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Madame Blavatsky at Adyar

by Moncure D. Conway

When Madame Blavatsky was on her way to found the Theosophical Society in India, I met her in London, at the house of an American family,—devout spiritualists. She had a reputation for picking up teapots from under her chair, and our hostess seemed somewhat disappointed that she did not accord me some miracle. Although nothing unusual occurred, Madame Blavatsky was herself sufficiently phenomenal to make the evening interesting. She was not then, 1878, so huge as she afterwards became, and was rather attractive. She was humorous, entertaining, affable; she had the air of a woman who had tried every experience,—the last person I should have suspected of interest in spiritual or other philosophy. We next heard of her as the high priestess of a new cult in India. Rumors reached London, where I was residing, that this new religion was spreading among the Hindus, giving much trouble to the missionaries, and that Madame Blavatsky was suspected of being in the pay of the Russian government. That way of meeting the new movement was silenced by threats of prosecuting any who should make personal charges against the leaders of Theosophy. It was presently reported that Madame Blavatsky had made converts of A. P. Sinnett, editor of the Pioneer of India, and Mr. Allan Hume, formerly connected with the Indian government. Presently Mr. Sinnett came to London, and gave us lectures in drawing-rooms on Theosophy. He expatiated on the wonders performed by Madame Blavatsky with the aid of certain “Mahatmas,” who by secret knowledge, had gained powers of prolonged existence, and of appearing in their “astral” forms at vast distances from their retreat in the Himalayas.

As I was contemplating a journey round the world, which would bring me to India, I asked Mr. Sinnett, in private conversation, whether I could make a pilgrimage to the abode of these mighty Mahatmas, and converse with them. “Do you mean?” he asked, “as you now converse with me?”—“Yes.”—“No.”—“Why not?”—“Oh, it would take too long to explain.” Thereafter I tried to find out something that would aid a practical investigation from Mr. Sinnett’s books, but found them uninstructive and sensational. In the autumn of the same year, I was in Australia, and found there a good deal of excitement about Theosophy. At Sydney, where spiritualists and secularists had formed a curious alliance, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott were mentioned as grand personages,—she a countess, he a famous warrior of the United States army. The marvels they wrought were of only English size in Australia, but on the approach to India they loomed up in oriental magnitude. Madame had only to walk in any garden to pick brooches from flowers, and find rupees at will, like the fabled tree that yielded whatever was asked of it.

At length I reached the headquarters of Theosophy, at Adyar, some fifteen miles out of Madras, and not far from St. Thomé, where the doubting disciple left his footprints blood-stained on the spot of his martyrdom. Entering Madame’s park I passed the pasteboard carcasses of two blue elephants which had stood at the gateway on the occasion of a recent Theosophist anniversary. Through the large and leafy park, luxuriant with palm and mango, I drove up to the handsome mansion, with a growing suspicion that too much had been said of the sacrifices made by the New York journalist and the medium in founding their new religion. While awaiting Madame’s appearance, I sat in the veranda, on a cushioned sofa of fine Indian work, beside a table holding the newest books and magazines, receiving an impression of the charms with which self-sacrifice has been invested since the days of poor St. Thomas. Presently I was approached by a young Hindu, dreamy and picturesque, who said Madame Blavatsky would soon be with me. Next there advanced a youth who almost seemed an apparition; he proved to be a “lay chela,” and his snowy garment gave a saintly look to his delicate beauty. He sweetly apologized for not taking my offered hand, saying he was forbidden by his “Guru” (Mahatma) to shake hands, this being one of the conditions of his farther development.

