OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
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AT the Convention of 1896, the closing scenes and adjournment of which have just been noticed, Mrs. Besant brought up a matter of real importance to which no allusion has yet been made. The Official Report says:
“Mrs. Besant laid before the Convention a scheme set on foot by a Svami who for the last 13 years had been travelling over Northern India endeavoring to collect manuscripts in Sanskrit and other vernaculars for custody in the Adyar Library. In commending the scheme, she pointed out the danger which existed of such valuable books being lost and destroyed; she stated that the Svami had succeeded in cataloguing a vast number of manuscripts, giving name, author, summary of contents, and particulars of where such manuscripts were to be found. She further emphasised the necessity for taking immediate steps to assist in this direction, pointing out to
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what great extent it would facilitate the execution of the second Object of the Theosophical Society. She expressed the wish that Adyar should be made into a centre of Eastern knowledge as also of real literary scholarship; and she hoped that each member would do his best to further the scheme.”
I am very sorry to say that for a number of years I have heard nothing whatever about this Indian ascetic-scholar and the progress of his extremely valuable work. If anyone else does know, I should be grateful for any information they might be willing to convey to me. For it has always seemed to me that one of the noblest ideals of our Society would be to create at Adyar an Oriental library that would rank with the best in the world at this time and bear comparison with some of those of the past. Neither of us Founders ever made or tried to make Adyar a school of mystical study or yogic development: it was not in accord with the temperament of either of us two; Adyar was made and always will be a throbbing centre of vital force to circulate throughout all the ramifications of the Theosophical movement, keeping it in strong healthy action; thus doing for the physical body of the Society what the nerve-fluid engendered in the brain and spinal cord does for the whole body of a man when pumped through the nerves to the extremities by the pulsations of the principle of life. The true ashram
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and yogic centre of this and all other world-moving activities is where the White Lodge has its stations for developing and distributing throughout our globe and its inhabitants the currents of evolutionary Divine Force. And then we must not forget that a spiritual centre is not of necessity at Benares or Jerusalum, at Lhassa or Medina, at Rome or Hardwar or any other locality which men consider the holiest: at all these places one sees too often exhibited the vilest phase of human nature, enough to putrefy the atmosphere and poison the soil, spiritually speaking. The Holy of Holies is in the heart of the perfect man, and such an one as that carries with him wherever he goes the benign influence which one would hope to find at these various sanctuaries of the different religions.
Since Tibet has been invaded and Lhassa more or less ransacked without the finding of a single Mahatma, caged or loose, the Western press and some of their Indian copyists have been making sport of the poor Theosophists for their gullibility and implying that their leaders had been guilty of deception in affirming that the headquarters of the Elder Brothers was in Tibet: we have had the same nonsense before in the books of Knight and other travellers.1
1Vide “The Mahatma Quest” Theosophist, Vol. XVI, pp. 173, 305.
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Of course it was sheer nonsense for these marauders and travellers to imagine for one moment that Mahatmas were kept on show, like the beasts at the Zoo, for the inspection of the public: nor was there one chance in ten thousand that if they had met a Mahatma they would have been able to recognise him. It might be as well for our sceptical critics to take the first Bible that comes in their way and read and ponder upon what is said in St. Luke XXIV, 16 and 31; this “holding” and “opening” of eyes is practised now as successfully as it was in ancient times, even at Salpétrière and Nancy. The fact is—as I was told many years ago—the headquarters of the White Lodge is shifted from place to place according to the exigencies of occult management; it used to be in Arabia Petræa but two years before the British came to possess themselves of Egypt it was removed to Tibet, not to Lhassa but to another place. When H. P. B. and I were preparing to come to India, arrangements were in progress for the removal of the White Lodge from Tibet to another retreat where there was the minimum of chance of their being disturbed by any of these movings of pawns across the political chequer-board. The inaccuracy of the editors who have been talking about Lhassa as the “Mecca of
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Theosophy” will be apparent from what has been said above.
I make this digression purposely to enter my protest against a wretched tendency that I have now and again noticed to speak of Adyar as though it should be first and foremost a sort of sacred School of the Prophets, in ignorance of its real relation to the movement.
