[NOTE: Annually, on "White Lotus Day" (May 8th), theosophists throughout the world celebrate the life and work of our founder, the remarkable Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or as she preferred being called, "HPB." This year, the San Francisco Theosophical Society (SFTS) Lodge featured a deep, beautiful message from Lodge president Mary Power. This talk is not only rich in lessons from HPB's adventures and enterprises, but also in historical context and contemporary challenges.]
HPB, White Lotus, May 2022
by Mary Power, President of the San Francisco Lodge of the Theosophical Society
Good Evening and welcome to the San Francisco Theosophical Society. Tonight, we celebrate White Lotus Day, a memorial for Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. A woman who trail blazed passage into deep caves and jungles during the 19th century searching out the arcane teachings found within the Voice of the Silence. Through her many writings, most famously the Secret Doctrine and Isis Unveiled, and through her tireless labor and selfless dedication, HPB, as she preferred to be called, founded Theosophy. Her motivation was grounded in her deep spiritual concern for the human race. For she saw a dire need for the cultivation of tolerance, religious freedom, understanding and curiosity, well into the future.
Before we begin, I’m going to take a moment to refresh, again, the historical context of America, and our present times, as an atmospheric backdrop to the extraordinary placement of Theosophy and our lodge. First, we acknowledge the loss experienced by the aboriginal Ohlone spiritual community. We acknowledge their loss of rights, culture, language and lands in this place in California. As we live during a time where powerful people attempt to erase the brutality and violence of our American history, as our nation resists a turn backward into authoritarianism, American history itself is being banned from the book shelf and the class room, our voting rights, equal rights and laws are being revoked and oppressed. If our history is erased and banned for the next one hundred years, learning from egregious error will only be postponed, selfishly thrust upon some future generation to realize. Will we simply forget the worst of our history? Will we then believe we are incapable of egregious error? Will we believe man’s genocidal brutality is divine providence? America has emerged from a history that included chattel slave trade begun in 1619. It included wars against the indigenous populations that lasted for over three centuries—all the way up until 1924. Our recent world history records two World Wars, and other numerous religious, oil or resource wars and genocides. We are living in tumultuous times.
In this very moment, in America, there is an uptick in violence of white supremacy and domestic terrorism. Just yesterday, a terrorist attack was made by a white supremacist with an AR15 and a “white replacement” manifesto, sought out an African American community supermarket in Buffalo, New York. He was eventually surrounded and captured because he was white, not killed as he would have surely been had he been a person of color. He was captured after his hate crime killing spree leaving thirteen casualties, including 10 dead. The January 6, 2021 insurrection, a day when domestic terrorists, KKK and Nazi lovers stormed our White House Capitol to overthrow our democracy, to overturn a free and fair election they disagreed with. If that isn’t enough, we are riding the wave of a recent global pandemic directly linked to the imminent threat of climate collapse. At the same time, news of atrocities of Bucha and portents of Putin’s Russia nuclear level WW3 threats upon all of Europe, the West, democracies, an unprovoked genocidal invasion on Ukraine, show us the face of 21st century fascism.
Somehow though, we’ve come together this night to enjoy this sangha at this place of the San Francisco Theosophical Society. On these grounds bestowed to us for our spiritual enlightenment, we discuss, we learn, we leave room for disagreement without annihilation, we laugh and we spill tea, we embrace Theosophy under the freedoms provided by the constitution of the United States of America. So it is with humility in our hearts and minds, we share and grow this lodge, this place of our spiritual community.
What is Theosophy? Madame Blavatsky gave a quick response, one that doesn’t require any formal membership—common sense, a sense of humor and more common sense. That’s it. At the same time, our library offers a fascinating journey of inquiry into a variety of mystical traditions. Also we have these three avowed objects, guidelines to encourage the deepening of our spiritual life. We form a nucleus of the universal community, brotherhood/sisterhood, without distinction of race, creed, sex, gender, caste or color. We encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science. We investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in all sentient beings.
