Book Review - Madame Blavatskys Baboon

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 2, pages 219-221. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Madame Blavatsky's Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America. 

Peter Washington. Schocken Books, New York, NY, 1995, 470 pages.

Theosophy as discussed in Peter Washington's highly informative and entertaining survey has less to do with any sophisticated notion of "divine wisdom" than it has with a host of preposterous pretenders who successfully attracted thousands of seekers devoted to experiencing and unveiling hidden truths. In short, the Theosophists attempted to make occultism respectable in an age of scientism. According to Washington, these neooccultists and their progeny have essentially failed, as the jacket liner notes tell us, in a "curious comedy of passion, power and gullibility."

Heading the list is Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (1831B1891), whose colorful character ranged from the ribald to the sublime. HPB, as she has been known to the Theosophists, cofounded the Theosophical Society (TS) with Colonel Henry S. Olcott and a few others who were interested in spirit contact and psychic phenomena in New York in 1875. In today's New Age jargon, HPB became the main "channeler" for TS. Within a few decades TS stimulated an eversplintering amalgam of groups and cults, the more important of which Washington portrays with solid reporting from an impressive array of source material and his personal research. In each case a charismatic "guru" has either received "ancient wisdom" from some mysterious sect, selfproclaimed enlightenment, or metaphysical source, while also assuming an exalted position as guru, messenger, teacher, master, or adept in the eyes of the disciples and students.

Following HPB and Olcott (aka Jack and Maloney), Washington tackles the lives and influences of the second generation of Theosophists, including the politically motivated Annie Besant, channeler Charles W. Leadbeater, Katherine Tingley, Rudolf Steiner (who broke from TS and founded Anthroposophy and the Waldorf schools), G.I. Gurdjieff, and many of their significant followers. Jiddu Krishnamurti, who became famous for abdicating his title of "the world teacher" or Theosophical messiah in 1929, a role imposed on him at age 13 by Leadbeater, is given a thorough treatment by Washington. In contrast, he only briefly describes and sometimes only mentions more recent splinter groups and leaders from the TS amalgam, like Elizabeth Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant, George King and the Aetherius Church, Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov and the Universal White Brotherhood, Lloyd Meeker and the Emissaries of Divine Light, Idries Shah and the Society for Understanding Fundamental Ideas, and the Raëlian Movement. Washington also covers the history of the esoteric School of Economic Science founded by Leon MacLaren and his connection with Transcendental Meditation's Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He concludes his text with a solid, dispassionate look at J.G. Bennett's life as it was influenced by Gurdjieff, P.D. Ouspensky, Shah, the Subud cult, and finally Catholicism.

Some important TS offshoots are missing in Washington's survey, such as the Agni Yoga Society founded by Nicolas and Helena Roerich in the early 1920s, the Arcane School founded also in the 1920s by Alice A. Bailey, and the I AM Activity founded by Guy and Edna Ballard in the mid1930s. To those who have studied the history of Theosophy as it has influenced these and other groups not mentioned by Washington, these may appear as glaring omissions. But the pervasiveness of Theosophy's influence, especially with the thousands of New Age movement teachers and sects throughout the world, would take volumes to merely summarize. Washington nevertheless accomplishes his mission to give us a clear taste of the Western guru tradition, its roots, and its effects on certain disciples.

The book's title is derived from a stuffed baboon that stood prominently among Blavatsky's exotic paraphernalia in her flat in New York. The baboon was dressed complete with spectacles holding a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species, mocking that controversial scientist. Blavatsky saw herself as Ancient Wisdom's counterpoint to that "strutting gamecock" of science, whom she often railed against in her two fantastic, notoriously plagiarized tomes, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. HPB more than anyone has influenced the Western occult tradition with the notion of spiritual evolution as it allegedly occurs through rounds of "root races" reincarnating. Some of her racist notions later crept into Nazi philosophy, even though Hitler disavowed the Theosophical Societies.

A most revealing passage from Madame Blavatsky's Baboon describes P.D. Ouspensky, a Fourth Way or Gurdjieff School leader, who near the end of his life in 1947 was very depressed (confusion and depression have been common ailments of lifelong disciples of the Western guru tradition). He took to escaping from students in his car with his cats. Ouspensky would park his car at some destination, sit in the back seat staring out of a window while cuddling his pets. "Returning home from one journey, he spent the rest of the night in the car while a female pupil stood over him at the window, her arm raised as if in benediction. A cat would never be so stupid" (p. 337). This passage not only reveals the depths of delusion both guru and follower might reach, but it also reveals Washington's insensitivity to the perhaps deluded but nevertheless struggling, dedicated victims of such gurus.

Washington's sources are many and significant. Three noteworthy ones are Ancient Wisdom Revived by Bruce F. Campbell, Blavatsky by Marian Meade, and The Harmonious Circle by James Webb, the latter being a complete history of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and their followers. A biography of Blavatsky was also written by Theosophist Sylvia Cranston, who clumsily tries to portray HPB as a maligned saint of the New Age. Meade's biography is far superior and accomplishes even more than Washington's or Campbell's books in presenting Blavatsky's complex persona to us. Another valuable resource on HPB and the Western guru type not mentioned by Washington was written in 1948 by E.M. Butler--The Myth of the Magus (Cambridge Canto edition, 1993). In any case, if you wish to read an updated, critical look at Blavatsky and her influence, pick up Madame Blavatsky's Baboon.

Joseph P. Szimhart

Cult Information Specialist/Exit Counselor

Pottstown, Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1994