OLD DIARY LEAVES, Sixth Series (1896-98)
by Henry Steel Olcott
MATERIALISM AND PSYCHOLOGY
THIS stop of two days at Karur did not differ in its incidents from the previous ones included in the programme of our tour. Receptions, addresses, conversation meetings, public lectures and personal interviews followed each other. It possessed one feature, however, of interest to that class of well-meaning enthusiasts who yearn to come to India and assist in my work. After two busy days we went to the railway station at 10 p.m. on the 30th July, sent away the local committee and tried to get some sleep on the hard benches at the disposal of travellers. How much rest we got might be imagined when it is known that at 1-40 a.m. we took the train for the return journey to Salem. This is an illustration of what one has to go through on a propagandist tour in India, viz., plenty of broken rest, hard sleeping, irregular meals and constant personal contentions with those insect
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enemies whose invariably successful attacks on us go far towards teaching proud man that a little humility would go far toward lessening his discomforts and increasing his philosophical capacity.
We reached Salem at 6-30 a.m., were photographed in a group, and held two conversation meetings, at the second of which I gave by request some idea of the great interest attached to mediumistic phenomena, for the benefit of materialists present. I have noted in my diary that the two most active branch officers at the time of our visit to Salem were Messrs. T. N. Ramachandra Iyer, B.A., Deputy Collector, and T. S. Lakshmi Narayan Iyer, Inspector of Branches.
On the second day we left for Erode, a large railway junction, where a certain amount of interest caused by the activity of one or two earnest colleagues prevailed. We were put up in the commodious rooms at the station maintained by the railway company for the accommodation of travellers, and later in the day Miss Edger lectured in the school-house very satisfactorily. On that day we witnessed the Hindu festival of Sravanam, when the wearers of the mystical “thread” put off the one they have worn during the last twelvemonth and receive a fresh one from the Brahmin priest, who is supposed to have consecrated it by the very ancient ceremonies which have been handed down
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to them from remote antiquity. A whole chapter might be written upon this interesting subject but it would needlessly interrupt the course of our narrative. As is well known, the higher three castes, Brahmin, Kshattriya, and Vaisya (the priestly, the princely and the commercial), are entitled to wear this distinction. Naturally it is not given to non-Hindus, pro forma, my own case being exceptional. So occupied with their routine duties were our local members that we had hardly any visitors throughout the day. Miss Edger lectured late in the afternoon, we dined at the house of a very agreeable English official and at 9-46 p.m. took train for Madura, reaching there at 11 a.m. on the 3rd, after a night of broken rest and various discomforts. Not even the fact of the occurrence of my 66th birthday on the 2nd of August helped to relieve the monotony of our second day at Erode.
Madura is one of the great show-places of India and only the most ignorant globe-trotter would pass that way without stopping to visit its wonderful temple, its palace of Tirumal Naik, its lovely tank-reservoir with its island and temple at the centre, and its other objects of interest.
The Society is fortunate in having at this place one of its most active and useful Branches, under the presidency of Mr. P. Narayana Iyer, B.A., B.L.,
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a pleader of the High Court and one of the most devoted, intellectual and self-sacrificing of its members. Naturally, with such a man at the head of local affairs, there could not fail to be constant activity and useful work. Miss Edger lectured on “Theosophy”, in the College hall at 6 p.m., to a large audience. Until 9 o’clock, the next morning was devoted to the reception of visitors, after which we went around to see the sights. Visitors filled up the hours then until noon and at 6-30 p.m. Miss Edger gave her second lecture on “The Secret of Death”. The next day, the 5th August, she and I lectured to boys and I founded a local Bala Samaja. When we visited the temple of Mînakshi, the trustees very kindly displayed for our inspection the valuable collection of jewels belonging to the temple and that are used for the decoration of the idols on occasions of ceremony. It was really a wonderful show, with its great profusion of diamonds, sapphires, rubies, pearls and other gems, some of them made up into little tiaras, shoulder- and breast-plates, gauntlets, bracelets, greaves, and other details of ornament that are put upon idols no bigger than a great doll. But there were also similar decorations appertaining to the larger gods, the whole making up a collection of precious objects whose value could only be comprehended by a skilled jeweller.
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These idols, when carried in public procession, are seated upon life-sized vâhanas—the bull of Siva, the mouse of Ganesha, the peacock of Sarasvati. These are all wrought in pure silver, at a great cost, of course. I am afraid to quote figures from memory, but if I do not mistake, these silver dolls cost the donors something like 2,00,000 rupees. However, that is a mere detail, the chief point being that their presence in the temple illustrates the lavish generosity which is shown in the making of the adornments of the gods.
