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

Chapter 14


To H.P.B. it was obvious that positive and immediate defense should be made against The Christian College Magazine attack, or the progress of theosophy would be seriously hindered, and so she strongly urged the necessity of taking an action for libel. Colonel Olcott, however, felt that the matter should be submitted to the annual Convention of the Society, shortly to assemble at Adyar (December 1884).

Link to Illustration: Ninth Anniversary of The Theosophical Society (Adyar, Madras, December 27-29, 1884)

A special committee, mostly composed of Hindu lawyers, was appointed to consider the position, and the Convention adopted its decision that there was no chance of justice being obtained in a court of law, because the case would be prejudged on account of the (legally) a priori impossibility of occult phenomena, and because of other technical reasons. H.P.B. was forced to yield to what she called a cowardly and foolish retreat. She would have fought to the last rather than see the forces of darkness gain even a temporary advantage. She felt, and rightly, that, as Dr. E. R. Corson says in his book (p. 66):

Had this case been tried in court every witness on which Hodgson based his reports [practically the Coulombs alone] could have been discredited by opposing counsel, either on the ground of bad character or incompetency.

But there was another reason against taking legal action which H.P.B. did not perhaps appreciate at first. The experienced Indian lawyers and judges were no doubt right in realizing that evidence in regard to the so-called supernatural would be ruled out of court and so the strongest defense would be unavailable, but they were also aware of another and more serious obstacle. Being Asiatics themselves they knew the intense reluctance the Indian chelas would have in giving evidence which even remotely brought in the sacred names of their Masters. To them anything would be better than the certainty that the Masters would be ridiculed and their names desecrated by the smart attorneys in defense of the Coulomb-Missionary clique. H.P.B. imagined at first that the charge could be confined by her lawyers to the Coulomb forgeries of the incriminating parts of her letters, but the lawyers knew that this was impossible, and she afterwards saw that from their standpoint they were justified. The missionaries were eagerly looking forward to the case because they hoped to place her in an embarrassing position in the witness box.

Writing somewhat later to Mrs. Sinnett, H.P.B. told her that any lawsuit in which occult matters were bandied about, whether the chelas gave evidence or not, would have caused them all unendurable agony. She wrote:

The Masters being involved in this also, and I, determined to RATHER DIE A THOUSAND DEATHS than pronounce Their names, or answer questions about Them in a Court of law — what can I do? Ah, Mrs. Sinnett, the plotters proved too cunning, too crafty for the T. S. and especially for myself. She [Mme. Coulomb] . . . knew well, I would and could not defend myself in a Court because of the accusations, of myself and friends, and the whole of my life being so intimately connected with the Mahatmas. . . . I have learned the whole extent and magnitude of the conspiracy against the belief in the Mahatmas; it was a question of life or death to the Missions in India, and they thought that by killing me they would kill Theosophy. They very nearly succeeded. — Blavatsky Letters, 99-100

No appeal to the law being made by the Society, this failure to act was regarded as a sign of weakness, just as H.P.B. foresaw and struggled to avoid. While the decision may have been justified on grounds of ordinary prudence, who knows what a far-reaching effect might have been made for the future by the tremendous protest against injustice which she could, and surely would, have made before the world, even if the heavens fell! The wisdom of this world is not always the wisest. But even though the decision may have been reasonable, many of those who made it were anything but staunch defenders of her honor. H.P.B. soon found that there was weakness and more than weakness on the part of many of her fair-weather friends. Treachery was soon apparent, and also the cowardly desire on the part of some to repudiate one against whom the world had turned and was trying to destroy. As she wrote to Mr. Sinnett:

Oh! the poor miserable cowards!! . . . I tell you I suffer more from theosophical traitors than from the Coulomb, Patterson [missionary], or even the S.P.R. Had all the Societies held together as one man; had there been unity instead of personal ambitions and passions awakened, the whole world, . . . could not have prevailed against us. Sacrifice me I am willing, but do not ruin the Society — love it and the Cause. — Ibid., 114

It was, however, not merely the attack on herself or on the T.S. that caused her so much anguish. It was the failure of such a large part of the Society to live up to its ideals. K.H. writes to Sinnett in regard to the position in 1881:

