OLD DIARY LEAVES, Second Series(1878-83)
by Henry Steel Olcott
FIRST TOUR IN CEYLON
LET it be observed that the incident described at the end of the last chapter occurred on the evening of 25th June, 1880. On the 28th, three days later, the Coulombs arrived in Bombay from Ceylon, and, on our invitation, took up their temporary residence with us. The French Consul at Galle and other charitable persons had subscribed for their passages, and they had landed almost penniless. He had a box of tools and each of them a few rags of clothing. It was settled that they should stop with us until an employment could be found for him, after which they were to go to housekeeping for themselves, Under this agreement I set our friends to work to find him a situation, and after a while succeeded in getting him a machinist's berth in a cotton mill. But he did not stop there long, for he fell out with the owner and threw up the situation. I found him a man very quick-tempered and hard to please in the matter of employers, and, as no other opening occurred, he and his wife just drifted along with us, without any definite plans as to the future. He was a clever mechanic and she a practical, hard-working woman, and as both tried to make themselves useful,
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and I could get on with them by treating them kindly, they were taken into the family. From neither of them did I hear a bad word about H. P. B.'s behavior at Cairo; quite the contrary, they seemed to have the greatest respect and affection for her. As for their being concerned in any underhand trickery in the way of phenomena, they never breathed a word or gave a hint to me or to anyone about us. So, as for her subsequent assertions, in the pamphlet compiled for her by the Madras Missionaries (she could not write grammatically a sentence of English), that she and he were doing tricks for H. P. B., among others, in producing bogus apparitions of Mahatmas with an arrangement of bladders and muslin, I have not a particle of evidence that would make me credit it. It may be otherwise, but I believe the stories to be downright falsehoods, told by her for some pitiful woman's spite.
If the Mahatmas we saw at Bombay after the Coulombs came were only M. Coulomb masquerading with wigs and a false head, what was the man whom we saw at Worli Bridge, three days before their arrival, as described in the last chapter? Certainly not M. Coulomb. Then, if the figure was a real Mahatma, who could vanish out of sight, and whose features we could distinguish as he stood within a yard of us, in the glare of the vivid street lighting, why might not the figures we saw in and about the house, later on, have also been Mahatmas? At all events, H. P. B., even though she had been an ordinary woman, unendowed with psychical powers, is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. Such benefit I
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shall always accord to her, and so will her other intimates. Let it stand at that.
First and last, all our noted members will come upon the scene of my historical drama. The entry of 9th April (1880) says: "An interesting man called to-day, with an introductory letter from Mr. Martin Wood, editor of the Bombay Review. His name is Tookaram Tatya. Is a cotton commission merchant; speaks English well; is very intelligent; says he is deeply interested in Yoga." So began my acquaintance with a gentleman whose name is now known throughout the world among us as one of the most indefatigable workers in Society. He had held aloof and watched us, being sceptical as to our having come to India in good faith. His knowledge of Europeans had not led him to believe that persons of our calibre could give up their home interests merely for the sake of learning Eastern philosophy; there must be some humbug at the bottom of the affair. A year passed and the first quarter of the second, and yet nobody had discovered anything bad about us. So, as he was most deeply interested in the subjects that we were engaged in, he determined to come and see for himself what sort of folk we really were. I shall never forget that private interview, which made us two know each other as though we had been friends for years, and which ended by his paying me his respects in the true Eastern fashion.
The tone of our members in the mass, at that time, will be inferred from an entry of one of those April days:
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"A meeting of the T. S. was held, and I got every one present to express his views as to the best way to increase the interest in the Society. The calling of a general meeting was resolved upon. But it will amount to nothing; for, of all the members, whether here, or in Europe or America, there are only a corporal's guard of real Theosophists: the rest are but miracle-hunters."
That can hardly be said now, in view of the enormous amount of unselfish work that is being done in Great Britain, Sweden, Spain, the United States, and Ceylon, not to speak of India, Australia, and elsewhere. Yet, at the same time, it cannot be denied that a great deal of hard work has also been done, throughout all these years, under the spur of the hope of closer intercourse with the Mahatmas, and, perhaps, the attainment to some degree of powers similar to H. P. B.'s. I think that this yearning has made hundreds of most worthy people fall easy victims to such transparent humbugs as the "H. B. of L.," and a number of conscious and unconscious spiritual pretenders. Such devotion is dearly purchased by the Society when it can be extinguished upon discovering the illusion under which blind, exaggerated faith in appearances and promises has made the victims fall. For from ardent friends they usually change into virulent opponents.
