OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
A NEW section of our historical panorama unrolls itself to view—the year 1898.
Miss Edger’s lectures were so highly appreciated that the Hindu (1st January of 1898) contained a very strong leading article recognizing us as a worldwide Society with such a growing influence that it may in time rally around it all the Indian nations. This forecast may very well be realized in the course of time if nothing unforeseen should happen to destroy the Society’s vitality, but its well-wishers need to be often reminded of the fact, so forcibly stated by Herbert Spencer, that great sociological changes are never sudden, but are gradually worked out. The fact is that many of our colleagues allow themselves to be carried away by blind enthusiasm, and while they should be assiduously working to reform and develop their own characters, are grouped together to manufacture idols out of
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favorite personalities to set up in their private temples to be worshipped.
On the second of January we had a visit from a yogi who looked thirty but was said to be two hundred years old—a preposterous claim, I should say. On the same day Miss Edger lectured in Victoria Town Hall, Madras, to a large audience, on “The Secret of Death”.
Mrs. Besant being in America, and Miss Edger having been brought to India by me to, in some measure, replace her, had, as before stated, won great success both in her South Indian tour and at the Convention. A much longer tour which should carry her from Madras via Calcutta as far as Rawalpindi had also been arranged and was entered upon on the 9th January by sailing for Calcutta on the French steamer Dupleix, under the escort of the President-Founder. Some of the faithful ones, among them T. V. Charlu,V. C. Seshachari and S. V. Rangaswami Iyengar, saw us off at the pier, leaving with us baskets of fruit and some money towards Miss Edger’s travelling expenses. We availed of the opportunity afforded by our sea travel to prepare printers’ copy—she, the manuscript of her lectures and I, OLD DIARY LEAVES—whenever the sea was complacent enough.
We reached Calcutta at 4 p.m. on the 12th; Miss Edger went to Dr. and Mrs. Salzer as their
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guest, and I to an old German friend, Herr Boltze. The experiences of the next few days indicated very clearly that we were going to have a very busy time of it on this tour. Our rooms were crowded with visitors, we had conversation meetings at the Society’s room, which lasted sometimes four or five hours at a stretch, and both Miss Edger and I had lectures to give, almost invariably to large audiences. The accession of another educated lady as a Theosophical lecturer, especially one who had taken the highest university degrees in Arts and who was, presumably, able to meet any sceptical graduates of the Indian universities on equal terms, naturally created a great public interest. Moreover, the very favorable criticisms on her Adyar lectures, circulating through the Indian Press, bespoke her a wide fame and popularity. The notes in my diary show that her audiences were “deeply interested” and “enthusiastic”, etc. Her first Calcutta lecture was given on the 14th January; the second, the next day; on the next she held a long conversation meeting and attended with me on the same evening a meeting of the Bengal T. S.: her third and last lecture was given at the Star Theatre to an overcrowded house.
The thing that most moved and held the attention of her audiences was not her oratory, for in that she
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was not to be compared with Mrs. Besant, but the tone of candor and unpretentious earnestness with which she elaborated her themes, and the common-sense way in which she showed how the ideas of Theosophy ought to enter into the lives and control the conduct of people. I think that, from all I heard during the several tours that I made with her in 1897 in Australia, New Zealand and Southern and Northern India, her addresses made as lasting an impression upon her hearers as those of any other speaker who has stood upon our platform. Take, for instance, the following extract from a lecture upon the application of Theosophy to the home and note how clear is her exposition and how original her use of the idea that the relationship of children to each other and to their parents is not a matter of this one incarnation, but that all individuals of the family group have had similar kinship with many other families in the past, and that this helps us to conceive of the impressive truth that, after all, mankind compose one great family. Her language is as follows:
“The thought arises that we have a certain very important responsibility towards those in our own homes; we have some responsibility, it is true, towards every brother and sister, the whole world over, but during this life our responsibility is greatest to those of our own home. Could we look back
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through our past lives, we should see that there are very many with whom we have been associated by the closest ties; we should see that we have had not one father nor one mother, but many; sometimes one, sometimes another. This seems to me to be a beautiful illustration of the universal brotherhood which we are trying to attain, for the recognition of it is the first step towards a realisation that we must not allow our sympathies to be confined to those who belong to our family of this incarnation. We recognise that the true relationship is that of the soul, which includes all those with whom we have been associated, life after life. In this life we are brought into outward kinship with but a limited number of those to whom we are bound by the wider kinship of the soul; in another incarnation we may be brought into relationship with some of the same souls, or with others; and thus in each life there is a widening, an expansion of our ties of family. It might at first sight be thought that this view would lead us to undervalue these ties and to neglect our duties to our present group; but this can never be so if, at the same time, we remember that our relatives of to-day are those with whom we are just now most closely associated. We shall rather think that this is a soul to which I have been attracted because there is a spiritual tie between us. But there is just as
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strong a tie between this same soul and many others, and we have been drawn closely together on the lower plane for this life that we may be stronger and better able to work in harmony for the good of humanity. We must, therefore, let our love strengthen us to work for others, and strive to bring nearer the time when all may be united in one spiritual family, where there is ‘neither marrying nor giving in marriage.’”
