Ideas

Madame Blavatsky: a seeker of truth — and a fraud

IDEAS delves into one of the great enigmatic figures of the late 19th century: Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Known as the godmother of the New Age movement, she led the Theosophical Society — a group determined to seek 'no religion higher than the truth.'

The godmother of the New Age movement co-founded modern Theosophy that combined mystical and magical beliefs

Theosophist Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky co-founded a monthly journal called Lucifer that was published from September 1887 until August 1897. The cover includes a slogan: 'To bring to light the hidden things of darkness.' (Henry Guttmann Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Wikimedia )

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: intellectual, adventurer, occultist, and fraud. 

Madame Blavatsky, as she was often called, was a co-founder of Theosophy, an esoteric late nineteenth-century movement that combined aspects of mystical and magical beliefs with bits and pieces of eastern philosophies bound up in Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Given Theosophy's central role in bringing Asian religious traditions to western cultures, she became known as the godmother of the New Age movement. 

Peter Washington, author of Blavatsky's Baboon, sees Blavatsky as an anti-establishment figure.

"Madame Blavatsky relates to the New Age movement today because she challenged the established order of Christianity. It's an essential feature of the New Age that it's always in opposition. It's always somehow anti-establishment. She became a model for the 'Build Your Own Religion School'. This was something that Blavatsky translated into action." 

A connection to ancient times

Blavatsky was born in Russia in 1831 and talked extensively about leaving home at a young age and wandering the world at a time when a woman's movements were severely restricted. She made some extraordinary, though uncorroborated claims, about fighting side-by-side with Italian revolutionaries, learning from Indigenous peoples in Quebec, and studying with Tibetan mystics despite the fact that 19th century Tibet was closed to Europeans.

Her stories culminated in a claim that she had spent years studying with masters from the past, and moving beyond this world to connect with the next. She said she was a seeker and a seer, connected through time and space to ancient sages.

English theosophist Dr. Annie Besant and Indian theosophist Jiddu Krishnamurti are among some of the more prominent people influenced by Madame Blavatsky. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

In the late 19th century, there was a booming interest in the occult, and Americans and Europeans flocked to mediums and spiritualists to connect with their dead loved ones. The interest in seances was part of a broader Victorian cultural shift when European and American Christians began doubting Biblical accounts of the creation of the world.

Emerging scientific evidence was putting pressure on scriptural literalism and the received creation story. People were looking for something new and different, a way to make sense of a rapidly changing world.

Declared a fraud

In 1870, Blavatsky was in New York City and, taking advantage of this shift, firmly embedded herself in the seance circuit. She was a natural and her seances became extremely popular. Five years later, the charismatic but still mysterious Blavatsky established the Theosophical Society in New York. It described itself as "an unsectarian body of seekers after Truth, who endeavor to promote Brotherhood and strive to serve humanity."

By 1880, Blavatsky — successful but controversial and divisive — moved to India where she established the organization's international headquarters, and began gathering followers. But her reputation as a spiritualist and possessor of wisdom came to a halt in 1885. After embarking on an investigation of Blavatsky, and motivated by stories of her sensational seances replete with spiritual visions and smashed dishes that would miraculously reconstruct, the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge declared her a fraud.

"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."

The main building of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India, 1890. (Wikimedia)

Despite being labelled a fraud, Blavatsky's influence remained and her imprint on what later became the New Age movement is undeniable. Her thinking influenced a range of artists from Gustav Mahler to Wassily Kandinsky to Lawren Harris.

Is there a solution to the enigma of Madame Blavatsky? 

IDEAS contributor Piali Roy suggests that whether or not one believes in any of her stories, she does offer a chance to speculate, to challenge assumptions and beliefs in what is possible.

She adds that perhaps that is the legacy she's left behind. Madame Blavatsky does not give us the answers. She gives us the questions. 

Guests in this episode:

Peter Washington is the author of Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America.

Michael Gomes is an independent scholar and long-time student of theosophy.

Joy Dixon is a historian of religion and feminism at the University of British Columbia.

David Reigle is an author and an independent scholar of the Sanskrit scriptures of India and their Tibetan translations.


*This episode originally aired on IDEAS in 1998. It was produced by Mary O'Connell and Piali RoyThe re-broadcast was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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