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BOOK REVIEW: "Madame Blavatsky" by Gary Lachman

Tarcher / Penguin
"Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality" by Gary Lachman
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BOOK REVIEW: Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality by Gary Lachman (Tarcher/Penguin) 2012

Having read previous books on noted philosophers and mystics, including a biography on anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner (reviewed here) and synchronicity discover Carl G. Jung (Jung the Mystic), I am always impressed with Gary Lachman’s warm and conversational writing style. I feel that with each fascinating individual he examines, you are placed right alongside him as he learns and discovers information about the person being written about.

And such is the case in Lachman’s 2012 biography on the unmatched mystic and occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, better known as Madame Blavatsky, or simply “HPB.” She is known for founding Theosophy, and writing the important occult works Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, among others.

A Russian through-and-through, Blavatsky was born with an innate sense of curiosity and was drawn to the unknown at a time in the mid-to-late 19th century when unconventional belief systems, primarily from the East – along with Spiritualism – were being increasingly embraced at that time.

“There’s something in the Russian soul,” writes Lachman, “Especially when touching on religious, occult, and mystical matter, that’s unlike any other national temperament.” Noting everyone from Tolstoy to Rasputin, Lachman (who started out playing bass with the New Wave rock band Blondie as “Gary Valentine”) says Russian have an “obsession here with things of the spirit unlike that of any other people.”

Blavatsky was certainly living up to the Russian reputation – and then some. She seemed to have supernatural “gifts” and abilities that stunned those around her. She seemed to take it all in stride, from the way Lachman explains it.

Briefly married and seemingly asexual, HPB traveled the world in a fearless manner that impressed enough people along the way that doors were unlocked and information was revealed to her. It was due to Blavatsky’s enduring curiosity and wonder and knowledge of the ancients and the ways of Tibetan Buddhist monks and lamas, that many so-called “New Age” practices are part of our culture now, from reincarnation to karma to yoga to meditation. The highly influential HPB is directly responsible for a lot of these ideas and beliefs making their way to the West.

And while there is debate about whether Blavatsky actually ever made it to Tibet, there is no question that the mysteries of Tibet were shared with her. Lachman writes that she learned Senzar and English, while in Tibet for half-a-dozen years, and also developed her “psychic powers.” And this is when the so-called “Masters” enter into the picture. Who were they, really?

Western visitors to Tibet – like Alexandra David-Neel and others commented on the “frequency of telepathic phenomena among the inhabitants of Tibet,” and also spoke of a remarkable “power,” which is referred to as a “tulpa.” This has been written about by cryptozoological researchers Loren Coleman and Nick Redfern ("a creature of the mind") in recent years and remains as fascinating now as it did in David-Neel’s time and earlier in HPB’s time.

A tulpa, writes Lachman, “(is) a mental or imaginary image or form that takes on a concrete and living character.” Tulpas posed a problem for David-Neel, but as Tibetan Buddhism views the universe to “a magical display, a mirage, a flash of lightning, or the ripples of waves on the sea,” and that “Gods, demons, the whole universe, are but a mirage which exists in the mind,” tulpas, “psychic powers,” materializing and dematerializing is simply in line with the beliefs of the native Tibetans and the ideas and philosophies that HPB embraced as her own.

Following her earlier travels, Blavatsky, along with her partner Henry Olcott, a veteran of the American Civil War, found the Theosophical Society, which married religious beliefs with the occult. Word was spreading about her travels, work and ideas. It was being warmly embraced by many who had soured on conventional religious ideas that pervaded in America and the West at that time. 

After time in America, the TS is moved to Adyar, India and it and HPB began really making an impact, finding their way into the lives of many and into history. And what an amazing life HPB led!

Over the course of 300 easy-to-read-and-digest pages, Gary Lachman, the premiere, modern writer on all things occult, really does a fine job offering readers an introductory and fascinating look at Madame Blavatsky. Of course with a larger than life character like HPB, we know there is much more information to be mined and we hope Lachman takes another look at Blavatsky's life and work at a future time.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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