OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
IMPRESSIONS OF MRS. BESANT’S TOUR
ONE must have been at Adyar and seen the beauties of our property to make allowance for my constant expressions of joy at returning there from distant travels. It is a place that never palls upon one; to residents as well as visitors, fresh beauties are always revealing themselves. From Lucknow to Madras is a stretch of 1,501 miles, and what that means in the hot season need not be told to one who has lived in India. But no sooner had I got settled into my home than I had a disagreeable experience. Mrs. Besant telegraphed me a request to rectify the bad impression made by an editorial notice of our tour, which appeared in the Theosophist for March, 1894 (p. 390). It must be confessed that the tone of it was objectionable, and all the more so because the article was written by either Mr. Edge or Mr. Old, who were in editorial charge during my absence, and who had been too long connected with Mrs. Besant in the relationship of junior students to an elder to warrant the magisterial air which they assumed. They said: “Her advocacy
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of Hinduism, pure and simple, may be considered by some as not being in line with that which was expected of her as an exponent of Theosophy while lecturing under the auspices of the Indian Section of the Theosophical Society, and it is quite true that, however gratified the Hindus may be with the tributes paid to their traditions, literature and creed, the Muhammadans, Sufis, Parsis and Buddhists cannot feel them-selves to have been as warmly included in Mrs. Besant’s professions. It must be candidly confessed that her lectures are not, as reported, in harmony with the broad eclecticism of the T.S., and on that account have been a source of disappointment to many of our most earnest members. To one but recently convinced of the beauties and truth of the Hindu faith we must, perhaps, excuse much of that exclusive fervour which would be out of place on any representative Theosophical platform; but that Mrs. Besant is whole-hearted in all that she undertakes is well-known, and if any doubt existed as to her belief in the form as well as the spirit of Hinduism, the following statement would put aside all doubt in the matter: Mrs. Besant, as becomes a devout Hindu, bathed daily in the sacred Ganges at Allahabad during the Kumbha Mela. To her English friends, indeed, it would appear as something convincing in itself to see her in Hindu female attire, shoeless, lotah in hand, proceeding to the great water-fair upon the Ganges!” That the story was not true and that our young men took it over from some other publication without previous
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enquiry, made their offence all the greater. Nor was it true that Mrs. Besant failed to make herself agreeable to the followers of other religions besides Hinduism; while her recent discourses upon the world’s great religions in which she has made a masterly presentment of the basis and spirit of each, have stamped her as, perhaps, the most eclectic religious lecturer of modern times. I contributed to the April (1894) number of our magazine an article on “Annie Besant’s Indian Tour,” in which I vindicated her impartiality and did justice to her splendid expositions of Theosophy as the basis of all religions, Hinduism included, and as to her right to hold and expound whatever might be her private views on her own responsibility, I remarked as follows:
“My duties as manager of the journey and chairman at all ‘Annabai’s’ lectures, together with the constant demands on my attention of the current local business of the Theosophical Society, prevented my writing for my Magazine even the briefest narrative of events. My willing coadjutors, Messrs. Edge and Old, were thus compelled to gather what facts they could from current Indian papers, and it is not to be wondered at that they got in this way some very incorrect and misleading ideas as to what Annabai said and did.