On the 19th January we embarked on a river steamboat for Midnapore. We changed boats at Ulubaria and proceeded on to Dinan, where we entered the river Rupnarayan. We got stuck at low tide, went on with the flood, and passed the night. No meals being supplied to passengers, we ate biscuits and fruit.
We reached Midnapore at 8 a.m. on the 20th, were met at the river bank by our local colleagues and taken to the Travellers’ Bungalow. Throughout the day there was a great flux of visitors, and numberless questions to answer. In a large hall in a private house Miss Edger lectured that evening on “An Outline of Theosophy”, a subject which she always treats with great clearness. There was a Branch meeting the next morning at 7-30, admissions to membership and many visitors of the general public. The lecture that day was on “A Practical View of Theosophy”, a theme which I am
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never tired of recommending for treatment to our public speakers. The fact is that if we could have nine out of ten of their discourses devoted to this paramount question, we should get enough of theoretical Theosophy out of the tenth lecture to supply our wants, in our present incarnation. At 10-30 that evening we started on our return trip for Calcutta, slept on board and had our servants prepare meals for us. We reached Calcutta at 3 p.m., dined with the kind Salzers and took the train for the north late that evening.
The next morning we got to Bankipore and were most kindly received at the station by the members of the local Branch. The case of Bankipore is a good illustration of the way in which our movement goes on under Indian conditions. As previously explained, the preponderating number of our Indian members are Government employees who are shifted from stations according to established rules at the pleasure of the chiefs of their respective Bureaux and Departments. So long as a good strong man is at the head of a local Branch, so long it prospers. Regular meetings are held, activities abound and the name of the Branch bulks largely in the Annual Report of the General Secretary of the Section. When this natural leader is transferred to another post and his successor is, possibly, a less masterful or less interested
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member, or perhaps a non-member, the local group is like a flock of sheep without a shepherd, it becomes “dormant” and remains obscure until either a better man is sent by Government to the place, or the interest of the new incumbent is aroused by the visit of one of our Branch Inspectors. Thus we see, in looking back through the series of our Annual Reports, how our Indian Branches rise, flourish for awhile, go into eclipse, and resume activity and re-awaken in that neighborhood or district a popular interest in Theosophy. On page 6 of the Annual Report for the year 1905, it will be seen that thirteen of these dormant Branches were revived, twenty-nine new Branches were formed and two were dissolved, thus leaving 207 active Branches and 100 dormant. Between 1900 and 1905, both inclusive, 64 “dormant” Branches were restored to the active list. In the case of Bankipore, for many years we have had at the head of the Branch one of the most intelligent, best educated and devoted men of India, Babu Purnendu Narayana Sinha,1 the Government Pleader, whose contributions2 to literature are well known throughout India. Hence the Branch is always active, always prosperous and at no station
1General Secretary of the Indian Section, T. S. from 1919 to 1923.—Ed.
2Theosophy of the Bhâgavat Purâna; etc.—Ed.
