- Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
- (Hahn)(1831–1891)cofounder of the Theosophical SocietyBetter known by her initials, H.P.B., Helena Bla-vatsky was one of the most influential 19th-cen-tury writers in the fields of Theosophy and the occult. As cofounder of the Theosophical Society and frequent visitor to India, she also provoked wide popular interest in the religious traditions of India.Born in Ekaterinoslav, Russia (now Dnepro-petrovsk, Ukraine), on July 30, 1831, Blavatsky grew up in an affluent Russian family in which the occult and supernatural were not unknown. Birla Mandir, a temple devoted to Vishnu, is an example of a modern Hindu temple in Delhi, India. (Constance A. Jones)As a teenager, she did automatic writing. Her mother died when Blavatsky was 12 years old and she went to live with her grandfather. At 16 she married General N. V. Blavatsky; however, claim-ing that marriage did not accommodate her “free spirit,” she left her husband and took residence in Constantinople.The trip to Turkey was the start of almost two decades of extensive travel, taking her to Egypt, England, India, and (it was claimed) Tibet. She traveled around the world twice in the decade 1851–61, continuing her investigations in the occult, mediumship, and spiritualism. She founded a spiritualist society in 1871 in Cairo, but the organization failed almost immediately as a result of some members’ assumptions that H.P.B. had produced occult phenomena fraudulently.H.P.B. arrived in New York in 1873 and quickly became familiar with American spiritual-ism. She met the Eddy brothers, mediums who conducted materialization seances. While visit-ing Vermont to demonstrate her own abilities at materialization along with the Eddy brothers, she met Henry Steel Olcott. In 1875, she and Olcott were joined by the lawyer William Q. Judge to found the Theosophical Society in New York City. She began to research and write her first book, Isis Unveiled, published in 1877.To H.P.B., Theosophy superseded spiritual-ism. Whereas spiritualism claimed contact with spirits of the ordinary dead, she contacted the masters or mahatmas, teachers of occult wisdom who resided in elevated planes. She appeared to receive messages on paper from the mahatmas, which arrived, as if from the sky or from within a specially constructed cabinet, at the Theosophical headquarters. The source of the “letters from the mahatmas” continues to be debated—were they created by H.P.B. or delivered from the psychic realm?H.P.B. and Olcott moved to India in 1878. The following year they began publishing The The-osophist magazine. A donation of land at Adyar near Madras (Chennai) in 1882 allowed them to establish a center, which still conducts education programs and retreats for members of the Theo-sophical Society.After securing the land for the Theosophical Society, H.P.B. returned to London, where in 1884 she demonstrated her powers before the Society for Psychical Research. The viewers were impressed. However, her assistant in India, Emma Cutting Coulomb, destroyed this favorable impression by charging that H.P.B.’s abilities were fraudulent. In 1885, the society commissioned Richard Hodgson to investigate the charges. His report concluded that she was indeed an accomplished fraud.While attempting to live down the scandal, H.P.B. took up residence in Germany after 1885 and returned to London in 1887. Her major work, The Secret Doctrine, was written there and pub-lished in 1889. It remains one of the most influen-tial occult works to appear in the West. Blavatsky died in England on May 8, 1891. Her most famous disciple, Annie BESANT, who became a convert to THEOSOPHY after reading H.P.B.’s work, succeeded her as head of the Theosophical Society.Further reading: Blavatsky, H. P., Collected Writings, 2 vols. (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Press, 1950–1991); ———, Isis Unveiled (New York: J. W. Bouton, 1877); ———, The Key to Theosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1889); ———, The Secret Doc-trine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy (London: Theosophical Publishing Company, 1888); Robert S. Ellwood, Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); Iverson L. Harris, Mme. Bla-vatsky Defended (San Diego, Calif.: Point Loma, 1971); Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky: The Woman behind the Myth (New York: Putnam, 1980); Howard Murphet, When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petro-vna Blavatsky (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975); Charles J. Ryan, H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement (Pasadena, Calif.: Theosophical University Press, 1975); Gertrude Marvin Williams, Priestess of the Occult: Madame Blavatsky (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1946).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.