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Decorative Initial Lpiritualism, which exploded out of the "burnt-over" regions of western New York in the years following the Second Great Awakening, was starting to fizzle out in the United States by the time Helena Petrovna "Madame" Blavatsky (1831-1891) set up shop in Manhattan. Although seances and related spectacles caught on in England a good decade after they were developed in the former colonies, spiritualism appeared to many a dying fad in the years before Blavatsky's debut. What Blavatsky did, essentially, was to introduce into old-fashioned control-medium-sitter spiritualism a vocabulary and a theoretical framework borrowed from Hindu mysticism, the Jewish cabala, and European neoplatonist hermeticism. In so doing, she both reinvigorated spiritualism and made it--at least for a few moments--intellectually respectable. (Her efforts to develop a systematic, quasi-academic approach to the study of supernormal phenomena, it should be noted, did not keep Blavatsky from performing some of the more sensational, crowd-pleasing stunts that had been developed by her spiritualist predecessors--spirits continued to visit her seances, flowers and otherworldly missives kept raining down on her sitters, even after she moved the Theosophical Society to India.) The intellectual credibility won for spiritualism by Blavatsky, however fleeting, had a curious and not altogether inadvertent side effect: it turned spiritualism away from what had seemed in the 1850s its anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional direction, and set in on a path toward hermetic elitism.

Interestingly, the rigidly hierarchical organization Blavatsky and the theosophists sought to impose on the democratically chaotic world of spiritualism did not prevent the Theosophical Society from interceding on behalf of the indigenous nationalist movement early in India's struggle for independence from British rule. Upon moving its headquarters from New York to Adyar in 1879, the Theosophical Society teamed up with a powerful Hindu reformer and anti-British agitator, Swami Sarasvati Dayanand. While the Theosophical Society and Dayanand soon parted ways (the Swami was unwilling to recognize the validity of either Blavatsky's "miracles" or the Society's claim that its tenets were universally true), the Adyar compound nonetheless became a meeting hall for radical Indian college students involved in the fight against the Raj. The British Society for Psychical Research -- whose powerful and respectable membership included Gladstone and Ruskin in England, William James in the US -- sent out Austrian investigator Richard Hodgson to examine some of the more improbable phenomena Blavatsky was purported to be producing in India. In his 1883 report on his visit to Adyar, Hodgson argues that the sprit emanations Blavatsky would conjure at her regular seances were so many bedsheets on strings, her magic materialization cabinet a crude trap-door-and-mirror contraption. Blavatsky, whatever intellectual legitimacy she had secured for spiritualism, was debunked; in 1885 she moved to London, Maycot cottage in Norwood, where she spent her final six years putting together her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. It was during her English period that Blavatsky first impressed and, ultimately, converted Annie Besant, the well known feminist, birth-control advocate, and political radical.

The influence of Blavatsky's Theosophical Society was particularly strong in India and Ireland, where several branches were opened during the 1880's. The group of artists and intellectuals who promoted the Irish Revival--most notably Yeats and AE--held meetings at the Dublin lodge. Theosophical teachings, which argued for the essential oneness of all religions and the omnipresence of divine spirit, seemed to hold a certain attraction for young Irish intellectuals looking for a cosmic solution to the intractable political and cultural problems bred by England's colonization of Ireland. Similarly, Gandhi in his autobiography emphasizes the fundamental importance to his early thinking on matters both spiritual and political of the Theosophical Society and the books it made available to him. The Theosophical Society still has its international headquarters in Adyar, and operates lodges all over the world. Several groups have splintered off from the original TS, and organized alternative lodges.

Suggested Reading

Interested readers might take a look at Bruce F. Campbell's Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley: U California P, 1980), a readable and straightforward history from a scholar with ties to a theosophical organization, and Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), a humorous and nicely written prehistory of the New Age movement by a distinguished literary scholar. Of further interest are Stephen Prothero's carefully theorized biography of Blavatsky's partner, Henry Steel Olcott, The White Buddhist (Bloomington: U Indiana P, 1996), R. Laurence Moore's first-rate history of American spiritualism, In Search of White Crows (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), and Alex Owen's excellent feminist history of English spiritualism, The Darkened Room (London: Virago, 1989).

[You might also wish to look at Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990) and her more recent The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern" (U.of Chicago Press, 2003)-- GPL.]

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Last modified 17 August 2004