It goes without saying that I would be delighted beyond measure to have some really holy man of developed spiritual powers settling here and carrying on a school of spiritual instruction: I would give him every needed facility for carrying on his work and for his comfort and that of his disciples; but with my temperament—that of an executive officer and practical manager—it would be only shallow hypocrisy in me if I were to set myself up to figure in such a capacity; as much so as it would be ridiculous for such an ascetic to undertake to relieve me for a month or a week of my Presidential duties. All of us have our tasks assigned us in the Society, and it will be a glorious day when we can all realize the fact and not keep interfering in our neighbor’s business in the childish notion that we are equally clever in all kinds of human activity.
Now there is nothing to prevent the idea of Mrs. Besant, as noted in the above quotation,
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from being carried out and Adyar made “a centre of Eastern knowledge and real literary scholarship”, nor ought there to be any reason why each member should not “do his best to further the scheme.” We have made a great stride in that direction already by the completion of the Adyar Library, the gathering together of a highly valuable collection of Oriental works, and, thanks to the generosity of Senor Fuente and others, the creation of a fund for its upkeep. But, as Mr. Mead says in the May (1905) Theosophical Review: “Money will do the Adyar Library no good till it has men to make it of use.” What we now need is a Director of known scholarship and other qualifications, and more books—always more books. In this respect every member of the Society who will take to heart Mrs. Besant’s expressed wish can help.
Mrs. Besant did what she could at the time to bring the Svami’s scheme to fruition. In the Supplement to The Theosophist for April, 1897, will be found an editorial acknowledgment of the issue by her of a leaflet bearing the title of The Sanskrit Pustakonnati Sabha, explaining the project. She says that, having the consent and approval of the President of the T. S., the Adyar Library will be the chief centre for MSS. thus collected, but “branch offices will be established
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in the Punjab and in the N. W. P., at which MSS. will be temporarily stored, and at which the work of cataloguing will be carried on. A learned and devoted Svami has, for the past thirteen years, been engaged in the preparation of a complete catalogue of valuable MSS., containing full information concerning each. It was at the request of this Svami that Mrs. Besant consented to take the outer charge of this scheme, and she will be thankful for assistance from friends willing to aid in collecting or copying rare manuscripts or sending particulars concerning them.” For the details of Mrs. Besant’s leaflet, readers may refer to the Supplement in question.
Our story now brings us across the threshold of the year 1897, in some respects an eventful one in our history. Her work at Adyar being finished, Mrs. Besant sailed for Calcutta on the 4th January in a P. and O. steamer. On the same day I wrote to the Health Officer of Bombay, Dr. T. S. Weir, offering my services without pay to help him in any way desired, whether in office or hospital or otherwise, in fighting the Bubonic Plague which had shortly before that made its first appearance and nevertheless up to that time 1,700 people had died of it and it seemed to be growing worse: one local paper said “Bombay
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is now a hell.” In Dr. Weir’s answer, received on the 27th of the same month, January, he says: “The present outbreak is, I believe, over, and the incidence of the cases has been so scattered that there has been very little opportunity for segregation or treatment. If there is another outbreak you might do useful work in opening a Theosophical hospital. All who have come here are astonished that the mortality has been so low and they apprehend that there may be a further stage in the disease. At any rate our measures have been successful to a degree that we could not have expected.
Thanking you very much for your sympathy, etc.”
Having done what I conceived my duty in making the offer, I took no further steps; a policy to which I was strongly urged by numerous protests sent in by colleagues in different parts of the world, who maintained that I had no right to jeopardise a life that was pledged to the Society’s work in any side schemes of philanthropy. Dr. Weir’s letter shows very clearly how feeble a conception of the appalling possibilities of this scourge of the race was held at the time by men of science. By an interesting coincidence I read in my morning paper of today (June 7th, 1905) a quotation from the Bombay Times of India to
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the effect that: “last year over a million people died of plague in India; and if the average of the statistics for the first four months of this year is maintained, there is every reason to fear that two million people will be destroyed by plague before the year closes. These are appalling figures. They signify an amount of suffering and misery and human agony, of decimated families and ruined homes and bereaved lives, the full significance of which it is difficult to grasp.”