Madame Blavatsky gave me a cordial welcome. She sent off my carriage, and urged me to pass the night. She had already been informed by our friend, Professor Smith, of Sydney University, that I was coming, and regretted Colonel Olcott’s absence. Her dress was the white gown, without belt, which makes a noon costume of Russian ladies in summer. Her manner was easy, her talk witty, and she disarmed prejudice by her impulsive candor. In addition to the two Hindus already mentioned, others joined us, among these Norendranath Sen, editor of the Indian Mirror, and relative of the Brahmo apostle Keshub Chunder Sen. All of them spoke good English. Another person present was W. T. Brown, an educated young Scotchman, and Dr. Hartmann, of Colorado. These young men, the Hindus especially, were eager to relate their marvellous experiences in receiving from the distant Mahatmas immediate answers to their letters. The letters, it was explained, were placed “in the shrine,” and I at once proposed to write a note, referring to some matter known to myself alone, in order to carry home evidence of the existence and knowledge of the Mahatmas.

“What a pity!” broke in Madame Blavatsky, who had not participated in the conversation, “only three days ago I was told by my Guru that the shrine must not be used for letters any more!”

“It has generally been my luck,” I said, perhaps betraying vexation. “For thirty years I have been unwearied in trying to test alleged phenomena, but have always happened to be a little too late or a little too early. I was assured that it would be otherwise here!”

The young Hindus had eagerly approved my proposal to test the Mahatma, and had evidently heard nothing of the prohibition. Madame Blavatsky, who betrayed no embarrassment whatever, presently arose, invited me to accompany her, and led me to a secluded room. Here she shut the door, lit a cigarette, offered me one, and sat serenely awaiting my next move. I told her that I had a sincere purpose in coming. Some of my valued friends were deeply interested in Theosophy. If extraordinary events were really occurring, none could be more ready to acknowledge them than myself. I had a congregation in London, and we were not afraid to recognize new facts if verified. “Now,” I said, “what do these rumors mean? I hear of your lifting teapots from beneath your chair, summoning lost jewels, conversing with Mahatmas a thousand miles away.”

“Your questions shall be answered,” said Madame Blavatsky. “You are a public teacher and ought to know the truth. It is glamour; people think they see what they do not see. That is the whole of it.”

I could not repress some homage to the sagacity of this unwitnessed confession. Forewarned that I was coming, Madame had received from her Guru a convenient prohibition against further use of the shrine as a post-office; and now, by one clever stroke, she altogether forestalled an inconvenient investigation. Obstruction to experiments, or evasion, would have been such confession as I could use. Failure to obtain phenomena that could be verified might subtly awaken skepticism in the simple-hearted Hindus around her. But this secret confession, which might be repudiated if necessary, raised my whole siege at once. And the confession itself, while it admitted the unreality of the miracles, left a marvel,—namely, her power to cause the hallucinations. I remembered the legend of Glam, from whom came our word “glamour,” and had a droll feeling of being defeated, like Grettir, in the moment of his victory over that moonshine-giant. As says the Saga, “even as Glam fell a cloud was driven from the moon, and Glam said, Exceedingly eager hast thou sought to meet me, Grettir, but no wonder will it be deemed, though thou gettest no good hap of me.” Even so it proved lately, when I told my friend, Anne Besant, that Madame Blavatsky had admitted it was glamour. She reminded me of the power still left unexplained, to cast the glamour.

The remaining hours of my visit at Adyar were occupied with study of the subjects of Madame’s hypnotic powers,—as I supposed them to be. The young Hindus, with their refined faces and symbolical draperies, conveyed an impression of being like the magical mangoes which the jugglers evoke, looking at them from time to time to see how they are growing. There were phases of chelahood, with precise terms for each. I was invited to visit the shrine. It was in a small room, and stood against the wall, reaching nearly to the ceiling. It was decorated with mystical emblems and figures, and a breath of incense came when the doors were opened. The Hindus prostrated themselves on the floor, and hid their faces; it was explained as their oriental custom, but it is certainly favorable to Thaumaturgy. Two days afterwards I was told, being then at sea, that while we visited the shrine a mysterious bell had sounded. No such incident was mentioned at the time, and I felt quite sure that Madame Blavatsky and myself were the only persons present whose testimony would be trustworthy. The interior of the shrine was inlaid with metal work. There were various figures, Buddha being in the centre, and framed “portraits” of Mahatmas Koothoomi and Moria. Each portrait was about seven inches high, and if drawn, as I understood, by astral art, it may be hoped the process will remain occult. Koothoomi, who somewhat resembled an old London portrait I have of Rammohun Roy, holds a small barrel-shaped praying-machine on his head.

