OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
MRS. BESANT’S TOUR IN THE UNITED PROVINCES
AS already stated, Bankipore is one of the most sympathetic places in India to visit, by reason of the cultivated intelligence and heartfelt earnestness of our local colleagues. Mrs. Besant was quite prepared then, from what I had told her, to anticipate a pleasant and profitable visit at that station, and was not disappointed. The Committee had obtained from the agent of the Maharajah of Durbhanga the use of his local palace, one of a number that he owns in different parts of India; and there we were put up. I took the ladies to the echoing dome described in a previous chapter and they, with their poetical and mystical natures, were much impressed by that never-to-be-forgotten series of reverberations that come after the raising of the voice or the shuffling of a foot on the ground; if ever there was a place to which Tom Hood’s famous verse would apply it is this.
“And over all there hung a shade of fear,
And sense of mystery the spirit daunted,
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And said, as plain as whisper in the ear,
The place is haunted.”
If anyone doubts it let him pay a visit to this deserted grain-bin of Warren Hastings, at night, with a single lamp, and repeat sentences, sotto voce, as he tramps around the circumference of the floor.
At 6.30 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured in the College Hall to a packed audience. The Principal introduced us and moved the vote of thanks at the close. It always fills my heart with joy to see the enthusiastic way in which the boys of our Indian Colleges receive theosophical lectures: their capacity for emotional manifestations exceeds that of almost any Western audience, certainly more than any Northern one. Engrossed Addresses were presented to us in purple velvet cases richly embroidered in gold. As we were only going to spend two days in the station, the Committee had arranged for Mrs. Besant to give two lectures on the next day, Sunday the 21st, one at 2 and the other at 6.30 p.m.: the subjects were respectively, “The Evidences of Theosophy,” and “Theosophy and Hinduism”. At a public meeting called for the purpose I formed a Hindu boys’ society. There was a conversazione in the evening and after that, at 9.30, a visit to Professor James’ house. On Monday morning we left Bankipore at 7 a.m. and reached Benares at 12.30, changing trains at Moghalsarai. For one who has known of the intimate friendships between Madame Blavatsky and myself and Mrs. Besant and Upendranath Basu, Gyanendra Nath Chakravarti and some others,
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it is hard to realise that we were once strangers, but in point of fact I introduced Upendra Babu to Mrs. B. on that morning at the junction named.
On arrival at Benares we were driven to the large house of that generous friend, Babu Kally Kissen Tagore. In the afternoon the Society held a special meeting at which Mrs. Besant was presented with a richly illuminated Address contained in an engraved Benares brass cylinder. In the evening she went with some friends for a sail on the Ganges by moonlight. She, with the Countess Wachtmeister, Bhavani, Upendranath and myself, went to visit H.P.B.’s old acquaintance of 1879, “Majji,” the Yogini who lived for many years, and until her death, at an ashram of her own on the bank of the Ganges. We drove to the Ganges bridge and from thence proceeded onward in a house-boat. At 4 p.m. Mrs. Besant lectured to an open-air crowd from the steps of the Town Hall, for the first time on the new subject of “From Atheism to Hinduism”: needless to say, it was an excellent discourse and received with enthusiasm. On the Wednesday morning, early, our whole party, sitting on the roof of a house-boat, were rowed slowly along the Ganges front of the city and saw the multitudes bathing. The magnificence and impressiveness of this sight have been described by me in a previous chapter. At 3 p.m. we met the leading pandits of Benares for discussion. We found that they disapproved of education for Hindu girls in general, especially for the virgin widows, of whom there are so many hundreds of thousands in
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Indian society; on the other hand, they expressed their unqualified approbation of my Sanskrit libraries and schools and societies for Hindu boys. It was amusing to see the contrast between the appearance and views of Annie Besant, the champion, for so many years, of the uplifting and education of women, and the hard, stony conservatism of those fossilised pandits who lived in the nineteenth century but thought within the lines of the Aryan doctrines of the earliest centuries of our era.
