Prior to Madame Blavatsky’s dramatic esoteric revelations about the nature of human beings and the cosmos in the late 19th Century, ideas of re-birth and reincarnation – let alone karma – were virtually unknown in the West outside narrow academic and occult circles. Until Madame Blavatsky presented her trenchant and ground-breaking ideas, the Western view of death was predominantly either atheistic annihilation or a Christian-inspired eternal afterlife languishing in paradise or a sulphurous hell.
Although ideas of reincarnation and karma remain a minority view today, belief in ideas of re-birth especially in Europe and the US have seen a seismic increase in the past half century. Immediately after World War II surveys showed at most two or three per cent of people subscribing to such ideas. Now polls even among Christians show that up to a third of people questioned belief in repeated rebirth on Earth.
Without HPB, it is unlikely that there would have been such a dramatic and relatively quick change of attitude especially in countries dominated and entrenched by Christian assertions that human souls spend only a single life in flesh and bone. Not only did she reveal great cosmic truths about the true cyclic relationship between life and death (and much else besides), she effectively globalised these ideas via the Theosophical Society and the various thought-schools it influenced.
Blavatsky, then, was the greatest destroyer of purely materialistic notions of death the Western world has ever seen.
As we know everything is cyclic – undergoing the regular and relentless process of renewal via birth, growth, maturity, decline and physical death, followed by re-configuration on the inner planes and eventually by physical re-birth and beginning the cycle all over again. This is true of everything from daisies and human beings to atoms and galaxies.
But sometimes a catalyst is required at some stage of this cycle – especially when it comes to the birth of new ideas which humanity at that point requires but doesn’t yet recognise. The eventual acceptance of radically new notions usually undergoes its own recognisable – and indeed cyclic – scenario. It normally begins with outright hostility, opposition and denial but eventually winds up as unchallengeable wisdom. However, this takes time – from a few weeks to a few centuries.
The process begins with Individual X proposing an idea which is so far ahead of its time – so radically shocking, so devastatingly ground-breaking and so absolutely threatening to existing worldviews – that the very mention of it evokes withering scepticism, implacable anger, mockery and outright rejection from virtually everyone. Only a very few people get it. But after a while a growing minority of people start to explore this fresh idea and after a while they begin to tacitly admit that, yes, there just may be something in this whacky and apparently dangerous notion after all. Years, decades or even centuries down the line the idea slowly gains wider acceptance, reaches critical mass and gradually seeps into the popular consciousness of the masses and is finally accepted as unassailable truth. After this no one imagines how we could not always have accepted this concept.
Occasionally but regularly down the corridors of history individuals appear whose ideas are so radical and so revolutionary that they challenge the very existence of the prevailing paradigms and dominant thought-forms of the age. They aren’t necessarily avatars like Buddha, Krishna or Christ but they are highly advanced individuals who are so far ahead of the game they are often perceived as mad, bad or dangerous to the secular or religious order of the time. What usually happens is that they are ridiculed, marginalised, persecuted or sometimes killed by religious authorities, by the state or by the mob. Or a combination of all three.
The extent of their genius is usually not appreciated during their life-times and often not for many decades or centuries afterwards. Socrates, Joan of Arc and Giordano Bruno paid the ultimate price for their attempts at radical innovation. Countless others have been martyred for what occupied their minds. Others fared a little better but beyond-the-horizon thinkers such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Nikolai Tesla and Steven Hawking were not always well understood by their contemporaries. And yet in the very male-dominated 19th Century the person who proved the most challenging to Western spiritual, religious and indeed scientific traditions and thought was a woman. A very remarkable individual.
I regard Helena Petrovna Blavatsky as a kind of destroying angel – zapping the cant, shattering the hypocrisy and lashing out at all the smug certainty and arrogance of that first industrial age which had reached such ascendancy by the middle of the 19th Century. Blavatsky’s chief weapons were a cosmogony and esoteric worldview so revolutionary that it literally triggered an ‘explosion of consciousness’ among the most radical thinkers and intellectuals of her day. She used her reinterpretation of the Ageless Wisdom teachings as a wrecking-ball to demolish the sacred certainties of religion and dogmatic rigidities of Victorian science. But as well as a destroyer HPB was also the ultra-synthesiser abolishing the distinctions and traditional demarcation lines between religion, philosophy and science.
She did more than anyone to revivify and enhance the Western Esoteric tradition with a series of timeless universal principles about deity, cosmos and man. She was to some a wicked and to others a welcome messenger despatched to a world mired in materialistic excess and religious unravelling.
Almost a century and a half later these ideas still remain far off the radar for most people, although the broad brush-strokes continue to slowly permeate mass consciousness.