A considerable company surrounded the dinner table, and included one or two whom I had not seen. Madame Blavatsky was a genial hostess. When a disciple told some miraculous experience she would turn to me and say, “Now think of that!” She ate little, but smoked a cigarette during the repast. Late in the evening, as I insisted on leaving, she ordered her carriage for me, and promised me an astral apparition of herself after I should reach London. I did not find in Madame Blavatsky the coarseness of which I had heard, and suspect it is mainly due to a prejudice against ladies smoking.

Our ship between Madras and Calcutta was a floating epitome of the world. There were missionaries contending with pundits, and world travellers lazily amused by discussions involving the eternal welfare of the human race. But the disputes had a hollow and perfunctory sound, and the cultured Englishmen stood apart. Mozoomdar, of the Brahmo-Somaj, preached us an ordinary Unitarian sermon. In private he expressed to me a horror of Madame Blavatsky, but he did not appear to me possessed of such religious enthusiasm as Norendranath Sen, whom I had met at Adyar. The latter reproved me for wishing to see Madame Blavatsky’s wonders, instead of recognizing in Theosophy a movement that was saving India from being dragged into revolting dogmas called Christianity, its superstitions, discords, inhumanities. Even admitting that some delusions, or impositions, have been connected with the movement, they would pass away if liberal men did not make so much of them, and would help to develop Theosophy into a religion related to the devout and poetic genius of the oriental world. The words of this thoughtful Hindu impressed me much. I need only look about me on the ship to recognize the fact that the West is overturning the deities and altars of the East, but has no religion to give these instinctive worshippers. The scholarly English Church would appear to have become conscious of this, and is leaving the work of propagandism to vulgar and ignorant sects. There seems to be nothing offered the young Hindus graduated in the universities of India except a repulsive “Salvationism” on the one hand, and a cold Agnosticism on the other. I had conversed with a company of students at Madras, and found them hardly able to understand the interest with which I followed the processions of “idols” about the streets, such things being looked on by them much as a march of the Salvation Army might be regarded by Oxonians. They had little interest in Christianity, but some of them spoke reverently of Buddha, and probably Theosophy has done something to revive in India love for that long banished teacher.

On the whole, I found the little company in their beautiful retreat at Adyar becoming more and more picturesque in the distance. It seems a hard, precipitous fall from visions of Indra’s paradise to a materialistic world of predatory evolution. The youth at Adyar, dreaming of Mahatmas in mystical mountains, and evolving a natural supernaturalism, may be dwelling amid illusions; but, as Shakespeare tells us, our little life is rounded with a sleep,—a dreamland. If Madame Blavatsky had recovered Prospero’s buried wand, and amid the dry and dusty realism of our time raised for her followers a realm of faërie, beguiling them from scenes of falling temples and fading heavens, were it not cruel to break her wand, even though it be glamour? I remember at Concord, in my youth, a little controversy in which miracles were critically handled, some ladies present being distressed. Emerson had remained silent, and on our way home said, “After all it appears doubtful whether, when children are enjoying a play, one must tell them the scene is paint and pasteboard, and the fairy’s jewels but glass.”

So I bore away from Adyar a slight sprinkle of Madame Blavatsky’s moonshine. But it was rudely dispelled in Calcutta and Bombay, where the priestess had worn out her welcome by attempts at fraud. One of these instances was related by Mr. J. D. Broughton, a gentleman connected with the Indian government, to whom I carried a letter of introduction. Unwilling to accept any such fact without verification, I afterwards corresponded with those cognizant of the facts, and have before me now their letters establishing the statements of the following from Mr. Broughton.

