Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hudleston's Garden

Some background on HPB’s place of residence in Madras is given by the Chennai blog, Rabbiting On, which V. Narayan Swami, who runs it, explains to mean: Rabbiting on is slang for chatttering pointlessly or aimlessly. Which is what this Blog will do—on topics that interest me: History, Prints, Churchill, Wodehouse, Architecture, and so on. The URL is from Hamlet: "the graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman Streets".

He has ferreted out information on the Hudlestons who built the property that was to become the Adyar headquarters of the Theosophical Society.

Of the many Hudlestons who served in Madras over two centuries plus there are three from a distinguished branch who are our men. John Hudleston (1749-1835) entered the Madras Civil Service in 1766 and probably knew his contemporary, James Brodie. By 1782, he was Military Secretary to the Madras Government and a member of the Council by 1790. As Military Secretary, he was instrumental in negotiating a treaty of peace with Hyder Ali in the first Mysore War and retired to England around 1800, becoming a Memeber of Parliament and a Director of the East India Company. He was the one who got a grant of the 28 acre property from the Company and most likely built the house—a garden house as the English termed such houses—as the style of the building accords with that of many others built in Madras around 1800.

John's son, Josiah Andrew (1799-1865), also entered the Madras Civil Service and retired as Chief Collector of Madras in 1855. Josiah Hudleston was also a famous guitar musician and composer. His son, also Josiah (1826-92), was a Colonel in the Madras Army and probably retired in the mid to late 1870's when the house was sold to an Indian. In 1882, Col Olcott and Madam Blavatsky, the founders of Theo Soc, bought the property from one Muthiah Pillai for a down payment of Rs 1000 with a mortgage of Rs 7500 on it which they assumed. For the money they paid, what the Theosophists got was about 28 acres, the main house, a tank, stables and two substantial out-buildings—one, a grand octagonal house which Col Olcott took for his residence, and the other, a still more spacious structure which is used as a guest house today.

The rest of his post on residences of the Adyar estuary can be read here. Unfortunately he is in error about the state of the building when it was purchased by Olcott and Blavatsky, mistaking the additions done after 1907 by Mrs. Marie Russak as part of the original structure. He also mistakes Blavatsky Bungalow, acquired by the Society in the 20th century, for Olcott’s residence, the octagonal building near the headquarters building.

So, in the watercolour above by F. J. Delafour, “The river Adyar, Madras, from the terrace of a villa,” circa 1836 (because Elphinstone Bridge, shown at the right edge of the picture, was not built until 1840, V. Narayan Swami believes the date to be 1856 not 1836 as given for it), Hudleston's Garden is the first building on the right, and much the way the Theosophists must have seen it.

After moving to the property at the end of 1882, HPB wrote her aunt:

It is simply delightful. What air we have here; what nights! And what marvellous quiet! No more city noises and street yells. I am sitting quietly writing, and now and then gaze over the ocean sparkling all over as if a living thing—really. I am often under the impression that the sea breathes, or that it is angry, roaring and hurling itself about in wrath. But when it is quiet and caressing there can be nothing in the world as fascinating as its beauty, especially on a moonlit night. The moon here against the deep dark-blue sky seems twice as big and ten times brighter than your European mother-of-pearl ball.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Blavatsky Avenue

The Hindu, one of India’s largest circulation daily English-language newspapers, carries a notice of a prospective redesignation for streets in Chennai (Madras, for old timers) bearing the names of non-Indians. There seems to be a move to keep at least some of them. The reporter, under the headline, “Retain street names of foreign personalities who served our society,” writes:

The Salem Historical Society has urged the Chennai Corporation not to rename at least 20 important roads of the total 50 in its renaming list in Chennai city. These streets had been named after foreign personalities who, the Society points out, had rendered yeomen service to the development of the then ‘Madarasapattinam' and its society. The move, the Society, in its written requests sent to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin claims, will “erase the vital vestiges of history” from the face of the State and rob the younger generation of understanding a slice of the heritage too. “Hence they should be preserved,” it insists.