At about this time my distinguished scientific friend, Colonel de Rochas, Administrator of the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, sent me for The Theosophist a copy of the official report of the scientific observation on the mediumship of Eusapia Paladino, the Italian medium for physical phenomena, which I had translated and published in the issue of the magazine for May, 1897. I quote the following paragraph for its significance to those of our readers who are familiar with the science of yoga: “At the end of 7 or 8 minutes keeping the hands on the table, Eusapia lifts hers and holds them outstretched over the table at a distance of about 10 centimetres from the same, and it follows, with a tilting motion, the hands of Eusapia, who makes us notice that she neither touches it with her hands, legs or feet. She asks Mr. Lefranc to lean on the uplifted part so
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that he may realize what force is needed to press it down.”
Of the six siddhis enumerated by Patanjali are two, Laghima and Garima, dealing with the weight of bodies; by the exercise of the former power a body may be deprived of its weight and made “as light as a thistle-down,” in the latter its weight is so abnormally increased that not even a Sandow could lift a small bamboo stand from the floor: in short the yogi who has developed Laghima and Garima is able to modify as he pleases the gravity of any given object. In the experiment with Eusapia at Choisy-Yvrac, under notice, the medium causes the table to tilt without being touched by her and she asks Mr. Lefranc to satisfy himself what measure of force was being used. A lady clairvoyant, Mme. Agullana, who was present said that: “at the beginning of the séance, when the table was raised she saw a luminous ball projected by the spirit under the table and lifting it.” However this may be, the statement is interesting from a scientific point of view. The reader may remember my description1 of the experiments made by Madame Blavatsky and myself to test the Laghima power of a woman medium named Mrs. Young, at New York. H. P. B. and I were commissioned by a committee of the professors of
1OLD DIARY LEAVES, Vol. I, p. 85.
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the St. Petersburgh University to find a medium who would be able to produce spiritualistic phenomena under test conditions: an order to that effect having been given by H. I. M. the late Czar. Mrs. Young had the strange power of making her “spirits” raise and move a heavy piano as though it were without weight. Sitting at it and playing, she would cause it to rise and fall on its outer legs, keeping time to her music. Or she would go to one end of the piano and cause the instrument to be lifted and lowered by the invisible agent by merely laying her hand lightly upon it; she would permit as many of those present as chose to put their own hand under the piano-case and, lightly laying her own hand against theirs, make the “spirit” lift the instrument. All of us who tried the experiment testified that neither we nor she put out the least muscular force to accomplish this phenomenon. The second time that H. P. B. and I went to her I took in my pocket an uncooked hen’s egg which, at my request, she held in the palm of her hand against the under side of the piano-case and caused the invisibles to raise it: to complete the test she allowed me to hold it in my own hand, placed her hand against the back of mine, told the piano to rise, and it did so. I doubt if there is to be found in history a more convincing proof of the correctness of Patanjali’s assertion of the existence of this
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Laghima power. I can certify at any rate that there was not a feather-weight of pressure exerted by me or by the medium in the experiment: the heavy piano was like thistle-down.
To return to the plague. The late Tookaram Tatya and Mr. P. D. Khan, who happily still survives, had an idea that they could cure the fell disease by the help of the psychopathic process, i.e., by mesmeric passes and the giving out of mesmerised water, but on the 12th of January of the year under review Dr. Richardson wrote me that they had abandoned their attempt and that most of our members had fled from Bombay. In fact, at the time everybody was leaving the city who could get away, a panic prevailing. Eight subsequent years of familiarity with the destroying pestilence have so inured the Bombay people to its presence that when I revisited the city three months ago I was perfectly amazed to see how unconcernedly the whole population was going about its business as though such a thing as plague did not exist.
