OLD DIARY LEAVES, Third Series (1883-87)
by Henry Steel Olcott
PROGRESS OF THEOSOPHY IN INDIA
ON my fifty-third birthday (August 2nd, 1885) I reached Bara Banki, the home of that most esteemed, able, and honorable colleague, Babu Parameshri Das where I lectured, admitted new members, and encouraged despondent old ones. Thence on to Lucknow, former capital of the Kings of Oudh, one of the immoral sinks of India where, on the whole, spirituality seems drowned in animalism, though there are many bright exceptions. We were received at the station by committees of the Kashmiri National Club, Bengali Club, Rafiam Association (a Mohammedan body), and our local Branch. They put me up in the Kaiserbagh, or King's Pleasure Garden, a great park full of palaces and kiosks, and surrounded by a quadrangle of houses which were formerly occupied by the princesses and other women of the royal harem. From all accounts this. must have been the scene of debauched pleasures hard to parallel. The late King used to have all sorts of sports for his amusement, some of a most immoral character in which his women folk played their parts. His life flowed on in a current of ignoble recreations, until he and his kingdom and
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all the paraphernalia of licentiousness were swept away by the thunder-burst of the Mutiny tragedy and the success of the British arms. It needs no great gift of clairvoyance to picture to oneself those ribald scenes as one sits at an open window, looking out on the square, with its artistic buildings, its close-shaven lawns, and meandering walks bathed in the tropical moonlight. Fancy brings them all back, and one cannot refrain from being thankful that this cesspool of animalism has been purged by the inrush of a purer and nobler civilisation.
Almost as soon as I arrived I received a shock in the calmly announced fact that the local Committee of our Branch had engaged that I should give a public lecture the next day on the subject of "Islam". I was in a pretty fix when I found out that there was no escape, as the posters and handbills were already issued, and the whole Mussalman public were to be present. The novelty of a white man being about to lecture in a friendly spirit about their religion was doubtless, an irresistible attraction. I could have given the Committee a good thrashing, for I had then no more than the slight knowledge of the subject which one gets in the course of his general reading, and I felt very reluctant to speak before so critical an audience as awaited me. Escape being out of the question, however, I borrowed a copy of Sale's Koran and another Mohammedan book, and sat up all night to read them. Here I found the immense advantage of Theosophy, for, as I read, the key to the exoteric teachings helped
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me to grasp all that lay between the lines, and light was shed upon the whole system. I think I never before realised so fully its incomparable value as an interpreter of religious systems. On entering the huge Baradari, or Royal Pleasure Hall, I found it packed with an audience which included most of the notable Mohammedans of the place, together with some hundreds of educated Hindus. I treated the subject not as a professor of the religion but as an impartial Theosophist, to whom the study of all religions is equally interesting, and whose chief desire is to get at the truth beneath them and boldly announce it without fear or favor. Some good genius must have inspired me, for, as I proceeded, I seemed to be able to put myself in Mohammed's place, to translate his thoughts and depict his ideal, as though I were "a native here, and to the manner born". I could see this inspired camel-rider incarnating where he did, to work out a tremendous Karma as the Founder of one of the mightiest religious movements in history. The audience were certainly aroused to a pitch of enthusiasm, for they gave it tumultuous expression, and the next day a Committee waited on me with an address of thanks, in which every blessing of Allah was invoked for me, and the wish was expressed that their children knew "one-tenth as much about their religion" as I did. Ye gods! how cheaply a reputation is sometimes made! From this experience I venture to say that an intelligent Theosophist is better qualified than any other man to take up the study of any given religion, and will be more likely
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to get at its inner meaning than the most learned philologist who has sought the key only in the crypt of his rationalistic mind. This recalls a most amusing experience at my first public lecture in London about a dozen years ago. I had gone on, in what I thought a very unpretentious way, to explain Theosophy as I understood it, and incidentally cited ideas from some of the ancient religious works. The house was packed, galleries and all, and great good feeling prevailed until the close. Then began the usual "heckling" with questions that every lecturer in Great Britain has to face, and which kept me busy for a full three-quarters of an hour. On the whole this cross-questioning is good, for it tends to draw out points which may have been overlooked by the speaker. Just when it seemed as if the ordeal was finished and the audience might be allowed to disperse, a man in the right-hand gallery cried in a loud voice: "Mr. Chairman, I should like to know how it comes that Colonel Olcott has such a general knowledge of all the Eastern religions, when I have studied one of them more than twenty years without getting to the bottom of it." Of course it was a foolish question, an exhibition of mere pique, since I had made no pretence whatever to knowing all or even one of the ancient cults, but many years' residence in the East and personal intercourse with learned Asiatics had certainly given me Some chance to learn about the spirit and meaning of the various Scriptures. I was just about to say that much, but was saved the trouble, for instantly another voice from the opposite
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gallery shouted out the word "Brains!" and the whole house burst into a roar of laughter. The chair dismissed the audience, and amid the confusion we could see the indiscreet questioner waving his hands and saying things that were lost in the hubbub. I felt greatly grieved on learning later that the gentleman was one of the best-known Orientalists of Europe, and that he was so annoyed by his discomfiture as to conceive a violent hatred for myself and the Society—both absolutely innocent of offence!
