OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
MRS. BESANT’S FIRST INDIAN TOUR
AS mentioned before, the crossing from Colombo to Tuticorin by the small steamers running there, is, in bad weather, one of the most disagreeable experiences in sea-travel. This time, however, we sailed in sunshine and made the transit without inconvenience. On arrival at Tuticorin we were met by a deputation of Hindu friends with an address of welcome to Mrs. Besant and the usual gifts of flowers. A crowd gathering, she was induced to make an impromptu address on the platform at the railway station before the train left for Tinnevelly. If my friend, Mr. Alan Leo, or any other astrologer, chooses to test his science by comparing his calculations with the results of the Indian tour thus commenced, I may tell them that Mrs. Besant put her foot on Indian soil for the first time at the hour of 10.24 a.m. on 16th November, 1893. The aspect of the heavens, however their calculations may come out, must have been very auspicious, for success followed her throughout her whole journey in India. We left for Tinnevelly at
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4 p.m. in a smart shower, had a rousing reception on arrival and were put up in a large, comfortable bungalow. The next morning we drove to Palamcottah, the busiest centre of Missionary effort in Southern India, and where they are favored with the presence of no less than three bishops of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Our rooms were crowded with visitors throughout the day but Mrs. Besant took some time for herself to dispose of a large amount of accumulated correspondence. In the evening she lectured splendidly on the great subject of “Life after Death,” to a very large audience.
On the following day we drove to the great temple and visited the cocoanut tree which the Ceylon Buddhist Committee and I had planted in October, 1881, and which the Missionaries had falsely reported to have been torn up by the Brahmins on our departure after that memorable visit. We found it at this time a full-grown tree, a permanent monument to our success in creating a tie of brotherly sympathy between the people of the two races and two religions. While at the temple the great collection of rich jewels used in decorating the idols on important occasions, was exhibited to us, and the state elephant was made to salute us in the usual way by raising his trunk and trumpeting: the temple band at the same time making as much noise as it could. At the house of my old friend V. Coopooswamy Iyer, alas! just deceased (in 1902), we were hospitably entertained and Mrs. Besant saw for the first time the native dance called kolattam
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—a very innocent and not in the least exhilarating performance, in which a number of young women walk slowly around in a circle, swaying their bodies to right and left and keeping time to the music by striking together the sticks which they hold in their hands. Mrs. Besant’s lecture that evening was on the subject of “Materialism,” which, in my opinion, brings out as fully as any she has ever treated, the extent of her intellectual resources. Naturally it would be so for, after leading the materialistic party for twelve years with Mr. Bradlaugh and viewing the subject from every point of view, nobody could be more competent than she to explain the insufficiency of the materialistic hypothesis when tested by the larger knowledge of Nature which one acquires by study of the Eastern Philosophy and by experience on the higher levels of human consciousness. The eagerness to see and talk with her was so great that, although we were to leave Tinnevelly in the middle of the day, she had to hold an improvised durbar on the next morning (Sunday, November 19), and at the close of it eleven persons joined our Society, of whom five were materialists whose beliefs had been quite upset by Mrs. Besant’s lecture of the previous evening.
We left for Madura at 1.35 p.m., and arrived there at 7.30. The Rajah of Ramnad having kindly given the local Committee the use of his splendid house opposite the great tank, we were duly installed there. On the following day we were taken to the Meenakshi Temple and were shown its wonders by the Chief Priest himself.