“I was in Calcutta, and a friend was staying with me, Mr. H. Blanford, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and head of the Meteorological Department,—a practical man, not, I think, disposed to judge wrongly one way or the other. We both know Mrs. Gordon [a spiritualist] the lady to whom Mr. Eglinton [a spiritualist medium of London] wrote—or says he wrote—from the Vega, while at sea; and I am on friendly terms with her, as is Mr. Blanford to the best of my belief. She called at my house a day or two after the Vega had left Colombo, and produced a letter, an envelope, and two or three cards. The letter was from Mr. Eglinton. It was not in the envelope, but was attached to it by a string in the corner, which was passed through the corner of the cards. These cards had writing upon them, which we were told was the writing of Madame Blavatsky, then at Poona. The writing on the cards referred to the contents of the letter. The envelope had three crosses on the back of it. Mrs. Gordon stated that these letters had been brought to her the day before by what are called astral means, having been conveyed from the Vega, then on the way from Colombo to Aden, first to Poona, and then from Poona to her residence in Housah, a suburb of Calcutta. I have not the slightest doubt that Mrs. Gordon firmly believed this, and I am under the impression that she believes it still. Mr. Blanford and I, however, ventured to ask a few questions as to the circumstances under which the letters made their appearance at Housah, and the replies led us to form an opinion that the lady might have been imposed upon. The circumstances, which were, I believe, considered to amount to strong proof in favor of the astral theory, were published in a paper called Psychic Notes, in Calcutta.

“I wrote to my wife [who had travelled on the Vega to England] and sent this account to her. She replied that Mr. Eglinton had brought a letter to her [during the voyage] to be marked,—that it had a cross upon it, and that she had been asked to mark another or others, and that she did so, crossing the first cross.

“I will add that when my wife left Calcutta I accompanied her in a steam launch, and she embarked on board the Vega at Diamond Harbor. I was the bearer of a letter to Mr. Eglinton. It was given to me for him by Mrs. Gordon, I think, but I won’t be positive. I had known Mr. Eglinton; he was in the habit, when in Calcutta, of giving exhibitions of his powers in private houses, for a fee. He came to our house in this way, but nothing occurred; I think he considered it a failure.”

Mrs. Broughton writes that she was with her friend Mrs. Eddis when Eglinton brought the letter. Both ladies observed that the letter which Koothoomi was to convey across the sea contained no allusion to anything that had occurred since they left—nothing that might not have been written before they started. Instead of marking the envelope, for identification, in the way Eglinton suggested, she made his cross into an asterisk. But the envelope published in India to prove the power of Koothoomi was marked, as Eglinton had requested, with three separate crosses. All efforts to obtain explanation of the difference between the marks on the letter sent and the letter received were vain. In reply to my question Mr. Sinnett said, “All I can tell you now is that Mrs. Broughton acted very badly.” I was present when the Hon. Mrs. Pitt Rivers pressed Colonel Olcott for an explanation. He replied, “The tone of your question suggests collusion between the Theosophists of India and Mr. Eglinton. To such a charge I am, of course, dumb.” It was the only prudent answer he could make.

