Book Review

HPB: A New Biography

Sarah Belle Dougherty

The 21st century approaches, the immense changes of the last 150 years stand forth in bold relief not only those in technology but, more importantly, those in attitude and thought. Scientific ideas on the most fundamental topics — energy, matter, space, time, relationships between life forms and the earth, and the structure of the universe — have altered radically. Scientific estimates of the age of the human species have expanded from a few thousand years to over a million. Political and social attitudes continue to shift as the essential unity of human beings with one another and the surrounding world becomes a more widely accepted view. And despite all these revolutions it seems that we have as yet witnessed only the first premonitions of a coming worldview that is slowly pushing its way into human consciousness.

That many of these positive transformations can be traced to the wisdom-tradition restated by H. P. Blavatsky is brought home in a new biography by Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books, New York, 1993; 670 pages, index, bibliography, illustrated; ISBN 0-87477-688-o, hardcover $30.00. See page 77 for special TUP offer and ordering information.) Cranston is well known for her books on reincarnation, including Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery with Joseph Head and Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion and Society with Carey Williams. She has devoted a lifetime to related research and fourteen years directly to this project. Extensively documented, this biography brings together material from a great variety of sources, including recently unearthed correspondence and much material specially translated for her from the Russian.

The emphasis here, as the subtitle suggests, is on HPB as the agency through which the theosophical philosophy was reexpressed in the modern world. The flowing narrative, pleasurable to read and easy to follow, gives way only occasionally to discussions of various controversial points. The first hundred pages deal with HPB's family, youth, and worldwide travels, and benefit particularly from the important new Russian material. The bulk of the book deals with the period after HPB came to America in 1873 until her death in England in 1891. Here we read of her initial association and later conflicts with the Spiritualists. Around this time she met Colonel Henry S. Olcott and William Q. Judge, who became her most important co-workers. Together they founded the Theosophical Society, an organization whose objectives are to form a universal brotherhood without regard for race, creed, sex, or nationality; to study science, religion, and philosophy (especially that of India); and to discover the hidden laws of nature and man. HPB was then writing Isis Unveiled, and she experienced psychospiritual changes which gave her command of a large body of knowledge hitherto unknown to her.

In 1878 she and Olcott, respectively Corresponding Secretary and President of the Theosophical Society, traveled to India. A. P. Sinnett's books detailing the psychic phenomena she produced there created a sensation, but the most important theosophical activity involved the vindication of Oriental philosophy. Success in this endeavor led Christian missionaries in India to engineer the Coulomb scandal in 1884, which resulted in her being labeled a fraud and charlatan in the widely-cited but now-discredited Hodgson Report. (This Report and its conclusions have since been repudiated by Vernon Harrison in "J'Accuse: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885," prefaced by an editorial amende honorable, in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, London, April 1986; available in H. P Blavatsky and the SPR.) Olcott forbade HPB to defend herself legally, although she had every likelihood of success, and HPB's health collapsed. In 1885 she left India for Europe, where she finished writing The Secret Doctrine, which was published in 1888 in London. She spent her last years in England teaching and writing, producing in 1889 The Key to Theosophy and The Voice of the Silence.

In Cranston's presentation, the personality, temperament, and idiosyncrasies of the various characters do not hold center stage; nor do their personal relationships or controversies. The author's fundamental interest is in showing, through describing HPB's life, how she and others were able to introduce a powerful spiritual and intellectual impulse into the materialistic and rigid 19th century.

Cranston clearly is an admirer of HPB who approaches her subject with respect rather than suspicion or hostility, finding no value in running through the entire catalog of charges made against HPB. She examines thoroughly the major issues — for example, the Hodgson Report and the allegation that HPB plagiarized the material for her two major works, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Many controversial matters are dealt with, but the author chooses not to discuss others. The result is that, while one may wish that one or another point had been brought out, the thread of HPB's life is not overwhelmed by controversies centering mainly on malicious and unfounded attacks and gossip.

In this biography the author proposes that "witnesses to various events will be given opportunity to tell their tale in their own words wherever possible . . . This policy, of course, holds good for our chief witness herself, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky" (p. xxiii). This makes for an account full of immediacy and color. At the same time, some may see Cranston's ready acceptance of HPB's explanations of most points — the nature of her teachers, the source of her knowledge, and the reality of her paranormal phenomena — as evidence of an uncritical attitude. Certainly the view taken on such concepts lies at the heart of any interpretation of HPB. Yet what constitutes objectivity? HPB's life, like that of anyone steeped in the occult and mystical, cannot be forced through a materialistic sieve without most of its motivation and meaning being removed in the process. Only when the picture of reality commonly accepted in Western intellectual circles broadens to include not merely the paranormal, but also the still higher psychological, mental, and spiritual spheres of human activity long recognized by other cultures, will the story of HPB — and many others — be understood and presented in its true light.

