H. P. B.: Modern Gnostic

Stephan A. Hoeller

Stephan A. Hoeller – USA

[Stephan A. Hoeller is associate professor of comparative religions at the College of Oriental Studies in Los Angeles. The author of two Quest books, The Royal Road and The Gnostic Jung, he has lectured for the Theosophical Society on three continents. Dr. Hoeller is director of studies for the Gnostic Society, a member of the lecturing faculty of the Philosophical Research Society founded by Manly P. Hall, and a bishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica, a church of Gnostic descent. This article was published in the American Theosophist, special spring issue, 1988. Changes have been made in accordance with Theosophy Forward style.]

H.P.B. makes mincemeat of the cheap sentimentality and needless cheerfulness rampant in most “New Age” circles.

In one of the earliest academic works dealing with Theosophy, published in the American Religion Series sponsored by Columbia University, the late Dr. Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote in 1930: “Theosophists tell us that before the launching of the latest ‘drive’ to promulgate Theosophy in the world, the councils of the Great White Brotherhood of Adepts, or Mahatmas, long debated whether the times were ripe for the free propagation of the secret Gnosis.” 1  Fully fifty years later, another major academic work on the same subject, written by Professor Bruce Campbell of the University of California, Santa Barbara, described H. P. Blavatsky and her contribution to religious tradition as follows: “The story of the Theosophical movement begins with a remarkable nineteenth-century émigré, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and the buried religious tradition that she revived. Theosophy, as she called it, was an ancient Western tradition, the Gnostic tradition, which went underground when Christianity triumphed.” 2 

H.P.B.’s postulates are virtually identical with Gnosticism.

Gnosticism or gnosis, as it was long known in scholarly literature, has been associated with Theosophy and with the writings of H. P. Blavatsky for a long time, an association that has recently gained in relevance. The discovery in 1945 of the greatest archaeological find of all times relative to the Gnostic tradition, and the subsequent publication of such influential works as The Nag Hammadi Library 3 and the Gnostic Gospels 4 have brought the topic of Gnosticism into increasing prominence during the 1970s and 1980s, and have created what amounts to a Gnostic renaissance of expanding proportions. In contrast with the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, our present times are no longer characterized by a lack of interest in and knowledge of matters Gnostic. From a “faith forgotten,” as G. R. S. Mead named it in Blavatsky’s days, this tradition has become a faith very much discovered. One might even hazard an educated guess to the effect that among contemporary Americans of some academic training in such fields as religion, mythology, and psychology, the term Gnosticism may be more familiar than the term Theosophy.

What then, one might ask, is this newly rediscovered Gnostic tradition, with which H. P. Blavatsky and her teachings show such close an affinity? The word “gnosis” means “knowledge,” and by it the Gnostics understood not factual or even philosophical knowledge, but rather a certain interior, intuitive cognition, sometimes characterized as the gnosis of the heart. This knowledge discloses that each human being has a portion of the divine, the pneuma, enshrined within his nature. This fact is unrecognized by most people, who are in a-gnosis, ignorance of their true selves. The Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic documents refer to such persons as “asleep” or “drunk.” Thus humans need to be awakened to know who they truly are and be able to make contact with this transcendental presence within themselves.

According to noted Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel, Gnosticism deals with a specific mystical or religious experience, which it generally expresses as myth. Mainstream religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also include experiences of certain kinds of gnosis, but they almost inevitably turn them into belief and commandment. This is where Gnostics with their mythic approach depart radically from their orthodox counterparts. Myth, when originating in mystical realization and expressed in fervent poetic imagery, leads to an amplification and assimilation of the original experience. Faith understood as belief and ethical maxims expressed as commandments offer no such amplification of experience and allow for little assimilation of its import into the personality. The Gnostics’ way of dealing with myth allowed them to once again approach the experience wherein the myth originated and enter the mystical experience again and again. Carried aloft on the zephyr winds of poetry and imagination, and aided by the winged thought of inspired myth, the soul of the Gnostic could be regenerated repeatedly by the experience of gnosis.

Turning to H. P. Blavatsky’s teachings, we find that their fundamental postulates are virtually identical with those just mentioned in connection with Gnosticism. The pneuma of the Gnostics was no stranger to Blavatsky. Like the Gnostics before her, she endorsed the division of the psychophysical organism of the human being into body, soul, and spirit, the last of which she regarded as the true source of all theosophia (wisdom of the gods) and all theogonia (wisdom concerning the origin and descent of the gods). In her Key to Theosophy (pp. 90-92 of the 1889 edition) she refers explicitly to the spirit (pneuma) as a portion of the divine, the “immortal principle,” the source of all “heavenly wisdom.”

