By Kristy McCaffrey
The rise of science in the 19th century had had a paradoxical effect—it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible while also creating an enormous void for an explanation to the mysteries of the universe. People became caught up in table-rapping, materialization, séances, clairvoyance, palmistry, and crystal-gazing.
In 1849, Blavatsky visited Europe, the Americas, and India, and it was during this period that she encountered a group of spiritual adepts known as the Masters of the Ancient Wisdom. They sent her to Tibet where she developed her psychic powers. Many critics dispute these claims, saying she fabricated these travels.
By the 1870’s, Blavatsky was involved in the Spiritualist movement, supporting the existence of Spiritualist phenomena (making contact with elementals and spirits). In 1875, she co-founded the Theosophical Society, describing Theosophy (wisdom of the gods) as “the synthesis of science, religion and philosophy.” Based heavily on occult teachings and Eastern religions, her work in the Theosophy movement influenced the spread of Hindu and Buddhist ideas in the West, with some Theosophists becoming Buddhists.
According to Blavatsky’s biographer, Marion Meade, people across the globe furiously debated whether the medium was “a genius, a consummate fraud, or simply a lunatic.” Madame Blavatsky had professed to be a virgin, but in fact, she had two husbands and an illegitimate son. She claimed to be an apostle of asceticism but smoked up to two hundred cigarettes a day and swore like a soldier. She was considered an enlightened guru while at the same time ridiculed as a fraudulent charlatan and plagiarist, but there is no doubt that her ideas eventually led to the New Age movement in the 1970’s.
Blavatsky died of influenza in 1891 at the age of 59 in the home of her disciple and successor, Annie Besant.
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