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I took the pains to point out to Mrs. Besant that panel in the wall-paintings around the inner tank which depicts the savage cruelties inflicted on the wretched Jain Diagambaras, who refused to be converted to Hinduism in the time of Kûna or Kubja Pandya, King of Madura, twenty-one centuries before Christ. There is an amusing feature of this religious episode of Southern India,which I have not mentioned before when alluding to this same picture. In the Hâlasya Mâhâtmya,1 a Saivite religious work, we are told that it was agreed between the Saivite sannyâsi, a youthful wonder-worker famed for his conversions ,of heretics, and the principal Digambaras, that samples of their respective sacred books should be put to the test of ordeals by fire and water to determine which of them was the most sacred. The story runs that palm-leaf manuscripts of both parties being thrown into a hot fire, that of the Digambaras was consumed, but the other was not. Then, for the water test, specimens were thrown into the neighboring river and while the Buddhistic writings floated down stream and so on towards the sea, those of the Saivite sannyâsi went against the current as easily as though they had been propelled by diminutive steam engines! Of course, if we may accept the report of the Saivite historian, the superior holiness of the Hindu books was thus miraculously proven. After that, nothing could have been more natural than that
1See page 118 of the Tamil Classical Dictionary (Abidhana Kosa), published at Jaffna in 1902 by A. Muttutambi Pillai, and praised by the vernacular press as a standard work.
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the victors should cure the recalcitrance of the vanquished by various benevolent punishments, such as the impaling of them on great, long, sharp spikes which transpierced the body throughout its whole length and came out at the top of the head or close up to the neck, or cutting off their heads and grinding them to pulp in the peculiar Indian oil-mill, duplicates of which have been seen by every visitor to India who has passed through the cocoanut-bearing districts. For how many thousand years the same pattern of mill may have been known in India no one can tell, but certainly the mills which one sees now do not differ in the least from that which was used in those far-distant centuries.
How pitiful it is, after all, that mankind have ever been so prone to receive as authoritative the teachings of their priests and books on the mere strength of psychical phenomena which may be manifested by the most corrupt and unspiritual men or women. Even in our day of progress in scientific discovery it seems impossible to prevent this deification of psychics who may pretend to supernatural relationships. After traversing many countries I find a great wave of psychism rushing over the world, an evil omen for the chances of true spiritual progress. Until phenomenalism has been relegated to its proper subordinate place we cannot hope much for the uplifting of mankind from the lower to the higher planes of knowledge.
Mrs. Besant gave two lectures the next day, one at 7.30 a.m., on “Karma,” the other at 6 p.m., on “The Evidence in Favor of the Existence of Mahatmas”.
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The public interest throughout India on this subject has always been acute; for, although every child knows that the Shâstras, especially the teachings of Patanjali, affirm the fact that man can develop the Siddhis and make himself what is properly called a Mahatma, and their books and traditions teem with allusions to their existence, yet at this period of our residence in India, despite the reports about H. P. B.’s phenomena, and the testimony of eye-witnesses who had seen these Teachers, the Hindus in general could not yet believe that such men were in close relations with us white people from the West and taking part in the spread of the Theosophical movement.
On the next day there was no public function but a meeting of Theosophists was held at Mr. P. Narayana Iyer’s house, where we dined in the native fashion off plantain leaves, sitting on the floor and using our fingers instead of knives or forks. At about noon on that day we left for Trichinopoly, arriving at 6.20 p.m. The Prince of Pudukottah, an F.T.S., met us at the station and took us to a small bungalow—not his own but hired for the occasion—which was somewhat thickly populated with some of those small creatures which Nature seems to have evolved to teach man to cultivate patience and forbearance. It rained heavily all the next day and Mrs. Besant and I made good use of the time in writing letters, but Countess Wachtmeister was unable to do anything, being laid up with a bad cold. At 6 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured on “India, Past and Present,” in a style so eloquent and pathetic
