Buddhism and Theosophy: Historical Sketch by Anita Stasulane

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One of the most philosophically important and culturally influential occult movements is Theosophy founded by a Russian émigré Helena Blavatskaya (1831-1891) and a veteran of the American Civil War Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907).

They were very sympathetic towards Buddhism and directly or indirectly influenced its growth in western minds and hearts, as well as helping to revive the religion in Sri Lanka, which had come under attack from Christian missionaries.1

Moreover, they proudly announced that in Theosophy the foundations of the Eastern teachings (reincarnation and karma) merge with the doctrine which forms the basis of all Western European science (evolution), and this merging provides completely rational and scientifically based foundation for the hypothesis of the immortality of the soul.

Theosophy was referred to by its founders as Esoteric Buddhism in which H. Blavatskaya was instructed by a secret order of enlightened masters called the Brotherhood of the White Lodge.

Introducing “The Secret Doctrine” with a statement that its teaching comes from her masters, H. Blavatskaya affirms that she is only a compiler of the work: behind her stand the real teachers, who have taught her all the occult lore that she transmits in writing.

Therefore the myth of the existence of the mahatmas2 in Tibet is one of the main components of the theosophical doctrine3 and in studying history of Theosophy, it is impossible to pass over the question of masters.

The notion brotherhood as expressed in Theosophy, is the notion often found in occult schools which regard their tradition as a continuation of ancient wisdom. Therefore, H. Blavatskaya’s idea of the mahatmas may be regarded as a chapter in a tradition of occult wisdom.

She turned the adept tradition into a question of spiritual perfection, i.e., with H. Blavatskaya there occurs an application of the theory of evolution to the realm of spirit: human beings are the culmination of physical evolution; brothers-adepts are the culmination of spiritual evolution.

As regards the source of the idea of preservation of the ancient wisdom in the Himalayas, let us takes cognisance of

(1) the general fascination with the East;
(2) E. Swedenborg’s influence on H. Blavatskaya’s thought;
(3) the suggestion of Vl. Solovyov who has reduced H. Blavatskaya’s idea of the masters’ existence in Tibet to one determinate source – to the “Souvenirs d’un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet et la Chine, pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846” of a travelling missionary E. Huc.

Thus, firstly, it would be suggestive to refer to the westerner’s interest in the East which lasted for centuries and finally culminated in the idea that everything of value had its origins in Asia.

“Suspicion that the roots of all wisdom lay in the distant Orient had already surfaced in the 18th century with Voltaire, who believed that ‘our religion was hidden deep in India’ and ‘incontestably comes to us from the brahmans’.”4

Besides, the idea that India is “the cradle of all humanity, culture and religion”5 was found in the thought of Schlegel. Schopenhauer, in his turn, was convinced that “the New Testament was of Indian origin, and speculated that Jesus had been brought up by Egyptian priests whose religion had originated in India.”6

In order to understand why the realm of H. Blavatskaya’s masters is situated in Tibet, we must take cognizance of the growth of interest in China, Mongolia and Tibet from the middle of the 19th century onward.

This interest came to replace the fascination with India characteristic of the West in the previous centuries.

The shift of the westerner’s interest towards China, Mongolia and Tibet is clearly indicated, for example, by the numerous expeditions organized by the Russian Geographical Society at that time.

It clearly appears that “as one of the last remaining countries still to be explored and mapped by Europe, Tibet was a pre-eminent focus for romantic yearning, a spiritual paradise unsoiled by Imperial and materialist progress.”7

In this framework, “Novalis imagined the Garden of Eden to be tucked away somewhere in the Himalayas,”8 and it is not surprising, then, to find the masters of H. Blavatskaya in Tibet.

S. Batchelor sums up: “Schlegel’s call to find the ‘highest Romanticism in the Orient’ found its ultimate fulfillment in the discovery of the mystic Mahatmas concealed in Tibet.”9

As regards the source of the idea of preservation of ancient wisdom in the Himalayas, we must take cognizance of E. Swedenborg’s influence on H. Blavatskaya’s thought. The fact of the matter is that “of all mystics, Swedenborg has certainly influenced “Theosophy” the most.”10

It should be remembered that the library of H. Blavatskaya’s grandmother contained E. Swedenborg’s books.11 The esoteric views of E. Swedenborg attracted H. Blavatskaya. She was particularly attracted by his idea of the Lost Word.

