H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement — Charles J. Ryan

Chapter 8


Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott traveled to India in the ostensible capacity of a "Committee" of the Society to "visit foreign countries and report," which obviously meant to study the opportunities for spreading theosophy, and to do all they could to promote it in whatever way seemed best. They sailed for England on December 18, 1878, and as they departed H.P.B. wrote in Olcott's "Diary," "All dark — but tranquil."

In no way were their hands tied. In anticipation of unknown possibilities, Colonel Olcott, as president, had been given practically autocratic power by the Council of the Theosophical Society by resolutions passed on July 18 and August 27, 1878, at New York. He was authorized to transfer the headquarters of the Society to any foreign country, to admit new members and, still more comprehensively, to

have full power and discretion to make such rules and regulations, and do such things as he may consider necessary for the welfare of the Society, and the accomplishment of the objects which it represents.

All Bye-Laws inconsistent with the above are hereby repealed.Historical Retrospect, 5

All these resolutions were ostensibly passed under the understanding that they applied to a temporary residence abroad, but conditions arose which made the temporary visit a permanent one and, under what Olcott took to be complete freedom of action given him by the resolutions, he made and authorized many administrative changes without consulting the mother-group in New York. There is no record that either H. P. Blavatsky or anyone else disapproved of his point of view in the matter when the changes were made. His first presidential "Order," dated January 17th, 1879, was sent out from London, on his way to India. It appointed Major-General Abner Doubleday, U.S.A., "President ad-interim," and made two other appointments. William Q. Judge was already recording secretary; and, for a while, all diplomas, even though issued in India, were sent to New York for his signature. Many other changes were soon authorized by Colonel Olcott, an important one being the adoption of the "Revised Objects, Rules, and Regulations" by a Convention of the Theosophical Society at Bombay early in 1880.

General Doubleday and W. Q. Judge were absolutely devoted to the Cause, but the activities of the general membership in New York gradually diminished after a few years, largely, no doubt, because of the absence of the inspiring and powerful personality of the foundress, but also on account of the dissatisfaction of the psychic researchers when they found that the Society was not intended to be a "Miracle Club." General Doubleday, the president pro tem in New York, was an earnest and trusted theosophist who understood the real objects of the movement and who remained faithful till his death in 1893. Judge, who was being trained personally by H.P.B., was at that time deeply immersed in the difficulties of a young married man struggling to gain a foothold at the bar. For long periods his law business took him away from New York and even to foreign countries.

What attention he was able to give to theosophical work required the greatest self-sacrifice. He wrote to Olcott in 1883:

Anyway I can never [go] back. If I were to back out, I could not exist. Each day makes me stronger. You no doubt say, Why don't you act? Well, I have up to date acted so that my temporal concerns are not good for five cents, all through Theosophy. — Theos., LIII, 68, Oct.

It was not until a few years later, when his financial position became secure, that he was able to give the needed attention to the spread of theosophy; and then, by means of his administrative ability and, above all, by the general recognition of his unique combination of practical common sense with spiritual wisdom, the lodges quickly spread from coast to coast.

The journey of H. P. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott to India was uneventful, though not agreeable on account of severe storms at sea. A short stay was made in London where work was done among the members of the British Theosophical Society (afterwards the London Lodge) who were mostly psychically-minded and included among other persons of some note, the Rev. Stainton Moses, C. C. Massey, and the distinguished biologist Alfred Russel Wallace. One of the Masters was seen by Olcott walking in Cannon Street. This Master later called at the house of Mrs. Hollis Billing where H.P.B. was staying, and had a conversation with the latter. Mrs. Billing was a medium of an unusual type who became a faithful supporter of H.P.B. Much is written about her in the Masters' letters and those of H. P. Blavatsky, and W. Q. Judge mentions her with appreciation. Two English members, Miss Rosa Bates and Mr. E. Wimbridge, were added to the party of travelers, but they soon lost interest and resigned not long after they arrived in India.