Though it has no reservation against the naming of streets and roads after Tamil intellectuals, the civic authority should at least retain some of the important names of foreigners who had “integrated themselves into the Indian society.”

Along with the many Besant Roads (“Annie Besant fought for the country's and women's liberation”) the government is urged to retain, one finds Blavatsky Avenue (“Madam Blavatsky was a president of Theosophical Society”) listed. While Mme. Blavatsky was not President of the Theosophical Society (no Olcott Roads ?), her presence as a resident of Madras certainly brought the town (as it was then) a global recognition as a spiritual metropolis with the publication of her magazine, The Theosophist (still published here).

The rest of the article from the July 25, 2010 Hindu can be read here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tunnels of the Inca: As Tall as a Man, and Hundreds of Miles Long

The following information comes from Brien Foerster, who is now in Peru:

A tunnel measuring 2 km in length, linking the Koricancha temple with the fortress of Sacsayhuaman, located on the outskirts of the Peruvian city of Cuzco, was discovered by Spanish archaeologist Anselm Pi Rambla, in the ancient Inca capital. The tunnel may form part of a series of galleries, chambers, fountains and ancient mausoleums which are probably under the city of Cuzco, according to measurements made by Pi Rambla as part of the Wiracocha Project, initiated in August 2000.

According to radar images obtained by Pi Rambla, the tunnel links directly to the Temple of the Sun or Korikancha, with the Convent of Santa Catalina or Marcahuasi, with the Cathedral or Temple of Inca Wiracocha, with the palace of Huascar, with the Temple of Manco Capac or Colcampata and with the Huamanmarca.

When Mme. Blavatsky, famous 19th century European “medium” visited Peru, she viewed and concurred with the information regarding the markings on the Ila monolith. She also asserted that information regarding the entrances to the tunnels had been graven in the walls of the “Sun Temple” (Qoricancha) at Cuzco. It is reported that Mme. Blavatsky received a chart of the tunnels, from an old Indian, when she visited Lima. This chart now reposes in the Adyar, India, archives of the Theosophical Society.

In volume 1 of Isis Unveiled, pp. 595-98, HPB makes reference to such a tunnel, and says: We have in our possession an accurate plan of the tunnel, the sepulchre and the doors, given to us at the time by the old Peruvian, and there does exist in the TS Archives at Adyar, a three page document showing a number of coastal towns along what was then Bolivia and Peru, which is reproduced in the Theosophical Publishing House edition of Isis Unveiled and in vol. 2 of the Blavatsky Collected Writings series, pp. 339-43, attached to her article “A Land of Mystery.”

As she wrote in that article: Strong corroborative evidence is now found in more than one recent scientific work; and the statement may be less pooh-poohed now than it was then.

The rest of Brien Foerster’s post can be read here, and the work of Anselm Pi Rambla, here.

H.P. Blavatsky, Medium?

There is another aspect to the discussion about Olcott’s People from the Other World and its ramifications for HPB that is worth noting. At the end of his book, on page 453, Olcott makes the statement: “I gradually discovered that this lady [Mme. Blavatsky]…is one of the most remarkable mediums in the world. Although he goes on to say: At the same time, her mediumship is totally different from that of any other person I ever met; for, instead of being controlled by spirits to do their will, it is she who seems to control them to do her bidding,” the label would stick and the idea was introduced.

There is no doubting that HPB had displayed psychic abilities in her youth. Her sister, Vera, gives an inventory of the feats she was capable of (see The Theosophist, May 1991, p. 292). But from the time of her meeting Olcott on October 14, 1874, when we start having a week by week reporting of her doings, details of her functioning as a medium, that is, going into a trance and all the conditions that were considered necessary for it, i.e., dim lights, etc., are hard to come by. She seems to have dispensed with these conditions in the production of her phenomena, and, as Olcott observed: instead of being controlled by spirits to do their will, it is she who seems to control them to do her bidding, which would make her something other than a medium.

Olcott was later to redact his words, for D.D. Home, in his 1877 Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism, gives a letter from Olcott to him in 1876 where he clarifies his statement: I called her, in writing my book, “one of the most remarkable mediums in the world,” he says of Blavatsky. At that very time she denied the possession of mediumship, but, thinking I knew better, I assumed to classify her, without her consent, as I did.