Let us recall E. Swedenborg who wrote: “The ancient Word, which existed in Asia before the Israelitish Word, is still preserved among the people of the great Tartary. In the spiritual world I have conversed with spirits and angels who came from that country.

They told me they had possessed from the most ancient times and still possessed a Word; and that they performed their divine worship in accordance with this Word which consisted of pure correspondences.”12

We may suppose that the idea of E. Swedenborg served to influence H. Blavatskaya as one of the several impetuses on the way of concretization of the brotherhood’s location.

Thus, in addition to the idea of ancient wisdom, H. Blavatskaya has developed a theory of its preservation in the Himalayas, i.e., of the existence of the masters in Tibet. As regards this subject, Vl. Solovyov’s reply is especially helpful:” …though the reports of the mysterious Himalayan brothers have an inauthentic character, the brotherhood of the so-called ‘mahatmas’ itself is hardly a pure myth.”13 Vl.

Solovyov’s statement is very significant: “How could M-me Blavatskaya have imagined the Tibetan brotherhood or the spiritual order of kelans, if positive and reliable evidence of the existence and the character of this brotherhood can be found in a book by the French missionary Huc who had been to Tibet at the beginning of the forties, i.e. more than thirty years before the foundation of the theosophical society.”14

Thus, Vl. Solovyov who “attribue à la secte des Kelans une importance considérable et exagérée à l’intérieur du monde bouddhiste e du monde asiatique en général”15 quickly discovers that H. Blavatskaya’s masters may be identified with kelans: “Are those not the same kelans, told about by a travelling missionary [E. Huc] in the forties.”16

Regarding E. Huc’s (1813-1860) sojourn in Tibet, V. Barthold writes:

“Le séjour en Chine de Huc, qui appartenait à l’Ordre des Lazaristes […], fut notamment de longue durée. Avec un autre missionnaire français, Gabet, Huc dans les années 40, accomplit le voyage de Mandchourie par la Mongolie et la province de Seutchouen au Tibet de là par la vallée du Yan-Tse-Kiang, à Canton et Macao.

En 1845, Huc et Gabet passèrent quelques mois à Lhasa. Depuis le temps de Manning jusqu’à l’expédition anglaise de 1904, ils furent les seuls Européens qui visitèrent cette ville.”17 According to J. Thevenet, the sojourn of E. Huc and J. Gabet (1808-1953) in Lhasa lasted from January 29 to February 26, 1846.18

It should be noted who these kelans are? According to D. Savelli, the kelans mentioned by E. Huc are “Bonnets jaunes ou dGe-lugs-pa.”19 S. Batchelor who speaks of the mahatmas as “a group of spiritual masters organized into a body in the 14th century by Tsongkhapa”20 is of the same opinion, in fact, by kelans were meant the followers of Tsongkhapa’s Geluk school.

The question, then, is that of the reason for which H. Blavatskaya paid attention to these kelans. Vl. Solovyov, speaking of E. Huc,21 has noted:

“Not long before his [Huc’s] arrival in Tibet there was much talking about the brotherhood, or the order of kelans who were endowed with various superhuman powers and wide range of religious and political intentions – they had to gain the highest power in Tibet and China and after that, with the help of Chinese and Mongolian armed forces, subdue the great tsardom of Oros [Russia], as well as the whole world and establish everywhere the true religion before the advent of Buddha – Maitreya,”22 i.e., Vl.

Solovyov makes reference to the supernatural powers attributed to the kelans. In other words, he refers to some widespread myth.

As we search then to conceive the originating source of this myth, we must pay attention to the opinion of G. Tucci, who, having explained the historical situation, i.e., the Chinese hegemony over Tibet in the 18th century, clarifies:

“La présence des chinois était ressentie comme un lourd fardeau, dont le poids n’était pourtant pas le même dans tout le pays: ainsi Trashi-lhünpo le supporta plus allégrement que Lhassa.

