Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Notes By The Way: White Lotus Day

Leslie Price – UK

[The following is by Leslie Price, founder of the Psypioneer, an electronic periodical, and currently Review Editor for the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Price wrote this study of H.P.B. and the S.P.R. some years ago, but it has just been republished in that electronic periodical (vol. 5, no. 4, April 2009, pp. 114-6) on the occasion of White Lotus Day in 2009.}

Not many psychic pioneers have a day in the calendar to mark to mark their memory - 31 March, Hydesville day for the Fox sisters, comes to mind. Another one is Madame Blavatsky, a founder of the Theosophy Society in 1875, who is remembered on the day of her death, 8 May (1891), known as White Lotus Day.

For me the best of such days was in 1986. For many months I had followed Dr Vernon Harrison’s exposure of the Hodgson report, an exposure which had begun life as a Sunday evening lecture to the (Adyar) Theosophical Society in London (of which he was not a member). Now after numerous obstacles, it was ready for publication in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research of April 1986, which would be slightly late. I was asked by the SPR, for whom I had done some publicity work, to draft a press release about this and a second one about another major paper in their journal.

The notice about Dr Harrison’s paper was a difficult task, surrounded as it was by high emotion, a century of misunderstanding, and two organisations with a history of conflict. On the one hand, it was desirable to get some closure to the experience of unfairness and grievance on the Theosophical side; on the other the SPR had no collective view. It was possible, naturally, to quote what Dr Harrison said, which was dramatic enough, beginning with his title “J’Accuse” that echoed the Dreyfus case. So too was the press release’s own heading, that Madame Blavatsky was unjustly condemned, a new study had concluded. Just to see those words on SPR notepaper was hard to believe. Generations of Theosophists had lived and died under the cloud of the Hodgson report.

There were also some almost apologetic words by the SPR editor, Dr John Beloff (a rationalist by belief) with which he had prefaced Dr Harrison’s work. And an unprecedented quote from Dr Hugh Gray, general secretary of the TS in England, welcoming the paper. The addresses and phone numbers of both organisations appeared on the press release. Quite clearly, these two bodies were not hostile any more.

Professor Arthur Ellison, centenary president of the SPR in 1982, had much to do with that. A lifelong Theosophist, for a time driven to the edge of the TS by hostility to free enquiry (as he was to recall in his Blavatsky Lecture “Science, Consciousness and the Paranormal” 1998), his calm, friendly and progressive outlook was a blessing to all. The SPR was later to ask him to serve a further term as president. If this was Theosophy, they wanted more of it!

As for Dr Harrison himself, (1912-2001) he was already in his seventies when he entered the history books, but still working an expert witness in the law court. Behind his modest bespectacled manner was fifty years experience of the psychic field in the SPR, including high profile cases like Matthew Manning and Harry Price (no relation to me) and a recognised expertise in forgery, photography, handwriting, and paper. He admired HPB’s writings, was influenced by her thought, but somehow had been preserved from ever becoming a Theosophist! Here was a loaded gun all right, but one with beneficent effects - a man of gentleness, and a lover of music, whose immaculately typed research, step by step, exposed error.

While acknowledging the many years of painstaking defence of HPB by other students of her case like Walter Carrithers, it fell to Dr Harrison to fire the shot that brought the walls down. Not that all psychical researchers, or even all Theosophists, then began to regard HPB as the soul of truthfulness; but rather the balance had been redressed, and the sting had  been drawn.

After fine tuning, the text of the press release was agreed by the SPR. It is common to date such releases as embargoed until a particular time. I chose the start of 8 May, being aware of what that meant to Theosophists. Just 101 years after the Hodgson report, and 95 years after her death, Madame Blavatsky’s public reputation was released from its imprisonment by that 1885 report.

Copies of the press statement were placed in the post, airmail to distant parts. The news was largely ignored by the secular press. Some psychic papers picked it up. Then came the Theosophical publications. The TS Pasadena sent out a special letter. “The Theosophist” in Adyar called for justice for Leadbeater too! Its president’s letter was reprinted by many national sections. Within months Dr Harrison’s name was being read and spoken in many languages.

Later in the year began a second wave, as new books included reference to the report, first as hurried footnotes. This continues, although one book “Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon” managed to mention George Harrison the Beatle but not Vernon Harrison. Once I looked at a 1997 Russian Anthroposophical book. Among the Cyrillic letters, in a footnote I could read, in our alphabet, were Dr Harrison’s name and paper.

Dr Harrison, Dr Gray, Dr Beloff, Professor Ellison - all have since been called home. Madame Blavatsky would, I think, have benevolently enveloped them in tobacco smoke. The work of vindicating her continues with attention turning to her Tibetan and Sanskrit connections. After the psychical researchers, it is time for justice from the orientalists.

For research both for and against Madame Blavatsky and other Theosophical pioneers, one turns first to the quarterly “Theosophical History”.1  Among the contributors is David Reigle, whose work was featured in Psypioneer June 2005.2  An invaluable collection of his papers can be found at “Eastern Tradition Research Institute”.3  In 2008 he added “Tsongkhapa and the Teachings of the Wisdom Tradition”, which has an important Appendix 2 called “On Errors in H. P. Blavatsky’s Writings”.

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