Blavatsky’s Vedanta: A Case Study in Cultural Entanglement
Exploring the discussions of Advaita Vedanta provided by Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) in The Secret Doctrine (1888) and acknowledging her Idealist, neo-Platonist and Orientalist influences, the objective of this paper will be to show that an over-emphasis on Europeans and their colonialist distortions in the history of early Theosophy can itself result in a misrepresentation. I will show, for example, that such a perspective runs the risk of obscuring the influence, on Blavatsky’s Vedanta, of early Indian members of the Society such as Mohini Mohun Chatterjee (1858-1936) and Tallapragada Subba Row (1856-1890). It might also blind us to the place of the Sanskrit texts that lay behind the translations Blavatsky used, and I will speak in particular about the 1875 edition of the Vedantasara published by the Bengali scholar Jivananda Vidyasagara, among other things. Exploring the interconnections between individuals, ideas, and texts across international boundaries, I argue that the history of early Theosophy is best understood not solely as a form of Orientalist misunderstanding, but as representing a collaboration, and as a mutual entanglement of Indian and European actors and elements.