On the 16th of January our Russian literary friend, Mr. Vigornitsky bade us good-bye to return to Russia. I was very much gratified to receive by the incoming foreign mail of the next day a letter from my old friend, the late Mr. Charles A.Dana, who was editorial manager of the old N. Y. Tribune before the outbreak of the civil war (1859—60)
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when I held the position of Agricultural Editor, and who was Assistant Secretary of War, under the late Edwin M. Stanton, during a part of the term of my Special Commissionership of that Department. His letter brought back with a rush those closed chapters of my life, when the Theosophical movement was not yet thought of and to which my mind had not reverted for many years. The fact is, and I feel it more and more every time I go on Western tours, I have become so absorbed by India and identified with her life and aspirations that it comes as a sort of shock when I meet very old acquaintances in distant countries.
On the 21st of January Mr. P. D. Khan wrote me that the Bombay Health Officer had accepted Dr. Richardson’s offer of service in connection with the plague: evidently Dr. Weir’s opinion as to the plague’s having already been got under subjection had already changed. Since the subject is up it may as well be stated that although our dear Dr. Richardson helped combat the pestilence a full half year, even handling the patients and having them die in his arms, he did not fall a victim. He was one of “God’s good men” and his karma preserved him to do all the work that he has for the Central Hindu College. With the valuable help of my friend Mrs. Salzer, I was able to issue at about this time an English translation of Commandant
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Courmes’ Questionnaire Theosophique, a useful book for beginners, and especially useful in France, where the general public are too much occupied in the pursuit of worldly things to devote close attention to religious and philosophical books.
It will be remembered that as a practical outcome of the Chicago Parliament of Religions, a wealthy lady of Chicago, a Mrs. Haskell, created a fund the income of which was to be devoted to the sending biennially to India of one of the ablest lecturers on Christianity, in the hope that by giving discourses in the principal Indian cities an interest in the religion might be created among the class of educated Brahmins who had resisted all the attempts of the ordinary missionary to draw them away from their ancestral faith. Although she probably did not know it, this was exactly the motive behind the creation of the special missions of clever University graduates sent out by Oxford and Cambridge, with but indifferent results. Her choice for the first missioner was no less a person than the famous Rev. John Henry Barrows, the organizer and chief personage connected with that wonderful religious congress, the Parliament of Religions, at which for the first time in history the representatives of all the world’s faiths had the opportunity given them of a free platform from which they could expound the foundations of their
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creeds. Naturally enough, the name of this gentleman had been made familiar to educated Hindus by the reports of the Chicago Parliament and it was a judicious move on Mrs. Haskell’s part to send him out to introduce the subject of her Foundation in this country. Prior to his arrival at Madras, the missionary friends who were managing his tour addressed themselves to leading representatives of the different religious communities to get them to form an eclectic Reception Committee. I being the only prominent Buddhist at Madras was offered and accepted a place on the committee. The members severally represented the Hindu, Parsi, Mohammedan, Buddhist, Brahmo and Protestant Christian communities, European and Indian. In due course Dr. Barrows arrived and gave six lectures on Christianity and its comparison with other faiths, which were universally recognized as very scholarly and eloquent, but distinctly adapted to the Western rather than to the Eastern mind. As a newspaper report says: “They were listened to by the best Indians of the different sects and races with respectful attention throughout, and the demeanour of the audiences was an all-sufficient proof of the grateful regard felt for Dr. Barrows personally, for his eclectic hospitality to the spokesmen of Oriental faiths, at the renowned Chicago Parliament.” As Dr. Barrows had rendered our
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Society efficient help towards the holding of a Theosophical Congress at Chicago, I felt personally and officially indebted to him and as he made our relations at Adyar entirely cordial, I invited him with Mrs. Barrows, the Rev. Mr. Kellett and several other missionary gentlemen and ladies, to breakfast. At the close of his sixth and last lecture, the vote of thanks and words of farewell were offered by myself at the request of my colleagues on the Committee. Of course no reasonable man would have expected from either myself or any other representative of an Eastern religion to give to the lectures that unreserved concurrence that would have been the proper thing in the case of a Christian speaker. In my remarks I aimed at giving voice to the affectionate sentiment that had been aroused in the Eastern heart by Mrs. Haskell’s generous act, at the same time trying to point out the practical difficulties that lay in the way of the fruition of her scheme. After his return to his home Dr. Barrows published an interesting travel-book called A World-Pilgrimage, edited by his sweet and sympathetic wife, a copy of which was kindly sent me. In his bright account1 of his Madras visit he says: “After my closing lecture, Colonel Olcott, the Founder and President of the Theosophical Society, moved, by appointment of
1Loc. cit., Chap. XXXIV.
