H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement — Charles J. Ryan

Chapter 20


The woman known as H. P. Blavatsky, the Masters' messenger of the nineteenth century, a wondrous Being in her essential Self, yet incarnate in a personality which was paradoxical in many ways, is a profoundly interesting study; but even she is of less importance than the message that is contained in her writings.

The order in which her books and articles appeared cannot be called accidental; a plan is plainly visible. Isis Unveiled came first, and it brought the idea that man is a far greater being than he dares to believe, and that he has marvelous powers and knowledge locked up within him of a nature hitherto unsuspected by Western psychologists. The existence of Adepts, living men who have evolved forth their latent powers, was made known to a skeptical generation; moreover, it was stated that every man could rise to godlike heights by his own efforts. This book also treated of the darker side of nature and humanity, and gave warning of the dangers and pitfalls in the evolutionary journey to the heights. It contained a very sketchy outline of the general principles of technical theosophy, leaving them to be worked out later.

Soon after the work was started in India, H. P. Blavatsky established The Theosophist magazine in which appeared more advanced teachings by herself and others, and the Oriental point of view was clearly stated by native scholars. The Theosophist was widely read by both Eastern and Western students and it formed that link of common understanding between them which makes for universal brotherhood.

In 1888 the time came for the appearance of her most important work, The Secret Doctrine, in which the philosophical and scientific teachings about the evolution of man and the universe were stated far more fully than in Isis Unveiled. Modern and ancient religions, sciences, and philosophies were analyzed and the ancient wisdom was traced and drawn forth from the tangle of confused presentations which have come down to us from antiquity.

The author intended The Secret Doctrine to be a far larger and more important work than Isis Unveiled. But even so, as she said, only

the outline of a few fundamental truths from the Secret Doctrine of the Archaic ages is now permitted to see the light, after long millenniums of the most profound silence and secrecy. . . .

One turn of the key, and no more, was given in "Isis." Much more is explained in these volumes.

. . . the SECRET DOCTRINE . . . contains all that can be given out to the world in this century [the nineteenth]. — S.D., I, xxii, xxxviii

According to H.P.B., the MS. of the first three volumes was ready early in 1888, and in the preface to the first volume she says: "The third volume is entirely ready; the fourth almost so." Dr. Archibald Keightley, a reliable theosophist, who had worked hard in preparing the MS. for the press, said:

The third volume of "The Secret Doctrine" is in manuscript ready to be given to the printers. It will consist mainly of a series of sketches of the great occultists of all ages, and is a most wonderful and fascinating work. The fourth volume, which is to be largely hints on the subject of practical occultism, has been outlined, but not yet written. — Theos., X, 597, July 1889

The third volume, however ("ready to be given to the printers"), was never published by H. P. Blavatsky, and the so-called third volume, published not long after her death, is a collection of leftover matter, or unfinished articles, found in her desk. Nothing at all is known of the "outline" of the fourth volume. In connection with the mystery of the disappearance of the third volume many contradictory statements have been made. The data and a full analysis are published in Dr. H. N. Stokes' O. E. Library Critic.

One of the most striking features of the Masters' teachings which she gave in The Secret Doctrine and elsewhere, and which are found in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, is the definite exposition of discoveries in natural sciences and, to a lesser degree, in archaeology, unsuspected when she wrote but now fully accepted. The subject is amply treated in theosophical literature. In several places H.P.B. spoke of the critical conditions at the end of the cycle terminating shortly before the close of the nineteenth century, and she specially mentions the year 1897 as a period of great significance. One of these references is particularly important and cannot be omitted, as it so fully supports her claim that she was in touch with sources of information inaccessible to scientists. In The Secret Doctrine (I, 612), she writes in regard to the mysteries of nature known to the Adepts and preserved in trust for future humanity:

Yet it is all there, and one by one facts and processes in Nature's workshops are permitted to find their way into the exact Sciences, while mysterious help is given to rare individuals in unravelling its arcana. It is at the close of great Cycles, in connection with racial development, that such events generally take place. We are at the very close of the cycle Of 5,000 years of the present Aryan Kaliyuga; and between this time [1887-8] and 1897 there will be a large rent made in the Veil of Nature, and materialistic science will receive a death-blow.

Sir William Crookes, the famous chemist, was one of the "rare individuals" who received help from the Adepts.

H. P. Blavatsky passed away in 1891, but her prevision was confirmed to the very letter, although she did not live to know the new discoveries that led up to the great rent in nature's veil of which she speaks. Numerous scientific writers have pointed out that the year 1897 was the turning point of the new era of thought. Dr. W. C. D. Dampier-Whetham, F.R.S., in his authoritative History of Science makes much of this, as the reader will find on pp. 328, 383, 470, etc. He shows that the new physics became inevitable after Rontgen's announcement of the X-ray in 1895, and upon the amazing discovery of the divisibility of the atom — of subatomic particles or electrons. (1)

Dr. Karl T. Compton, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in his address of December 1936, referred in the strongest possible language to the enormous importance of the revolution in the sciences which was brought about by the events of the few years preceding the climax in 1897 when the electron was discovered. He said:

The history of science abounds with instances when a new concept or discovery has led to tremendous advances into vast new fields of knowledge and art whose very existence had hitherto been unsuspected. The discoveries of Galileo, Faraday and Pasteur are such instances. But, to my notion, no such instance has been so dramatic as the discovery of the electron, the tiniest thing in the universe, which within one generation has transformed a stagnant science of physics, a descriptive science of chemistry and a sterile science of astronomy into dynamically developing sciences fraught with intellectual adventure, interrelating interpretations and practical values. . . .

