OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
W. T. STEAD ON H. P. B.
A PARAGRAPH in the October “London Letter” in the Theosophist about the completion of Mr. Stead’s first volume of Borderland, reminds me to put on record my sense of appreciation of the substantial service rendered to psychical science by that quarterly publication. It certainly was one of the most important agencies for the dissemination of correct ideas as to the interrelation between this world and the frontiers of the next. It covered a field not previously occupied, one on which the students of physical and those of transcendental science could meet and co-operate. In his forecast for the second year of his magazine, Mr. Stead, in rebuke of those who showed more zeal than care in pushing on research into the higher planes of consciousness said:
“Borderland is not to be surveyed and mapped out in a year, and students must not be in too great a hurry.” His main conclusion as to the results of the first year’s work is that “whatever else may be dubious it is becoming tolerably clear that the new faith will
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have the persistence of the individual after death as its chief corner-stone, and a demonstration of the almost undreamed of potentiality of the complex congeries of personalities that make up our Ego, as its chief contribution to human thought”.
It occurred to me when compiling the present chapter that it would be instructive to look up the first volume of Borderland (year 1894) and see what was the drift of public opinion about this class of research at the time when Mr. Stead drew it out by his prospectus of July, 1893. It was sent to a large number of prelates, men of science, and other persons of distinction. The instructive fact was elicited that the religious, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, who had the greatest reason to collate all possible proofs of the survival of man after death, and should have, more enthusiastically than others, welcomed the advent of the phenomena of spiritualism, clairvoyance, thought-projection and transference, hypnotism, and the whole range of phenomena associated with the experiments of magic, of both colors—since the teachings of the Churches would thus find experimental corroboration—for the most part expressed their strong disapproval, even their scorn for such studies.
Nothing could have been more disdainful than the tone of the Archbishop of Canterbury—not to Mr. Stead, for he disdained a reply—but to a mutual lady friend, to whom, at her request, he wrote his opinion. Other bishops and clergy regarded all such
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phenomena as the work of the devil; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham wrote that “no one holding the Catholic faith can doubt that the attempt you propose to make is grievously unlawful, and fatally dangerous to souls. The intelligence which uses your hand (Mr. Stead was then very successfully experimenting with automatic writing), and of which you are not conscious, is no other than the Devil, and if you continue such unlawful intercourse with the unseen you will necessarily be misled to your ruin by the enemy of God, the murderer of souls and a liar from the beginning.” Father Clarke, S. J., has views equally reactionary as to these researches. He says: “We expose ourselves thereby to be tricked and made fools of by beings of a superior nature to ourselves, and our bitterest enemies. Under the tempting bribe of a revealed knowledge of our condition after death, we are liable to be cajoled by spirits whose one object is to deceive us, and, sub specie boni, to divert our minds from Truth and from God.” What nonsensical chatter, what a mumbling of the shrunken spectres of mediæval monkish teaching!
But, on the other hand, Mr. Stead got encouraging replies from some clerics and many laymen, professors and others. Mr. Balfour, now Prime Minister of Great Britain, replies: “If, as I do not doubt, the intention and effect of this undertaking will be to promote a strictly scientific investigation into this subject, it cannot be otherwise than useful. You will, of course, be overwhelmed with unverified stories and vague
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surmises, but these you will doubtless be able rigidly to exclude from your pages.” Another and greater statesman than he, and his predestined successor in the Premiership, now  Viceroy of India and Baron Curzon of Kedleston, but then plain Mr. G. N. Curzon, M.P., displays that same brave declaration of opinion and capacity for grasping special fields of knowledge, that have been so conspicuously shown since his coming to India. He writes to Mr. Stead:
“I entirely sympathise with your projected publication of a quarterly review dedicated to the examination of so-called spiritual or supernatural phenomena. The existence and reality of such phenomena appear to me to be as amply demonstrated by reliable evidence as are many of the axioms of exact science; and if your magazine can succeed in displaying, analysing, correlating, and popularising this evidence, you will perform a great public service by carrying conviction home to the public mind.
“You may also be able, by slow degrees, to dissipate some of the suspicion in which the area of Borderland is enveloped, arising from the peculiar and unsatis-factory conditions under which many of the phenomena take place. I allude to—
“(1) Their capricious, irregular, and fortuitous manifestation.
“(2) The apparently imbecile character of many of the so-called spiritual communications.
“(3) The unscientific nature of the media of communication commonly employed.
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“(4) The general impression that such studies have an unsettling and mischievous effect, and can only be pursued at the cost of peace of mind, sometimes of bodily health also.
“Your review will also be useful in facilitating that co-operation with others in which many inquirers would like to take part, without the preliminary difficulties now attendant upon any such action.”
Some of the replies, as for example, from Professor Ray Lankester; Professor Fitzgerald, Trinity College, Dublin; and others, were bitter, scornful, and sometimes insolent, but as futile as had been those of their colleagues of previous generation in checking research. Spiritualism, hypnotism, astrology—yes, even that—have gone on with ever-increasing power and expansion, while as to Theosophy, so far from its having been checked, the number of our Branches since the date of Mr. Stead’s circular has doubled, having been at the close of 1893, in number 352, and at the close of last year , 714! It is a pity that Mr. Stead’s other imperative public engagements should have forced him to abandon the publication of Borderland after issuing only four volumes, and having made it one of the most widely circulated quarterlies in the world.
With the lapse of time the popular conceptions about Madame Blavatsky are undergoing that slow but sure change which marks the universal law; the stories to her discredit are being forgotten, the recollection of her personality is being thinned to a
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shadow, and little by little there is rising in its place, and showing bright against the screen of the past, the luminous figure of the sage who taught us and the guide who showed us the path upward and encouraged us to break through the obstacles that lay across its mouth. In an article on “Colonel Olcott’s Madame Blavatsky,” in his Borderland for October, 1894, the epoch of which we are writing, Mr. Stead, with clear insight and almost prophetic forecast of the results of her work, says things so notable that I feel I shall be conferring pleasure upon my readers in quoting him at some length. None of H. P. B.’s intimate friends will approve of the coarse terms in which she is spoken of as to her personality, but we may forgive much to a man who, without being a Theosophist or her declared follower, has so magnanimously analysed the causes and growth of her influence. He says:
“In this sketch I have no intention of reviving the controversy about the sliding panel and the Coulombs. If everything be true that Dr. Hodgson and the Psychical Research Society say about her, it only heightens the mystery, and adds to the marvel of the influence which Madame Blavatsky undoubtedly has exercised, and is exercising, at the present moment. For the most irate of the sceptics cannot deny, and will not dispute, the fact that the Theosophical Society exists, that it is far and away the most influential of all the associations which have endeavored to popularise occultism, and that its influence is, at the present time, felt far and wide in many lands, and in many Churches. The
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number of pledged Theosophists may be few, although it is probably greater than most people imagine. But the Theosophical ideas are subtly penetrating the minds of multitudes who know nothing about Theosophy, and are profoundly ignorant of all the controversies which have raged round Madame Blavatsky.
“This is eminently the case with the doctrine of reincarnation, and with the altered estimate which the average man is beginning to form of the mystic teachers and seers of India. Reincarnation may or may not be true. Whether true or false, it has, until the last decade, been almost unthinkable by the average Western. This is no longer the case. Multitudes who still reject it as unproved have learned to recognise its value as a hypothesis explaining many of the mysteries of human life. A few admit that there is nothing in reincarnation antagonistic to the doctrine of Christ, and that it is quite possible to hold firmly all the great verities of the Christian revelation, without rejecting the belief that the life of the individual, upon which judgment will be passed at the Great Assize, is not necessarily confined to the acts done between the cradle and the grave, but may be an existence of which such a period is but one chapter in the book of life. Altogether apart from the question of the actual truth of the doctrine, it is indisputable that the sympathetic recognition of the possibility of reincarnation has widened the range of popular thought, and infused into religious speculation some much-needed charity. And this, which is unquestionably a great achievement,
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will ever be associated with the name of Madame Blavatsky.
“Still more remarkable has been the success with which this remarkable woman has succeeded in driving into the somewhat wooden head of the Anglo-Saxon, the conviction—long ago arrived at by a select circle of students and Orientalists, of whom Professor Max Müller may be said to be the most distinguished living representative—that the East is, in matters of religious and metaphysical speculation, at least entitled to claim as much respect as the West. That indeed is stating it very mildly. ‘The snub-nosed Saxons,’ as Disraeli used to love to describe the race which made him Prime Minister, are learning somewhat of humility and self-abasement before the races whom, by use of material force, they have reduced to vassalage.
“Down to quite recent times the average idea of the average Englishman—notwithstanding all the books of all our pandits—has been that the Hindus were benighted and ignorant pagans, whom it was charity to subdue, and a Christian duty to attempt to convert. To-day, even the man in the street has some faint glimmerings of the truth that these Asiatics whom he despises are, in some respects, able to give him points, and still leave him far behind. The Eastern sage who told Professor Hensholdt that the West studied the stomach, whereas the East studied the soul, expressed strongly a truth which our people are only beginning to assimilate. We are learning at last to respect the Asiatics, and in many things to sit at their feet. And
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in this great transformation, Madame Blavatsky again figures as the leading thaumaturgist. She and those whom she trained have bridged the chasm between the materialism of the West and the occultism and metaphysics of the East. They have extended the pale of human brotherhood, and have compelled us to think at least of a conception of an all-embracing religion, with wider bases than those of which the reunionists of Christendom have hitherto dreamed.
“These two achievements, even if they stood alone, would have made Madame Blavatsky notable among the leaders and moulders of the thought of this generation. But they did not stand alone. Perhaps even more important was the impetus which she gave to the revival of the doctrine of the continuity of existence beyond the grave, and the Divine justice which enforces the law of moral responsibility, unthwarted and un-interrupted by death. In an age when materialism has entrenched itself in the Churches, she made men realise that the things which are seen are but temporal and evanescent, and that it is the things which are unseen which alone are eternal. ‘The future life,’ which had become a mere phrase to many, has acquired a fresh and awful significance; and the essential spirituality of man has been asserted with no uncertain sound in the midst of a carnal and material civilisation. Nor must it be forgotten in the midst of the clash of polemical strife that, despite all ridicule and misrepresentation and abuse, Madame Blavatsky, by her unswerving and passionate assertion of the reality and
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continuity of her communications from the Mahatmas, has revived the almost extinct belief of Christendom in the constant presence and active intervention of guardian angels and saints in the affairs of men.
“If Madame Blavatsky has done all this, it is surely beside the mark to consider that her claim to be considered one of the greatest Borderlanders of our time is not to be ignored even if it can be proved that, on various occasions, she lied like Sapphira, cursed like a trooper, and lived like Messalina. We might as well refuse to recognise what the Psalms have done for mankind, because of David’s treacherous murder of Uriah, or insist upon ignoring the influence of Constantine upon Christendom, because of the scandalous record of that Imperial criminal. These moral blots and blemishes—many of which her most devoted followers admit—were limitations to her influence. They were in an ethical sense what her ugliness was in another sphere. Few people realise how much Madame Blavatsky was handicapped by her singular lack of beauty. A beautiful woman finds her good looks a veritable John the Baptist for her Gospel. The mere spell of her beauty makes the crooked places straight, and levels the obstacles which would otherwise impede her progress. But Madame Blavatsky had neither form nor comeliness. She had no complexion, no figure, and no grace. She was almost disgustingly fat, and almost repulsively hideous. From another point of view she was equally unfortunate, Jeanne d’Arc and St. Teresa, two other Borderlanders
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in our gallery, achieved their triumphs in their own country, and both were the incarnation of the national and religious spirit of their time. It was far otherwise with H. P. B. If there is one nation that is popularly believed to be antipathetic to the English-speaking race, it is that to which she belonged. If there is any section of ,our Imperial realm where Russophobia exists in its most virulent form, it is in Anglo-India. But it was precisely there where Madame Blavatsky began her active apostolate of Theosophy. That with all these disadvantages she achieved so much, is a fact which should never be lost sight of in attempting to estimate her place in the Gallery of Borderlanders.
“Those who, after duly considering what Madame Blavatsky accomplished, still cling to the belief that they ‘have demolished the whole fraud,’ by their conclusive demonstrations of the sliding panel at Adyar, broughtto light by the Coulombs, are welcome to their conclusion. For us, and for most men, Carlyle’s terse and weighty words in reference to the complacent stupidity, which for centuries dealt in similar fashion with the Apostle of Arabia, suffice as a warning.”
On the 12th of November arrived at Bombay that great scholar and renowned publicist, Dr. Hübbe-Schleiden, the acknowledged author of that German policy of colonial expansion which Prince Bismarck fashioned out of his writings. Since 1884 he had been associated with us in our work in Germany and was now coming to India to perfect his knowledge of Hindu philosophy by getting it at first hand from the
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pandits themselves. He was received on landing at Bombay, at my request, by our local Branch, garlanded on board the steamer, and taken to the Lodge room. A few days later he arrived at Adyar and was warmly welcomed by all the residents. Meanwhile Mr. Bertram Keightley had left for a tour in Southern India.
The Executive Notice of 7th October, notifying the Society of the expulsion of Alberto Sarak, alias Das, alias Martinez, alias Count, alias Dr., alias General Inspector and General Delegate of the Supreme Esoteric Council of Thibet, was circulated to the General Secretaries at this time. It was worded as follows:
“The Society is notified that Señor Alberto Das, formerly of Spain, and subsequently of Buenos Aires, Republic of Argentina, South America, has been expelled from membership; his two diplomas, the second of which he obtained under an alias, are hereby cancelled; and the charter granted him for the organisation of the Luz Branch T.S., at Buenos Aires, has been rescinded, and a new charter issued to Señores D. Federico Fernandez, D. Alejandro Sorondo, and their associates.”
Of course I have mentioned this person at various times and I only recur to the subject now so that his Theosophical history may be taken into our permanent record. It is almost beyond belief to what lengths credulity will carry persons who have an insatiate hankering for all that is mystical, without the counterpoise of sound common sense. At this very time of
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writing, I am about to report to the Indian Police the case of a confidence man who has been making money out of dupes by pretending to sell them mysterious medicines and other secrets, and affixing our title of F.T.S. after his name.
By the overland mail which reached me on the 20th of November, I got news that Mr. Old had published in the Westminster Gazette, eight chapters of a series in which the entire private papers of the Judge case were included. This is one of the disagreeable incidents in T.S. history which I would have been glad to pass by without notice; things have so entirely changed since then that Mr. Old, after having brought all this trouble upon us and withdrawn from membership, is now figuring again as a contributor to the Theosophical Review. But if I were to pick out only pleasant incidents and omit the others, my present work would never be regarded, as it now must be, as an absolutely veracious and impartial narrative of events. The papers in question were the various briefs of evidence and original documents which were to have been laid before the Judicial Committee if the Judge case had gone to trial; since it did not, then, clearly, these documents should never have been published, but have been laid by in our archives as historical data. I had given them into the custody of Mr. Old—then resident at Adyar—and for the preparation of copies: they were mine and no one else’s until I chose to publish them if I ever should. Mr. Old had not the shadow of a right to either print
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them himself or give them over to a third party for publication without my written consent. On 27th September he notified me that being “unable to accept the official statement with regard to the enquiries held upon the charges preferred against the Vice-President of the T .S.,” he resigned the office of Treasurer and Recording Secretary. So far, so good; but his dissatisfaction did not constitute him the appellate authority to set aside the findings of the Judicial Committee, nor give him the right to put our private papers into the hands of one of the most unsympathetic and caustic literary experts on the London press. This mistake of his he, himself, regretted when he found what use was made of the documents, but too late, for the merciless articles of the Westminster Gazette circulated throughout the whole English-speaking world and caused us all much sorrow. So far as appears at this distance of time, not the least good was effected; on the contrary the articles embittered the feelings of the Judge party and doubtless hastened the taking of the fatal step of Secession by Mr. Judge and his followers.
Mr. Sven Ryden, a Swedish member of the Golden Gate Lodge who had been acting as Treasurer and Recording Secretary, with great acceptability, finding it necessary to return to San Francisco, was relieved of his offices from the 12th of October, and left India, carrying with him our best wishes. Mr. T. Vijiaraghava Charlu was appointed to act in his place.
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As the Indian National Congress had arranged to hold its Annual Meeting at Madras this year on the same days as our Convention, and as many of our friends were members of both bodies, a timely circular was issued asking that all who were likely to attend our meeting as delegates or visitors should notify us in advance so that the necessary preparations might be made. Only those who have been here on such an occasion can form an idea of what it means to find lodging and food for 250 to 300 delegates and as many more visitors, to everybody’s satisfaction. Our quiet home is then the scene of the busiest activity.