This incident lowered my idea of Madame Blavatsky’s powers. It was not clever to rest so much on the pliability of a “society lady” with whom she was unacquainted. I presently found that at Bombay she had failed in several performances, but was shielded by a theosophistical argument that mere jugglers never fail. There was a pretty general feeling in Calcutta and Bombay that no glamour or magnetic mystery was needed for Madame Blavatsky’s thaumaturgy, which would soon collapse in Madras as elsewhere. Nearly the first thing I heard after reaching London (1884) was of that collapse. Mr. and Mrs. Coulomb, the former a skilled mechanic, had confessed at Madras that they had all along been assisting Madame Blavatsky in frauds; elaborate contrivances were discovered behind the shrine, and compromising letters written by the high priestess were produced. Madame Blavatsky declared that the contrivances were put in the shrine to ruin her; but Coulomb could have done that by a small mechanism, whereas the arrangements were extensive and expensive, requiring such time as must have assured detection, and money which he had not. The letters, mainly efforts to prevent the Coulombs from revealing the frauds, were pronounced forgeries; but no expert reading them can fail to perceive that to forge them would require a genius far beyond even that of Madame Blavatsky. The letters are brilliant, and Mrs. Coulomb is sometimes worsted in them. Mrs. Coulomb, after her confession, wrote me a long letter, which shows no trace of the style or ability disclosed in the Blavatsky letters. However, it was a sufficient confession that the Theosophists receded from a proposal to test all these things, including the handwriting of the letters, before a law court, for which the Coulombs were eager. The result was that Madame Blavatsky left India and established herself in London.

At the very time that I was at Adyar, and despite a certain repugnance to “occultism,” sympathetically appreciating the serene harmony of the Theosophists in their beautiful retreat amid the palms, the place was turbid with discord, Madame Blavatsky at one end of the table and the Coulombs at the other were even then in mortal combat. I have often marvelled at the self-possession of the woman under the suspended sword that presently fell.

The most curious thing about this turbaned Spiritualism is its development of the Koothoomi myth. I asked Sir W. W. Hunter, Gazetteer-General of India, and other orientalists, about the name of this alleged Mahatma, or Rabat, and they declared Koothoomi to be without analogies in any Hindu tongue, ancient or modern. I was assured on good authority that the name was originally “Cotthume,” and a mere mixture of Ol-cott and Hume, Madame Blavatsky’s principal adherents. Out of Madame’s jest was evolved this incredible being, who performed the part allotted to the aboriginal “John King” in America. Sumangala, chief priest of the Buddhist world, though not unfriendly to Theosophy, told me that it was a belief among them that there had been Rahats in the early world. I gathered from him and others that they are thought of as Enoch, Seth, Elias, etc., are in Christendom. The Coulomb story is that a pasteboard doll, with half-shrouded head, superimposed on the shoulders of Mr. Coulomb, himself orientally draped, moved about in the dusk at Adyar when an “astral” apparition was wanted. In an accession of conscience, Mrs. Coulomb, who is a Catholic, smashed the effigy. She says she had not cared much so long as Hindus only were cheated, because they believed such things anyway, but she could not stand it when European gentlemen and ladies were subjects of the imposture. Perhaps it was because of this moral “strike” that Koothoomi was not tried on me.

What will be the future of Theosophy? Its age of miracles has passed, and is more likely to be repudiated than renewed. It may easily be held that even if Madame Blavatsky was sometimes tempted, in the absence of her potent Guru, to satisfy the demand for signs and wonders with devices, she performed wonders not so explicable. In one of Madame Blavatsky’s letters to Mrs. Coulomb, she says, defiantly, “I have a thousand strings to my bow, and God Himself could not open the eyes of those who believe in me.” Elsewhere she quotes a letter she (Blavatsky) has from Colonel Olcott, saying: “If Madame Coulomb, who has undeniably helped you in some phenomena, for she told this to me herself, were to proclaim it on the top of the roof, it would change nothing in my knowledge, and that of Dr. Hartmann, Brown, Sinnett, Hume, and so many others, in the appreciation of Theosophy and their veneration for the brothers. You alone would suffer. For even if you yourself were to tell me that the Mahatmas do not exist, and that you have tricked in every phenomenon produced by you, I would answer you that you lie, for we know the Mahatmas, and know that you cannot—no more than a fly on the moon—have produced certain of the best of your phenomena.” It should be stated here that, in the whole correspondence revealed by Mrs. Coulomb, Colonel Olcott appears as the dupe of Madame Blavatsky, and in no case accessory to imposture unless by an amazing credulity.