In 1896, however, Zeeman tried the experiment of examining the spectrum of a light source placed in a strong magnetic field, . . . [and] in January, 1897, Lorentz showed that this experiment proved that light is caused by the oscillation of electric charges, . . . what was startling was Lorentz's proof that the Zeeman effect could only have been produced by electrified particles . . . Almost at once this conclusion was confirmed in a more dramatic and understandable way by J. J. Thomson . . . By measuring this curvature produced by a magnetic field of known strength . . . J. J. Thomson in 1897 first showed that cathode rays are negatively charged particles with a ratio of charge to mass nearly two thousand times that of hydrogen. He furthermore showed that these particles are of the same type, as regards ratio of charge to mass, from whatever gas or cathode material they are produced. He therefore announced these particles, which he called "corpuscles," to be universal constituents of all substances. Thus was the electron discovered. — Science, January 8, 1937

"Thus was the electron discovered" — according to Dr. Compton the most dramatic instance of transforming discovery in the history of science. It literally confirms the announcement in The Secret Doctrine, quoted above, that a great rent would be made in the "Veil of Nature" between 1888 and 1897, and that materialistic science would receive a deathblow. As Dr. Dampier-Whetham says, the old materialism was dead.

Dr. Compton refers to the important work done by Professor William Crookes, especially in regard to vacuum tubes, and to the practical certainty that he would have discovered the X-ray if his attention had not been drawn in other directions just as he was almost touching it. As it was, his work was essential to the discovery of the electron.

H. P. Blavatsky claimed no credit for the teachings in her book, but only for the presentation and comments. In "My Books," dated only a few days before her passing, she closed her life's work with the words:

Nothing of that have I invented, but simply given it out as I have been taught; or as quoted by me in the Secret Doctrine (Vol. I p. 46 [xlvi]) from Montaigne: "I have here made only a nosegay of culled (Eastern) flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them."

Is any one of my helpers prepared to say that I have not paid the full price for the string? — Lucifer, VIII, 247, May 1891

In her impersonal presentation of theosophy, she made no secret of her belief that the intuitive readers of The Secret Doctrine may find knowledge in it which she herself did not possess, as it came from higher sources than "poor, miserable" H. P. Blavatsky, as she calls herself. She was emphatic in stating that the book was not intended to give a final verdict on existence, but only to lead the student toward finding truth: "See in study a means of exercising and developing the mind never touched by other studies" (Forum, III, 257, Aug. 1932).

The Secret Doctrine was not, however, the final message of theosophy for the nineteenth century, for it was soon followed by the key to its spiritual interpretation, without which it would be hardly more than a profound scientific treatise on the evolution of man and the universe. This culmination of her teaching was reached with the publication in 1889 of The Voice of the Silence, an exquisite prose-poem. This little book reveals the true path leading to the mystical achievement of finding the Self, the inner god. It is the clearest expression of the central teaching of the theosophical movement — the way of attainment — for the individual and for the race. The deeper side of the S.D. cannot be understood without the spiritual illumination to be found by living the truths set forth in The Voice of the Silence.

Many persons ask for something practical when they come in contact with theosophy. For several years before the establishment of the Esoteric School, students of theosophy had been challenged to rise and take the kingdom of heaven by strength, to find the path to reality, to become conscious coworkers with nature, and to live in and for the world but not to be of it — in other words, to seek to tread the road of chelaship. In this little book the true way of life is taught in language of great poetical beauty and imagery. The selection of the aphorisms and the rendering into stately English are H. P. Blavatsky's own but, as she says:

". . . the Voice of the Silence, tiny book though it is, is simply becoming the Theosophists' bible.

"They are grand aphorisms, indeed. I may say so, because you know I did not invent them! I only translated them from Telugu, the oldest South-Indian dialect. There are three treatises, about morals, and the moral principles of the Mongolian and Dravidian mystics." — The Path, X, 268, Dec. 1895

The high estimation in which the Voice is held by those qualified to judge is shown by the endorsement by the Tashi Lama of Tibet of a reprint of the original edition, published in China by Alice L. Cleather and Basil Crump. This high ecclesiastical authority states that H. P. Blavatsky gave the only true exposition in English of the "heart doctrine" of Mahayana Buddhism. In certain editions of the Voice, parts have unfortunately been omitted, but all authentic reprints contain the original teaching, also given by H.P.B. in her Theosophical Glossary, of the difference between the noble ideal of self-sacrifice of the Buddhas of Compassion and the spiritual selfishness of the Pratyeka-Buddhas. This is an important tenet in Mahayana Buddhism, as Dr. Evans-Wentz explains in his Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, pages 94, 144, 360.

