January 6, 2021
Marina Alexandrova Introduces Madame Blavatsky
We speak with Marina Alexandrova, Senior Lecturer in Slavic Studies at UT Austin, about the life and thought of one of the most influential women in modern world history (and not just the history of western esotericism), the great Yelena Petrovna Blavatskaya (1831-1891), a.k.a. Madame Blavatsky, a.k.a. HPB. This interview gives both a critical and comprehensive biography of the great HPB and reflects on her thought, on different methodological directions we might wish to take in interpreting her life, and much more.
We discuss HPB’s early life as a highly-educated daughter of a prominent military and literary family, moving around the Russian empire to a number of cultural entrepôts. Fleeing a stifling marriage in Russia, she heads off on a series of epic travels in search of adventure and secret wisdom: during this eventful period (later formulated as ‘the veiled years’, concerning which it is quite difficult entirely to separate fact from later myth-making) she becomes involved in the organised struggle for Indian independence from colonial rule (whether in part as a Russian agent or not is still debated), she travels all over the world, and she meets with her mysterious initiated teacher in London in 1851. After this period, inspired by a spiritual mission, HPB co-founds the Theosophical Society with Henry Steele Olcott in New York City in 1875.
The Theosophical Society was an immensely influential, seminal, and innovative spiritual/cultural movement/organisation, bringing together many of the leading intellectuals and esotericists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries across the world. Its historical importance can hardly be overstated, but in this interview we learn some of the perhaps-surprising events put in motion by this extraordinary global organisation. Perhaps most revolutionary was the move to ‘the East’, in which HPB and friends founded a world headquarters for the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India, and HPB herself entered the Buddhist sanga in then-Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka); even if this incident needs to be treated with circumspection by historians, the mere story is enough for us to speak of western esotericism truly growing beyond the scope of the West. We discuss the ‘Culomb Affair’, and the hostile ‘Hodgson Report’ published by the Society for Psychical Research, both of which dogged HPB’s final years, her major publications, and her final days, among friends and supporters in London.
Born and raised in Saratov, Russia, Marina Alexandrova received her MA in English from Saratov State University, and her PhD in Comparative Literature (Russian and Spanish American Literatures) from the University of Texas at Austin. She specialises in the history of political and cultural dissent in Russia, Russian revolutionary movements, international Modernism and the avant-garde, spirituality in imperial Russia, and Russian intellectual history. She is a highly-active scholar both online and in print (even venturing into the theatre), some of which activity is summarised on her faculty page.
Many of HPB’s writings, including all those cited in this interview, are freely available online, for example at the Blavatsky Archives website. The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals site is a further crucial research-tool for those interested in the sprawling publication-activity arising from Theosophy.
- Bevir, Mark. “The West Turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 62, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), 747-767.
- Boldyrev, Oleg. Blavatskaya: The Messenger of Shambala. Moscow: Veche, 2014 (in Russian).
- Carlson, Maria. ‘No Religion Higher than Truth’: A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia, 1875-1922. Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Chajes, Julie. Recycled Lives: A History of Reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy. Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Cranston, Sylvia. HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky: Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement. Tarcher Perigee, 1993.
- Faxneld, Per. “Blavatsky the Satanist: Luciferianism in Theosophy, and Its Feminist Implications.” Temenos 48.2 (2013).
- Ferguson, Christine. “The Luciferian Public Sphere: Theosophy and Editorial Seekership in the 1880s.” Victorian Periodicals Review 53.1 (2020): 76–101.
- French, Brendan. “Blavatsky, Dostoevskii, and Occult Starchestvo.” Aries (Leiden, Netherlands) 7.2 (2007): 161–184.
- Hokanson, Katya. “Russian Women Travelers in Central Asia and India.” The Russian Review, Vol. 70, No. 1 (January 2011), 1-19.
- Lachman, Gary. Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. Tarcher Perigee, 2012.
- Lubelsky, Isaac, and Yael Lotan, trans. Celestial India: Madame Blavatsky and the Birth of Indian Nationalism. Equinox, 2012.
- Murphet, Howard. When Daylight Comes: A Biography of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Quest, 1975.
- Reenberg Sand, Erik, and Tim Rudbøg. Imagining the East: The Early Theosophical Society. Oxford UP, 2020 [contains several excellent articles, too numerous to list separately].
- Viswanathan, Gauri. “In Search of Madame Blavatsky: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric.” Representations, Vol. 141 No. 1, Winter 2018; 67-94.
Allan Kardec, Buddhism, Helena Blavatsky, Henry Olcott, Hidden Masters, Occultism, Perennialism, Spiritism, Spiritualism, Theosophical Society, Tibet
January 12, 2021
How is there not already a Netflix show about HPB what with all the geopolitical intrigue?
