The Woman Behind the Myth
by Marion Meade
(1980, G.B. Putnam’s Sons)
I confess that I did not read the whole book. I was simply not that interested in every nuance of the life of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (H.P.B.). I wanted to look at the book to check certain statements I had made in my review of the lives and/or works of Annie Besant and Anna Kingsford, leaders of the Theosophical Society under Blavatsky for a little time each.
Kingsford left the Theosophical Society and started her own. Besant took over the society when Blavatsky died.
[After I looked at the Kingsford and Besant connections, I perused several additional topics.]
Meade described Kingsford’s brief leadership role in the London Theosophical Society, and Blavatsky's needing her, knowing it, and still making catty remarks about her. Her characterization did not add to the story as I told it in any way that requires me to make a correction.
The relationship between Besant and Blavatsky is described in considerable detail. The only real correction Meade forces me to at least mention is one of degree. I speculated that Besant wrote Esoteric Christianity to make Theosophy more palatable in the Western World. I presumed she had checked this with Blavatsky.
Meade in several places makes it clear that Blavatsky had no use for Christianity. A personal God was the very root of her objection. She knew from her supernatural informants that there was no such thing. Meade assures readers that Blavatsky was a sensitive, meaning she was attuned to persons and objects and received impressions from them, but she had no supernatural abilities. Meade documents her as engaging in fakery at many turns to induce faith in her followers.
I was surprised to find out the book Esoteric Christianity by Besant was issued after Blavatsky died and that it is a much more radical departure than I knew. It split the Theosophical Society. But by turning a gentler face toward Christianity allowed it to prosper in the west.
Meade makes this statement about what Besant did with the Theosophical Society in surprisingly critical words on pages 461-462, the last pages of the main part of the book. Speaking of Besant at the end of her life she wrote:
To the last she believed that she had kept faith with H.P.B.’s message, but the fact was she had not; . . . she gradually betrayed the original vision by enveloping Theosophy in a religious atmosphere that its founder would have considered odious. Helena’s sublime aims of brotherhood were neglected in expectation of the Messiah, her Esoteric Buddhism watered down and relegated to the background in favor of an Esoteric Christianity. . . .
Meade completes the book declaring the society (in ~1980) is thriving in sixty countries with about 40,000 members.
My parents were Theosophists in the early 1950s in the Netherlands. They hosted an occasional meeting in our home, and were generally enthusiastic and active and ever reading the literature of the society. My parents expressed belief in the Masters that gave H.P.B. her uncanny knowledge of reality.
Dutch Theosophists, like Dutch everything elses, were skeptical about some of the claims for the miraculous made by Theosophists. My parents fit this mold of being somewhat skeptical but they were astonished at the literary productivity of H.P.B. and saw this as evidence of something out of the ordinary at work.
They read Isis Unveiled. They owned The Secret Doctrine, and they loved Besant's Esoteric Christianity. All in Dutch of course. I did not read any of them until I was able to read them in English.
Time for an aside: What is a sensitive? When we were anxious about our upcoming move to the US and were awaiting word telling us who was offering us sponsorship and where, my parents invited a sensitive. He was renowned in the Dutch Theosophical Society for his abilities, and charged for his services, but only just enough to pay travel expenses.
When the man arrived with two local society dignitaries showing him the way in this strange town, my bother and I had to go to our rooms. When we came out it was said to have been a success. He had held a set of keys in one hand and moved it all over a map of the United States. Where he got an impression was in the very center of the country. My mother was not pleased, she wanted California.
We ended up in Texas. Many hundreds of miles south of where we were 'sensed' to end up, but who is being critical? Three years later we were Los Angelenos, thanks to my mother's single-minded drive to get us to California.
Blavatsky was not a medium or channeler. She did not commune with spirits. She instead received revelation from living men, her beloved Masters, who lived in the Himalayas. They were her spiritual advisers. These Masters read her needs telepathically, and sent responses to a messenger near Blavatsky, also telepathically. The messenger would find the messages written by the force of these men's minds in what seemed like partly melted crayon, and took the completed messages to Madame. Had she copyrighted the process, Theosophists would now own the Xerox patent which also melts a crayon-like material into paper, locally delivering message sent from great distances.
I looked up what Meade had to say about these three major Theosophical books. I read Isis Unveile when I was a new Mormon and in the military in Mountain Home, Idaho. I was looking for material that supported some of the more esoteric claims of Mormonism.
I was extremely impressed by its depth and scope, although I had no way to judge its veracity. I read Esoteric Chrisitianity then also, found it quite supportive, but then moved on to other things, like working to get a few degrees in science and then just working.
Later I picked Esoteric Christianity up again as I indicate in my 2009 review. I tried several times to get into The Secret Doctrine. Just couldn’t penetrate it very far. Either the book, or I, was too dense.
Meade discusses the reception of the two Blavatsky masterpieces, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. The reception ranged from fawning appreciation for her 'new' knowledge and amazing revelations, to extremely critical appraisals by “experts” who saw nothing new in these works at all, just a synthesis of un-relatable materials and thoughts all found in the literature of the East.
But even in describing historical facts, philosophical concepts, and religious beliefs she was often very wrong in her dates and interpretations, according to these experts. She even misinterpreted and misrepresented her beloved Buddhism, according to some experts.
Plagiarism seems to have been rampant in both works, just sloppiness in handling and declaring source materials. She was no scholar. One critic showed there were serious discrepancies in claims made about disembodied beings, and realities in the world of the disembodied, between these two books written by the same author.
None of these things bother me much, I just enjoyed Isis Unveiled for its mesmerizing view of a possible “reality” I had never suspected. I saw it as a goldmine of astoundingly interesting ideas and joined my parents in praising it. The fact that from one book to the next she had changed her mind about certain realities is something I was guilty of and still am. Pulse me in a few years and my answer will no doubt not be what it would be today.
Did I ever become a Theosophist? No. After coming to the U.S. my parents became disenchanted with the social organization the society was here, they missed their intense study groups in the Netherlands. In the U.S. it seemed like it was almost a religion, with good works and good words, but no one engaged in in-depth study of H.P.B or Besant’s or other leaders’ writings. They turned to the Rosicrucian Society instead, and became devoted corresponding students of that society.
In the meantime I went through an agnostic period in my late teens and then turned Mormon and discovered that both Isis Unveiled and Esoteric Christianity had specific and rather unique teachings in common with my new faith. That devout Mormon phase lasted a few decades, and now I am meandering in my feelings about reality and simply know what I do not believe, not what I believe.
My father was very defensive of Christianity, he was not actively Christian but believed it had its roots in truth. What truth? The truth as explained by Besant in Esoteric Christianity, of course.
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