H.P. Blavatsky Born: 12 August 1831, Ekaterinoslav, Russia Died: 8 May 1891, London
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H.P.B. was often referred to as an enigma. She certainly presented the world with contradictory personal characteristics and behaviour. On the one hand she was a frail woman, seldom in good health, often very ill. On the other she demonstrated an iron will and an unflinching determination to do what she felt to be her duty. In spite of her handicaps she worked from early morning till evening. She was generous and kindly in the extreme but often displayed irascibility to an extent which surprised and dismayed those near to her. She had little formal education but, especially in her later life, learned men, professors in their subjects, would come and discuss problems with her and admit that she knew more about their speciality than they did. In the learned writings of such men as Huxley and Tyndall she could and did find mistakes. She did not learn English nor attempt to write it until she was forty but then she displayed a mastery of it which few could match. At this time her literary output and erudition became immense. In spite of her seeming frailty she not only travelled extensively but also went to places in the world that would have daunted many courageous explorers. She espoused the cause of spiritualism in America in the latter half of the 19th century but she herself denied being a medium, even though wherever she went spiritualistic phenomena commonly accompanied her.
All these things would have stamped H.P.B. as a very remarkable woman, particularly when one takes into account the stories of what sort of a person she was in her childhood and youth, when she always showed an indomitable self-will. She was uncontrollable and had little regard for the conventions of normal social life. She was a gifted draughts woman, producing many sketches, some of fine quality, and she was also a talented musician, playing on one occasion in a trio of pianists with Clara Schumann a programme of Schumann's music. This puzzling mixture of character traits was added to by a mysterious dichotomy of character that only an occultist could understand.
Apart from her personal characteristics mentioned above, there was another side to her which is always mentioned by those who were intimately associated with her. They felt she possessed some knowledge and power outside of normal experience. They felt that she knew more about them than they knew themselves. They valued her advice. On occasions she seemed to have a foreknowledge of what life held in store for them and always those who had aspirations towards the spiritual life or the study of Occultism (Theosophy) would eagerly take instruction from her, granting that even though she might be younger in years than they were, she was infinitely superior in such knowledge. She won loyalty and affection to a remarkable extent.
H.P.B. herself recognised and, on occasions, talked about this great distinction between her outer personality and her inner or second Self as she sometimes described it. From the point of view of this inner Self, she saw a Mme Blavatsky as nothing to be proud of, as an ailing body of non-too-prepossessing an appearance, as something which suffered both physically and emotionally quite beyond the normal. Sometimes her consciousness would be locked into that ailing body and the cruelties which the outside world inflicted on her reduced it almost to despair. Over and over again in her letters to Mr Sinnett this sad state is the subject of bitter complaint. It seems that at times her consciousness could not free itself from the terrible limitations of her earthly personality and yet it was she who gave us such sublime instruction to accomplish this.
This distinction between her personality and her indwelling second Self is demonstrated in many an anecdote in Col. Olcott's Old Diary Leaves and in other writings. There are stories of how, in periods of severe illness, her Egoic Self would be somewhere apart from her body, receiving occult instruction at the hands of her Master. To this inner Self the Master seemed a constant companion, even to the extent of his protecting her physical body from accident and injury on a number of occasions and of his curing it of acute illness.
Then we have the accounts of the Masters actually taking over her body, particularly at times when she was writing. She describes how the Masters would 'eject' her from her body. She would retain consciousness and see them take it over for the purposes of writing passages of manuscript. She mentions this particularly in the case of Isis Unveiled. Col. Olcott, who generally sat opposite her when they were working, would at such times notice a change come over H.P.B. On one such occasion he felt that H.P.B. was not working and to stimulate her to action he said, "Come on, old horse". He looked up to see consternation on the face of one of the Masters, who was surprised at the familiarity of Col. Olcott's epithet. On another occasion when he had not noticed the change in H.P.B., Col. Olcott was asked to lend his pencil. He had had a lot of experience of H.P.B.'s borrowing pencils and pens and rubbers which she did not return so he was reluctant to lend the pencil. At this juncture he looked up and saw the Master in H.P.B.'s body pick up a pencil from the pen tray and, holding it between "his" fingers, produce a dozen such pencils, much to the humiliation of Col. Olcott whose thought about not lending his pencil to H.P.B. had clearly been picked up although he had not said anything.