January 9, 2023
I am asking myself the same question!
Travis Wade ZINN
February 15, 2021
A very enjoyable episode! I’d be very interested to know how she is received in Russia today.
January 9, 2023
Thank you so much for your comment! The height of interest in Blavatsky’s writings in Russia happened back in the 1990s, during the period of great openness to various religious movements. In the late 1990s, Theosophy was condemned as “satanic” by mainstream Orthodox church, and Andrey Kuraev’s book that condemned Agni Yoga and Theosophy played an important role in undermining the reputation of Theosophy in Russia. Still, several robust Theosophical lodges and groups exist in Russia, some recognized by the Theosophical Society and some not.
September 14, 2021
Fascinating account of Madame Blavatsky…her travels , Buddhism (who knew?), her opponents, etc. Critical of spiritualism?
January 9, 2023
Thank you for your comment! There is just so much about HPB that is not widely known that a scholar of her legacy will never be out of work, so to speak!
September 1, 2022
I am sorry to say, but this was a very disappointing episode. YPB was an exceptional woman, and she deserves more than a hagiography. What the guest said about the “mahatma letters” is simply propaganda. Sympathizing with the esoteric worldview is one thing, pretending to forget decades of scholarship is a completely different matter…
September 6, 2022
Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the disappointment. Can you forgive my denseness, and specify a bit more exactly what you mean? Is the idea that the letters have been shown to be obvious forgeries and so on, and our guest doesn’t make this point clearly enough? Or am I on the wrong track?
September 7, 2022
Thank you for your reply. I just realized that I enjoyed probably hundreds of hours of amazing content and I never said a word, I listened to one episode I did not like and I commented. That’s kind of unfair!
I try to elaborate my impression with three examples.
1. Discussing HPB transfer to India all the controversies are brushed off and not discussed. The guest says something like “her detractors say there were tensions, but she said she moved to be closer to the source of wisdom”. Of course that is what she said! But today we know a thing or two about the issues inside of TS (never discussed by the guest).
2. Around 1 hr in, you ask about the issue of the authorship of HPB major books. Response of the guest: “they were a success but she never profited because she reinvested everything in the TS” (as if she did not earn her living via the TS). Also, the guest confesses her “amusement” for the “accusation of plagiarism” arguing that HPB “never claimed to be the generator of that knowledge”. I mean, that’s not how authorship works. I am sure that if I publish a book under my name, stealing Marina Alexandrova’s content and I argue that I am just a channel of others’ ideas (without mentioning these “others”!) she won’t be pleased. The appeal to a “perennial tradition” is not, in my opinion, a serious discussion on occultist authorship.
3. Minutes 56. The accusation of fraud by people in India who worked for her is explained as a plot of the British to remove her from India. This is surely something that may have happened but does not exclude at all that she “may have” used tricks to boost her reputation as a miracle worker.
4. Minute 59. The Hodgson Report is described as “not objective” and “completely flawed because of its selection bias since it focuses on documents that were not particularly relevant for what the society was trying to do”. Again, the fact the report focused on minor details “that are not so important for HPB message” is not the main point. The question is: these phenomena that HPB used to give legitimacy to herself were true or tricks? Also, really the “mahatma letters” were not important in the TS? If so, how comes that they kept popping up for decades, ordering the members on how to structure the TS?
In general, my impression is that the guest wanted at all costs to avoid all the controversial aspects of HPB’s life (they are many!), and this is somehow annoying. I believe that the most interesting aspect of occultist “identity formation” is how they are paradoxical and ambiguous characters. The fascination for those people comes exactly from their ambiguity. To me, esotericists are always BOTH charlatans and sincere. Describing them as “noble heretics” ignores the tragic beauty of these authors, in my opinion.
Hope I detailed my impression a little more. Of course, I am not an expert on HPB and mine is just the opinion of a random guy on the internet.
Big fan of your work!
September 7, 2022
Thanks very much for the detailed critiques, all of which have great merit. What we shall do in the course of our inevitable coverage of the TS (and all its myriad of prominent members, many of whom people don’t even know were involved in the TS, and who meanwhile helped shape the entire intellectual and political life of the late nineteenth century and beyond) is present these ‘scandals’ from a number of different angles.
In case we have given a false impression, let it be stated for the record here: the ‘mahatma letters’ were indeed a huge bone of contention during HPB’s life and thereafter; many TS members found them embarrassing, to say nothing of hostile observers, who saw them as precisely a manifestation of the ‘bunk’ that they saw as the raison d’être of the TS. The Hodgson Report is another matter into which we shall look in detail; TS members to this day spend reams of pages of paper, books upon books, attacking this attack on the validity of the miraculous aspects of HPB’s Adyar phase, and yet the attack remains pretty damning. One might compare, to take another nineteenth-century example, the Mormon textual tradition, with its up-to-date, nineteenth-century-approved verifications (the Book of Mormon begins with an affadavit signed by a bunch of leading citizens that Joseph Smith actually showed them the golden tablets, and so forth), and subsequent efforts by Mormons to argue for the literal, historical validity of this tradition against multiple criticisms.
