Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

Theosophy and Theosophists.

[by William T. Brown]

[Reprinted from The Lyceum (Dublin, Ireland), November 1889, pp. 54-57.]

[Historical Note to the BA Reprint:

In the January 1890  issue of The Madras Christian College Magazine, p. 545, the missionary editor wrote:  "An article on theosophy and theosophists appeared in the November [1889] number of the Lyceum, and attracted considerable attention both among those who are friendly to the theosophical doctrines and among those who are opposed to them. . . . The writer of the article in the Lyceum is, we understand, Mr. W. T. Brown, B.A., Professor of Constitutional History, Jurisprudence, and Political Economy in University College, Dublin, who is no doubt well remembered at the [Adyar] theosophical headquarters. . . ." 

This article is reprinted for the first time from the pages of Lyceum.---BA Editor.]

We have lately had in our midst a representative of that singular body which has bestowed upon itself the name “Theosophist,” and which professes belief in certain singular doctrines, which it includes under the name “Theosophy.”  The visit of the distinguished mystic has excited the curiosity of some inquiring minds amongst us, and our leading city newspaper has for days teemed with criticisms of the doctrines which Colonel Olcott came to announce.  Most of us are, perhaps, neither much better nor much worse for the Colonel’s visit.  We are, it is to be feared, as unspiritual as we were before his advent.  He has, however, succeeded in creating something like a public interest in his doctrines, and in himself.  This must be our excuse for devoting a few of our pages to the one topic and the other.

Like modern spiritualism, and its allied cults, the wisdom of Colonel Olcott has its home in the United States.  This is significant.  Not that we wish to be ungrateful to the Continent of North America.  It has given, and gives us, corn and oil, and cotton for raiment.  But when we are asked to take its corrosive sublimates, disguised as psychic food, we can no longer receive our imports without protest.  Tritely, we must “draw the line.”

Early in the seventies there arose in the City of New York a spiritual “movement” of a new order.  It abounded in great marvels.  Even the older spiritualists, who had been surfeited with “rappings” and with ghosts, could find in it fresh entertainment and excitement.

A new medium had arrived, one Madame General Blavatsky.  She said she was a Russian, and, what was more wonderful, she claimed to be an adept in Oriental magic, and an expert in the feats it can perform.

This remarkable woman, for remarkable she was, announced that she was a Russian general’s widow; that, on her wedding day, after the ceremony, she had run away to join the Thibetan Magi, for whom she had entertained a long-standing predilection.  But the time had now arrived, it seemed for the matrimonial celibate to come forth into the world.  The General was dead --- indeed, malignant people said he had never lived --- and an ungrateful country would not receive the widow at St. Petersburg, nor provide her with governmental passports.  Hence had she come to the land of “the brave and the free,” for liberty to live and to teach.

In the small band of spiritists, who found in the devotee of “magic” the priestess of a cult, there was no one so much impressed as a certain city attorney by name “Colonel” Olcott.  The priestess, finding in the Colonel a soul for mystic lore --- the absence of which she had deplored in the deceased General --- extended to him her patronage, made him a neophyte of the Magi of Thibet, and announced him to the public as “President of the Theosophists.”

The notoriety which surrounded the widow of the rejected General soon shone on the accepted Colonel.  He was a marked man, one on whom the Magi of Thibet had smiled.  For a quarter of a century an undiscerning public had seen in him only a rather smart attorney, with a military title, acquired with that facility for which America is now so justly celebrated.  The Colonel, like the General, had had his domestic woes.  More earthly or less resolute minds might have found in these a motive for distrust of any message announced by any widow.  But to the spiritual vision these were trifles, sublunary trifles.  What were they to a Thibetan neophyte?

The Colonel now had a mission, and the Thibetan Magi began to explain.  They were prepared to give forth to the world their sacred lore in a book which Madame would compose under their “psychic” inspiration.

