OLD DIARY LEAVES, Second Series (1878-83)
by Henry Steel Olcott
INTIMATE as Mr. A. P. Sinnett has long been with the: Founders of the Theosophical Society, and closely as his name has for years been identified with its name, fame and literature, our acquaintanceship, like all other things, had a beginning. It began with a letter, of date 25th February, 1879—nine days after our landing at Bombay—in which, as Editor of the Pioneer, he expresses to me the desire of becoming acquainted with H. P. B. and myself, in case we should be coming up country, and his willingness to publish any interesting facts about our mission to India. In common with the whole Indian Press, the Pioneer had noted our arrival. Mr. Sinnett writes that, from having had a number of chances in London to investigate certain remarkable mediumistic phenomena, he felt more interest than the average journalist in occult questions. The laws of the phenomena being as yet unfathomed the manifestations given mainly under unsatisfactory conditions, and the intelligence behind them a confusing jumble of assertions and theories, his curiosity had not been properly satisfied nor his reason convinced. I replied on the 27th and even if that number was in no other instance
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fateful of good luck, it certainly did in this one mark the beginning of a most valuable connection and gratifying friendship. Mr. Sinnett's kind offices came at a time when most needed, and I have never forgotten nor ever can forget that we, personally, and the Society lie under a deep debt of obligation to him. Just landed; known to be identified with Asiatic thought and unsympathetic with the ideals of the Anglo-Indian community; having settled in a retired bungalow, in the heart of the native quarter of Bombay; having been enthusiastically welcomed and accepted by the Hindus, as champions of their ancient philosophies and exponents .of their religions; making no call at Government House nor social advances to the European class, and that class being as densely ignorant of Hinduism and Hindus as they were of us and our plans—we really had not the least right to expect favor from our racial kinsfolk, nor to be surprised that Government should suspect us of ulterior motives. Not another Anglo-Indian Editor was disposed to be kind to us, or to be just in his discussion of our views and ideals. Mr. Sinnett alone was our true friend and conscientious critic; but he was a powerful ally, since he controlled the most influential newspaper in India, and more than any other journalist possessed the confidence and respect of the chief officers of Government. Much is to be said later on about the progress of our acquaintance, so for the present it need only be mentioned that a brisk correspondence was kept up between Mr. and Mrs. Sinnett and our two selves, and that, in the beginning of the following December, we paid them a visit at Allahabad, when a number of
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interesting Circumstances occurred, to be noted in their proper sequence.
It has been remarked already that the Bombay Parsis were friendly from the beginning, calling upon us with their families in numbers, asking us to their homes, dining with us, and pressing me to preside and distribute prizes at an anniversary of a Parsi girls' school. While still in America, I had made friendly overtures to Mr. K. M. Shroff, who had just completed a lecturing tour in my country and returned home. He accepted membership, and on all occasions after our arrival at Bombay rendered us loyal help. He was a young man at that time, and not by a long way as influential in his community as he has since become, but he had innate that capacity for hard work which is the prime factor of success in life. Far more influential Parsi gentlemen than he called on us, among them Mr. K. R. Cama, the Orientalist, and his famous father-in-law, the late Mr. Maneckgee Cursetjee, the reforming pioneer, whose charming daughters were, with him, received at several European Courts and universally admired. I see in my Diary that at our first meeting—on 6th March, 1879— I pressed upon Mr. Cama's attention the necessity of organizing Parsi religious work along Theosophical lines. And I have never ceased doing the like whenever I could get the attention of an influential Parsi. It is a burning shame and disgrace to their community, that their Shetts are so hypnotized by the narcotics of money-getting and worldly success, that they let year after year pass by without using some small portion at least of their great wealth in searching out
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the fragments of their sacred books in the four corners of their motherland, and doing for their faith, by archaeological research and exploration, what the Christians have done for theirs in Egypt and Palestine. It is a loss to the whole world that the splendor of this magnificent religion is not widely known. Parsi charity is princely, but with all the treasure that has been given by them to objects of public utility, it is sad to think that no millionaire among them, however pious and orthodox, has put aside one little lakh to endow a Parsi Research Society of the kind above hinted at, although it would have helped Zoroastrianism more than all their libraries, hospitals, schools of arts, gymkhanas, drinking fountains or Prince of Wales' statues.
