One of the most influential occult thinkers of the nineteenth century and cofounder of the Theosophical Society, Blavatsky was a Russian-born (July 31, 1831, German parents in Yekaterinoslav) American woman who left behind conflicting images of adventuress, author, mystic, guru, occultist, and charlatan.
Originally named Helena Hahn, she was an enigmatic personality, brought up in an atmosphere saturated with superstition and fantasy. She was married briefly in her teens to a Russian general, but left him and traveled widely in the East, including Tibet, in search of mysteries.
Returning to Russia after ten years of wanderings, Blavatsky supposedly exhibited various psychic powers. Allegedly, raps, whisperings, and other mysterious sounds were heard all over the house, objects moved about in obedience to her will, their weight decreased and increased as she wished, and winds swept through the apartment, extinguishing lamps and candles. She gave exhibitions of clairvoyance, discovered a murderer for the police, and narrowly escaped being charged as an accomplice.
Blavatsky traveled to Paris in 1858 and was introduced to the internationally famous medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–1886) and was so impressed by his paranormal abilities that she became a Spiritualist. When Blavatsky, in turn, sought to impress him with her own mediumistic talents, Home ignored her and informed her that she was a cheat.
In 1860 Blavatsky became severely ill. A wound below the heart, which she received from a sword cut in magical practice in the East, opened again, causing her intense agony, convulsions, and trance. After her recovery, friends and acquaintances claimed that her spontaneous physical phenomena had disappeared, but she insisted that, after the illness, they only occurred in obedience to her will.
Blavatsky again went abroad, and, disguised as a man, she fought under Garibaldi and was left for dead in the battle of Mentana. She fought back to life, had a miraculous escape at sea on a Greek vessel that was blown up, and, in 1871 in Cairo, she founded the short lived Societé Spirite. She then went to America in 1873, and in 1875, with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, founded the Theosophical Society in New York. It professed to expound the esoteric tradition of Buddhism and aimed at forming a universal brotherhood of man; studying and making known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences; investigating the laws of nature; and developing the divine powers latent in man. It was claimed to be directed by secret Mahatmas, or Masters of Wisdom.
Throughout her career Blavatsky claimed to perform feats of medium-ship, levitation, telepathy and clairvoyance. Her psychic powers were widely acclaimed and attracted many converts to Theosophy, including Annie Besant, who's home became the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in London. In 1885 the Society for Psychical Research published a damning report (The Hodgson Report) alleging fraud and trickery by Blavatsky and her associates.
The Hodgson Report left a deep shadow over Blavatsky’s final years. Annie Besant’s conversion to Theosophy resulted after she had been requested by W. T. Stead to review The Secret Doctrine in 1889. Blavatsky suggested that she read the Hodgson Report before forming any firm conclusions, but Besant was not adversely affected and requested to be Blavatsky’s pupil. Thereafter Besant provided a secure refuge for the aging Theosophist at her own home in London. In her last years here, Blavatsky became the center of a memorable group of talented individuals. She died peacefully May 5, 1891.
Blavatsky’s detractors considered her to have been a hoaxster, a fraud, and a deceiver, while her followers revered her as a genius, a veritable saint, and a woman of monumental courage who had struggled against an incredible array of adversities and adversaries to fashion a modern mystery school without equal. Foe and follower alike conceded that she was a unique, sometimes overpowering, personality who had apparently traveled the world in search of spiritual truths and who had survived physical crises and challenges that would certainly have discouraged — or killed — a less indomitable individual.
Blavatsky writings include Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888). She had no problem with Christianity, but she preferred focusing on its esoteric traditions, which united it with all other religions. She popularized the study of reincarnation and past lives in Europe and the United States and introduced many occult and metaphysical concepts which flourished in the New Age Movement of the 1970s.
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