“Now, shall we see,” thought the ‘President’ in mental triumph, “how the religionist and the materialist, the ontologist, and all the spiritists shall recognize the awful wisdom of the Mahatmas of the Himalayan Mountains.  Blavatsky will astonish the globe!  Our names will go down glorious unto posterity, and our position among our contemporaries will be distinctly improved.

The book appeared.  The synopsis of the Himalayan wisdom came forth in two volumes, and was named Isis Unveiled.  It is perhaps irrelevant to remark that the Magi did not disclose their wisdom foolishly, or, as we might say, gratuitously.  A printer was engaged, just as if a novel-writer, instead of the Magians were addressing the public, and there was a vulgar price attached.

But, strange as it may seem, the world did not fall down and worship.  The religionist said that he preferred teaching which smelt less of brimstone.  The materialist said it was the outcome of either idiotcy or knavedom.  The ontologist did not say much; his criticism was summed up in the one word, “bosh.”  The lady spiritualist preferred to go on communing with departed relatives, whom she had once known, rather than trust strange men who lived in mountains.  It must, however, be stated, to Madame Blavatsky’s credit, that she secured the favour of a certain class of believers by a Russian predilection for “cuss words” and tobacco.

Notwithstanding opposition, a society was “organized.”  Its principles were broad.  It would “take in” almost everybody.  “All were affectionately invited,” and might “bring their friends.”  The Thibetan Magi were not exclusive dealers.  They were so free and easy that they did not object to any applicant, provided that the initiation fee of one pound sterling, or five dollars, was paid to the “corresponding secretary,” Madame B.

Colonel Olcott declared his aims to be: ---

  1. To cultivate the principle of universal brotherhood, irrespective of race, caste or creed.
  2. To promote the study of Eastern literature.
  3. To develop the psychical faculties latent in man.

Plenty of room here, you observe, for freedom of thought!  A Mussulman, and a Chinaman, an American, and a Zulu, could stand on the same platform, and with glances of fond fraternity, wink a Theosophic sign.  They need only agree to the extent of twenty shillings; thereupon harmony and bliss!

“How charming, is it not,” asks the Chinaman of the Zulu, “that you and I are now Theosophists?  Theosophy means, as you are aware, ‘divine wisdom.’  Behold, I believe that Confucius will be my guide to heaven, and you believe the devil, and the medicine man will do analogous duty for you; and yet, for a small fee of filthy lucre to the Colonel and Madame we can exchange signs and respect each other.”

How interesting also to the young philosopher is the “Oriental Literature?” item of the Colonel’s programme.  What a reputation one can build with a vocabulary of a hundred words!  And the Hindu mythology is so overwhelming!  A “hundred millions” is, in Hindu computation, but a trifle.

Then, again, the “latent faculties”!  “Why is it,” asks the oriental aspirant, “that my tutors and professors have assured me that I have no faculties whatever?  I see, it is because my faculties are latent.  Well, latent faculties are faculties after all, and I may have more of them, if all was known, than my teachers.”

Then it was comforting to know that there were easy appliances for “developing” these latent powers, and that “developed” souls were not at all uncommon.  Spiritists, who are ever seeing ghosts where healthy people see but furniture, have had their faculties developed.  “Mental Healers” and “Clairvoyants” are all developed.  The Thibetan Magians are so highly “developed” that they believe in “re-incarnation,” and “planetary chains,” and “Dyan Chohans,” and “elementals,” and “elementaries,” and, as a consequence, in an impersonal God.  The sole reason why Professor Huxley has never seen an “Irish fairy” is because our esteemed F.R.S. is “undeveloped.”

So long as by fresh rounds of “phenomena,” observed by the “developed ones,” Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky obtained a gratuitous renown and advertisement; so long as the Spiritists rallied round the Theosophic standard, the Thibetan humanitarianism was confined to New York City.  But when the interest began to flag, as is wont with all things human, a love of the far-off Hindu arose within Madame Blavatsky’s bosom.  “Universal Brotherhood” presents an excellent excuse for travelling.  The more respectable residents of New York viewed without regret the projected departure from their midst of the eccentric widow, and her gallant disciple in the mystic arts.  There was no reason why they should not turn their steps towards the rising sun, and seek the point where their higher wisdom had had its first beginning.  The Colonel and Madame set their faces towards the East, and journeyed 'till they reached the land of the Hindu.

The scene now changed.  Arrived at Bombay, the Theosophists were scarcely welcome.  Madame Blavatsky’s notoriety had in part preceded her.  She had announced she was a Russian.  The Anglo-Indian Government, not trusting her reputed nationality, had appointed detective officers to watch her comings-in and goings-forth.  These well-meant attentions were disagreeable to Madame, whether she wished to communicate with the Thibetan recluses, or to hold converse with Colonel Olcott.  After a time, however, the police supervision was withdrawn, the Government, becoming satisfied that the Magi or Mahatmas were not dangerous to our Indian Empire, and that the Czar was not “developed” sufficiently to value their communications.

It was at this time that Mr. Sinnett joined the movement --- a gentleman since favourably known as a writer of a few works of fiction.  Among these are reckoned the Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism, both of which, when written, bore such stamp of earnestness of purpose as to disarm suspicion, and led, as we happen to know, a few earnest souls to enter on the fruitless study of the higher wisdom.

It was in the year 1884 that the “Theosophists” came outright to grief.  They were settled at this period about seven miles from the City of Madras in a bungalow, for which some Theosophists had paid when Blavatsky and Olcott resolved to take a trip to Europe.  They left the “shrine,” as it appears, in charge of a housekeeper, by name Coulomb, who, while her employers were in England, disclosed to the Madras public certain “trap-doors” and “sliding panels” connected with the sacred edifice.  Indeed so many disclosures bearing on the subject did this domestic make that the Mahatmas or Magi concluded to withdraw altogether to Thibet, and, strange to say, have not since been heard from.  Such estimation did Madame thereby secure in Madras that her return to that city would probably give occasion to public investigations which no right-minded Theosophist could contemplate without regret.

The “Society for Psychical Research,” is an association of well-meaning ladies and gentlemen, some of them having a reputation for learning.  It owes its existence to the curiosity excited by Theosophy and other cults of the kind.  Professor Sidgwick of Cambridge, Professor Barrett of Dublin, and other Psychical Researchers, were puzzled by the marvels of Thibetan magic, and they resolved to test, to the best of their ability, the pretentions of the magicians.  To a great many persons their conscientious inquiries may have seemed superfluous - --a waste of useful energy upon a transparently worthless subject.  But they deserve whatever praise is due to the exposure of a delusion, which deluded no one except the utterly fatuous.

In the summer of the fatal year 1884, one of the “Psychicers,” Dr. Hodgson, of Cambridge University, for whose honesty and fairness of purpose we can vouch, left England for the East, armed with a mandate from his Society, to investigate the Hindu marvels.  He was instructed to make himself acquainted with the Hindu neophytes, to hear all witnesses, to examine in person the Madras “shrine,” the Indian depot of the Thibetan phenomena.

Dr. Hodgson pursued his investigations as directed, obtained a variety of testimonies, more or less trustworthy, examined in person the “shrine” with its “sliding panels,” and, after some months, returned to England to make known the result of his inquiries.  He reported to his Committee that the neophytes were dreadful liars, and, therefore, acquaintances not to be desired, that the sliding panels of the “shrine” were undeniable, that the Thibetan Magi were Russian and Yankee humbugs, and that he had failed to gain one iota of scientific information of value.  The Theosophists, he declared, were of two classes, dupes and knaves.  The published report of the “Society for Psychical Research,” was the deathblow to the Magicians of Thibet.  The combined press of Calcutta, London and New York declared Theosophy to be an imposture, and wrote very hard things about the relict of the late Russian General in reference to her preaching of it.  What Colonel Olcott’s mental position towards the Theosophist creed may be we leave it to adepts in psychology to determine.  There were many people who at first credited him with good faith, and who continued their confidence in him so late as the year 1886.  How many believe in him now?  We have no means of knowing, and we do not think it important to inquire.