But, as we mention I think in this interview, one (wo)man’s trickery or fraud is another (wo)man’s religious ritual, ‘setting the scene’, providing miracles for the weaker-minded members so that they can be lured on to the true mysteries, etc. etc. etc. In other words, emic and etic perspectives on, say for example writing letters and attributing them to mystic teachers from the Himalayas, can differ. To take a possible emic approach, what about divine inspiration? And then, to take the levelheaded counter-approach, what about tricking people to build a religious/political movement out of which you do quite well for yourself?
So what I’m saying is, multiple perspectives will be brought to bear on this fascinating character and her many controversial activities. In the mean time, many thanks for doing our work for us and bringing the counter-story to the fore for those unfamiliar with it.
January 4, 2023
Update, 4 January 2023:
Davide, thanks again for the great critiques. They were so thoughtful that they inspired the first interview in a new series on aspects of magic, which took the form of a talk with Ferdinando Buscema, a stage-magician and practitioner of illusion. We discuss the problems of charlatanry, consciousness, the sense of the miraculous, and a bunch of other, related stuff.
January 10, 2023
that is an amazing idea (and greatly needed in our world I think). I have been busy investigating another “oriental master” in these months (a “Daoist” one in occult Paris this time). gonna catch up with your most recent content soon!
January 10, 2023
Dear Mr. Marino,
Thank you for sharing your feedback. We are all on our journeys in search of truth, and I believe that consideration of points of view that differ from ours helps us refine our own thinking on the subject. I welcome constructive and open discussion of controversial topics, especially when we are dealing with someone as divisive and multifaceted as HPB! As a historian, I strove to present a balanced, fact-based account of HPB’s life and works, and since it was just an introduction to the vast and complex universe of “Blavatskology,” some topics were not addressed, and some others were only mentioned briefly. I am happy to come back on the show and speak in more detail about the controversies surrounding the Mahatma letters, the Mahatmas themselves, or any other topic of interest.
Earl has addressed several of your points very eloquently (thank you!), but it’s worth mentioning that the Hodgson Report was just one of three reports commissioned by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) on this topic, and that I stand by my characterization of it as unreliable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the main evidence came from the letters between HPB and the Coulombs, as presented by the Coulombs, who were far being a disinterested party in the whole affair. What is more, the originals of the letters have been destroyed, making it impossible to make a responsible claim about their content. There are other flaws in the Hodgson report that are well known. If interested, do take a look at the Harrison Report (Harrison, Vernon. 1985. “ ‘J’accuse.’ An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 53/803, 287–310), which discusses them at length and basically finds the findings of the report invalid due to its flaws.
Thanks again for listening to the episode, and best of luck on your journey!
January 11, 2023
Dear Professor Alexandrova,
thanks for your reply.
Allow me to be straightforward. The question here is not whether the Hodgson report is flawless or not. I think that what we discuss here is HPB.
1. Do we really need a report to tell us that there have never been any “Mahatma” materializing letters nor “white Lodge” that mysteriously guided the Theosophical Society? From your interview, I understood that you do not think that HPB was not a trickster. Am I wrong?
To put it brutally: either the letters came from some spiritual entity or they were made up by HPB (and/or her allies). May I ask what is your opinion on the matter?
2. I think the problem of authorship and plagiarism should also not be overlooked. HPB’s work is a mush of so many different authors that she (often verbatim) plagiarized without acknowledgement. Yes, she claimed to be the transmitter of a kind of knowledge that did not belong to her, but that does not make her less guilty of stealing other people’s hard work. If I am sure you’d not like someone else making a living with your writings.
Of course, HPB was by no mean the only one doing these kinds of things. Just to give another example, her great accuser, René Guénon, behaved identically (stealing people’s work, inventing oriental masters etc..).
What I am really concerned about is the mythisation of esotericists, and the danger of constructing the image of them as “noble heretics”, oppressed by some evil mainstream power (HPB persecuted because “religiously non-conformist”, “by the British”, “as a woman”, “by the secular establishment” etc). This is the same rhetoric that contemporary conspiracy theoreticians employ in order to justify their reactionary agendas, in my opinion even more dangerous when used in front of a non-specialist audience with a fascination for the occult (like that of this platform). In this regard, I believe that Egli Asprem’s Methodological Notes on Esotericism and Marginality are much more eloquent than any of my comments.
Thank you again for your reply!