Bombay was reached on February 16, 1879, where a deputation of the local theosophists greeted them with much enthusiasm. A suitable house was taken in Bombay for temporary headquarters and active work began, at first among learned Hindus, Parsis, and a few Europeans. The Indians were astonished; here was something new — Westerners coming to India, not to scoff at its ancient teachings or to investigate them as quaint heathen survivals, or even to study them academically, but to revive the grandeur and spiritual value of Sanskrit literature and Oriental philosophy, and to encourage the Orient to resist scientific materialism on one hand and foreign dogmatic theology on the other!

Alliances or friendly associations were formed with various native Indian progressive bodies. One of these was the "Hindu Sabha," a broad-minded society of southern India which aimed "to promote unity and good-will amongst the sects and castes of India, to encourage marriage of girls after reaching puberty, and the re-marriage of child-widows," etc. The caste rule was modified so that "a Hindu may associate with a Theosophist at meals," a most radical innovation. The editor of The Theosophist writes:

This is the first time that our quasi-national relation with the Hindus has been officially affirmed, though we have on several occasions dined with even Brahmins. — Theos., II, May 1881, Suppl. 3

In another way the native residents were aroused to enthusiasm. Here were people from America and England who, instead of identifying themselves in the usual way with the people of their own race, were associating on equal terms with the native Indians, and largely ignoring the Anglo-Indians. However, the theosophists came with the main purpose of bringing theosophy to the Indian people, and incidentally to others. If the Anglo-Indians became interested and were willing to help, so much the better, but there must be no racial distinction. H.P.B. despised the haughtiness which looked with contempt on fellow human beings of another kind, whether the difference was in color or, as among native Indians, between castes.

Long before Gandhi began his work among the pariahs, "those helpless outcastes or rather creatures of no caste, rejected by all their fellow-men," as H. P. Blavatsky said, she strove to arouse them to stand on their own feet, declaring "You are Divine, children of the One Father, and members of the great brotherhood of mankind." When she started her first magazine, The Theosophist, in 1879, she opened its columns to articles espousing their cause. She also made strenuous efforts to abolish child-marriage (now illegal), to ameliorate the lot of the unhappy child-widows, and to help Hindu women to regain the freedom they formerly enjoyed in ancient Aryavarta. All races were the same to her, for universal brotherhood embraces all mankind. In April 1882, she established "The Ladies' Theosophical Society" at Calcutta, composed of native women — an innovation indeed at that time in India, but the Master K.H. had "always felt the need of enrolling women" in the work of spreading theosophy (Mahatma Letters, 251 ).

Wherever she and Colonel Olcott went, they emphasized the need of a fraternization among religious bodies in which the only rivalry would be in good works. Much good was done in this way, and the motto of the Theosophical Society, "There is no Religion Higher than Truth," adopted from the family motto of the Maharajas of Benares, aroused favorable comment. Under the auspices of the Theosophical Society, as the work expanded, Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists, Jews, Mohammedans and Europeans of various beliefs met together in friendly intercourse, an unprecedented sight in the East. Nothing, except the radical modification in outlook brought about by one of the fundamental teachings of theosophy, which is that the esoteric basis of all the great religions is identical — the ancient wisdom-religion of the archaic ages — could have produced this result.

Olcott, on his part, had a sympathetic understanding of the Oriental mentality, and his tact, straightforward dealing, and obvious devotion to humanity, earned the love and confidence of the Asiatics among whom he worked with indefatigable energy for so many years. His simple but practical lectures on the needs of India, material and spiritual, always attracted large audiences.

H. P. Blavatsky created intense interest among the Hindus by her bold affirmation that the great sages of India (Rishis or Mahatmas) had not withdrawn from contact with the world, as so many feared. She not only declared her personal knowledge that the Adept Fraternity existed, but also that she herself was their messenger and a chela of a high Hindu Mahatma.