Making the distinction between her inner Self and her personality, H.P.B. recounts that, on one occasion, she saw what she knew to be her personality and, describing what she saw, she said that the upper part round the head was all light whereas the rest of the body was dark. She sensed that the darkness was the result of impurity. She also gave an account of how, when she was starting her occult training, she was out of her body for some seven weeks. At that time she could consciously move about, seemingly in familiar surroundings with familiar people, but she could not speak to them. It seemed to her that other people were unaware of her presence.
She describes very little of her experiences in Tibet where she certainly went for training, nor does she describe any of the instruction she received. However, there is an account of her having been to a very sacred lamasery in a remote province of China which was particularly conducive to prolonged meditation. A visitor there, another European traveller, heard that H.P.B. had in fact been to that place some years before him, and wrote to a friend to say so. His letter is extant.
With regard to H.P.B.'s powers, these were wide ranging, varying from the purely physical to the production of psychic, spiritualistic-type phenomena from the production of mayas (illusions), to mesmerism and healing. She obviously had the highest spiritual insights into the nature and functions of Cosmos, and into the individual development of her pupils.
It is little wonder that neither H.P.B. nor her teachings were understood. The latter covered too wide a range of knowledge, they were of too great a depth of insight for any normal intellectual critic to comprehend. She herself said so in so many words. It is obvious to a long-time student of her works that the reason for this is that even the most gifted and clever academic individual is operating at personality level. This means he is using the personal mind. In her inner, second Self H.P.B. could far transcend the limitations of such a mind. When she was telling her sister Vera about the writing of Isis Unveiled, she described how she was afforded an insight into virtually unlimited knowledge by her Master and then she describes how, even if the Master were not available, he made it possible for her to see for herself. She used to describe him as "he who knows all" but she also said that about her own higher Self when the Master was not available. This continuous, fully aware, totally perceptive knowing is a very different matter from painfully acquiring knowledge in the ordinary way from research and study.
There are a number of passages in theosophical classical literature which give us a clue to the nature of our Egoic Selves. They are referred to as divine or deific, as being virtually omniscient and omnipotent; they partake directly of the nature of the One Self. As far as man is concerned, they are individual entities by reason of each individual's higher manas (mind) to which the Monadic Pilgrim is attached for the whole cycle of his human incarnations. Perhaps we tend to talk rather too glibly about our own higher minds. We do not generally realize that operating at higher mind levels is of quite a different order altogether from operating at the personal mind levels. It is, of course, possible for us to have flashes of insight as we say and maybe mystical experiences but these are only flashes of the continuous state of Egoic consciousness. Perhaps also we do not realize that the only persisting contact we could have with a Master must be by Egoic consciousness and not that of our ordinary personal consciousness. As persons we may long for and aspire to such a contact with the Master but anything we would receive when operating at the personal level could only be a limited foreshadowing of the real experience. Maybe this is what is meant when the Masters say that if we would contact them we must go into their world. They have transcended the limitations of existence in personal bodies. Their consciousnesses enjoy a degree of freedom that we cannot dream of. It is this enormous distinction between Egoic consciousness and personal consciousness, between Egoic states of being and the earthly states of being, that perhaps explain the H.P.B. enigma. She herself made this distinction clearly when she wrote on the flysheet of The Voice of the Silence, "H.P.B. to H.P. Blavatsky with no kind regards".
