Helena Petrovna von Hahn was born at Ekaterinoslav, a town on the river Dnieper, in Southern Russia, on the 12th of August, 1831. She was the daughter of Colonel Peter von Hahn, and Helena de Fadeyev, a renowned novelist. On her mother’s side, she was the granddaughter of the gifted Princess Helena Dolgorukov, a noted botanist and writer. After the early death of her mother in 1842, Helena was brought up in her maternal grandparents’ house at Saratov, where her grandfather was Civil Governor.
Helena was an exceptional child, and at an early age was aware of being different from those around her. Her possession of certain psychic powers puzzled her family and friends. At once impatient of all authority, yet deeply sensitive, she was gifted in many ways. A clever linguist, a talented pianist and a fine artist, she was yet a fearless rider of half-broken horses, and always in close touch with nature. At a very early age she sensed that she was in some way dedicated to a life of service, and was aware of a special guidance and protection.
When almost eighteen, she married the middle-aged Nikifor V. Blavatsky, Vice-Governor of the Province of Yerivan, in a mood of rebellious independence and possibly with a plan to become free of her surroundings. The marriage, as such, meant nothing to her and was never consummated. In a few months she escaped and travelled widely in Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, on money supplied by her father.
On her twentieth birthday, in 1851, being then in London, she met the individual whom she had known in her psycho-spiritual visions from childhood — an Eastern Initiate of Rajput birth, the Mahatma Morya or M. as he became known in later years among Theosophists. He told her something of the work that was in store for her, and from that moment she accepted fully his guidance.
Later the same year, Helena embarked for Canada, and after adventurous travels in various parts of the U.S.A., Mexico, South America and the West Indies, went via the Cape and Ceylon to India in 1852. Her first attempt to enter Tibet failed. She returned to England via Java in 1853. In the Summer of 1854, she went to America again, crossing the Rockies with a caravan of emigrants, probably in a covered wagon.
In late 1855, she left for India via Japan and the Straits. On this trip she succeeded in entering Tibet through Kashmir and Ladakh, undergoing part of her occult training with her Master. In 1858 she was in France and Germany, and returned to Russia in the late Fall of the same year, staying a short time with her sister Vera at Pskov. From 1860 to 1865, she lived and travelled through the Caucasus, experiencing a severe physical and psychic crisis which placed her in complete control over her occult powers. She left Russia again in the Fall of 1865, and travelled extensively through the Balkans, Greece, Egypt, Syria and Italy and various other places.
In 1868 she went via India to Tibet. On this trip H.P.B. met the Master Koot Hoomi (K.H.) for the first time and stayed in his house in Little Tibet. In late 1870 she was back in Cyprus and Greece. Embarking for Egypt, she was shipwrecked near the island of Spetsai on July 4, 1871; saved from drowning, she went to Cairo where she tried to form a Societe Spirite which soon failed. After further travels through the Middle East, she returned for a short time to her relatives at Odessa, Russia in July, 1872. In the Spring of 1873, Helena was instructed by her Teacher to go to Paris, and on further direct orders from him, left for New York City where she landed July 7, 1873.
H.P. Blavatsky was then forty-two years old and in controlled possession of her many and most unusual spiritual and occult powers. In the opinion of the Mahatmas, she was the best available instrument for the work they had in mind, namely to offer to the world a new presentation, though only in brief outline of the age-old Theosophia, “The accumulated Wisdom of the ages, tested and verified by generations of Seers…,” that body of Truth of which religions, great and small, are but as branches of the parent tree. Her task was to challenge on the one hand the entrenched beliefs and dogmas of Christian Theology and on the other the equally dogmatic materialistic view of the science of her day. A crack, however, had recently appeared in the twofold set of mental fortifications. It was caused by Spiritualism, then sweeping America. To quote Helena’s own words: “I was sent to prove the phenomena and their reality, and to show the fallacy of the spiritualistic theory of spirits.”
In October, 1874, H.P.B. was put in touch by her Teachers with Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a man of sterling worth who had acquired considerable renown during the Civil War, had served the U.S. Government with distinction, and was at the time practicing law in New York. She also met William Quan Judge, a young Irish Lawyer, who was to play a unique role in the future Theosophical work.
On September 7, 1875, these three leading figures, together with several others, founded a society which they chose to call The Theosophical Society, as promulgating the ancient teachings of Theosophy, or the Wisdom concerning the Divine which had been the spiritual basis of other great movements of the past, such as Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and the Mystery-Schools of the Classical world. The Inaugural Address by the President-Founder, Colonel Olcott, was delivered November 17, 1875, a date which is considered to be the official date of the founding of the Society. Starting from a generalized statement of objectives, namely, “to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the Universe,” the Founders soon expressed them more specifically. After several minor changes in wording, the Objects stand today as follows:
1. to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
2. to encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
3. to investigate unexplained laws of Nature, and the powers latent in man.
In September 1877, a powerful impact was made upon the reading and thinking public by the publication of H.P. Blavatsky’s first monumental work, Isis Unveiled, which was issued by J.W. Bouton in New York City, the one thousand copies of the first printing being sold within ten days. The New York Herald-Tribune considered the work as one of the “remarkable productions of the century,” many other papers and journals speaking in similar terms. Isis Unveiled outlines the history, scope and development of the Occult Sciences, the nature and origin of Magic, the roots of Christianity, the errors of Christian Theology and the fallacies of established orthodox Science, against the backdrop of the secret teachings which run as a golden thread through bygone centuries, coming up to the surface every now and then in the various mystical movements of the last two thousand years or so.
On July 8, 1878, H.P. Blavatsky was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, an event which received publicity in various newspapers. In December of the same year, H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott left for India via England.
Arriving in Bombay in February, 1879, they established their Theosophical Headquarters in that city. Soon after landing, they were contacted by Alfred Percy Sinnett, then Editor of the Government Paper, The Pioneer of Allahabad. This contact soon proved of the utmost importance.
After a tour of northwestern India, the Founders returned to Bombay and started, in October, 1879, their first Theosophical Journal, The Theosophist (still published today), with H.P. Blavatsky as Editor. The society experienced then a rapid growth, and some very remarkable people were attracted to it both in India and elsewhere.
During May-July, 1880 the Founders spent some time in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where Colonel Olcott laid the foundations for his later work to stimulate the revival of Buddhism. They both took “Pancha Sila” or became officially Buddhists.
In September and October, 1880, H.P.B. and Colonel Olcott visited A.P. Sinnett and his wife Patience at Simla in northern India. The serious interest of Sinnett in the teachings and the work of the Theosophical Society prompted H.P. Blavatsky to establish a contact by correspondence between Sinnett and the two Adepts who were sponsoring the Society, Mahatmas K.H. and M. From this correspondence Sinnett wrote The Occult World(1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1883), both of which had an enormous influence in generating public interest in Theosophy. The replies and explanations given by the Mahatmas to the questions by Sinnett were embodied in their letters from 1880 to 1885 and were published in 1923 as The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett. The original letters from these Teachers are preserved in the British Library where they can be viewed by special permission in the Department of Rare Manuscripts.
In May, 1882, a large estate was bought in southern India at Adyar, near Madras, and the Theosophical Headquarters were moved there at the end of the year. This center became soon the radiating point for a world-wide activity. Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott engaged in trips to various outlying districts, founded Branches, received visitors, conducted an enormous correspondence with inquirers, and filled their Journal with most valuable and scholarly material the main purpose of which was to revitalize the dormant interest on the part of India in the spiritual worth of their own ancient Scriptures.
It is during this period that Colonel Olcott engaged in widespread mesmeric healings until February, 1884, when he left for London to petition the British Government on behalf of the Buddhists of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). H.P. Blavatsky, then in rather poor health, went to Europe with him.
After staying almost five months in Paris and London, H.P.B. visited the Gebhard family in Elberfeld, Germany during the late Summer and early Fall of 1884 and was busily engaged in writing her second work, The Secret Doctrine.
Meanwhile, a vicious attack on her by Alexis and Emma Coulomb (two of her staff members at Adyar) was rapidly building up. She returned to Adyar on December 21, 1884 to learn the details of the situation. She wished to sue the couple, already dismissed from Adyar for their gross libel on her concerning the supposed fraudulent production of psychic phenomena. H.P.B. was, however, overruled by a Committee of leading T.S. members, and in disgust resigned as Corresponding Secretary of the Society. On March 31, 1885, she left for Europe, never to return to Indian soil.
The Coulomb attack, as was later proved, had no solid foundation whatsoever. It was based on forged and partially forged letters, purporting to have been written by H.P. Blavatsky, with instructions to arrange fraudulent psychic phenomena of various kinds. A Christian missionary magazine in Madras published the most incriminating portions of these letters.
Meanwhile, the Society for Psychical Research (London) had appointed a special committee to investigate Madame Blavatsky’s claims. Then, in December, 1884, Richard Hodgson, a member of this S.P.R. committee, arrived in India to inquire into and report on the Coulombs’ allegations. Based upon Hodgson’s findings, the S.P.R. committee in its final report of December, 1885, branded Madame Blavatsky “one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting impostors in history.” Mr. Hodgson also accused Madame Blavatsky of being a Russian spy. This “S.P.R.-Hodgson” Report has been the basis for most subsequent attacks on H.P. Blavatsky, as to her dishonesty, the non-existence of her Masters, and the worthlessness of Theosophy.
In 1963, Adlai Waterman (pseudonym of Walter A. Carrithers, Jr.) in his definitive work entitled Obituary: The “Hodgson Report” on Madame Blavatsky, analyzed and refuted Hodgson’s contentions against Madame Blavatsky. A more recent refutation of some of Hodgson’s charges against H.P.B. is Vernon Harrison’s book titled H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885.
This vicious attack had a most unfavorable effect on H.P. Blavatsky’s health. Having left India for Europe, she settled first in Italy and then in August, 1885 at Wurzburg, Germany, where she worked on The Secret Doctrine. In July, 1886, she relocated to Ostend, Belgium, and in May of 1887, at the invitation of English Theosophists, she moved to a small house at Upper Norwood, London.
After her arrival in England, Theosophical activities immediately began to move rapidly. The Blavatsky Lodge was formed and started publicizing Theosophical ideas.
As H.P. Blavatsky had virtually lost control of The Theosophist, she founded in September, 1887 Lucifer, a monthly magazine designed, as stated on its title-page, “to bring to light the hidden things of darkness.” Also in the same month, H.P.B. moved to 17 Lansdowne Road, Holland Park, London.
H.P.B. continued to write her great work which was finally completed and published in two large volumes in October-December, 1888. Her indefatigable helpers in the transcription and editing of the manuscript were Bertram Keightley and Archibald Keightley, whose financial backing was also of immense assistance.
The Secret Doctrine was the crowning achievement of H.P. Blavatsky’s literary career. Volume I is concerned mainly with the evolution of the Universe. The skeleton of this volume is formed by seven Stanzas, translated from the Book of Dzyan, with commentary and explanations by H.P.B. Also in this volume is an extended elucidation of the fundamental symbols contained in the great religions and mythologies of the world. The second Volume contains a further series of Stanzas from the Book of Dzyan, which describe the evolution of humanity.
Also in October, 1888, Madame Blavatsky formed the Esoteric Section (or School) of the Theosophical Society for the deeper study of the Esoteric Philosophy by dedicated students, and wrote for them her three E. S. Instructions.
[The above sketch of Madame Blavatsky’s life has been adapted (with additions and deletions) from a biographical article on H.P.B. written by Boris de Zirkoff and published in Theosophia (Los Angeles, California), Summer 1968, pp. 3-8.]
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