that it is to the pioneering of H. P. Blavatsky. Her tireless efforts are responsible in no small measure for the freedom and tolerance accorded to metaphysical speculations in this century. Remove H. P. Blavatsky and the structure of modern occultism falls like a house of cards.”

Time has a way of putting truly great people in a sense ahead of us rather than in the darkening past. As a result, those who are regarded as great in their lifetime, without truly deserving such regard, tend to diminish once dead, while the truly great continue to increase in stature with the passage of the years and decades. This increase of stature is what has happened to Blavatsky, who died 101 years ago. The books in which she poured forth the quintessence of the alternative spiritual tradition of several cultures are still sold and read by discerning persons on all five continents. She is widely regard ed as the “grandmother” of the New Age, although she would have numerous bones to pick with many New Age teachers and their followers. Concepts such as reincarnation, karma, self-directed evolution of the soul, and many more that she introduced into the ambiance of our culture have lost their elitist associations and are part of our everyday reservoir of ideas.

Over the last 101 years many have asked what her greatness consists of, and some have answered this question by writing biographies of her. The latest and one of the most detailed of such works has just been published and –we are told - is the subject of a $50,000 national advertising campaign. The author, Sylvia Cranston, has previously coauthored four books on reincarnation. The book is advertised as “the definitive biography” of its subject, and in many ways one is inclined to agree. Extensively illustrated, well indexed and running to 640 pages, this is a serious work which no one with an interest in the late “high priestess of the Occult…can afford to bypass.

Strange and heroic was the life of this amazing woman. Born in 1831 in Russia from a noble Russo-German family, and married at seventeen to an elderly man, she fled from husband, family, and high society, and spent most of her life as a traveler and recorder of little-known truths and traditions. In America and Europe she took advantage of the then young and flourishing spiritualist movement in order to expand further the mental horizons of those who were attracted to spirit manifestations. She told spiritualists that they might modify their devotion to “revelations” from spirits and pay attention to the fact that they themselves are also spirits, albeit of an incarnate order. She called attention to the powers latent or only partially manifest within living humans, and wished to motivate men and women to discover their own spiritual nature which in turn would lead to the discovery of ultimate deific Reality. Even more boldly she proceeded to duplicate (at times openly) various phenomena of the spiritualists, while proclaiming that she had no need for spirits in manifesting the supernormal powers of her own spirit. In the course of such activities she ran afoul of an investigator associated with the prestigious Society for Psychical Research and was condemned publicly by that organization, which only recently got around to rescinding its judgment and exonerating the maligned H. P. Blavatsky.

Madame Blavatsky, or “HPB” as she preferred to be known. Performed some apparently miraculous deeds, but all such were superseded by her greatest “miracles,” her books. With such large tomes as The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled, and with many smaller books, including the timeless spiritual classic, The Voice of the Silence, she left an abiding and unique legacy, and also laid the foundation for a distinguished school of thought, usually called the Theosophical Movement which today encompasses several active organized bodies, each with a worldwide membership. Besides such organizations directly connected to her teachings, there exist a large number of others which have more remotely benefited from her inspiration.

The major portion of Cranston's work is devoted to HPB's biography, but all along we find insightfully interwoven with the data of the subject's life various aspects of her teaching s. A most valuable portion of the book is Part 7, entitled “The Century After,” in which the author extensively catalogues areas of HPB's influence in many different facets of culture over the last 100 years. Literature, the Visual Arts, Religion, Mythology, Psychology, the Physical Sciences all receive their due in terms of the often prophetic, always creative and stimulating insights and inspirations proceeding from the person and message of the Russian wise woman.

What Madame Blavatsky really and truly was the world may someday know, or alternatively, such a full view may never be available. In many ways she still appears as a riddle, an enigma, not unlike some magi of the past, the Comte de St. Germain, Cagliostro, and others. One of her ongoing afflictions is that virtually all her biographies are flawed in some manner, Some, like Marion Mead's Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth ( 1980), are of fine literary quality but hostile to their subject. Of hers, like When Daylight Comes by Howard Murphet (1975), and Blavatsky and Her Teachers by Jean Overton Fuller (1988), are quite simply unremarkable both as to content and style. Sylvia Cranston is a fine researcher and thus her book is replete with highly useful, well-organized data, some of which are taken from Russian sources only recently made available. At the same time it is also apparent that her talents as a writer do not match her scholarship and research. It is sad to see an exciting subject become unexciting reading, yet such is the case. In addition, it is all too apparent that the author views HPB as little short of a major saint. All information that does not agree with this hagiographical emphasis is either ignored or is minimized to become virtually invisible. It is doubtful that the redoubtable Madame would have enjoyed being placed into a stained glass window, yet such now has become her lot. A completely balanced, excitingly written, kindly irreverent, and above all, humorous biography of the astonishing mystery woman still needs to be written. Fellow men and women of letters, please take heed!


Spring 1993