Even before the T S. was started H.P.B. frequently mentioned the Adepts in her letters to various journals but often under the name of Rosicrucians, and it was not until she settled in India that the words Mahatmas or Masters were used. Writing to Dr. Hartmann, she says:

I said to him [Olcott] that I had known Adepts, the "Brothers, "not only in India and beyond Ladakh, but in Egypt and Syria, — for there are "Brothers" there to this day. . . . That, whether they were called Rosicrucians, Kabalists, or Yogis — Adepts were everywhere Adepts — silent, secret, retiring, and who would never divulge themselves entirely to anyone, unless one did as I did — passed seven and ten years probation (1) and given proofs of absolute devotion, and that he, or she, would keep silent even before a prospect and a threat of death. . . . All I was allowed to say was — the truth: There is beyond the Himalayas a nucleus of Adepts, of various nationalities; and the Teschu Lama knows them, and they act together, and some of them are with him and yet remain unknown in their true character even to the average lamas . . . My Master and K.H. and several others I know personally are there, coming and going, and they are all in communication with Adepts in Egypt and Syria, and even Europe. — The Path, X, 369-70, March 1896

An interesting corroboration of the reality of H.P.B.'s teachers is found in an experience related by Prince Emil von Sayn-Wittgenstein, F.T.S., a Russian officer and an old childhood friend of hers. Writing to The Spiritualist (London) on June 18, 1878, in order to criticize the infallibility of "spirit predictions," he said that he had been warned several times by the spirits to avoid service in the Russo-Turkish war as it would be fatal to him. H.P.B. learned of this prediction and, he writes, told him that her Master would protect him and that he would be perfectly safe. The prince continues:

"The fact is, that during the whole campaign I did not see one shot explode near me, and that, so far as danger was concerned, I could just as well have remained at Vevey [Switzerland]. . . .

Whenever I was near a scene of action the enemy's fire ceased."

He made many efforts to get near the firing line, but:

"As long as I was there, the scene was quiet as in the times of peace, and the firing recommenced as soon as I had left the place. . . .

"I cannot believe all this to be the sole result of chance. It was too regular, too positive to be explained thus. It is, I am sure of it, magic, — the more so as the person who protected me thus efficaciously is one of the most powerful masters of the occult science professed by the theosophists."

The letter is given in full in The Theosophist, March 1883, and in Sinnett's Incidents, page 209. The protection exerted in favor of the prince was an exceptional though not a unique exercise of occult power on that line by the Masters, and must have been given for some special reason.

The Mahatmas are greatly opposed to their personalities being exploited or their places of residence known, and they have taken pains to throw a veil over such matters, and to create doubts about their very existence except with the few to whom such information is necessary. Several emphatic passages occur to this effect in the Mahatma Letters. Let the details of their retreats and their activities be proclaimed for the satisfaction of the curious and

not only will sceptical society derive no great good but our privacy would be constantly endangered and have to be continually guarded at an unreasonable cost of power. — Ibid., 227

Again on page 337 a Master writes:

But I have never undertaken to convince any of them [Fellows of the British T.S.] of the extent of our powers nor even of our personal existence. . . . Too much, or too little was said and proved of us as M.A. (Oxon) justly remarked. We are ordered to set ourselves to work to sweep away the few vestiges . . . and the more our actual existence be doubted — the better.


For the present we offer our knowledge — some portions of it at least — to be either accepted or rejected on its own merits independently — entirely so — from the source from which it emanates. — Ibid., 417

H. P. Blavatsky declares in "The Original Programme of The Theosophical Society" that

They had to oppose in the strongest manner possible anything approaching dogmatic faith and fanaticism — belief in the infallibility of the Masters, or even in the very existence of our invisible Teachers, having to be checked from the first. — Theos., LII, 564, Aug. 1931

They have no desire to start a new superstitious worship of saints or godlings.