Given her immense influence Madame Blavatsky should be far better known in the modern world than she is. By resurrecting the Ageless Wisdom teachings in the West, she not only helped create and shape large swathes of contemporary esoteric thought, she effectively re-defined notions of spirituality itself. Although incomprehensible to 99.99 per cent of humanity, her monumental work The Secret Doctrine has never been out of print in all the 130 years since its first publication. This hasn’t, of course, made it any easier to understand but its status as the modern esoteric bible and blueprint for an emerging 21st Century spiritual rebellion remains unchallenged.
Many intelligent and educated people you speak to have a vague notion of who Blavatsky was but the impression they retain tends to be confused and usually sceptical or negative. ‘She was a fraud. She was an impostor. She was a black magician.’ Other supposedly knowledgeable people have never heard of her. ‘Did she win the Eurovision Song Contest for Latvia?’ they ask you. Very few people recognise the enormous contribution she made in offering fresh but timeless explanations for the composition and workings of the universe and its many different classes of inhabitants.
Blavatsky is often described as the godmother of the New Age – and this is a very apt appraisal. As we know, she never enjoyed an easy ride. But in order to pave the way for esoteric ideas and occult propositions which were so far beyond the most distant horizon for the vast majority of people in the West at the time, she also had to adopt an often highly controversial role. Fortunately Blavatsky wasn’t in the business of winning popularity contests. Luckily, she wasn’t usually too choosy about whom she offended and no one was immune – especially those in her closest circles. She became a weaponised force for wisdom even though she sometimes spoke like a fish-wife.
And in stark contradiction to today’s fluffy and often passive notions about spirituality Blavatsky – despite her various disabilities and ailments – was a determined woman of action. She was prepared to take up arms and engage in a fight she believed to be just – whether physical or metaphysical. And she had the bullet wounds to prove it. Today’s Theosophists tend not to be anything like as adventurous – and indeed a passivity prevails amongst us which the old woman herself would have found repugnant. However, we live in far more dumbed down times than in her day and humanity’s attention span and capacity for concentration have shrunk alarmingly.
Regarded by some as the woman who rescued and reinterpreted the Ageless Wisdom tradition, she is still viewed by others today with deep suspicion and branded as a fraudulent charlatan. Her ideas have slowly permeated beyond narrow occult groups and into wider public consciousness – ideas that life is everywhere and that we live in a conscious, inter-connected, evolving and eternal universe. These are not yet the factory setting for the human mind-set but over coming generations they will be.
Blavatsky was a true seeker spending decades wandering across Asia, Europe, Africa and The Americas – a remarkable feat for anyone at that time but unprecedented for a rebellious Russian noblewoman. She had no academic qualifications whatsoever – just a life of visceral experience penetrating previously impervious mysteries.
As we know, she had a great many adversaries, enemies and critics who unceasingly tried to attack, ridicule and undermine her work. Given the rigidity of 19th Century Western notions of spirituality, this was inevitable. Her resilience in facing down her many opponents became legendary and this tough, no nonsense approach is something I also find deeply appealing along with her persistence and sheer determination.
I first encountered Madame Blavatsky as a teenager. I found The Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled lurking on those obscure shelves of my local library which are rarely visited. Although my initial dalliance with her was brief and unconsummated, I’ve always been an enormous admirer of this highly unconventional woman – precisely because of her ability and willingness to offend, to promote free speech and to generally stretch the boundaries of human potential, especially as far as consciousness is concerned. All these things are even more essential in our chaotic and conflicted world today where every freedom is under attack.
My fascination with her continues but I don’t regard her as some demagogic messenger whose unchallengeable words are carved in stone and who should be regularly worshipped like some deified idol.
Blavatsky was the first to admit that she had only lifted a tiny corner of that veil shrouding the hitherto secret esoteric knowledge preserved by a few advanced initiates down the long and winding corridors of history. Blavatsky was an important pioneer and a fearless pathfinder on the way but we should never regard hers as the final word on any matter because there is no final word. Blavatsky herself would be appalled and deeply angered by the way she has sometimes been fetishized by certain theosophists who shrilly assert that everything that came after her is bogus, neo-Theosophy which somehow offends her sacred words. It is this rigid interpretation of HPB’s works – as it is with literal interpretations of holy scriptures such as The Koran or The Bible – which promotes narrow-mindedness and ossified thought. This is very dangerous in a world becoming more dangerous by the day. Rigidity of thought was always in the cross-hairs of Blavatsky’s sniper rifle.
You have to say that Blavatsky was a most unlikely role model for the greatest esoteric innovator of the past few centuries. She was an agitator, an idealist and a deeply-flawed person – and it’s this latter character trait that I possibly admire the most. She was the grand iconoclast of her day slashing away at the scientific, social and religious prejudices and practises. She was the slayer of the unreal and arguably the greatest psycho-spiritual anarchist to incarnate on this planet for centuries. You don’t get all that many people like her in a millennium.
