California, November 1, 1997
In 1969 Claremont Graduate School professor John A. Hutchison commented that "ours is an age of unprecedented religious illiteracy. This is particularly true of the American academic community. While religion, along with sex and politics, continues as a perennial subject for discussion, it is also true that in such discussion a shocking lack of ordinary factual knowledge is often shown. Men who would feel disgraced to be ignorant of science, art, or politics show no compunction about harboring the grossest and crudest misconceptions in the field of religion" (Paths of Faith, vii).
If this was true of religion nearly thirty years ago, today it is acutely so of the modern theosophical movement and its principal founder, Helena P. Blavatsky. In spite of what Boston University's Stephen Prothero calls "a mini-boom in publishing on Blavatsky in the mid-1990s" (Religious Studies Review, July 1997), there is an appalling amount of misinformed and deeply prejudicial "intellectual history" being written about Blavatsky and theosophy, often parading under the mantle of scholarship. In books, periodicals, and on the internet, one finds assertion after assertion based on factual error or hearsay — much of it cloned from earlier publications that many present-day authors have incorrectly assumed or deemed to be reliable. To use an apt political phrase: repeat a rumor or allegation often enough, and it will become an accepted "truth" — for a while. But this is hardly a contribution to scholarship and public education.
The widely popular Madame Blavatsky's Baboon by the "distinguished literary scholar" Peter Washington is a case in point. Written in a witty and engaging style, the book contains sufficient facts and insights, some quite good, to make it appealing to a wide readership — beguilingly so, perhaps, for it has been cited as a source reference in magazines such as the Smithsonian (May 1995), and its author has been interviewed on British television as an "authority" on theosophic history.
On superficial examination the book appears to be well-researched and objective. But a more careful inspection discloses serious errors and omissions. Aside from fairly obvious use of innuendo and half-truths to bolster his negative conclusions about H. P. Blavatsky, Katherine Tingley, and G. de Purucker, the author shows deficient knowledge of primary sources, is frequently inaccurate, misrepresents theosophic teaching, relies on uncorroborated assertion (often from unfriendly secondary and tertiary sources), omits rebuttal evidence, garbles dates, events, and attributions, downgrades, trivializes, and generally gives a one-sided account. Whatever merit the book may have is defeated by its unreliability and prejudice.
The extent to which Mr. Washington's book has been accepted in the academic community and elsewhere prompted Dr. James Santucci, professor of comparative religion at California State University, Fullerton, and editor of Theosophical History, to publish my "Notes on Madame Blavatsky's Baboon" in its October 1997 issue. This gives a more detailed critique. Dr. Santucci comments, "Given the popularity of the book (there are numerous references on the Internet), . . . it is important that readers — especially scholars — be made aware of the oversights and sometimes inexcusable errors that are scattered in Mr. Washington's book. Of course, the question arises, 'If the book has this many errors in reference only to Theosophy, how many more exist in the author's treatment of the other movements?' ''
After all, should not the standards expected of a book or article on the philosophy, life, and character of Plato, for example, apply equally to any other historical person and movement? At the very least, responsible scholarship demands author competence: a reasonably thorough grasp of primary sources, as well as secondary sources and their historical context. Where controversy exists, one likewise expects to find conflicting accounts marshaled, compared, and analyzed, and — where called for — judgments and interpretations offered as opinions, not as established fact. For example, when one mentions the frequently-cited 1885 Hodgson Report, published by the British Society for Psychical Research, which brands Blavatsky an impostor, one is duty bound to point out (Mr. Washington and most others do not) that the same SPR published a 1986 report by Dr. Vernon Harrison, a court-accepted expert in detecting forgery, who finds the Hodgson Report to be inaccurate, riddled with bias, flawed, and untrustworthy — "a highly partisan document forfeiting all claim to scientific impartiality.''
Judging by the surfeit of publications which rely on books such as Madame Blavatsky's Baboon, one can only agree with John Hutchison's lament, and hardly wonder at the abuse. The theosophy and H. P. Blavatsky of the primary sources are virtually unrecognizable in these third and fourth-hand renderings. Few portray — much less account for — the philosophic depth and ethical content of Blavatsky's and her teachers' writings, or try to square these with allegations of fraud and imposture. Their authors, moreover, would have us believe that skepticism and objectivity are synonymous terms, while relegating to the outlands of "hagiography" any appreciative treatment, such as the well-researched HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky by Sylvia Cranston (published a few months before Mr. Washington's Baboon). Skepticism is indeed a powerful, valued, and necessary antidote for gullibility, but requires little actual knowledge. Objectivity — the ability to render fair and impartial judgment — is, on the other hand, the fruit of a well-matured course of study, reflection, knowledge, and understanding. And how many present-day writers on Blavatsky and theosophy can justifiably claim that? Informed discussion and the public welfare depend upon a higher standard, and we should expect nothing less.
In his closing remarks, Dr. Santucci noted a renewed interest in theosophy among religious studies scholars: "It is my hope that this [a dispassionate historian of religion giving HPB her due] will take place sooner rather than later. One way of doing so is for scholars to reevaluate — or perhaps read for the first time — Blavatsky's principal writings in the light of nineteenth century scholarship. Readers will be surprised, in my opinion, at the depth and eclecticism that exist especially in her masterworks Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine."
One can only applaud this hopeful trend, yet be reminded that a balanced understanding of theosophy and HPB rests ultimately with each of us; reminded, too, that intellectual research alone, important as it is, will never fully yield the truths we seek. Living for the benefit of others sheds its own light of perception, its own knowing; and until that becomes part of our discipline and our search, there is little doubt that theosophy and HPB will remain a mystery waiting to be understood.
W. T. S. Thackara
(From Sunrise magazine, December 1997/January 1998; copyright © 1997 Theosophical University Press)