A Flower in the Desert — H.P.B. and Her Legacy

Ondine Caruana

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, March 1999

Inspirational Lives …

Idealism has always required bravery. Anyone who has ever dared to defy social or political traditions in the name of freedom and equality for the sake of those who suffer, knows this to be true. It is in such company that we may rank Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB). One may say HPB began as a flower in the desert of the nineteenth century, a living symbol of the unexpected — a woman with a voice. That single voice is now a chorus, an ongoing plea for universal brotherhood and a tolerance that celebrates the diversity in the wisdom traditions of the world. For many the Theosophical Society, which HPB co-founded in 1875, remains a spiritual home in a twentieth century wilderness, only now beginning to shed the excesses of materialism and rediscover the saving graces of the Ancient Wisdom.

HPB was born on 12 August 1831 at Ekaterinoslav in the Ukraine to Colonel Peter von Hahn and Helena Andreyevna. She emerged from a female line that reflected a sincere propensity for social reform and ethical integrity. HPB’s mother was an established writer in her own right as was her Grand Aunt, Countess Ida Hahn-Hahn. In the second edition of her mother’s Complete Works published in 1905, it is stated that ‘In the thirties of last century there appeared in France, Germany and Russia several novels, … in which were treated, for the first time in history, the questions concerning the social position of women, in all its aspects. … To those novels one could actually trace the beginning of the so-called feminist movement and women’s suffrage in the Western World. Three women-writers were responsible for it: the famous George Sand in France, the Countess Ida H. Hahn-Hahn in Germany, and Helena Andreyevna Hahn in Russia, writing under the nom-de-plume, Zenaida Rva.’[1]

Blavatsky’s Grandmother, Princess Helena Pavlovna, was also concerned with those marginalised by society, being actively involved in assisting those affected by poverty. HPB’s biographer, Sylvia Cranston, credits Pavlovna with being ‘A benefactor to the poor, … [who] saved many families from starvation and set up a refuge for children.’[2] Whilst Blavatsky’s mother and grandmother expressed concern for social and economic reform, HPB herself went on to deepen these concerns to embrace a new kind of moral reform, one that was inherently spiritual and informed by a perennial wisdom. In The Key to Theosophy she commented:

The Theosophical Society’s aims are several; but the most important of all, are those which are likely to lead to the relief of human suffering under any or other form, moral as well as physical. And we believe the former to be far more important than the latter. Theosophy has to inculcate ethics; it has to purify the soul if it would relieve the physical body…[3]

HPB was a prolific writer with her major works reflecting a vast storehouse of diverse religious, philosophical and scientific resources. Her writings are indicative of a personal philosophy that valued openness to life, diverse and extensive study, questioning of the traditional (or popular) and freedom of the individual to embark upon their own search for truth regardless of any social condemnation. However, the path of free enquiry and HPB’s encouragement of others to embark upon it was not without its detractors. In the nineteenth century, to become a non-conformist was to forsake the logic upon which contemporary religious orthodoxy was based. In the West, the Christian church provided a religious framework which conferred guidelines for understanding one’s relationship to the Absolute and an ethic based upon a strict theological interpretation of the Bible. To ascribe to the alternative at this time implied many things, among them, dissatisfaction with the established order of things, a recognition of the need for reform and a certain degree of intellectual fearlessness that could continue in the face of any orthodox backlash. The theosophia of which HPB spoke represented a composite of values that those who rejected orthodoxy were seeking, namely intellectual freedom combined with a personal search for truth.

Blavatsky’s allegiance to her own moral convictions reveals an incredibly self-assured person, strong willed and dedicated to the living out of her spiritual ideals. There is an adage that asserts, ‘What is the reward of service? More service.’ In this vein, HPB’s spiritual vision was deeply infused with the knowledge that real beauty lies in one’s capacity to give and to love. In The Key To Theosophy, published in 1889, HPB wrote,

Modern ethics are beautiful to read about and hear discussed; but what are words unless converted into actions? . . . our duty is to drink without a murmur to the last drop, whatever contents the cup of life may have in store for us, to pluck the roses of life only for the fragrance they may shed on others, and to be ourselves content but with the thorns, if that fragrance cannot be enjoyed without depriving someone else of it.[4]

HPB was a living impetus for people in the West to see themselves in terms other than materialistic — for people to understand life more in terms of giving than getting.