The lecture at the Town Hall that evening was given under circumstances of greater discomfort than any previous one of this tour. The arrangements for the admission and distribution of the audience were so faulty that, not only the hearers but the speaker, were wedged together in a stifling mass; the space which, by dint of great pushing and crowding was secured for our party on the platform, was not bigger than that occupied by an ordinary writing-table, and Mrs. Besant had to deliver her discourse from a fixed spot at the edge of the topmost step leading to the dais, about as big as the top of a man’s hat. Yet, by dint of a stiffening of her body and an occasional friendly clutch by me at her dress to keep her from falling forward, she managed to get through her discourse with great acceptability. But really, this was too much for good nature, and so Upendra Babu, as President of our local Branch, issued, on the next morning, the following handbill: “In consequence of the great crowd we had at Mrs. Besant’s lecture
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last evening, gentlemen are requested to bring with them their invitation cards or procure admission tickets for to-morrow’s lecture, from Babu Jadab Chandra Mittra, or at the gate of the Town Hall, between 4 and 5.30 p.m.”
On Thursday, the 25th, we drove to Saranath, the site of the Deer Park where the Buddha gave his first great missionary discourse to the companions of his austerities who had deserted him when he, fainting from exhaustion, had accepted from the herdsman’s daughter the gift of fresh milk, because they thought that he had failed in his ascetic training. The stupa as it stands there now, a ruin, is yet one of the most interesting places in the world for the student of religion to visit. And surely that was a memorable party which stood under its shadow that morning: Annie Besant, the destined resuscitator of Hindu philosophy in India, and I, who for thirteen years had been working in concert with the Buddhist nations of Ceylon, Burma, Chittagong and Japan, to revive the Arya Dharma of which the Tathagata had spoken the keynote on this very spot twenty-four centuries ago. Students of psychometry know of the existence in man of the faculty of what is called “conscious clairvoyance,” that is, the employment of a more or less developed psychical vision during the waking state. They will understand, therefore, that it would be quite possible for either of us in that group who was endowed with this transcendental perceptive faculty, to have seen, by exercising it, the Akasic pictures which were focussed in and about
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that spot. This actually happened, and one who was present interested me beyond all expression by describing to me a scene in which an orange-robed Bhikshu of saintly appearance was addressing a gathering a little to the north of where the stupa now stands. We returned to town greatly pleased with our excursion. At 2 p.m. we went to the house of myold friend, Mokshada Das, where, from 5.30 to 7 p.m. a delightful question-meeting was held. On the next day we did much letter-writing and received many visitors. In the evening the promised lecture was given on the subject of “Hypnotism and Mesmerism in the Light of Theosophy”, after which I admitted three candidates into membership. This closed our visit to Benares and on the next day we moved on to Allahabad. Several friends accompanied us to Moghalsarai and Upendra Babu went all the way. Mr. E.T. Sturdy and all the other Allahabad theosophists met us at the station, where Professor Chakravarti was introduced to Mrs. Besant and took us to his and the adjacent house, to put up.