Yet in Old Diary Leaves 1, Olcott indicates that Blavatsky seemed to exhibit various “alter egos” during the process of writing Isis Unveiled: Her pen would be flying over the page, when she would suddenly stop, look out into space with the vacant eye of the clairvoyant seer, shorten her vision as though looking at something held invisibly in the air before her, and begin copying on her paper what she saw. The quotation finished, her eyes would resume her natural expression, and she would go on writing until again stopped by a similar interruption

Blavatsky preferred the term “mediator” to “medium” when referring to this function. The subject is one that deserves further examination. One of the few attempts at exploring this thread in the light of occultism is E.J. Langford Garstin’s “The Use of Trance in Spiritual Development” in the March 1932 Occult Review, where he differentiates between mediumistic and hypnotic trance—“the person entering either of these states is in the very vast majority of cases totally unaware of anything that happens during his or her state”—and what he refers to as “mantic trance,” the form of exaltation used by the ancient theurgists. Readers can perhaps add to this.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

October 14, 1874

The interest generated by the post of July 11th, “Henry Olcott, the Eddys and Materialization Phenomena,” and its significance for theosophists calls for some further comment here.

The first volume of HPB’s press scrapbooks documenting the history of the Theosophical Society starts with a clipping from Olcott’s newspaper account from the Eddy séances, announcing: The arrival of a Russian lady of distinguished birth and rare educational and natural endowments, on the 14th of October was an important event in the history of the Chittenden manifestations. HPB annotated this with the words: The curtain is raised. — H.S.O.’s acquaintance on October 14, 1874, with H.P.B. at Chittenden. H. S. Olcott is a — Rabid Spiritualist, and H. P. Blavatsky is an occultist — one who laughs at the supposed agency of Spirits! To which Olcott added: (but all the same pretends to be one herself).

So (according to Blavatsky’s narrative) the genesis of the modern theosophical movement begins with this meeting on October 14, 1874. The full narrative can be found in Olcott’s 1875 People From the Other World and in the first volume of his Old Diary Leaves. More recently the events of that period have been the subject of a novel by Greg Guma, Spirits of Desire, published in 2004 by Maverick Books of Winooski, Vermont. Here is how he tells the story of how Helena met Henry:

From the instant she had seen him, Helena sensed that destiny was inexorably propelling her toward Henry Olcott. But destiny without will was surrender to fate—and she wasn't one to surrender in any situation. As a result, once she knew where he was, the only real issue was choosing precisely the right moment for them to meet.

The moment finally presented itself in mid-October, as she surveyed the scene at the Eddy farm. Although she kept him under surveillance once he entered the dining room, she wasn't ready yet to admit her interest; their first meeting should seem like his idea. And so, when his eyes finally settled on her that afternoon, she looked away.

Jane Austen he’s not. Guma, described as “an American progressive journalist and author,” has posted some of this material on his blog, Maverick Media, which can be read here.

If it were not for Olcott’s account, the story this family of mediums in rural Vermont, especially that of Horatio Eddy (1842-1922) and his brother William Eddy (1832-1932), would never have attracted so much notice, and their story after Olcott’s departure can only be sketchily given. In the end, the publicity they received was not to their benefit, and after retiring from exhibiting their mediumistic powers, they returned to their life as farmers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Abner Doubleday, President of the Theosophical Society

Abner Doubleday may not be a name readily recognizable to those familiar with the history of the modern theosophical movement. Yet, for a brief time, he was deputed President of the Theosophical Society when Blavatsky and Olcott departed America for India. A new book from the publisher McFarland, Abner Doubleday: A Civil War Biography by Thomas Barthel, while focusing on his contribution to America’s Civil War, looks at his involvement with Theosophy. Doubleday (1819-1893) distinguished himself at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, where Confederate troops suffered a major defeat and effectively decided the fate of the Civil War. He traveled on the train with Abraham Lincoln later that year when the President delivered his famous Gettysburg address in Pennsylvania and was on the dais with other dignitaries. When Doubleday died in 1893 he was buried in Section 1 of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Doubleday’s later interest in Theosophy is well documented and can be read about here. Barthel gives an effective enough summary in his book, but also cites a letter on page 204 from Blavatsky to Doubleday written from Bombay “in July of 1879,” which seems out of context and for which no source is given:

