Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Madame Blavatsky, the Mahatmas and fields of religious exploration

Madame Blavatsky was a difficult woman. She was impetuous, given to exaggeration and emotional; and, often, possibly too trusting or a poor judge of character. Even her Masters acknowledged this. Yet they needed a gifted clairvoyant and one who was undoubtedly, sometimes recklessly, kind, both of which, by all accounts, Blavatsky was. She once sold her first class berth ticket, thus going steerage, to ensure a family, sold counterfeit tickets, could board ship - a family she had never met before. And though people have tried very hard to discredit her clairvoyance (indeed her in total), something yet remains, irreducibly offering pause for thought at least.

Edward Abdill is a 'believer' - a long time Theosophist and speaker and lecturer for the society - but his attention in 'Masters of Wisdom: The Mahatmas, Their letters and the Path'  is not on her but on her teachers.

Did they exist or were they figments of Blavatsky et al's overheated and collusive imaginations? If they existed, who were they and, most importantly, what did or do they teach?

Abdill is convinced they did exist, that their letters are genuine, and that their combined teaching, never infallible, a claim they would never make, is an important contribution to understanding the unfolding of the spiritual life - both individually and as a whole.

One might think, well, he would say that but he marshals his case with care, intelligence and with a minimum show of credulity. His two best arguments are: what did Blavatsky et all have to gain by their claims except notoriety (which in my opinion they did not court) and what is the actual quality of the proffered wisdom?

In this latter case, I was expecting to be disappointed - hidden masters channeled, precipitated etc - tend often to come across as platitudinous and remarkably conventional. They wreak of conscious or unconscious invention and speak from exactly the same level as their creators. Here, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

The letters feel like a genuine approach to 'spiritual accompaniment' anchored in a meaningful world view and self-correcting in that they are offered both with humor and the acknowledgement that the Masters (Teachers might be a better word) lack complete mastery. They are developed yet fallible.

Most especially compelling was Abdill's account of a brief summary given to Blavatsky of what path one should take to arrive at 'The Temple of Divine Wisdom'. It is called the Golden Stairs and is an apt a summary of what is required of us that I can imagine, starting from the importance of a clean life, through open minded exploration guided by an overwhelming imperative for truth seeking and arriving at a willingness to nurture brotherly love and speak for the unjustly accused, maltreated or marginalized. 'Let thy Soul lend its ear to every cry of pain like as the lotus bares its heart to drink the morning sun' is a challenging prescription and, as St Issac of Nineveh would note, the sine qua non of recognizing the demands of the commonwealth of God.

Theosophy does present a problem, however, and that is of its relationship to religious traditions. Anyone can become a theosophist (as a member of the society) who signs up to its three core principles and since this does not require any acceptance of beliefs (but values), you can be a theosophist and a Christian (or Buddhist etc) except as you go deeper into theosophical thought as such, this becomes freighted with difficulty. The Christ is not to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and though the Mahatmas claimed to be Buddhists this 'esoteric Buddhism' is not to be confused with actual Buddhism (!) indeed the terms it is expressed in are much closer to Hindu forms.

Now this is not to deny that a higher order of truth, a sophia perennis, may not exist, at an esoteric level, that unifies any genuine tradition, but its principal protagonists would maintain that it cannot devalue the exoteric aspects of any particular tradition, and theosophy does this. The Perennialists are of a different party and undoubtedly think that theosophists are hopelessly muddled.

Theosophy does prioritize its truth claims (however tentatively and generously expressed). In doing so, better to admit it and see it as a new, emergent religious-philosophical tradition (and assess it as such) rather than an underlying substrate to other traditions. As such it offers real traction, most especially in its empirical approach and (when best practiced) its openness to learning from other competing and complementary patterns of belief. It is a contribution to a genuine universalism as seeing that no one tradition is a complete and self-sufficient answer and the religious quest remains a open space of enquiry and discovery.

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