On the three remaining days of my stay in Lucknow I gave public lectures and private addresses to our Branch and other bodies. By the former I was put through a searching inquiry into the pros and cons of the Coulomb case, but was able to remove all doubts, and left our people in good spirits on our departure from the station.
On 8th August we reached Bareilly in a drenching downpour of rain, our colleagues, Messrs. Cheda Lal, Piari Lal, and Gyanendra Nath Chakravarti receiving us at the station, with the water dripping from them as though they had been out in a surf-boat. A malicious busybody had done his best to foment suspicion against us at this station, and I underwent a very stiff examination, happily with entirely satisfactory issue. Mr. Chakravarti was one of several of our leading Indian members to write H.P.B. that I had saved the Society in India by making this tour, as I had cleared away doubts, enlisted public sympathy, and restored strength to the movement. And why should not I, considering the Powers that were gathered
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behind us and going forth with us to touch the popular heart? I t would have been a black time for me if I had forgotten that for one moment. But I never did; not for an instant did my faith and confidence in the Masters waver, never once did the idea of possible defeat enter my mind. That was my shield and buckler; that my tower of strength. Those who were for us were a hundred times stronger than those who were against us. On the heels of the Coulomb disaster we chartered seventeen new Branches within that year: let the reader take note of the mystical number. Neither at Bareilly, nor Moradabad, nor Meerut, nor at any other station included in my long programme, did the heavy rains of the wet season prevent my having full, even crowded audiences; though it must be admitted that the watery elementals seemed somehow to be leagued together to help me. It happened so often as to be remarked by many that, by some mysterious chance, the pouring showers would hold up just when it was time to go to my lectures, recommence while the audience was safely housed, and cease again when they had to leave for home. We all know about Queen's weather, so why should there not be some similar provision by benevolent storm-spirits to help their friend and expositor of the Theosophical Society? I leave the conundrum to answer itself, meanwhile just noting a fact that came under the personal observation of many intelligent witnesses.
At each of the stations mentioned in the foregoing paragraph, there were the like questionings and
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clearings up of doubts, the same lecturings, admissions of candidates, strengthening of Branches. We got to Cawnpore on the 16th, and were most kindly received and entertained by our staunch and tried friend Capt. A. Banon, F.T.S., then with his regiment there. This is the gentleman who—it will be remembered—so valiantly backed us up against the travelling calumniator, the Rev. Joseph Cook, and caused him to run away as fast as he could to the other side of India, to escape meeting me in public and making good the malicious slanders he had uttered. In all these years this gifted yet eccentric man has remained our loyal supporter, a friend such as an Irish gentleman of good family always proves himself to be. His holding an army commission and being in a military mess unsympathetic to Theosophy, did not weigh a feather's weight with him, as it does with so many; he drove me about, took me to the mess, and was conspicuous at my lecture. In short, he displayed the same quality of moral courage that Sir William Crookes has shown so nobly as President of the British Association.
My lecture at Cawnpore was delivered in the theatre, a long, narrow room which seems to me full of the most disagreeable influences: if it had been the scene of a massacre it could not have been worse. To make it still more unpleasant, the Committee followed the detestable custom of giving all the front seats to the most unsympathetic class, the Anglo-Indians, and native Christians—the latter, low-caste people, of course, in nine cases out of ten. This made a wall of aura
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right across the room, through which I had to force my own auric current to reach my friends and sympathisers. One can't help getting sensitive to these influences after a while; a sort of finer sense of their quality, or perhaps we should say polarity, becomes developed, and in such instances as this one has to concentrate all one's will to break down and burst through this cross-current, so to speak. The phenomenon is confined to India, and is due to the silent, yet irresistible auric antipathy of races: take either alone and one does not feel it, but bring them together, and at once there comes this note of discord. I got over it in this way; I placed myself opposite the aisle, the weakest point in the barrier, and pulling myself together, projected my current towards the Hindu majority until they and I were blended together in magnetic unity. The reality of this law of mutual attraction and repulsion has been too often felt and mentioned by public speakers and actors to be open to question, and anyone who has not discovered it experimentally can hardly be called spiritually sensitive. Cases have been recorded where one single person in an audience has drawn to himself or herself by an irresistible power the attention of the speaker, and actually compelled him, as it were, to address his speech or play his part to him or her. On the next evening I obliged the Committee to reserve the front seats of the left side of the aisle for Hindus and get them filled very early; and when I began speaking, I stood at that side of the stage, thus presenting my
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strongest, i.e., most positively magnetic, side to the least sympathetic part of the audience. Thus all went well.
