Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality

Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality

Gary Lachman
New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2012.
352 pages, paper, $16.95.

Is another biography of one of the most fascinating and storied individuals of the nineteenth century, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, really needed? Gary Lachman, the well-known writer on occult and esoteric topics, and the author of some dozen works including biographical studies of P.D. Ouspensky, Rudolf Steiner, and Carl Jung, suggests that there are two Madame Blavatskys that have already been subjected to close scrutiny. There is, of course, the Madame  Blavatsky of what Lachman terms the "encyclopedi" version: the Blavatsky derided and disparaged, accused of fraud and labeled a charlatan. According to Lachman, the evidence for all the derogatory accusations is "pretty questionable" Then there is the pro-Blavatsky version, which at times borders on the uncritical and hagiographical. The third persona, whom Lachman says he discovered as he investigated her life and times, is a more exciting, surprising, and "real" character. It is the one that he believes deserves to be better known and hopes to reveal in the course of retelling her story.

In pursuit of this third persona, Lachman emphasizes the Russian traits that Blavatsky inevitably inherited”what the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev described as mystical and prophetic qualities or "devotion to spiritual truth," combined with a "profoundly contradictory character" To these, Lachman adds another: the acceptance of humiliation or what is known in the Sufi tradition as the "way of blame" (for an excellent description of this characteristic, see the recently  published Quest book, Yannis Toussulis's Sufism and the Way of Blame).

Drawing on a number of already published biographies, Lachman opens his first chapter, titled "From Russia with Love," with the indisputable facts of HPB's parentage and early years, continuing the narrative in the second chapter, "Around the World in Eighty Ways" As Lachman narrates the story, by the time of her marriage at the age of seventeen, HPB's life begins to take on the quality of a large question mark: many small questions are interspersed with verifiable facts. Lachman, for the most part, refrains from answering any of the questions, many of which still haunt the serious investigator, but rather presents a fairly balanced account of the numerous answers that have been proposed. A relevant example concerns her relationship with the Italian-Hungarian opera singer Agardi Metrovitch, whom she first met in Constantinople on the first of her several journeys around the world. Metrovitch gave his name to HPB's "ward," the child Yuri or Youri, whose actual father may well have been the Estonian Baron Meyendorff, with the mother named as HPB's sister-in-law, Nathalie Blavatsky. The story is a complicated one, and Lachman attempts to give equal credit to both the pro- and the anti- Blavatsky accounts.

In a similar manner, Lachman reviews the several versions of her first encounter–at least "in the flesh"–with her guru, the Master or Mahatma Morya, when she was in London. That meeting Lachman identifies as "perhaps the most important moment of her life" Morya, along with other Masters (members of what is often referred to as the  Brotherhood of Adepts or Occult Fraternity), appears throughout Lachman's account of all subsequent events in HPB's life. In the final chapter of the book, entitled "The Masters Revealed?", Lachman deals with the concept of "hidden masters" He also analyzes in some detail the work of K. Paul Johnson, including his book, Initiates of Theosophical Masters and his article "Blavatsky and Her Teachers," reprinted in Jay Kinney's anthology, The Inner West. While also dealing with post-Blavatskian ideas concerning the Masters, Lachman accepts that for Blavatsky herself, these are "actual people . . . remarkable men, possessed of remarkable powers, with high aims and a noble mission, but men nonetheless," and that she was in communication with them. 

Allied to the question of Blavatsky's Masters is the vexed issue concerning the time she spent in Tibet, and Lachman
devotes chapter three ("Seven Years in Tibet?") to an examination of possible answers. He is particularly  helpful in pulling together a record of those known to have attempted entry to the mysterious land. Some we know were successful in their effort (such as the French Abb Huc and much later, the French Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel, whose life–according to Lachman–closely paralleled that of Blavatsky's), while many were either turned back at the borders or perished in the attempt. More relevant, suggests Lachman, is what she did during whatever time she may have been in Tibet. Here Lachman proposes that HPB was instructed by the Masters in the "mysterious" language she termed "Senzar," as well as engaging in the "even more difficult study: the development and control of her psychic powers" However, Lachman's conclusion regarding her claim of having been in Tibet is simply, "In all honesty, I do not know" So the reader is left to determine the truth or falsity of HPB's own statements.

By chapter four ("A Haunting in Chittenden"), we are generally on verifiable ground. Lachman again cites a wide range of previously published biographies for his abbreviated survey of HPB's life during the years following her arrival in the United States, her meeting with Henry Steel Olcott, and the establishment of the Theosophical Society (events covered in chapters four, five, and six).

As he is usually quite careful in identifying his sources for the various significant events, it would have been helpful if Lachman had clearly identified the source of what he calls the Society's –mission' statement," generally called the Three Objects of the organization. In chapter six, "Unveiling Isis," he gives one of the very early versions of the Objects, adding that the "statement" still guides the branches of the Society today. Actually today, at least for the Adyar Society, the Objects that serve as guideposts have some important differences from the original versions. A minor point, perhaps, but worth noting to aid the reader unfamiliar with the Society.

It is in chapter six, however, that Lachman, discussing and summarizing the two volumes of Isis Unveiled, writes at his very best, with an enthusiasm and  vitality that excites the reader. Here too he justifies calling HPB the "mother of modern spirituality" Emphasizing that "many of the themes and ideas that occupy a great deal of contemporary
'alternative' literature were first announced by Blavatsky," Lachman proceeds to illustrate the claim that so much that has been called "new age" is really "rooted" in HPB's first major work.

Lachman deals quite competently with all the subsequent events: the move to India; meeting the journalist A.P. Sinnett; the production of numerous phenomena; the establishment of the headquarters of the Society at Adyar; what is often referred to as the "Coulomb Affair," followed by the famous (or infamous) Hodgson Report on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research; and the departure of HPB from India, first to Europe and then eventually to settle in London, where she would complete her second major work, The Secret Doctrine. Lachman, while admitting that as with Isis UnveiledThe Secret Doctrine is not easily summarized, proceeds to give the reader an adequate and very helpful prcis of the two volumes, quoting in full what are known as the "three fundamental propositions"

By the final chapter, one feels that Lachman has quite fallen in love with HPB, or at least has found her lovable, her life made up of "equal parts of history and mystery" Her most creative periods, he contends, were the times when she produced her four major works, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, The Voice of the Silenceand The Key to Theosophy, works that have never been out of print since they were first penned. They are still studied by individuals and groups today, providing instruction, inspiration, and, often, bewilderment, giving rise to ever deeper probing into the truths she sought to convey.

If one faults Lachman for anything, it may be for his all too frequent digressions, which sometimes confuse and tend to lead away from his central thesis. On the whole, however, Lachman has produced an excellent brief survey of the life and work of one of the most remarkable women of all time. For those unfamiliar with HPB, the book provides a quick introduction, while those already acquainted with her may find in the work a new perspective on her legacy to the contemporary arena of spiritual search.

Joy Mills

Joy Mills was president of the Theosophical Society in America from 1965 to 1974. Her most recent contribution to Quest was "Entangled Karma" in the Fall 2012 issue.