Widely considered to be one of the most influential occultists of modern times, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831–91) was equally a cultural critic and theorist of religion. This essay examines Blavatsky’s reading practices and the interpretive protocols she followed in challenging the hegemony of certain knowledge structures, whose origin she located in religious orthodoxy. A key point of her critique was that dominant religions consigned competing theories of the world to oblivion by denouncing them as heresies or blasphemies. These so-called heresies were, for her, lost or esoteric knowledge, just as magic was a placeholder for religious debates erased from the historical record. Maintaining that the dislocated past can only be salvaged by nonrational experiences, Blavatsky shifted the weight of truth from the exoteric to the esoteric, thereby creating a space for the recovery of core meanings through such eclectic means as memory, imagination, and the paranormal faculties.
In Search of Madame Blavatsky: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric
Gauri Viswanathan is Class of 1933 Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the South Asia Institute at Columbia University. She is the author of Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (Columbia University Press, 1989; 25th anniversary edition, 2014) and Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1998). Her current work is on genealogies of secularism and the writing of alternative religious histories.
Gauri Viswanathan; In Search of Madame Blavatsky: Reading the Exoteric, Retrieving the Esoteric. Representations 1 February 2018; 141 (1): 67–94. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2018.141.1.67
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