When it comes to H.P.B.’s attitude toward myth, there can be little doubt that the author of The Secret Doctrine is a magnificent myth-maker and that all of her works possess a mythic power and impact independent of and more valuable than their factual content. Professor Robert Ellwood, a man of eminent academic as well as Theosophical insight has this to say: “The Secret Doctrine is a book not easily forgotten, even by those who despise it or who, like many outside the Theosophical orbit, find it almost impossible to read . . . . To understand what it has to offer, one must learn how to read it. The Secret Doctrine is not a textbook, but is like an ocean with waves and currents and eddies and whirlpools and quiet caves. It calls for suspending one’s normal mode of conceptual progress until one has discovered where the tides and techniques of this new medium will carry him. Water is, to man, a distorting element, and probably whatever he sees in it will not be seen as it really is. The ecstatic surges in his body as he rides the swells will not be forgotten after he has found his feet once again on the sand. Like riding the waves, or like listening to great music, this book wafts one to where he can perceive reality in new configurations that unite the subjective and the objective. It does not so much convey specific fact as arrange science, myth, philosophy, and poetic narrative in peculiar combinations which can generate remarkable experiences — or so it has been with Theosophists.” 5  

What may one call such an arrangement of various motifs “in peculiar combinations which can generate remarkable experiences” but a myth as employed in the Gnostic manner? Certainly the writings of such Gnostic teachers as Valentinus or Basilides could be described in very similar words. The additional comments made by Ellwood merely reinforce this impression: “As one grows into the world of The Secret Doctrine, one understands more and more that it presents a psychological model of the cosmos. The more its vision is comprehended and interiorized, the more the reader shares the workings of universal consciousness.” 6 Every occultist worth his or her salt is a romantic, be they aware of this or not. Whether they be called William Blake, Eliphas Levi, or Mme. Blavatsky, and before them Valentinus, Basilides, and Ammonius Saccus, all such persons were primarily concerned, not with passing on factual information, but with engendering that majestic sense of wonder that one glimpses to a minor degree in sunsets, grand landscapes, fairy tales, and hoary legends, and to a major degree in great art and in the experience of the “wholly other” in ecstasies of the spirit.

Mystics and Gnostics speak the language of myth, not of cold logic or scientific fact. Yet it must be remembered that some such persons have the misfortune to live in an age that has an inadequate appreciation of myth. The author of The Secret Doctrine belonged in this category. There was no word in the dictionary of nineteenth century intellectuals for “psychological model of the cosmos”; C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and their fellows had not come upon the scene yet to rehabilitate myth and symbol. What was H. P. Blavatsky to do?

According to available evidence, she did the best she could. In her work Isis Unveiled she wrote: “Myth was the favourite and universal method of teaching in archaic times.” 7 “Fairy tales do not exclusively belong to nurseries; all mankind — except those few who in all ages have comprehended their hidden meaning, and tried to open the eyes of the superstitious — have listened to such tales in one shape or other, and after transforming them into sacred symbols, called the product Religion. 8 “There are few myths in any religious system but have an historical as well as scientific foundation. Myths . . . are now proved to be fables, just in proportion as we misunderstand them; truths, in proportion as they were once understood.” 9

It is with words such as these that Blavatsky tried to point to the transformative value of myth. In The Secret Doctrine she went farther, and came close to asserting that the mythic and symbolic (which in the terminology of her day she calls “allegorical”) element plays a crucial role in all esoteric material: “To some extent, it is admitted that even the Esoteric Teaching is allegorical. To make the latter comprehensible to the average intelligence, the use of symbols cast in an intelligible form is needed. Hence the allegorical and semi-mythical narratives in the exoteric, and the only semi-metaphysical and objective representations in the Esoteric Teachings. For the purely transcendentally spiritual conceptions are adapted only to the perceptions of those who “see without eyes, hear without ears and sense without organs.” 10 There is very little doubt that the enunciator of the modern Theosophical mythic system was an expert mythmaker herself, who in spite of the unsympathetic intellectual climate of her day recognized the Gnostic function and value of myth, and who gently introduced her readers and followers to the controversial concept of the possible mythic and symbolic character of her teachings. 