About this time we were passing through the disagreeble phase of our relations with Swami Dayânand. Without the least cause, his attitude towards us became hostile; he wrote us exasperating letters, then modified them, again changed his tone
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and so kept us perpetually on the strain. The fact is, our Magazine was not in the least an exclusively Arya Samaj organ, nor would we consent to hold aloof from the Buddhists or Parsis, as he almost insisted that we should. He evidently wanted to force us to choose between the continuance of his partonage and fidelity to our declared eclecticism. And we chose; for our principles we would not surrender for any equivalent whatever.
A visit of our party to Ceylon, long urgently requested by the leading priests and laity of the Buddhist community, had been determined upon, and the preparations occupied us throughout the whole of this month. We had to get ready in advance the matter for two or three numbers of the Theosophist, and my Diary records the night work we had to do. To save expense it was arranged that H. P. B., Wimbridge, and I should go, and Miss Bates and the Coulombs remain behind to look after the Headquarters. As Miss Bates was a spinster and Mme. Coulomb an experienced housewife, the unlucky idea occurred to me to transfer the housekeeping duty to the latter from the former. Fifteen years of house-holding had not taught me the folly of giving a newcomer the opportunity of "bossing it" over the other woman! I know it now.
Among other things, there were badges to get made for our delegation, H. P. B. being fond of such things. It was for this trip that the silver badge with gold centre, now worn by Mrs. Besant, was made for H. P. B.'s use; mine was a more gorgeous affair and those of the rest of the party much plainer. Another,
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and much more serious matter, was the organization of the Bombay T. S., on the evening of 25th April: the pioneer of all our Indian, in fact, of our Oriental Branches, and the third on the list of the whole Society; not counting New York, which was still the Society. The two Branches older than that of Bombay are the British, now the London Lodge, and the Ionian, of Corfu. The first officers of the Bombay Branch were Mr. Keshow N. Mavalankar, President; Messrs. Gopalrao Hari Deshmukh and K. N. Seervai, Vice-Presidents; Framroz R. Joshi, Secretary; Krishnarao N. Mavalankar, Treasurer; Edward Wimbridge, Mooljee Thackersey, and Messrs. Patwardhan, Warden and Jabouli, Councillors. Mr. Tookaram Tatya having overcome all his distrust, was duly accepted into membership at the meeting of 2nd May.
Everything being ready, we embarked on 7th May in a British India coasting steamer for Ceylon. The party consisted of the two Founders, Mr. Wimbridge, Damodar K. Mavalankar, Purushotam and Panachand Anandji (Hindus), Sorabji J. Padshah and Ferozshah D. Shroff (Parsis): all but the first three being Delegates from the Branch to the Sinhalese Buddhists and bearers of brotherly salutations expressive of the broad tolerance of our Society in religious matters. The wife of Mr. Purushotam, a delicate, fragile little lady, accompanied her husband, and Babula attended us as servant.
We were, I believe, the only passengers on board, and the ship being clean, the officers agreeable, the weather fine, and the daily calls at the ports along the
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West Coast full of interest, we enjoyed the voyage as if it were on a large private yacht. H. P. B. was in high spirits, and kept everybody in a good humor. A passionate card-player, she spent hours daily playing Nap with the ship's officers, barring Captain Wickes, whom the code of naval etiquette forbade to play with his subordinates. The chief engineer, a Mr. Elliott, soon became a great favorite of H. P. B.'s and on the last day of the voyage, she did for him the phenomenal substitution of his name for her own in embroidery on her handkerchief. I was present and saw it. They had finished a game of Nap and fell to chatting about these alleged psychical powers, and Elliott was especially incredulous about the possibility of this phenomenon of changing an embroidered name on a handkerchief for another in embroidery. This apropos of what H. P. B. had done for Ross Scott the day of our arrival at Bombay, about which he had been told. He coaxed her again and again to do it for him, and she finally consented, and then and there did it as we all sat on deck, under the shelter of an awning. But when Elliott opened his hand in which he had held the handkerchief during the experiment, he found that H. P. B. had misspelt his name, making it Eliot instead of Elliott. Now, in Mme. Coulomb's veracious pamphlet, it is averred that H. P. B. got her to embroider names of third parties on some of her handkerchiefs after picking out her own. The implication would be that she had thus prepared the "Eliot" handkerchief, and that H. P. B. had simply changed her own for it. But until we met him on board the "Ellora" we did not
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know there was such a person in existence. How, then, could Madame Coulomb have embroidered his name for future trickery? The explanation, it will be seen, is simply nonsensical.