Owing to misconception of a statement by the Master K.H. that he could not endure "the stifling magnetism" of even his own countrymen for any length of time and was obliged to return to Tibet (Mahatma Letters, 12), it was suggested that no Adepts remained in India. Apparently in order to correct this, H.P.B. wrote the following explanation of the real conditions:

European and even Hindu students of Occultism are often deploring and even wondering, why all the "Initiates" or "adepts" seem to have died out in India? They have not "died" out, nor, is their absence due to "Kali Yug" as popularly yet erroneously supposed. The "adepts" have simply and gradually if not altogether forsaken India, at least retired from its public populated portions, keeping their knowledge and often their very existence as secret as they can. Many of them are gone beyond the Himalayas. Some yet remain — especially in Southern India, but few are the privileged ones who know of them; still fewer those who could point out their places of retreat. — Theos., III, 135, Feb. 1882

One of these southern Indian Adepts was the Master Narayan, who telepathically dictated parts of Isis Unveiled when H.P.B. was in New York, and later, some of the very valuable "Replies to an English F.T.S." brought out in The Theosophist in 1883 and republished in Five Years of Theosophy (see O. D. L., I, 249). He also contributed to The Theosophist under the pseudonym "One of the Original Founders of the T.S." An important and interesting article exposing the self-contradictions of the Swami Dayanand when the T.S. had to withdraw from association with his Arya Samaj is printed in The Theosophist for June 1882. The Master Narayan lived at Tiruvallum, a retired spot in southern India, a landed proprietor to all appearance, and it is reported that Subba Row once had the privilege of visiting him (see Blavatsky Letters, 63). Subba Row himself writes:

Southern India has always produced the greatest Aryan philosophers. Madhavacharya came from Southern India, and Sankaracharya was born in Malabar; and at the present day there are high adepts and schools of occultism in Southern India. — Theos., X, 228, Jan. 1889

A reproduction of one of Narayan's letters is given in C. Jinarajadasa's Did H. P. Blavatsky Forge the Mahatma Letters?

It may not be an accidental concurrence, if true, as some modern writers on Indian mysticism declare, that there is far more spirituality on the whole in southern India than in other parts of the country. However this may be, the "Holy Man of Benares," Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, a chela of one of H.P.B.'s Masters, and later known to Katherine Tingley who visited him in his asrama, lived in more northern parts. He was a noble and learned representative of the highest class of yogis working openly, but even such outstanding men as he are only on the way to the spiritual altitudes of the fully initiated Mahatmas who inspired the theosophical movement, and whose work and lives are consecrated to the whole of humanity.

How, then, are such helpers to be found? They put it plainly thus:

. . . nothing draws us to any outsider save his evolving spirituality. He may be a Bacon or an Aristotle in knowledge, and still not even make his current felt a feather's weight by us, if his power is confined to the Manas. The supreme energy resides in the Buddhi; latent — when wedded to Atman alone, active and irresistible when galvanized by the essence of "Manas" and when none of the dross of the latter commingles with that pure essence to weigh it down by its finite nature. Manas, pure and simple, is of a lower degree, and of the earth earthly: and so your greatest men count but as nonentities in the arena where greatness is measured by the standard of spiritual development. — Mahatma Letters, 341-2

I can come nearer to you, but you must draw me by a purified heart and a gradually developing will. Like the needle the adept follows his attractions. . . .

If you hear seldom from me, never feel disappointed, my Brother, but say — "It is my fault." . . . your thought will find me if projected by a pure impulse, . . . Like the light in the sombre valley seen by the mountaineer from his peaks, every bright thought in your mind, my Brother, will sparkle and attract the attention of your distant friend and correspondent. If thus we discover our natural Allies in the Shadow-world — your world and ours outside the precincts — and it is our law to approach every such an one if even there be but the feeblest glimmer of the true "Tathagata" light within him — then how far easier for you to attract us. Understand this and the admission into the Society of persons often distasteful to you will no longer amaze you. — Ibid., 266-8

The revelation to the West that the occult Fraternity of Adepts still exists has been increasingly profaned and their teachings perverted of late years by vulgar charlatans who exploit sacred things for money or to get a personal following. H.P.B.'s frank admissions that she was not faultless or infallible, and her poignant regret for errors when her enthusiasm outran her judgment, are in significant contrast to the sorry metaphysical mountebanks who brazenly claim to be in intimate touch with the secret Lodge, and even in some cases to be "Masters" themselves. In those early days Subba Row and other sincere disciples evidently had a prevision of such abominations. A heavy responsibility rests on theosophists to keep the movement, with its austere, simple dignity, free from contamination so that the difference between the true and the false teachers will be unmistakable.