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that it made the whole audience weep. Having myself lectured on the subject before, I was so moved by her discourse that I could hardly command my voice for closing the meeting. We idled at home the next morning, but in the afternoon the Prince came and took us to his house for a visit, after which he drove us to the Town Hall where Mrs. Besant lectured in her usual style. There was a great crowd and vociferous applause. The next morning at 7.30 I myself lectured to the College boys at the Town Hall and about noon we left for Tanjore, arriving at 2.20 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured at the palace of, I think, the old Chola Dynasty, in the Durbar Hall, a great apartment with many pillars highly decorated, entirely open on one side to the courtyard; her subject being “India’s Mission”. Our rooms were crowded with visitors the next day, among them several from other towns who had come to hear the lecture. Mrs. Besant and the Countess were admitted to personal audiences with the surviving Ranees of the Tanjore Royal family who, like all the living representatives of extinct Indian Dynasties, are pensioners of the British Government. The Princesses being purdanashin, i.e., secluded from public gaze and cut off from all intercourse with male visitors, our ladies only were admitted to their presence; I had to remain outside the purdah and speak with the Queen through drawn curtains. At the conclusion of the audience each of us received a present of a gold-embroidered shawl; mine being brought me and laid over my shoulders by a young prince who, at the same
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time, gave me flowers and betel-nut (pan supâri) according to custom. Mrs. Besant’s lecture on that day, Sunday, the 26th, was on “Theosophy and Science”. On Monday we visited the great Temple, saw the colossal stone figure of a sitting bull, the emblem of Siva, and then went to the famous library, collected by a former Rajah of Tanjore, which, even after the pillaging it has suffered from at various times, still contains 23,000 palm-leaf and 12,000 paper MSS. and 7,000 bound volumes. In her lecture that afternoon Mrs. Besant again discoursed upon the “Insufficiency of Materialism,” about which the note written in my Diary is that it was “the grandest argument I ever heard”. So the reader may understand how the lecturer rose higher and higher each time that she developed this comprehensive theme. The very prevalence of materialistic tendencies which she found spreading in India under the prevailing system of collegiate education, seemed to stimulate her more and more to do her best to stem the tide.
Before leaving for Kumbakonam the next morning at 9.45, I lectured to the boys of Tanjore and formed one of those local Boys’ Aryan Leagues with which, during those years, I studded India while making my tours. For I have always felt from the time of my first coming to the country that, if we wanted to create a permanent religious revival, here or in any other country, we must lay its foundation in the enlistment of the sympathy of the rising generation. This was the idea behind my educational movement among the
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Ceylon Buddhists, the results of which have fully realised my anticipations. I have ever found the boys of India most responsive to kindly appeals to their innate religious instincts, and it is no exaggeration to say that if I could have devoted my whole time to this movement I could have organised a monster movement among the Indian youth. Wherever I felt I could do so I got the elders of a community to subscribe for a library for boys and my usual plan was to ask the boys themselves, at one of these public meetings, to look around them and tell me whom they wished appointed as members of an Advisory Committee; pledged to assist them as much as possible in forming their library, securing and furnishing their meeting room and holding themselves ready to advise when asked, but never to interfere with the liberty of the boys to regulate their own Society affairs. Such a policy as this is calculated, I think, to develop manliness and self-reliance among the youth and awaken a warm interest in their intellectual and spiritual welfare among their elders.
We were cordially welcomed on our arrival at Kumbakonam at 11.30, and towards the evening Mrs. Besant lectured to the usual multitude on “Theosophy and Modern Progress”. The College of Kumbakonam has done as much as any other educational institution in India to foster rationalistic tendencies among the young men of the community. The Professors—distinguished graduates of the Madras University and, so far as I have known them, men of great intellectual culture—have given the tone of materialistic
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thinking to their classes; so that there is no place in India where it is more important that lectures by able Western Theosophists should be frequently given than here. Needless to say Mrs. Besant’s discourse fulfilled all the requirements of the situation. The chair was occupied by that true patriot, accomplished scholar, and universally respected retired Government servant, Dewan Bahadur Raghoonath Row. Since his retirement this gentleman has transferred his residence from Madras to Kumbakonam, and in his family mansion is passing the evening of his days in comfort and tranquillity of mind. Among Indian statesmen none has enjoyed more thoroughly than he, the confidence of the public, for his career as Minister (Dewan) of large native states and Revenue Officer of various large districts in British India, was untainted by the least suspicion of corruption or malfeasance.
