from The Theosophist May 1991

A Message Ahead of Its Time

By Hugh Shearman

A stand can be made against invasion by an
Army; none against invasion by an idea

Victor Hugo

Much has been written about the strange character and temperament of Madam Blavatsky. She was not the orderly and predictable sort of person who would have tended in her day to have won the confidence and approval of her contemporaries. But, looking back to her now, a hundred years later, we can begin to see that her mission of expressing something for the future made it very appropriate that she should have been the kind of person she was.

The age in which she lived was, in its predominant culture, particularly in western countries, a time of tidy logic and intellectual systematizing, when one thing proceeded evenly from another and the discursive mind enjoyed ample scope. Whether in science or in religion, there was a complacent and distinctly materialistic confidence that nearly all the factors needed for the composition of a coherent world image were at last ready to hand. It was a closed world of Cartesian thinking.

An event which seemed to sump up the intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century occurred in 1900, when Lord Kelvin addressed the Royal Institution of Great Britain and said that there were now only what he called two "clouds" on the horizon of physics. These two were the problems of black body radiation and of the Michelson-Morley experiment in the speed of light. He expressed confidence that these two problems would soon be cleared up and explained away. Then presumably - though he did not say so - physicists would know it all.

In the outcome, however, those two "clouds" heralded the end of the world as Lord Kelvin had known it. The black body radiation problem led on to the new world of quantum physics; and the Michelson- Morley experiment pointed forward to the theories of Einstein. The frontiers of the old world of Galileo and Newton were about to collapse.

What would the great Victorians, famous for their "values", have made of the modern idea of a sub-atomic particle moving backwards in time? Today the implications of physics for human nature and human psychology and the nature of selfhood are being increasingly recognized. A new physics is requiring a new kind of thinking and, as David Bohm has suggested a different sort of language.

All this was not directly expounded in the writings of Madam Blavatsky, but we can now see that it was present in them by implication and was certainly never excluded.

In philosophy, and to some extent in religion, the older ways of thinking had been challenged rather earlier by Kierkegaard. It has been said that the exists from the philosophical labyrinth had been blocked up by Kant, but Kierkegaard showed how to jump over the wall. Today the West can find meaning in Zen and does not have to dismiss Lao Tze as nonsense.

Madam Blavatsky had to live inside the climate and the limitation of that earlier age of thinking and living which, though few suspected it, was coming to an end. Yet she was writing for the age which was to follow. So, from within an age when people looked for sequential thinking and Cartesian exposition, Madam Blavatsky was able to speak for the future because her own personal thinking was not at all like that.

The Secret Doctrine is a rich jungle of a book. It did not have the characteristics of the sort of book that people looked for in the age in which it was written, with a clear beginning, middle and end, and with a lucid and connected argument running through it. It is often repetitious. When Colonel Olcott was helping Madam Blavatsky with the proofs of its predecessor, Isis Unveiled, he realized that, in piecing her paragraphs together, it did not seem to matter much in what order he put them.

Some have tried to edit The Secret Doctrine down into an abbreviated and orderly form, making it the vehicle for the propounding of a system; or they have used it as a quarry from which material could be extracted for the purpose of building a system. But a major ingredient in the message of The Secret Doctrine is that life is not a system and cannot be contained within a system. The jungle quality of the book is part of its message. Whatever the mind may say or do, an intuitive perception of wholeness cannot be merely analytical or sequential.

Among her booklength writings, the furthest Madam Blavatsky went in making concessions to the thinking of the age in which she had to work was The Key To Theosophy. But the attempt to offer Theosophy as a sort of systematic explanation of life was not her most successful undertaking. Others after her have tried to lick the material in The Key to Theosophy more into shape, but the devising of a containing shape for something that cannot be contained was not her task.

Madam Blavatsky's capacity for addressing the future comes out in a number of quotable instances, where she gave accounts of the age of the earth and the antiquity of humanity which were regarded as ridiculous in her own day but which, now, after a century of extending astronomy, geology and archeology and the use of such techniques as carbon dating, are generally endorsed.

The ontological aspect of her teaching has been such that it becomes increasingly acceptable today. She said that the teaching which came closest to it in her own days was that of the Advaitist School of Vedantism. She posited that all being is, so to speak, one thing. No part of life can be wholly isolated from the rest or remain unaffected by the rest. There was nothing in her teaching that excluded what has subsequently emerged in theories of relativity and uncertainty or the mathematics of chaos. We now know that no particular functioning of life is isolable and that the observer and the observed are ultimately inseparable and indeed are one. The word "holistic" is entering the popular vocabulary.

Since One Being is all, there is no separate mind to observe that being, and therefore, by a sort of logic which arises from our way of speaking, she said that the One Being of speaking, she said that the One Being is Non Being. Existence means having a being apart from something else, and in the end nothing is apart.

The book which Madam Blavatsky is said to have regarded as her most important was The Voice of the Silence. Perhaps it is superficially "dated" by the fact of being put into imitation archaic language, but it deals with the motivation of the individual, of you and me, within the kind of universe which she had described.

The Voice of the Silence rejects the guidance of the kind of mind that most of her contemporaries looked to for almost everything, the dualistic Cartesian mind of an older science which wholly separated the knower and the known.

The Voice of the Silence, for which the mind is the "slayer of the Real", asserts the same principle that is indicated in the second aphorism of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and stands in a very ancient tradition. Yet it shows how far that tradition had been lost, that even some of those who in theory accepted or at least respected Patanjali and The Voice of the Silence, saw its assertion by J. Krishnamurti, another who had addressed himself to an age ahead of his own, as a sort of heresy.

If Madam Blavatsky had been temperamentally well organized and ridden by a conventional mind, she could not have spoken so meaningfully from her period in history to us who live a hundred years later. We can now look back, with a little of the wisdom and hindsight, and see in her heritage much that here contemporaries could not have seen at the time. Yet we know that we have advanced only a little way into the new climate of understanding and, so far, it has touched only a small minority of mankind, and only a very few have been at all transformed by it. The moral and psychological implications which it holds for the individual have been entered upon only very superficially.

To speak and experience for the future placed Madam Blavatsky under great tension, exposed her to painful rejection even among those closely attached to her. But her work is increasingly coming into its own and, in the coming century, ought to be found speaking to a much more widely diffused quality of human understanding.


Dr Hugh Shearman , a former member of the General Council of the Theosophical Society Adyar, and a former Regional Secretary in Northern Ireland, is the author of The Passionate Necessity , The Purpose of Tragedy, Modern Theosophy, etc.

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