It has always struck me with wonder, when talking with Anglo-Indians, to see in what distinctly different worlds they and we live in the East: theirs but an extension of their home life, and filled up with threadbare amusements and distractions to make their resting hours pass by with a minimum of ennui; ours a living of Eastern ideals and a thinking of Eastern thoughts, with no spare time for amusements, nor felt necessity for the distractions of games, parties, and violent exercise. Without the personal experience, one could not imagine there was such a contrast. As I write, the memories of those earliest weeks at Bombay come back to me, and without an effort I seem to be able to recall the pettiest incidents of our life in palm-shaded Girgaum. I remember the compulsory awakening at dawn by the vociferous cawing of countless crows. I remember how my
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artistic instinct was constantly excited, on glancing about our reception-room or verandah, and noting ,the pictures of costume, character, and racial types that I saw. I remember the sustained conversations in English, the common medium of communication between the races of the Indian Empire, and the talks and consultations aside in Guzerati, Marathi, and Hindustani, between fellow tribesmen and castemen. I can in fancy see the lanterns glinting amid the shrubbery, and the columnar trunks of the palm grove brought out into luminous relief by their light. I see ourselves clad in thin clothing and fanned with painted punkahs by Indian servants, the while often wondering how it could be so balmy and warm here and the air so fragrant with odors, while at home icy March winds were sweeping through the streets, and the frozen pavements were ringing like steel under the horses' shoes, and the starving poor huddled together in their misery. It was almost the daily repetition of a pleasant dream. The only link between us and our homes in the West, were the letters that came by each mail, and the tie of sympathy in a common work between us and our then few colleagues at New York, London, and Corfu.
The talk, one evening, had embraced the problem of the universal diffusion of intelligence throughout the Universe, and an amusing proof of its existence in one of the stupidest of birds was about that time given us. There was a fowl-house behind our kitchen, tenanted by a flock of chickens and one family of duck—a clumsy Muscovy drake and his three wives. Miss Bates, of our quartette, had the management of
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the poultry in her hands, and, as usual, they would run towards her whenever she came that way. On a certain evening, after finishing our dinner, we lingered chatting at table, when a loud quack from "beneath Miss B.'s chair caused us to start up in surprise. It was the waddling, clumsy, old drake, which, as soon as he saw Miss B. noticing him, quaked again and again, shook his tail, and flapped his wings as though something troubled him. He moved, still quacking, towards the door, looking "back at her as though asking her to follow him. We saw that his strange behavior meant something, so we all followed him out of doors. He led us towards the coop, where a great row seemed to be going on—hens screaming, ducks quacking for dear life. Evidently they had been, or were still being, disturbed by rats. Presently, by the light of our lantern, we saw that one of the old drake's wives had thrust her head and neck through the bamboo slats of the coop, and got caught there by slipping down to a point where a projecting knot of one of the bamboos had narrowed the slit so as to pin her neck fast when she sank: she must have been attacked by some vermin, and, flying in her fright against the palings, passed her neck through, but struck her breast heavily against them and fallen. She would have been strangled if her two sister-wives had not thrust their backs under her, and there they were supporting her weight, while the drake, escaping through a badly fastened door, came and called for Miss Bates's help! The attention of Messrs. Romanes and Herbert Spencer is invited to this proof of animal intelligence.
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Shortly after our settlement in Girgaum occurred an incident which H. P. B. has embalmed as a permanent record, in her delightful Caves and Jungles of Hindustan. When I give the simple, sober facts, the reader can see how the glow of her splendid imagination has transformed them beyond recognition, and out of a commonplace incident created a picturesque and awesome romance. As we were sitting in the early evening, a sound as of the monotonous drubbing on a drum caught my attention. It went on and on in the same key, playing no air, but just making a wearisome succession of muffled throbs in the evening air. One of the servants being sent to trace it out, returned after a while and reported that it was a tom-tom being beaten at a neighboring house, to announce that a "wise woman" was going to be obsessed by a "goddess," and answer questions about matters of personal interest. The temptation to "assist" at so weird a performance prompted us to go to the spot and see what was up. So H. P. B. took my arm and we went to the house. In a mud-plastered room of fifteer or twenty feet square, we saw thirty or forty low-caste Hindus standing along "the walls, some cocoa-nut oil lamps attached to the sides, and, squatting in the centre of the floor, a wild-looking woman, with her hair unbound, swaying her body from side to side, and jerking her head with a circular motion so as to make her long ebon tresses swirl about her, sometimes horizontally, like whip-lashes. Presently a youth entered from the back door, carrying a broad, low-rimmed circular platter, on which burnt some lumps of camphor, near