Our party visited a most curious person the next day, a naked ascetic who has been persistently silent during the last thirty years. Throughout this whole period one family have maintained him in a small hut in their garden. He eats only when forced to by his friends, and not always then, for it is a common thing for him to fast seven or eight or ten days at a time. He has a divergent strabismus and is ceaselessly fumbling with his hands. Whatever he may do on the astral plane he certainly, on this one, is little better than a hibernating animal, and as we stood looking at him I could not help comparing his case with that of Mrs. Besant who, with all the religious fervor he could
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possibly feel and as lofty aspirations for spiritual knowledge as he could entertain, was willingly putting her body to the greatest possible strain in travelling about the world, to increase religious knowledge and stimulate mankind to lift themselves up to the plane of a higher ideal than that of the work-a-day world.
In the afternoon Mrs. Besant lectured on “Adepts as Facts and Ideals,” and later in the evening the results of her two discourses were seen in the applications made to me by seven candidates for membership. On Thursday, the 30th, the last day of our visit, Mrs. Besant lectured at 7.30 a.m. in Porter Hall, on “Materialism,” and at 4 p.m., at the Vaishnava Temple, to three thousand people, on “Hinduism and Theosophy”. We left for Trichinopoly Junction at 6.52 p.m., and found at the station on arrival very comfortable rooms awaiting us. Early the next morning, on trollies and with porters carrying the luggage, we crossed a breach in the railway, just made by floods, and got to Erode at 5 p.m. At Karur, an intermediate station, our local members met us with supplies of tea, milk, fruits, and flowers. At most of the principal stations throughout India the railway companies have comfortable accommodations for travellers, including restaurants and bath-rooms; so that one does not fare badly when his itinerary causes him to stop at such places. It was so at Erode and, after an experience of hastily-procured bungalows, sometimes comfortless and sometimes uncleanly, we appreciated what we found at Erode and gladly occupied the clean beds.
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The lecture that evening was given in a schoolhouse and in the audience were members of our Society who had come from towns not included in our programme, to enjoy the pleasure of hearing our great speaker. The next day we moved on to Coimbatore and got there at 9.35 a.m. There was a tremendous rush to see us and we were swept off to our quarters in a jubilant procession in which Hindu and foreign music were alternately played by two bands. A nephew of the Countess W., a Nilgiri tea-planter, embraced the occasion to come and see his aunt for the first time in years. At 4 p.m. we visited a Hindu club and had music and refreshments. Two hours later Mrs. Besant lectured in the Town Hall on “Theosophy and Its Teachings”. The crowd was enormous, and the police with great difficulty cleared the compound and secured us comparative quiet. The whole Anglo-Indian community of the place, including the Collector, the highest civilian officer of Government in a Revenue District, attended. Later in the evening there was a meeting of our members. At 8 o’clock, the next morning, Sunday, December 3rd, Mrs. Besant gave her great lecture on “Materialism” and I admitted to membership several candidates. We left at 2.30 for Bangalore, travelling all night, changing trains at Jalarpet, and reaching our destination at 6 a.m. on Monday, very tired and dusty. We had nice receptions at the station and house, a large, spacious and well-furnished mansion. Bangalore is the great source of supply of European fruits to South Indian stations, its
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climate and elevation of between two thousand and three thousand feet above sea-level being favorable to their culture. A great variety of luscious apples, figs, strawberries, black-caps, oranges, prunes, and bananas were brought us, and at no place visited did we receive a more hearty welcome. Mrs. Besant’s lecture was given in Mayo Hall, to a packed audience of the most cultured portion of the population, on “Theosophy and Ethics”. It was a splendid effort and provoked a storm of applause. Early in the day we drove around the big tank, now full after the recent rains.