The old Captain was a fat, good-natured person without the glimmering of a belief in things spiritual or psychical. He used to joke H. P. B. on our notions with such a delicious ignorance of the whole subject that it only made us laugh. One day she was playing her favorite, solitary game of Patience, when the Captain broke in upon her meditations with a challenge that she should tell his fortune with the cards. She at first refused, but at last consented, and, making him cut, laid out the cards on the table. She said: "This is very strange; it can't be so!" "What?" asked the Captain. "What the cards say. Cut again." He did so, and with the same result, apparently, for H. P. B. said the cards prophesied such a nonsensical thing that she didn't like to tell him. He insisted; whereupon she said that the cards foretold that he would not be much longer at sea; he would receive an offer to live ashore, and would throw up his profession. The big Captain roared at the idea, and told her that it was just as he had anticipated. As for his quitting the sea, nothing would please him more, but there was no such good luck in store for him. The thing passed off without further remark beyond the Captian's repeating the prophecy to the Chief Officer, through whom it became the laugh of the ship. But there was a sequel. A month or two after our return to Bombay, H. P. B. received a letter from Captain Wickes, in which he
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said he owed her an apology for his behavior about the card prophecy, and must honestly confess that it had been literally fulfilled. After dropping us at Ceylon, he continued his voyage to Calcutta. On arrival, he had the offer of the appointment of Harbor Master (Port Officer) at Karwar (I think it was, or if not, then Mangalore) had accepted it, and had actually returned as passenger in his own ship! This is a specimen of a great many card prophecies H.P.B. made. I do not suppose the cards had anything to do with it save that they may have acted as a link between her clairvoyant brain and the Captain's personal aura, thus enabling her clairvoyant faculty of prescience to come into play. Yet psychically endowed as she was, I scarcely remember her having foreseen any one of the many painful events that happened to her through treacherous friends and malicious enemies. If she did, she never told me or anybody else so far as I ever heard. A thief stole something she valued once, at Bombay, but she could not find out the culprit, nor help the Police whom she called in.
At Karwar and Mangalore our resident colleagues came off to the ship with presents of fruits and fresh milk, and stopped as long as they could to talk on Theosophy. At Calicut some of us went ashore for a run through the town, and looked in at a ginger-packing house, where we saw the roots trimmed, dried, bleached, and ground in mortars by women who were décolletées to a degree that' one sees sometimes distantly approached at Western society functions. It is the fashion here for respectable
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women to go uncovered to the waist: old or young, pretty or hideous, it is all same; a Hindu woman of that locality who covers herself above the waist is at once known as of bad character. So, at Bombay, respectable Marathâ ladies invariably go barefoot, disreputable ones shod. On the other hand, the virtuous Parsi lady would not dream of going unshod, nor the well-bred Parsi gentlemen with his head uncovered. Tot homines, quot sententiû.
Speaking of prophecy, I think I was a bit of a seer in writing in my Diary on the day before reaching Colombo: "New and great responsibilities are to be faced: momentous issues hang on the result of this visit." Nothing could have been truer than that.
We dropped anchor in Colombo harbor on the morning of 16th May, and after a while a large boat came alongside bringing Mohattiwatte Gunananda, the Buddhist orator-priest, John Robert de Silva, and some junior priests of Megittuwatte's pânsala (monastery). De Silva was our first lay F.T.S. in Ceylon, having joined by letter before we left New York. I made the very natural mistake of supposing, from his Portuguese name, that he was a Roman Catholic, and that his sympathetic letter to me and application for admission into membership were but Missionary traps. So, while I replied in friendly terms and sent the Diploma asked for, I sent them under cover to Megittuwatte, with request that he would not deliver them if the addressee was not the Buddhist he said he was. It was all right, and De Silva has ever been one of the best, most efficient, intelligent, and sincere Buddhists I have ever met.
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But that the Sinhalese should keep the Portuguese and Dutch Christian surnames, which they took from motives of policy during the successive periods of Portuguese and Dutch supremacy, when their own Sanskrit names are infinitely prettier and more appropriate, is surprising and, it must be confessed, dishonoring to the nation. We found the famed Megittuwatte (Mohattiwatte) a middle-aged, shaven monk, of full medium stature, with a very intellectual head, a bright eye, very large mouth, and an air of perfect self-confidence and alertness. Some of the more meditative monks habitually drop their eyes when conversing with one, but he looked you square in the face, as befitted the most brilliant polemic orator of the Island, the terror of the Missionaries. One could see at a glance that he was more wrangler than ascetic, more Hilary than Hilarion. He is dead now, but for many years he was the boldest, most brilliant, and powerful champion of Sinhalese Buddhism, the leader (originator) of the present revival. H. P. B. had sent him from New York a presentation copy of Isis Unveiled, and he had translated portions where she describes some of the phenomena she had personally witnessed in the course of her travels. His greeting to us was especially cordial.