The foremost rule of all is the entire renunciation of one’s personality—i.e., a pledged member has to become a thorough altruist, never to think of himself, and to forget his own vanity and pride in the thought of the good of his fellow-creatures, besides that of his fellow-brothers in the esoteric circle. He has to live, if the esoteric instructions shall profit him, a life of abstinence in everything, of self-denial and morality, doing his duty by all men.

The known surviving letters to Doubleday from Blavatsky of July 16, 1879 and April 17, 1880, in the archives of the Theosophical Society, Pasadena, have been printed, though there may have been others (see The Theosophical Forum, December 1939, 445-447). But neither gives such information. Hopefully more details can be provided.

Doubleday’s memorial at the Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania

The Secret of The Secret Doctrine

The Blavatsky Trust in England has upload the first part of a series of lectures on “The Secret of The Secret Doctrine” delivered in Budapest, Hungary, in 2009 by Michael Gomes. Aside from his recent abridging of The Secret Doctrine, Gomes also abridged HPB’s Isis Unveiled in 1997 and edited a one-volume anthology of her magazine output for her death centenary in 1991, HPB Teaches. Later this year the newly discovered Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge, the largest amount of doctrinal material from HPB to appear since 1897, is expected to be out. His writings on the history of the movement published over the past 25 years are too numerous to go into here. The course description for “The Secret of The Secret Doctrine,” given at the European School of Theosophy, is described on the Blavatsky Trust website as follows:

H.P. Blavatsky's Secret Doctrine is one of the great monuments of modern esotericism. But its 1500 pages can prove daunting. Michael Gomes, whose new abridgement was published by Penguin in 2009, will use it as a guide through the concepts offered in the book. These four sessions will look at the events that shaped the book, presuppositions needed for an understanding of the text, and the methodology that will allow the reader to experience
The Secret Doctrine firsthand.

It can be accessed here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Henry Olcott, the Eddys and Materialization Phenomena

The Australian blog, Late Harvest, for July 11 has an article on Colonel Henry Steel Olcott’s People From the Other World (1875, reprinted by the Charles E. Tuttle Co. in 1972). The book, written before the founding of the Theosophical Society, is a record of Olcott visit to the Eddy mediums in rural Vermont in the fall of 1874. It was here that he met Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who was among the spectators. For anyone who has not read the book, nor intending to, this piece provides an overview off its salient points. The author, J.D. Frodgham, writes:

Olcott on the whole emerges extremely well from this inquiry. After the lapse of over a century he still comes across to us as a practical man full of shrewdness and commonsense who was prepared to spend ten uncomfortable weeks living in a primitive farmhouse in the middle of an isolated rural community in the company of uncongenial people in order to discover the truth about materialisation. I find his character portraits of the Eddys singularly convincing. They were illiterate farmers endowed, unfortunately for them, with a rare and perilous gift. Had they been born into a more congenial culture, say that of India, China or Tibet, they would undoubtedly have achieved resounding fame as holy men, shamans or magicians.

It was largely due to his administrative ability and the energy with which he devoted himself to his work, that the [Theosophical] Society was able to establish itself firmly enough to withstand and survive the storm of controversy which the scandal centring around Madame Blavatsky later unleashed against Theosophy.

Though Frodgham’s statement: “he [Olcott] is best known today for his singular work, People From The Other World,” is debatable, the rest of the post (reprinted from the Journal of Alternative Realities, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2000) is cogent enough and can be read here.

The Eddy Farmhouse as it looks today

Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred

Jeffrey Kripal is Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has written and edited a number of books, including: Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, 1995, Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, 1998, Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West, 2003, Hidden Intercourse: Essays on Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, with Wouter J. Hanegraaff, 2008, and one in 2007 on the California community Esalen, among others. His writings are not without controversy, perhaps due to his contention that “one must rise by that by which one falls.”