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some pinches of red powder, and some shiny green leaves. He held it near the sybil's face, which she plunged into the camphor-smoke, and sniffed the fumes with murmurs of pleasure. Anon, she sprang to her feet, clutched the brass platter, waved it to right and left, renewed the whirling of her head, and then, with lissom step keeping time to the throbs of the tom-tom, sailed about the room peering into the awe-stricken faces of the Hindu spectators. Having thus made the circuit several times, she suddenly darted towards a woman in the crowd, thrust the platter towards her, and told her something in Marathi, which, of course, we could not understand, but which, it appears, related to her private concerns. Whatever it was, the effect was evident, for the woman started back as if in terror, raised her clasped hands towards the dancing prophetess, and seemed deeply moved. The same thing was repeated with various other spectators, after which the seeress whirled into the middle of the room, spun hither and thither for a while, chanted what seemed to be a mantram, and then rushed from the room through the back door. After a few minutes she returned; with her hair dripping with water, flung herself again to the ground, whirled her head as before, again received the tray of burning camphor, and repeated the performance of darting at people and telling them what they wished to know. But her voice was somewhat different this time and her motions less convulsive, which, we were told, was due to the fact that she had passed under the control of another goddess when she plunged her head into the vessel of water,
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kept ready outside the door. The novelty of the thing soon wore off for us, and we returned to the house. Only this, and nothing more. There are the simple facts, and nothing more happened. But now, if the reader will turn to From the Caves and Jungles of Hindustan ("A Witch's Den"), he will see what H. P. B. made out of them. Instead of a wretched hovel in the densest quarter of Bombay, with an audience of coolies, we are led on elephants, by torchlight, through a dense forest, "two thousand feet above the Vindhya ridge"; the dead silence is broken by the regular hammering tread of the elephants; "uncanny voices and murmurs" are heard; we dismount from our elephants and scramble through thickets of cacti; we make a party of thirty, including the torch-bearers; the Colonel (viz., myself) orders all the rifles and revolvers to be loaded; after leaving most of our clothing on the thorns of the prickly-pears, climbing a hill and descending into another ravine, we reach the" den" of the Kangarin—"the 'Pythia of Hindustan,' who 'leads a holy life,' and is a prophetess." Her cave of Trophonius is in a ruined Hindu temple of " red granite," her habitation in a subterranean passage, where the people believed, she had lived three hundred years. The square before the temple is lit up by an enormous bonfire, and crowded by 'naked savages like so many black gnomes," who jump through some devil-dance to the sound of drums and tambourines. A white-bearded old man springs out and whirls himself around, with arms spread like wings and showing his wolf-like teeth, until he
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falls senseless. A mammoth, four-horned skull of the "Sivatherium," heaped about with flowers, lies on the ground. Suddenly, the witch appears—whence or how none could say. She must have been a beauty from the description of the first view of her: "a skeleton seven feet high, covered with brown leather, with a dead child's tiny head stuck on its bony shoulders; the eyes set so deep, and at the same time flashing such fiendish flames all through your body, that you begin to feel your brain stop working, your thoughts become entangled, and your blood freeze in your veins." A very uncomfortable type of the worst genus of the astral tramp! She stands motionless for a while, holding a dish of burning camphor in one hand, a quantity of rice in the other. She looks like a carved idol, with her shrivelled neck encircled with "three rows of golden medallions," her head "adorned with a golden snake," her "grotesque, hardly human body covered by a piece of saffron-yellow muslin". Then follows a description of the obsession of the witch's body by a goddess; her convulsive movements; her vertiginous dancing, in which she moved faster than a dry leaf before the hurricane; the maddening glare of her eyes at you; her convulsions, leapings, and wild, hellish movements; the changes of one obsessing goddess for another, to the number of seven; her revelations and adjurations; an eerie dance with her own shadow; the beating of her head against the granite steps, and so on through twenty pages of as picturesque writing as can be found in our language: The mind that could do this wonderful thing is that
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of a true genius. What she did in this instance, she did throughout the book—a minimun of fact was in each case, made to cover a great area of fancy; a the small lamp in the engine head-light is by parabolic reflectors made to shine over the line like a sort of sun on wheels.