A saunter through the Minakshi temple is a rather wearisome experiment, the passage being unlighted, and in gloomy contrast with the brightness of the busy streets outside. At one’s right and left hand stand upon continuous plinths colossal monolithic figures of the gods of the Hindu Pantheon, but half seen on the surrounding obscurity, giving one the impression of being in the company of huge phantoms. But on turning a corner one comes at last to the famous tank, sunlit and shining, which I have described before, and on one wall of which are painted those dreadful scenes of torture and persecution by which the ancestors of the present Pariah1 community were
1Historically this community was not concerned in this. The forcible conversion to Hinduism cannot by any means apply to the Panchamas (Pariahs), as they were always held to be included in the Hindu community. There are references to the Jains
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forcibly converted to Hinduism, two thousand years ago. I have paid my respects to these horrible pictures of religious wickedness in my little pamphlet, “The Poor Pariah”, and very interesting reading it supplies. Our visit to Madura was, of course, a success and was crowned with a final lecture by Miss Edger before a large and appreciative audience, after which came very kind farewell addresses and a wealth of flowers.
Our next station was Trichinopoly, also one of the show-places of India, certainly as well worth visiting as one of the towns of North India that lie in the path of the usual personally-conducted traveller. It always seems to me such a great pity that the South Indian tour, from Ceylon to Madras, should be so neglected, if the real object of the traveller is to get a correct idea of Indian India; for, as often explained, one sees in Northern India, or rather at the places along the beaten track, the vestiges of Mussalman conquest and empire, but, save at Benares and a few other places, almost nothing of the great architectural monuments left behind them by the sovereigns of the different Indian dynasties which have flourished
and the Buddhists of Southern India having been so persecuted. The Colonel thought the Pariahs, as their then leaders claimed that they had been originally Buddhists, were the people pictured as persecuted and tortured. But the Colonel himself has later recorded that they were not able to produce evidence of the fact of their having been once Buddhists.—Ed.
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in Bharatakhanda. Nothing in Northern India equals the temples of Madura, Trichinopoly and Tanjore in their peculiar style of architecture.
We reached Trichinopoly at the highly convenient hour of 3-30 a.m. after a night of horrible shaking-up in the train. Our local friends came for us at six and put us into an empty, big bungalow situated at a distance of three miles away. This was rather too much, in view of the necessity of receiving visitors and making lectures. So, later in the day, we were moved to the Town Hall and lodged in rooms on the upper floor, where appliances for comfort were not in the least calculated to foster in us Sybaritic tastes. A large number of students came in the afternoon, well primed with their multifarious questions upon religious and philosophical subjects, some of which were more of the nature of conundrums than searches after fundamental wisdom. To tell the truth, the Indian student has a capacity of planning and executing these mind-traps almost as great as that I have encountered in the course of my European travels.
On the next day I lectured to about 600 boys and helped them to form a Society, with officers of their own choice, while Miss Edger’s rooms were crowded with visitors in the morning and afternoon. In the evening she gave her splendidly reasoned lecture on “Religion and Science”, which was
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highly appreciated by a huge crowd. No subject is quite so congenial as this to a Theosophic lecturer for, despite the apparent obstacles offered by materialistic critics, it is really not so difficult a task to carry the amateur scientist stage by stage and step by step from his fixed standpoint to the borderland of science and thence move onward along the line of a flawless evolution, the most majestic conceivable in the sweep of its comprehensiveness, until we reach the domain of Hindu philosophical conceptions.
The great mistake made by beginners is to take a violent issue at the start, with a materialist, and make no concessions to his natural inclination to secure firm footing before proceeding on to the next step. After all, what he wants is to be perfectly sure of the ground on which he is to stand, and it always seems to me that in Practical Psychology one has the means, the only means, of giving that rational basis for the evolution of an idea of the Unity of Nature and the Infinitude of the One Principle lying behind. Many times I have seen materialistic enquirers sitting for hours together discussing those problems good temperedly and in the most friendly spirit. It is among the nicest of gifts to be able to find the middle path between the extremes of belief and feeling shown by the materialist, on the one hand,
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and the spiritualist on the other; and yet the path exists and can always be found, with proper care and by keeping under strict control all impulses and prejudices.