His new book, just released by University Of Chicago Press, May 30, 2010, is Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, described as follows:

Most scholars dismiss research into the paranormal as pseudoscience, a frivolous pursuit for the paranoid or gullible. Even historians of religion, whose work naturally attends to events beyond the realm of empirical science, have shown scant interest in the subject. But the history of psychical phenomena, Jeffrey J. Kripal contends, is an untapped source of insight into the sacred and by tracing that history through the last two centuries of Western thought we can see its potential centrality to the critical study of religion.

It focuses on four major figures in the history of paranormal research: psychical researcher Frederic Myers; writer and humorist Charles Fort; astronomer, computer scientist, and ufologist Jacques Vallee; and philosopher and sociologist Bertrand Méheust. Blavatsky is referenced on page 55:

The society [for Psychical Research] studied the famous founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, for example. It even sent one of its own, Richard Hodgson, all the way to India to examine the details of her shrine from which “miraculous” letters were said to materialize. Hodgson soon discovered double-sided drawers opening up into Madame’s bedroom and obtained damning confessions from her servants. In her recent history of the S.P.R., Deborah Blum explains how “Hodgson had scarcely left the building before it mysteriously burned to the ground, turning its secrets into ashes. He’d no doubt she’d ordered the destruction of evidence.” The society subsequently declared Blavatsky a patent fraud and said so in its own published Proceedings of 1885. Hodgson’s dramatic debunking extended to 174 pages of text. One wonders, though, if Blavatsky was not more complicated and interesting than that, if she resembled Eusapia [Palladino] more than a simple stage magician. I wonder anyway.

And wonder he might. Kripal was going along fine until he gets derailed by Deboroh Blum’s muddled explanation in her 2007 book: Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Is she saying the building or the shrine “burned to the ground”? The building is still standing today. Hodgson never saw the shrine. Michael Gomes, in his examination of the events relating to this in The Coulomb Case, notes that the cabinet known as the shrine had already been removed from Mme. Blavatsly’s rooms on September 20 while she was still in Europe. Hodgson did not arrive in Madras until December. Gomes’s monograph, Volume X of the Theosophical History: Occasional Papers, clarifying this confusing incident, can be obtained here.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Secret Doctrine Reviewed

Sally Dougherty was the editor of Sunrise magazine before it ceased publication. She wrote the following review of the edition of The Secret Doctrine, abridged and annotated by Michael Gomes, which we are happy to share here:

The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky's 1500-page masterwork, is the foundational text of the modern theosophical movement. Still, many find it difficult to read. Its main lines of reasoning are often obscured by a plethora of examples from world cultures, citations from authorities, and arguments about the scientific, religious, and philosophical thought current in the late 19th century when she wrote. This skillful abridgment preserves the poetic flavor of her writing and the main outline of her theme while removing references to other writers and texts as well as criticism and analysis of scientific ideas and theosophical misconceptions.

Gomes organizes his abridgment around the Stanzas, giving a paragraph or two, or sometimes several pages, of her explanatory material about each. As he explains: "In this way the stanzas receive more of a central role and are allowed to speak more clearly than before. With their strange cadences and rhythmic flow, they provide the means to an alternate way of looking at the world, humanity, and the saga of creation, or, as the author describes it, 'a glimpse into eternity.' Fact or fiction, the stanzas provide one of the great mythos of our time, whose influence on modern esotericism is undeniable." (p. xxv) Portions of several of the chapters on symbolism are also included.

This is a useful introduction to theosophical thought which would also make a good choice for book groups.

The literary critic, Bib Leo Phyle, in his column, Notable Books, at Theosophy Forward, also gives the book his sanction, noting:

The need for a new, current abridgment is clear. And Michael Gomes has provided it. His work is the best entry to The Secret Doctrine for twenty-first century readers. Gomes captures the essential points of the book and highlights many notable features…HPB was indeed a sphinx, and a marvelous one, deserving our awe and appreciation. But like the question of the sphinx, her writing can sometimes be a puzzle. So Michael Gomes deserves our gratitude for producing this excellent clue to unraveling the puzzle of The Secret Doctrine.