Whatever hopes we may have had of enjoying a retired life were soon dissipated. We not only found ourselves besieged by visitors, some most earnest and entitled to our help, but also drawn into a rapidly widening correspondence, with Hindus principally, about Theosophical matters. Our aims were described so distortedly by the hostile Anglo-Indian Press, and that portion of the Vernacular Press which, to the undoing of Indian ideals, feeds at the trough of belied “Progress,” that we were compelled perforce to threaten legal proceedings against the Editor of the Dnyanodaya, the organ of the Presbyterian Marathi Mission, for a gross libel. An ample apology was at once given; yet all Missionaries were not slanderers ab initio, for the Bombay Guardian, a Missionary organ, said, apropos of the discourse mentioned below: “They who anticipated that the lecture would consist of a tirade against Christianity were mistaken. The report given is brief, but we are told by one who heard it, that the lecture was far more an attack upon Hinduism as it is, than upon Christianity.” We had also to make a public statement. Accordingly, on 23rd March, I gave my first public lecture in India at Framji Cowasji Hall, Dhobitallao (the Washermen's Quarter). For novelty and picturesqueness, the scene was the culmination of delight: the contrast between
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this sea of multi-colored turbans, snowy muslin ,dresses, and keen, onyx eyes looking out of handsome brown faces, and the black-costumed, pale-faced, bare-headed audiences of the West, with no touch of bright color save in the women's bonnets, was most striking. The crowd was so dense as to pack the hall, balconies, and stairways, until not one more man could have been crowded in, yet as quiet, orderly, and attentive as though each person had had ample room. Our quartette sat on the platform, which was thronged by the leading personages of the different native communities of Bombay, and my discourse was listened to with breathless attention, interrupted from time to time by applause. It was really an historical event that, for the first time in the recollection of the oldest inhabitant, a Western man should uphold the majesty and sufficiency of Eastern Scriptures, and appeal to the sentiment of patriotic loyalty to the memory of their forefathers, to stand by their old religions; giving up nothing until after its worthlessness had been proven by impartial study. The spirit of the occasion possessed alike speakers and hearers, and there was a moment—I recollect—when I could not restrain my emotion, but had to stop because stifled sobs choked my utterance. I felt like a fool in thus losing my self-command, but I could not help it; the pent-up voice of my heart made my lips dumb, despite all I could do. My theme was: "The Theosophical Society and Its Aims,"1 and contained as full explanations as I could give. It should be noted that the view taken then was that the
1 Published by the T. S.
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redemption of any nation must come through its own self-evolved leaders, not from without, and that if the downfall of India was to be arrested, the inspired agent must be sought within her boundaries, not in foreign lands, nor among aliens. For ourselves, we utterly disclaimed all pretence of leadership or qualifications for the same. I believe, after twenty years' Indian experience, that this is the sound view, and the only tenable one. I also believe, as I then stated, that this necessary spiritual Teacher exists, and in the fullness of time will appear. For, truly, the signs of his coming multiply daily, and who shall say that our Society, Mrs. Besant, Vivekânanda, Dharmapâla, and others are not the avant couriers of the blessed day when spiritual yearnings shall again fill the Eastern heart, and materialistic grovellings be things of the black past?
Naturally, under the circumstances, the above event made a pretty strong impression. The Indian. Spectator said: "A greater mission never was conceived. Let the Aryans make common cause; let the Hindus, Parsis, Mohammedans, Christians forget their differences, and the day of India's regeneration is not far off." It was noted as a coincidence that the Address happened to be delivered on the day on which a new year and new era commenced, according to the Sak Salivan, the Calendar used at Bombay. The Amrita Bazaar Patrika (8th May, 1879), said our object was “the grandest ever undertaken by man,” and prayed us to come and dwell at Calcutta. In the year of the India of 1899, after the changes that have since been wrought in native opinion, the following
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utterance of the Editor of the Patrika will sound like rankest pessimism. He welcomed us, but said we came too late:
"What can the doctor do," he asks, "when patient is already stiff and cold? India is dead to all sense of honor and glory. India is an inert mass which no power of late has yet been able to move. . . . India has no heart, and those of her children who have yet any portion of it left, have been deadened by blank despair. Talk of regenerating India to the Indians? You might as well talk to the sands of the sea."
This is emotional faint-heartedness, not the perspicacity and foresight of statesmanship. Shishir Babu forgot what even the elementary knowledge of agriculture as practised in his native village ought to have taught him, viz., that the seed must be planted before the shade of the tree can be enjoyed, or the cereal harvest be available as daily food. Events have belied his lugubrious prognosis, and the Indian peoples are already searching backwards together for the sources of Aryan ideals. It is but a little way they have gone, it is true, yet the "inert corpse" of India, which the Calcutta Jeremiah of 1879 depicted, has proved itself a very living entity, and is calling upon its children to look up the ancient Scriptures once more for the profit of mankind.