On Monday the 8th of August Miss Edger held three receptions for visitors and lectured on “Christianity and Theosophy”. This was particularly appropriate in Trichinopoly, for nowhere have those active Catholic teachers had greater success in winning over high-caste Hindu boys to their religion than in Trichinopoly. Of course they do not tell the truth either about Christianity or Hinduism, but what can the poor boys, with their adolescent intellects, know about this until they have access to the collection of books that have been written by scholars upon the subject. With many, repentance comes later and if they have not taken the irrevocable step of breaking the rules of their caste, they naturally revert to their ancestral faith and become its devoted students and defenders. But the Pâdres know this as well as we, and their best efforts are directed, at the beginning of one of these “conversions”, to persuade the Brahmin boy to eat with them forbidden food and do other things which under the iron code of Indian religion involve the cutting off of the lad from intercourse with his family and friends. He is to them as though dead or as a person
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who belongs to another nation, and even the mother who bore him cannot have personal intercourse with him except at the risk of being herself declared outcast. It has always seemed to me the height of folly that the door between Hindu exclusiveness and the outside world has not been kept ajar for the juvenile back-slider to open it to re-enter the orthodox community. For the lack of this, hundreds if not thousands of bright children have been lost to their parents and their community, from sheer inability to retract the fatal step which they have taken in their school days without knowledge of the consequences it involved.
I set Miss Edger going with her lecture and then went to the station and started for Madras where personal business called me.
Reaching home at 8 a.m. the next morning I found the building full of noise and shouting, as the workmen were preparing to make some architectural ahanges in the Convention Hall; it being my plan to make room for increasing crowds at the Convention and, removing the obstructive brick columns, to substitute steel girders for them, raise the roof, and make other improvements. Our dear friend C. Sambiah had that day an escape from death that was extremely narrow. A hole had been cut through the brick terrace of the vestibule roof to admit the passage of heavy timbers that
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were to be used by the riggers in raising the steel girders. His sight being imperfect he walked right into it and would certainly have been crushed by falling on the girders lying on the floor below if he had not suddenly thrown out his hands so as to reach across the hole and thus support his body till help could come. No one was more surprised than himself at this impulsive action of self-protection and he, and I myself, were more than half persuaded that his valuable life had been saved by one of those Invisible Helpers about whom so much has been said of late. In the afternoon of that day I attended a book-sale and bought a good many volumes for the Library at very cheap prices. The sale was continued the next day and I made further purchases. To save time I dined at the railway station and left by the train for Tanjore to meet Miss Edger and continue our tour. After a comfortable night in the train I reached the place at 4-30 the next morning, found Miss Edger and K. Narayanaswamy at the Rest House, both alive and sound. Miss Edger lectured in the evening to a full audience but with considerable difficulty, for she had caught cold at Trichinopoly and was quite hoarse. Early the next morning I took her to the great temple to see the bull Colossus, a monolithic figure in sitting posture that measures 12 ft. from the ground to the shoulder. This is the one standing
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beside which I had twice lectured to great Indian audiences. As Miss Edger was too hoarse for public speaking I myself took the lecture to the Hindu boys, formed a Society for them and set them going. We slept at the Travellers’ Bungalow that night, but at 3-30 a.m. had to rouse ourselves up to take the train for Negapatam.
We reached our destination at 7-30 a.m. and were wretchedly accommodated in an unfurnished house. It was a severe test of our good nature but as we were convinced that the committee had meant to show us only kindness we made no complaints. Miss Edger lectured in the evening, despite her sore throat, thus giving a fair example of the indomitable pluck which is one of her characteristics. That day was a trying one under our circumstances. A sudden downpour of rain drove us out of our bedrooms into any shelter we could find, the water pouring in through an hundred holes in the roof. My companion’s cot was removed by the butler and myself to the dining room, or what would have been the dining room if the house had been furnished; the butler’s umbrella served as a fastening to her door, while I slept on a wooden bench, without anything soft under me, in another chamber. When the Secretary of the local Branch came to see us the next morning he was moved to tears on hearing about our discomforts, but the poor fellow
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could not help it. There were two or three hotels in the neighborhood and some rich Theosophists in town, but they had subscribed the magnificent sum of a rupee each to the cost of our entertainment, so it did not take much time to convince us that whatever gratitude we might feel for our entertainment was due to the poorer members to whom one rupee was not a “negligeable quantity”: and yet when it comes to the hatching of metaphysical conundrums, who would be more glad and ingenious than these one-rupee well-to-do FF.T.S. It is more than likely that the question whether we should or should not have been made comfortable had not entered their minds, and that the reading of this note may be the cause of their first giving a serious thought to the question.
We slept in the carriage at the railway station and the train bore us away at midnight for Kumbakonam.