“In justice to them (my editorial assistants) I must say that the papers that we happened to see on our travels were full of most palpable errors, and nobody could have gleaned from them a true idea of what her lectures really contained. As regards the
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question of her keeping within the constitutional limits of our Society’s policy, I do not see how there can be two opinions. True, she had declared herself virtually a Hindu in religion almost from the beginning of the Indian part of her tour. What of that? If she had chosen to declare herself a Mussalman, a Jew, a Christian, nobody could have ventured to call her to account. What could be more clear than our printed declaration that ‘no person’s religious opinions are asked upon his joining, nor is interference with them permitted’? And should Annie Besant be denied the liberty which is enjoyed as an acknowledged right by the humblest member? In all my fifteen years of public speaking and writing, and all of H. P. B.’s writing and private conversation, did we even try to conceal the fact of our being Buddhists; and yet have we ever failed to do all we could to help people of all other religions to find their hidden ideals and to live up to them? Neither charge can be laid against us, and I, who have listened to A. B.’s discourses from first to last, with the sole exceptions of those at Nagpur, when I was temporarily absent from her on special business, declare that she said nothing about, or in defence of, her religious views that was not perfectly proper and perfectly constitutional. Her theme was ever Theosophy, and she ever declared herself a thorough-going Theosophist. While she showed that Theosophy was more fully and clearly taught, as she believed and as H. P. B. proved, in the Aryan Scriptures than elsewhere, she also said that it was equally the
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indwelling soul of every religion the world had ever known. Those who heard her splendid lectures on ‘Theosophy and Religion,’ ‘Pantheism,’ ‘Theosophy and Modern Science,’ ‘The Evidences of Theosophy,’ ‘The Evolution of Man,’ and ‘Man, His Nature, and Powers,’ will bear me out in saying that she did ample justice to all the chief religions. She took no brief from us to conceal her private views on religion, and if anything of the kind had been compulsorily accepted by her, I should not have accompanied her on the journey; I do not enjoy the company of muzzled slaves. Dr. Salzer and other colleagues in the Society have publicly protested against the T.S. having been made responsible for Mrs. Besant’s Hinduism: but the fact is that, in introducing her to her audiences, it was almost my invariable custom to warn the public that, under our constitution, the Society represents no one religion, and is not in the least degree responsible for the utterances of any of its officers or members upon questions of religion, politics, social reform, or any others about which people take sides. Unfortunately, the reporters had come there only to report what A. B. might say, and with few exceptions made no mention at all of my prefatory word of caution. But the audiences heard me, and that suffices. After sending the above to the printers, I received a copy of the Indian Mirror for March, in which A. B.’s last lecture in Calcutta was reported. The subject was ‘Theosophy and Modern Progress,’ and by good luck my introductory remarks were published. I quote
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what follows: ‘I wish again to impress upon your minds the fact that the Theosophical Society is a neutral body as regards religious opinion, that it has no creed to enforce, and that it is not responsible for the opinions of its members. What each person—he or she—is, it does not concern itself about, nor is the Society bound to accept their opinions, etc., etc.’”
My flying visit to Adyar being made for the purpose of searching through our records for documentary evidence in the case of Judge, I had a busy time of it during the five days of my stay. The result arrived at was the getting together of a large number of Judge’s private letters to H. P. B. and myself in which he complains of his absolute inability to get into touch with the Masters and begs us to intervene on his behalf. Of course, this proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the falsity of the pretensions he had been making to his American colleagues and others, that he had been allied with those Personages for many years and was doing what he did under their instructions and with their approval. I need not go into the saddening details now, since the evidence was all summarised in my Annual Address of that year, and the original documents are still in my safe custody for anyone to read who may be entitled to do so.1
My work finished, I left home on the 11th (March) and at midnight on the 12th met Mrs. Besant and
1 [The publication of these old letters of Mr. W. Q. Judge was begun in the Theosophist in January, 1931, and continued till December 1931.—ED.]
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Messrs. Sturdy and Bhavanishankar at Dhond Junction, whence we went on to Poona together; many friends met us at the station and our veteran colleague, Judge Khandalvala, took us to his house, which is a sort of ideal home. On the evening of the 13th Mrs. Besant lectured under a shamiana—a canvas canopy raised on poles—on “Theosophy and Religion”; besides which, of course, her hours throughout the day were well filled up with reception of visitors and the answering of numberless questions. On the 14th in the cool of the morning, she addressed a large gathering of students and adults in the Theatre, on “Education”. To my right, on the platform, sat the famous Ramabai, once so admired as an eloquent and learned lecturer on Vedânta, but not a Christian Missionary, whose speciality is the conversion of Indian widows under the pretext, as her chief Indian backers told me, of giving them a good non-Christian education. All India knows how indignantly her scheme was denounced by the late Mr. Justice M. G. Ranade, of the Bombay High Court, and other Hindu gentlemen whose names had been used on her prospectus, and left there until the conversion of a Hindu child-widow gave them such a shock as to make them repudiate all further connection with her Poona Widows’ Home. I must say that I was painfully struck by the change in her appearance from what she was when H. P. B. and I met her fifteen years before at Bareilly. She was then a slim, graceful girl with an unworldly face, her dark eyes beaming with intelligence and her
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appearance almost fairy-like, when she stood before the audience pouring forth a stream of eloquent exposition and vindication of the Vedânta; able even to lecture fluently in Sanskrit as well as in Hindi and Gujarati: now she sat beside me a stout woman with a hard, uncompromising sort of expression on her face, the air—as I think I have elsewhere expressed it—of a hardworking American lodging-house keeper.
