OLD DIARY LEAVES, Third Series (1883-87)
by Henry Steel Olcott
PHENOMENAL MEMORIES OF PANDITS
THE Nizam's Hyderabad, as it is called, to distinguish it from Hyderabad, Sind, is one of the most distinctively Asiatic cities in India. It has a picturesqueness and artistic interest in strong contrast with other large towns, especially the Presidency capitals. The streets are alive with fighting men armed and equipped like the figures in an illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights, elephants and camels are seen in processions, the stamp of Orientalism is upon every shop in every bazaar, and life goes on in the ancient fashion with little coloring by Western influence. At the same time, Hyderabad is one of the worst centres of dishonesty and immorality, as bad as Lucknow; bribery and corruption are said to be rife, and public mal-administration to be the normal condition of things. Yet, despite all this, there has been a centre of Theosophical work there for many years, and a few earnest souls have kept the torch burning amid the spiritual gloom. All honor to them!
I reached this place on 11th September (1885) at 4.30 p.m., and received the usual welcome, with an address and garlands, and had to make the expected
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reply. An American colleague was quite right in saying in a recent letter that, with my keen sense of humor, it must often sorely tax my powers of self-restraint to listen to some of the fantastically extravagant panegyrics that are read to me on arrival at Indian stations. It would be simply impossible if it were not for my knowledge of the heartfelt sincerity that is usually covered over by these perfumed garlands of compliment. There is a voice of the soul which makes one pay no heed to mere speech, and which stirs up the responsive emotion in one of my nature.
On the day following my arrival I had the good fortune to witness a display of that superlative mnemonic training of which India affords so many examples. The reader will find in the Theosophist for January, 1886, an article by myself on "Some Aspects of Memory", which, besides a general inquiry into the subject, covers also a report on the Hyderabad experiments under notice. Thirteen years having elapsed, it may be as well to recall the marvellous details in the present connection. I shall therefore reprint the certificate which the spectators handed to the Brahmin Pandit. It reads as follows:
"HYDERABAD (DECCAN), 14th September, 1885.
"The undersigned have much pleasures in certifying to the following intellectual achievement by Vedanta Dasigacharya of Theruvellur, Madras Presidency, of which they were eye-witnesses.
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"The Acharya, having arranged ten of us in two lines, simultaneously kept in mind and did the following eleven things:
"I. Played a game of chess, without seeing the board.
"II. Carried on a conversation upon various subjects.
"III. Completed a Sanskrit sloka from the first line given.
"IV. Multiplied five figures by a multiplier of four figures.
"V. Added a sum of three columns each, of eight rows of figures.
"VI. Committed to memory a Sanskrit sloka of sixteen words—the words being given him out of their order, and at the option of the tester.
"VII. Completed a 'magic square', in which the separate sums in the several squares added up to a total named, whether tried horizontally or vertically.
"VIII. Without seeing the chess-board, directed the movements of a knight so that it should make the circuit of the board within the outline of a horse traced on it, and enter no other squares than those.
"IX. Completed a second magic square with a different number from that in the above-named.
"X. Kept count of the strokes of a bell rung by a gentleman present.
"XI. Committed to memory two sentences in 'Spanish, given on the same system as No. VI, and correctly repeated the same at the end."
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"As a study in mnemonics this was a most instructive experiment. The Acharya has, it seems, acquired the power of creating in his mind, for each of the several things he does, a separate mnemonic point, or thought-centre, and around this forces the ideas relating to it to cluster and group themselves."
Signed by H.S. Olcott, Bezonji Aderji, G. Raghoonath, M. Raghunayekaloo, A. T. Muthukistna, Darabji Dossabhoy, Hanumant Row, Bhimaj Raojee, and Iyaloo Naidu—all members of our Society.
