Review of H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement by C. J. Ryan
"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." H. P. Blavatsky, vilified in her time as "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history," is yet lauded in our own for having changed the current of Western thought, "directing it toward the sun."
Who was H. P. Blavatsky and what was her mission? More pointedly, what is the nature and aim of the modern theosophic movement she and her teachers were chiefly responsible for initiating, and what is its role in the cause of human betterment? Many biographies of Madame Blavatsky have been submitted to public judgment since the inception of the Theosophical Society in 1875; yet few have attempted to sound the true inner purpose of the "real H.P.B.," much less of the ageless theosophic tradition she faithfully served for life. It is perhaps timely, then, that one such chronicle should be reissued in this centenary year of the Society to help clarify these and other questions so often asked by inquirer and theosophist alike. Especially so in view of the growing interest in Eastern thought, meditation, paranormal phenomena, and other so-called occult subjects to which H.P.B. incisively addressed herself.
First published in 1937 and now available in a new Second and Revised Edition, Charles J. Ryan's H. P Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement (Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1975, 341 pages, bibliography, index, cloth, $8.50, paper, $4.95) presents in remarkably concise outline the fundamentals of H.P.B.'s life-experience: her training, her stewardship, and her legacy. More than this, these are featured against the backdrop of the theosophical movement, giving clarity of perspective not only to the relationship between H.P.B. and similar past efforts toward the enlightenment of humanity, but also to the role of theosophy in the twentieth century.
The historian has a difficult task in attempting to render a faithful portrait in balanced tones — in selecting, reconstructing and interpreting the significant data. As stated in the Prefatory Note by the editor: "The history of any movement, especially one of spiritual origin, is best authored by a protagonist, by one who is convinced of the worthiness of his theme. Unless the writer himself has profoundly experienced the reality of its inner purpose, how can he render a verdict that will pass the test of time?"
Charles J. Ryan was an educator and artist by profession. He joined the Theosophical Society while in England in 1894, having come in contact with theosophists who had known H.P.B. personally, some of whom had been her private students; and he participated with them in carrying the movement through the turbulent events of the '90s well into this century. In 1900, he was invited to the Society's international headquarters, then located at Point Loma, California, on the staff of which he actively served until his passing on December 24, 1949. A man of exceptionally wide interests and attainments, there was hardly a scientific, cultural or theosophic subject that he did not illumine in numerous articles and lectures. Depth of background and length of service, however, are not primary measures of qualification. Perhaps the truest estimate of C. J. Ryan's inner credentials may be garnered from the atmosphere of his narration.
"While assuredly the best way to understand the heart and mind of Helena P. Blavatsky is to study her writings," he states, "yet there is much of great value to learn from the story of her life of toil and renunciation, of self-sacrifice and voluntary martyrdom, for she was in essentials a lofty example of what she taught." Through an able synthesis of history and philosophy, drawing where possible on the original documents and other archival data, the author has given us, as he had hoped, a "brief but authentic account in handy form of the chief incidents of her life, her ideals, and her methods . . ." More than this, he has made abundantly clear what H.P.B. and her teachers meant by the "Original Programme of The Theosophical Society," especially as this applies to the protective and sustaining efforts of her successors.
H. P Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement begins with a preamble which lays the foundation for the remaining twenty-two chapters, describing what theosophy is in its essence and the charter upon which the movement was founded. It is a keynote which unifies the work by showing the unbroken continuity of purpose underlying the development of events during and after H.P.B.'s life. That purpose is repeatedly referred to and is perhaps best phrased in a quotation from a letter by one of the real founders of the movement, the Mahatma K.H. Writing to A. P. Sinnett, then editor of one of the leading English dailies in India in 1880, he states unequivocally that
the chief object of the T.S. is not so much to gratify individual aspirations as to serve our fellow men: . . . The Chiefs want a "Brotherhood of Humanity," a real Universal Fraternity started; an institution which would make itself known throughout the world and arrest the attention of the highest minds.
Professor Ryan shows that the primary intent of the Sponsors of the movement was not simply to form another philanthropic, do-good society as usually conceived, however laudatory an aim this certainly is. Nor was it to create "an academy of magic and a hall of occultism." It was more than these: their purpose was to form the nucleus of a bona fide universal brotherhood without distinction of race, color, sex, or caste, to be absolutely nonpolitical, and whose chief endeavor would be to make available such powerful ideas as would attack the causes and not merely bandage the wounds of malice, divisiveness, greed and every other short-sightedness born of man's misunderstanding of himself and his world.
The story of H. P. Blavatsky and the men and women she worked with is the response to that mandate — a story which dramatizes the multifaceted potential of the human soul. It is quite possible to read far more into this book than just a biography of an astonishing woman and a description of the triumphs and vicissitudes of the organization she founded. We have here a profound study of man individually and collectively in the process of evolutionary unfoldment, graphically epitomized in the successive events that make up modern theosophic history. Few studies are so deeply revealing of human character at its best — and worst — as that of the impact of a genuinely spiritual movement upon the soul of man. The reason for this appears to be inherent in the nature of the mandate: that wherever aspiration and upward effort assert themselves, the pressure of downward opposition is immediately encountered, testing and tempering the mettle of men's inner natures.
There is another element to the story, however, so imperceptible as to be hardly noticed upon first reading, yet perhaps of greater moment. This is the sacred drama, symbolized in the legends and mythologies of all peoples, of the intelligent forces of the light or positive side of the universe trying to manifest on earth. According to most of these ancient traditions, wherever men truly aim with compassion and universality of motive to elevate the whole of humanity, the "gods" themselves "step down" in assistance to match every upward step taken by man. Chapter by chapter — from the birth of H.P.B. in the aristocracy of Czarist Russia, her preparatory travels in Tibet, India, Egypt and the Americas, the quiet and tentative beginnings of the Theosophical Society in New York City and its early decades in Asia and Europe, to the progressive development of the theosophic philosophy as it was carefully restated and elucidated to meet the needs of the incoming age — through all this and more we begin to detect the infusion of the sacred into the profane, the vitalizing of the foundations of a "new continent of thought." Upon this was to be built an impregnable tower, a beacon, of living and livable ideas as respectably scientific as profoundly spiritual that could help guide man in his quest for understanding.
The last chapters of the book are concerned primarily with H.P.B.'s legacy to the twentieth century — an inheritance that has been fully probated through one hundred years of uncompromising effort. Not only do we have her written masterworks, Isis Unveiled, The Secret Doctrine, and The Voice of the Silence, plus numerous other articles and books, but also the opportunity, as she phrased it, to "keep the link unbroken" with the living source of all past, present, and future genuinely theosophical endeavors, however they may be called in their respective ages.
"The height of a building may be determined from the length of its shadow" is an old truism. Judging by the constancy of her detractors and the multitude of imitators, H.P.B. stands as a towering figure, an enigma to many and a perennial challenge to all who acquaint themselves with her lifework. What she was in her inner Self, not in the rough-hewn and engagingly colorful personality called H. P. Blavatsky, is an impossible judgment for worldly wisdom, but is the exclusive prerogative of the faculty of spirit in man, intuition. Whatever the truth of H.P.B.'s stature, it is certain that the study of her life and writings "will drive men to self-study," in the course of which may come a light, directed from the sun, that will help illumine the mystery that is man.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)