In the course of that day we visited that renowned Indian religio-political society, the Sarvajnik Sabhâ, whose officers received Mrs. Besant with every token of profound respect. At their request she allowed herself to be specially photographed for them and in excellent taste replied to the address which they presented to her. She and I were also photographed for the local Branch, and early in the evening, before nightfall, she lectured, in the open air, in the Hirabagh compound, on the subject of “Karma and Reincarnation”. In no part of India is a public speaker confronted by more highly-educated and intellectual audiences than in Poona. At 10.30 that night we left for Bombay, arriving there at 6 a.m. on the 15th.
The memorable tour of 1894-3 was now drawing to a close, but I was glad to see that our dear friend was showing but little sign of physical exhaustion; as for her mentality, that, of course, became brighter and brighter as her wonder-working brain was exercised. We were only in Bombay for the day as we were booked to be in Surat the next morning, but we were not
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left idle. At 9 a.m. we received addresses from the Bombay Branch and both replied. She lectured at 5.30 p.m. in the Novelty Theatre, to a crowded house, on “The Insufficiency of Materialism”. A host of reporters were present, none of whom gave a fair idea of her discourse. In fact, that was our experience throughout India, with but very few exceptions: they seemed unable to grasp her ideas and stumbled at the simplest Sanskrit words. At 10 p.m., after dinner, we left for Surat.
Arriving there at 9 the next morning, we drove straight to the Girls’ School established by our Branch, where Mrs. Besant gave out the prizes and made an address: I also spoke and headed a subscription for the benefit of the school. We were put up in a handsome guest-house of the Borah community. A conversation-meeting was held at 2 p.m., and at 5.30 Mrs. Besant lectured in the Town Hall to a very large audience, on that most interesting and important subject, “The Evolution of Man”. We dined in Hindu fashion at the Hindu Club, and during the afternoon were, of course, photographed. The picture that was taken of me represents me as seated in a chair, looking down at a group of dear little Parsi children at my feet. It makes me laugh every time I look at it, for it reminds one of a great white-haired ogre, engaged in picking out the child he means to have cooked for his lunch!
At 4 a.m. on the 17th we left Surat for Baroda, and reached there at 7. My dear old friend, Diwan
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Manibhai Jasbhai, and other functionaries met us at the station. We were the guests of H. H. the Gaekwar and were lodged in one of his handsome houses. From 2 to 4 p.m. there was a conversation-meeting, then followed a visit to the Palace for a talk with the Maharajah Gaekwar which, as usual, he made extremely interesting by the pertinence and intelligence of his interrogatories. At 5 Mrs. Besant lectured on “Theosophy and its Teachings”; at 10 we left for Bombay, many friends seeing us off and Diwan Manibhai presenting Mrs. Besant with a pair of shawls.
We arrived at what the inhabitants are fond of calling Urbs primus in Indis, at 7 o’clock on Sunday morning. Our reception rooms were thronged with visitors, among them several old friends—like Prince Harisinghji1 and daughters, Pandit Shamji Krishnavarma, Mr. K. R. Cama, the respected leader of the educated Parsi community, his daughter and Miss Maneckji, his sister-in-law, one of the founders of the flourishing Victoria Girls’ School. Mrs. Besant’s lecture was given in the Novelty Theatre to an immense audience: her subject being “Theosophy and the Religions of India”. Its reception by the mixed multitude of all sects was ample proof of the baselessness of the insinuation against her sectarian impartiality to which allusion has been made above.