Among our friends at Allahabad as much unrest had been created by the Coulomb-Missionary conspiracy against our Society as at any station in India. Certain agents had been very active in sowing distrust and I had my work cut .out for me; but I had a good case, and all came out right in the end. With Mr. Janaki Ghosal I went to pay my respects to Swami Madhavadas, an English-speaking ascetic who is much respected. Curiously enough, he is the author of a compact compilation of Sayings of the Grecian Sages, in whose wisdom he found the echo of the teachings of the wise men of his native country. He was good enough to lend me the MS. to read, and allow us to publish it for him, or for his disciples rather, for a man of his sort abstains from meddling in worldly concerns. Among my interrogators about the H.P.B. case was a clergyman named Hackett, who came with an armful of books and pamphlets, with his points all marked. I was very pleased with his courtesy and evident fair-mindedness, and gave him as much time as he required to go to the bottom of the business: he stopped three hours and we parted the best of friends. When I left for Jubbulpore the next day he was at the station to see me off. I wish all Missionaries were like him: but then all Missionaries are not gentlemen.
At Jubbulpore I presided at the anniversary celebration of the Sanskrit school founded by our local Branch,
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and which is—thanks to the unflagging devotion of Kalicharan Bose—still flourishing. This is but one of at least a score of Sanskrit schools that our people have started, but in too many cases the others have been abandoned because of the lack of that peculiarly necessary quality of stubborn perseverance in their promoters. Not one would have failed if it had been under good European management. I am sorry to say it, yet the Hindu is enthusiastic, loving, and faithful, but in public affairs he is at his best only when under the lead of colleagues of the more practical race. A contrast to Mr. Hackett was the character of a clique, comprising a Padri of the C. M. S., a pretended Christian doctor, and, some other alleged Christians (I can't recognise them as followers of Christ because of their narrow prejudices and intolerance) who attended my second lecture and tried to create disturbance at the close. Seeing their tactics, I refused to let them address my large audience, advising them to hire a hall for themselves and say what they liked. The next day they sent me a challenge to "do a miracle" under conditions of their own prescribing! Poor creatures, let them read their Bible's description of their prototype: "Wiser in his own conceit than seven men who can render a reason." The wheel of Karma must turn many times before they can be fit to even clean a lamp in the hut of a pupil of a Master of Wisdom.
My route turned towards the West through the Central Provinces, Hoshangabad and Nagpur being my objective points. I don't know why, but from
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Jubbulpore onward I seemed to be passing through a better atmosphere; the dark distrust, wavering courage, and captiousness which had beset me in the N. W. P., and which I had had to dispel, were absent from this part of my circular journey. Friendly hands were offered, kind words spoken, ears opened to hear my message, and many loyal friends and well-wishers made. The Government rest-house at Hoshangabad is most beautifully situated on the banks of the Nerbudda River, and the scene, when I stood in the bright moonlight on the top platform of the bathing ghât, addressing a multitude, was most poetic and picturesque. Among my visitors were a number of Europeans in Government employ, and they attended both of my lectures. An even more warm welcome was given me at Nagpur, where the moving spirit was Mr. C. Narainswamy Naidu, the principal pleader of the place, since unfortunately deceased, but from that time onward to the last, one of the most useful, wise, and loyal members of our Society. At his house I formed the Nagpur T. S., with himself as President, and as Chairman of the monster audience which packed the theatre to hear me discourse on "The Aryan Rishis and Hindu Philosophy", he laid over my shoulders, after the old Hindu fashion, a crimson embroidered chaddar, or shawl. An interesting incident which happened on that evening will be remembered by the spectators. In the midst of my discourse there suddenly broke into the dead silence one of those raucous, uncanny cries that epileptics utter at the
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beginning of their seizures. The whole audience rose to their feet and anxiously looked towards the right, where a man stood beating the air, his face convulsed with an expression of agony, and the next moment fell to the floor. He had hardly touched the ground before I sprang from the stage, pushed my way to him, took his forehead and the nape of his neck between my hands, breathed on his face, and concentrated my will upon his disease. In less than a couple of minutes his moanings ceased, the fit passed off, somebody gave him a cup of water, he rose and passed out of the house. Then I climbed back to the stage and took up the thread of my argument. This simple experiment showed, for the thousandth time, that epilepsy, one of the most formidable of afflictions under orthodox treatment, is quite amenable to the well-directed power of the mesmeric aura. I hope it may be remembered by all who have the power and the wish to help suffering humanity.