The plan is for the Pandit to go around the group of testers one by one, as many times as may be necessary to complete the mental tests, doing with each, each time, one part of the whole mental task set him by that person. Thus, with the first, he will think out and order one move in the game of chess; with the second, follow his lead in the conversation which is meant to disturb his mnemonic labors; to the third, dictate one line of the desired Sanskrit poetry; to the fourth, name the first part of the quotient, etc., etc, He would thus have to fix in his mind every fact related to the result expected by each of his testers, and at the close reel off the final results without error. From me he took from dictation the two lines of Spanish in this fashion: the words were privately written by me on a slip of paper, and under each its proper number in the sequence was placed; thus:
Ay de mi! un año felice
1 2 3 4 5 6
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Prece como uno soplo legero
7 8 9 10 11
Here we have eleven words running in a certain sequence, but I was allowed to give the Pandit any one of the eleven out of its order each time that he stopped in front of me in his circuits. Only two things are required, viz., that the word shall be distinctly pronounced until he can catch the sound, and that as we give each we shall tell him its number in the sentence. It is his business then to keep all in memory until the eleven rounds of the circle are made, when he will ponder a moment and then recite the couplet correctly, giving each word its place in the sequence. He must do the same in the case of each of the other testers. Thus he carries forward his sum in addition, multiplication, subtraction, division, etc., one stage at each round, and when he comes again to the same person must pick up the thread of the suspended mnemonic feat and proceed on another stage. So all around the circle. Figure for yourselves the number of separate mental activities he is obliged to keep going throughout, and if this does not amaze you, you must have been reborn from some anterior wonder-breeding planet. This evident overstraining of the brain brings on at last primarily a lassitude and then an exhaustion of the mentality. I have this at first hand; in fact, the Principal of one of our Sanskrit Schools who had been a proficient Asthâvadhâni, had had to give it up completely to save his "wits from falling into ruin". Whoever wishes to go farther into this important
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subject will find the best authorities cited in the number of the Theosophist above mentioned.
My audiences at the Nizam's capital and at the adjacent British military station of Secunderabad were very large and attentive. The topics given me by the Committee were "The Unity of Religions", "Mesmerism and Its Relation to Occult Science" (doubtless suggested by the recollection of my healings during my previous visit), "Who am I? Whence came I? and Whither am I going?" There were the usual conversation (or puzzle-putting) meetings, Branch gatherings, and admissions of applicants to membership.
Adoni, the cotton carpet-weaving centre, was my next stopping-place, and here I was asked to lecture on "The Aryans and Their Religion". On to Bellary next, where one of our staunchest colleagues, Mr. A. Sabhapathy Moodaliar, lives. After spending three days with our friends there, I went to Gooty, which for many years has been a stronghold of Theosophy by our local members, especially P. Kesava Pillay, J. Sreenivas Row, and T. Ramachandra Row, than whom no society has three more active and useful workers. Before leaving Bellary I had the chance of testing the alleged efficacy of my snake-stone which, my earlier readers may recollect, I got from a snake-charmer at Bombay soon after our arrival in India. At that time the mere approach of the stone (which was no stone, but a bit of bone) to an angry cobra would make it sway on its coils, lean over backward,
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and finally subside to the ground; but it did not work so at Bellary. The cobra on which I tried it was apparently trained to obey the signs of his master's hand, and paid no attention to me or the stone. So I put the failure as a counterbalance to the Bombay success.
Our Gooty friends had bought at Government auction a fine stone building for a nominal price, and had not only installed in it a Sanskrit school which they had established, but made it the Branch Headquarters and the chief place for lectures and other public meetings. Just at the back of the town rises a rocky hill of 1,000 feet in height, crowned with a strong fort which had been captured and recaptured at different times in battle before the British occupation. Within its walled enclosure is the alleged tomb of Gautam Rishi (not the Buddha), which is a place of pilgrimage. The fort is now dismantled, and might be bought of Government for a nominal sum. As there are many good rooms that could be made habitable at trifling cost, I thought it would be an admirable place of retreat for some European friends of mine who had a mind to realise in practice Mr. Sinnett's ideal of a castleful of mystics, as described in his novel, Karma. So, after getting .all needed information, I proposed it to them, but nothing came of it.
To reach the last station on my tour programme, Anantapur, I had to travel all night in a bullock carriage, which shook me about to such a degree that sleep was almost impossible, and I was not sorry when, a mile from the place of destination, I found ready for me
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a tent pitched, with bath and breakfast ready. Anantapur was all dressed out with flags, a band of musicians obstreperously greeted me, there was a. public address to reply to in presence of a great crowd, and in the evening an overflowing audience listened to me on the subject of "Modern Scepticism and Brahma Vidya". The next evening I organised the Anantapur T. S., and, later, took the bandy again for Gooty, which was reached at 8 a.m., after another sleepless night. Thus closed my long tour of 113 days, of 1885, in the course of which I had visited 31 Branches and given 56 public lectures besides uncounted private discussions and answerings of questions. Beyond doubt the tour did good in restoring the courage of friends, enlightening the outside public as to our views and aims, removing unjustifiable suspicions as to H. P. B. and the Masters, strengthening old centres with new members, and creating fresh ones where previously we had not been represented. In a word, the bolder policy had been vindicated, and it was very easy to see, on giving a retrospective glance over the year, that it would have been a great misfortune if I had listened to timid counsellors and stayed quietly at Adyar, waiting for the clouds to roll by.
