Blavatsky herself, I find was quite articulate in stating her case and a lot of the common critiques and misconceptions about her had already been addressed by her in her own writings, which unfortunately, I think, tend to be overlooked. One of her most philosophical and straightforward, that I would like to propose is:
Philosophers and Philosophicules, Lucifer, Vol. 5, No. 26, October, 1889
I has all the hallmarks of her colorful, eloquent style, with a certain amount of erudition, below are a few samples:
Our age is regarded as being pre-eminently critical: an age which analyses closely, and whose public refuses to accept anything offered for its consideration before it has fully scrutinized the subject. Such is the boast of our century; but such is not quite the opinion of the impartial observer. At all events it is an opinion highly exaggerated since this boasted analytical scrutiny is applied only to that which interferes in no way with national, social, or personal prejudices. On the other hand everything that is malevolent, destructive to reputation, wicked and slanderous, is received with open embrace, accepted joyfully, and made the subject of everlasting public gossip, without any scrutiny or the slightest hesitation, but verily on a blind faith of the most elastic kind. We challenge contradiction on this point. Neither unpopular characters nor their work are judged in our day on their intrinsic value, but merely on their author’s personality and the prejudiced opinion thereon of the masses. In many journals no literary work of a Theosophist can ever hope to be reviewed on its own merits, apart from the gossip about its author. Such papers, oblivious of the rule first laid down by Aristotle, who says that criticism is “a standard of judging well,” refuse point blank to accept any Theosophical book apart from its writer. As a first result, the former is judged by the distorted reflection of the latter created by slander repeated in the daily papers. The personality of the writer hangs like a dark shadow between the opinion of the modern journalist and unvarnished truth; and as a final result there are few editors in all Europe and America who know anything of our Society’s tenets.
How long, O radiant gods of truth, how long shall this terrible mental cecity of the nineteenth century Philosophists last? How much longer are they to be told that Theosophy is no national property, no religion, but only the universal code of science and the most transcendental ethics that was ever known; that it lies at the root of every moral philosophy and religion; and that neither Theosophy per se, nor yet its humble unworthy vehicle, the Theosophical Society, has anything whatever to do with any personality or personalities! To identify it with these is to show oneself sadly defective in logic and even common sense. To reject the teaching and its philosophy under the pretext that its leaders, or rather one of its Founders, lies under various accusations (so far unproven) is silly, illogical and absurd. It is, in truth, as ridiculous as it would have been in the days of the Alexandrian school of Neo-Platonism, which was in its essence Theosophy, to reject its teachings, because it came to Plato from Socrates, and because the sage of Athens, besides his pug-nose and bald head, was accused of “blasphemy and of corrupting the youth.”
Another of Blavatsky’s own writings that I would like to suggest, where she herself responds to specific critiques and misconceptions, is Is Theosophy a Religion?, Lucifer, November 1988 – I think it gives a good idea of how she is very concerned about the problem of dogmatism and sectarianism in religion, and how iconoclastic her stance was, how inclusive her perspective and her stance on religion, science and spiritualism:
“true Religion /Is always mild, propitious and humble;/Plays not the tyrant, plants no faith in blood, /Nor bears destruction on her chariot wheels; / But stoops to polish, succour and redress,/ And builds her grandeur on the public good.
The above is a correct definition of what true theosophy is, or ought to be. (Among the creeds Buddhism alone is such a true heart-binding and men-binding philosophy, because it is not a dogmatic religion. ) In this respect, as it is the duty and task of every genuine theosophist to accept and carry out these principles, Theosophy is RELIGION, and the Society its one Universal Church; the temple of Solomon’s wisdom,* in building which “there was neither hammer, nor axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the house while it was building” (I Kings, vi.); for this “temple” is made by no human hand, nor built in any locality on earth–but, verily, is raised only in the inner sanctuary of man’s heart wherein reigns alone the awakened soul.”
“Thus, if theosophy does no more than point out and seriously draw the attention of the world to the fact that the supposed disagreement between religion and science is conditioned, on the one hand by the intelligent materialists rightly kicking against absurd human dogmas, and on the other by blind fanatics and interested churchmen who, instead of defending the souls of mankind, fight simply tooth and nail for their personal bread and butter and authority–why, even then, theosophy will prove itself the saviour of mankind.”
One could summarize by saying the source of all the hyper negative literature on Blavatsky stems from four sources:
1- The Coulomb affair, which resulted in Hodgson’s Society for Psychical Research report (SPR).