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do our travelling lecturers, like Mrs. Besant. Miss Edger, Mr. Leadbeater and myself, receive a warmer or more ungrudging aid. On the occasion of the present visit there were meetings of the Branch, an E. S. T. talk with Miss Edger, and lectures by us both; she speaking on her usual subjects and I addressing the public in the interest of the religious education of Indian boys, a subject always dear to my heart. It may be remembered, that to promote this cause, I started in the year 1895, a little monthly periodical called the Arya Bala Bodhini, which was a success, and if I had had the time to give to it, could easily have been worked up to a very large circulation. I see, for instance, that I got for it during the tour under notice thirty, fifty and even many more subscribers at our different stations. When the Hindu College was established and there was need for such a publication, I turned the Bodhini over to Mrs. Besant and after a time she re-named it the Central Hindu College Magazine. Its present circulation is creeping up to 15,000, a great thing for India, where periodicals count their subscribers by the single thousand, but which I am sure could be increased to 100,000 if there were a competent man to occupy himself especially with this interest.
While at Bankipore I took Miss Edger to hear those weird echoes in the Ghol Gurh, the
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empty, monster grain-bin built by Warren Hastings for the storing of food-stuffs in time of impending famine. I have described these echoes before but the acoustic phenomenon is so impressive that one never tires of speaking of it. Let the reader fancy what his sensations would be if, when, pronouncing a word even in a moderate tone, he should hear it repeated to him from the air all about him and from the ground beneath his feet: he might well be pardoned for thinking for the moment that he was in the midst of an unseen host of mocking demons. And yet I doubt if one traveller out of every thousand visiting India has ever stopped at Bankipore to enjoy this sensation.
We left Bankipore for Muzaffarpûr on the afternoon of the 25th January and arrived there after a twenty-four hours’ ride in the train. As usual we were met at the station by our members who put us up at the “India Club”, its members having agreed to close the club during the three days of our stay. This was a brand new experience for me as, notwithstanding my eighteen years of Indian travel, I never received such an act of courtesy before. Miss Edger lectured on the following two days, the subject of the second lecture being “The Theosophic Life”; my notes say that she treated it “eloquently and admirably”. I followed her, with a talk to the elders, of their
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duty to their children, and the dear little chaps came and clustered around me to get my advice about the making and management of a Boys’ Association. By the train of 5-23 p.m. we left for Benares. We were put up at the headquarters and I availed of the chance to go about and see some of my old friends,—Pramada Dasa Mitra, Mokshada Dasa Mitra, Pandit Adityaram Bhattacharya and others. Upendra Babu took us for a morning sail along the river face to see the bathing multitudes and I tried to find Majji, but she was not at home at the time, to my regret, because I wanted Miss Edger to see this famous woman who called on H.P.B. when we first visited the Sacred City, and who told Damodar and myself a secret about the Guru of H.P.B. which I had reason to suppose was known only to her and myself.
On the afternoon of the 30th January Miss Edger lectured at the Town Hall to a large audience, very acceptably, on the subject of “Man, his Nature and Evolution”. That night she got a great fright. She was suddenly roused from a deep sleep by a wild human cry close to her window. She told me that she thought it either a madman or a drunken person frenzied with excitement. Bathed in a cold perspiration she lay quivering on the bed until the shriek was repeated at a distance and she knew that
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the supposed marauder was going away and that her life was probably out of immediate danger. The next morning she anxiously asked me to explain the mystery and was not a little mortified on finding that it was nothing but the cry of a Chowkidar, or night-watchman, although the horrible noise he made to inform his employers that he was wide awake and making his rounds was enough to warrant a new-comer to rush out and hit him over the head with a club.
There were other lectures and conversation meetings, and on the night of the 2nd February, the eve of our departure, Upendra Babu, Bhavani Shankar, Miss Edger and I, sailed along the river to see the city by moonlight. It was certainly one of the weirdest experiences of my life. Benares seemed transformed into a spectral city behind a veil of smoky haze. Its ghâts with numberless boats tethered at their feet; the columnar bastions, the Hindu and Mahomedan temples and mosques with their pyramidal towers, their domes and minarets, the immense flights of steps to give the bathers access to the river, the lights twinkling out of the gloomy fronts of the buildings, the sound of Indian music, the shrill voices of belated gossips, here and there a devotee making his ablutions in preparation for the evening worship, big boats propelled by oars, with Indian singing parties on
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board gliding over the smooth Ganges, and over, in, and through the panorama the thin curtain of a hazy moonlight that gave a character of unreality to the grandiose picture.
The next morning we bade good-bye to all and left Benares for Allahabad.