Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) was one of the most unique and controversial figures of the 19th century. She was a fascinating woman, a progressive activist, and a gifted physic. She is known as a major influence on what has become the modern New Age movement. HPB, as she liked to be called, was unconventional, outspoken, controversial and fiery of temperament. Her writings and teachings continue to influence religious, ethical and occult thought in the Western World today.
HPB was born in Ekaterinoslav, Southern Russia in 1831. Her father was a colonel in the Russian army and her mother, a revolutionary in her own right, was a novelist who wrote about heroines breaking free of traditional societal constraints. Her grandmother, a scientist, further influenced HPB in developing her non-conformist, questioning character.
HPB was a gifted child; talented in linguistics, music and art. She was sensitive and in tune with nature, yet fearless and impatient. She estranged herself from other children with her unusual and dark behavior, and was infatuated with the occult and paranormal. She was aware of possessing certain gifts and psychic powers and came to make claims that she was a medium and was clairvoyant, clairsentient, and clairaudient.
In 1848, in a stroke of independence and rebellion, HPB, at age 17, married 40 year-old Nikifor V. Blavatsky, a provincial Vice-Governor. The marriage lasted only a few months and was merely a way to become free of her household. Evidencing her strong will, she left her husband and convinced her father to finance extensive travels to Turkey, Egypt, and Greece.
Here Blavatsky entered a 16 year period marked by extensive global travel unprecedented for a woman of her time. Most of these years of travel are not well-documented and HPB made a point of being enigmatic about this period. She was notorious for telling colorful stories about her life and for changing or fabricating the details. She is reputed to have had many affairs, possibly some marriages and an illegitimate son who died in childhood. It is thought she traveled to London, the US, Canada, Mexico, South America, and the West Indies.
More clearly documented are travels to India via Ceylon in 1852. That same year she attempted to enter Tibet, but failed. She returned to England and then to America again in the summer of 1854. In 1855 she went to Japan and on to India and then successfully entered Tibet, through Kashmir, where she studied Eastern religion and underwent occult training with the Masters.
By 1858, she was back in Europe, spending time in France and Germany until returning to Russia at the end of that year. From 1860 to 1865, she lived and traveled through the Caucasus region at the border of Europe and Asia, experiencing extraordinary physical and psychic crossroads which, she claimed, placed her in complete control over her occult powers.
The years that followed this “veiled period”, as Blavatsky referred to it, were extremely productive. She returned to Russia for a short time then left to travel the Balkans, Greece, Egypt, and Syria. In 1873, HPB was instructed by her Teacher, Mahatma Morya, to go to Paris, and on further orders from him, she went to New York City. In 1878, she became the first Russian woman to gain U.S. citizenship. She became a well-known psychic in New York spiritual circles and during this time met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who was to become a colleague and life-long friend. Alcott was an American military officer, lawyer, journalist who covered psychic phenomena and, eventually, co-founder with Bravatsky in 1875, of the Theosophical Society, still in vital existence today.
The word Theosophy means “divine wisdom” or “wisdom of the gods”. The masters of Theosophy, located in Tibet preserve and extend this ancient wisdom. Periodically they “send forth one of their own – or a messenger – to help spread this teaching to all of humanity”. They chose HPB and connected her with Olcott,”the first well-known American of European ancestry to make a formal conversion to Buddhism”.
The Society was founded on three major “Objects” which still stand today:
- To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
- To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
- To investigate unexplained laws of Nature, and the powers latent in man.
Initially, the society had little support or publicity. To gain awareness the group performed public “miracles” involving physic powers, levitation and out-of-body experiences. Though sometimes challenged as hoaxes, these “miracles”, combined with HPB’s commanding charisma, brought the society a following. Coinciding with this increased attention, HPB released her first book in 1877, Isis Unveiled, which outlined the history, breadth and development of the occult sciences. The book was a major success and had a strong impact on the reading public.
In 1882, HPB moved the Society's headquarters to Adyar, India. She always maintained a strong love for India and it simply made great sense to establish headquarters there. A large estate was bought and became the central point for world-wide activity. HP and Colonel Olcott received visitors there, established branches in outlying areas to which they traveled, and handled enormous amounts of inquiring correspondence.
In 1884, Colonel Alcott left for London to petition the British Government on behalf of the Buddhists of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). HPB, despite being in poor health, went with him. After staying several months in London and then Paris, she visited Germany in later 1884 and became deeply involved in writing her second book, The Secret Doctrine, often thought of as her crowning achievement.
In her absence from headquarters in Adyar, two of Batavsky’s staff members rabidly attacked and slandered her, claiming that psychic phenomena illuminated by HPB was fraudulently produced. She returned to Adyar and dismissed the staff members responsible for the libelous campaign. She wished to sue them as well, but was overruled by a committee of leading Society members. Disheartened and angry, she resigned her position with the Society and left for Europe, never to return to India.
Though her frail health was worsened by the toll of the libelous attacks, HPB continued to work and established the European Headquarters of the Theosophical Society in London in 1890. She died at age 60, during a severe flu epidemic. That date, May 8, 1891, is known to Theosophists as “White Lotus Day” in her memory.
Her influence may be unknown to millions of people who believe in what HPB called a “law of compassion.” It is “the law of laws – that brotherhood and altruism are the ideals we should follow”. She believed that “we are all ONE at the spiritual level”. This tenet is at the core of Ethics and is the foundation for the universally recognized and respected “Golden Rule”. Before HPB began her mission, the word “karma” was virtually unknown outside Eastern religion. She was responsible for introducing the word and corollary concept in the West, and its familiar mainstream usage today is tribute to her abiding influence.
Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky is recognized by hundreds of thousands of followers of her teachings as “the greatest Occultist in the history of Western civilization and a direct agent of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood of Adepts”. Her legacy continues in her books, teachings and the Theosophical society. The fundamental beliefs she proclaimed were instrumental in shaping New Age spirituality and practices in the Western World of today.