2- the Coleman plagiarism allegations, with an article reproduced in the Soloviov book;
3- and the Coues affair, which resulted in an article in the New York Sun.
4- The Soloviov affair, which resulted in the book, A Modern Priestess of Isis, published by the SPR.
The cases, moreover were inter-related, with various parties collaborating with others.
The Coulomb / SPR affair
This incident was sparked by the publication, in the Christian College magazine, of letters allegedly by Blavatsky to Emma and Coulomb. This lead to the oft-cited investigation and report by the Society for Psychic Research. Vernon Harrison would eventually re-visit the case, and convincingly argues that the original report had serious flaws and was seriously biased. He writes:
“I cannot exonerate the SPR committee from blame for publishing this thoroughly bad report. They seem to have done little more than rubber-stamp Hodgson’s opinions; and no serious attempt was made to check his findings or even to read his report critically. If they had done so (…) the case would have been referred back for further study. Madame H. P. Blavatsky was the most important occultist ever to appear before the SPR for investigation; and never was opportunity so wasted.”
This incident inaugurated the problem of forged letters. Various cases of discovered forged letters would recur over the years. On the Coulomb letters, she comments:
“. . . I have to say that the letters purporting to have been written by me are certainly not mine. Sentences here and there I recognize, taken from old notes of mine on different matters, but they are mingled with interpolations that entirely pervert their meaning. With these exceptions the whole of the letters are a fabrication.
The fabricators must have been grossly ignorant of Indian affairs, since they make me speak of a “Maharajah of Lahore,” when every Indian schoolboy knows that no such person exists” (Sinnett, Incidents in the Life of Helena P Blavatsky, 289).
M. L. Dramard gives a pretty fair description as to the contents :
‘’The compromising passages are of an entirely different style throughout. Madame Blavatsky’s prose is vivacious, impulsive, not squeamish by any means — hardly enough so — the ideas are large, elevated, and, although the utmost fervor is revealed, delicate as amber, notwithstanding her frequent irrelevancies in whatever aim she is following. Now the compromising passages are sickening platitudes, such as a cook would write to his master’s valet to arrange some smart business deal. These passages, which are after all very few, are obviously the work of a forger. —,, (Contributions to the History of The Theosophical Society in France, by C. Blech, 166)
One can read Blavatsky’s own testimony to these issues, for example in letter 46 of her collections of letters to Sinnett:
Moreover, Blavatsky herself gave a thorough commentary on the SPR report in her own inimitable style and sent it to them:
William Emmette Coleman wrote some articles denouncing Blavatsky as a plagiarist and some of them were included in the Soloviov /SPR book. His claims are however problematic on several counts. Sylvia Cranston details the problems in her biography of Blavatsky:
“HPB’s so-called plagiarism is a practice followed by practically every author who publishes the fruits of his research – even by Coleman himself. To understand the foregoing, one must be able to distinguish between primary sources and secondary sources. If you were to quote from an Emerson essay, for example, that essay would be your primary source. If, however, you quote Emerson quoting Shakespeare, that portion of Emerson’s essay would be called your secondary source. In Coleman’s view, you must credit right then and there – in a footnote or endnote – not only Shakespeare, but the secondary plagiarism, for you are misleading your readers into thinking you yourself found the reference in the works of Shakespeare. However, citing only primary sources is a legitimate practice that most authors of scholarship follow all the time. In Isis Unveiled, HPB frequently gave credit to the original author but not to the secondary source.”
Blavatsky addresses the allegations in her article, “My Books”:
‘’But, as Isis is now attacked for at least the tenth time, the day has come when my perplexed friends and that portion of the public which may be in sympathy with Theosophy, are entitled to the whole truth–and nothing but the truth. Not that I seek to excuse myself in anything even before them or to “explain things.” It is nothing of the kind. What I am determined to do is to give facts, undeniable and not to be gainsaid, simply by stating the peculiar, well known to many but now almost forgotten, circumstances, under which I wrote my first English work. I give them seriatim.’’
A questionable article by Elliott Coues (an ex-member of the Theosophical Society), appeared in the New York Sun. Blavatsky was prepared to take Coues to court for slander. However she passed away before the case could come to court. The post below outlines the issues with Coues’ credibility:
As the article notes:
“A year after her death the Sun published a long sketch of her life by Judge as a corrective to Coues’ statements, adding: “we desire to say that his allegations respecting the Theosophical Society and Mr. Judge personally are not sustained by evidence, and should not have been printed.”