While the Summer 2010 issue of Quest, the Journal of the Theosophical Society in America at Wheaton, Illinois, carries a review by the noted scholar of religion, Robert Ellwood:

Gomes is to be commended for doing this job in the elegant, painstaking way one would expect from him. His is a book every Theosophist and spiritual explorer ought to have at hand, to pick up for adventures in occult knowledge at odd moments, which will often turn into hours. Reading Gomes’s abridgment of The Secret Doctrine will add to the student’s store of wisdom and to his or her appreciation of the original. Many will eventually be led back to the original by way of this introduction.

Eastern Religion and the Dilemmas of the Modern

“Eastern Religion and the Dilemmas of the Modern” is the title of a PhD dissertation recently submitted by Roderick B. Overaa in the Department of English at the University of Washington. Overaa writes in his Introduction:

This dissertation presents a genealogy of modernism that explores the impact of Eastern religion and philosophy on nineteenth and twentieth century Anglo-American literature. This project significantly reframes our current understanding of modernism, its origins, and its legacy. Twentieth century critics typically emphasized modernist innovations in style and form as defining characteristics. Increasingly, however, modernism is viewed as a massive cultural response to a profound and pervasive crisis of spirituality in the West—a crisis that has its origins in Enlightenment rationalism and which achieves its most concise and familiar expression in Nietzsche’s famous 1882 pronouncement that “God is dead.” This study demonstrates that the perceived loss of the spiritual (as the ground for both moral and cosmic order) is the fundamental problem of Western modernity, and that this perspective allows us to understand and explain the extensive influence of Eastern religion on the art and literature of the modern era.

While focusing on writers like Emerson, Melville, and Somerset Maugham, he also lists the publication of Madame Blavatsky’s The Key to Theosophy, Rudyard Kipling’s “The Ballad of East and West,” and William Butler Yeats’ early Indian poems, as examples of this new impulse.

The central critical question that demands attention is not whether or not writers like Melville, Kipling, Yeats, Blavatsky, and [Edwin] Arnold “got it right,” in their various appropriations of Eastern thought, but why they were appropriating it in the first place, and in such increasing numbers. The answer, as [Arthur] Versluis’ gloss suggests, has much more to do with the West and its escalating cultural dilemma than the specific manner in which Eastern texts were assimilated and redeployed.

His thesis can be read here.

The Mahatma Letters, Pt 2

Joy Mills in her commentary on the Mahatma Letters, Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom, refers to letter 88 (letter 10 in the 2nd and 3rd editions) as “Certainly one of the most challenging letters in the entire series.” The missive, copied by Sinnett from one sent to A.O. Hume from K.H., deals with questions relating to God and evil. The parts dealing with God (which is rejected as un loup garou—a werewolf, a fantastic creature) had already found voice in a book by Baron d’Holbach, a French-German author of the Enlightenment, later translated into English, where they are taken verbatim.

The statement that opens their remarks: Neither our philosophy nor ourselves believe in a God, least of all in one whose pronoun necessitates a capital H, would have come as no shock to anyone who knew Mme. Blavatsky. In 1877 she wrote to a correspondent: I completely reject the idea of a Creator or a Supreme God, who is in the least concerned in the government of this world. The remarkable thing is the attitude of the Mahatmas to religion:

And now, after making due allowance for evils that are natural and cannot be avoided —and so few are they that I challenge the whole host of Western metaphysicians to call them evils or to trace them directly to an independent cause—I will point out the greatest, the chief cause of nearly two thirds of the evils that pursue humanity ever since that cause became a power. It is religion under whatever form and in whatsoever nation. It is the sacerdotal caste, the priesthood and the churches; it is in those illusions that man looks upon as sacred, that he has to search out the source of that multitude of evils which is the great curse of humanity and that almost overwhelms mankind.

