Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB to her followers) was a controversial 19th century medium, psychic, author and co-founder of the Theosophical Society. She claimed to be in contact with the ‘The Masters’, astral beings of great psychic powers who bestowed upon her the ancient secret science of Theosophy. The society grew from a modest start in 1875 to become a multi-national organization with thousands of members and branches that still exist today.
So who was this mysterious woman, chased by scandal her entire life? Blavatsky was born Helena von Hahn in Ukraine 1831. At 17, her family married her off to Governor Blavatsky, an imperious man over 20 years her senior. After 3 months, she took one of his horses and left him; keeping his name, however, for the rest of her life.
At age 20 in London, she claims to have met a ‘Master,’ a tall, handsome Indian prince named Morya. She says he recruited her on a ‘Great Mission’ to help all of humanity. She began to study Eastern mysticism and slowly gained a reputation in England as a spirit medium, claiming both telepathy and telekinesis as well.
In 1868, Blavatsky travelled to Tibet where she claimed her Master Morya took her to the mythical city of Shamballah in the Himalayas.
There she met many other ‘Masters,’ astral beings with great psychic powers, including the immortal Count of Saint-Germain. Blavatsky said the Masters bestowed upon her the ‘Sacred Secret Sciences.’
As one would expect, suspicion and scandal followed such a person. In Egypt, she formed the Societe Spirite. But after repeated accusations of swindling and bogus phenomena, officials forced them to disband and leave Cairo, else face arrest. Unperturbed, Blavatsky simply moved elsewhere.
At age 42, she said Master Morya sent her to America in 1873. Blavatsky’s reputation as a medium grew rapidly in New York City as she began writing in various spiritualist periodicals. She married again, to Michael Betanelly to gain U.S. citizenship. Similar to her first marriage, they separated after 4 months. She claimed neither marriage was ever consummated and she remained caste her entire life.
A year later, she met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a lawyer investigating the occult, not as a skeptic, but as a believer. Blavatsky so impressed Olcott with her psychic abilities and mystical knowledge they became business partners. Together they co-founded the Theosophical Society. Theosophy, or Divine Wisdom, is a mystic philosophy believing in ‘ancient secrets’ including cosmic evolution, spiritual planes, and universal religion.
She wrote her first book, Isis Unveiled claiming it was copied (not written) with ‘her hand in the astral light.’
It was reviewed by most newspapers of the day as’ transcendental nonsense.’ Nevertheless, the first printing sold out and it help spread Theosophy beyond US borders. Blavatsky and Olcott moved the Society headquarters to Madras in 1878.
In India, they were less than welcomed, but managed to publish a monthly magazine, The Theosophist. At their new headquarters, the Ascended Masters supposedly visited Blavatsky in their ‘higher astral non-corporeal state’ at a shrine built on the roof, where she could contact the Masters daily via her astral writings.
Blavatsky was now 51 and her health began to deteriorate in the intense Indian heat. In London, the Royal Academy formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to scientifically investigate paranormal phenomena. Two TS employees declared Blavatsky a fraud who used slight of hand and trap doors to fool its members. They said the Masters were her complete invention with which she duped a gullible Olcott.
The Theosophical Society thus became a target of the SPR. Olcott welcomed an investigation in order to defend Theosophy. Saying the Indian climate was causing her health to fail, Blavatsky left India for the last time.
In 1885, the Society for Psychical Research issued a stinging report.
“For our part we regard her neither as a mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor a vulgar adventuress. We think she is one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.’ The SPR considered the Masters a Blavatsky fabrication aided and abetted by confederates. All her psychic phenomena were various forms of deception, helped by the credulity of dupes like Olcott.
Never one to be slowed by scandal, Blavatsky carried on, returning to London and with the help of the British society, started a second magazine, Lucifer (Lightbearer). A rift began to form between between Olcott, still in India, and the British branch of the TS.
In London, Blavatsky finished her second and third books, The Secret Doctrine and The Key to Theosophy. She also launched an attack against Christian churches. ‘Only Theosophy,’ she decreed, ‘offered the secret doctrine that lay hidden beneath all earthly religions.’ Needless to say, both clergy and scientists rose up against her.
In the U.S., the New York Sun resurrected the old accusations from Egypt and reported the results of the SPR. This included a brand new charge of plagiarism. The article stated Blavatsky stole much of the material in her three books from existing Buddhist and Hindu texts. The TS promptly sued the newspaper which reported:
‘The ingredients of a successful charlatan are having no conscience, some brains, much courage, corrosive selfishness, vainglorious ambition, and monumental audacity. Blavatsky has all these.’
In 1891, Blavatsky came down with severe influenza.
Already suffering from a weak heart, rheumatism and Bright’s disease, she passed away on May 8th at only 60. Her detractors consider her one of the most successful charlatans of the 19th century. Her Theosophy supporters believe her one of their founding saints.
Regardless of your personal beliefs, Madame Blavatsky managed to lead an international organization in an age when very few women wielded such power. Say what you will about Blavatsky and her followers, but if chicanery was their only sin, it pales in comparison to today’s modern New Age Cults.