The spiritual vision, which HPB served to champion throughout her whole life, continues to blossom in the form of the modern Theosophical Society. Today, as in the past, the TS exists as a haven amidst social, material and religious orthodoxy. It remains a place of exploration for new and ancient ideas, the sharing of diverse experience, solidarity and friendship. During the early part of this century in Australia, several people (intellectuals in particular) rejected orthodox Christianity because it did not seem able to practically sustain the spiritual and social well-being of the community. Many of these people found themselves attracted to secularist and spiritualist movements, in which was recognised a dire need for social reform. Secularism and its institutions challenged traditionally entrenched notions about the nature of society, the origin of its problems, the relevance of its institutions and the nature of gender and humanity. They were effectively responsible for establishing an alternative niche in Australian society in which more radical and non-conformist social, political, economic and religious theories could be expressed. Theosophy was able to grasp a foothold as a valid spiritual alternative in the alternative culture engendered by the growth of feminism, socialism, spiritualism and the free thought movement. In a sense, Theosophy was another form of radicalism, yet its brand was distinctly of the moral and spiritual kind and its aims were also intimately bound up with reform, not merely of society but of the human condition.

For many who continue to seek to understand the divine reality of the universe, religious fundamentalism cannot satisfy. For such people, in a universe that seems limitless it may seem futile to try and understand it in terms of a limited world-view or religious framework. Perhaps to these individuals true religion, like the universe itself, is without boundaries. In Australia, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, orthodoxy tended to play down the mystery of God and divine matters by implying that the Christian Church had all the answers one needed to know. Theosophy tends to see the scriptures as doorways to wisdom and not necessarily as an end in themselves. Indeed, Theosophy represents a constant impetus, an ongoing, ever-changing evolution of cosmic proportions in which all life is intimately involved. Underlying the teachings of Theosophy is the oneness of all life that understands separateness as illusory. To those who are repelled by the prejudicial intolerance of a sometimes indifferent world, the Theosophical Society remains a haven where the inherent sacredness of human beings and all creation alike are recognised.

HPB wrote in The Key to Theosophy, ‘A tree is known by its fruit, a system by its results.’[5] The Ancient Wisdom, coupled with freedom of thought, appear to constitute the roots of the theosophical World Tree. But what of the fruits? What are the fruits of the modern day theosophical tree? Perhaps each of us is called to be a living branch or conduit of the Ancient Wisdom. At the very least, we would seem to be its modern custodians. We have been entrusted with the task of stretching out the fruit of another way, of an alternative way of understanding the profounder questions of one’s life experience. We live in a world where the popular values are closely interwoven with monetary value. There continues today a lot of seeking after the physical. In this intense scramble for happiness (or a sense of wholeness), many have become intoxicated with things but remain unfulfilled. It seems that the depths of ourselves are not satisfied with the distractions of materialism, for the spiritually hungry soul seeks a more luminescent pearl — truth itself. In the Theosophical Society, each member potentially stands as a testimony to another way of living which places value not so much on the tangible things of this world but on intangible truths. Sir Edwin Arnold, who wrote The Light of Asia, maintained:

. . . I believe that the Theosophical Movement has had an excellent effect upon humanity. It has made a large number of people understand what all India always understood, and that is the importance of invisible things. The real universe is that which you do not see . . . The Theosophists have impressed upon the present generation the necessity of admitting the existence of the invisible.[6]

The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once wrote, ‘Wherever a society favours true liberty, monks will be an integral part of that society because the monastery itself is the home of transcendent and spiritual freedom. As such, it reproduces on earth the divine charity of which all human freedoms and human communions are but the shadow.’[7] Perhaps we have in the Theosophical Society a centre that operates in a similar spirit to that of the spiritual house of which Merton spoke. For the Theosophical Society is surely a place which nurtures and upholds the human spirit. It is a living centre where love, brotherhood and wisdom are valued and cultivated, where space is made for the expression of individual search and the sharing of individual human experience. If the Theosophical Society essentially began like HPB herself, as a flower in the desert, today the Society is more akin to a garden — a garden of diversity which cultivates human freedom, peacefulness, joy, sensitivity and compassion.

It appears that the legacy of HPB today is not merely confined to a vast body of literature, as valuable as it may be. For many, classical theosophical teachings are both a revelation and a starting point that sets us in intellectual and philanthropic directions we never even dreamed of. Perhaps HPB’s greater legacy resides in the spirit of every person who responds in some way to the practical ideals of the society HPB founded and in a way of life which seeks to embody those ideals in one’s relationships with the earth and with every living being. It is the relatively young but thriving nucleus of brotherhood to which each of us contributes something unique and precious. Today HPB’s message of unity and compassion for all life continues to resound not merely from the lips of members of the Theosophical Society, but from a growing number of people who see value in all religious traditions and seek some degree of religious synthesis and tolerance in their lives. Perhaps more than anything else, HPB’s life reveals that a life of non-conformity inspired by a spiritual vision is more than simply a choice for some but a way of life, and that non-conformists themselves can be the most effective mechanisms for positive social and ethical change.

Footnotes:

[1] Cranston, S., The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, G.P Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1993, p.6.

[2] ibid, p.5.

[3] Blavatsky, H.P., The Key to Theosophy, The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, 1987, p.24.

[4] ibid, p.230.

[5] ibid, p.23.

[6] Cranston. S, op cit., p.428.

[7] Merton. T, The Silent Life, Sheldon Press, London, 1957, p.176.