We well understand how for some unsettled souls “Theosophy” may have a charm.  Let us take, for example, a Baptist or a Methodist of unsettled or bewildered views.  This mild philosopher has before him a choice of two evils --- a Scylla and a Charybdis --- either he must hold on to a Church in which a supernatural life is impossible, in which a “miracle” is talked of with a feeble smile; or he may go over to the materialists, who say not only that “the Age of miracles is past, but that it never was.”  His New Testament informs him, however --- and our Baptist applies to this his earnest criticism --- that miracles are essentially associated with Christianity; and yet “common sense,” upon which he much relies, tells him that the materialist has, from his standpoint, a good deal in his favour.  He is loath to give up the longings of his better nature, and yet he asks, Is negation not reasonable?  At this point the Theosophical Tempter enters unto him, saying: “Behold, here have we ‘miracles;’ here must be truth.  We are not materialists.  No; they are our greatest foes.  We are Christ-like Philosophers, because we believe in ‘brotherhood.’  We say that ‘miracles’ are scientific, and behold we can (in the dark) perform them.  Do you aim at knowledge?  The Eastern tongues afford you subject matter for the work of ten human lives.  We have no creed!  You shall be free!!  And you may, moreover, if you will, wrest from stern Nature her gravest secrets!!!  We will introduce you to seers possessed of awful knowledge; come, be our ‘Glyndon,’ and we shall find ‘Mejnour.’”

To the Individualist, also, Theosophy has, it may be, a charm.  He looks around the world and says within himself: --- “What a pity that an honest Chinaman should be destined to hell!  Think, too, of the earnest Mussulman, of the child of Brahma, and of the noble Western Redman.  Surely, it must be our common lot to know nothing of religion.  We can only speculate.  If I, a Christian, die only to find that heaven is full of houris, how foolish shall I look when Mahomet takes me by the hand!”  “Yea, verily,” says Theosophy “it is true that it is hard to find agreement; we are all equally right, though differing from one another.  Let us climb the hill of truth by different paths.”

The miracles of mountebanks always have been powerful, and probably always will be, on a few of the earnest souls who are outside the influence of the Church, but who strive after a higher knowledge in obedience to that instinct which seems to survive in fallen man, and urges him to seek the supernatural. For the souls who seek to satisfy this hunger with empty husks, the contented believer must always feel profound pity.  If there be such souls among the Theosophists, they are deserving of commiseration.

Numerically the Theosophists can scarcely be called formidable.  Over the whole globe they are not 500 strong, though by their prospectus one would suppose that at least a half of the Hindu nation belonged to the company of “Universal Brothers.”  Those of the Theosophists who do not travel, those twelve or thirteen members, for instance, who cluster around the Dublin “Shrine,” are at a disadvantage compared with Colonel Olcott, who journeys pleasantly from place to place, and “makes a living.”

Throughout these pages the editorial “we” has been in constant use, it has been employed in deference to the custom followed by writers in this Review.  May the writer of this paper be permitted to add a few lines as a concrete individual personality?

There are few books attainable, bearing on the revival of the Egyptian Chicanery, which he has not perused.  He has read all the literature which the Thibetan Mahatmas recommend.  Hermes Trismegistus, so-called, has had no more attentive student in this nineteenth century.  He has expended time and labour and money in world-wide travel in search of the promised secrets of the higher wisdom.  And the conclusion of his search has been that it is all “vanity and vexation of spirit,” and that only in the sober truths of divinely revealed religion, divinely guarded by an appointed Church, can the human soul satisfy its thirst for higher knowledge.

We return to the impersonal again, to take leave of Colonel Olcott, and General Blavatsky’s widow.  The lady, we understand, has begun the publication of a magazine of which the title is Lucifer.  We cross ourselves devoutly, and leave her to her occupation.