February 2017 Newsletter
The following articles are reproduced from the February 2017 Newsletter to members. Non-members may or may not be able to relate to the contents.
The Life of HPB
Boris M. de Zirkoff
Mr Boris de Zirkoff was a close relative of H. P. Blavatsky’s father and compiler/editor of her Collected Writings in 25 volumes. An interview by Ralph Gardner, of the Denver Lodge, at the 1958 Summer Session of the “Olcott” national headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America, Wheaton, USA.
Ralph Gardner: Could you give us a brief statement of the family background of Madame H. P. Blavatsky (HPB), the principal founder of the Theosophical Society. I understand that she was [part of] fairly high circles of the Russian nobility.
Boris de Zirkoff: HPB belonged to a very old Russian family on the side of her grandmother, who was Princess Dolgoruki. On the side of her father she belonged to a German family that had immigrated into Russia about 300 years ago more or less, and became really a Russian family, the von Hahns. The various members of the family of the Princess Dolgoruki belonged to the nobility of old Russia and from their ranks have arisen quite a number of very well known individuals in the history of Russia. Also one or two of them became Empresses of Russia in the old days. The von Hahn German family came in about 200 years before the HPB days, probably under Katherine the Great more or less. We do not know the exact beginnings of that family in Russia. But originally they came from Meklenborg in Germany.
HPB’s family background was quite renowned in many ways because so many people in her family were well known in Russian history. She herself always said that this background was not too important because what we have to pay attention instead is the character of the individual and not exactly their lineage. But, to some extent, even a physical lineage has an importance of its own and the hereditary traits of these families were well reflected in HPB’s own character.
Q: What do you know about the birth and early prospects of HPB’s life. Was there anything foretold in her childhood as to her possible future greatness?
A: She was born in the night between the 30th and 31st of July 1831, according to the old-style calendar, which was prevalent in Russia in those days. It seemed to be a popular tradition in the folklore of the country that children born on that particular night are going to control the elemental forces of Nature. Apparently, this was quite a correct prophecy in the case of HPB. She had the fortunate or unfortunate destiny or fate to be, kind of, thrown around and about during her early years, because her father belonged to the horse artillery in Russia and his regiment was moving from one town to another, and there was little supervision of the children and the family, and the mother was very sickly. So there were some hard years there.
HPB’s mother was a very remarkable individual, one of the first women in Russia who fought for women’s rights. She was an outstanding writer. She wrote novels which in those days were considered to be first-class. She was a sickly person who died very young. There was quite a bit of incompatibility between her and her husband, Colonel Peter von Hahn, HPB’s father. Very soon HPB was transferred into the family of her grandparents, and from then on things were a little easier.
It must remembered that HPB was a very unusual child: greatly mediumistic, all sorts of strange happenings took place around her, and for a good many years she had mediumistic and psychic powers under no control whatever. We have strong and conclusive evidence on the part of several people, including her own sister Vera to the effect that this was by no means the imagination of anybody, but actual facts concerning HPB’s early life. HPB was a very strong-willed individual right from the very beginning.
Her marriage at such an early age in 1849, which means that she was hardly eighteen, was a strange event in her life. She was not an individual fit for any kind of a married life anyway, and though we do not know the exact reasons for that marriage, it would appear that she was already then a disciple, a very unusually awakened individual who was trying to get away from the family background. It is very likely that she chose this manner of acting to get away from everything that was around her. This she actually did, because after marrying an elderly gentleman, Nikifor Blavatsky — who, by the way, was not a general as has been stated in many books; he was a civil employee in the government of the Caucasus — she ran away from him, and that was the end of all the Russian background. She took a steamer and went to Constantinople, and that was the beginning of her many and unusual travels the world over.
Q: Where did she get money to travel after she had gone to Constantinople, and what did she do for the next few years?