Once in twelve years there is an enormous assemblage of pilgrims at Allahabad, the ancient sacred Prayag, who come to encamp themselves on the alluvial plain at the confluence of the two sacred rivers, Jumna and Ganges: they bathe in the streams, recite prayers, make ceremonies and go away in the conviction that their sins have been washed away. Not even the largest European or American cities have seen such gatherings, for we have it from the estimates of the Government
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itself that provision has to be made for the surveillance, sanitation, policing and feeding of more than two million people; to be accurate, 23 lakhs—2,300,000. As we happened to arrive at the very time when this meeting, or as the name is, in the vernacular, this Magh Mela, was being held, we were, of course, taken to see it. We visited it on three separate days. One of our active members happening to be detailed for duty in connection with the event, he kindly procured us two elephants to ride upon and accompanied us himself in the capacity of cicerone. A.B., Chakravarti, our friend Suraj Narain, and I, mounted the first elephant, but the Countess positively refused to mount hers; she would give no reasons except that she didn’t choose and rather than do it she would return to the house and let the Fair go. It was such a great pity that she should lose this most unique of spectacles that Suraj Narain finally commandeered an ekka, a little, two-wheeled, quaint-looking pony-cart, the shafts of which meet together over the horse’s saddle and hook into some sort of iron contrivance which holds them in place; the wheels are about as small as those of a modern trotting-sulky; the passenger sits on a little cushioned board, perhaps 2½ feet square, and is sheltered from the sun by a canopy supported at the four corners by sticks of bamboo: altogether as quaint a vehicle as can be found in any western Museum. This being arranged, we moved on over the plain, observing and enjoying all the novel sights that could be seen from our elevated position on elephant-back. The sagacious
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beasts stepped with the greatest precaution through the masses of people who were crowded up to their very legs. It was almost as though they were wading through a stream of human beings. On every side, to great distances, stretched the swarthy multitude; the river banks were crowded with bathers; streams of people moved hither and thither to visit the camps of notabilities—rajahs and maharajahs, zemindars and talukdars, declaiming teachers of various sects, hatha yogis by the score, making a public show of their austere practices, some smeared with ashes and streaked with saffron caste-marks, some with their long dishevelled locks, supplemented with chignons of vegetable fibre built up into high dusty cones, like exaggerated rats’ nests, on top of their heads, some lying on beds of spikes, some sitting in the different asans prescribed by Patanjali, some decorating their bodies after their baths, some with eyes closed as if in meditation, etc.,—but, with very few exceptions, each having spread on the ground before him a cloth on which the pious pilgrims could cast their alms of copper coin: pious humbugs, in short. But what struck me as the greatest humbug of all was the ostentatious self-exhibitions of gorgeously dressed gurus and family priests of Indian princes, riding on richly caparisoned elephants, in gaudy howdahs and with a flutter of flags of cloths of gold or silver or banners of bright-coloured silks, all gleaming and sparkling in the sun as the elephants of these trans-parently pretentious humbugs of spiritual guides (?) moved through the mighty sea of pilgrims,
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seeing and being seen of all men. After we had had our fill of the show and had stamped into our astral brain a gallery of mind pictures that could never fade, we turned our elephants back towards our point of departure, threading our way cautiously through the thronging crowds. At the third visit we stood on the bank of the Jumna just in front of the Fort, looking across the stream and on to the plain at the mighty spectacle. Streams of people kept moving past us in both directions, types of many different races presenting themselves to view from moment to moment. Having seen many Indian crowds before, this Magh Mela only astonished me by the enormity of the multitude it had attracted; but to our ladies everything was novel; they not only saw but scrutinized, and the Countess suddenly recalled me from my species of reverie by saying to Mrs. Besant: “What a wonderful crowd. See, there is not one single drunken person, not one booth for the sake of liquor, not one fight. Every man’s and woman’s face wears the expression of innocent enjoyment, and one feels as though the common sentiment of religious devotion was animating them all. Where else in the world, in any nation or town, have you ever seen so orderly and self-respecting a crowd as this?” Let the reader try to figure to himself that majestic spectacle before us of the plain covered with a multitude so vast as this, of brown-skinned people with their heads covered with white turbans, patches of colour being made here and there by groups wearing turbans of blue, yellow or red. If I should live fifty
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years more, I should never forget the impression made upon me by those elephant-riding gurus with their gaudy flags and richly dressed disciples crowding about them in the howdahs: it was such a travesty of religion.
