“For our 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 in history.”
It was on this day, the 12th of August (in the Old Style, that would have been the 31st of July), in 1831 Helena Petrovna Hahn (later Blavatsky) was born in what is today Dnipro, Ukraine, in the then Russian Empire.
Many details of her early life are subject to challenge. But she did belong to the aristocracy. She was raised within the Russian Orthodox church. Her father was an officer in the Royal Horse Artillery and the family relocated frequently. Her mother was a novelist and translator. Perhaps most notably she translated the novels of the occultist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Helena’s mother died young and the girl was packed around among various relatives.
She was educated at home, reading widely, learning French and even a smattering of Tibetan, along with music and art. Helena was exposed to Tibetan Buddhism when her maternal grandfather became a civil trustee for the Kalmyk people and she lived for a time among them. Among the stories that may or may not be true she was given access to the library of her maternal great-grandfather which was alleged to be stuffed to the rafters with occult and masonic literature. Some speculate her great grandfather Prince Pavel Vasilevich Dolgorukov was the prototype for her claim to encounter hidden masters.
She lived for a time with family in London. Later, she would claim she became a friend with Alexander Vladimorovich Golitsyn, a Freemason and occultist who mentored her. And under whose tutelage she would first began astral traveling and had other occult and paranormal experiences.
In 1849, at seventeen, Helena married Nikifor Vladimirovich Blatvastsky, a vice Governor of the Erivan Province. The marriage was not happy and she abandoned her husband and fled to Constantinople. She spent the next nine years traveling. Probably supported by her family. Although it is noted there are no corroborations for her many and some wild stories from this time. Maybe she studied Voodoo in New Orleans, maybe she studied with the Druze in Lebanon, possibly she apprenticed with a shaman in Mongolia, maybe she studied with Sufis in Turkey and Iran. Maybe she went to Tibet.
In 1851 she claimed to be in England when finally meeting a mysterious teacher who manifested to her throughout her childhood, and was now revealed to be the Master Morya. Later in Tibet, as goes her story, she claimed to have learned an ancient language unknown to scholarship and to received training from the masters Morya and Koot Hoomi. It’s probably important to note that outside of Theosophical circles, those interested in Tibetan studies reject wholesale her claims about visiting Tibet.
What we do know beyond the bare facts of her birth and early life, is that in 1874 she was in America and there she visited several prominent spiritualists and spirit mediums. And then she set herself up as a spirit medium, attracting many admirers and clients. Her initial spirit contacts were more conventional to the then spiritualist scene, and the phenomena associated with her were of the sorts found in many seances of the time, bells ringing, letters and other objects materializing apparently from thin air.
But soon the messages began to take on spiritual qualities, and there were those hidden masters. At first they appear to have resided in Eastern Europe but soon were ensconced in Tibet. She also met the man who would become her most important disciple and fierce protector, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.
A flood of teachings would follow. Her principal writings were Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology (1877), The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (1888), The Voice of the Silence (1889), and The Key to Theosophy (1889).
What emerged out of all this was a new religious tradition, Theosophy.
Many celebrated intellectual and avant guard figures began to gather around her. Most notable the genuinely remarkable Annie Besant.
Wikipedia offers articles on the influence of Theosophy on various religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism. At core was a mystical system that synthesized “various existing disciplines and mystical models, including Neo-platonism, Gnosticism, Western esotericism, Freemasonry, Hinduism and Buddhism.”
What I find fascinating is that it is nearly impossible to find Europeans and North Americans deeply involved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century investigation of Buddhism, who were not touched in some significant way either directly or indirectly by the figure and teachings of H P Blavatsky.
By the time she died from the world influenza in London in 1891, Helena Petrovitch Blavatsky had been celebrated, exposed, admired, despised, and, most of all she had sparked a spiritual revolution.
While the larger waves have largely subsided, her influence continues in subtle and less obvious ways to our day.
An amazing figure.