1My beloved Indian son, who, alas! has just died in my presence (at 7 a.m. on the 2nd January, 1903). For particulars see the obituary notice in this same number. [Prince Harisinhji Rupsinhji died as the result of asphyxiation from the fumes of a charcoal. He was a delegate to the Convention at Benares, and the nights
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As the hours of her stay in India became numbered she was increasingly pestered with requests for interviews, often to answer questions of minor importance. Her good nature was such that she did her very best to gratify all, but there is a limit to all human endurance, and so some had to be refused. We went to her steamer with her luggage and arranged with the Chief Steward about facilities for her servant’s cooking her Hindu food for her. In the afternoon she lectured grandly in the Novelty Theatre on “Modern Progress”. At 9 p.m., after dining with our esteemed friends and colleagues, Mr. and Mrs. Gostling, she lectured on “Theosophy” in their drawing-room to an invited audience of 150 Europeans, among whom were some old acquaintances of H. P. B.’s and mine of 1879; among them some who had not withstood the ravages of time as well as myself. On the 20th (March) the local Branch held a farewell meeting and Mrs. Besant and I addressed the members. We then drove to the palatial family residence of the late Morarji Goculdas, where Mrs. Besant was garlanded and a costly sari of silk was placed around her shoulders; we then drove to the Docks and she embarked on the “Peninsular,” attended by a throng of warm friends who expressed their sorrow at her departure. I met on board our old Simla friend, Mr. A. O. Hume, and his daughter, Mrs. Ross Scott, all three T. S. members and friends of H. P. B. At 5 p.m. the ship sailed and bore away
being cold the charcoal was placed in the room to warm it during the night.--ED.]
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dear Annie Besant and with her the heart of all India. So ended her first and most memorable and epoch-making visit to the land of the Aryas. I may, in closing the episode, reproduce in this connection portions of the account of her Indian tour which appeared in the Theosophist for April, 1894, and has above been quoted from.
“As regards the southern half of the tour, something was said in my Annual Address to the Convention, and I need not enlarge. In fact, as regards the entire tour it may be said that there was a monotony of exciting arrivals at and departures from stations; of generous, even lavish, hospitalities; of smotherings under flowers and sprinklings with rose-water; of loving addresses presented in tasteful caskets by Reception Committees; of chanted Sanskrit slokas, full of Eastern compliment and hyperbole, from both orthodox and heterodox pandits; of organisations by me of Hindu religious and ethical societies among schoolboys and undergraduates; of visits to sacred shrines and holy ascetics; of morning conversazioni when, for two hours, or even three sometimes, at a stretch, Annie Besant would answer, off-hand, the most difficult and abstruse questions in science, philosophy, symbolism, and metaphysics; of grand orations daily to overpacked and sweltering audiences which found no halls big enough to hold them, and so overflowed into the surrounding compounds or streets, sometimes by hundreds and thousands, and had to be driven away by the police; of processions in palankeens, by night
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with torches, by day and night sometimes with bands of Hindu musicians, choirs of female singers and groups of bayaderes, making national music and dance, as though ours were a religious progress; of presents of Kashmir shawls by hosts and magnates who could afford to comply with the ancient custom of thus honoring scholars, that has come down from remotest antiquity; of rides on elephants through crowds of pilgrims; of floatings in quaint boats down sacred rivers, past holy cities like Benares, Prayâg and Muttra, to see the bathing multitudes and the waterside temples, houses, mosques, and tombs of dead potentates, sages, and ascetics; of formal meetings with pandits for discussions; of receptions at private houses, where we were made acquainted with the most educated and most influential personages of the great cities; this for five months on end; a rushing up and down and across the Great Indian Peninsula, a conscientious filling of engagements and strict keeping to the advertised programme; a series of meetings and partings with beloved old colleagues and new acquaintanceships formed with the later comers. Over all, through all, and lingering with me like the strain of a sweet symphony dying in the distance, the recollection of the most splendid series of discourses I ever listened to in my life, and of intimate companionship during these sunny months with one of the purest, most high-minded, most intellectual and spiritually elevated women of our generation, or of any previous age, of whom I have read in history.
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“Unlike as H. P. B. and I were in many respects, we were akin more ways than Annabai and myself can ever be. My praise of her is not tinged with blind partiality. She is religious fervor and devotion personified, the ideal female devotee who in time evolves into the saint and martyr. With the modern Hindu practising his corrupted form of faith, she compares as Madame Guyon with her ‘Spiritual Torrents,’ does with the ignorant Christian peasant of Russia or Bulgaria. Her Hinduism is the lofty spiritual concept of the Bhagavad-Gîtâ; a splendid, perhaps unattainable, ideal. This may seem incredible to her old Secularist friends, yet one needs but read her Auto-biography to see how true it must be. She passed out of Christianity with bleeding heart and agony of regret; she stayed Secularist because that was the normal reaction to be expected in a mind so great as hers. Yet all those years she was but in a state, one might say, of spiritual suspended animation, existing as a flower may under the stone which presses it into the ground. Like the flower burgeoning out when the pressure is removed and sunlight can be drunk in, so she burst out of the iron cage of Materialistic Atheism the momen t her Karma brought her within the sphere of the Eastern Wisdom and of its transcriber, H. P. B. As the lark sings in soaring, so Annabai’s heart is filled with the overwhelming joy of finding in the Secret Doctrine of Aryan philosophy all her intellect had ever craved, and in the Aryan religion even a greater field for devotion than she ever yearned for in the days of her youth.
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H. P. B. and I had none of this love of worship in our constitutions, though, I believe that, as regards the actual sentiment of religion, we were not more deficient than others. Of two paths which Shrî Krishna says must be followed in the seeking after Mukti, that of knowledge and that of devotion, H. P. B. and I, in this incarnation at least, have trodden the former; Annabai has trodden the one, but is now by preference treading the other; and, but for her controlling impulse of self-effacement and her sense of the duty she owes to the sin-burdened and ignorant masses, she would, I think, retire to some quiet spot where she might commune with the Self and more speedily gain liberation. A more consistently religious woman I never met, nor one whose life is a more joyful self-sacrifice. My blessings attend her wherever she goes!
“If there was monotony in other things throughout the tour, there certainly was not as regards our lodging-places. At one station we would be quartered by the local committee in a palace, borrowed for the occasion from the local agent of some absentee rajah, at the next in a bug-haunted, uncleanly, mud-floored and mud-walled travellers’ bungalow, perhaps one where the wood of the doors had been eaten out by white ants or become so warped as to defy the tight shutting of them. The charpoys (bed-cots) were sometimes so soiled and full of animal life that we all preferred sleeping on the floor on mats; no hardship for either A. B. or myself, or, for that matter, for our dear companion, the
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self-forgetting, loyal and humble-minded hard-worker for Theosophy, Countess Wachtmeister, although she usually resorted to her deck-chair, which she carried with her against such emergencies. Several times we put up at railway stations where the journey had to be broken to take another railway line; but in India that is no great hardship. To people of our simple tastes, it was pleasanter than to have to sleep in palaces full of costliest furniture, for one could not help grieving over the human misery with which the latter contrasted, and over the post-mortem fate of the owner, who was slaking his soul-thirst with the salt water of such empty splendor. Yet, let me say that, whatever the temporary habitation in which our friends lodged our party, it was given up to us in love, and the sense of that made us as happy in the most gorgeous koti as in the most humble bungalow. Our every wish was anticipated, our every imaginary want provided for; and if the memory of Annie, her lectures, talks, and sisterliness, is sweet to the members of the local Branches who entertained us, so, likewise, does she carry away a heart full of fraternal affection for the Hindu, Parsî, and Mussalman brothers she has left behind—but not forever.
“She and the Countess Wachtmeister landed at Colombo on the 10th November, 1893, from the P. and O. Steamer, Kaiser-i-Hind, and were welcomed at our local Headquarters with a triumphal arch, a hall charmingly decorated with flowers, addresses and a gathering of Sinhalese Buddhists, including our
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own local members and their families. The next move was to the Sanghamitta School, where Mrs. Higgins gave us warmest welcome and unstinted hospitality during our stay. Public lectures were given at Kandy, Colombo, Galle and Panadura.1 We crossed to India on November 15th, [landing on Indian soil at Tuticorin on the 16th] visited thirteen stations before reaching Madras, and stopped at Adyar until January 7th, 1894, when we sailed for Calcutta. Up to this time Annabai had given forty-eight lectures and addresses, including those with which she favored the Convention.
