Most papers published by our Society
are local events. This was not the case however with the original exposure of Madame
Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society (Hodgson et al., 1885) which is
attached to her in many reference books; nor with a critique of Hodgson a century later (Harrison, 1986) which
has been widely cited by scholars since publication. (1)
Dr. Harrison here reprints his 1986 paper and
adds to it further
analysis of the 1885 report, together with the results of some study he has done of
other material associated with the Mahatmas of Madame Blavatsky.
Dr. Harrison did show, in my view, that there were grave procedural irregularities in the 1885 report. Regardless of
what individual SPR members may now
believe about the case (as ever, we have no corporate view), his paper also had the effect
of healing wounds inflicted by the manner of the original exposure. Our own review
editor is among those who remain sceptical of Blavatsky (Coleman, 1987), and there are
continuing doubts also about her account of her travels (Gilbert, 1988). But the whole
debate can now proceed in a healthier way.
There had been other critics of the
1885 report before Dr. Harrison, including handwriting analysts, but they lacked the
power range of qualifications which he brought to the task. He was the man for the
hour. Now that a decade has passed, and Dr. Harrison has published this monograph, how
does the matter rest?
There has been little detailed discussion of his critique in parapsychological
circles. Jean Overton Fuller, also an SPR member, has published her own assessment
of the Coulombs (who were among the first to accuse Blavatsky of fraud) and has suggested
that M. Coulomb might have been the actual writer of those passages in the Coulomb letters
which incriminate Blavatsky, while his wife provided the words (Fuller, 1988, p.
155). Dr. Harrison here also suggests the husband as the actual writer (p. 43).
As the letters appear not to have survived, the matter remains inconclusive.
Michael Gomes, with whom Dr. Harrison has been in touch, continues to collect documents
for a volume specifically on the Coulombs and while in London in July 1997, he copied a
letter in the India Office about the Coulombs which appeared in the Indian Mirror
in 1884, and had been lost to sight. I remain hopeful that more light will yet be
thrown on the Coulomb role.
Psychical researchers cannot ignore the Blavatsky case because it has a high public
profile and was important in SPR
evolution. Even without the mounting criticism of Hodgsons report on this
case, there have been criticisms of his conduct at other times (such as Munves, 1997)
which make him no longer so authoritative. But caution is needed by both believers
and sceptics about the case because of the complexity of the data and the inconclusive
nature of much of the evidence.
To some extent the easiest area for research is the letters supposedly
written by the Mahatmas, now mostly in the British Library. Methods of
preservation and security unfortunately make examination difficult, and much of Dr.
Harrisons work has been done on photographs. He suggests, for the first time
so far as I know, that the
Mahatma Letters may be copied from originals we do not have.
The writing exhibits peculiarities which he finds difficult to explain, and offers a
parallel, I would suggest, to the image on the Turin Shroud. The various hands are
not Madame Blavatskys disguised writing, and although one cannot rule out some
influence of her psyche, fraud by her, he argues, is not a plausible explanation.
Dr. Harrison disclaims any knowledge on the general reports of phenomena associated
with Blavatsky (p. 41), such as those at the Adyar Shrine,
though this was a topic on which the
late Walter Carrithers, alias Adlai Waterman, wrote in defence of Blavatsky. As
the Shrine perished in 1884, that too is inconclusive. (2)
The study of Blavatsky and other aspects of theosophical history is in flux (Price,
1996). For example, unexpected support, up to a point, for Hodgsons spy theory
has come with the discovery of her letter offering her services as a spy to the Russian
government (Carlson, 1995), though they appear to have been declined. (3)
In contrast, the reality of the Mahatmas as actual individuals seen by witnesses is
still vigorously defended (Caldwell, 1997).
My own view, after 18 years of study, is that Madame Blavatsky was acting on behalf of
people who, like her, had psychic powers. As with other mediums, that does not mean
that I accept the accuracy of any specific statement that she made or the paranormality of
any particular incident, nor that I agree with the profound metaphysics she at times
expressed. It does mean that she is a force to be reckoned with in SPR history, and in the study of the powers
latent in man, and that Dr. Harrison has performed a signal service to psychical research
in his reopening of the case.
15 Clouston Close
Wallington, Surrey SM6 8LX
Caldwell, Daniel H. (1997) K. Paul Johnsons
House of Cards? Tucson, Arizona, privately printed [this dispute has since
been continued electronically].
Carlson, Maria (1995) To Spy or not to Spy: The Letter of Mme.
Blavatsky to the Third Section. Theosophical
History V, 225-231.
Coleman, M. (1987) Letters. JSPR 54, 158 and 281.
Foster, Roy (1997) The Apprentice Mage. London.
Fuller, Jean Overton (1988) Blavatsky and her Teachers: An Investigative
Biography. London: East Publications, in association with TPH.
Gilbert, R. A. (1988) The
armchair traveller in Tibet: HPB in Tibet. Paper presented to the July
1988 Theosophical History
conference in London. Unpublished.
Harrison, V. (1986) Jaccuse:
an examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885. JSPR 53, 286-310.
Hodgson, R. et al. (1885) Report
of the Committee appointed to investigate phenomena connected with the
Theosophical Society. ProcSPR 3, 201-400. [Hodgsons actual
report is printed after the Committees conclusions].
Munves, James (1997) Richard Hodgson, Mrs. Piper and George Pelham: a
centennial reassessment. JSPR 62, 138-54.
Price, Leslie (1996) Theosophical developments. JSPR 61, 274- 276.
Washington, Peter (1993) Madame Blavatskys Baboon. London:
Secker & Warburg.
Waterman, Adlai (Walter Carrithers) (1963) Obituary: The Hodgson
Report on Madame Blavatsky. Adyar, Madras: TPH.
(1) A notable exception is the new official biography of Yeats
(Foster, 1997). Here the main source cited on the life of Blavatsky is a mocking
account of modern gurus derived from secondary sources (Washington, 1993), whose index
mentions George Harrison the Beatle, but not Vernon Harrison.
(2) There needs to be a general re-examination of the
Carrithers work, published and
unpublished. He suffered from a kind of writers block which made it difficult
for him to complete more than a few fragments of work undertaken over a lifetime, and what
he did complete was not always published, even by theosophical editors. Daniel
Caldwell is preparing an edition of his Coulomb researches.
(3) This offer may have been known in the mid-1880s. In The Letters of H. P.
Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett (p. 208) (1925, London) appears the sentence Then
he said that he had seen in the Secret Dept. documents in which I had offered myself as a
Spy to the Russian Govt. This is in the context of her dispute with Solovief.