A: As far as we know from her own statements and those of her relatives, the money for HPB’s travels came from her father. There was a very close relationship between them. He always knew where she was, and sent her money. She travelled the better part of ten years. She went twice to the United States in those early days, anywhere between 1850 and ’58 more or less. She crossed the US twice in a covered wagon. There was evidence that she stayed somewhere in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and other places, as well as Florida. She investigated the Indians in Canada. She must have gone to all sorts of other places of which we have no record. It is very likely that she was in Yucatán, Mexico, as well as in Honduras, in Central America, and in Perú, investigating various secret centres of the Brotherhood of Adepts. This, of course, I could not very well prove, but the chances are very great that she was visiting here and there various mystical centres of which there was known but little, in preparation, as it were, for her work. We find some evidences about it here and there but it is very difficult to find a connected story to write or say something that would become deeply coherent about these ten years of travel. It is also during these ten years that she tried to get into Tibet, and failed. She made at least two attempts, but they were unsuccessful. This was approximately in 1856 and ’57. She returned to Russia in 1858.
Q: Do you think that she was in the United States during the Civil War period?
A: I hardly think so. I believe during that time she was somewhere in the Orient, as far as the scarce dates at our disposal go.
Q: What was the impact on her family on her return to Russia?
A: The impact on her family was quite considerable, because she was still in possession of a great many psychic powers only partially under control. She was considered to be a very strong medium when she was in Russia, although a very close observation would reveal that some of these powers were under her control, as they are not in the case of ordinary mediums. It is after her return to Russia in 1858, and before she left Russia again and for good in 1864, during these five to six years, that she went through some great inward change, very likely around 1862 or ’63, and probably while in the Caucasus.
This was a change which brought into complete control her own psychological nature. So we might speak of that change as one of her initiatory trials and tribulations and successes. The existing evidence would show that she left Russia around 1864 an entirely different person in that she ceased to be the strongly psychic temperament that she was before, and could be looked upon as a practical occultist. A great deal about it is contained in A. P. Sinnett’s Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky.
Q: Whereabouts was she living in the Caucasus during that period?
A: She was mainly in Tiflis, but also in the back country. She tried her hand at various commercial enterprises, curiously enough. She was engaged in at least onebusiness that we have some record of, and that is, she was shipping or had made some arrangement for shipping cork out of the mountains in the Caucasus from one of the harbours in the Black Sea. She engaged in several enterprises like this. Whether they were a sort of cover-up for her occult activities is difficult to say, but they might have been just that.
Q: While HPB was at home during this period of a few years, did she demonstrate any psychic faculties or occult powers to members of her family that convinced them of the reality of the unseen world?
A: Yes, very definitely so. There is quite a good deal of material in the daily journal of her sister Vera concerning this. An enormous amount of psychological phenomena took place in the family and among friends during her residence in Russia after her return from abroad, and these various phenomena created quite a stir among the people. There was no complete explanation of them. Many members of the family and friends were spiritualists in those days, and of course, interpreted these phenomena in totally different ways than a real occultist would. But the record exists, and it is perfectly plain that the return of HPB in the midst of her family and among her friends created quite a stir and was well remembered.
Q: Has the diary or journal of her sister Vera ever been published intact as a record?
A: Not altogether intact, but I might state this, and we have straightened this out only very recently. A. P. Sinnett, when he wrote his Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, which were to be called Memoirs of Madame Blavatsky until HPB put her foot down on that prospective title, included quite a bit of text translated from the journal of HPB’s sister, Vera de Zhelihovsky. This manuscript was in Russian and we do not know its whereabouts. Perhaps it has been destroyed long ago. But the main point is that HPB herself translated a considerable amount from her sister’s diary into English, and that was done for the benefit of Mr Sinnett, who was then writing his book about HPB. She did all this sort of under protest, but nevertheless she did it. This translation exists at Adyar in their Archives in HPB’s own handwriting. About one third or one half of it has been used by Sinnett in his book, but the other half has never been published, and contains some illuminating footnotes by HPB, which she appended to her sister’s narrative. I have recently obtained by permission of Brother Sri Ram, a complete microfilm of that manuscript, and as soon as I am through reading and transcribing it, we will probably be able to publish some of the unpublished portion either in The Theosophist or elsewhere.
Q: Could you trace, from the very beginning, from her childhood, the relationship of Madame Blavatsky with the two Masters whom she regarded as her mentors in the founding of the Theosophical Society?