The authenticity and intrinsic value of H.P.B.'s teachings in their appeal to the loftiest aspirations of the heart and mind, stand out in vivid contrast to the specious as well as to the crude counterfeits which have sprung up like poisonous toadstools. Unscrupulous charlatans, false prophets indeed, are misleading thousands of simpleminded victims with alluring prospects of acquiring psychic powers, etc., of worldly "success," "personal magnetism and control of others" for personal ends, by so-called occult means. Some even promise initiation, or recognition by Masters for cash!

On a higher plane, many persons, even some Western scholars, have been attracted by the misleading Tibetan tantric yoga in its modern form, with its subtle enticement for a certain class of intellects. The Master said that about four hundred years ago it took the wrong path. In the lower lamaistic or tantric or semi-tantric system a superficial resemblance in part to the genuine spiritual yoga may be observed, but the two methods are fundamentally opposed in purpose. The noble Mahayana Buddhism so eloquently set forth by H.P.B. in her Voice of the Silence reveals the only real path to emancipation.

While at this time the efforts of the Masters were largely concentrated upon India, they had a much larger field in view. Oriental philosophy had to be brought to the Western peoples in a more popular way than by its academic presentation by the learned European Sanskrit scholars in a few universities, and the Theosophical Society was their instrument for this important work. The result is plainly seen today, and has been admitted by even the severest critics of theosophy. W. Q. Judge, writing in 1891, says:

See how much the English government and the colleges pay for the work of such men as Max Muller and others, which, although it is good work in its way . . . has made no sensible change in the people by its weak and wavering impact upon their minds. Yet in fifteen short years the efforts of H. P. Blavatsky, Col. Olcott, and others have made the entire world look with longing and respect and hope to the vast stores left to us by the ancient philosophers of the East. And all of this by the few for no pay and for no honor, and in the face of calumny and scorn from the world at large. — The Path, V, 378, March 1891

The Master K.H. pointed out that:

The present tendency of education is to make them [Hindus] materialistic and root out spirituality. With a proper understanding of what their ancestors meant by their writings and teachings, education would become a blessing, whereas now it is often a curse. . . . old MSS., hitherto buried out of the reach of the Europeans, would again come to light, and with them the key to much of that which was hidden for ages from the popular understanding, for which your skeptical Sanscritists do not care, which your religious missionaries do not dare, to understand. Science would gain much, humanity everything. Under the stimulus of the Anglo-Indian Theosophical Society, we might in time see another golden age of Sanscrit literature. — The Occult World, 6th Amer. ed., 136-7

Realizing the importance of Sanskrit as a factor in the regeneration of India, and in the spread of theosophy, H.P.B. and Olcott made strenuous efforts to revive Sanskrit learning and to establish Sanskrit schools and publications. Under her advice and helped from her slender resources, the Nellore Branch in southern India started a small Sanskrit school in 1882 which has since developed into a residential college. Many other Indian branches followed the same course, and the subject was taken up vigorously in America a few years later by individual theosophists.

