Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Movement, was born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), in the Ukraine, on July 30, 1831, the daughter of Colonel Peter Hahn. As a child, she loved mystery and fantasy and claimed supernatural companions that kept her safe from harm. She appeared to demonstrate this paranormal protection when she fell from the saddle while horseback riding and caught her foot in the stirrup. According to young Helena, she would surely have been dragged to death before the horse was stopped if it weren't for the unseen entities that kept her from falling to the ground.
At the age of 17 she married Nicephore Blavatsky, a Russian official in Caucasia, who was 40 years older than she. She separated from her husband after three months and spent over a year traveling in Texas, Mexico, Canada, and India. All the time she was wandering, she was developing her mediumistic abilities, secure in the confidence that her phantom protector watched over her. Twice she attempted to enter Tibet, and on one occasion she managed to cross its frontier in disguise, but she lost her way and after various adventures was found by horsemen and escorted out of the country.
Blavatsky described the 10-year period between 1848 and 1858 as the "veiled" time in her life, refusing to divulge anything specific that happened to her during that period, but making mysterious allusions to spiritual retreats in Tibet or in the Himalayas. In 1847, shortly after she had "escaped" from her husband, she fled to Egypt, where she said that she became adept in the art of snake-charming and was initiated in the secrets of Oriental
In 1858 she returned to Russia, where she soon gained fame as a spirit medium. Always a mesmerizing storyteller, Blavatsky claimed to have disguised herself as a man and fought under Garibaldi during the battle of Mentana when she was wounded and left for dead. After about five years spent perfecting her mediumship in Russia, Blavatsky entered another "veiled" period in her life when, from 1863 to1870, she was allegedly in retreat in Tibet, studying with the mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya, and a secret brotherhood of adepts.
In 1870, back in Europe, Blavatsky was en route to Greece when the vessel on which she was traveling exploded, and she lost all her earthly possessions, including whatever money she had managed to save. Rescued at sea and brought to Cairo, she supported herself through her mediumship, and in 1871, she founded the Spirit Society, which was quickly disbanded after accusations of fraud.
In 1873, after two months in Paris, she traveled to the United States and settled in New York, where she remained for six years and, according to some accounts, became a naturalized citizen. She resumed the practice of her mediumship in association with the brothers William (1832–1932) and Horatio Eddy (1842–1922), two well-known materialization mediums. As she became more prominent in Spiritualist circles in America, Blavatsky came to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), a journalist, who established a study group around her unique style of mediumship, a blend of Spiritualism and Buddhistic legends about Tibetan sages. She professed to have direct spiritual contact with two Tibetan mahatmas, Koot Humi and Morya, who communicated with her on the astral plane and who provided her with wonderful teachings of wisdom and knowledge.
On November 17, 1875, with the aid of Henry Olcott and William Q. Judge (1851–1896), an attorney, Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York. The threefold purpose of the society was: 1) to form a universal brotherhood of man; 2) to study and make known the ancient religions, philosophies, and sciences; 3) to investigate the laws of nature and develop the divine powers latent in humankind. Theosophy (divine wisdom) is a vigorous blend of many earlier philosophies, all of which claim to have been handed down to modern students of the occult by disciples of ancient wisdom. Theosophy combines teachings from Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, the Kabbalah, and numerous other philosophies.
Sometime during that same year, (1875), Blavatsky entered into a brief marriage of two or three months with a merchant in Philadelphia named M. C. Betanelly. At about the same time, she was partially responsible for breaking up the marriage of Olcott, who left his wife and children for her.
Disappointed by Blavatsky's lack of enthusiasm for the day-to-day administration of a growing movement, Olcott became responsible for the management of the Theosophical Society. In 1877, he began to speak of moving the headquarters of the society to India, where they might be closer to the mahatmas, the occult brotherhood, and sincere practicing Hindu adepts. A year later, Olcott, Blavatsky, and a handful of the faithful left New York for India because the masters wished them to do so. By 1879, the central headquarters of the society had been established in Adyar, India, and an amalgamation with the Arya Samaj sect founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswati had also been accomplished. By April 1882, however, the swami realized that he had been exploited by the leaders of the Theosophists and he denounced the group.
By that time, the influence of the swami in India was no longer required, for in 1880, Blavatsky had visited northern India and observed phenomena manifested especially for her by the mahatmas. It was also at this time that she met A. P. Sinnett, journalist and editor of The Pioneer, and Allen O. Hume, of the Indian Civil Service, her two most important converts in India. Shortly after reports had spread of the wondrous phenomena the masters had created for her benefit in northern India, Theosophy began to attract students and followers from around the world who came to observe for themselves the miracles centered around the spiritual teachings of Morya and Koot Hoomi as channeled through Blavatsky's mediumship.
In order to gain converts to Theosophy, Blavatsky felt obliged to perform such miraculous manifestations as the written letters from Koot Hoomi and Morya that would materialize in midair. Eventually such reports reached the attention of England's Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which dispatched Dr. Richard Hodgson (1855–1905), one of its most formidable researchers, to investigate. It didn't take long for Hodgson to assess the followers of Theosophy to be extremely gullible men and women who had arrived in India with expectations of finding in Blavatsky a modern miracle worker. The psychical researcher quite easily detected the sliding panels, the dummy head and shoulders of Koot Hoomi, and the cracks in the ceiling from which the letters from Mahatmas Koot Hoomi and Morya dropped down from "midair" to the astonishment of the true believers assembled around the medium. The script in which these documents was written were shown to be an amateurish attempt on the part of Blavatsky to disguise her handwriting.
Regardless of the expose published by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Theosophy continued to grow to become a worldwide movement. In 1877, Blavatsky published Isis Unveiled, and in 1887, her monumental The Secret Doctrine, which was alleged to have been written in an altered state of consciousness while attuned to higher powers. In spite of a barrage of attacks and exposures, Blavatsky's commanding personality secured a large following, and when she died in 1891 she was at the head of a large body of believers, numbering about 100,000 persons. Annie Besant (1847–1933) became her successor and actively preached the wisdom and insights provided in The Secret Doctrine and shepherded the movement into steadily larger growth.