The last hundred pages of the book examine the effects of HPBs writings and life on world consciousness. Already touched upon is her signal contribution to Oriental thought-life, where she and other theosophists encouraged the revival of Eastern religious and philosophic study. The resurgence of Buddhism and the study of Hindu philosophy among educated Asians can be traced directly to her influence. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the peoples of India had suffered political and economic conquest and were being inculcated in the secular schools with Western contempt of everything Oriental and non-Christian. Asian intellectuals were rejecting or ignoring their own traditions. When HPB and Olcott arrived in India in 1879, both supported reform-minded Hindu movements, became Buddhists and, in their magazine The Theosophist and in lectures, championed Oriental philosophies. The late scholar, author, and president of India, S. Radhakrishnan, remarked that "the Theosophical Movement rendered great service by vindicating those values and ideas. The influence of the Theosophical Movement on general Indian society is incalculable" (quoted p. 192). Interestingly, it was two English theosophists in London who encouraged Mahatma Gandhi to read the Bhagavad-Gita, which became the foundation of his own philosophy.

Olcott worked particularly strenuously in the revival of Buddhism in Ceylon, Southeast Asia, and Japan. One of the leading Buddhist missionaries of this century, Anagarika Dharmapala, was a student of HPB and very much influenced in his early years by theosophical writings. When he had decided to spend his life studying occultism, she told him that "'It will be much wiser for you to dedicate your life to the service of humanity. . . . And, first of all, learn Pali, the sacred language of the Buddha.' At that time the Pali writings were little known" (quoted p. 214). Later, Christmas Humphreys, a theosophist and president-founder of the Buddhist Society, London, did much to further Occidental interest in Buddhism in this century.

Theosophical writings opened Hindu and Buddhist ideas to the general public, and the influence of Asian beliefs on the contemporary West has grown with every year. HPB also drew attention to Gnostic writings, the Kabbala, and esoteric Christian traditions. Theosophy's influence on the West has been profound in many areas, and Cranston discusses several — literature, art, music, psychology, comparative religions, new age thought, etc. But science is the most dominant modern field, determining the views of reality in other disciplines. When published in 1888, The Secret Doctrine contained many ideas running counter to the scientific orthodoxy of the time, such as the divisibility of the atom and the convertibility of matter and energy. The acceptance of these concepts in the 25 years that followed spelled the end of materialism in physics. While physics has transformed itself, the life sciences are only beginning to move beyond materialism. According to HPB, the existence of a substance more ethereal than the matter and energy we perceive with our physical senses forms the basis of the quarrel between occultism and materialistic science. This "akasic" or "astral" substance within each atom and cell is "the key that must open one day the gates of the terra incognita of the biologist now called the dark mysteries of embryology" (The Secret Doctrine 1: 219), as well as anthropology, the origin of species, and other fundamental issues. The recent theories of biologist Rupert Sheldrake on formative causation — which propose nonmaterial "morphic" fields underlying and molding physical and conscious existence — are very similar in many respects to akasic substance, and mark an important step in this direction.

Theodore Roszak puts his finger on the crucial area of coming change in the life and social sciences, remarking that HPBs two major works contain

the first philosophy of psychic and spiritual evolution to appear in the modern West. Her effort, unlike that of the Christian fundamentalists, was not to reject Darwin's work, but to insist that it had, by its focus on the purely physical, wholly omitted the mental, creative, and visionary life of the human race; in short, it omitted consciousness, whose development followed a very different evolutionary path. Darwin simply did not go far enough; his was not a big enough theory to contain human nature in the round. (Unfinished Animal, p. 118, quoted p. xxii.)

Consciousness still is not adequately addressed by most scientists. However, increasing numbers of biologists, psychologists, and other investigators are joining physicists in opening up the exploration of consciousness not only in the individual, but in the human race and even in the planet and cosmos.

Without a doubt HPB's writings remain more timely than ever. That she is a fascinating and controversial figure is attested by the eighteen full-length biographies previously published in English. This newest account is a necessary addition, synthesizing old and new material into an accessibly-written whole and correcting many widely-publicized misstatements. The book is a tribute to HPB and her accomplishments. Readers wishing a sweeping yet detailed panorama of HPB's life, as well as a summary of her work's continuing significance for people today, will be richly rewarded by this important study.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Theosophical University Press)