In H. P. Blavatsky's Indian period even the academic scholars admired the energetic work done by the Sanskrit revival which she initiated, including the collection and translation of rare manuscripts; but criticism was aroused among many European scholars when it was declared that the texts of the Puranas, Upanishads, etc., concealed hidden meanings, and that the exoteric teachings were trivial in comparison with what could be found beneath the surface when studied with the proper keys. Olcott reports a conversation he had with the eminent Sanskritist, Professor Max Muller, in regard to the educational work of the Theosophical Society in India; he writes:

"You have done nobly," he said, "in helping so much to revive the love for Sanskrit, and the Orientalists have watched the development of your Society with the greatest interest from the commencement. But why will you spoil all this good reputation by pandering to the superstitious fancies of the Hindus, by telling them that there is an esoteric meaning in their Shastras? I know the language perfectly, and I assure you there is no such thing as a Secret Doctrine in it." In reply, I simply told the Professor that every unspoilt (i.e., unwesternized) Pandit throughout all India believed, as we did, in the existence of this hidden meaning; and that, as for the Siddhis, I personally knew men who possessed them and whom I had seen exhibit their powers. "Well, then," said my erudite host, "let us change the subject." — O. D. L., III, I77-8

Max Muller's opinion is no longer universal among Orientalists, but it is only very lately that serious investigators have realized that trained yogis can develop the siddhis or occult powers described more or less obscurely in Sanskrit literature. Western Orientalists in general have still to learn that the Mahatmas have advanced much farther in raja-yoga — true occultism or spiritual development — than even the living higher yogis or lamas whose names and reputation are widely known in India, Tibet, or elsewhere in the East.

H.P.B.'s high regard for Sanskrit is shown in her comment:

The attempt to render in a European tongue the grand panorama of the ever periodically recurring Law . . . is daring, for no human language, save the Sanskrit — which is that of the Gods — can do so with any degree of adequacy. — The Secret Doctrine, I, 269

In regard to the charges that H. P. Blavatsky had no real knowledge of Oriental philosophies, the records show that she was not only admitted by learned students of the Kabbalah — such as Dr. Seth Pancoast in America, Baron Spedalieri, and other high-ranking Kabbalists in Europe — to be a master in that partial presentation of the ancient wisdom, but in India her profound insight into the meaning of ancient Hindu philosophies was recognized by the most learned Sanskrit students and pandits who gave her many testimonials to that effect.

For example, when Dr. G. Thibaut, a distinguished German Sanskritist, principal of Benares College and a special protege of Professor Max Muller, had a long discussion with her on the Sankhya philosophy, and asked her the most searching questions, he declared that she answered them better than Max Muller or any other Orientalist had done. This took place at Benares in December 1879, when she was there to attend a Council meeting of the Society. While she seems to have had difficulty at times in calling forth the knowledge latent in the depths of her consciousness, she could always draw upon it when the occasion justified the effort.

It was not only in India that her erudition was recognized by competent scholars, but also in Japan and Tibet. According to Evans-Wentz, the well-known Tibetan scholar, the Tibetan lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup was of the view that

. . . despite the adverse criticisms directed against H. P. Blavatsky's works, there is adequate internal evidence in them of their author's intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings, into which she claimed to have been initiated. — The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 7

This learned Tibetan Buddhist lama was a member of the staff of the 13th Dalai Lama, and lecturer in Tibetan at the University of Calcutta. He was thoroughly familiar with the deeper Tibetan teachings which are yet only partially revealed to Western scholars, and his opinion outweighs those of a thousand ill-informed and prejudiced critics.

Mrs. Salanave asked Sardar Bahadur S. W. Laden La, of Darjeeling, a well-known and very independent Buddhist scholar of Tibetan ancestry, if he thought that H. P. Blavatsky had real "inside information" about the higher Tibetan Buddhism. He replied that she certainly had, and that The Voice of the Silence contained the most profound Tibetan teachings. Mrs. Salanave also quotes Professor D. T. Suzuki, the great Japanese authority on Mahayana Buddhism, who said:

"I saw The Voice of the Silence for the first time while at Oxford. I immediately got a copy and sent it to Mrs. Suzuki (then Miss Beatrice Lane, American) at Columbia University, writing to her: 'Here is the real Mahayana Buddhism.'" — The Canadian Theosophist, XIV, 100, June 1933


1. Probation for chelaship can be passed anywhere. (return to text)

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