Ukraine was the birth place of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. She was born in what is now known as the city of Dnipro. But at the time of her birth in 1831, it was called Ekaterinoslav. Madame Blavatsky grew up hemmed in by the superstitions of the church, her family and the villagers of Ekaterinoslav. When she was only an infant, the patriarchal Russian orthodox church proclaimed her as a dangerous sign, due to the clumsiness of the priest and attendants who inadvertently set the baptismal ceremony ablaze. Also because, her birthday came between the night and morning of July 30th and 31st, marked days that predicted mysterious powers over the unseen. This mood steeped her childhood in the mystery and folklore of superhuman abilities and of the local nature spirits. Her servants were generally terrified of her, crossing themselves for their god in heaven then spitting thrice on the floor for the devil. She could not be contained. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky came from an imperial lineage—one traced all the way back to the first Russian Czar Rurik, who may have actually been a Swede, and to the ducal marriage between reigning imperial German and Romanov houses. After her mother died she and her sister went to live with her maternal grandmother in a large country castle in Saratov, Russia. Her childhood, as an aristocrat, included a place fully of abandoned passageways, turrets, prisoner dungeons, night adventure with lanterns, where she was surrounded by gendarmes and servants. And it was there she learned to ride Cossack horses like a man (1).
In 1848, she was married. At first, she fled her wedding night by horse but was betrayed by her guide, returned to the honeymoon suite with new guards keeping watch at the very door. After three months of this, she bolted again. This time by ship. Thoroughly searched by harbor police before it left for Constantinople, she hid in a bunk disguised as a sick cabin boy, the cabin boy hid in the coals. Once she had escaped the confines of forced marriage to General Blavatsky, she being seventeen, he being nearly seventy, her life was her own. And she traveled.
In 1873, she returned to America leaving from Paris. HPB befriended a poor woman and her children who had just been ripped off by a hack who sold them fake mailboat tickets to America. HPB took to heart on this family, sold her own first-class ticket, and purchased steerage tickets, boarding with the cattle, for herself, the woman and the children.
She then arrived in New York, with no money, no work and unknown plans for that visit, only knowing she was supposed to be there. She made several attempts at forming the Society. After her time in Cairo in 1871, HPB tried to found a Spiritual Society there but it didn’t take. In New York, while meeting mediums and debunking mediums, there was a proposal to form the Miracle Club. That idea failed when one of the mediums wanted to make a business for profit out of it, and the founders vehemently opposed this. HPB first met Colonel Henry Steele Olcott at the Chittenden farmhouse in Vermont. They were both invited, separately, to investigate the Spiritualist Movement events as presented by the Eddy brothers known for séances that produced ghosts and rappings.
The Colonel introduced himself speaking in French, then Colonel lighted HPB’s cigarette. It was 1874 and it was bold for a woman to smoke a cigarette in public. Olcott was an abolitionist, a lawyer, a professor, a writer, a chivalrous feminist, who was to become a lifelong fellow-adventurer of HPB who co-founded Theosophy with her. HPB held salons at 46 Irving Place in Philadelphia and later in New York City at the well know Lamasery. The salons’ audience numbered one hundred per night, included well known dignitaries, world travelers, scientists, and inventors like Thomas Edison and Sir William Crookes (famous British physicist and astronomer). It was the hip place to be, with cutting edge ideas of occult, philosophy and science paired with eccentric and lively discussion, which would have been altogether unimaginable within the stuffy-patriarchal white supremacist Indian War/Civil War Victorian era of the time. H. P. Blavatsky generally stirred the conversation with various topics ranging from “the phallic element in religion, recent wonders among the mediums, history, the souls of flowers, Italian character, the strangeness of travel, chemistry, poetry, Nature’s trinity, [the] Romanis, gravitation, the Carbonari, Crooke’s new discoveries about the force of light, the literature of Magic…the lost canon of proportion of the Egyptians.” (2)
It was during the post-Civil War and the ongoing westward expansion of American war upon the Indigenous population, when on November 17, 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded. The juxtaposition of the historical backdrop emphasizes this fun fact, Theosophy was founded in America first, a nation saturated in materialism. Theosophy opened a rainbow umbrella for curious mind to gather, where religions need not war against one another’s belief system, but instead share the essence of their arcane and mystical spiritual truths. Even now, fresh dialogue continues into two concepts Theosophy first introduced to the west, karma and reincarnation.
Four years after the founding of the Theosophical Society headquarters in New York, Blavatsky and Olcott embarked to India, and later established the international headquarters at Adyar in 1882. But before she left for India, however, she wrote the tome Isis Unveiled while at the same time she worked to become a naturalized American citizen. On July 8, 1878, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky proudly became the first Russian-American woman in the nation.