At about sundown on the day of the first visit, January 28th, we were taken for a row on the Jumna and later in the evening there was a T.S. meeting held at which I admitted two candidates to membership. On the 29th there was office work during the day and a conversazione in the evening. At 6.30 on the next evening Mrs. Besant lectured at Mayo Hall on the “Insufficiency of Materialism”. What its effect on the great audience was may be guessed from the entry in my Diary, that it was “the best and most fervent discourse she had yet given on the subject”. On the 31st I finished writing my O.D.L. for the March Theosophist, and at 6.30 p.m., at Lowther Castle, Mrs. Besant addressed a large class of college boys who were being taught Theosophy by Professor Chakravarti and other elders. There was a conversazione at the same place on the following evening. On the 2nd of February, in the evening, Mrs. Besant lectured at the Railway Theatre on “Death and Life After Death,” to a most unsympathetic audience. It had been pouring all day and the audience was small. For Countess Wachtmeister, at least, the day had its bright memories for she met, for the first time in twenty years, her elder brother, General the Marquis de Bourbel, of the Royal Engineers, whose services had been loaned to the Kashmir Durbar for the building
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of a Railway in that State. On the 3rd we visited the Kayastha Patshala, a long-established and successful school for the education of students belonging to the Kayastha or writer caste of Hindus. The next two days were principally devoted to the visits to the Magh Mela, and on the 6th we left at 9 p.m. for the world-famed city of Agra.
On arriving at Agra, on the 7th, much behind time because of the crowding of the road with extra traffic connected with the transport of pilgrims to and from the great Mela, we were cordially received by my old friend, Lala Baijnath, a most earnest, scholarly and independent man, who took us to his house and entertained us most hospitably. Mrs. Arnold, a cousin of Miss Emily Kislingbury of London, (H. P. B’s and my New York guest), came with her husband from Aligarh to see Mrs. Besant, and attended the conversazione she held that evening. On the next day the ladies saw, for the first time, that architectural wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal, so often described as “a poem in marble”. Having seen it before, I was able to arrange for them an artistic surprise, by getting them to close their eyes and let me lead them through the arch of the entrance tower at one side of the gardens, and keeping them a little within the shadow, had them open their eyes and gaze on the picture of enchantment before them. The Taj is situated in a spacious garden of trees and flower-beds arranged with the finest taste of the landscape-gardener. From the place where
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we stood stretched a long succession of narrow and shallow tanks of water, down the centre of which runs a single line of water-jets. This vista is broken at a distance of, perhaps, two hundred yards, by a large, raised, stone platform, stretching between the side-walks, from which visitors can have a comprehensive view of the landscape picture. Beyond it the water basins continue until they end at the raised promenade which runs all around the plinth on which stands the incomparable marble tomb of the Emperor Shah Jehan’s favorite Queen, Mumtaz Mahal, and of himself; its exquisite forms relieved against the sapphire background of the cloudless Indian sky. Every traveller of cultivated taste brings away the same impression. But when we walked down the avenue and came to the mausoleum, the Countess and I noticed that Mrs. Besant seemed oppressed by a sense of sadness; she looked listlessly but with mournful eyes, at the marble pile. When we asked her the reason for her sadness, she said that she was almost overcome with the sense of the bloodshed that had occurred in past times in and around the fort, whose towering, embattled walls stood before us on the other side of the river, and then, behind all the beauty of this peerless building, she felt the wretchedness and almost heard the groans of the poor coolies by whose enforced labour it had been built. One of the most ruthless acts of cruelty in history is reported to the discredit of Shah Jehan: it is said that the design of the tomb was made by a great Italian architect whom he had called from his faraway
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land to superintend the building. When it was finished and its beauty was exposed to the gaze of men, this bloody tyrant cast him into prison and had his eyes burnt out so that he might never duplicate a work of such perfection. One cannot get an adequate idea of the Taj from any of the photographs, pictures or carved models that have found their way to all parts of the world: it must be seen in its enframing garden and under the light of an Indian sun, or in the moonlight of a warm Indian evening, to know what it is really like.
Of course we were photographed at Agra as elsewhere, and after this incident of the morning of the 9th, the Countess and Mr. Sven Ryden, one of our Swedish members, went to see the Emperor Akbar’s tomb at Secundra--the sepulchre of the greatest of all the Emperors of Hindustan, a sovereign who was tolerant of all forms of religious belief, diminished the cruel and oppressive taxes laid on his Hindu subjects by his predecessors, reformed the administration of the revenue, promoted commerce and improved the roads of the Empire, encouraged learning and literature, instituted schools in all parts of his dominions, was worthy of kingship and was one of those whose names are preserved in history. I have stood by the tombs of many kings in different countries and usually came away filled with disgust and honest indignation at the lies about their character written by sycophants, upon the marble. Especially I felt this at St. Peter’s Rome, where I saw the magnificent monuments of popes and
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kings who, if justice had been done, would have had their carcases thrown to the dogs: men—
“Whose game was empires, and whose stakes were thrones,
Whose table earth—whose dice were human bones.”
