Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
Many students of modern thought, not connected with the theosophical movement, have called H. P. Blavatsky the most remarkable woman known in the nineteenth century, a most unusual genius. So unusual, so careless of worldly honors, so regardless of her own welfare throughout a career devoted to that of others, so impersonal and yet so intensely vital, was this extraordinary being, that she was bound to be misunderstood by those who interpret the actions of the great in soul by the common self-centered motives that govern those of the multitude.
She brought a great hope to the world — theosophy — at the critical time when the old cycle was evidently passing and the fate of the new one hung in the balance. With the unaffected humility of true greatness which dared to be misunderstood when called upon to lead, she abandoned everything the world holds dear to wage an incessant warfare against the forces of darkness and ignorance. She was a mystery in her very simplicity, like a great mountain or the ocean. She was called the Sphinx of the nineteenth century; but she is better understood in the twentieth. She asked no reward but the joy of rendering service to a world "perishing from spiritual starvation." She brought back the neglected idea of man's responsibility for his own acts and for their consequences which had been so long obscured by theological dogmas. She taught that the true way to happiness, peace, and power, was to find the divine nature within ourselves.
The theosophical movement in the nineteenth century was not the first effort of the kind. Tsong-kha-pa, the great Tibetan Adept and reformer of the fourteenth century A.D., is responsible for the initiation of attempts to help the world spiritually at certain cyclic periods. Similar avataric leaders and efforts are part of world history, past, present, and future. H. P. Blavatsky writes:
Among the commandments of Tsong-Kha-pa there is one that enjoins the Rahats (Arhats) to make an attempt to enlighten the world, including the "white barbarians," every century, at a certain specified period of the cycle. Up to the present day none of these attempts has been very successful. Failure has followed failure. — "S.D. III," 412
Thanks, however, to her courage and self-sacrifice, the movement has not failed this time, though every effort has been made to destroy it, both by traitors and the unthinking within, as well as by open enemies without. For the first time on record, it has been carried safely from one century to the next.
Born at Ekaterinoslav, in Russia, about midnight between August 11 and 12, 1831, Helena P. Blavatsky had every advantage that wealth, culture, and high social position can bestow. Her father was descended from the Counts von Hahn of Mecklenburg, and her mother was the daughter of Privy Councillor Andrey Fadeyeff and Princess Helena Dolgorouky. The latter traced her ancestry to the Grand Duke Rurik, the first actual ruler of Russia. Her mother was an accomplished writer; but of all the Hahns or the Dolgoroukys, brilliant as they were, there never was another like H.P.B. — as most of her theosophical friends generally called her.
From her earliest childhood H. P. Blavatsky displayed unusual qualities. Though exceedingly kindhearted and affectionate, her unconventional ways made her the despair of her governesses, for she was impetuous and daring to recklessness. Her indomitable self-will and inherent rebellion against the conventional restraints of the earlier part of the nineteenth century — traits which were not wisely handled by her adoring relatives — were afterwards the cause of much of the trouble she suffered at the hands of the blind critics who never thought of looking beneath the surface and finding the true gold underneath. And, indeed, the gold of her nature rang true. Intractable to control by force, she was always amenable to reason and kindness, and she would passionately protest against injustice and cruelty to others. When very young her eager sympathy and compassion were deeply aroused by the heartrending scenes of misery and despair she saw among the exiles who were driven in weary files past her father's magnificent estate, on their terrible journey to Siberia. She never forgot those horrible sights, and when the time came she vowed to do her utmost to reduce the awful toll of worldwide human suffering in general by attacking the causes and not merely by remedying the effects. Her love of nature was great; everything — the rocks, the trees, the birds — spoke to her; and she soon distinguished between the artificial and hypocritical life of man and the glorious world of reality which is shut out from us only by our selfish limitations.
Unfortunately, she lost her mother when very young, and her education was not well ordered, though her natural abilities were excellent. She spent five years with her grandparents at Saratoff where her grandfather was civil governor, and where she had the advantage of using his enormous library, in which she read extensively if not very systematically. About this time, in 1844 and again in 1845, her father took her abroad, and in France, Germany, Italy, and England she was introduced to the larger world of art and culture. During this period she took lessons from the famous German composer and pianist, Ignaz Moscheles.
According to Olcott, although Helena was so young, her great musical ability qualified her to appear in a concert in London, where she took part in a trio for three pianos, in which the other performers were Clara Schumann and Arabella Goddard. Shortly before she came to America, in 1873, she made some concert tours in Russia and Italy under the pseudonym Madame Laura. Later in life, on the rare occasions when she touched the piano, she made a profound impression by the spiritual power and beauty of her playing. Olcott often heard her in New York. He says:
She was a splendid pianist, playing with a touch and expression that were simply superb. . . . There were times . . . when her playing was indescribably grand. She would sit in the dusk sometimes, with nobody else in the room besides myself, and strike from the sweet-toned instrument improvisations that might well make one fancy he was listing to the Gandharvas, or heavenly choristers. It was the harmony of heaven. — Old Diary Leaves, I, 458-9
After further travel in England, France, Germany, and Russia, she and her father returned home. Though she was more docile with him than with anyone else, she says: "He blessed his stars when we went home," and she was safely lodged in the seclusion of southeastern Russia!