Let us now look at some other features of Gnosticism in the light of their relationship to various teachings in The Secret Doctrine, Isis Unveiled, and other works of Blavatsky. The worldview of the Gnostics declares that the rigid monotheism of mainstream Judeo-Christian-Islamic orthodoxy amounts to a gross oversimplification. The personal, well-nigh anthropomorphic God, envisioned as the creator, lawgiver, and judge of his universe is not the only and true God.

Authentic Godhead Is an Impersonal Fullness.

The authentic Godhead is an impersonal fullness (pleroma), utterly transcendent and fully glorious as well as beyond the reach of the human mind in our present condition. This plenum, often envisioned as a boundless ocean of light, emanated a portion of its own essence, which became the created cosmos. It also emanated a number of angels or cosmic spirits, some of whom became estranged from their ultimate source and came to look upon themselves as self-existing divine rulers (archontes). One of these became so arrogant that he blasphemously asserted that he was the only god, and that there were no other gods before him. It is of this lesser, or intermediate godling that the creation myth of Genesis speaks. The world and the material universe are held captive by this being who, although no more than a kind of cosmic architect, came to imagine that he was the owner of all that exists. The human existential predicament consists of the uncomfortable captivity to which this lesser god has subjected the spirits of human beings and from which only the experiential realization of gnosis can free them.

H. P. Blavatsky went to great pains to state over and over again that the true Godhead is not the personal god of the Bible, but rather an Infinite Reality that exists beyond the outflowings of manifestation. She gathered numerous cognate terms from various traditions to apply to this Infinite Reality; from Hinduism she adopted “Parabrahman,” from Buddhism “Adi-Buddha,” and from the Kabbalah “Ain-Sof-Aur.” All of these, as she well knew and stated to be cognate terms for the Gnostic pleroma, or transcendental Fullness of Being.

The dislike she appears to have felt for the personal God of the Bible was probably only equalled by the more uncompromising of Gnostics in the early centuries of the Christian era. In The Secret Doctrine she not only calls Jehovah the bad names the Gnostics were wont to apply to him, but in a fashion reminiscent of Manichaean and Cathar teachings she equates Jehovah with Satan. Here is but a small example of her lore concerning Jehovah-Satan. He is, she writes, “a proud, ambitious, and impure Spirit who has abused his power by usurping the place of the Highest God, though he was no better, and in some respects far worse than his brother Elohim; the latter representing the all-embracing, manifest Deity.” 11 At another place in the same work she declares boldly: “The appellation Sa’tan, in Hebrew Satan . . . belongs by right to the first and cruellest ‘Adversary’ of all the other Gods — Jehovah.” 12 Very much like the Gnostics, H. P. Blavatsky gives little credence to the orthodox version of the temptation myth in Genesis, and regards the serpent as a spirit of wisdom, dispensing sage and liberating advice. 

The Sophia myth, so dear to many Gnostics, was also endorsed by H. P. Blavatsky, especially in Isis Unveiled. The wise daughter of the Fullness, who is called Sophia (wisdom), is in reality the mother of the blind and rebellious Jehovah-Satan, called here Ialda-Baôth, who in defiance of his mother has bungled the job of creation and merely fashioned a flawed world in the image of his own flaws. Humans, however, unlike the monstrous abortions whereby Jehovah peopled the earth, have within them the spark of the divine light, which allows them to communicate with Sophia and through her with the Infinite Light. This continuous seeking of human souls for their true source enrages Jehovah and impels him to attempt to destroy humanity in great disasters of cosmic proportions. All of this is recounted with complete agreement by Blavatsky. 13

We must move beyond facile evasion of a flawed world.

