Theosophy Hall of the United Lodge of Theosophists on East Seventy-Second Street in Manhattan is one of those strange, wonderful, time-warp spaces you can find all over the city, if you know where to look. From threadbare armchairs in the lobby to a library of occult books in the basement, it’s the kind of place that hasn’t changed in decades. It could be a museum, if someone hung a velvet rope.
I was at the ULT on a recent Wednesday evening to attend the weekly study group on The Key to Theosophy, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. My interest had been piqued by a new biography, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality, by Gary Lachman, who (for those interested in such trivia), was the bassist for Blondie before reinventing himself as a writer on occult topics. A man in a brown sweater vest and a silver-haired woman wearing gold-rimmed glasses led the discussion from a semi-circular stage that, under pink and purple lighting, looked like an old-fashioned science fiction set. With the ancient furnishings, solemn proceedings, and casual talk of 1,500-year reincarnation cycles, the scene was delightfully weird.
Theosophy, literally meaning “divine wisdom,” generally refers to the mystical and spiritual teachings of Blavatsky—also known as “Madame Blavatsky,” or “HPB”—who helped found the Theosophical Society at an apartment on Irving Place in 1875. (Today the Theosophical Society, of which the ULT is a breakaway group, is headquartered in Adyar, a neighborhood in Chennai, India, and claims an international membership of about 40,000 people.) Depending on whom you ask, Blavatsky—a fat, chain-smoking Russian noblewoman with a profane vocabulary and reputation for occult powers—was either one of the major innovators of modern religious thought or a complete fraud, her books works of great erudition and synthesis or piles of pasted together rubbish. For a few years in the late nineteenth century, she was all the rage.
Born Helena Petrovna von Hahn on August 12, 1831, in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine), Blavatsky was descended from the German petty nobility and the Russian aristocracy, her father a captain in the Russian Royal Horse Artillery and her mother a well-known novelist. Raised as an army brat, Blavatsky spent her childhood moving from one post to another, living for a time with her maternal grandfather who, as Lachman tells us, was “a trustee for the nomadic Kalmuck Buddhist tribes of Astrakhan.” At age seventeen she married Nikifor Blavatsky, vice governor of the province of Erivan, which is now most of Armenia.
Blavatsky later claimed that she never slept with her husband, nor with anyone else: “Never physically speaking, has there ever existed a girl or woman colder than I,” she wrote. “I had a volcano in constant eruption in my brain, and—a glacier at the foot of the mountain.” Like many details of Blavatsky’s biography, no one knows for sure if this is true. What is certain is that after just a few months of marriage she left her husband and went to Constantinople, the first stop in a twenty-five-year period of travel that is almost totally unaccounted for.
Among the claims Blavatsky made about this time—or that were made about her—are that she smoked hashish with the Universal Mystic Brotherhood in Cairo, studied voodoo in New Orleans, found a lost Incan treasure in South America, performed as a concert pianist in England, visited the Mormons in Salt Lake City, was wounded and left for dead fighting alongside Garibaldi, survived two sea disasters, had an affair with Italian opera singer Agardi Metrovich, discovered an ancient language called Senzar, and studied in Tibet with a group of “Masters” who would later become central to her Theosophical teachings. Whatever the credibility of these claims (and some, like the affair with Metrovich, are more credible than others), it wasn’t until she came to the U.S. on July 7, 1873, at age forty-two, that she reentered the historical record.
Blavatsky was a hit in America. At that time the country was in the grip of Spiritualism, a movement whose main purpose was to make contact with the dead. Though she would later turn against Spiritualism—the spirits it reached, she claimed, were merely a kind of astral husk rather than real human souls—Blavatsky joined forces in its fight against scientific materialism and mainstream Christianity. It also helped her make valuable connections. In 1874, at a séance in Chittenden, Vermont, she met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a Civil War veteran, lawyer, and journalist who was covering the event for the New York Daily Graphic. Together, Blavatsky and Olcott would become the twin pillars of the Theosophical Society until her death in May of 1891.
It was while living with Olcott in an eccentrically furnished suite of rooms at the corner of Forty-Seventh Street and Eighth Avenue that Blavatsky published her first major work, Isis Unveiled. In it, she posited the existence of an ancient wisdom at the root of all religions, forgotten except by a secret brotherhood of adepts. Knowledge of this wisdom gave its bearers paranormal powers such as clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to materialize objects out of thin air. She had received instruction from these Masters herself, Blavatsky maintained, and could perform paranormal feats. Inevitably such claims drew accusations of charlatanism and fraud, but some scholars took her ideas seriously. Gershom Scholem later remarked that “there is, of course, a lot of humbug and swindle, but at least in Blavatsky’s writings, yet something more.”
That “something more,” received its fullest expression in 1888 with the publication of Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. Divided into two fat volumes, Cosmogenesis and Anthropogenesis, the book lays out the spiritual structure of the universe based on three principles: that there is one absolute, infinite, eternal, unknowable reality; that the universe is a periodic emanation from that absolute reality (that is, it goes from a state of latent spiritual potential to a period of material existence and back again, eternally); and that everything in the universe—each individual “monad”—is in unity with the absolute reality. Humans, who possess the power of self-awareness and free will, can, by doing good, ascend on the chain of being through a process of karma and reincarnation, becoming godlike themselves before returning to a state of pure spirit along with everything else.
For the most part there was nothing original about Blavatsky’s ideas, which derived from a variety of mystical sources. But Blavatsky’s presentation appealed to the needs of her time. The concept of an evolving universe seemed to square Darwinism with religion, and the emphasis on an individual’s ability to propel herself upwards echoed an Emersonian ethos of self-improvement. Blavatsky also had a penchant for a social progressivism, as expressed in the first principle of the Theosophical Society: “To form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color.” For educated, liberal, middle-class people disillusioned with Christianity and disappointed by Darwin, she was an attractive alternative.
In 1878, Blavatsky having received her U.S. citizenship, she and Olcott packed up and moved to India. At that time they were among the first Westerners to visit the country in search of enlightenment; like so many clichés, it was an original idea to begin with. Their interest in Asian religions, which ran counter to colonialist attitudes, had a significant impact on Indian nationalist thinkers, including Gandhi. (Theosophy had a similar impact on members of the Irish literary renaissance, including Yeats.) Olcott made a special effort to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and has been honored there by several statues and a postage stamp. In India the Theosophical Society reached the peak of its influence in 1917 when Annie Besant, who succeeded Olcott as president, became the first woman and the last European to head the Indian National Congress.
The decline of Theosophy in subsequent decades can be traced to an array of causes, including schisms, scandals (a few Theosophical leaders were alleged to be pedophiles), and changes in spiritual style. But it also has to do with Theosophy’s success. The occult trend fueled by Blavatsky led to a host of successor groups including, arguably, the entire New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s. The ideas she introduced to American and European readers have now become commonplace. In a conversation I had recently with Michael Gomes, director of the Theosophical Society’s Emily Sellon Memorial Library, he put it to me best: “Do you need to join a society to know what karma is?”
Still, Theosophy continues to attract a trickle of followers, who come to study sessions and lectures to talk about Masters and monads and reincarnation. Their doctrine is now, as it was, a mixture of old-fashioned utopianism, intellectual eclecticism, and offbeat spirituality. And if the Theosophical movement has become a bit of a relic? Well, that’s half the charm. Ancient wisdom, after all, never goes out of style.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward.