*Speakers: Kathryn Favell (K), Sugata Nandi (S)
K: Good afternoon, everyone. The lights in the National Library Theatre have dimmed which is our cue to welcome you all here this afternoon. My name’s Kathryn Favelle, I’m Director of Reader Services and I’m delighted to see many of you here in the room today but I would equally like to welcome those of us – those of you who are joining us online either through our livestream or on catch-up.
I’d like to begin today by acknowledging Australia’s First Nations people, the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Thank you for joining us, we’re coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country where it’s still a grey and rainy day but we’re hoping that the sun will be shining in the theatre today as we discover the outcomes of one of our National Library research fellows.
This afternoon’s presentation, Spiritualist West, Magical Orient: Theosophists and India, 1875-1950 is by Dr Sugata Nandi, our 2020 National Library of Australia fellow. Our distinguished fellowships program supports researchers to make intensive use of the National Library’s collections through residencies of three months. National Library of Australia fellowships are only possible through the generous support of our philanthropic community and today I’d like to pay particular acknowledgment to the Stokes family who have supported Dr Nandi’s fellowship and in fact support three fellowships annually.
Now many of our fellows this year have been on wild and wonderful journeys to get here. Sugata I think may actually win the prize, though. He was awarded the fellowship in 2020. Of course, we all know what happened after that. His home base is in Kolkata, India and there were times I think this year right up until about the end of June when I suspect Sugata didn’t think he was going to make it here and we had some serious doubts as well. But it’s been an absolute pleasure to have him as part of our Fellows community working in the Library in the Special Collections Reading Room, in the Fellows Room on a daily basis.
In his presentation today Sugata will present his research on theosophists and India. In 1875 the Theosophical Society was founded in New York, a spiritualist organisation that by the 1900s enjoyed a global presence. Some of you may be familiar with some very famous theosophists like L Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and T S Elliot.
Today we’re going to hear what Sugata has uncovered in the Library’s collections and how that’s going to contribute to his research. Please welcome Sugata Nandi.
S: Thank you, Kathryn, for that very generous introduction. I begin with thanking the National Library for giving me this privilege to come and work here and to present my findings with you.
As Kathryn just said ‘til about the middle of this year I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it and I’m very happy that I’m here and I could work here. The experience has been absolutely fascinating or should I say magical, completely.
Okay so my time period, I’ve shortened it slightly. You might have noticed on the Library website it’s 1875 – it begins in 1875 and I end at 1930. And my presentation’s title as you see, Spiritualist West: Magical Orient. Spiritualism, meaning communication with spirits of the deceased with the help of mediums, arose in America in 1848 and quickly spread all over the west and to the European settler colonies.
In 1879 as two spiritualists, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott arrived in Bombay from New York western spiritualism turned to the east. Blavatsky and Olcott’s Theosophical Society, a spiritualist organisation formed in New York, made India its home and her ancient wisdom the sole object of its quest.
India had by then acquired the reputation of a magical land or the proverbial magical Orient, home to feats and phenomena which were beyond the powers of western science to explain. Accounts of such occurrences appeared in ever increasing numbers in the popular press in the west leading many to believe in them while others debunked them as lies and fraud.
Against such a background Blavatsky claimed that India was home to magic or what she called the science of sciences, a higher knowledge lost to humanity. While in India she attracted a large following by performing inexplicable or magical feats and phenomenon and later used the publicity she found thereby to offer her followers a body of knowledge which formed the core of theosophy with concepts eclectically chosen from Hinduism and Buddhism, two of India’s ancient religion.
Blavatsky died in 1891 when the Theosophical Society was already spreading to many countries of the western world and by 1912 it had established itself in more than 25 countries, thus becoming the largest spiritualist organisation in the world.
In my talk today I will highlight the way the founders of the Society, which is Blavatsky and Olcott and particularly Blavatsky, manipulated magical phenomena and the myth of Indian magic while she was in India to lay the foundation of a quasi-religious and philosophical body of knowledge which we know by the name, theosophy.
Blavatsky’s life, though thoroughly researched, is full of mysteries. She was born Helena Petrovna Hahn in 1831 in present day Ukraine to a Russian aristocratic family of German descent. Her father, Pyotr Alexeyevich Hahn, was a Colonel in the Russian Army and her mother, Andreyevna de Fadeyeva who died early, leaving her in the care of her maternal parents at the age of nine.
Her initiation to the world of occultism happened at the library of Prince Pavel Dolgorukov, her mother’s maternal great-grandfather, an aristocratic Freemason of Catherine the Great’s time.
Blavatsky – sorry, she from all surviving records appears to have been a very impulsive girl who at the age of 17 in 1848 married Nikolai Blavatsky, a Russian noble who was then aged 42. A year later she left her husband though without dissolving her marriage and travelled to Istanbul in Turkey and then to Cairo in Egypt. Her travels, associations, acquaintances and activities ‘til 1858 when she returned to Russia to join her family remain unclear but it’s well known that she acquired mediumistic skills by that time.
She briefly re-joined her husband in the mid-1860s and then left him again to spend the rest of the decade travelling through eastern and southern Europe. In 1871 she went to Cairo, stayed there for over a year. In the spring of 1873 she went to Paris and from there left for New York.
Before leaving Cairo she became a member of an occult group called the Brotherhood of Luxor. Upon arriving in New York as Olcott says she faced hardship due to the dearth of money. She met Olcott in 1874 at Chittenden, Vermont at the Eddy brothers’ residence known at the time for spirit materialisation during séances.
Henry Steel Olcott, born Henry Olcott, to a Presbyterian farmer family of New Jersey in 1832 was a successful agriculturalist by his early 20s. As Stephen Prothero says he took a keen interest in spiritualism from an early age while pursuing his material objectives. He had worked his way up, having to toil as an agricultural labourer in his teens after being forced to give up studies. Later he moved to New York at the age of 21 to become a big city journalist and even after some time he turned into an agricultural entrepreneur.
