Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.


Madame Blavatsky
and The Theosophical Society

by Frank Podmore,

M.A., Hon. Sec. of the Society for Psychical Research.

[Reprinted from Good Words, February 1892, pp. 82-86.]

In 1875 Madame Helene P. Blavatsky, daughter of a Russian Prince, widow of a Russian General, and a quondam spirit medium at Cairo and elsewhere, came to New York. There she met Colonel Olcott, a man who had distinguished himself as lawyer, editor, soldier, and finally Special Commissioner of the War Department in the American Civil War. In this last capacity Colonel Olcott had proved himself a man of varied powers and sterling integrity. At a later period he had come under the spell of certain "Mediums," and at the time of his meeting with Madame Blavatsky he was seemingly prepared to accept any marvels which she might offer him. An adequate exhibition of the marvellous, including the appearance in "astral" form of an "Adept" from far Thibet, accompanied by a materialised turban, was forthcoming, and in November, 1875, Colonel Olcott became the first president and ostensible founder of the Theosophical Society in New York. The London Lodge was founded in 1877. In the following year, after some coquetting with the Arya Somaj of India, an alliance - soon to be dissolved - was formed with that body; and shortly afterwards the head-quarters of the Theosophical Society were transferred, first to Bombay, and subsequently to Madras. In India the Society grew and prospered, and soon numbered among its adherents some thousands of natives and a few Europeans, including men so distinguished as Mr. A. O. Hume, some time Secretary to the Government, and Mr. A. P. Sinnett, the editor of the Pioneer of India. It is probable that these gentlemen were attracted not less by the unique personality of Madame Blavatsky, and the slipshod omniscience of which she made prodigal display, than by what an old writer calls "the concupiscence of inaccessible knowledges." But there were not wanting arguments of a more material kind. At a famous picnic near Simla, when the hostess found that her china cups would not go round, a Hindoo attendant, at the bidding of Madame Blavatsky, unearthed a cup and saucer, of pattern to match, from the depths of the virgin soil. On another occasion a valued brooch, lost by Mrs. Hume some year or two previously, was restored to her instantaneously on her expressing a wish to that effect. The halves of torn cigarette papers, tied round with locks of Madame’s hair, were found in the most unlikely places, selected beforehand by sceptics seeking a sign. Letters were discovered in the interior of sofa cushions or were "integrated" from the unsubstantial air. Material objects were transported by occult agency. Messages from the marvellous Adepts - the "Brothers" - were found written inside ordinary telegrams or business letters. The very air teemed with mystery. News of these strange doings reached even to England; and in 1884 Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, Mr. Sinnett, and a following of dusky retainers, came to London. There the main work of the Society has since been carried on.

At the present time the Society has correspondents in every part of the world, and its members are said to be numbered by tens of thousands. Its ranks include many men and women of note in the artistic, the literary, and the social world.

The schools founded by the members, their dispensaries, their work among the poor, their club for working girls, and the recently instituted creche and Labour Bureau are the practical outcome of their faith. The philosophy which they unfold purports to be derived from certain wise men - Mahatmas, Adepts, Masters, or more familiarly, Brothers - who live in the Thibetan Himalayas. That philosophy, they claim, has been built up as carefully and laboriously as the system of physical science with which the Western World is familiar, and has an equal title to our credence.

