Review of H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions 1888-1891
"Where there is no vision, the people perish" is practical biblical wisdom. Yet today, some people feel there may be too many 'visions.' The tremendous upsurge of religious and metaphysical activity in the last decade or so has brought with it an incredible diversity of viewpoints; and this has been further complicated by frequently changing scientific theories as new facts are discovered and old ones reinterpreted. Despite the growing confusion of ideas about man and the universe, however, an increasing number of men and women are earnest in their search for a whole view of life that meets spiritual as well as intellectual criteria.
The trend was foreseen a long time ago by a few perceptive individuals whose hope was to help restore such wholeness of vision. In the concluding paragraphs of The Key to Theosophy, published in 1889, H. P. Blavatsky noted that around the final quarter of every century an "upheaval" of spirituality or mysticism occurs; and that in conjunction with this cycle an attempt is made by the fraternity of adepts, or mahatmas("great souls"), "to help on the spiritual progress of Humanity in a marked and definite way." These arresting statements have stimulated considerable speculation, especially in relation to the closing decades of the 20th century. Less well known, however, but bearing directly upon this, are five letters written by H. P. Blavatsky which provide one of the clearest expressions of what the mahatmas had in mind when they endeavored to share with humanity their vision of universal brotherhood.
These letters to the annual conventions of the American Section of the Theosophical Society were sent from London during the years 1888-1891. Recently republished as H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions: 1888-1891, together with a Historical Perspective by Kirby Van Mater, they are unique among H. P. Blavatsky's writings. We can easily consider them to be charter documents and, read with intuition, they offer a broad clarification of tested spiritual principles. Addressed to members specifically, much in them of course pertains to the Theosophical Society: why it was founded, its essential work, and its mission for the future. Yet as one absorbs their atmosphere, it becomes evident that these letters could also have been written to truth seekers of this or any century. Their message is timeless, relevant, and universal.
Foremost throughout each is the urgent appeal to make altruism one's compass in living. In this regard, H. P. Blavatsky indicated significant changes in the course ahead for humanity, and that the ability to weather them depends largely upon selflessness of approach. She perceived in the rapidly growing materialism, and its emphasis on the fiercely competitive animal side of human existence, a fertile source of selfishness and misery. This she felt could be offset only by a firm knowledge that man is essentially cooperative in his spiritual nature. Paradoxically, she referred to a metaphysical development that also needed intelligent thought: some people, particularly in the West, were becoming more psychically sensitive (a natural though not necessarily spiritual evolution). Of importance was to keep all growth balanced and not allow the allurements of psychism to lead one into dangerous delusions.
Related to this development, and no doubt also to the end-of-the-century cycle, H. P. Blavatsky mentioned two further trends foreseen by her teachers: a wave of "mere phenomenalism" to be superseded by a wave of "transcendental influence" of awakening spirituality. In the latter half of the 19th century, the first of these arose, at least in part, out of spiritualism and its associated activities — seances, mediumship, etc. — which in turn stimulated the beginnings of scientific psychic research. Many sought out and were fascinated by the unusual and, then, unexplained phenomena (when genuine). Yet, however interesting, there was need to discover not only the "transcendent" causes behind the phenomena, but, more importantly, a valid philosophy that would show how all of these fit into the structure and purpose of life.
This pattern is repeating itself today. Much of the early excitement last decade with "altered" consciousness and paranormal phenomena is now giving way to a more mature blending of scientific and religio-philosophic search involving the totality of man. Nevertheless, the potential — indeed the actuality — of deliberate or unconscious misuse of the new awareness (as well as of any knowledge) is as great as ever, if not more so. We can understand a little better, then, why H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers felt so strongly moved to get across not only the idea but also the reality of universal brotherhood and man's responsibility for his actions.
The first letter of the series clearly indicates the essence of their theosophic endeavor. One aspect was to present again the wisdom-teachings of the ages, "the philosophy of the rational explanation of things." In showing man's spiritual as well as physical ancestry, his oneness and interdependence with nature, and his godlike potential, as the basis of ethical conduct, it would furnish a beacon light to help guide humanity on a safe path through the difficulties ahead. Second, and not to be overlooked, was what H. P. Blavatsky considered to be the most important mission of theosophy: "to unite firmly a body of men of all nations in brotherly love and bent on a pure altruistic work." In this lay the inspiration of the Theosophical Society: to establish a truly philanthropic organization that could serve as an unimpeded outlet for the pure stream of theosophy. However, because there were misunderstandings about this, H. P. Blavatsky made certain to point out that:
The Theosophical Society has never been and never will be a school of promiscuous Theurgic rites. But there are dozens of small occult Societies which talk very glibly of Magic, Occultism, Rosicrucians, Adepts, etc. These profess much, even to giving the key to the Universe, but end by leading men to a blank wall instead of the "Door of the Mysteries." These are some of our most insidious foes. Under cover of the philosophy of the Wisdom-Religion they manage to get up a mystical jargon which for the time is effective and enables them, by the aid of a very small amount of clairvoyance, to fleece the mystically inclined but ignorant aspirants to the occult, and lead them like sheep in almost any direction. — pp. 18-19
Because the Society was formed on spiritual lines and promulgated the theosophic philosophy, H. P. Blavatsky warned of the pitfalls that come easily to such an organization. Even though the TS has no mandatory beliefs, save brotherhood, there is always the danger of orthodoxy. It is diversity of opinion within limits, rather, and "the existence of a large amount of uncertainty in the minds of students" that will keep the Society healthy and prevent it from degenerating into narrow sectarianism. And in the context of forming local theosophic centers, she cautioned also against anyone setting up a "popery":
We are all fellow students, more or less advanced; but no one belonging to the Theosophical Society ought to count himself as more than, at best, a pupil-teacher — one who has no right to dogmatize. — p. 4
On the other hand, H. P. Blavatsky never hesitated to acknowledge true leadership efforts, as she does a number of times in the letters. Indeed the letters themselves are a remarkable example of her own quality — which she never paraded — as head of the movement. Yet what comes through most clearly was her desire to see people take to heart the type of self-leadership that embodies the highest practical theosophy.
When we reflect upon the exuberant growth of metaphysical activity today, much of it regarded as wildly exotic (in some cases justifiably), it is not difficult to imagine the immense problems that must have beset the Society in its beginning years. In this regard, the illuminating Historical Perspective, covering the period of H. P. Blavatsky's public work from the 1870s till her death in 1801, helps the reader to understand the context of the letters. In assembling documents from the Society's archives, together with selections from other sources, the author reveals the main currents at work in building, with the human materials available, a vehicle for the work of theosophy.
The impact of a spiritual effort is difficult to measure, yet in reading the letters to the American theosophists together with the historical background, more than one fact stands out. The very determination to live in accordance with the ideals of brotherhood at once arouses an opposition which takes many forms, both from without and within. In her general message of 1891, read to the convention less than three weeks before she died, H. P. Blavatsky reminded the members of the forces of divisiveness that should never be underestimated. There is an important point here, and it is implied throughout the book. This relates to the warmly sympathetic understanding H. P. Blavatsky and her teachers had toward the human side of the ideal. Immediate perfection of aim was never contemplated, for they knew the achievement of their long-range vision to be a task of aeons — one which in an infinite universe really never could be completed. For them the measure of success was in the attempt: if everyone who believed in the brotherhood of man were only to try to become "an impersonal force for good, careless of praise or blame," the progress made would astonish the world.
(From Sunrise, March 1980)