We may assume that Colonel Olcott will continue his propaganda, and it remains only to consider what vitality there is in Theosophy, apart from its “occultism,” and what competency its leader has for such work. I gathered up in India a number of Colonel Olcott’s addresses, circulated in cheap form, and find them much like “The Veiled Isis” ascribed to Madame Blavatsky. They contain a medley of Buddhist, Brahmanic, and Zoroastrian traditions, interpreted in a mystical and moral way, the only thing systematic being a Buddhist catechism. This catechism was printed by the favor of a Singhalese lady, and approved, for use in schools, by the Buddhist high priest Sumangala. Colonel Olcott’s theosophy on the negative side aims to combine all oriental religions against Christianity. He has not “any belief in, or connection with, Christianity in any form whatsoever.” (Theosophy and Buddhism, p. 2.) But he maintains the oriental philosophies, and to some extent the mythologies, of eras corresponding to the discredited biblical doctrines and legends. It is not, indeed, a literal restoration; but no esoteric interpretation can make it very different from an attempt to rationalize for Europeans ancient Druidism, or for Americans Aztec fables and symbolism. This kind of revival appeals in a certain way to the Rajahs whom English rule has reduced to antiquarian curiosities; they too are survivals from primitive religious and social systems. Colonel Olcott had patrons among the Rajahs who used to send elephants to meet him, and entertain him in their palaces. But young India is not going that way. English freedom and English colleges have emancipated Hindu youth, and they look upon the cruel idolatry under which their fathers groaned as Colonel Olcott does on the Puritanism he fiercely denounces.

But if Colonel Olcott should give up his Rajahs and elephants, and fix his headquarters in Ceylon, there would be, I believe, fair prospect of a fruitful alliance of Theosophy with Buddhism. In this island, now the centre of the Buddhist world, I found Madame Blavatsky comparatively unimportant, the great personage being Colonel Olcott. The Buddhists are a mild, speculative, unambitious people, easily overborne by the aggressive missionaries, and were without any leader to defend their rights before Olcott came. He came to their rescue in a case where their procession was attacked by Catholics, while enshrining relics of Buddha,—the Catholics thinking it a mockery of their own processions. Colonel Olcott appealed to the government and obtained redress. The Catholics (Portuguese) presently found some holy well, pointed out, I believe, by a vision, where ailing pilgrims were said to be healed,—among these a number of Buddhists who were deserting their temples. Colonel Olcott announced that he would try and heal sufferers in the name of Buddha, and it is said his success quite eclipsed the holy well. Several eminent Buddhists told me that he had healed members of their families. He is a robust man, of powerful will, and in these days of hypnotism his influence over the most passive of people may appear less wonderful to us than to them. No Christian was found willing to meet him in debate. By lectures, in which Ingersollism blends with Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” the Colonel brought about a sort of Buddhist revival. The Singhalese saw the Theosophists as wise men from the West, bringing frankincense and myrrh to the cradle of their prophet. Although their high priest, Sumangala, expressed disbelief in the Mahatmas, he valued the services of Colonel Olcott. He was especially moved by a request from this American for his permission to administer the pansala to another American. The ceremony took place at Madras. The two Americans, amid a crowd of witnesses, went through formulas unheard there since the ancient banishment of the Buddhists. “I take refuge in Buddha! I take refuge in religion! I take refuge in Truth!” The Colorado doctor (Hartmann) pledged observance of the Five Precepts (pansala): abstinence from theft, lying, taking life, intoxicating drink, adultery. All of this has profoundly impressed the Buddhist world, but that is a world of humble people. It remains to be seen whether Theosophy, which has hitherto shown an affection for titles in India and London, is willing to take its place beside Buddha under his Bo tree, and share the lowliness of his followers. This may be rather hard after the rapid success of Theosophy in India, where in four years from its foundation (1879) it counted seventy-seven flourishing branches; but these are withering away under the Blavatsky scandals, and if Theosophy is to live it must “take refuge in Buddha!”