Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism

by Agehananda Bharati
Part IV

Mme. Helena Blavatsky ca. 1875

I do not doubt that in her earlier years, Blavatsky must have been a highly eclectic, voracious reader. But as with all non-scholars in the field of religious systems, she did not unmix the genuine from the phony; she obviously regarded all sources as equally valid. Not knowing any of the primary languages of the Buddhist-Hindu tradition, she had to rely on whatever had been translated. And, as an epiphenomenon to the awakening interest in oriental studies, a large number of unscholarly writings emerged, produced by people who thought, or pretended, that they could get the meat of the newly discovered wisdom of the East by speculating about it in their own way rather than by being guided by its sources, or by seeking guidance from authentic teachers in those eastern lands.

Blavatsky, Besant, and the other founders of the Theosophical movement were of course familiar with other translations then available. The I Ching had just about then been translated into French for the first time, though Richard Wilhelm’s classical translation into English was published after the Secret Doctrine. This whole quasi-mathematical, highly self-indulgent speculation, of course, was part of the emotional packet of the Renaissance and the late Middle Ages in general. There is no doubt that esotericism was, always is, a reaction against the official ecclesiastical hierarchy and against the official doctrines.

In India and Tibet, esotericization never took to this kind of pseudo-geometrical-mathematical model, since those models were already part of the official, scholarly traditions available. In these two countries, esotericization used what I call psycho-experimentational models, including the erotic, as instruments of opposition and criticism of the official religious establishments.

It is quite obvious that Mme. Blavatsky very much identified with this European tradition of opposing the occidental religious belief system by esoteric, i.e. quasi-mathematical, pseudo-scientific speculations and by writings that encompassed diagrammatic representations of a secret universe. The Secret Doctrine and much of the older "Esoteric" (later "Eastern") sections of the Theosophical Society generated a welter of phantasmagoria of a spherical, cyclical, graphic overlay type; the vague acquaintance with mandala paintings in India added zest to these creations.

I am just not sure whether Mine. Blavatsky read the serious Hindu and Buddhist literature in translation and commentary available in her days, particularly the Sacred Books of the East, created by Max Mueller in the 80’s of the last century. If she did, little of it showed in her writings. One of the most annoying features in the "M Letters" (M for Master) is her use of semi-fictitious names, like "H Master K" (Koot Humi). There is, of course, no such name in an Indian language or in Tibetan. But in the Upanisads, there is a minor rishi mentioned, by the obviously non-Indo-European name Kuthumi. Just where she picked it up I don’t know, but I suspect she might have seen R.E. Hume’s Twelve Principal Upanisads, which was first published by Oxford University Press in the late 80’s of the 19th century. The silly spelling "Koot Hoomi" was probably due to the occidental mystery peddlers’ desire to make words sound more interesting by splitting then into a quasi-Chinese series of letters.

The Master Letters signed "K" are quite clearly Blavatsky’s own invention; no Indian or Tibetan recluse talks or writes like the European feuilleton writer of the early 20th century. In a passage, "K" (for Koot Hoomi) criticizes a writer for saying that "the sacred man wants the gods to be properly worshipped, a healthy life lived, and women loved." "K" comments "the sacred person wants no such thing, unless he is a Frenchman:" The inane stupidity that must have gone into the early converts actually believing that an Indian or Tibetan guru would use these European stereogibes, is puzzling. Yet again mundus vult decipi, and if the average Western alien feels she or he can get the esoteric goods, she or he tends to lower the level of skepticism to a virtual zero.

The works of Swami Vivekananda appeared at about the same time as the Secret Doctrine. Vivekananda knew of, and heartily detested, the esotericism of the Theosophical Society; he pronounced his disdain at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1892--at which convention the Theosophists were well represented. But while the followers of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda movements as well as the followers of most other neo-Hindu or neo-Buddhist movements officially decried the esoteric, they and other groups marginal to them either blurred that relatively parochial rejection of the esoteric, or, much more commonly, they blended both the esoteric of the Blavatsky type and the Hindu-Buddhist reformist of the Vivekananda-Anagarika Dharmapala types into the kind of broth which is now solidly ensconced in the wisdom-seeking kitchens of the Western world.