I first met dear old "HPB," as she made all her friends call her, in the spring of 1887. Some of her disciples had taken a pretty house in Norwood, where the huge glass nave and twin towers of the Crystal Palace glint above a labyrinth of streets and terraces. London was at its grimy best.
HPB was just finishing her day's work. My first impression was of her rippled hair as she turned, then her marvelously potent eyes, as she welcomed me: "My dear fellow! I am so glad to see you! Come in and talk! You are just in time to have some tea!" Then a piercing call for "Louise," and her Swiss maid appeared, to receive a voluble torrent of directions in French.
When we were comfortably alone, she told me a charming tale of Louise's devotion. HPB had got away from her base of supplies somewhere, in Belgium I think, and things were rather tight for a while. A wealthy gentleman called to see the famous Russian witch, and tipped her maid munificently. As soon as he was gone, Louise appeared, blushing and apologizing: "Perhaps Madame will not be offended," she stammered, "but I do not need money"; and she tried to transfer the douceur to her mistress.
Louise's entry cut short the story, and HPB turned with a quizzically humorous smile to another theme: "Of course you have read the SPR Report? — The Spookical Research Society — and know that I am a Russian spy, and the champion impostor of the age?"
Yes, I read the Report. But I knew its contents already. I was at the meeting when it was first read, two years ago. But as far as I could see, [Hodgson] had never really investigated any occult phenomena at all; he simply investigated dim and confused memories about them in the minds of indifferent witnesses. [Myers] came down among us after the meeting, and smilingly asked me what I thought of the Report. I answered that it was the most unfair and one-sided thing I had ever heard of, and that if I had not already been a member of your [HPB's] Society, I should have joined on the strength of that attack. He smiled a kind of sickly smile, and passed on. . . .
"They will never do much. They go too [far] on material lines," said HPB, "and they are far too timid. That was the secret motive that turned them against me. They were afraid of raising a storm if they said our phenomena were true. Fancy what it would have meant! Why it would practically have committed modern science to our mahatmas and all I have taught about the inhabitants of the occult world and their tremendous powers.". . .
Then she told me something about other Masters and adepts she had known — for she made a difference, as though the adepts were the captains of the occult world, and the Masters were the generals. She had known adepts of many races, from Northern and Southern India, Tibet, Persia, China, Egypt; of various European nations, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, English; of certain races in South America, where she said there was a Lodge of adepts.
"There are certain members of the Lodges who pass from centre to centre, keeping the lines of connection between them unbroken. But they are always connected in other ways."
"In their astral bodies?" "Yes," she answered, "and in other ways still higher. They have a common life and power. As they rise in spirituality, they rise above difference of race, to our common humanity. The series is unbroken. Adepts are a necessity in nature and in super-nature. They are the links between men and the gods; these 'gods' being the souls of great adepts and Masters of bygone races and ages, and so on, up to the threshold of Nirvana. The continuity is unbroken."
"What do they do?"
"You would hardly understand, unless you were an adept. But they keep alive the spiritual life of mankind."
"How do the adepts guide the souls of men?"
"In many ways, but chiefly by teaching their souls direct, in the spiritual world. That is difficult for you to understand. But this is quite intelligible: At certain regular periods, they try to give the world at large a right understanding of spiritual things. One of their number comes forth to teach the masses, and is handed down to tradition as the founder of a religion. Krishna was such a Master; so was Zoroaster; so were Buddha and Sankaracharya, the great sage of Southern India. So also was the Nazarene."
"Have the adepts any secret records of his life?"
"They must have," she answered, "for they have records of the lives of all Initiates. Once I was in a great cave-temple in the Himalayan mountains, with my Master. There were many statues of adepts there; pointing to one of them, he said: 'This is he whom you call Jesus. We count him to be one of the greatest among us.'"
"But that is not the only work of the adepts. At much shorter periods, they send forth a messenger to try to teach the world. Such a period comes in the last quarter of each century, and the Theosophical Society represents their work for this epoch."
"How does it benefit mankind?"