Arising from these considerations we find another perhaps even weightier consideration. Many Theosophists have opted for a certain kind of Neo-Platonic optimism which delights in a beautiful world, filled with evolving life and governed by laws of perfect justice and harmony. Some literature written for popular consumption by writers following in the footsteps of Blavatsky may be cited in support of such a rosy worldview. But the author of The Secret Doctrine seems to have adhered to a much darker view, quite similar in fact to that held by the Gnostics. Far from being a good world created by a good god (even if he be renamed Solar Logos), this world is a dark place — weird, flawed, even monstrous at times. Fashioned and managed by flawed beings who are themselves radically alienated from the supreme source. Here is a relevant passage from The Secret Doctrine: “The One is infinite and unconditioned. It cannot create, for It can have no relation to the finite and conditioned. If everything we see, from the glorious suns and planets down to the blades of grass and specks of dust, had been created by the Absolute perfection and were the direct work of even the First Energy that proceeds from It, then every such thing would have been perfect, and unconditioned, like its author. The millions upon millions of imperfect works found in Nature testify loudly that they are the products of finite, conditioned beings — though the latter were and are Dhyan Chohans, Archangels, or whatever else they may be named. In short, these imperfect works are the unfinished production of evolution, under the guidance of imperfect Gods.” 14 The implications of such passages (for this is not the only one) are significant. Not only do they make mincemeat of the cheap sentimentality and heedless cheerfulness that is rampant in most “New Age” circles and is not absent from Theosophical groups. 

More importantly, such passages give one pause when reflecting over the rampant evil present in the world and in human history at any given time. The frequent and at times all-too glib approach to such evil declares that it is connected with laws that rule the world, among which karma is most prominent, all of which are in the nature of perfect justice, and therefore essentially good. The time may at last have come when, following the lead of Blavatsky, the Gnostic, we may begin to look beyond such facile attempts to evade the existential darkness and flawed character of the world and earthly life. An excellent step was in fact taken in this direction by the above-quoted Robert Ellwood, who in his excellent basic work on Theosophy dared to ask and answer these fundamental questions on the basis of these very teachings of Blavatsky: “Whether one thinks of such propositions as literal or only allegorically true, they can meet an ‘existential’ need dealing with evil which goes beyond just attributing it to various laws.’ Such explanations do not entirely satisfy the rage and despair the world’s sufferings evoke . . . . One answer is that the God of this world is, at best imperfect, and, at worst, a vindictive, incompetent blunderer into whose world we, whose true home is in halls of light far and above his sway, are entrapped until, by following the slow path of evolution and initiation, we free ourselves from his grasp.” 15

Even though the sparks of light which are the spirits of men and women are in a certain sense entrapped by the ruling powers of this lower world (so said the Gnostics), the greater light never abandoned interest in the scattered fragments of its own essence. It sent a redeemer or intermediary to assist in their liberation. The overwhelming majority of Gnostics were associated with the then brand-new Christian movement, and they looked to Jesus as the carrier of this redeeming heavenly light. At the same time, they disagreed with the exoteric Christians about the precise nature of the physical embodiment as well as the death and resurrection of the redeemer. Neither did they accept the simplistic notion that the redemption of humanity was accomplished by the physical death of Jesus on the cross, and that persons merely had to believe in this event in order to be redeemed.

The task of the messianic messenger was to help human beings discover who they truly were, and to assist them in overcoming the inimical cosmic powers and re-joining the fullness of the true light. “Salvation” thus became synonymous with “liberation,” and the way to this state was envisioned not as consisting of faith but of initiation. The Gnostics were in full possession of the Christian sacramental system, which they augmented by two supreme initiatory sacraments known as the redemption and the bride-chamber. These initiatory experiences admitted the Gnostic into the liberated state of the true pneumatic, in whom soul and spirit have become united, never to part again.

Blavatsky’s position regarding salvation and particularly concerning the Christian savior is far from clear. At times she seemed inclined toward the position of Docetism, a minority Gnostic position that denied the physical incarnation of Jesus altogether. She most clearly expressed this view in her long essay, “The Esoteric Character of the Gospels.” At other times, she reverently referred to Jesus as an initiate of signal purity and holiness, which is hard to reconcile with his presumed total lack of physicality at any time. Most importantly, perhaps, she presented a highly concentrated but brilliant reconciliation of these and other positions when discussing the meaning of such terms as Chréstos, Chréstés and Christos in her Theosophical Glossary. While greatly emphasizing the concept of an indwelling or mystic Christ, which is a universal principle rather than a person, she also acknowledges the great spiritual and indeed cosmic role of the saviour figure as represented in Gnosticism. She states: “Every good individual . . . may find Christ in his ‘inner man’ as Paul expresses it (Ephes. iii. 16, 17), whether he be Jew, Mussulman, Hindu, or Christian.” 16

Mary Magdalen Was the “Most Intuitive” Disciple.