It is this difference between personal knowledge and the omniscience of the Ego that distinguishes H.P.B.'s writings. Her great works like Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine were to a large extent 'authored' by Masters. Col. Olcott records that he was aware of some seven Masters having a hand in the writing of Isis and the two Masters Morya and Koot Hoomi claimed authorship, to a large extent, of The Secret Doctrine. This would account for the enormous erudition of both of those works. In the case of Isis there were 1339 works quoted, in the case of The Secret Doctrine almost 1200. This phenomenal number of references indicates a knowledge far out of the ordinary. It is little wonder that these two books became the source for nearly all of modern Occultism. It might almost be true to say that, apart from the Kabalistic tradition and literature, there would have been no Theosophy or modern Occultism without them. All else is a derivative of and commentary on them, of more or less reliability. It was to make available to the world this literature that H.P.B. virtually gave her life. It is almost impossible for us to imagine what that effort and sacrifice cost her as a person.
Apart from her two great works she had a great literary output which, thanks to the efforts of Boris de Zirkoff, we now have collected together into some fourteen volumes of Collected Writings in which the same knowledge is evinced. Her letters have also been collected together and will shortly be published. They too fill many volumes. All students must also be grateful to her fine summary of what Theosophy is about, The Key to Theosophy. This book explains clearly the relationship of 'eternal' Theosophy to the Theosophical Society.
Regarding the founding of the Society, to begin with it had three grades of membership: the ordinary, the Chelas, and the Masters. This made it a unique Society for the serious spiritual aspirant and would-be occultist in the best possible sense of that word. According to the oft-repeated statements of the Masters, the whole purpose of establishing the Theosophical Society was to establish the idea, and to form a nucleus of, the universal brotherhood of humanity. The first object of the Society was to create this nucleus and the two remaining objects were to support it but were secondary to it. Many members at the beginning were attracted to the Society because of H.P.B.'s connections in the early days with spiritualism which was then very much in the public eye. H.P.B. explained to the spiritualists the nature of their phenomena but they could not accept her explanations. On occasions she not only described what was going on but also she herself demonstrated a wide range of phenomena. It was as an indirect result of this that the charges of fraud were levelled against her. She was much maligned for other reasons and there is much scurrilous literature about her. There is also an extensive literature vindicating her in every detail, but those who will denigrate her will not listen.
The greatness of H.P.B. has still to be recognized by the world at large. That the world will eventually recognize her is not in doubt and humanity loses by delaying because her whole purpose was to save humanity. She explained the aim of her work in the introduction to The Secret Doctrine:
To show that Nature is not "a fortuitous concurrence of atoms", and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the universe; to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; and to uncover, to some extent, the fundamental unity from which they all sprang; and finally, to show that the occult side of Nature has never been approached by the science of modern civilisation.
She went to endless trouble with many illustrations to justify that aim. The only way it can become a reality in the world is through a knowledge of it and its acceptance by individual men. She made this abundantly clear. Perhaps it is the prime duty of every member of the Theosophical Society to work towards that end in whatever way he or she can.
For a student aspiring to knowledge of truth, H.P.B. was a shining beacon, not only by way of example but by way of the teaching she gave us. Particularly is this so in the highly condensed instruction which she gave to members of her inner group towards the end of her life. To one member of that group she dictated what has now become known as the Diagram of Meditation. With the use of this and the inspiration derived from The Voice of the Silence, a sincere seeker after spiritual enlightenment has about all the guidance that he could wish for.
Anyone who has devoted any serious attention over a prolonged period of time to trying to master what she wrote and do what she said must have had some significant experiences which will inevitably have altered the whole of his life and generated a debt of gratitude towards H.P.B. that he can never repay.
A biographer of H.P.B. must come away from the task very humble: he has been in the presence of the Mighty, the "August Ones". The nature of the woman, as a person, extraordinary as it was, might just be within his comprehension. It would, however, be sheer presumption for any of us to pretend to know H.P.B., the Initiate of considerable degree, by merely reading and using our mundane imagination, for the good reason that we are told very little of that "brilliant Augoeides". Such a one could only be known by achieving a like spiritual status, and that will take the vast majority of us many, many lifetimes.
The main source of biographical information for this article is Mary K. Neff's Personal Memoirs of H.P. Blavatsky, a book which draws on many other sources, notably Col. Olcott's Old Diary Leaves and A.P. Sinnett's Incidents in the Life of H.P. Blavatsky.The Blavatsky Trust 2012