The day on which she was born was regarded by the simple serfs and domestics of her childhood as being very significant. Persons born at that time were said in Russia to have control over the elementals, the goblins with which Russian folklore is well supplied, and her career, even in youth, gives reason to believe that this was certainly true in her case. Her clairvoyant, clairaudient, and telepathic powers were remarkably developed at the age of four, and for many years they were the marvel of the neighborhood — a phenomenon indeed in such a thoroughly conventional, Orthodox Church and patrician family as hers! Yet, as is well known, if the royal and noble families of Europe permitted their secret archives to be published, many startling 'occult' events would be revealed.
Although H. P. Blavatsky's psychic faculties had to be allowed to run wild, so to speak, for a while, and the course of training in which they became disciplined did not begin till about womanhood, she was visibly (to her) under the guardianship of her Master, an Indian Rajput, the Mahatma Morya or, as he is generally called, the Master M. At first he was unknown to her as a living man, but when she met him afterwards in bodily form he was no stranger. More than once her life was saved in a mysterious way by him. She told her family that this guardian, whom of course they could not see, was not a spirit of the departed; and she insisted that wise men, great sages, existed on earth, who knew the greatest secrets of nature but who revealed themselves only to those who deserved help.
An aged man who lived in a forest near her birthplace — a benevolent magician, according to popular belief — told her sisters that "this little lady is quite different from all of you. There are great events lying in wait for her in the future. I feel sorry in thinking that I will not live to see my predictions of her verified; but they will all come to pass!" (1) They certainly did, and to the great profit of the world, though she paid a heavy price for the gifts she brought. All this, and far more of fascinating interest, is related by her Orthodox Church relatives who had no sympathy with her theosophical 'heresies' and activities.
At a later date, a high ecclesiastic had the intuition to recognize that H. P. Blavatsky's occult powers were perfectly genuine and that they could be put to the service of mankind. This broad-minded priest was the Metropolitan Isidore, one of the three 'popes' of the Russian Church, and an old friend of the Hahn family. In 1860, during a visit that H.P.B. and her sister paid to the Metropolitan, many phenomena took place in his presence. Mme. Jelihovsky writes, in her "Personal and Family Reminiscences":
When bidding good-bye to us, the venerable old man blessed the travellers, and turning to Mme. Blavatsky, addressed to her these parting words: —
"As for you, let not your heart be troubled by the gift you are possessed of, nor let it become a source of misery to you hereafter, for it was surely given to you for some purpose, and you could not be held responsible for it. Quite the reverse! for if you but use it with discrimination, you will be enabled to do much good to your fellow-creatures." — Incidents, 137
In 1848, when barely seventeen, the young girl hastily accepted an offer of marriage from the man whose name she afterward bore. N. V. Blavatsky, Councillor of State, vice-governor of the province of Erivan, was in the worldly sense an excellent match, even though he was more than twice as old as the motherless girl who married him in a fit of bravado. Her governess had taunted her high-spirited pupil by saying that no one would marry her, not even old Blavatsky, whom she had laughed at so much. When she realized what a rash step she had taken, and what were the implications of matrimony, she left her nominal husband without, as her relatives have explained, giving him the opportunity of ever thinking of her as his wife. Soon after this madcap experience, she set forth upon those years of wandering and search during which her indomitable will, natural genius, and the usually unseen protection of her Master, carried her safely through strange countries and stranger experiences.
It was part of her training to review, personally, a cross section of human life, in order to acquire firsthand knowledge to be used later in her work. Her experiences included not only the grand and the beautiful but also much that was weird and occult, oftentimes in isolated and dangerous places. All this prepared her to speak with authority as an eyewitness when she discussed the rationale of many extraordinary happenings which she recorded in her first major work, Isis Unveiled, and elsewhere.
The pursuit of a course so unusual for a young girl of her sheltered class not unnaturally aroused comment in those early days of the nineteenth century when women had little freedom; and vague reports of irregular doings of various women of the same name were slanderously attributed by venomous tongues to H. P. Blavatsky. Her father, Colonel Hahn, kept up a regular correspondence with her and supplied her with money, and when the spiteful gossips pretended that she was leading a gay life in Paris or Berlin or Vienna, she was either traveling in some distant continent in pursuit of her investigations, or living quietly at home during the rare intervals when she needed rest and longed for the companionship of her family circle, to which she was greatly attached. Years afterwards, these calumnies were used as poisoned weapons by which bigotry in more than one form tried to destroy the message by reviling the messenger — the old, old story of persecution by the forces of darkness.
