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Roots of the New Age

September 06, 1987|Nina Easton

HELENA PETROVNA BLAVATSKY, AN ECCENTRIC Russian woman who lived a life of scandal and died amid accusations that she was a fraud, is better known as Madame Blavatsky or by her initials, H.P.B.

She might also be called a godmother of the New Age movement, for when she landed in New York in 1872, she brought to the United States a knowledge of Eastern religion and philosophy that "paved the way for contemporary Transcendental Meditation, Zen, Hare Krishnas; yoga and vegetarianism; karma and reincarnation; swamis, yogis and gurus," as her biographer, Marion Meade, writes. In the decades after Blavatsky's death in 1891, it became trendy to ask, "How's your karma today?"

Blavatsky, immense in size and ambition, was a medium who claimed to have a direct hot line to the mahatmas of the Himalayas. She was accused of fakery, and when she died--a happening that was front-page news--the charges grew louder.

Despite, or maybe because of, the furor she caused, Blavatsky popularized many of the mystical and religious notions that later would underpin the New Age movement. She also helped found the Theosophical Society, which counted among its members writers such as William Butler Yeats. The society, founded in 1875, still exists; its headquarters are in Pasadena.

During the 1900s, other movements--either spurning the Judeo-Christian tradition or inclusive of everything, including that tradition--found a following here. The repeated references to science found among New Age followers could also be found in the writings of Richard Maurice Bucke, a Canadian wanderer and seer who wrote "Cosmic Consciousness" in 1901. His followers, taking as their motto "World Peace Through World Balance," founded the University of Science and Philosophy in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in 1957.

Eastern religions also took hold here. Zen Buddhism, in particular, became popular after World War II and influenced the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The contemporary roots of the New Age movement can be found in the counterculture movement, led by, among others, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who popularized "psychedelic mysticism" through the use of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs.

That was followed by the "human potential" movement of the 1970s, which not only made encounter group a household term through its emphasis on self-knowledge and communication skills, but also took on shades of spiritualism and mysticism. "The movement was seen as a respectable entree into the occult," Donald Stone writes in the book "The New Religious Consciousness."

Stone attributes the growth of the human potential movement in part to a feeling of powerlessness in this society. But he adds: "Significant numbers of participants in the movement have backgrounds of affluence and advanced education. Having satisfied their basic needs for economic security, sociability, and public recognition, they find themselves trapped in a highly rationalized and technological society where asceticism has lost its sacred underpinning."

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