The men who through long generations have guarded these treasures of wisdom and wielded the tremendous powers conferred by them, have not been inactive in human affairs. To them, it is alleged (to deal only with modern instances), Europeans owe the French Revolution, and the social and political emancipation which followed from that movement; and it was their interference which alone prevented the overthrow of British rule in India at the time of the Mutiny. But of the wisdom itself, for the most part, stray glimpses only have been from time to time vouchsafed - to the Neo-Platonists, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, to Roger, Bacon and Paracelsus. In these latter days, however, it seemed good to the Brothers to impart more fully to the world the knowledge so long and so jealously guarded, and Mr. Sinnett was chosen as their mouthpiece. The magnificent audacity of the Brothers was justified in its choice. The capable journalist and shrewd man of the world accepted without question, and gave his whole powers to expounding the new Gospel in language which would have been appropriate in a treatise on kitchen-middens or the functions of the pineal gland. The phantasmagoria woven by generations of learned pundits from the dreams and the splendours of the Orient, became under Mr. Sinnett’s treatment a tissue of commonplace fustian. The mystery evaporated or crystallised into what seemed mere matter-of-fact. To briefly summarise his pages: - the main thesis is the Buddhist dogma of re-incarnation, in the light of modern ideas of evolution. The individual man, the human soul and body, is composed of seven parts. Of these the four lower constitute the perishable envelope of the higher - the human soul. With the process of death comes a separation; the lower principles, being earthy in their affinities, cling to the earth, and make their presence felt, sometimes as ghosts, as the so-called "spirits" of mediumistic seances, or as evil influences obsessing the minds of these who open themselves to such intercourse. But the spiritual part of man first undergoes a process of oblivion and purgation, and thereafter a period, shorter or longer according to the merits of the life preceding, of beatific contemplation and enjoyment. With the end of this period of Devachan comes ever another sleep and ever renewed life on earth. This continual systole and diastole which make up the little life of man - "a watch or a vision between a sleep and a sleep" - is but a representation in miniature of vaster cosmic pulsations. These are the days and nights of Brahma, when the whole universe slumbers and wakes again to renewed activity. And through the long-drawn chain of suns and circling planets, through all the stupendous cycle of the ages, throughout the waxing and waning of all things from life to nothingness and back again to larger life, the human soul, a spark of the Central Spirit, retains its identity, and bears with it in all re-births the inevitable burden of Karma - the fate which each man by his own acts and thoughts has ordained for himself. "Quisque suos patimur manes." The man is the thing which he has made; he reaps now the crop of which the seed was sown in another age and another country, and yet sown by himself.

Such are the main outlines of the cosmic scheme which Mr. Sinnett depicts; those who require chronological details, an approximate estimate of the number and duration of our successive lives, the date of the next Pralaya, and other cosmological statistics, should refer to the book itself, where they will find all this and much more set out with the precision of an actuary.

In a recent lecture in the St. James’s Hall, Mrs. Besant compared Theosophy to one of the mathematical sciences, and contended that the doctrine was susceptible of demonstration not less rigid and complete. But she offered no clue to the process of demonstration, beyond a reference to some of the more ambiguous phenomena of hypnotism and thought-transference. And it seems certain that Theosophy would not have commanded so many adherents in this country, if the doctrine had been left to win its way unaided. It may suit the advanced Theosophist now to discard the miracles and appeal to the pure philosophy; but it is a matter of history that the miracles floated the philosophy. Mr. Sinnett’s exposition of "Eastern Buddhism" was preceded by a smaller book, the "Occult World," in which he described marvels wrought within his cognisance. The Brothers, it was explained, in learning the laws of the cosmic evolution, had acquired therewith a mastery over natural forces hitherto unknown; and their power over things seen was offered as a guarantee of their knowledge in things unseen. The guarantee was not, indeed, adequate; but it was vaunted as a serviceable crutch to faith not yet grown to knowledge. At all events, the doctrine was heralded in this country by proclamation of the marvels wrought by the initiates.

These marvels can be conveniently dealt with under three heads. These were, first, such feats as the duplication and transportation of material objects; next, there were the transmission of intelligence between persons far apart and the apparitions of the Masters themselves at a distance from their physical bodies; and, finally, there were the letters mysteriously received from them. The marvels of the first class were suspicious both in the circumstances of their production and in their obvious resemblance to ordinary conjuring tricks; and when, in 1884, the Society for Psychical Research appointed a Committee (of which the present writer was a member) to investigate the matter, no great hope was entertained of discovering in this direction the lost secrets of Oriental magic. But it was thought possible that, in these dubious surroundings, there might still be some genuine manifestation of some power allied to hypnotism; and that, in any event, the alleged phenomena ought to be examined, and, if fraudulent, exposed.

Just previous to our investigation there had been published, in the Madras Christian College Magazine, some letters purporting to have been addressed by Madame Blavatsky to two quondam officials of the Theosophical Society, M. and Madame Coulomb. Madame Blavatsky and those about her strenuously denied the authenticity of the letters. But the internal evidence, which was very strong, and accumulating proofs of fraud in other directions, left little room for doubt that the letters were actually what they professed to be. It would be tedious to describe these letters and their revelations at length; let one example suffice for all. There was, in the head-quarters of the Society at Adyar, Madras, a small wooden receptacle called the Shrine, regarded by the native members with superstitious veneration, for within the receptacle letters addressed to the Mahatmas were placed; and answers, if the Mahatmas vouchsafed an answer, were received generally through the same channel. The following description of one of the most famous of the miracles alleged to have occurred at this Shrine is taken from a letter by General Morgan, originally published in the Theosophist for December, 1883: -