A: In this relation we had better keep just one of the teachers in mind. It was, of course, what we later understood to be the Master M., or Morya. He was the personal teacher of HPB as a disciple. The relationship between that teacher and HPB for years was, of course, a very vague thing, indefinite, it was a matter of visions and general feelings, intuitions, and so forth, protective guidance, until 1851, which was the first time when HPB, then in London, met that individual in his physical body. Master M. was part of the Nepal Embassy in those days. He came, of course, under some other name and made himself known to HPB. They met in Hyde Park in London. That was their first meeting in the physical, we might say. She recognized him as having been the individual whom she had seen in her early days in a psychospiritual manner. She met the same teacher physically again in l854, also in England. But it was not until 1867 or ’68 more or less that she actually penetrated into Tibet and cemented, we might say, her profound and abiding relations with the teachers. It is our understanding that she met Master KH much later, in other words, not before she went to Tibet. He did not seem to play any definite role in the early days. From the days of the founding of the Theosophical Society, or even two or three years before that, her relation to these teachers and to others was a matter of everyday occurrence. It was a progressive thing. The whole of her relation to the teachers was a progressive thing from childhood, more and more so, until she blossomed out into a regular, accepted and officially recognized messenger from the Lodge of the Brothers.
Q: You mentioned that HPB met Master Morya in London again in 1854. Was he still with the Nepal Embassy at that time?
A: No, but he was on another mission. One of the Hindu princes had been deposed, and he was being sent to London in some capacity connected with him. I do not have the details of this on my fingertips, but I have the whole data as far as we know, in my file. Mary K. Neff has written something about that second meeting. We will put all of this material together as soon as possible and really make either a record or a tape or a substantial article with all the evidence and references, so that it would be preserved for posterity.
Q: Let us go back now to the time when Madame Blavatsky left her home the second time in 1864.
A: Well, after that she went to Tibet. She was one of the first people to go through the Suez Canal, somehow or other, I think in 1862, if I’m not mistaken. These were the years of her training. Our understanding is that she never stayed in Tibet very long. When the question arose of whether she had been there for seven years, she said “Yes, but seven years all together.” Her various visits there were at different times, probably mainly between 1864 and ’72, I would say. She received her main and very severe training in Tibet in those days, before being ready for her official work in the forming of the Theosophical Society.
Q: What external evidence, not relating to the TS at all, do we have which would go to prove that Madame Blavatsky did go to Tibet sometime in the 1860s?
A: Very little indeed, except for the testimony of two or three people in India who met her in unusual places in the foothills of Tibet. We have very little evidence, if any, of any exoteric evidence from non-Theosophical sources.
Q: I thought there was a British Army officer who said that he had traced the journey of a lone white woman into Tibet during those years, and had come to the conclusion that it was Madame Blavatsky.
A: That is correct, and it has been substantiated by all who met that officer. He was Colonel Murray, General later.
Q: Did Madame Blavatsky ever put into writing that you know of, any description of how she got into Tibet or how she got out, or how long she stayed or under what conditions she lived there, or under what conditions she found the Masters living?
A: Practically nothing. I don’t believe I could point out to any letter or article or anything in which she said anything worthwhile or of any moment or factual type regarding her stay in Tibet. Perhaps the only reference I know of is that she stated that she lived in the house of Master KH’s sister, and perhaps the passing reference that one of the Teachers was taken care of just like any other man of his own house in the sense of keeping it clean and all that sort of thing, just a passing reference to that. Perhaps also another passing reference to the effect that KH had some purely exoteric function to perform in the Lamaistic hierarchy. He was engaged in some duties with regard to the administration at one of the monasteries, I think in Shigatse. Beyond that, I believe HPB never said a single word of what she did in Tibet, exactly where she was, how she got in or went out, except perhaps for vague hints that she met someone who guided her to where the Teachers were. I suppose the whole subject was under the pledge of strict secrecy as far as she was concerned and just was not supposed to be talked about. We have no first-hand statement from her lips as to what she did in Tibet, not even the actual years when she was there. (To be continued)
Reproduced from The Theosophist November 2016 number