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Before dawn on the 17th we were off Galle light, and getting our pilot, anchored about 500 yards from shore. The monsoon burst, and there was tremendous wind and rain, but the view was so lovely that we stopped on deck to enjoy it. A beautiful bay; a verdant promontory to the north, against which the surf dashed and in foamy jets ran high up against the rocky shore; a long, curved sandy beach bordered with tile-roofed bungalows almost hidden in an ocean of green palms; the old fort, custom house, lighthouse, jetty, and coaling sheds to the south, and to the east the tossing sea with a line of rocks and reefs walling it out from the harbor. Far away inland rose Adam's Peak and his sister mountains.
After breakfast, in a lull of the storm, we embarked in a large boat decorated with plantain trees and lines of bright-colored flowers, on which were the leading Buddhists of the place. We passed through a lane of fishing boats tricked out with gaudy cloths and streamers, their prows pointing inward. On the jetty and along the beach a huge crowd awaited us and rent the air with the united shout of "Sadhoo! Sadhoo!" A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome. The multitude hemmed in our carriages, and the procession set out for our appointed residence, the house of Mrs. Wijeratne, the wealthy widow of a late P. and O. contractor. The roads were blocked with people the whole distance, and our progress was very slow. At the house three Chief Priests
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received and blessed us at the threshold, reciting appropriate Pali Verses. Then we had a levee and innumerable introductions; the common people crowding every approach, filling every door and gazing through every window. This went on all day, to our great annoyance, for we could not get a breath of fresh air, but it was all so strong a proof of friendliness that we put up with it as best we could. Our hostess and her son, the Deputy Coroner of Galle, lavished every hospitality upon us, loading the table with delicacies and delicious fruits, such as we had never seen equalled, and dressing it in the charming Sinhalese manner, with flowers and pretty leaves; and the walls were beautified with them in artistic devices. Every now and then a new procession of yellow-robed monks, arranged in order of seniority of ordination and each carrying his palm-leaf fan, came to visit and bless us. It was an intoxicating experience altogether, a splendid augury of our future relations with the nation.
The monks, who had read Megittuwatte's excerpts from H. P. B.'s book, pressed her to exhibit her powers, and young Wijeratne, on hearing about the handkerchief phenomenon on board ship, asked her to repeat it for him. So she did, and again for a Mr. Dias; each time obliterating her own embroidered name and causing theirs to replace it. She got Wijeratne's name right, because she asked him to write it for her on a bit of paper, but she spelt Dias's "Dies," which, if Mme. Coulomb had embroidered the handkerchief beforehand at Bombay, would not very likely have happened, since there would have
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been plenty of time to think what an absurd thing it was to spell the Portuguese name in that unheard of way. The excitement, of course, rose to fever heat, and culminated when she made some fairy bells ring out sharp in the air, near the ceiling and out on the verandah. I had to satisfy the crowd with two impromptu addresses during the day, and at 11 p.m. we retired to rest, thoroughly fagged out.
Wimbridge and I went for a dip in the harbor very early the next morning, but we were followed and watched by crowds, so that it was very uncomfortable to move about. Our rooms were packed with visitors all day. There were no end of metaphysical discussions with the aged High Priest Bulatgâma Sumanatissa, and other sharp logicians, This old man let me into a nice embarrassment. He begged me to call on a list of Europeans and to write to twenty Burghers (half-race descendants of the Dutch) inviting them to join with the Buddhists in forming a Branch T. S. In my innocence I did so, and the next morning could have bitten off my finger for shame, for they sent me insulting replies, saying that they were Christians and wanted to have nothing to do with Theosophy or Buddhism. I stormed at the old monk for his heedlessness in making me uselessly compromise the dignity of the Society, but he only smiled and made some weak excuse. It was a lesson for me, and during the many years that have elapsed since then, I never repeated the mistake. The people of all the country round crowded into town to have a look at us, and there was general rejoicing among them. A dozen invitations were
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received from towns and villages to visit them. Our rooms were never free of priest visitors. One of their customs made us laugh. If the hostess had not spread cloths over the chair seats, they would spread their own handkerchiefs over them, turn and calmly sit down, performing the business with as much solemnity as though it were part of a temple ceremony. It is a survival of one of the precautions of Yoga, viz., the laying of durba grass, or a tiger or deer skin, or a straw mat, on the ground before beginning the âsanas, or postures of Yoga. Only its novelty made it a little funny to us.