"In the month of August, having occasion to come to Madras in the absence of Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, I visited the head-quarters of the Theosophical Society to see a wonderful painting of the Mahatma Koot Hoomi kept there in a shrine and daily attended by the Chelas. On arrival at the house I was told that the lady, Madame Coulomb, who had charge of the keys of the Shrine, was absent, so I awaited her return. She came home in about an hour, and we proceeded upstairs to open the Shrine and inspect the picture. Madame Coulomb advanced quickly to unlock the double doors of the hanging cupboard, and hurriedly threw them open. In so doing she had failed to observe that a china tray inside was on the edge of the Shrine and leaning against one of the doors, and when they were opened, down fell the china tray, smashed to pieces on the hard chunam floor. Whilst Madame Coulomb was wringing her hands and lamenting this unfortunate accident to a valuable article of Madame Blavatsky’s, and her husband was on his knees collecting the debris, I remarked it would be necessary to obtain some china cement and thus try to restore the fragments. Thereupon M. Coulomb was despatched for the same. The broken pieces were carefully collected and placed, tied in a cloth, within the Shrine, and the doors were locked. Mr. Damodar K. Mavalankar, the joint recording Secretary of the Society, was opposite the Shrine, seated on a chair, about ten feet away from it, when, after some conversation an idea occurred to me to which I immediately gave expression. I remarked that if the Brothers considered it of sufficient importance, they would easily restore the broken article, if not they would leave it to the culprits to do so the best way they could. Five minutes had scarcely elapsed after this remark, when Mr. Damodar, who during this time seemed wrapped in a reverie, exclaimed, ‘I think there is an answer.’ The doors were opened, and, sure enough, a small note was found on the shelf of the Shrine, an opening which we read: -

"‘To the small audience present. Madame Coulomb has occasion to assure herself that the devil is neither so black nor so wicked as he is generally represented; the mischief is easily repaired.’"

"On opening the clothing the china tray was found to be whole and perfect; not a trace of the breakage to be found on it! I at once wrote across the note, stating that I was present when the tray was broken and immediately restored, dated and signed it, so there should be no mistake in the matter. It may be here observed that Madame Coulomb believes that the many things of a wonderful nature that occur at the head-quarters may be the work of the devil - hence the playful remark of the Mahatma who came to her rescue."

In the Blavatsky-Coulomb correspondence occur the following letters, undated: -

"C’est je crois cela que vous devez avoir. Tachez donc si vous croyez que cela va reussir d’avoir plus d’audience que nos imbeciles domestiques seulement. Cela merite la peine - car la soucoupe d’Adyar pourrait devenir historique comme la tasse de Simla. Soubbaya ici et je n’ai guere le temps, d’ecrire a mon aise. A vous mes honneurs et remerciments.

(Signed) "H. P. B."

This letter is said by Madame Coulomb to have contained the following enclosure: -

"To the small audience present as witness. Now Madame Coulomb has occasion to assure herself that the devil is neither as black nor as wicked as he is generally represented. The mischief is easily repaired. - K. H."

"Vendredi.

"Ma chere Madame Coulomb et Marquis, (1)  - Voice le moment de nous montrer - ne nous cachons pas. Le General part pour affaires a Madras et y sera lundi; il y passera deux jours. Il est president de la Societe ici et veut voir le Shrine. C’est probable qu’il fera une question quelconque et peut-etre se bornera-t-il a regarder. Mais il est sur qu’il s’attend a un phenomene, car il me l’a dit. Dans le premier cas suppliez K. H. que vous voyez tous les jours ou Cristofolo de soutenir l’honneur de famille. Dites-lui donc qu’une fleur suffrait, et que si le pot de chambre cassait sous le poids de la curiosite il serait bon de le remplacer en ce moment. Damn les autres, Celui-la vaut son pesant d’or. Per l’amor del Dio ou de qui vous voudrez ne manquez pas cette occasion, car elle ne se repetera plus. Je ne suis pas la, et c’est cela qui est beau. Je me fic a vous et je vous supplie de ne pas me desappointer, car tous mes projets et mon avenir avec vous tous - (car je vais avoir une maison ici pour passer les six mois de l’annce et elle sera a moi et a la Societe, et vous ne souffrirez plus de la chalcur comme vous le faites, si j’y reussis)

*              *            *             *              *              *

"LUNA MELANCONICA."