Probably the most misleading work is Solovyov’s Modern Priestess of Isis ; the main source for most of the controversial claims that appear in the popular mainstream esoteric publications.
The work seems trustworthy because the author, a former member of the Theosophical Society, was a Russian historical novelist who wrote eloquently, he had a personal acquaintance and corresponded with Blavatsky. However, the work appears to be nothing more than an account of a personal feud with rarely goes beyond the level of rumours, gossip and unproven insinuations.
The English translation was issued by the SPR, who’s previous report on Blavatsky is highly questionable. One simply has to read the 15 page forward by Henry Sidgwick to see the one-sided, hostile tone in which the work was designed. Blavatsky’s sister, Vera Jelihovsky issued a pamphlet refuting Soloviov, and extracts are presented, so there is some effort to present both sides of the story. However, it is presented in a way that simply serves to deny the points of defence against Soloviov’s allegations.
Blavatsky, in several letters presents her account of the reasons behind the feud. In any case, at the very least, the account of someone who so obviously has personal issues with Blavatsky should be used with great caution.
Beatrice Hastings wrote a comprehensively researched study on this case:
Michael Gomes writes in his introduction to the work:
“Although he later claimed that he was playing the role of the docile inquirer, Solovyov’s name appears in a number of letters to the press testifying to the validity of Theosophical phenomena. The publication of Richard Hodgson’s damning report of H.P.B. in the December 1885 Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and the attendant ridicule it brought to the adherents of Theosophy, must have caused him to reconsider his position, for his attitude toward her radically changed. “Solovyov has turned against me like a mad dog,” H.P.B. informed the President of the London Lodge.”
Another article where Blavatsky eloquently articulates her position in a debate situation is the article “Neo-Buddhism”. It’s a response to a review of her book The Key to Theosophy by Vladimir Solovyov, brother of Vsevolod Solovyov, author of Modern Priestess of Isis. The reply was apparently rejected by the Russian Review, fortunately the manuscript survived. Solovyov was a major Russian philosopher of the time, and he makes some interesting critiques, but a full meeting of minds was unfortunately not to be:
“One would have thought that a philosopher with so wide a reputation throughout Russia as Mr. Solovyov, ought, at least for the sake of his personal standing, to have honestly delved into the real essence of the book under review, and incidentally learned a little more about Hindu philosophy, before giving expression to such ex cathedra conclusions concerning both, drawn, by the way, from his own imagination. After reading his article, however, anyone who is at all acquainted with my book and with the English language, will realize that the critic has not even taken the trouble to read it carefully; or, if he has read it, has not grasped the meaning of the points which he sets out to criticize. This is obvious. It would be difficult indeed to suppose, that in the section “Criticism and Bibliography” Mr. Solovyov was guided not by the actual substance of what he was reviewing, or by the philosophical systems mentioned in the work, but simply by prejudice against the author or against the system itself which he has failed to understand. Professional jealousy, it would seem, would be quite unthinkable here.
What is at stake here, incidentally, is not so much me as a person, but rather the distortion of the teachings which are ascribed to me; it is not a question of my pride as an author, which, by the way, I have not, but rather of the mistakes, and the deliberate as well as involuntary errors of the critic himself. This negligence often becomes phenomenal with him. Distorting both Theosophy and Hindu philosophy, he makes an error on every line. In consequence, I consider it my moral duty, as much on behalf of the Society entrusted to my care, as for the sake of the Russian readers, to correct them. Besides, having the love of my country at heart––as I would wish all Russians outside of Russia would have––and therefore cherishing the opinion of all orthodox Russian people, I cannot allow the strange conclusions of Mr. Solovyov to remain without protest.”
Possibly, if you mention Blavatsky’s name to people who are vaguely aware of her, you get a response that goes something like “oh yeah the one that received letters from Tibetan masters”; or “oh right, the medium”.
Since a lot the so-called Mahatma letters have been published (Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, I & II), it seems to me that people can decide for themselves as to their authenticity. It seems to me that the writers of those letters seemed to know what they were doing. Here’s one of Blavatsky’s later statements on the question:
“ENQUIRER. That they do not exist, and that she has invented them. That they are men of straw, “Mahatmas of muslin and bladders.” Does not all this injure her reputation?