Again I must emphasise the fact, which I tried to make clear in the last chapter, that I did not count upon my own powers or abilities only to do this work, but also, and especially, upon the help I derived (and still get) from Those who stand behind this movement.
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Without Them, I should have been powerless to breast and push back the adverse current of hatred which was sweeping in against us. With Their aid I untwisted every coil of the Missionary serpent which was trying to crush us into a mass of broken ribs and bruised flesh. Not one of my readers can realise what we had to go through, and I especially, in those dark days. On the one hand, the active opposition of the sneering public and the faint-heartedness of many of our colleagues whom I had the right to count upon as standing beside me, staunch and true; the outright desertion f others; a poorly filled treasury with increasing expenses to meet; a pressure on me to consent to certain radical changes in the Society's policy and platform; and, finally, my compulsory separation from H. P. B., who for eleven years had been working with me in close accord of general aims and ideals. On the other hand, the tragical situation of H. P. B. herself, virtually an exile packed away in a cheap little Italian inn on the slope of Mount Vesuvius, racked with rheumatic gout, ordered imperatively by Dr. Mary Scharlieb to keep herself perfectly quiet on peril of life, suffering privations that I had not the money to alleviate, chafing like a wounded lioness over her inability to fight her slanderers, and writing me the sharp and angry letters that might naturally be expected from her under the .circumstances.
My earnest desire was to carry out the Doctor's wishes, which I knew to be based on simple common sense; the one absolutely necessary thing for H. P. B.
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to do, if she would save her life, was to keep perfectly quiet in some retired spot out of reach of her friends or enemies, and especially to abstain from correspondence or newspaper reading. She was like a powder-magazine, and just an incautious bit of gossip in a letter was enough to make her explode. The Doctor so warned her before leaving, and I so wrote her in the letter, to which she replied in March. "Calm your fears," she said, "for, with the exception of Solovioff and Miss . . . I know of no European Theosophists with whom I would correspond, or to whom I would divulge my address." To Solovioff—fancy that! To that contemptible person, who took advantage of her guileless confidence and her fervent love for her countrymen, to watch and spy upon her daily actions, inveigle her into confidential correspondence, and betray her in a book gotten up for pecuniary profit and written in her very mother language and published in the motherland she so adored to the day of her death. The staunch souls who were only anxious to prove how loyal they could be, she saw not before her mind's eye; but to this poor creature of a professional litterateur, because he was a Russian and played the devoted friend, she gave her confidence and revealed the necessary secret of her retreat. And to crush me with the sense of her displeasure for daring to doubt her discretion, she addresses me, after ten years of chumship, as "My dear Colonel Olcott"!
"Writing as I do," she says in a letter of no date, but from Torre del Greco, "in a damp room at the
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north side of Vesuvius, my feet on uncarpeted stone flags, and in Italy, where people suffer indoors of cold more than in Russia, for stoves are unknown and the cold air circulates from under doors and through windows ad libitum, I feel pretty sure to have, notwithstanding my every precaution, a relapse of rheumatic gout, unless you do what I must ask you to do. If you have not sent me away to die, and since there is no money for a better appartement or to buy carpets and rugs, please send me . . . the old carpet bought at Bombay, with a few other things we want . . . I can cut the carpet in two and thus avoid agony and suffering. It is raining and cold and damp even now, while in September it becomes so cold that even the old landlord told me no one, least of all an invalid, could stop here after August. Wherever I go, I shall need carpets, and they are a luxury unknown in Italy and France", etc., etc.; the letter being full to the end with a statement of her miseries. How would any of our readers have felt under such a state of things? And to think that she, whose teachings have been the consolation and guiding lamp of thousands, and of many who are surrounded with luxuries, that this poor, stricken woman, this lighter up of dark paths and dispenser of spiritual brightness, should have been crying out across the seas to her old chum, as poor as herself, in accents of distress; thus doubling and quadrupling the load of care he had to carry behind his smiles and jests, for the sake of the growing multitude who had embarked in our movement and would have
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felt themselves dropping into a gulf of despair if it had failed. Is it too much, then, to say that naught but the knowledge of the Unseen Master Helpers would have carried me through that time and landed me at last on the farther shore of success? "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone: the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Later on, she settled among friends in London, who saw that she lacked no comfort and did their best to lighten her every burden; but think of her in the cold spring of 1885 on the northern slope of Vesuvius, living from hand to mouth, and writing at "a rickety old table" that with great difficulty she had procured, and with her poor gouty feet on the cold stones of the uncarpered floor!