Blavatsky's Influence

I think since around the mid-80s, Blavatsky has been getting wider recognition for her influence on contemporary spirituality. With the completion of her fourteen volume collected writings in the 1980s, spearheaded by Boris de Zirkoff, her stock was on the rise.

A major step in rehabilitating her much-maligned reputation occurred in 1986,  when a work by Vernon Harrison, a research worker of disputed documents, was published (S.P.R. Journal (Vol.53 April 1986)).  It was a thorough study of the notorious Hodgson report, issued by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1885 and has since been the primary source of misunderstandings concerning Blavatsky. Harrison concluded that the report's "errors of procedure, its inconsistencies, its faulty reasoning and bias, its hostility towards the subject and its contempt for the 'native' and other witnesses, would have become apparent; and the case would have been referred back for further study." Since Blavatsky "was the most important occultist ever" investigated by the SPR, the process was a “wasted opportunity”.(p33)

The SPR also issued an accompanying press release in which a long-standing member of the S.P.R., Dr. Beloff states: "Whether readers agree or disagree with his conclusions, we are pleased to offer him the hospitality of our columns and we hope that, hereafter, Theosophists, and, indeed, all who care for the reputation of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, will look upon us in a more kindly light."

The 80s also saw the creation of a serious Theosophical history project, founded by Leslie Price. . The publication of Michael Gomes' The Dawning the Theosophical Movement (1987), brought a new level of objectivty and acuracy to theosophical publications. Sylvia Cranston's 1985 biography, H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, though critiqued for partisanship, is nonetheless a thorough, well-researched work that gives Blavatsky due credit and clarifies many a misconception. It remains, arguably, the finest Blavatsky biography to date.

Robert Ellwood in his essay, “The American Theosophical Synthesis” in the anthology The Occult in America (University of Illinois Press, 1983) wrote a perceptive review of Blavatsky's contributions :"Theosophy’s program was through rational but not reductionist means to restore consciousness as a pervasive presence to the world described by science, and to liberate religion to enjoy its worldwide heritage and its ultimate compatibility with all that science discovers. To do so it must, HPB believed, draw models for reality undogmatically but forcefully from the wisdom of those the wisest in spirituality’s worldwide past. Something had once been known, she was convinced, that was lost amide the rise of competitive religion and one-dimensional science in historical times. We have seen what some of those models were, and what the more immediate sources for them were in traditions she thought be in touch with that past and its hidden but living present. The details are perhaps less important than the program in understanding the appeal of Theosophy, and its initial emergence as a synthesis attempting to contain an epochal crisis in the human spirit". (130-31) Since then, the growth of historical studies on theosophy has continued to expand appreciably. 

For her contributions to the field of the Kabbalah, Moshe Idel, a scholar of Jewish mysticism,  mentions Blavatsky In his book, Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish Mysticism and Twentieth-Century Thought, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, p. 85: "Scholem’s emphasis on the role of symbolism in a preeminently medieval literature such as Kabbalah is corroborated by other scholars dealing with medieval material in general, with Christian mysticism, and even with Kabbalah. So, for example, we find similar views, expressed long before Scholem’s characterization quoted above, in the writings of G.G. Coulton, W.R. Inge, and Madame Blavatsky. For our purpose it is sufficient to quote Madame Blavatsky, a follower of the Renaissance Christian kabbalists who formulated their conception of the Kabbalah in a way accepted and further developed by many modern scholars of the Kabbalah: “The Kabbalist is a student of ‘secret science,’ one who interprets the hidden meaning of the Scriptures with the help of the symbolical Kabbalah, and explains the real one of these meanings.” 
For her contributions to the field of Gnosticism, Richard Smith (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 1977, Brill, p.537) notes that: "It was Madame Blavatsky who first claimed the Gnostics as precursors for the occult movement. In her program to divide speculative learning into esoteric and exoteric, truth and religion, the Gnostics were an obvious opposition to what she called "Churchianity." She absorbed the Gnostics, in her universal free-associative style, into a great occult synthesis."

