It would probably be no exaggeration to say that the entire revival of occult and esoteric knowledge as a form of public knowledge, rather than as arcana known only to a few, stems from the tremendous intelligence and energy of one woman - Madame Helena Petrova Blavatsky (1831-1891), the founder of the Theosophical Society. If the Golden Dawn and its off-shoots represented the private face of occultism, the Theosophical Society was its public face.
Born of Russian Aristocratic parents, Blavatsky, a flamboyant and charismatic personality, was from an early age aware of her psychic abilities. She spent much of her life travelling through Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and America. Through her travels and under various teachers she was able to further develop her psychic powers. She claimed to have several times entered Tibet, which at that time was practically inaccessable to foreigners. It was there that she claimed to have met the secret Masters or Adepts who she said appointed her as their worldly representative.
The concept of Masters may have been derived from the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, a little-known occult organisation that was established in London in 1870, that Blavatsky was involved in for a time, under the guidance of Max Theon (who according to Mirra Mother's Agenda, vol 3, p.452) she met in Cairo, although the matter of influence, and even if they actually did meet, is debatable - see The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor p.9). Blavatsky later broke with the H. B. of L., never mentioned anything at all about Theon. Neveretheless, the similarity in parts of Blavatsky and Theon's respective teachings are striking, especially as regards the series of planes and seven subplanes.
According to K. Paul Johnson, the most plausible sources for HPB's cosmological ideas are:
"1.Isma'ili gnosis, where all three uses of seven as in HPB's writings are combined: the sevenfold universe, sevenfold initiatory path, sevenfold evolutionary process. I know of nowhere else that those specific uses are found together.
2.Kabbalah, where the sephiroth, globes of the Tree of Life, are part of esoteric framework HPB refers to consistently as relevant to her own understanding.
3.The Sant Mat tradition, which in its Radhasoami manifestion encountered by HPB in 1880s India taught a system of multiple planes of existence that could be successfully navigated by Mahatmas and their initiates but not by others. But HPB took all this and gave it a pseudoscientific gloss. "
In another book, The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge, SUNY Press, Paul Johnson argues that the "mahatmas" were dramatised historical adepts with invented names. David Pratt opposes this thesis in his The Theosophical Mahatmas - A Critique of Paul Johnson's New Myth.
In New York in 1875, Madam Blavatsky, with the help of an American lawyer and former soldier Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), and an Irish-born lawyer William Q. Judge (1851-1896), founded a new society "to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the Universe". They called it the Theosophical Society, from theosophy, a Neoplatonic term meaning "Divine Wisdom" or "Wisdom of the Gods".
Travelling to India, Blavatsky and Olcott established themselves at Adyar, near Madras, the proporty they aquired there eventually becoming the world headquarters of the Society. They then vistited Ceylon, where they converted (at least nominally). Then in Europe they established the nucleus of the movement in Britian, and no less than three Theosophical Societies in Paris.
Coming at a time when Spiritualism and Mesmerism were all the rage, when Darwin's scientific discoveries had undermined the authority of the church, and a magical-occult revival was underway in France, the time was certainly propitious. The new society flourished, disseminating occult and Eastern teachings to the intelligent public at large, and providing a powerful alternative to the restrictive dogmas of the conservative churches, the arid vision of materialistic science, and the fairy-floss superficialities of Spiritualism.
Within a few short years other movements and organisations had sprung up alongside the Spiritualists and Blavatsky's Theosophical Society. Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn were perhaps the three most important. The Occult rennaisance was well and truely flourishing. But it was to last only a few decades before conservatism once again took over. Not until the Counterculture movement of the mid-sixties would any comparable revolution of consciousness occur
Blavatsky was a woman of great intellect and prodigious output. Her two most important books are Isis Unveiled and her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888. Both of these books are almost unreadable. She also wrote The Key to Theosophy, a general introductory work.
The Secret Doctrine - Theosophical University Press Online Edition - yes, the entire thing is on-line.
The Key to Theosophy - Theosophical University Press Online Edition
Overall, Blavatsky's teachings were strongly syncretic, drawing from Indian, Tibetan, Platonic and Neoplatonic, Kabbalistic (the latter learned from Mathers), and contemporary 19th century occult and scientific sources. But although her writings, especially her monumental two volume Secret Doctrine, had a tremendous effect on a great many people, especially those who were spiritually-intellectually inclined, their convoluted and turgid style made them difficult to digest for the layperson.