You must have understood by this time, my friend, that the centennial attempt made by us to open the eyes of the blind world — has nearly failed: in India — partially, in Europe — with a few exceptions — absolutely. — Mahatma Letters, 362

In spite of innumerable warnings, too many would-be theosophists directed their attention the wrong way, selfishly looking for psychic powers and purely intellectual information, ignoring and even belittling the true aim of the Masters in starting the "centennial attempt" for the present cycle. To quote a passage in a letter from the Master M., which is most touching in its appeal for understanding:

How many times had we to repeat, that he who joins the Society with the sole object of coming in contact with us and if not of acquiring at least of assuring himself of the reality of such powers and of our objective existence — was pursuing a mirage? I say again then. It is he alone who has the love of humanity at heart, who is capable of grasping thoroughly the idea of a regenerating practical Brotherhood who is entitled to the possession of our secrets. He alone, such a man — will never misuse his powers, as there will be no fear that he should turn them to selfish ends. A man who places not the good of mankind above his own good is not worthy of becoming our chela — he is not worthy of becoming higher in knowledge than his neighbour. If he craves for phenomena let him be satisfied with the pranks of spiritualism. — Ibid., 252

This growing failure on the part of so many to respond to the call of brotherhood had been preying on H.P.B.'s mind for some years, and the revelation of the weakness and vacillation of some of the prominent members in regard to the Coulomb defense almost broke her heart. The pressure of the whole situation brought on another long and severe illness. Her life was despaired of, and she was saved only by the direct interposition of the Master on a night which was indeed critical for the movement, for if she had chosen to abandon her work and "go Home" we should never have had The Secret Doctrine, or her other most important writings. The magnitude of her personal sacrifice for others is hinted at in a letter to Mrs. Sinnett dated July 23, 1885:

My heart is broken not for what my true, open enemies have done — them, I despise; but for the selfishness, the weak-heartedness in my defence, . . . I shall never — nor could I if I would, forget that forever-memorable night during the crisis of my illness, when Master, before exacting from me a certain promise, revealed to me things that He thought I ought to know, before pledging my word to Him for the work He asked me (not ordered as He had a right to) to do. On that night when Mrs. Oakley and Hartman and everyone except Bowajee (D.N.), expected me every minute to breathe my last — I learned all. I was shown who was right and who wrong (unwittingly) and who was entirely treacherous; and a general sketch of what I had to expect outlined before me. Ah, I tell you, I have learned things on that night — things that stamped themselves for-ever on my Soul; black treachery, assumed friendship for selfish ends, belief in my guilt, and yet a determination to lie in my defence, since I was a convenient step to rise upon, and what not! Human nature I saw in all its hideousness in that short hour, when I felt one of Master's hands upon my heart, forbidding it cease beating, and saw the other calling out sweet future before me. With all that, when He had shown me all, all, and asked "Are you willing?" — I said "Yes," and thus signed my wretched doom, for the sake of the few who were entitled to His thanks. . . . Death was so welcome at that hour, rest so needed, so desired; life like the one that stared me in the face, and that is realised now — so miserable; yet how could I say No to Him who wanted me to live! But all this is perhaps incomprehensible to you, though I do hope it is not quite so. — Blavatsky Letters, 104-5

In the morning following this crisis, H.P.B. awoke from her apparently fatal coma and seemed comparatively well, saying to her doctor, whose amazement at this unexpected recovery was undisguised: "Ah, doctor, you do not believe in our great Masters!"

