Monday, June 03, 2013

Madame Blavatsky, Messenger from the Mahatmas

An excerpt from the section on the history of 19th century metaphysics in my forthcoming book, Metaphysical Odyssey Into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual:

Madame Blavatsky, Messenger from the Mahatmas
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
As Don Evaristo Madero cast his massive shadow over northern Mexico, so Helena Petrovna Blavatsky cast hers over metaphysically-minded Western civilization, that is to say, Europe, England, Australia, and the Americas, for she was the monumental figure of modern esotericism. (Not that that those two ever met. I am quite sure that if they had, any crockery in the vicinity would have exploded.)
She was fat and her eyes bulged. She swore like a stevedore, her tobacco was cheap, and the flower pots around her piled up with stubs. Madame Blavatsky had left her husband in Russia, first breaking a candlestick over his head, and then, before arriving to settle for a spell in New York, traveled to Central America, all over Europe, several times to Egypt (where, among other exploits, she disguised herself as a Muslim man and studied Coptic magic), and twice trekked into Tibet to attend a secret school led by enlighted sages called “mahatmas,” or “Great White Brothers.” She also claimed that, after her return to the West, she remained in telepathic communication with the mahatmas, who could also travel anywhere on earth and the universe by means of their astral bodies. 
A psychic medium and self-styled scholar, Madam Blavatsky exuded a charisma impossible to fathom. Her presence seemed to occasion fires, raps, knocks, tables rising from the floor, and messages in golden ink from the mahatmas dropping out of thin air. Her fellow Theosophist William Quan Judge recalled “marvels wholly unexplainable on the theory of jugglery,” including little orbs creeping over the furniture in her apartment in New York City and, as she sat in the parlor, a spoon flying into her hand all the way from the kitchen.
In a word, Madame Blavatsky made Cagliostro look like a pipqueak and Monsieur Kardec, for all his spirit world adventures via teenaged mediums, thoroughly bourgeois. 
For Madame Blavatsky, there were higher truths than Christianity and Spiritualism and its Johnny-come-lately offshoot, Spiritism; the Orient, wellspring of Buddhism and Hinduism, was the authentic source of spiritual knowledge. 
Now, to take an orbit-worthy leap over novel-length episodes—among them, Blavatsky’s meeting with Col. Henry Steel Olcott in the Vermont farmhouse of the Eddy brothers, mediums who brought forth such shades of the dead as a giant Winnebago chief, a squaw with her pet flying squirrel, and a naval officer in full dress with a sword— Blavatsky and Olcott founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. Not a religion, it was an association to promote religious universality, and that included Buddhism and Hinduism— which, as one might imagine, would not endear them to Christian missionaries and many of the colonial authorities. 
Our young Mexican Spiritist never joined, but he, like many outstanding figures whom we remember today, from inventor Thomas Edison to Paul Gaugin, novelist D.H. Lawrence and poet W.B. Yeats, and the leader of India’s independence movement, Mohandas Gandhi, were influenced by Madame Blavatsky, and, as we shall see in Madero’s case especially—  and crucially— the Theosophists’ enthusiasm for the Hindu wisdom book, The Bhagavad Gita. 
So before spiraling on to Mexico, we must slow for a moment to pack into another nutshell another ouevre. 
Blavatsky’s first book, Isis Unveiled, published in 1877 and still in print, was inspired, she claimed, by the mahatmas and is nothing less than, as the subtitle says, the Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. A decade later, in 1888, after she and Olcott had stirred up a Buddhist revival in Ceylon and removed the headquarters of the Theosophical Society to Adyar, near Madras in India, Blavatsky published her massive two volume The Secret Doctrine, also still in print, which provides the spiritual history of the cosmos and human life based on the stanzas of the Dyzan.
The first:
Another, number 40, plucked at random: 
No one had heard of the Dyzan, nor has any scholar yet found it. Blavatsky claimed that it was part of the commentary esoteric literature of Tibetan Buddhism and that she had memorized the stanzas as given to by her teacher in North India and Tibet, where she first arrived in the 1850s. That she, a European woman traveling solo, made it into Tibet at all might sound preposterous if not for the fact that, among other sightings, one Captain Charles Murray of the Bengal Army encountered her on the Sikkim border. According to Michael Gomes, editor of the abridged version of The Secret Doctrine, esoteric scholars have noted similarities of these stanzas to the literature of the Kalachakra, or “Wheel of Time,” the ancient Tibetan Buddhist esoteric scripture blending Hindu and Buddhist ideas. And the Kalachakra, by the way, is a living idea. A quick google search brought up a lengthy discussion by His Holiness the Dalai Lama on his website,, and a video tour of the fabulously intricate 3D structure of the Kalachakra Mandala, a visual representation of the teachings, made in honor of the Dalai Lama’s 2007 visit to Cornell University, at  . (With the low-voiced chanting and clanging, it is all very wonderfully mesmerizing.)
What to conclude about the Dyzan? I am not planning to get a PhD in Tibetan Buddhist studies (not in this lifetime anyway), but I can stretch so far as to agree with Gomes, who concludes that, “[f]act or fiction, the stanzas [of the Dyzan] provide one of the greatest mythos of our time, whose influence on modern esotericism is undeniable.”

Copyright C.M. Mayo all rights reserved.

***UPDATE: Read W. B. Yeats on Madame Blavatsky in The Trembling of the Veil-- very amusing. Includes a link to the free ebook.

>>Read another excerpt, Enter Allan Kardec, Chef du Spiritsme

P.S. As a result of this unexpectedly Mount Everest-esque project, and a laptop crash, I have fallen woefully behind on the Marfa Mondays podcasts. But stay tuned... three fascinating interviews are almost ready to go: Dallas Baxter, founding editor of Cenizo Journal; Enrique Madrid of Redfern; and historian John Tutino, author of the magnificent Making a New World, are all almost ready to go. (Eleven posted so far, 13 to go.) 

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

***UPDATE: Excellent and fascinating interview with Blavatsky expert Michael Gomes.