Yet Blavatsky was not only a great synthesiser, but a great innovator as well (just consider her two enormous master works, Isis Unveiled and the Secret Doctrine). She introduced many new concepts: cyclic evolution, root races, Atlantis baroque stories ( not just Plato's parable, or even Donnelly's research), a cosmology of of innumerable cycles and worlds, and the completely original ideal, not of a yogi-saint, nor a boddhisattva, but, for want of a better word, a "superman"-adept, active on all planes in fulfillment of divine purpose, unlike the transcendence-striving boddhisattva ideal.
It is significant that the Theosophical Master predates both the Hermeticist's Inner Chief and the Nietzche's Obermensch. Nietzsche himself only came to fame in the 1900+s, whilst the original Theosophy was around in the 1880s.
Blavtsky's vast cosmology and psychology, with all its interminable details, makes the authentic Indo-Tibetan tradition seem prosaic in comparison. For whilst the genuine Indian and Tibetan teachings present a clear and straight-forward psychology, tending towards the dry and scholastic, Blavatsky re-introduces poetry and drama, and hard-core, occult-gnostic-style, esotericism. The Indo-Tibetan tradition is less occult-esoteric and more pragmatic and metaphysical, being a philosophical and iconographical adjunct to the praxis of yoga and meditation and the path to Liberation. Blavatsky in contrast constructed a whole new esoteric paradigm (re chakras, bodies, what happens after death, karma, universe,... of great detail and devoid of obsolete cultural conditioning, even if her terminology was rather difficult).
Her problem is that she didnt know how to write clear prose (a failing common to many esotericists - Steiner, Aurobindo, etc etc), and that she was confusing two impulses - the creative fire of authoring a new mythos, and the synthesising intellect of bringing together what is already established, but in a larger unity. In this context she was trying to create a new synthesis of science and Esotericism - using the most upto date science of her time, and seperating the wheat from the chaff as far as esotericism goes. Yet despite her success as an innovative visionary, she failed to establish a new universal science precisely because she put too much of her own stuff in - fascinating as all these ancient worlds and cycles and root races may be - they are also simply one more layer of myth - not the ur-reality behind all the myth.
Despite - or perhaps because of - their obscurity, the essentials of Blavatsky's teachings were absorbed by enough people, who in turn popularised and simplified them, to form the foundation of a wide range of so-called "esoteric" movements and teachings. All of these share a common cosmology, derived from Theosophy, and ultimately from Blavatsky herself: the existence of seven planes of existence and of subtle bodies and principles corresponding to each plane, the reincarnation of the higher spiritual principle(s) which evolve towards greater and greater perfection and Godhood through a seemingly endless succession of greater and greater stages of existence, the existence of nature spirits ("devas"); the existence of a hierarchy of secret spiritual Masters or Adepts who are from the Himalayas or from the spiritual planes guiding the evolution of humanity, and so on.
Blavatsky's legacy, through all of the planes and subplanes, and eras and sub-eras, was a new occult vision of reality (further developed by later Theosophical and related esotericists such as Rudolph Steiner, Alice Bailey, etc), which offered a detailed occult analysis of the structure of manifest reality and the spiritual forces and hierarchies behind it. And in spite of all its convolutions, it cannot be denied that in her cosmology and anthropogony Blavatsky recovers and repopularises the universal emanationist cosmology of previous esoteric teachings, stating it in a form that was to sustain the intelligent and mystically orientated Westerner at least until the explosion of occult knowledge and influx of original Indian mysticism that began in the late sixties, and that still has power and influence in both the Hermetic tradition and the New Age movement even today.
It has been said (by the modern American philosopher A. N. Whitehead) that all Western philosophy has been ultimately footnotes to Plato. In the same way, all subsequent western esotericism can rightly be described as footnotes to Blavatsky.
Blavatsky Study Center the most extensive archives of original source documents about Blavatsky's life that can be found on the web.
BLAVATSKY NET - the definative site on all things Blavatsky
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky - Wikipedia page
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky - short sympathetic bio. From the Theosophy Library Online
The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky - full-length book, by Daniel Caldwell. Also home domain.
H. P. Blavatsky - bio, from the The Theosophical Society
H. P. BLAVATSKY and the THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT - A Brief Historical Sketch - By CHARLES J. RYAN - Theosophical University Press Online Edition
Exploring Theosophy - The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy - David Pratt's Homepage - applies Blavatskyian Theosophy (especially as interpreted through Geoffrey de Purucker) to diverse areas in science, philosophy and religion. An intresting alternative to Judaeo-Christian Creationism.