RE: Philosopher or faker? A meeting explored works of Helena Blavatsky.
Jun 18, 2006 07:16 AM
by W.Dallas TenBroeck
6/18/2006 7:10 AM
Of INTEREST == Report of a U L T Meeting in Philadelphia
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Subject: Philosopher or faker? A meeting explored works of Helena Blavatsky.
Contact staff writer for The PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Kristin E. Holmes at
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Posted on Sat, Jun. 17, 2006
Philosopher or faker?
A meeting explored works of Helena Blavatsky.
By Kristin E. Holmes
Inquirer Staff Writer
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
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
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,
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
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
Sachio Ko-Yin of Philadelphia was confirmed as a Roman Catholic, then began
practicing Buddhism. He attended the conference to find out more about
"The emphasis on universal brotherhood is what attracted me," Ko-Yin said.
"And I've always been interested in the mystical tradition, and looking
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?"
Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or
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