We reached Bombay on the morning of September 3 and were affectionately welcomed. Among other visits I paid one to Tookaram Tatya at his Bandora country-house, where we dined together in Hindu fashion. Tookaram was a man of the Sudra caste, and, like all intelligent persons of his rank, felt the pressure of the higher castes galling to him. To get rid of this in a measure, at least in his own mind, he had got me to obtain the permission of the High Priest Sumangala to give him the Pancha Sila and admit him as a Buddhist. At the same time, in view of the certain ostracism of
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his family by Hindu society if he openly seceded, he kept his status among them, and in later years, when Mrs. Besant's open profession of Hinduism and defence of the Aryan caste system turned the tide backward, I believe he reverted to his hereditary faith with much zeal. At any rate, of late years I heard no more about his Buddhism. After giving one lecture at Framji Cowasji Hall to a large audience, I passed on to Poona with our colleague the late Mr. Ezekiel, a member of the great Jewish family of the Sassoons and an ardent Kabbalist. At his house I met a Rabbi Silbermann, of Jerusalem, and his wife. They were put up in one-half of a detached small bungalow in Ezekiel's compound; he, an old and feeble man, with a middle-aged, bright wife and a Hebrew maid-servant. He wore the Oriental costume, as also did Mr. Ezekiel Senior, who lived in the other half of the little house. I was wearing the cool cotton Hindu dress which I find so much more comfortable than our tight European costume in the Tropics, and which I should always wear if the Salvationists had not vulgarised it so effectually. The old gentleman and I were sitting alone together one day, he watching me so closely that I thought something must be wrong about my dress, but he soon undeceived me. Beckoning me mysteriously into his bedroom, he took from a press a complete Jewish costume—turban, gabardine, and all such as he himself wore—and asked me to put them on. When I had done so, he led me by the hand along the verandah to the adjoining rooms, intimating that
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he was going to pass me off as a Jew. Entering into the spirit of the joke, I gravely saluted the Jerusalem family after the Eastern fashion, and was led by my guide across the room to a chair. The aged Rabbi was sitting on a mat to the left of the door, and on my unexpected entrance saluted me with great respect, pronouncing the special form of words used when greeting a Jerusalem rabbi. He then began putting me a lot of questions in Hebrew, and refused to believe that I was a mere Gentile, when young Ezekiel, laughing heartily at his bewilderment, told them who I was. No, he insisted that my nationality was too evident, and would go on with his Hebrew cross-questioning until the facts had been reiterated to him over and over again. His wife, sitting in a rocking-chair over against, the side wall of the room, with her maid on the floor at her feet, looked me over most scrutinisingly, and confirmed her husband in his belief as to my Hebraic origin. "Why," said she to the maid, "who can deny it? See, has he not the shekinah?" meaning the shining aura, the tejas as the Hindus call it. Both the Ezekiels were immensely amused at the success of the old gentleman's trick, and it was gravely proposed that Mr. Ezekiel Senior and I should be photographed together in the costume, as a souvenir. But my stay at Poona was too brief to allow of its being done. I lectured once in town on "Aryan Morals," with the eminent Mr. Ranade in the chair; and once at Ferguson, College to 1,000 Hindu boys, on "Education". The leading native gentlemen were present. To illustrate
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my idea of what bad education is, I turned to the nearest student and took from him his Geography and glanced .at the portion allotted to India. I found that to the whole of Asia—India, Burma, Siam, Ceylon, China, and Japan—were given only seventeen pages of description, while to the United Kingdom something over forty pages! Of course, I said, it is most evident that the compilers of this book thought it quite useless for Indian youth to know anything about their own native land, its history, products, capabilities, etc., but indispensable that they should know above every English county, its resources, population, industries, towns, and villages, so that they might be prepared to make a pedestrian tour over there. What nonsense to call that an enlightened system of education!
The last public event during my stay was a lecture at Hirabâg, the picturesquely placed Town Hall, on “Karma and Kismet”, after which I left the station for Hyderabad, the Nizam's capital.