Old Bulâtgama was a particularly persistent disputant, very voluble and very kind. Among other topics of discussion was that of the psychical powers, and H. P. B., who thoroughly liked him, rang bells in the air (one a booming explosion like the striking of a large steel-bar), made “spirit” raps, caused the great dining-table to tremble and move, etc., to the amazement of her select audience.
The next evening we were treated to a devil, dancing performance by professional sorcerers, who take part in religious processions, and are called in cases of desperate illness, to drive away the evil spirits which are supposed to possess the patient. They invoke certain elementals by recitations of mantrams, and prepare themselves for their functions by a certain amount of abstinence at certain periods of the moon. Their dance is a real witch-festival. It leaves behind it a confused recollection of leaping and whirling figures tricked out with hideous masks and streaming ribbons of young cocoanut leaves;
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of brandished and whirling firebrands; of black masses of oil-smoke; of postures suddenly taken, which are enough to send a nervous person into hysterics. One part of the ceremony consists in burning certain herbs and gums on hot coals and inhaling the vapors with gasping sounds, until they shiver as though stricken with an ague, and then fall senseless. In the coma, they have visions of the obsessing devils and give directions what to do. They are brought to by sprinkling them with water while a charm is muttered. An educated native gentleman told me that this dance is considered efficacious for the cure of several diseases, especially those to which pregnant women are liable. They are then said to have fallen under the influence of the "Black Prince". If the devil-dancers get the better of the disturbing evil spirit and it obeys their command to release its victim, it gives a sign of its departure by breaking off a designated branch of some tree near the house. This happened, he told me, in the case of his own stepmother.
As it had been arranged that I should give a public lecture on Theosophy on the 22nd, I made desperate efforts to think over my subject and prepare some notes. For I was then quite in-experienced in this business and was afraid to trust myself to extemporaneous discourse. But I might as well have tried to compose an aria in a machine shop where fifty blacksmiths were hammering on anvils, fifty turning lathes were whirling, and fifty people were gathered about to criticize my personal appearance, my pen, and my handwriting!
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Our house was a Babel, our rooms occupied by a friendly mob from morning till night. I would have done far better to have just gone to the platform without preparation, and trusted to the inspiration of the moment, as I soon learned to do. I think my first lecture in Ceylon is worth a paragraph. It was delivered in a large room in the Military Barracks imperfectly lighted, and packed to suffocation. A temporary platform had been erected at one end and a figured canopy suspended over it. Besides our delegation there were upon it Sumângala, Maha Thero, the Chief Priest Bulâtgama, Chief Priest Dhammalankâra, of the Amarapoora Sect, who had come twenty-eight miles to meet us, and a number more. The whole European colony (forty-five persons, were present, and, inside and outside, a mob of some 2,000 Sinhalese. I was not at all satisfied with my discourse, because, owing to the interruptions above noted, my notes were fragmentary, and the light was so bad that I could not read them. However, I managed to get through somehow, although a good deal surprised that not even the taking passages elicited applause: from the unsympathetic Europeans that was to have been expected, but from the Buddhist! As soon as a passage could be cleared our party passed out, H. P. B. and I arm-in-arm and holding each other tight so as not to be separated by the jostling crowd. "Was it a very bad speech?" I asked her. "No, rather good," she said. "Then," I continued, "why was there no applause; why did they receive it in such a dead silence? It must have been very bad." "What? what? what are you saying?"
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broke in a voice from the Sinhalese gentleman who had hold of H. P. B.'s other arm. "Who said it was a bad speech? Why, we never heard so good a one in Ceylon before!" "But that can't be," I replied; "there was not a hand-clap, nor a cry of satisfaction." "Well, I should just have liked to hear one: we would have put knife into the fellow who dared interrupt you!" He then explained that the custom was to never interrupt a religious speaker, but to listen in respectful silence and, after leaving, to think over what he had said. And he very proudly pointed out the high compliment that had been paid me in the packed audience hearing me without making a sound: I could not see it in that light, and still think my lecture was so bad as to be not worth applauding: unless, perhaps, the Galle public had by common consent agreed to obey the injunction of Thomson:
"Come then, expressive silence, muse his praise."