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the Reception Committee the vote of thanks. His words were hearty and generous; but in the middle of his address he turned aside to make a strong attack on the sins of Christendom and particularly on the English government in India. He asserted that Christianity could make little progress while the British army immoralities, the collection of revenue from the demoralising liquor and opium traffics, and the taxation of starving peasants to build Christian cathedrals continued. In my closing remarks I endeavoured to take the sting out of these assertions by saying that these and other sins of Christendom were quite as familiar to us as to non-Christians. We reprobated them, denounced them as un-Christian, and fought them wherever they appeared; and I reminded my hearers that the most potent voice heard in India during the last winter, calling upon the British government to amend its ways, was the voice of a Christian Englishman, Mr. W. S. Caine.”
I confess to a feeling of sadness when reading these lines, for they showed me that Dr. Barrows had either misunderstood my remarks or had trusted to a treacherous memory instead of to the verbatim report which appeared the next day in the Madras papers. As my feelings for the distinguished gentleman were always very friendly, as our relations were cordial and as, now that he is dead and
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gone, I send a loving thought after him and to his devoted wife who survives him, I think it no more than right that those of my readers who have also seen Dr. Barrows’ book should have the chance to see exactly what I did say. I therefore quote as follows: “President-Founder of the Theosophical Society said that the Barrows’ Reception Committee being composed of the representatives of several sects, his colleagues had asked him as the representative of the Theosophical Society, which was eclectic and not sectarian in its character, to offer thanks to the Rev. Dr. Barrows for his scholarly and brilliant discourses. More especially, thanks were due to him in connection with the Parliament of Religions which was an event unique in the history of the world. This placed the people of the Orient under peculiar obligations to him personally and it was the sense of that which made us joyfully serve on the Committee, all being alike benefited by the great coming together at Chicago at his call. To him the Orientals owed it that the representatives of Buddhism, Brahminism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Brahmoism, etc., were able to explain and expound their several views to the world; to him that Chakravarti, Vivekananda, Dharmapala, Gandhi, Mozumdar, Nagarcar and the Japanese Buddhists were enabled to speak on behalf of different nations and cults, and that they were
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able to travel throughout the United States, as some of them were still doing. Not by force of arms, as the Roman Cæsars used to get together at Rome and load with chains the fearsome idols of conquered nations, but by a word of love and brotherhood he had gathered together the priests and missionaries of all the ancient Eastern faiths, and caused them to be respectfully listened to by monster audiences. He, the speaker, as President of the Theosophical Society, was under special obligations to Dr. Barrows, for he had made it possible for us to hold a Theosophical Congress which was one of the greatest successes of the Parliament. India had proved her gratitude by the respectful attention paid to Dr. Barrows in all the places of his tour. Though they might not agree with Dr. Barrows in his religious opinions, still they would all bear testimony to the fact of his conscientious, courageous yet kind manner of expression to them of the merits of his religion, and from the standpoint of that faith he had done his best to persuade the people here to accept it as the world-wide religion. Mrs. Haskell could not have chosen a better messenger than Dr. Barrows nor one half so good for her purpose, for he had won their gratitude in advance. As to the possible results of his mission no prophecy could be ventured upon. He had sown his seed and the harvest was beyond any man’s control. As the
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spokesman of the Eastern people some wished him (Colonel Olcott) to say that, despite Mrs. Haskell’s personal anxiety for their spiritual welfare, they were not likely to exchange their ancient faiths for any other which was not better, and they were waiting for the evidence that such an one existed. He asked Dr. Barrows to give Mrs. Haskell an idea of the serious obstacles that her lecturers would inevitably meet in the carrying on of her benevolent design. The Indians loved and respected her for her unselfish piety and generous endeavours to spread her religion. That it was not their religion did not matter at all; she believed in it and every pious Oriental would respect her for it. But she must not expect to accomplish the impossible. Christianity was shown to India under certain most repugnant aspects; for instance, in the increase of drunkenness and crime, as shown in the increase of the revenue from spirits, from 57 lacs1 in 1870, to 139 lacs in 1896; in the bestial immorality of the army, neglect of which had just been denounced in Parliament as a “national sin”; in the compulsory support of the Ecclesiastical Establishment, at a cost of Rs. 1,16,000 per mensem, althougn it is the open and avowed foe of all their religions; and finally, in the inconsistent and too often wicked lives led by many so-called Christians. Besides
1A lac is 100,000. Ed.