Disruptive forces were working at headquarters, and the cause of H.P.B.'s greatest suffering, the failure of many influential members to take a courageous stand, was not removed. Her poor-spirited and over-cautious advisers — as they appeared to be, though she must have known that their judgment was largely swayed by some influence more subtle than mere prudence — having overruled her passionate urge to protect the movement by challenging her persecutors in the law courts, insisted that she withdraw from public activities, at least for a while. Let her confine herself to writing until the public was better informed of the unwarrantable nature of the Coulomb charges. She strenuously resisted this retreat in the face of the enemy, knowing the risks if she left her work exposed to the secret as well as to the open forces against which she, as the direct agent of the Masters, had been the "guardian wall." But it was useless; tortured with sickness, worn out by anxieties and pressed by her impatient councillors, she finally submitted to an arrangement which Olcott considered the best. She resigned her official connection with the Society as Corresponding Secretary, entrusted The Theosophist to Olcott, and agreed to retire to some quiet place in Europe where she could write and try to regain a measure of health. On March 31, 1885, she bade farewell to India, which she never saw again. She was accompanied by a companion, Miss Flynn, Dr. F. Hartmann, and Babaji, a young Hindu who was striving for chelaship. Although the Master had rescued her from the jaws of death, she was still a very sick woman, and her convalescence was likely to be very slow. Her weakness was so great that she had to be hoisted in a hospital chair to the deck of the vessel on which they sailed, and her physician, who had insisted on a change of climate for her, said it was doubtful if she could live a year.

Shortly before she left, the missionaries, who were eager to force her into the witness box, planned a suit against Major-General Morgan, ostensibly in defense of the Coulombs whom he had openly charged with fraud. He was ready and indeed anxious to defend himself in court, but when the missionaries found that H.P.B. had left India they abandoned the idea and let the Coulombs save their shreds of reputation as best they could.

After she left, Colonel Olcott did his best to arouse the Society in India to renewed efforts. His devotion to the work never failed, though his judgment was sometimes at fault. He continued his laborious tours as before, lecturing and establishing new lodges, and heartening the members by placing the real facts of the Coulomb conspiracy before them. Among his other more or less theosophical activities was the promotion of fraternization among the various Buddhist authorities in Japan, Ceylon, Burma, Siam and Cambodia, on the basis of the fundamental principles of pure Buddhism. His efforts were so highly appreciated that if he had wished — and he was greatly tempted — he could have taken a high position in the Buddhist world, instead of confining his splendid energy chiefly to the theosophical movement.

His theosophical work was conducted under the greatest difficulties, being handicapped by serious dissensions within the managing group, conspiracies to get the control out of his hands, great financial embarrassment, and other anxieties. He learned much about ingratitude and treachery. For a while Olcott was so hard pressed that he says he was "nearly crazy and capable of writing and saying almost anything." Although H.P.B. was far away in Germany, she did not fail to point out his mistakes in no complimentary manner when writing to him. But he held on and faced his trying problems.

But when I put the question to myself what I was working for, whether for the praise of men or the gratitude of H.P.B., or that of any other living person, all this despondency drifted away and my mind has never gone back to it. The sense of the paramount obligation of doing my duty, of serving the Masters in the carrying on of their lofty plans — unthanked, unappreciated, misunderstood, calumniated . . . came in to me like the flash of a great light. . . . — O. D. L., III, 221

He also frankly admits, in regard to the severe discipline he received from H.P.B. at certain times, that —

No doubt all this heckling was just the discipline I needed, and undoubtedly still need as much as ever, to bring me down to my bearings, but I can't say it was nice. . . . I could have spared three-fourths of the discipline to any other needy neophyte without regret, although, doubtless, it was best for me to have it. — Ibid., III, 313-14

Writing on November 21, 1889 H.P.B. gave this tribute to Olcott:

One thing I do know — and my Master and his know it too — he has done his best which is all that any of us can do. I have too many faults of my own (whatever may be his accusers) to sit over him in judgment. To me he has been ever a true friend and defender, and I will not throw him overboard because of his faults. — Theos., LIII, 622-3, Aug. 1932

The above recognition of the true state of the case should be remembered when false charges are made that H.P.B. treated Olcott with injustice or unnecessary harshness. He was a very strong, determined character, and she was often compelled to handle him without gloves, as the saying goes. He admits that some of the Masters themselves found him quite unmanageable and impossible to work with, saying:

From time to time one or another Brother [Master] who had been on friendly terms with me . . . has become disgusted with me and left me to others, who kindly took their places. Most of all, I regret, a certain Magyar philosopher, who had begun to give me a course of instruction in occult dynamics, but was repelled by an outbreak of my old earthly nature. — Hints on Esoteric Theosophy, I, 78-9

Theosophical University Press Online Edition