Warned by the size of her audiences, which not even the largest hall in Bangalore could accommodate, the Committee arranged for Mrs. Besant to speak out of doors the next morning. She spoke from a platform just large enough to accommodate us two, and as the weather was fine, a great concourse of people attended. The scene was so picturesque that the Committee had it photographed and a copy can be seen by visitors to Adyar. After the lecture she inspected two girls’ schools established by Rao Bahadur A. Narainswamy Mudaliar, a wealthy and public-spirited citizen. From 12 to 2 she received visitors and at 4 p.m. held a conversazione at the Bangalore Club, where she answered, in her inimitable style, a multitude of questions on philosophy and science. We finished the day with a visit to the Maharajah’s Palace. An excellent group photograph was taken at the Club, the second during the day, and a third, in which the group was exclusively composed of ourselves and the
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members of the local Branch, was taken the next morning. At 4.30 p.m. on that day Mrs. Besant addressed a gathering of several thousand people in the large Crystal Palace in Lal Bagh, a lovely garden. It was a splendid picture for an artist. Her subject was “Theosophy and Science”. The late Dewan, Sir K. Sheshâdri Iyer, one of the greatest statesmen India has produced in modern times, returned thanks on behalf of the audience in an address broken by sobs which were caused by the pathos of her peroration: In the evening I admitted eighteen persons into membership. The next morning H.E. the Dewan called with other high officials of the State, who vied with each other in assurances of personal regard and affection for one who had shown as great a love as any Hindu could for their native country. Eleven more candidates were admitted by me, and at 3 p.m. we left by train for Bellary, a journey which took us all night.
At 10 o’clock, when we were all sound asleep, we were aroused at Penukonda station by our local Branch members, with a welcome accentuated with flowers, a supply of milk, and other refreshments. We reached Guntakul Junction at 7 a.m. and Bellary at 10. At the Junction, committees from Bellary, Gooty, and elsewhere greeted us, and Pandit Bhavani Shankar paid his respects to the ladies. At Bellary the Hon. A. Sabhapathy Mudaliar, F.T.S., read the address of welcome to Mrs. Besant and gave it to her in one of those carved sandalwood boxes for which Mysore is famous. A long procession with music took us to
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the splendid house provided for us We were waited upon by many visitors throughout the afternoon and at 6.30 p.m. the “Theosophy and Materialism” lecture was given with an eloquence which Mrs. Besant had not previously attained. I lectured to boys at 7.30 the next morning and aided them to form a society and choose their officers. Among the throng of visitors who came to see her during the day, Mrs. Besant was waited upon by a number of Hindu ladies, who gave her every mark of affection and respect. She lectured magnificently that evening on “Death and Life after Death,” in fact, as she became more and more steeped in the tide of love which surrounded her as she moved on from place to place, she seemed on each successive occasion to be aroused to greater fervor.
The next day, Sunday, was a busy one. At 7.45 a.m. we were photographed; at 8 the lecture on “India and Modern Progress” was given; at 1, three Hindu ladies were admitted to membership; at 3, more than a dozen men; at 4 there was a garden party at Mr. Sabhapathy’s; later, we visited the Sanmarga Sabha, and in the evening there were more admissions into membership. After dinner we went to the station and slept there so as to be ready for an early train the next morning for Hyderabad, the Capital of the Nizam. We reached that picturesque city—one which, more than any other in India, offers a suitable framing for the tales of the Arabian Nights—at 8 p.m.: a breakdown of an engine beyond Raichur, having caused a detention of an hour. On arrival we were received by
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Mr. Dorabji Dasabhoy, a venerable Parsi member, with Mr. Bezonji, another Parsi, and many other colleagues. We were housed at Bashir Bagh, a splendid palace of the late Sir Asman Jah, ex-Prime Minister of the Nizam. Among the other articles of luxury in the three gorgeous sitting-rooms, was an entire parlor suite of pure crystal, upholstered in costly satin, which had cost, I am afraid to say how many thousand rupees. The rooms were crowded with expensive articles of furniture, big and little, to such an extent that I told the ladies it looked more than anything else like a toy palace. The psychological effect of all this useless luxury, on myself, was oppressive, after having lived outside the world of fashion so many years and been accustomed to such simplicity of surroundings. It was a positive rest to retire to the plainly furnished room given me as an office.