Blavatsky was usually in the business of brutally challenging prevailing 19th Century notions about almost everything – the dominant social order, education, politics, diet and money – and many other things besides. But more importantly she ripped away the accepted orthodoxies of who we are as human beings, where our distant origins lie, why we are here and the kind of adventure we are on.
One of Blavatsky’s chief missions was to destroy the very idea of death as oblivion, annihilation or cessation of existence. Blavatsky was familiar with death. It had often brushed past her.
On numerous occasions throughout her life from childhood onwards this Russian noblewoman frequently diced with death but mysteriously manage to dodge it until her frail body finally succumbed to its imperfections in 1891.
Those familiar with Blavatsky’s life and the circumstances of the time are aware that at the 75 year mark of any century the hidden guides of the race make special efforts to ‘enlighten’ the ignorant western world. Before Blavatsky was selected for her world mission The Masters had been engaged for ‘nearly a century’ in a forlorn and fruitless search for a suitable individual to carry out this task.
From her earliest days there appears to be persuasive evidence that she was under the guardianship and protection of the Himalayan adepts. When she was baptised at only a few hours old because it was feared she wouldn’t survive the officiating priest’s robes caught fire and the ceremony had to be hastily abandoned. That proved to be something of an omen for a remarkable life that was to follow.
As a young child at her grandparents’ home curiosity got the better of her and she was determined to look at a picture hanging high on the wall covered with a curtain. She first dragged a table in front of the picture but when she still couldn’t reach it, she precariously placed a chair on top of that and clambered up. When she pulled the curtain aside the chair slid away and she tumbled to the floor. But rather than being hurt there was some invisible intervention in which unseen arms grasped her and laid her on the carpet. When she opened her eyes both the table and chair were back in place. High on the wall beside the curtain was her tiny handprint.
A similar rescue from serious injury or death came when she was a teenager out riding. Her foot got caught in the stirrups but unseen hands again intervened and the horse was reined in.
Similar incidents continued. In May 1848 she narrowly escaped being engulfed by an avalanche in Russia. She survived two ship-wrecks. The first was in 1851 when the SS Gwalior sank off the Cape of Good Hope. She was one of twenty survivors. Almost two decades later she was sailing on the SS Eunomia off the Greek coast when its supply of gunpowder exploded and the ship sank. Again she was one of a handful of survivors. In another episode she was rescued from a remote desert by twenty-five horsemen summoned by a shaman accompanying her and later given a fever-cure in Burma during an epidemic.
But it wasn’t only marine and equestrian incidents which she survived. She was cured from a number of serious illnesses. In 1859 in St Petersburg she contracted a critical illness. A wound appeared near her heart and she was in a death-like coma for four days before mysteriously recovering. Five years later a similar incident occurred. Madame Blavatsky was diagnosed by a Russian doctor to be near death but inexplicably recovered. Shortly after this she was thrown from a horse, fractured her spine but recovered.
One of Blavatsky’s most dramatic and colourful brushes with death came in 1867 when she was embroiled in the Battle of Mentana in Italy between Garibaldi’s red shirts and the French and was wounded five times. Her left arm was broken in two places by a sabre and she was shot in the shoulder and leg. Another unexplained and highly mysterious recovery.
After two separate injuries to her leg in early 1875 in New York it became paralysed, black and swollen to twice its size in May and there were fears it would have to be amputated. Again death had no dominion and she survived.
There were two other noteworthy incidents which should have been fatal but weren’t. In Adyar in 1885 she was revived from serious illness by occult means – ‘thanks to the Master’s protecting hand’, to quote her own words. When writing The Secret Doctrine in Ostend in early 1887 a kidney infection became so severe that consular officials actually prepared for her death. This was the famous incident when her Master appeared and offered her the stark choice of finishing her monumental work or departing from the physical plane.
It is believed that much of Blavatsky’s illness resulted from her prolonged and rigorous occult training by adepts in Tibet. We are told that she left one of her seven vehicles behind on the roof of the world to ‘preserve the link’ with her instructors but also as a guarantee to ensure that certain secrets were not divulged.
So the prospect of death was no mere dry theory for her. It had been intimately and regularly interwoven into the fabric of her life.
Blavatsky certainly challenged the widely-held notions of a personal, anthropomorphic God – a subtle blend of wrathful and vengeful deity along with an imperious emperor-like authority figure on a throne. And she did her very best to assure humanity that God was more of a universal consciousness than sadistic cosmic overlord intent on making you suffer.
While revering aspects of some religions – principally Eastern ones – she savaged many aspects of Christianity for its shallow double-speak and ignorance. She railed against the rigours, rituals, bigotry and hypocrisy of what she sarcastically called Churchianity. In her mission to disseminate and promote the occult ideas and esoteric teachings she had acquired during her decades of world travel she fundamentally called into question every single word of the Christian creed and its doctrines or lack of them – about the human constitution and evolution. And about death.