Besides these moral dwarfs, the figures of Akbar and Asoka, Emperors of India, tower majestic.
Mrs. Besant’s lecture that evening was on the “Evolution of Man,” a tribute, possibly, to Lala Baijnath’s scientific and philosophical taste. At the close I formed the “Agra Hindu Students’ Association” and got up a subscription for their library. On our return to the house our host read to Mrs. Besant and myself part of the MS. of an Advaita Catechism he was composing. We found it excellent: which is saying a great deal, for, confessedly this is a literary task of great difficulty. There is something so subtle, so metaphysical in the doctrine of Shankarâchârya that it is a most troublesome affair to compress it into a series of questions and answers which the average person, especially the young student, can comprehend. As I think I have explained before, the success of the First Edition of the Buddhist Catechism, in 1880, gave me the idea of publishing a similar synthetical work on each of the Eastern religions: my plan covering both Zoroastrianism and Islam, in addition to the three great schools of Indian thought. Of these, the Dwaita and Visishtadwaita Catechisms have been published, and even one of the Shin-shu school of Japanese
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Buddhism; a Parsi gentleman has made an attempt at one of his religion but, although I have had my notes ready for years I have never had time, amid my official duties, to prepare the digest of Islam. The Advaita has never been brought to the point of readi-ness for publication, so far as I know, although I have made two or three bargains with different Indian writers to complete it. I was, then, naturally very pleased to find that Lala Baijnath had so intuitively grasped the right theory of treatment, and I hope that, in time, his work may be published.
Early on the morning of the 10th we left Agra for Muttra, the holy place so intimately associated with the memory of Shri Krishna. It is only a three hours’ ride, so we reached there in ample time for the second breakfast, which is as fixed an “institution” in India as it is in France. We were accommodated in a nice cottage belonging to H. H. the Maharajah of Bhurtpore. In the afternoon our friends took the Countess and myself in a rowboat past the whole river front of the city—a most picturesque panorama. We saw the place where Shri Krishna is said to have performed the sraddha ceremony for his uncle, and the high tower which marks the spot where the wives of Kamsa burnt themselves in suttee. In the evening Mrs. Besant lectured in the Garrison Theatre on “Death and Life After Death,” to an audience composed mainly of English soldiers. Later, I broached to the Indian gentlemen present the idea of a boys’ society and opened a subscription, which was continued at a meeting on
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the next day and the society formed; after which Mrs. Besant gave a lecture which was translated into the vernacular, there not being enough English-speaking Hindus present to relieve her of that necessity. I, who had passed through the same ordeal more than an hundred times, could well sympathise with her; the more so as I was now a mere auditor and not the player of the leading part. Indeed, I felt sorry to see this gifted daughter of Minerva, from whose mouth leaps the crystal stream of heart-moving eloquence, when left to take her own gait, forced to give her discourse sentence by sentence, and each time wait for her words to be mutilated in the vernacular to bring them within the comprehension of this Indian audience. On the next morning we left for Delhi, the old capital of the Moghul Empire. We reached our destination at 5 p.m. and at 6 Mrs. Besant was standing before a huge audience in the Town Hall lecturing on that subject which invariably stirs the heart of the Hindu to its depths, “India, Past, Present and Future”. It made a deep and lasting impression. Later, and when we were all more than ready for it, we had dinner in native fashion at the house of our friend and colleague, Dr. Hem Chundra Sen, who has carried on his broad shoulders, from the first, the foundation of the local Theosophical Branch which I laid at the time of my first visit to this place. On the next morning he took us for a drive to the Kutub Minar, a description of which will be reserved for our next chapter.