This will come as a surprise to people who believe that Blavatsky’s work was about showing that all religions lead to God. Actually her position is that there was an ancient Wisdom-Religion which modern religions are distortions of. This puts the Mahatmas quite at odds with an organization whose objective is to encourage the study of comparative religion. No doubt HPB will be blamed for getting it wrong. But there are rumblings in academia that may support her view. Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University, has recently written a book titled God is Not One, stressing that “It is misleading—and dangerous—to think that religions are different paths to the same wisdom,” the Introduction of which can be read here.  

Joy Mills’ commentary on the Mahatma Letters avoids the controversy and makes no mention of the views of the Mahatmas on this issue.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Mahatma Letters

The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. and K.H. is one of the main doctrinal sources from the Blavatsky era of Theosophy. Although only completely published in 1923, it’s contents were known to theosophical leaders through manuscript copies that were circulated. One such collection was published in 1923 as The Early Teachings of the Masters from copies at Adyar. The various theosophical groups have responded to these letters differently. The Point Loma Society welcomed them, but this may have been facilitated by the fact that A. Trevor Barker, who transcribed the letters for publication, was then a member of their group. The Adyar Society took the stance that the letters were often colored by the person who transmitted them (HPB) and therefore not always representative of the writer’s views. The United Lodge of Theosophists ignores them.

The Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois, has entered the debate by issuing a book of commentaries on the letters by Joy Mills, titled Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom. At 600 pages this commentary is as long as the book it comments on. The book upholds the Adyar position. The author writes: A significant point, one we will return to later, is that when chelas are transcribers or transmitters of the Mahatmas’ letters, some distortion, or even alteration, of the ideas the Mahatmas intended to convey is possible (p. 102). Dealing with the so-called Prayag letter (Letter 30 in this book), she notes: Whether HPB, in transmitting her Teacher’s words, got herself into the picture, as it were, is a question each student is invited to consider without bias or prejudgment (p. 105).

This was Olcott’s view, and Annie Besant’s, and that of many others in the Adyar Theosophical Society. When W.Q. Judge printed an edited version of this letter in the March 1895 Path, Olcott in India stopped the press for the April issue of The Theosophist that was about to be printed to add a note stating that he thought the letter fraudulent. When Annie Besant upheld Olcott’s position, this allowed Judge to frame the debate as one of Olcott and Besant versus HPB. But the matter was not that simple, though theosophists like to frame their feuds in broad strokes of black and white.

The letter in question (number 30 in the chronological edition of the Mahatma Letters/number 164 in previous editions) was written by Blavatsky to Sinnett in Nov. 1881, transmitting her teacher’s rationale for not corresponding with Indian members:

They join the Society, and though remaining as stubborn as ever in their old beliefs and superstitions, and having never given up caste or one single of their customs, they, in their selfish exclusiveness, expect to see and converse with us and have our help in all and everything....What have we, the disciples of the true Arhats, of esoteric Buddhism and of Sang-gyas to do with the Shastras and Orthodox Brahmanism. There are 100 of thousands of Fakirs, Sannyasis and Sadhus leading the most pure lives, and yet being as they are, on the path of error, never having had an opportunity to meet, see or even hear of us.

These statements stood in contradiction to the objects of the Theosophical Society at the time, which encouraged the study of Indian philosophy and religion, and its non-sectarian platform urging members to find meaning in their own traditions. Olcott as President, living in India, the base of its largest membership, no doubt saw the danger of these remarks. When the theosophists first came to India, one of the charges brought against them (by Swami Dayananda) was that their Society was a cover to convert Indians to Buddhism. As late as 1892 Olcott noted in a talk in Calcutta that despite his many years in the country, he had never lectured in India on Buddhism.

Judge at this point had nothing to lose by antagonizing Indian members, the majority of whom sympathized with Besant in what they viewed as his unbrotherly attack on her, with his statements of black magicians using the Brahmins of India as part of a nefarious plot. In subsequent articles Judge went on to play down the eastern influence of the movement and declare this would be an era of western occultism. Now that the personalities involved with these issues are long deceased, the debate about this matter might be better framed as one of the Mahatmas versus the T.S. and its the non-sectarian platform. That is, of course, if one believes HPB’s account accurate and the whole thing not a “vast imposture.”