HPB and Olcott joked with each other frequently with nicknames and pranks. Olcott remembers, “We used to speak of ourselves as the Theosophical Twins and sometimes as a trinity; the chandelier hanging overhead making of the third party… [leaving NY] towards India, the last thing we did was to say, with mock seriousness, ‘Farewell, old Chandelier; silent, light-giving, unchanging friend and confidant!’” (3)
HPB was an adventuress, driven by generosity, fierce altruism and a passion for arcane knowledge. She worked with great Masters from around the world, sometimes remotely by her clairvoyant psychic abilities, sometimes with telekinesis and apports, and sometimes in person-to-person real life. She dedicated her entire life as ready to “dare and suffer all” for the sake of bearing Theosophy to the world. And she did. Blavatsky was a prolific writer. She wrote and spoke in several languages including Russian, French, English and Italian. HPB particularly enjoyed speaking French with great ease, but found the English language a prime choice in her prolific writings on esoteric philosophy. She didn’t tether herself up in Russian, European or Victorian social class. Most women in those days were completely restricted, and bound to faint, by corset. Therefore, it’s remarkable the amounts of travel all around the world Blavatsky did solo. Her travel stories as stowaway, in various disguises, were dangerous, surviving death by a hair in some instances. Also remarkable, was the amount of travel she had done in her lifetime, considering it was by ship, train or horse.
She was proudest of her time in Tibet more than Egypt or India or the others. Between 1855 and 1870, HPB spent about 7 years of that time in Tibet and Little Tibet (Ladakh). No other European had ever gone deep into the territories where she had gone to learn, study and prepare. Karmically, her time spent in Tibet was on the same level of importance as meeting Olcott in America.
Our San Francisco Lodge, chartered by Annie Besant, was founded August 10, 1901. Annie Besant first met HPB through reading the Secret Doctrine tomes. In 1889, Besant met Blavatsky in real life, became a member, and later in 1907, became the President of the Theosophical Society at Adyar. Besant knew her so called freethinker friends wouldn’t agree with any of this. But Annie Besant was a British socialist working and organizing for labor rights, children’s rights, she was a women’s rights activist. And she made her own choices.
HPB never nourished malice, even though she had plenty of opportunity. Here is just one story, more of a playful insult rather than some of the deathlike blows of betrayals she experienced from some of her closest friends. This story is about her friend William Rudolf O’Donovan, the artist who made a bronze medallion of her. (4) O’Donovan was a distinguished American sculptor who enjoyed HPB’s company by pretending he was Roman Catholic only by birth. Then periodically, he would enrage Blavatsky feigning that Roman Catholics would eventually eradicate all traces of Buddhism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism from earth. “She would fume and swear and call him an incurable idiot and other pet names, but to no purpose; he would sit and smoke in dignified silence without changing face, as if he were listening to a dramatic recitation in which the speaker’s own feelings had no share. When she talked and shouted herself out of breath, he would slowly turn his head towards some neighbor and say: ‘She speaks well, doesn’t she; but she don’t believe that; it is only her repartee. She will be a good Catholic someday. And then, when HPB exploded at this crowning audacity, and mad as if to throw something at him, he would slip away to the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea! I have known him bring friends there just to enjoy this species of bear-baiting; but HPB never nourished malice, and after relieving herself of a certain number of objurgations, would be as friendly as ever with her inveterate teazer.” (5)
Perhaps it was O’Donovan who became the inspiration behind the Q & A style book written by HPB in 1889 called, Key to Theosophy (12). Maybe she had been studying him as well, and made a final response to the “inveterate teazer”, a book of inquiry where she dismantles the tyranny of Judeo-Christian religion in relation to Theosophy.
HPB lived a full life of only sixty years,from 1831-1891. She requested that Moonlight Sonata be enjoyed for meditation music during her White Lotus Day memorial celebration. And asked for someone present to read "The Golden Stairs."
The Golden Stairs
A clean life, an open mind,
A pure heart, an eager intellect,
An unveiled spiritual perception,
A brotherliness for all,
A readiness to give and receive advice and instruction,
A courageous endurance of personal injustice,
A brave declaration of principles,
A valiant defense of those who are unjustly attacked,
And a constant eye to the ideal of human progression,
And perfection which the secret science depicts— These are the golden stairs Up the steps of which the learner may climb To the Temple of Divine Wisdom.
—H. P. Blavatsky
References: 1. Madame Blavatsky by G. Baseden Butt (1926) 2. Old Diary Leaves, H.S.Olcott, 2nd Edition 1941 vol.1 page 115 3. (Old Diary Leaves, H.S.Olcott, 2nd Edition 1941 vol.1 page 141) 4. https://theosophy.wiki/en/William_R._O%E2%80%99Donovan 5. Old Diary Leaves H.S.Olcott vol.1 1941 page 412