Philosopher or faker?

A meeting explored works of Helena Blavatsky.

The Philadelphia Inquirer/June 17, 2006
By Kristin E. Holmes

More than a century after she lived in a rowhouse on Sansom Street, a chain-smoking mystic and her teachings still attract spiritual seekers and the curious.

Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky helped introduce Eastern religions to the West and practiced the occult. She inspired devotion and suspicion, and some researchers say the modern "New Age" movement began with her.

Blavatsky was a cofounder of theosophy, which the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines as "various philosophies professing to achieve a knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, especially a modern movement following Hindu and Buddhist teachings and seeking universal brotherhood."

Last week, more than 100 people gathered at the Masonic Temple in Center City to consider the teachings of a woman who inspired such notables as Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas A. Edison.

"She didn't present anything new, but a more modern expression of universal traditions," said Steven Levy, a psychiatrist from Philadelphia who has been a student of theosophy for more than 30 years. Blavatsky's position was that there were basic truths underlying all religious traditions - as well as science - and that discovering them could be a path to universal brotherhood.

But Blavatsky's detractors have doubts. She has been called a fraud and accused of faking what she said was her ability to communicate with the spirits, and the movement she inspired was mired by scandal and splits that depleted its influence and following.

"I certainly don't believe her claims that she contacted the spiritual world - nor do I think she did," said Peter Washington, author of Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America. "But as to her influence, I think it's been absolutely enormous and difficult to quantify."

Born in 1831, Blavatsky was a runaway teenage bride of the Russian aristocracy when she began to travel the world. During that time, she said, she studied in under spiritual masters or sages in Tibet. She settled in the United States in the 1870s and began writing. For five months in 1875, Blavatsky lived in a Sansom Street house now occupied by the White Dog Cafe restaurant. (The cafe's name comes from a letter written by Blavatsky that referred to her infected leg's being healed after a white dog slept on it at night, but theosophists believe she was being sarcastic.) Blavatsky then moved to New York, where she cofounded the Theosophical Society. Theosophy is derived from the Greek words theos, meaning God or divinity, and sophia, or wisdom.

The movement's three primary principles are that there is one true source of life; that laws of cause and effect pertain not only to science, but also to the spiritual and psychological; and that evolution applies not only to the physical, but also to the spiritual, Levy said. The tradition includes beliefs in karma and reincarnation.

Last Saturday's conference was sponsored by the Philadelphia chapter of the United Lodge of Theosophists, with participants also coming from New York and Washington. The lodge was founded in 1909, nearly 20 years after Blavatsky's death, and was product of a series of splits in the movement that have since produced numerous groups. Theosophical Society member Robert Crosbie founded the lodge because he wanted to focus on the writings of Blavatsky, often referred to as HPB, and society cofounder William Quan Judge.

The parent organization split into one now based in California (the Theosophical Society) and another with international headquarters in India, the U.S. branch of which is called the Theosophical Society in America.

The movement reached its high point in the early 1920s with hundreds of thousands of followers, but declined amid fallout from a sex scandal involving one leader, and the death or disaffection of others, Washington said. He suspects there might be a resurgence in interest in theosophy because of an increased interest in religion and personal spirituality.

Locally, about 30 people meet regularly at the United Lodge of Theosophists in Center City, but there is no obligation to attend and many study on their own, said Leslie Royce Pochos of Philadelphia, a student of the tradition for 36 years.

Pochos discovered theosophy at a time when she was searching.

"I was looking for something that left nobody out," said Pochos, who was raised a Christian Scientist. "I could never look at someone and think, well, they are so bad that they are beyond saving."

At the conference, there were longtime devotees and people new to the tradition.

Sachio Ko-Yin of Philadelphia was confirmed as a Roman Catholic, then began practicing Buddhism. He attended the conference to find out more about theosophy.

"The emphasis on universal brotherhood is what attracted me," Ko-Yin said. "And I've always been interested in the mystical tradition, and looking inside oneself."

Dupre Davenport of Washington was involved in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s.

"When I saw that the physical revolution wasn't going to happen, I started looking toward the metaphysical," said Davenport, a panelist at the conference who was raised as a Southern Baptist. "I reject Eurocentrism. I wanted a more universal view."

The heart of religious belief is the search for "an objective truth," that also involves the subjective, including one's personal taste and choice, Washington said. "If someone says it's changed their life, then who are you to say it's all nonsense?"

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