Désormais frustrés de l’espoir de manifester leur mécontentement à l’égard de la domination chinoise, ou de lui donner un effet pratique, des irréductibles recoururent à une vieille coutume: ils firent état d’une prétendue découverte de textes cachés (terma) et ils mirent en circulation des lungten, c’est-à-dire des prophéties apocryphes attribuées à Padmasambhava (VIIIe siècle), en affirmant qu’ils les avaient trouvées par hasard; ces ouvrages qui retraçaient l’histoire du Tibet sous une forme prophétique, annonçaient qu’il tomberait sous le joug de la Chine; ils énuméraient aussi les tourments engendrés par cet assujettissement, mais ils prédisaient qu’en fin de compte le Tibet se libérerait pour toujours et reconquerrait son indépendance perdue.”23

Therefore, when we speak of H. Blavatskaya’s masters, it is important to see that Theosophy has an intense commitment to this myth.

Eventually we must consider the theosophical myth of the Tibetan masters as the continuation of this myth, known by H. Blavatskaya due to E. Huc.

Thus, we must further clarify the suggestion of Vl. Solovyov who has reduced H. Blavatskaya’s idea of the masters’ existence in Tibet to one determinate source – to the “Souvenirs d’un voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet et la Chine, pendant les années 1844, 1845 et 1846” of E. Huc.

Indeed, H. Blavatskaya was fascinated by the wonders witnessed by “the poor Abbé Huc, whose works of travel in Tibet and China are so well-known.”24

We may suppose that “Souvenirs” of E. Huc published in 1850 and reprinted in 1853, 1857, 1860, 1868, 1878, had been read by H. Blavatskaya with great interest.

The “Isis Unveiled” bears witness that in the stories of E. Huc she discovered the ideas which later constituted the basis of her doctrine.

There is no better proof of it than an example given by H. Blavatskaya herself. In “Isis Unveiled” she writes: “At the time when Abbé Huc was living in Paris, after his return from Tibet, he related, among other unpublished wonders, to a Mr. Arsenieff, a Russian gentleman, the following curious fact that he had witnessed during his long sojourn at the lamasery of Kounboum.

One day while conversing with one of the lamas, the latter suddenly stopped speaking, and assumed the attentive attitude of one who is listening to a message being delivered to him, although he [E. Huc] heard never a word. “Then, I must go,” suddenly broke forth the lama, as if in response to the message.

“Go where?” inquired the astonished “lama of Jehovah” [E. Huc]. “And with whom are you talking?” “To the lamasery of ***,” was the quiet answer.

“The Shaberon wants me; it was he who summoned me.” Now this lamasery was many days’ journey from that of Kounboum, in which the conversation was taking place.

But what seemed to astonish Huc most was, that, instead of setting off on his journey, the lama simply walked to a sort of cupola-room of the house in which they lived, and another lama, after exchanging a few words, followed them to the terrace by means of the ladder, and passing between them, locked and barred his companion in.

Then turning to Huc after a few seconds of meditation, he smiled and informed the guest that “he had gone.”

“But how could he? Why you locked him in, and the room has no issue?” insisted the missionary. “And what good a door be to him?” answered the custodian.

“It is he himself who went away; his body is not needed, and so he left it in my charge.”25

This story, realized by H. Blavatskaya as “the flight of the lama’s astral body to the distant lamasery while his physical frame remained behind”26 is a striking example of her habit to pick up ideas from the travel stories27 and finally make up a coherent doctrine.

In conclusion, we may agree with J. N. Farqouhar that H. Blavatskaya’s “shaping gift of imagination which, combined with a natural power of direct and telling expression, enabled her to produce books which have captivated thousands”28.

There is no doubt that the theosophical myth of the existence of the mahatmas in Tibet took shape gradually in the context of westerners’ interest in the East and particularly in Tibetan Buddhism.