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.