Peter Harvey's An Introduction to Buddhism(Cambridge University Press 1990) has become a major textbook on Buddhism, and Blavatsky gets her fair share of credit: "An important event occurred in 1880, when Colonel H.S. Olcott (1832-1907), and Madame H. P. Blavatsky (1831-91) arrived in Colombo. In 1875, this American journalist and Russian clairvoyant had founded the Theosophical Society in New York. In 1879, they established the headquarters of this syncretistic religious movement in India. On arriving in Colombo, they appeared to embrace Buddhism publicly taking the refuges and precepts, thus giving a great confidence-boost to some Buddhists, due to their being Westerners". (pp. 290-91) "The Society had, however, been successful in introducing a number of key Buddhsit and Hindu concepts to people unfamiliar with scholarly writings". (p. 304)

The new millenium kicked off a spate of Blavatsky publications, including her Collected Letters, Vol. 1, Daniel Caldwell's anthology The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky  and the Esoteric Instructions. In 2011, the publication of a lost transcription of Blavatsky's London study classes gave us a greater glimpse into Blavatsky's personality than ever before. . Michael Gomes' 2004 abridgement of her Secret Doctrine by Penguins books brought this esoteric classic to a wider audience.

There was a bit of a breakthrough academic work on Blavatsky, in the field of western esotericism, by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, North Atlantic Books (2004): "Widespread dissatisfaction with the hegemony of science in Western culture and its preoccupation with the concrete, the factual, and the substantive interacted with a lack of confidence in traditional Christianity, itself undermined by the very progress of scientific explanation. Theosophy, in the strict meaning of the movement founded by H.P. Blavatsky, addressed these concerns in a progressive way. Adapting contemporary scientific ideas to posit the idea of spiritual evolution through countless worlds and time-eras, Theosophy supplied dignity and purpose to man’s earthly life within a cosmic context. While spiritualism (a major movement from the mid-1950s) alleged survival after death, Theosophy located human destiny in an emanationist cosmology and anthropology that have their roots in both Neo-Platonism and Oriental religions." (pp.1-2)

Gary Lachman's 2012 biography is arguably the first reasonably neutral and objective mainstream Blavatsky biography. He states in an interview:"I think people think they know who and what HPB was about already, and accept the cliches and stereotypes about her, without really looking into who she actually was. She’s as important in the shaping of the modern world as Darwin, Marx or Freud, but the myths and half-truths that have been repeated over and over prevent us from seeing this. My book tries to redress this misunderstanding."  Some have used the term 'Blavatsky Revival', such as in the interview below with Michael Gomes:

In conclusion, many people now agree that Blavatsky's contribution to and influence on modern spiritual thought has been important and considerable:"...Helena Petrovna Blavatsky... is surely among the most original and perceptive minds of her time ... Buried in the sprawling bulk of her two major books ... there lies, in rudimentary form, the first philosophy of psychic and spiritual evolution to appear in the modern West ... With all criticisms weighed up against her, HPB stands forth as a seminal talent of our time ... Above all, she is among the modern world’s trailblazing psychologists of the visionary mind. At the same historical moment that Freud, Pavlov, and James had begun to formulate the secularized and materialist theory of mind that has so far dominated modern Western thought, HPB and her fellow Theosophists were rescuing from occult tradition and exotic religion a forgotten psychology of the superconscious and the extrasensory.  Madame Blavatsky may be credited with having set the style for modern occult literature." (Theodore Roszak, The Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness, New York, Harper and Row, 1975, pp. 118, 124-125).

Blavatsky's Influence 2

Regarding the early theosophical movement, esoteric historian Joscelyn Godwin states that it “ is a complex story, involving many nations and characters, but they all revolve around Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–1891), the prime mover of the Society and one of the most influential women of all time”. (“Blavatsky and the First Generation of Theosophy”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013, p.15)

She is considered an important figure in the history of alternative spirituality: "... Madame Blavatsky ... stands out as the fountainhead of modern occult thought, and was either the originator and/or popularizer of many of the ideas and terms which have a century later been assembled within the New Age Movement. The Theosophical Society, which she cofounded, has been the major advocate of occult philosophy in the West and the single most important avenue of Eastern teaching to the West." (J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark and Aidan A. Kelly, editors, New Age Almanac, Detroit, Michigan, Gale Research Inc., 1991, p. 16)

Her use of astrology in her cosmology was innovative (beginning with her interpretation of “Ezekiel’s Wheel” in Isis Unveiled) and influential astrologer Sepharial (Walter Old) was a student of hers. Major astrology figure Alan Leo was a theosophist and met Blavatsky as well. According to Michael R. Meyer, the “re-establishment of astrology that took place during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first part of the twentieth century was promoted largely by theosophists including Sepharial, Alan Leo, Max Heindl, Charles Carter, Marc Edmund Jones, and Dane Rudhyar. (The Astrology of Relationships,London Continuum, p. 2009)

Influential and innovative astrologer and composer Dane Rudhyar, who was associated with diverse theosophical currents, observes: ”it may be sufficient to show that the one fundamental factor in trying to reach a deep understanding of the meaning and purpose of that life is the meaning and purpose of the occult trans-Himalayan Brotherhood whose agent she claimed to be.It may be impossible scientifically to prove the validity of that claim; it is as impossible to prove it was a hoax, considering the quite outstanding individuals who had firsthand experiential knowledge of the validity of her assertions. Even more convincing is the astounding character of the contents of her large books, especially The Secret Doctrine, which no ordinary mind could have produced without passing dozens of years studying and collating an immense mass of verifiable documents in many great libraries. At the same time, it is evident that H. P. Blavatsky, the woman, spent her life away from universities and national libraries.” (Occult Preparation for the New Age, Wheaton, Quest, 1975)

Esoteric Historian James Santucci explains the value of the Blavatskian theosophical approach to perennialist comparative religion: “Although non-theosophists may not agree to the proposition of an underlying Wisdom-Religion, the comparative study of religion in a sympathetic and open manner is an idea whose time has already come, and this in part through the efforts and accomplishments of the Theosophical Society…following the inspiration of Madame Blavatsky and later leaders, that humans of whatever race, creed, sex, caste, or color are equal, that all ·the world religions contain the same essential message reflecting the Wisdom of the Ages, and that this Wisdom resides in all the nations of the world, reveal a cosmopolitan and universalism in the purist sense of the terms. (Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, London, Theosophical History Centre, 1985)

Moreover, William Quinn, in his The Only Tradition, gives a solid overview of Blavatsky’s important contributions to perennialist comparative religion, noting that “Blavatsky was the prime mover in the creation of the Theosophical Society and consequently modern Theosophy as a restatement of theosophia via her published doctrinal corpus and commitment to the movement.” (Albany, SUNY Press, 1997, p. 104).

Marcus Braybrooke, a historian of the interfaith movement, appreciates the theosophical contribution to inter-faith dialogue: “Theosophists can claim to have been amongst the first to suggest a unity of religions.The society insists that it is not offering a new system of thought, but merely underscoring certain universal concepts of God, nature and man that have been known to wise men in all ages and that may be found in the teachings of all the great religions. Emphasis is placed on mystical experience. A distinction is made between inner, or esoteric, and outer, or exoteric, teaching. It is said that all the historic world religions contain inner teaching which is essentially the same, despite external differences. This teaching is monistic in character, suggesting an underlying all-encompassing unity. (Pilgrimage of Hope: One Hundred Years of Global Interfaith Dialogue, Crossroad, 1992, p. 266)

Blavatsky has received a number of endorsements from several noted Asian Buddhists and scholars. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was a prominent Sri Lankan Buddhist revivalist and writer who collaborated extensively with the theosophical movement and was highly appreciative of his contact with Blavatsky:”The path of perfection was shown to me by Mme Blavatsky in my 21st year”. (Diary, December 20, 1930); “Blavatsky gave me the key to opening the door to my spiritual nature”. (Diary, March 10, 1897) (quoted in Steven Kemper, Rescued from the Nation: Anagarika Dharmapala and the Buddhist World, pp.53, 59) According to Walter Evans-Wentz: “The late Kazi Dawa Samdup was of the opinion that there is adequate internal evidence in them of their author’s intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings into which she claimed to have been initiated.” (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, p. 7 footnote. Oxford The Tibetan book of the dead; London, Oxford University Press, 1927)

In 1927 the staff of the 9th Panchen Lama Tub-ten Cho-gyi Nyima helped Theosophists put out the "Peking Edition" of The Voice of the Silence and he wrote a short dedication. (Blavatsky H.P. The Voice of the Silence, ed. Alice Cleather and Basil Crump. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927. – P. 113) Zen Buddhism scholar D. T. Suzuki wrote: “The Voice of the Silence is true Mahayanistic doctrine. Undoubtedly, Madame Blavatsky had in some way been initiated into the deeper side of Mahayana teachings and then gave out what she deemed wise to the Western world as theosophy." (“The Eastern Buddhist” vol. V no.4 July 1931)

The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso wrote:"I believe that this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path." (Blavatsky Helena The Voice of the Silence. Centenary edition. Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1989. // Foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama). Sri Lankan academic, scholar and diplomat, Dr G.P. Malalasekera wrote that her “familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism as well as with esoteric Buddhist practices seems to be beyond doubt.” (Encyclopedia of Buddhism I, Taylor & Francis, 1973, p. 539).

Blavatsky's Influence 3

Alternative Science

Religious historian Olav Hammer discusses Blavatsky’s influence in the area of alternative sciences in his comparison of her scientific writings with Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: “Presumably less familiar is the fact that the broad outlines of Capra’s views on science are structurally similar to arguments made by Blavatsky almost a century earlier…The similarity with Capra is nevertheless most clearly apparent in another major facet of her discussion: the claim that the modern physical sciences point to the same reality as Oriental or occultist beliefs. As Blavatsky puts it, “all comes to science from ancient notions, all is based on the conceptions of archaic nations” (Blavatsky 1888, vol. I:506–7). This modern and inclusive science is thus merely rediscovering what ancient sages already knew; insights that they expressed, for instance, through the cryptic symbolism that one finds in Indian scriptures. (“Theosophical Elements in New Age Religion”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013, p. 250)

The importance of Blavatsky and the early Theosophical Society in the feminist movement has been the subject of a ground-breaking study by Joy Dixon entitled Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). According to religious historian Siv Ellen Kraft: “Theosophy downplayed the importance of marriage, insisted upon the spiritual independence of women, included women on all levels of the organization, and – last but not least – upheld the theological authority of a woman. Theosophy offered the historically rare case of a male founder being overshadowed by his female counterpart, and the equally rare case of women having formal religious authority. Henry Steel Olcott was the first president of the TS, but there would have been no Theosophy without the fertile mind of his co-founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. (Theosophy, Gender and the “New Woman”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013,p. 357) She notes that: “Blavatsky was clearly familiar with the writings of liberal Christian theologians in regard to “the woman’s question.” Like these theologians and other Theosophical feminists, she blamed Christianity and its male god for social corruption and the suppression of women. More specifically, she describes the suppression of women as typical of all religions, but as taken to the extreme by Christianity.(p. 368)
Social Causes
Kraft also notes that the early movement was involved with various socialist causes related to the feminist movement: “Several studies have described an overlap between these movements and also with Theosophy. Historian Diana Burfield, in an early article about Theosophy and gender, notes that Theosophical notions of brotherhood, sexual equality, progress, perfectibility, and tolerance were in harmony with socialist and feminist ideals (Burfield 1983: 35). There were“elective affinities between these groups, which were quite pronounced up to the First World War” (p. 359)

They were also concerned with food reform and animal welfare: “Theosophical interests in vegetarianism further strengthened the bonds to feminism and socialism. There is “plenty of evidence for vegetarianism within WFL [Women’s Freedom League] and the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union]” (Leneman 1997: 274). Many women in the latter group were also anti-vivisectionists (ibid: 277), and their ideological angle towards food reform and animal welfare overlapped with that of Theosophy, which promoted a “universal kinship” of living beings and a “practical desire to alleviate the wrongs of society” (ibid.: 282). Theosophists also tended to support social purity organizations, which in turn were supported by temperance workers, and overlapped extensively with women’s rights movements.” (p. 360)

Art, Music, Literature
Historian K. Paul Johnson observes that: “ Blavatsky’s ideas inspired leading figures in the development of modern art, most notably Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Theosophical influence in literature affected the Irish Literary Renaissance, in which William Butler Yeats and AE (George Russell) were prominent.” (Initiates of Theosophical Masters, State University of New York Press, 1995, p. 113. Nobel Prize laureate William Butler Yeats knew Blavatsky and wrote the following reminiscences: ““I remember how careful she was that the young men about her should not overwork. … I overheard her saying to some rude stranger who had reproved me for talking too much, ‘no, no, he is very sensitive’. … [She was] humorous, unfanatical, and displaying always, it seemed, a mind that seemed to pass all others in her honesty.”(Memoirs, New York, MacMillan, p.26)

In the world of music, the great Russian composer Alexander Scriabin was inspired by Blavatsky; according to Scriabin biographer Boris de Schloezer: “[Scriabin] felt greatly beholden to Mme. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine in his own development; indeed he felt tremendous admiration for Mme. Blavatsky to the end of his life. He was particularly fascinated by her courage in essaying a grandiose synthesis and by the breadth and depth of her concepts, which he likened to the grandeur of Wagner's music dramas. . . . The theosophic vision of the world served as an incentive for his own work. "I will not discuss with you the truth of theosophy," he declared to [de Schloezer] in Moscow, "but I know that Mme. Blavatsky's ideas helped me in my work and gave me power to accomplish my task" (Scriabin: Artist and Mystic, University of California Press, 1987).

Johnson continues: “Political activism in colonial India and Ceylon owed an immense debt to Theosophical influence. In the West, many social movements such as educational reform, women’s suffrage, and abolition of capital punishment were advanced by the efforts of early Theosophists. But in no field of endeavor has Theosophy’s influence been as great as in introducing Eastern religious ideas to the Western public.”(p. 113). Mohandas K. Gandhi met Blavatsky offered this reminiscence: “Theosophy is the teaching of Madame Blavatsky. It is Hinduism at its best. Theosophy is the Brotherhood of Man. … I recall having read … Madame Blavatsky’sKey to Theosophy. This book stimulated in me the desire to read books on Hinduism, and disabused me of the notion fostered by the missionaries that Hinduism was rife with superstition.” (An Autobiography, Boston, Beacon Press, 1957, p. 68.)
Overall impact
The influence of Blavatsky and the early theosophical movement is actually quite mind-blogging and, judging from the quantity and quality of recent important historical studies one could say that an ever-increasing understanding of this reality has been consolidating since the beginning of the new millennium. Astrologer Michael R. Meyer  observes: “The society’s revolutionary impact is central to any real understanding  of the fin de siècle, the gestation of Modernism, the ideology of the counter-culture of the 1960s and the late-twentieth century flowering of New Age and alternative spiritualities” (The Astrology of Relationships, London Continuum, 2009, p. 229.)  
Religious historians Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein contend that: “ the formation of the Theosophical Society (henceforth abbreviated TS), and the main events linked to the fate of this organization, its key figure Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), and her immediate successors also belong to the short list of pivotal chapters of religious history in the West...These facts place Theosophy and its multiple off-shoots as one of the modern world’s most important religious traditions.” (“Introduction”, Handbook of the Theosophical Current, Leiden, Brill, 2013, pp. 1-2)”.