William James, the eminent psychologist, discusses The Voice of the Silence in his Varieties of Religious Experience (420-1 ), and uses some passages to illustrate his belief that while the profounder mystical ranges of consciousness are best approached through music and not "conceptual speech," many mystical scriptures produce almost the same effect by seemingly self-contradictory or paradoxical phrases such as "the voice of Nada, the Soundless Sound," used so effectively by H.P.B. and which, James says, "stir chords within you which music and language touch in common."

The archaic versions of spiritual realities such as H.P.B. translated into rhythmic phrases in the Voice spring from the fountainhead of wisdom, and strike the cosmic tones of the Music of the Spheres. Their rhythmic sweep of grandeur arouses a response which is beyond the range of the merely reasoning mind, at whose uttermost reaches begins the spiritual realm of the real man, who does not argue, but knows. William James says:

There is a verge of the mind which these things haunt; and whispers therefrom mingle with the operations of our understanding, even as the waters of the infinite ocean send their waves to break among the pebbles that lie upon our shores.

In contrast to the devotional and mystical content of the Voice, her Key to Theosophy, also brought out in 1889, was a practical and timely textbook, treating principally of the theosophical movement, the nature of man's principles, reincarnation, karma, etc., while a large part is devoted to the application of theosophy to the affairs of the world — education, social reforms, duties of life, and the like.

About this time the instructive Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge appeared. This consists of a stenographic report of the discussions in which H. P. Blavatsky explained certain difficult points in The Secret Doctrine. The spiritual-intellectual tone of these discussions, which covered profound philosophical and scientific topics, is in strong contrast with the aspect of the psycho-intellectual researches which Mr. Sinnett and his sympathizers were pursuing.

The Theosophical Glossary, From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, in English translation, Nightmare Tales, and A Modern Panarion, were published soon after her death. The Collected Writings of H. P. Blavatsky, now being published in successive volumes, will contain, it is expected, her entire literary output. Among these will be found her deeply instructive articles from Lucifer, one of which, "Psychic and Noetic Action," (2) has been discussed by Professor C. E. M. Joad, the noted expositor of modern culture and philosophy. He refers incidentally to the contrasting philosophies of Kant and Hume, and shows that while H. P. Blavatsky's teaching agrees with Kant in regard to the dual nature of the soul and the existence of a continuing or unifying self, she was far more successful than any other thinker in refuting the objections against "spiritualized philosophy" brought by scientific materialism. The following quotation from Joad's tribute to her knowledge and insight indicates her true philosophic standing:

It is interesting, by the way, to note how many of the novelties which have been put forward by philosophers in the twentieth century appear in her work. This is particularly true of the modern philosophical criticism of materialist science.

. . . it is impossible not to feel the greatest respect for Madame Blavatsky's writings on this subject [the higher and lower selves]; of respect and, if the word may be permitted, of admiration. Writing when she did, she anticipated many ideas which, familiar today, were in the highest degree novel fifty years ago. — The Aryan Path, VIII, 202-3, May 1937

Novel? Yes, in the West, but brought to the West from the Orient by the self-sacrifice of the messenger of those guardians of the ancient wisdom who saw that the time had come to lift the veil of intellectual and spiritual knowledge a little higher in preparation for the new era that was at hand.

In 1925 The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett was brought out. It contains a certain amount of teaching not to be found elsewhere; but its main value lies in the revelation of her unshakable devotion to the great cause and to the Masters, in spite of the almost incredible sufferings, treacheries, misunderstandings, and slanders she had to endure.


1. In regard to the subatomic particles composing the atom which today have become little if anything more tangible than disembodied ghosts, wave-forms, notice what was taught in The Secret Doctrine long before science discovered the electron:

"The atom is elastic, ergo, the atom is divisible, and must consist of particles, or of sub-atoms. And these sub-atoms? They are either non-elastic, and in such case they represent no dynamic importance, or, they are elastic also; and in that case, they, too, are subject to divisibility. And thus ad infinitum. But infinite divisibility of atoms resolves matter into simple centres of force, i.e., precludes the possibility of conceiving matter as an objective substance. . . .

"Accept the explanations and teachings of Occultism, and, the blind inertia of physical Science being replaced by the intelligent active Powers behind the veil of matter, motion and inertia become subservient to those Powers. It is on the doctrine of the illusive nature of matter, and the infinite divisibility of the atom, that the whole science of Occultism is built. It opens limitless horizons to substance informed by the divine breath of its soul in every possible state of tenuity, states still undreamt of by the most spiritually disposed chemists and physicists." — S.D., I, 519-20 (return to text)

2. [Available also with related articles in one volume under the title Studies in Occultism. — ED.] (return to text)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition