Blavatsky’s relevance in the 21st century

H.P. Blavatsky was my first spiritual love. As a 19-year-old I drank in her Key to Theosophy (*) and loved the idea of finding a common core between all religions, science and philosophy. I thought that this had to be attempted, for the welfare of humanity. Grand ideas – and very unrealistic. While the commonalities between religions should be valued and cherished, it is unrealistic to ignore the differences.

However much Hinduism and Buddhism have in common for instance, that doesn’t mean Buddhism is a form of Hinduism as some claim. The common history between Judaism, Christianity and Islam means that they grew up together. However, Muslims are well trained to explain why Islam is better than Christianity and Judaism. Similarly, starting with Paul, there is a lot of Christian theology that explains just how Christianity is beyond Judaism.

Back to Blavatsky. I learned a lot from studying her work for the next decade or so. I read her full Collected Writings. I ate it up, in fact. Most of it is a lot more legible than her famous Secret Doctrine.

When I started studying world religion (including Buddhism and Hinduism) at Leiden University, I learned – among other things – that Blavatsky’s use of terminology was often a bit off. In fact, the only way to understand her writings is by ignoring other people’s interpretations of Hindi and Sanskrit terms and sticking with Blavatsky’s. This is a sort of mental gymnastics few people can manage. One Buddhist-theosophical teacher I know used her Buddhist explanations of terminology in her explanation of theosophy. Many less learned theosophists do the opposite: they use Blavatsky’s interpretations of words when reading non-theosophical books.

Neither is fair.

In between the outdated 19th century science and the mystical elaborations, Blavatsky has nuggets of spiritual psychology to share that can help understand other spiritual traditions. Similarly: traditions should be taken at their word about themselves. Both are valid perspectives. If Christians deny a mystical dimension to Christianity, that is their right. Theosophists have no right to say that really, the true way to interpret their tradition is different from what they’ve always been told.

If you want to navigate various spiritual traditions, you need a rare flexibility and an ability to look at traditions with various glasses on. To be fair to a tradition, it is necessary to be able to look (at least as an approximation) with an emic viewpoint: from the perspective of believers. However, to be able to compare traditions an etic viewpoint is also necessary: the ability to look at it with an outsiders perspective. This is essential to the academic study of religion because it is the only way to try to do justice to the various perspectives involved. This is difficult even for academics.

Back to Blavatsky. She was in many ways ahead of her time. However, her work is also clearly a product of her time. While she popularized many themes that became popular in the 20th century alternative culture, her work also misses a few strands that have become essential to spirituality today. I have written elsewhere on what she got right. It is time to focus on what she missed out on.

Blavatsky wrote at a time when Western Psychology was in its infancy and the famous psychologists of her time had not yet made their mark in the public imagination. This is an essential point because psychology has since become one of the main ways we understand ourselves and each other. We have become such individualists that social structure and social demands are no longer as essential to our understanding of the world as they once were.

This point is essential, also, to the way Buddhism has landed in the West. When I say ‘Buddhism’, most people will think ‘meditation’. And when they think ‘meditation’ they are likely to also think of things like ‘spiritual experience’, ‘happiness‘, ‘bliss’. Those are all individual experiences. People will rarely think ‘refuge‘ when thinking of Buddhism, despite the fact that is more central to Buddhist practice than meditation ever was. Refuge is both personal and collective. As a social signal it says: I belong to the Buddhist community. It is also a personal practice, a way of affirming for yourself that Buddhist practice, truth and community are your primary spiritual support.

One of the things Blavatsky did not focus on much is precisely this: experience. It is not absent from her work, but it is also not her focus. Why? Because it wasn’t the focus of the people around her. Neither the 19th century Hindus and Buddhists nor her English and American audience were very interested in that sort of thing. They did get exited about uniting science and religion, about spiritualist messages from the dead, about Mahatmas sending physical letters across continents etc.

It is only in the early 20th century that experience as a measure of truth became part of the collective imagination. Experience as a measure of truth. Think about that for a second. This is why people are fascinated with Near Death Experiences and memories of past lives. Blavatsky didn’t go there, because to her audience it wasn’t relevant.

These days we tend to think experience is not relevant as a measure of truth. We don’t believe that monks can meditate themselves happier till it is ‘proven’ through an MRI scan that their brains really are different. Never mind that the only way to KNOW that someone is happy is still to ask them how they feel. MRI is a physical measure – an image can’t tell us what that person is feeling. Happiness isn’t objective, so trying to measure it objectively is a pipe dream. Don’t get me wrong, those MRI scans prove something: they prove that meditation changes the physical brain. That is highly relevant. It is still not the same thing as proving a subjective experience.

What does that tell us about Blavatsky? She is relevant as one of the first popular exponents of various themes that became to bloom in the 20th century. I recommend her Key to Theosophy to those interested in exploring her historical relevance. However, if you want a practical spiritual path, find a tradition that has one. Theosophy doesn’t. Blavatsky’s work does have pearls hidden in its depths, but in finding them you need to get through a conceptual maze. This maze is full of spiritual dead ends and a unique vocabulary that won’t do you much good in the non-theosophical world.

Notes

The The Key to Theosophy linked here hasn’t been edited to get rid of controversial material. Don’t bother with Blavatsky if you can’t deal with controversy.