"How does it benefit you to know the laws of life? Does it not help you to escape sickness and death? Well, there is a soul-sickness, and a soul-death. Only the true teaching of Life can cure them. The dogmatic churches, with their hell and damnation, their metal heaven and their fire and brimstone, have made it almost impossible for thinking people to believe in the immortality of the soul. And if they do not believe in a life after death, then they have no life after death. That is the law."
"How can what people believe possibly affect them? Either it is or it isn't, whatever they may believe."
"Their belief affects them in this way. Their life after death is made by their aspirations and spiritual development unfolding in the spiritual world. According to the growth of each [in our world] so is his life after death. It is the complement of his life here. All unsatisfied spiritual longings, all desires for higher life, all aspirations and dreams of noble things, come to flower in the spiritual life, and the soul has its day, for life on earth is its night. But if you have no aspirations, no higher longings, no beliefs in any life after death, then there is nothing for your spiritual life to be made up of; your soul is a blank."
"What becomes of you then?"
"You reincarnate immediately, almost without an interval, and without regaining consciousness in the other world."
"What else do you teach, as theosophists?"
"Well, Sir! I am being cross-examined this evening, it would seem," she answered with a smile. "We teach something very old, and yet which needs to be taught. We teach universal brotherhood."
"Don't let us get vague and general. Tell me exactly what you mean by that."
"Let me take a concrete case," she said. "Take the English. How cruel they are! How badly they treat my poor Hindus!"
"I have always understood that they had done a good deal for India in a material way," I objected.
"But what is the use of material benefits, if you are despised and trampled down morally all the time? If your ideals of national honor and glory are crushed in the mud, and you are made to feel all the time that you are an inferior race — a lower order of mortals — pigs, the English call them, and sincerely believe it. Well, just the reverse of that would be universal brotherhood. No amount of material benefit can compensate for hurting their souls and crushing out their ideals. Besides there is another side of all that, which we as theosophists always point out. There are really no 'inferior races,' for all are one in our common humanity; and as we have all had incarnations in each of these races, we ought to be more brotherly to them. They are our wards, entrusted to us; and what do we do? We invade their lands, and shoot them down in sight of their own homes; we outrage their women, and rob their goods, and then with smooth-faced hypocrisy we turn round and say we are doing it for their good. But there is a just law, 'the false tongue dooms its lie; the spoiler robs to render. Ye shall not come forth, until ye have paid the uttermost farthing."'
"So that is what the adepts sent you forth to teach?"
"Yes, that and other things — things which are very important, and will soon be far more important. There is the danger of black magic, into which all the world, and especially America, is rushing as fast as it can go. Only a wide knowledge of the real psychic and spiritual nature of man can save humanity from grave dangers."
"Witch-stories in this so-called nineteenth century, in this enlightened age?"
"Yes, Sir! Witch-tales in this enlightened age! And mark my words! You will have such witch-tales as the Middle Ages never dreamt of. Whole nations will drift insensibly into black magic, with good intentions, no doubt, but paving the road to hell none the less for that! Do you not see the tremendous evils that lie concealed in hypnotism? Hypnotism and suggestion are great and dangerous powers, for the very reason that the victim never knows when he is being subjected to them; his will is stolen from him. These things may be begun with good motives, and for right purposes. But I am an old woman, and have seen much of human life in many countries and I wish with all my heart I could believe that these powers would be used only for good! If you could foresee what I foresee, you would begin heart and soul to spread the teaching of universal brotherhood. It is the only safeguard!"
"How is it going to guard people against hypnotism?"
"By purifying the hearts of people who would misuse it. And universal brotherhood rests upon the common soul. It is because there is one soul common to all men, that brotherhood, or even common understanding, is possible. Bring men to rest on that, and they will be safe. There is a divine power in every man which is to rule his life, and which no one can influence for evil, not even the greatest magician. Let men bring their lives under its guidance, and they have nothing to fear from man or devil.
"And now, my dear, it is getting late, and I am getting sleepy. So I must bid you goodnight!"
And the Old Lady dismissed me with that grand air of hers which never left her, because it was a part of herself. She was the most perfect aristocrat I have ever known.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1993; full text in H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, 8:392-409; Charles Johnston, Sanskrit scholar and translator of several Hindu classics, was a founder of the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society of which Yeats and A.E. [George Russell] were also members.)