H.P. Blavatsky, her life and influence
H.P. Blavatsky or H.P.B. as she was often called, was born July 31st 1831 (or August 12th western calendar) at Ekaterinosklav in
Historians think of H.P. Blavatsky as the person who started what is currently called New Age. H.P. Blavatsky is not unique in the fact that she talked of occultism as a live factor in her life. Nor was she the first to search in the orient for wisdom. What she did though was combine these two in her (in my opinion) two major achievements. First the founding of the Theosophical Society, which embraces free research into both these realms. Second the writing of articles and books. For instance The Secret Doctrine, which synthesises east and west, science and occultism into one great vision of past present and future. Included in her writings is also her last book: "The Voice of the Silence", which places the individual searcher on the path of illumination, moderated by ethics and self-knowledge.
H.P. Blavatsky was in her time, and is still, a controversial figure. As a female public figure at the end of the nineteenth-century (she lived from 1831 till 1891) she was bound to be scorned. The fact that her opinions were unusual to say the least and scorned even by the people who she started out championing (the spiritualists) did not help. The phenomena she produced caused the attention she needed to start her work. But it also gave her the name of a juggler, a deceiver and those around her were (in the public opinion) either dupes or accomplices. Aside from this she had a temper which was terrible even in her own estimation. She was no saint, in the ordinary sense of the word. Founder of the Theosophical Society, which members these days are in a majority vegetarians, she ate meat and a lot of it.
Blavatsky - an early feminist, or was she?
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky was a woman of noble birth, educated very well for a lady of the 19th century. She learned French, English, literature and piano playing.
The time was one in which women did not have a lot of rights. For instance while Jewish men were being given the right to vote in most European countries while she was alive, women weren't allowed to vote until the early 20th century: after Blavatsky's death.
Blavatsky is a name in esotericism now. Her works are remembered, but for the people of her time it was essential that the Theosophical Society she founded was headed by a man: Col. Olcott. Col. Olcott is still remembered: mainly for his work for the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. I have nothing against him, but it does seem strange that Blavatsky would need a man in the first place. She did. Any strong woman had a prominent man beside her back then.
Annie Besant (also a theosophist later on) had a whole string of strong men (only one husband though) around - when a new project came up she found a new man to support her in that endeavor.
But with Blavatsky it was different. Not only did she need men to support her, she also took on masculine characteristics - probably to be more plausible as a spiritual teacher, though there has been speculation that she might have crossed gender more fundamentally. Many have remarked on her swearwords, her smoking and her lack of emotional control. In other words: she got angry. Looking at the people she got most angry with: they were all men. These same men were quick to notice that she wasn't so feminine in their eyes.
At the time this anger was explained both as a test on the men, as well as a result of her peculiar psychological state as messenger of the masters. Looking back on it, I wonder: was it perhaps a way to shock the men into listening to someone who was after all only a woman?
Olcott remarked that she was more of a hermaphrodite. He probably did not mean that literally. However, there is a doctor's certificate stating that she could never have had sex, or a child, in her life. We will never be sure, but there is a possibility that she was in fact biologically hermaphrodite: a rare but not unkown condition. It might explain why her mother, who died when Helena was young, was so worried about her future. It may also explain why, in The Secret Doctrine, the state of hermaphroditism is seen as the future of physical evolution. This has a platonic background, but we may wonder whether Blavatsky had personal reasons for giving the idea a central place in her cosmology.
Social scientists who look at the early Theosophical Society have noticed that quite a few of the early members had connections with people who developed a gay lifestyle. The ideal of hermaphroditism certainly must have helped them justify that path. There have been speculations whether Blavatsky herself was gay, though there is no indication she actually acted on it.
With all these speculations we can only guess and will never be sure. We can however be sure that the central place of hermaphroditism in her cosmology was not an eastern influence: while it's not an unknown state in India, traditionally, it's not a respected one either. For instance, the Buddhist monastic code excludes hermaphrodites from the (male) sangha.
- Blavatsky's articles are published on this website. See the Blavatsky Collected Writings. Included is a chronological survey of each year of her public life - with each volume.
- See also a general outline of her life prior to her public work
- and an inventory of her earliest known writings.
(*) An Abridgement of the Secret Doctrine, by E. Preston en Chr. Humphries.