In 1888 the publication of The Secret Doctrine by HPB challenged the accepted dicta of theologians and scientists, and markedly redirected the thinking of the twentieth century. Hers was a worldview that reckoned the life cycles of galaxies and atoms as part of the same evolutionary process that returns the human soul again and again to earth life. Who was HPB and what is The Theosophical Society she helped to found? Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (nee von Hahn) was born in the Ukraine at Ekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk) on the river Dnieper on August 12, 1831 (July 31, Old Style Russian calendar). Her father, Captain of Artillery Peter Alexeyevich von Hahn, was a descendant of the Counts Hahn von Rottenstern-Hahn, an old Mecklenburg family from Germany, and her mother, Helena Andreyevna, daughter of Privy Councillor A. M. de Fadeyev and Princess Helena Pavlovna Dolgorukova, was a gifted novelist who spoke out against oppression, particularly of women. She suffered from ill health most of her short life, and died at age 29. Helena, then eleven, with her sister Vera and infant brother Leonid, left Odessa to live with their maternal grandparents, the de Fadeyevs, at Saratov, and later at Tiflis in the Caucasus.
Mme. de Fadeyev was a woman of rare wisdom and scholastic attainment, a botanist respected throughout Europe, versed in history and the natural sciences, including archaeology. Her unusual endowments of mind and spirit, plus an extensive library at the Fadeyev home, nurtured and fortified Helena's determination to find truth for herself, whatever the risk. Married in 1849 in name only to Nikifor Blavatsky, a man more than twice her age, Helena ran away after three months, gaining the freedom she longed for. Then began years of seemingly restless wanderings and travels over the globe, encounters with the wise and the less wise on every continent. Avidly she sought the Ariadne thread that would lead her to those teachers and life experiences that would sharpen her intuition and enlarge her compassion. (See HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky by Sylvia Cranston, 3rd rev. ed.; H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement by Charles J. Ryan, 2nd rev. ed.; H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, 1874-1878, ed. Boris de Zirkoff, 1:xxv-lii; and H. P. Blavatsky, Tibet and Tulku by Geoffrey A. Barborka, pp. 6-41)
During this period HPB was being trained and prepared to lead a spiritual movement that would shake the tree of orthodoxy to its roots, and at the same time direct public attention to the fruits of the tree of life that could be won by all sincere seekers willing and ready to undergo the required discipline.
HPB was in Paris in 1873 when her teachers ordered her to go to America and begin her work. She left immediately and arrived in New York City on July 7. In October of the following year she met Henry Steel Olcott who had been sent by the Daily Graphic to the Eddy homestead in Vermont to investigate the phenomena that were reportedly happening there. The two of them were to work closely together in the formation and development of The Theosophical Society.
Exactly two years after coming to America, HPB received further orders, as she noted in the first of her "Scrap Books":
Orders received from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious Society & choose a name for it — also to choose Olcott. July 1875. — The Golden Book of The Theosophical Society: 1875-1925, p. 19; H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings 1:94
So it was that on September 7, 1875, at her residence in New York City, HPB hosted a small group of spiritualists, kabbalists, physicians, and lawyers — all of them fascinated by the "occult" or hidden side of nature — to hear a lecture by George Henry Felt on "The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians." During the course of the evening, the idea of forming a Society for this kind of study was proposed. The sixteen or so desirous of joining met the following and subsequent evenings to formalize their intent. By October 30th a Preamble and Bylaws had been agreed upon and printed, with the objects of the Society, "to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe." On November 17, 1875, an Inaugural Meeting at Mott Memorial Hall in New York City launched The Theosophical Society with an address by its President-Founder, Henry S. Olcott. The name "theosophy" had been adopted because it best described that philosophico-religious system which conceives of the Divine as emanating itself in a series of progressions, and also recognizes the human soul as being capable of attaining mystical and spiritual illumination. The brotherhood ideal was not explicitly stated, but was implicit in the Preamble which affirmed that membership was open to all, regardless of race, gender, or creed.
In 1875 The Theosophical Society was a completely unknown venture. No one realized, except perhaps those who were behind the Movement, what the long-range effect would be of that small handful who dared to form a body that would seriously investigate the inner laws that move and sustain the outer physical universe. While the reception given to her teachings was remarkable for that era, HPB had nonetheless to face strong opposition among scholars, scientists, and theologians, not to mention the popular press. To many she was an iconoclast of a stature they could not comprehend — here was a woman of fearless purpose, toppling every sacred cow, not only in her large two-volume work, Isis Unveiled (1877), but also in a spate of newspaper and magazine articles. They couldn't believe that she wasn't out to destroy the living message of the world's religious teachers or the proven facts of science. On the contrary, her purpose was simple and direct: to inveigh against everything of a dead-letter and hypocritical nature, while opening wide the windows of closed minds to the invigorating breezes of independent thought and a philosophy of cosmic dimension.
