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HPB's authority

Jan 29, 1997 11:30 AM
by K. Paul Johnson

I agree with Michael Rogge that HPB's synthesis of spiritual
traditions has the strong imprint of the 19th century mind,
that her understanding of source traditions was not always
reliable, and that it behooves us to go directly to the sources
and modern scholarship for a more grounded view.  Even at my
deepest stage of true believerhood, I would never have disputed
this statement.

But to say these things as if they somehow invalidate HPB seems
to fail to appreciate the extent to which the same can be said
of *any* teaching.  Blavatsky Theosophists say the same about
Bailey, Leadbeater, Cayce, etc.: that they are distorted
interpretations of the "source" material, reflecting the biases
of a later period and different circumstances, and one should go back
to the source for a more grounded view.  But Jews are entitled to say
it about Christians, Christians about Muslims, Hindus about
Buddhists and Sikhs, ad infinitum.

The truth is that any new religious teaching is constructed
from bits and pieces of preexisting systems, the meaning of
which is changed as they are formed into new patterns.  To use
a Gurdjieffian expression, "That's not an exception.  That's
life!"  So the important question concerning HPB's authority,
to my mind, is not whether she accurately understood and
conveyed all the material she studied; of course she didn't.
What makes HPB stand so far above so many other comparable
figures in history is the vastness and audacity of her
spiritual quest, her literary skills, and her ability to convey
what she had learned in a way that sparked important cultural

You could prove all her miracles fraudulent, prove her
scholarship full of holes, and prove her personal character
blameworthy and that wouldn't detract at all from her status as
the single most influential factor in the awakening of the West
to Eastern and esoteric spiritualities.  Nor would it alter the
fact that she traveled to more obscure places and studied more
different spiritual traditions than any other writer of her time
(except her friend Sir Richard Burton).  Nor would it change
the fact that she took heretofore obscure, dusty subjects and
wrote about them so engagingly as to hit the best-seller lists
of her time (if they had them).  That's where her
greatness lies, and I continue to regard her as having
attained greatness.  This despite agreeing with Mr. Rogge on a subject
where he has perceived my views to be quite different than they
actually are.

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