Helena Blavatsky lived at a time when many Americans and Europeans were questioning their religious beliefs, hungry for new ideas and perspectives. Some looked to other cultures for insight; others abandoned ideas of divinity entirely, or invented their own faith traditions.

Sound familiar? The Victorian era was as full of spiritual searching and experimentation as our own. The Russian-born Blavatsky – who died in London 132 years ago this week, now commemorated as White Lotus Day – spent years traveling and pouring her ideas into writing before co-founding the Theosophical Society. Aiming to create a universal brotherhood of humanity, the group claimed it was inspired by spiritual masters in the Himalayas. Its descriptions of Hinduism and Buddhism were often romanticized and inaccurate. Yet it inspired a surge of Western interest in Asian religions, popularizing concepts like karma and reincarnation.

Cultural historian Marina Alexandrova traces Blavatsky’s eclectic, esoteric life – and the ways her complicated legacy is still felt in our own age of restless spiritual seeking.

This week we also liked articles about peanut butter, the cultivation of mindfulness and self-compassion and Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson.

Molly Jackson

Religion and Ethics Editor

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, photographed in New York circa 1874. Universal Images Group via Getty Images

White Lotus Day celebrates the ‘founding mother of occult in America,’ Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

Marina Alexandrova, The University of Texas at Austin

Theosophy and its founders had an outsize impact on Americans’ ideas about spirituality and Asian religions.

Security guards separate guests on an episode of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ titled ‘I am pregnant by my half-brother.’ Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images

Jerry Springer and the history of that [bleeping] bleep sound

Matthew Jordan, Penn State

As ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ climbed the ratings ladder, the censorship bleep, which masked the slew of insults lobbed by warring guests, became a star of the show.

Catching a ride for free? Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

AI exemplifies the ‘free rider’ problem – here’s why that points to regulation

Tim Juvshik, Clemson University

As a society, everyone is motivated to regulate AI development. For individual companies, though, the opposite is true.

The Conversation Quiz 🧠

  • Here’s the first question of this week’s edition:

    The music stopped for First Republic Bank on May 1. The bigger bank that bought First Republic is hidden in which of these fractured band names?

    1. A. JPMorgan Chasez and *NSYNC
    2. B. Hootie and the Bancorp
    3. C. AC/TD
    4. D. Sly and the Family Schwab
    5. E. Bachman-Turner Overdraft

    Test your knowledge