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these, there were various other obstacles, all familiar to every old missionary, and Mrs. Haskell ought not to be left in ignorance of their existence, lest her noble heart should be filled with grief for the failure of her agents in India. Addressing Dr. Barrows, Colonel Olcott said: ‘And now farewell, our noble American brother. By your bold defence of your religion you have increased instead of lessened the respect of the Madras public, for you have shown the sincerity of your convictions, and have spoken out as plainly as our messengers did at your Parliament of Religions. Farewell you, who have come so far and spoken so well. The heart of India, grateful for your past kindnesses, will warm on thinking of you, and the people send after you their wishes for your health and happiness.’ A thunder of applause, which followed the speaker as he resumed his seat, testified most clearly that he had voiced the feelings of the Indian community towards Dr. Barrows. That gentleman then rose and with evident emotion, thanked Col. Olcott on behalf of Mrs. Haskell, the University of Chicago and himself, for his ‘noble and generous’ remarks, and the Madras public for their close attention to his lectures. He said that he should never forget the kindness he had received at Madras and throughout India, and bade the audience farewell.”
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Just in time for notice, the Bengalee for June 14th (1905) came to hand with the following citation on a recent optimistic speech of Lord Radstock, which closely resembles my presentation of the case in 1897:
“SPEAKING at the recent meeting of the Christian Literature Society for India, held at Exeter Hall, Lord Radstock, speaking with the experience begotten of five proselytizing expeditions to India, said that ‘there was among the educated natives very little opposition to Christ or the Christian ideal.’ In fact that ideal was largely permeating the whole of India. Lord Radstock did not however say whether in the course of his repeated visits to India, he had found anything from which he could draw the inference that the Christian ideal also permeated as ‘largely’ these of his lordship’s own countrymen, who are out here to make money. Did his lordship find the average Anglo-Indian a model Christian, especially in his dealings with the natives of the country? It is quite true that the educated Indian has no hostility to Christianity, far less to its Founder who, he honestly believes, must have drawn his inspiration from some Indian ascetic. But it is no less true that with all his regard and veneration for the character of the ‘Carpenter of Nazareth,’ the educated Indian never had less inclination to become a convert to Christianity than
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he has at the present time. Our missionary friends are very much mistaken if they are laying the flattering unction to their souls that the disappearance of hostility to Christianity will prove the prelude to the acceptance of Christianity by our educated countrymen.”
On the 31st of January I began work on a new edition of the Buddhist Catechism—the 33rd, and the last extended revision of the work that I have made: it is the one in which I divide the matter into five general categories. This work involved a good deal of careful consideration and it was not until the last week in March that I was able to get it out of the hands of the printers. Simultaneously I had to work on the English edition of Commandant Courmes Questionnaire and some other French translations.
The Swami Vivekananda, who had recently returned after a long absence in America and England, received an enthusiastic popular welcome. If I remember aright I was also a member of his committee and was disposed to aid the Hindus in every way in showing appreciation of what he had done to make the name of India honored abroad. But he had got it into his head that I had been inimical and even malicious towards him, and—considering the position I occupied among his countrymen—most indiscreetly launched out in his
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public lecture against myself, the Society, and Mrs. Besant, speaking of her most disrespectfully and unappreciatively. It was a great mistake and excusable only on the score of his comparative youth and inexperience in public affairs; it certainly did him harm and called forth many expressions of sympathy for us. However, he too has gone prematurely to his account in the other world and nothing more need be said: Karma can take care of its own affairs without our help.