As she never kept a diary and her memory for dates was uncertain, it is impossible to be sure about the exact period of some of her journeys, but the general outline and a few precise dates of the period between 1848 and 1873 are properly established. For a while she traveled with a Russian countess in Turkey, Egypt, and other parts of the Levant. In Cairo she studied under a Copt, a remarkable occultist and, probably at this time, she joined the secret lodge of the Druses of Mt. Lebanon. In 1851 she met her Master for the first time in his physical body, though she had frequently seen him clairvoyantly. The day she met "the Master of her dreams" was her twentieth birthday, as she writes in her private Scrap-Book. The first Great International Exhibition was held in London in that year, and the Master was there in the suite of the famous statesman, Sir Jung Bahadur of Nepal, who, from being a ruthless despot, became a wise and beneficent ruler after his return home — a most remarkable transformation. Master M. now outlined a plan for H. P. Blavatsky's future, and showed her how to prepare for the work for which she had been chosen.
The Masters had seen that the long-separated East and West were being brought into close communication on prosaic commercial, economic, and political lines, and that the East would become dazzled by the brilliant materialism of Western progress. They saw that the hour had struck to anticipate the danger of the coming interchange of materialistic thought and ideals with the psychic lure of the acquirement of the lower yoga powers — a contact on lower lines fraught with disaster for both sides. To counteract this danger, they planned to strike a strong keynote on the higher lines of human welfare. They started their unique work by training H. P. Blavatsky, as a European, to bring the Western initiative and energy to awaken the East from its spiritual lethargy and to share with the world some of the buried treasures of the ancient wisdom. To prepare for a society which should be a nucleus of a universal brotherhood, she took her long and adventurous journeys in distant lands in order to gain necessary experience and knowledge of human life. Traveling under the occult supervision of her Master, she found her way to places and had the entree to sources of secret lore which were not open even to accredited explorers or to learned researchers.
In Canada she came in touch with the American Indians, and learned something of the secrets of their medicine men. In New Orleans, where she investigated Voodoo rites, she was in great danger and had to be warned by her Master to leave quickly. She then proceeded to Texas where she met an old French Canadian, Pere Jacques, who took care of her for some time and saved her from serious perils. As her knowledge of English was limited, a protector with whom she could speak freely must have been very helpful. Mexico was the scene of her next adventures, and here she met a Hindu chela of her Master, whose protection was quite necessary in that unsettled country. Accompanied by this chela and another student of mystical subjects, whom she had arranged to meet in the West Indies, she sailed for India. Here she made an abortive attempt to enter Tibet, for she was turned back by the British officer commanding a frontier district. Many years after, in India, the account of her failure was confirmed to Colonel Olcott by the officer himself, Major-General Murray, who said that H.P.B. had to be detained a month in his house in his wife's company (O. D. L., I, 265).
Leaving India, she visited Singapore and Java, and finally reached England. Finding that preparations were being made for the Crimean War involving England, France, and Russia, she, being a Russian subject, departed for the United States (1854), landing in New York and then went to Chicago. Crossing the Rocky Mountains with emigrants' caravans she reached San Francisco, where it is said that she met her Master again. Witnesses have declared that the local newspapers mentioned her name, and published stories of an unusually tall and distinguished Hindu who attracted great attention when he appeared in public. Unfortunately documentary evidence is lacking, because the great San Francisco fire destroyed the files of the papers, and inquiry has, so far, failed to discover a single copy elsewhere.
Once more she set forth for the Orient, and in 1855 she reached India again, where she met a German friend of her father, an ex-Lutheran minister named Kulwein. A party was organized with the object of penetrating into Tibet, but H. P. Blavatsky was the only member of it who succeeded. Little is known of her experiences in Tibet on this occasion, except what is so interestingly described in Isis Unveiled. After surmounting many difficulties and having many adventures, she was finally rescued from a most critical position and conducted back to the Indian frontier. She tells of the advanced telepathic methods by which the shaman who was her guide called for assistance:
We had directed the Shaman's inner ego to the same friend heretofore mentioned in this chapter, the Kutchi of Lha-Ssa, who travels constantly to British India and back. We know that he was apprised of our critical situation in the desert; for a few hours later came help, and we were rescued by a party of twenty-five horsemen who had been directed by their chief to find us at the place where we were, which no living man endowed with common powers could have known. The chief of this escort was a Shaberon, an "adept" whom we had never seen before, nor did we after that, for he never left his soumay (lamasery), and we could have no access to it. But he was a personal friend of the Kutchi. — Isis Unveiled, II, 628
H. P. Blavatsky adds that the above will of course provoke nothing but incredulity in the reader, but it is only an example of the "Illimitable powers and possibilities of the human astral soul." Today, when we have innumerable evidences of highly advanced telepathy among so-called primitive races, such as the American Indians, African peoples, Australian aborigines, Eskimos, etc., she would not have to face the ridicule and abuse she then suffered for daring to fly in the face of conventional public opinion. The increasing number of sensitives in every part of the world is so noticeable today that disbelief in telepathy and clairvoyance is becoming absurd and a sign of ignorance.
1. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, by A. P. Sinnett, 43. (return to text)