Mr. R. Hodgson, a member of the committee appointed by the Society for Psychical Research, was despatched to India in November, 1884. The Shrine itself had been destroyed a few weeks before his arrival, but from the evidence of many witnesses, and from a careful inspection of its former site, he was led to a conjectural restoration of it, which, for all practical purposes, may be accepted as accurate. This Shrine, then, was suspended on a wall dividing the Occult Room from Madame Blavatsky’s bedroom, and on a part of the wall in which there had formerly been a window. On the other side of the wall there stood successively a wardrobe and a sideboard. In the back of the Shrine was a sliding panel concealed by a mirror; in the thin party-wall was a hole; in the wardrobe or sideboard was another sliding panel, giving access to the hole in the wall, and through that to the Shrine itself. It remains only to add, that Mme. Coulomb showed Mr. Hodgson the "reintegrated" saucer, and told him that she had purchased a pair of them on July 3rd, 1883; and that Mr. Hodgson ascertained, from inspection of the books of a Madras tradesman, that two saucers of the kind described had actually been purchased on July 3rd, at a cost of two rupees eight annas the pair; from which it would appear that Madame Blavatsky, even when on miracles bent, could keep a frugal mind.

The transmission of intelligence from a distance, including the appearance of hallucinatory figures, phenomena less intrinsically improbable, seeing that abundant evidence for them had been adduced both in England and France during the past decade, seemed also to rest upon a firmer basis of testimony. But a close interrogation of the witnesses and, especially, a scrutiny of the diaries and other documentary evidence, revealed that the alleged instances of thought-transmission were due to pre-arrangement and collusion between Madame Blavatsky and other members of the Society; and that Colonel Olcott, apparently, played the undignified part of a dupe; or, in the quaint but forcible language of Madame Blavatsky, a Flapdoodle and a psychologised Baby!

In a word, the evidence for the miraculous powers claimed for the Adepts altogether disappeared on examination. The case for the Brothers rested, therefore, ultimately upon the letters, which, whether "precipitated from the Astral," "integrated" in material form before the recipient’s eyes, or merely written on Cashmere paper and delivered in due course of post, did indubitably arrive in considerable numbers and bulk. Those who have read the chaotic apocalypse of "Isis Unveiled" can form some idea of the style of these letters; the matter of them has been set out, as said, with all due precision in "Esoteric Buddhism." If these letters were not, as the attendant circumstances strongly suggested, the handiwork of Madame Blavatsky, there would be, at all events, a strong presumption that there was actually some one in the background who believed himself to have something to say to the world. Mr. Hodgson was enabled to examine a series, extending over several years, both of the Koot Hoomi letters and of Madame Blavatsky’s acknowledged writings, and showed that the two hands, apparently quite dissimilar in their final development, exhibited in their earlier stages many common features; that in their gradual evolution, under the guidance of an art that mimicked nature, they became differentiated; the common features were eliminated, the special forms were more highly specialised; so that, as in organic evolution generally, the perfected products bear little superficial resemblance to their common ancestors. Facsimiles of portions of these writings, in different stages of development, are given in Mr. Hodgson’s exhaustive Report. (2) But he went on to show that Koot Hoomi and Madame Blavatsky - the one a native of India, the other of Russia - both committed similar errors in spelling and composition. Both, for instance, wrote your’s, defense, thiefs, quarreling; the Oriental would write leasure for leisure, and would put a c in place of a second t in circumstantial, whilst the European wrote beseached and consciencious. Koot Hoomi would divide his words in a singular fashion at the end of a line, thus: incessan-tly, una-cquainted, po-werless, and Madame Blavatsky would follow suit with recen-tly, cha-nged, po-wers. Both would write of understanding "tolerably well English," "so more the pity for him," with many other strange paralogisms. In brief, the painstaking analysis of Mr. Hodgson (whose verdict was confirmed by the well-known expert, Mr. Netherclift) fixed the main authorship of the Koot Hoomi letters on Madame Blavatsky beyond all reasonable doubt.

Madame Blavatsky is dead, and the riddle of her life - a marvel surely greater than all those crude Oriental counterfeits - must remain for ever unsolved. It may be that she was, in fact, an agent of the Russian Government, working for the overthrow of British dominion in India. It may be that she was an artist for art’s sake, whose inimitable creations were wrought out, not with pen or pencil, but with crockery and chicane. But her greatly daring genius and the marvellous fascination which she exercised over her followers, an influence which even her death has not destroyed, will almost justify the more generous view that she was herself the half creature of her own imaginings. She came too late into too old a world; she should have stood among the magicians at the court of the Pharaohs, or have presided, haply, over the oracles at Dodona.

Notes

(1)  Marquis and Marquise are names given by Madame Blavatsky to M. and Madame Coulomb.

(2) "Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research," Part IX. Dec. 1885.  Published by Kegan Paul, Trubner & Co.