Among the most learned and insightful statements ever to come forth from Blavatsky’s pen in relation to Gnosticism are her voluminous commentaries on the scripture Pistis Sophia published in 1890-91 in Lucifer. These appeared in conjunction with the very first English translation of this noted Gnostic work by her pupil, G. R. S. Mead. In addition to their great erudition these commentaries show several significant aspects of her views of matters Gnostic. First, her aforementioned understanding and approval of the Gnostic approach to the mystery of Christ is quite evident. Second, she anticipates the subsequent discoveries in regard to Mary Magdalen, whom she calls “the most intuitive (pneumatic), and the most prominent interlocutor of all the disciples.” Third, she comments most approvingly on the now completely restored passage from the Gospel According to Thomas (Logion 22) wherein the union of the opposites and the androgynation of human nature are held up by Jesus as the desirable qualities accompanying the “entry into the kingdom.” This latter passage is interpreted by Blavatsky as (1) pertaining to the union of the opposites within the individual human being, as a sign of pneumatic gnosis, and (2) as the cosmic androgyny which according to her is to prevail in the distant history of the human race, when the separation of the sexes as known to us today shall have ceased. 17

Let us briefly summarize now our findings outlined above:

1. The frequently reiterated opinion of academics, concerning the intimate connection of Blavatsky and the Gnostics may be considered valid. H.P.B. indeed qualifies as a modern Gnostic, not only because of her personal intuitive knowledge, or gnosis, but also on account of her intimate acquaintance with and profound sympathy for the Gnostic tradition. 

2. In regard to the normative Gnostic method of employing myth rather than dogma and commandment to express gnosis, she occupies a position much closer to that of the Gnostics than one might suspect. Were she alive today, it is highly likely that she would enthusiastically join such pioneers as Jung, Eliade, and Joseph Campbell in endorsing myth as the way par excellence to esoteric truth.

3. Blavatsky endorsed the Gnostic concept of deity as the totally transcendent Fullness, to which she juxtaposed the equally Gnostic concept of limited intermediary beings, sometimes called demiurgoi and archontes, and at times represented as lacking in both wisdom and goodness.

4. Like the Gnostics before her, the great enunciator of Theosophy held that the manifest cosmos is flawed and the creation of flawed and unregenerate cosmic beings, and she appears to have held this view as a metaphysical certainty rather than as an allegory.

5. As to Gnostic soteriology (teaching of salvation), she held to a universal concept of messianic impulse, but recognized the complex and mysterious image of Jesus Christ as presented by the Gnostics as of truthful and salvific relevance.

6. With the Gnostic Jesus whose utterance to this effect is recorded in the Gospel According to Thomas, H.P.B. recognized the need for the reconciliation of opposites in human nature as a hallmark of spiritual liberation along Gnostic lines. This paves the way to recognitions which might lead one into the symbolism of alchemy and into the experiential field of spiritual initiation, as exemplified by the two supreme Gnostic sacraments, the redemption and the bride-chamber.

Such are some of the signal convergences which set H. P. Blavatsky apart not only as the great torchbearer of Theosophy, but also as a true modern Gnostic, who restated and confirmed the wisdom of the knowers of old — those whose contribution, like the stone rejected by the builders, still awaits its reincorporation into the fabric of Western spirituality and culture.

As one whose religious commitment in this life has joined him to the Gnostic tradition, the present writer takes great pleasure in saluting Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in 1988, the centenary year of the publication of her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine. May her noble soul journey gloriously in the aeons of light, and may her fiery spirit be united with the Fullness of the Great Flame from whence it once came into this darkened sphere, to bring gnosis to the light sparks in the sea of forgetfulness! 


1. Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1930), p. 2.

2. Bruce Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. vii.

3. James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

4. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979).

5. Robert Ellwood, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), p. 93.

6. Ibid., pp. 93-94.

7. H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled 2:493 (New York: J. W. Bouton, 1877).

8. Ibid., p. 406.

9. Ibid., p. 431.

10. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine 2:90-1 (Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1938).

11. Ibid., p. 388.

12. Ibid., p. 386.

13. H. P. Blavatsky, Isis 2:184ff.

14. H. P. Blavatsky, Secret Doctrine 5:213-4.

15. Robert Ellwood, Theosophy: A Modern Expression of the Wisdom of the Ages (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1986), p. 163.

16. H. P. Blavatsky, The Theosophical Glossary (Los Angeles, CA: Theosophy Company, 1973; photographic reproduction of the original 1892 edition), p. 84.

17. H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings 13:1-82 (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1982).

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