Blavatsky on Buddhism
Blavatsky on Buddhism
Edited, introduced, and annotated by Urs App
Wil (Switzerland) / Paris: UniversityMedia, 2023. 400 pages. ISBN 978-3-906000-26-8 (hardcover); 978-3-906000-33-6 (paperback).
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891) co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 and authored the major texts of the movement: Isis Unveiled (1877), The Secret Doctrine (1888), The Key to Theosophy (1889), and The Voice of the Silence (1889). She inspired many artists including Alexander Scriabin, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Hilma af Klint, Nicholas Roerich, and Max Beckmann, and her thought played a decisive role for Rudolf Steiner, George Gurdjieff, and so many others that she has been called “the Mother of Modern Spirituality” and “the Mother of New Age.”
Blavatsky on Buddhism presents thirty-one interviews, letters, and articles of Helena Blavatsky, the co-founder and preeminent thinker of the Theosophical Society. They document the development of her acquaintance with and view of Buddhism during her most productive dozen years (1877-1889).
After founding the Theosophical Society in 1875, Madame Blavatsky began to proclaim in newspaper interviews and letters to be a Buddhist, and in 1880 she became one of the first Westerners to take the Buddhist lay precepts at a temple in Sri Lanka. She subsequently claimed to have spent more than seven years in Tibet studying with Adepts (“Mahatmas”), heirs to an esoteric wisdom tradition so ancient that even Gautama Buddha had been schooled in it.
A voracious reader, Madame Blavatsky gathered an impressive amount of information about Asia’s greatest religion and belligerently defended her idiosyncratic vision of Buddhism and Buddhist history against the very orientalists whose books she had intensively studied and copiously used.
Urs App, the renowned historian of the Western reception of Buddhism an author of The Birth of Orientalism (2010) and The Cult of Emptiness (2012), edited this volume and identified in his introductions, notes, and comments a great many sources used by Blavatsky in the course of her studies.
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In Helena Blavatsky’s lifetime (1831-1891) the perception of Buddhism in the West underwent monumental changes. Some information about Buddhism had reached Europe from the 16th century onward, but Europe’s first university chairs in Indology and Sinology were only established in the year 1815 (Paris). In the following decades Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan studies began to take root in European academia, and ever more publications about Buddhism appeared in various languages.
Due to the dearth of extant sources, relatively little is known about the actual reception of Buddhism by 19th-century Western individuals. Blavatsky’s reception is of exceptional interest not only because of her wide reading and the unique wealth of extant documentation (notebooks, letters, interviews, unpublished and published articles and books) but also because of the extraordinary influence her views exerted both in East and West.
The thirty-one interviews, letters, and articles in Blavatsky on Buddhism—each richly annotated and introduced by explanations of content and biographical context—document the development of H.P. Blavatsky’s views of Buddhism during her most productive dozen years (1877–1889).