THEOSOPHIST. In what way can such an accusation injure her in reality? Did she ever make money on their presumed existence, or derive benefit, or fame, therefrom? I answer that she has gained only insults, abuse, and calumnies, which would have been very painful had she not learned long ago to remain perfectly indifferent to such false charges. For what does it amount to, after all? Why, to an implied compliment, which, if the fools, her accusers, were not carried away by their blind hatred, they would have thought twice before uttering. To say that she has invented the Masters comes to this: She must have invented every bit of philosophy that has ever been given out in Theosophical literature. She must be the author of the letters from which “Esoteric Buddhism” was written; the sole inventor of every tenet found in the “Secret Doctrine,” which, if the world were just, would be recognised as supplying many of the missing links of science, as will be discovered a hundred years hence. By saying what they do, they are also giving her the credit of being far cleverer than the hundreds of men, (many very clever and not a few scientific men,) who believe in what she says — inasmuch as she must have fooled them all! If they speak the truth, then she must be several Mahatmas rolled into one like a nest of Chinese boxes; since among the so-called “Mahatma letters” are many in totally different and distinct styles, all of which her accusers declare that she has written.”
This article documents quite few eye witnesses, indicating that there seems to be considerable evidence related to the concrete actions of these ‘adepts’:
The question remains one of the more highly debated issues concerning Blavatsky. One thinks of Paul Johnson’s highly skeptical perspective; his works do contain interesting and quite thorough research; whether his conclusions follow, I don’t know. I think that there’s a lot less problems with this concept in Asian countries, so the skepticism is more of a western thing. In India, the problem was more that a lot of Asian people did not like the existence of these Mahatmas being made so public (see for example Indian occultist T. Subba Row’s refusal to edit the Secret Doctrine unless references to Masters were removed Secret Doctrine, “Historical Introduction”, p. 47)
Medium / Spiritualist label
To describe Blavatsky as a medium or spiritualist is, I think, inaccurate and misleading. The use of her psychic abilities since her arrival in New York in 1875 would more properly fit in the area of occultism rather than mediumnistic or spiritualist. Her writings make it clear that she had a specific agenda to inform of the realities and dangers what is commonly known as mediumship and spiritualism. Here’s an interesting recent article:
It is quite ironic that Blavatsky gets identified with a practice that she strongly critiques. Here is one of Blavatsky’s more straightforward statements on the matter:
“But, to conclude for the present, surely there need be no hostility, as some spiritual writers seem to have imagined, between the spiritualists and ourselves, merely because we bring for their consideration a new stock of ideas—new, indeed, only as far as their application to modern controversies is concerned, old enough as measured by the ages that have passed over the earth since they were evolved. A gardener is not hostile to roses because he prunes his bushes and proclaims the impropriety of letting bad shoots spring up from below the graft. With the spiritualists, students of occultism must always have bonds of sympathy which are unthought of in the blatant world of earth-bound materialism and superstitious credulity. Let them give us a hearing; let them recognize us as brother-worshippers of truth, even though found in unexpected places. They cannot prove so oblivious of their own traditions as to refuse audience to any new plea, because it may disturb them in a faith they find comfortable. Surely it was not to be comfortable that they first refused to swim with the stream in matters of religious thought, and deserted the easy communion of respectable orthodoxy. Will spiritualism conquer incredulity only to find itself already degraded into a new church, sinking, so to speak, into armchairs in its second childhood, and no longer entitled to belief or vigorous enough for further progress? It is not a promising sign about a religious philosophy when it looks too comfortable, when it promises too indulgent an asylum for our speckled souls with houris of the Mohammedan Elysium, or the all too homelike society of the spiritualist’s “Summer-land.” We bring our friends and brethren in spiritualism no mere feather-headed fancies, no light-spun speculation, when we offer them some toil-won fragments of the mighty mountain of occult knowledge, at the base of whose hardly accessible heights we have learned to estimate their significance and appreciate their worth. Is it asked why we do not spread out the whole scroll of this much-vaunted philosophy for their inspection at once, and so exhibit clearly its all-sufficing coherence? That question at least will hardly be asked by thoughtful men who realize what an all-sufficient philosophy of the universe must be. As well might Columbus have been expected to bring back America in his ships to Spain. “Good friends, America will not come,” he might have said, “but it is there across the waters, and if you voyage as I have done, and the waves do not smother you, mayhap you will find it too.”
It is another question that is currently debated; for example, see the work of Jeffrey Lavoie, who seems to manage to merge the previously mentioned problematic source material with more progressive research (this seems to be sort of the current mainstream faint praise status quo on Blavatsky: ‘Well, she was sort of fraudulent, but she made a definite impact on the history of religion”).