Oxford University Press inaugurated its Western Esotericism series in 2016, and its newest entry is sixth in the series, and first to focus on the Theosophical Society and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. This makes Recycled Lives by Julie Chajes an important milestone in Blavatsky studies, with the world’s largest scholarly press acknowledging the cultural significance of an individual once relegated to the margins of academic discourse. The new series, edited by Henrik Bogdan with a distinguished international list of advisors, is the first university press series to focus on this subdiscipline since the Western Esoteric Traditions series from State University of New York Press began in 1993. Although that series now has 58 worthy titles to its credit, the early Theosophical Society has not been the subject of any of its books since the mid-1990s.
Julie Chajes is a cultural historian at Tel Aviv University, “interested in the ways religion, science, and scholarship intersected in nineteenth-century Britain and America” as stated in the publisher’s page for the book. Chajes brings great clarity and specificity to a subject clouded by confusion and conflict, as her book “approaches a wide variety of issues in the history of the nineteenth century through a detailed reading of two closely related doctrines, metempsychosis and reincarnation.” (p. 21) The discussion of Spiritualism is especially relevant to subjects discussed in this blog. Chajes writes, “Chapter 4 frames Blavatsky’s rebirth doctrines in the development of Spiritualism from the mid-nineteenth century, a central cultural force in America and Europe at the time. Through reference to books and Spiritualist periodicals, the chapter situates Blavatsky’s early theory of metempsychosis in relation to anti-reincarnationist currents in Anglo-American Spiritualism, especially as represented by the British medium Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), the American magician Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, an occultist organization beginning its public work in 1884. Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel, and John Patrick Deveney were the first to highlight the similarity between Blavatsky’s early ideas and those of Britten, Randolph, and the H.B. of L., but I delve further, revealing some of the differences, as well as the similarities, between the rebirth theories of these individuals.”(p. 15) The most important differences among the theories concern conditional vs. unconditional immortality. Blavatsky originally argued that immortality had to be earned during one’s lifetime, while Britten and Randolph said that the soul reached immortality upon reaching the human stage. The Brotherhood of Light Lessons offer a compromise to the latter option, allowing that immortality can be lost despite being the normal birthright of all human souls, and therefore not quite unconditional.
Especially enlightening and satisfying for me as a reader is the discussion in chapter 6 exploring the relevance of “Western esotericism” as a framework for scholarly discussion of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. Wouter Hanegraaff is quoted that: “Although the Theosophical Society had begun as a `Western esoteric current’ dominated by the Orientalist imagination of nineteenth-century European scholarship and popular literature, it became entangled with Hindu thought after Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Bombay in 1879….involved in extremely complicated historical processes of imaginal construction and reconstruction that took place in a variety of specific local contexts” resulting in “mutual fertilization of Indian religions and Western esotericism that would finally transform both almost recognition.”(p168) In her thorough description of Blavatsky’s changing positions on reincarnation, Julie Chajes has documented a pivotal moment in that mutual fertilization. Her book has the depth of knowledge and insight that can only be acquired in years of research, and the acknowledgments section shows that the author has consulted with a wide variety of experts on several continents. Combined with her own expertise this makes Recycled Lives the authoritative treatment of its subject, the history of reincarnation in Blavatsky’s Theosophy.