To better appreciate who Helena Blavatsky was, we must view her as the bearer of a message, spokesman for those wiser than she, members of a brotherhood of guardians and protectors of humanity who hold in trust the truths about man's spiritual origin and destiny — truths which are given out when the call from the hearts of men and women is importunate enough to draw forth a further unveiling of nature's hidden lore. Prior to 1875 the Western world was scarcely aware that advanced human beings existed, despite the fact that in India, Tibet, China, and the Near East, legend and scripture testify to an association of sages who from time to time send out one of their number to live and work among this or that people. To become worthy to be taken in hand by a guru or teacher was held as the highest spiritual boon, and many an aspirant for chelaship would strive for years, without any sign of recognition, to prepare himself by purification and self-abnegation to be accepted for training. All of this was typically Eastern in atmosphere and practice.
Then, with the coming of HPB to America, everything changed. The cycle was evidently ripe for the Mahatmas (variously called Adepts, Masters, or the Brothers) to make themselves and their spiritualizing work for humanity more generally understood. The Theosophical Society was inspired by two Mahatmas whose chiefs had searched the globe for nearly a century before finding one who could be trained to receive and transmit the teaching; and, what is more, who could and would willingly bear the karma of enlightening a world heavily steeped in pride of material accomplishment. (See The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letter xxvi, p. 203) These two, later known as M and KH, went to their Chief and said: Let us try and see if we cannot bring about a center of effort and inspire a few individuals who will work for the enlightenment of mankind. The Chief was doubtful, but agreed to let them try. They did not look for perfect people. Had they waited until HPB, Olcott, Judge, and others who wanted to help had become perfect, The Theosophical Society might never have been born. The wonder of it is that those early theosophists had the courage to support an ideal that was seemingly beyond realization: to establish a nucleus of men and women who would give their finest energies to furthering the ideal of universal brotherhood.
Almost immediately after public disclosure of their existence, Masters and Adepts, under various initials and names, became the talk of theosophists and their contemporaries. Inevitably, people with little or no knowledge of what discipleship entails wanted personal contact with the Brothers. For many, this was a natural and spontaneous outpouring of love and esteem for those great beings who imbodied all that they aspired to be. Some, no doubt, simply wanted to be special. Others reacted with scorn and ridicule; little did they realize what profound compassion moved these friends of mankind. HPB came to regret that she had ever allowed "phenomena and the Masters" to become public knowledge (Blavatsky Letters, p. 97). After a relatively few years, the Masters withdrew from outer contact with the Society, yet retained the link inwardly with HPB and with the heart of the Movement, to remain the guiding inspiration of subsequent generations of seekers.
Today the subject of Mahatmas and their direct or indirect influence on individuals or groups, and on humanity as a whole, is again to the fore. Many theosophists prefer to say as little as possible about Masters and about Sambhala, in order not to desecrate further what is inexpressibly sacred, although they clearly acknowledge HPB and her teachers as the source of theosophy and its ideals.
Assuredly the Masters are behind every truly unselfish effort to lift the burden of sorrow and ignorance from mankind, and the theosophical movement is not the Brotherhood's only source of "building stones." "The sun of Theosophy must shine for all, not for a part," wrote M to A. P. Sinnett early in 1882. "There is more of this movement than you have yet had an inkling of, and the work of the T.S. is linked in with similar work that is secretly going on in all parts of the world. . . . You know K.H. and me — buss! know you anything of the whole Brotherhood and its ramifications?" And M reminds Sinnett that he "ought to have learned by this time our ways. We advise — and never order. But we do influence individuals." (The Mahatma Letters, Letter xlvii, pp. 271-2) It is not for us to put enclosures around the Masters even in thought and, whether consciously or unconsciously, try to decree what their work is and what it is not, and how or whom they will inspire or influence. Equally must we be careful not to prejudge anyone and automatically dub him a pretender because he professes to be the "mouthpiece of Mahatmas," or to receive "messages" from Morya, Koothoomi, or Djual Khool.
We should not be astonished at the proliferation of alleged gurus, avatars, ascended masters, reincarnations of HPB, swamis, and messengers. A number of people have taken the Masters' teachings and created from them a fantasy of psychic imagination, a travesty of theosophy. Yet it seems incredible, with the publication of the original letters of the Mahatmas to A. P. Sinnett and others, now readily available in libraries and bookstores, that so much notice is taken of counterfeit mahatmas and messengers who trade on the anxieties of the times and the vulnerability of the innocent whose very sincerity makes them easy prey. It would be farcical were it not so tragic, with lives scarred by the betrayal.