From her teenage years and that early, disastrous and unconsummated marriage to Colonel Blavatsky, this headstrong and highly unconventional Russian aristocrat was well aware of her life’s mission.
(However imperfect she may have been, she was still apparently the best vehicle for this newly-created post of arcane agitator available to the adepts of the race at that time. That doesn’t speak highly of the quality of those in incarnation at that period of history.)
Blavatsky radically re-defined the soul in a cohesive and comprehensive way never seen before in the West. It both challenged and humbled traditional and predominantly fuzzy Christian notions of a use-only-once soul destined for an eternity languishing at God’s right hand or smouldering infinitely in the hot wastes of hell.
Her ideas not only provided a stark challenge to these amorphous, illogical and extremely vague Christian assertions about an afterlife, they made them seem ridiculous. Perhaps more importantly she introduced the idea of a continuity of existence in and out of physical form – an idea incomprehensible to virtually everyone in the West at the time. She provided clarity and coherence to the concept of humans as increasingly conscious, self-evolving entities not subordinate to a whimsically pugnacious God – but free to roam the planes of existence while moulded and directed by their own karma. Humans, she insisted, are in charge of their own growth and destiny – part of the unfoldment of a grand plan whose scope and ultimate purpose we cannot yet possibly comprehend.
Blavatsky was well aware that Christianity had lost its way a millennium and a half earlier when its original notions of reincarnation were outlawed. In the centuries leading up to the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE, Christianity effectively called time on the Ageless Wisdom tradition by denying and subverting one of the most sublime eternal truths: that for members of humanity there is no death in terms of annihilation, extinction or oblivion. There is merely a shedding of the physical form and an ensuing change of state and consciousness. The early Church fathers didn’t want you to know that.
But let’s not forget that the Catholic Church was effectively the sole successor and benefactor controlling the legacy of the Roman Empire, inheriting all its authoritarianism, hierarchical control and disregard of human beings’ true make-up and destiny. And, of course, its huge capacity to inflict suffering on those who are perceived as enemies.
Blavatsky re-defined life and therefore she re-defined death, too. This was arguably her greatest triumph. She was the killer of illusion and therefore the destroyer of death as it was – and still largely is – understood by the mass mind. She insisted that there was no dead matter or empty space – simply abundant life in every nook and cranny of an eternal and boundless universe constantly in motion as it evolves in cyclic symmetry with periodic set-backs.
Her ideas were rare, slow-growing seeds disseminated only very gradually and which remain extremely exotic. Unlike religious dogma these seeds are neither weeds nor invasive species. Nevertheless, she was effectively the individual who first globalised these Ageless Wisdom ideas and timeless truths in the modern era.
Some of her ideas have very slowly permeated the heavily prejudiced minds of a few Judaeo-Christians and materialists but the majority remain immune to them. Apart from anything else, studying Blavatsky involves a degree of mental effort which is a turn-off for most people today. Nevertheless, these ideas are continuing to gain traction as increasing numbers of people forsake the churches and pursue alternative spiritual paths unshackled by dead doctrine, false promises and empty ritual. A century and a quarter after this troubled and turbulent lady exited the physical plane, her paradigm-shifting notions have given hope to an expanding minority of intelligent and free-thinking individuals.
Reliable surveys across the Western world reveal that growing numbers of people regard themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Even in the still heavily Christianised United States a survey by the Pew Foundation found that the number of people in this category increasing from 21 per cent to 27 per cent in just five years.
Other surveys show progressive changes to people’s beliefs about an afterlife and even reincarnation. After the Second World War polls showed only a tiny fraction of people being aware of – let alone believing in such things. Modern surveys show that there has been a sea-change with a much more sophisticated view of what happens in the post-mortem world and far greater acceptance of re-birth tempered by past behaviour – i.e. reincarnation and karma.
Blavatsky was right about one thing. Despite her many reservations and protestations against the ultra-materialistic science of her day, she retained the belief that science would still prove to be Theosophy’s best ally in revealing the secrets of the cosmos as well as human beings’ constitution and ultimate destiny. Since her departure from the physical world more than a century and a quarter ago there has been a painfully slow convergence of science and spirituality. Quantum physics and particle theory have gradually put paid to notions of a Newtonian clockwork universe filled with the icy wastes and dead empty expanses of space. But not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. Science still retains its myths and superstitions – a gravity- rather than electric-driven universe, The Big Bang and the incomplete theories of Darwinian evolution.
And yet if Blavatsky was able to introduce the means to debunk death, surely her many other assertions about the nature of reality will start to trickle through the concrete walls of science – eventually. It seems that HPB’s DNA will continue to flow through the arteries of history.