“At Calcutta she scored the greatest triumph, we were told, that any public speaker had had in the Metropolis. The Town Hall was packed to suffocation with a sitting and standing audience of 5,000, yet so complete was her command over their feelings that when she sank her voice to a half-tone of pathetic recitative, they listened in absolute silence to catch every word, until at the fitting moment their suppressed feeling found vent in torrents of applause. The description applies to each of her Calcutta addresses, and the comments of the local press and that of the whole Presidency prove the depth and permanency of the impression she made on the people—the high and the low, the educated and the uneducated. Her progress through Bengal and Behar was almost a
1The impression they made on the Buddhist public is shown in the exclamation I heard on leaving the lecture-hall one evening: “If we can hear such Bana-preaching as that, we need not trouble ourselves to listen to our priests.”
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royal one in its exhibitions of popular fervor. She could not drive through the streets or enter a lecturing hall without having to pass through crowds who had gathered just to gaze at the champion of their hoary faith, the declared student of the old Aryan wisdom, and to salute her reverentially with joined palms held in front of their foreheads, as they have been taught to salute the Brahman and the true ascetic, from the earliest times to the present day. At Berhampur there was a great gathering of Nuddea and other pandits to greet her, and in their joint address to her in Sanskrit, they ingeniously paraphrased her married name into the honorific title of ‘Annavasanti,’ which means ‘the Giver of Nourishment to the whole world’. In this connection it may mean ‘the Dispenser of spiritual food’; and nothing could be more appropriate. Annapûrna is a name of Durgâ, the wife of Siva, and she is most fervently worshipped at Benares.
“Mrs. Besant accepted visits for discussions with or special addresses to the heterodox Brahmo Samâjists of Calcutta, and the heterodox Arya Samâjists and orthodox Sanâtana Dharma Sabhâ of Lahore, and by the eclecticism of her sentiments abated much of their baseless prejudice against our Society, and sowed in their hearts the seeds of kindlier interest.
“Various attempts were made to ‘draw’ her on the burning social questions of the day in India, but she wisely, and with my entire concurrence, refused to give out the crude opinions she would alone be able to express before becoming familiar with men and
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parties, and the nature of their disputes. At the Arya Samaj meeting at Lahore, however, she distributed the prizes to the girls of the Samaj school, and very strongly expressed her sympathy with every attempt to restore the standard of female education which prevailed in ancient Aryavarta. This same sentiment she gave utterance to in a number of her public discourses, in fact always in her lectures on ‘India, Past and Present’. Her idea was, however, that in all matters of reform the lead should be taken by the Brahmins, and naturally would be if the caste could by any means be purified and brought back to its former status as the pure spiritual and moral exemplars as well as teachers of the nation. Her hope for the revival of the Aryan standards of moral and religious ideal lay in the beginning of the work of self-redemption in individual Brahmin families, here and there, and the consequent creation of new family foci into which might be drawn some of the souls of ancient sages and moral heroes who might now be seeking proper bodies in which to reincarnate themselves. This process, she admitted, must take long, very long, yet the result could never be hoped for unless a beginning was made, and the present was as auspicious an hour for that as any other in the future could be.
“One striking feature of A.B.’s tour was the daily conversazione above referred to, and memorable for the number of ‘assistants,’ the wide scope and profundity of their questions, and the manner of holding the meetings. Annabai almost always sat on a mat
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or rug on the floor in Hindu fashion, and the visitors did likewise. It was, in fact, the only practicable way, for since often an hundred or two hundred persons were present, and no such number of seats were available, the choice was between all standing huddled together during the time of the meetings, or just sitting down in the national fashion, as the custom is in all gatherings of Indians unspoilt by Western influence.” Thus ends one chapter of the world’s history.