At the same time, neither the Masters and their letters, nor The Secret Doctrine or any of HPB's writings, are the basis of a creed or "bible." The Theosophical Society has no articles of belief, no dogmas; freedom of inquiry, of aspiration, of self-evolution, is its watchword. HPB made it clear over and over again that what she was bringing was a portion only of the eternal wisdom-religion; that she was a transmitter of that which she had received. Through her titanic genius she gave it forth in the best way she could, but she didn't claim that every word was sacrosanct. She laid these truths before us, saying, after Montaigne, "I have . . . brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them" — cut the string up, if you will, but you cannot destroy truth. (Cf. The Secret Doctrine 1:xlvi)
Inevitably HPB had many detractors. For example, in 1885 the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) published a report by Richard Hodgson, stating that HPB had written the letters from the Mahatmas* herself, and the SPR concluded that HPB was "one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history." (Cf. Proceedings of The Society for Psychical Research, London, England, Part IX, December 1885, pp. 201-400) Over the years friends and supporters of HPB had time and again sought a retraction, but to little avail. Then in 1986, "impelled by a strong feeling of the need for JUSTICE," Vernon Harrison, Ph.D., handwriting expert and longtime member of the SPR, published a critique of the Hodgson Report titled: "J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," followed in 1997 by "J'Accuse d'autant plus [I accuse all the more]: A Further Study of the Hodgson Report." Over a period of some fifteen years, Dr. Harrison had made an exhaustive study of the handwritings of the Mahatmas' letters and found the Hodgson Report to be "badly flawed and untrustworthy" and that there was "no evidence of common origin between the 'KH', 'M', and 'HPB' scripts." (Dr. Harrison's critiques have been issued in one volume with 13 full color plates under the title: H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, Theosophical University Press, 1997) Yet in spite of the attacks on her character by Hodgson and others, HPB continued to write what was to become The Secret Doctrine.
*This collection of holographic letters was presented in 1939 by Sinnett's executrix, Maud Hoffman, to the British Museum (now British Library) where they can be viewed by the public.
In 1886 HPB issued a powerful statement in which she clarifies what the original program of The Theosophical Society was and remains today. Therein she says that the founders "had to oppose in the strongest manner possible anything approaching dogmatic faith and fanaticism — belief in the infallibility of the Masters, or even in the very existence of our invisible Teachers, having to be checked from the first." (The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society, p. 6; reprint, H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings 7:148) She and Olcott weren't told what to do, but they were distinctly told what not to do; in particular, they should never permit The Theosophical Society to become a sect: dogmatic in thought and dogmatic in deed. The strength of theosophy is that there is no teaching that anyone has to believe before he can participate actively as a member or supporter of The Theosophical Society. The one requirement is that he accept the principle of universal brotherhood as of great validity and a power in his thinking and acting. He may remain a Buddhist, a Christian, a Zoroastrian, an atheist, or whatever: "The greatest spirit of free research untrammeled by anyone or anything, had to be encouraged." (Ibid.)
This original program is imbodied in the objectives of The Theosophical Society which, however worded, remain in principle as follows: to diffuse among men a knowledge of the laws inherent in the universe; to promulgate the knowledge of the essential unity of all that is, and to demonstrate that this unity is fundamental in nature; to form an active brotherhood among men; to encourage the study of ancient and modern religion, science, and philosophy; and, to investigate the powers innate in man.
A study of the religious and philosophical scriptures releases a flood of ideas because, when we look into the sacred writings of world civilizations from the expanded perspective that theosophy provides, we discern the one universal wisdom expressed in many forms. Familiarity with the traditions and scriptures of earlier peoples also helps us maintain a sense of proportion. We come to appreciate that this grand universal system of truths is the common inheritance of mankind, but that periodically it finds a "unique" expression in order to meet the specific needs of a given era. This explains why this or that nation or race believes itself to be the "chosen people" — it is because at a certain historic period they were chosen by the messenger of the time to receive a new light, a new directive for spiritual living.
Note the careful wording of the last objective: the phrase used is "to investigate the powers innate in man," not to develop psychic powers. There is a wide difference. We are encouraged to understand ourselves as multifold beings, to study and inquire into the full range of our human potentialities. However, there is a tacit warning here against unnaturally developing powers that could lead to an overemphasis of the psychic and astral aspects of our constitution at the expense of our intuitive and spiritual faculties. HPB came bitterly to regret that she had shown a few trusted ones certain feats of phenomenal power in the hope of demonstrating that there was a world of subtle forces back of the physical one. Today many would like to have such extranormal powers, but how many can honestly say they want to cultivate them from utterly selfless motives? After all, what intrinsic value do these powers have? It is well to examine our motive, to be certain it is truly selfless. We all have too much selfishness in our spiritual desires as well as in our material natures, and selfishness in the higher principles is far more tenacious than in the lower nature where it is comparatively easy to overcome.
The theosophic purpose, then, is manifold, and no one was more aware than H. P. Blavatsky of the magnitude of the task before her. She lived and worked in the tradition of those who labor ceaselessly to awaken humanity to its innate grandeur. "By their fruits shall ye know them." With every decade she is becoming more widely accepted as an opener of the gateways of the soul. By her retelling of the archaic wisdom-teachings she revealed the inspired source of the many traditions and scriptures of mankind, and unfolded the wondrous drama of the genesis and evolution of worlds and of man. To many her greatest gift was her pointing once again to the "path," the sacred way of inner mastery — not for oneself, but for the uplifting of all beings everywhere. Her lasting appeal to men and women of compassion is to work actively for the realization of universal brotherhood so that eventually every people, nation, and race will be free to pursue its individual destiny in harmony and at peace with all others.