He took a degree in law afterwards and at the time of the American civil war enlisted in the Union Army and earned the rank of Colonel. His job was to examine and regulate army supplies to prevent embezzlement and corruption which he carried out with success. He was known for being close to Abraham Lincoln.
Olcott was introduced to séances of early spiritualists in America as a teenager and by the age of 20 he had become a self-proclaimed spiritualist. He had eclectically drawn from Christianity and other religions to form his own religious liberalism and displayed an interest in Asian religions and cultures. When he met Blavatsky Olcott was already a firm believer in the ability of mediums to communicate with and manifest spirits of the dead.
Blavatsky’s charismatic persona left an indelible impression on Olcott from the time of their first meeting. Her occult powers awed him and with her he unsuccessfully tried to form the Miracle Club, an organisation to investigate psychic phenomena in early 1875.
Blavatsky’s New York apartment which she named the Lamasery hinting at an albeit untrue Tibetan connection at the time had become the site of regular gathering of people interested in such phenomena and occultism in general. After one such gathering on September 7th, 1875, a parlour meeting typical of aristocrats and haute bourgeois of the Victorian world, Olcott came up with the idea of forming a society for the study of similar subjects like occultism, psychic phenomena and other and Blavatsky approved of it.
Accordingly, a body was formed in the apartment on 17th of November 1875 which was named the Theosophical Society. Olcott in his memoir says that after tossing aside suggestions to christen their association Egyptological Hermetic Rosicrucian everyone agreed to call it the Theosophical Society as Charles Sotoran, an American rare book expert, picked the word theosophy from a dictionary.
The term theosophy derived from Greek roots, theos and sophia, literally meant divine knowledge and according to Antoine Faivre corresponds to – just a second – to the project that begins to take shape during the renaissance and above all, ‘though not exclusively, in Germanic countries. It came up among devout Christians in reaction to the divorce between faith and knowledge which took place during the renaissance. It relied heavily on notable personalities and by the mid-19th century it was deteriorating with little or no influence.
But the Theosophical Society was not and did not claim itself to be a legacy of the pre-existing and declining theosophy. Blavatsky defined the term theosophia as – I quote ‘with some religion or divine wisdom, the substratum and basis of all world religion and philosophies, taught and practised by a few elect since man became a thinking being. In its practical bearing theosophy is purely divine ethics’.
At first the purpose of the Theosophical Society was the scientific investigation of psychic, also called spiritualistic phenomena. At the time of foundations the Society undertook three objectives which were the quest for psychic self, opposition to materialism in science and theology and advancing Oriental religion and the Brotherhood against Christianity. These were tactfully redrawn in 1881 to become as you see in the slide on display, to form a nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity to study Aryan literature, religion and science to vindicate the importance of this inquiry and correct misinterpretations with which it has been clouded, to explore the hidden mysteries of nature and the latent powers of man on which the founders believe that Oriental philosophy is in a position to throw light.
These were further changed in 1890 and it became – they became one, to form the nucleus of a universal – to form the nucleus of a universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, colour, caste or – sorry, race, creed, sex, caste or colour. Two, to promote the study of Aryan and other eastern literatures, religions, philosophies and sciences and to demonstrate their importance to humanity. Three, to investigate unexplored laws of nature and the psychic powers latent in man.
These objectives evidently had a universal appeal in the [unclear] 14:37 world but the Theosophical Society’s success in growing into a global spiritual organisation was due mainly to Blavatsky’s inexplicable or magical feats which she performed while she was in India and her much publicised claim of having been given those powers – given powers to produce such phenomena by her teachers whom she called the invisible masters who manifested themselves while she was there in India.
When Blavatsky and Olcott went to India their avowed objective was to retrieve ancient wisdom, their belief that there was an ancient wisdom which had been lost to humanity especially due to dense materialism of modern science to which Blavatsky added there was an invisible brotherhood of masters or adepts who were men, not gods, in possession of ancient wisdom who lived up to tremendous age, were capable of astral travel, could materialise when necessary and communicated with initiates or disciples through letters and notes which appeared out of nowhere.
She claimed they formed a brotherhood called the Great White Lodge and lived in Tibet and sometimes as she suggested in the Himalayas. The masters or mahatmas, as she later termed them following the suggestion of Domodek Mavlanka, an early Indian philosophist, were in her opinion magicians or possessors of the ancient wisdom which the Theosophical Society sought to revive.
Blavatsky had from before moving to India redefined the words magic and magician and used them to convey quite the opposite of what they meant in modern times. In an article published before the foundation of the Theosophical Society she had written, and I quote, the exercise of magical powers is the exercise of natural powers but superior to the ordinary functions of nature. Except for ignorant people magic is but a science, a profound knowledge of the occult forces in nature and of the laws governing the visible or invisible world. Spiritualism in the hands of an adept becomes magic for he is learned in the art of blending together the laws of the universe without breaking any of them and thereby violating nature.
In the hands of an experienced medium, spiritualism becomes unconscious sorcery for by allowing himself become the helpless tool of a variety of spirits of whom he knows nothing save what the latter permit him to know, he opens unknown to himself a door of communication between the two worlds through which emerge the blind forces of nature lurking in astral light.
She would, I unquote, she would in later writings reiterate the same thing several times. In her first opus, the Isis Unveiled, the book that you see over here, the is the first edition of the Isis Unveiled and is available here at the Cooper Collection in this library. It was published in 1877. In this book Blavatsky claimed that magic is derived – the word magic is derived from the Sanskrit word maha or mahaji which means the great or wise man or the one anointed by the divine wisdom therefore magician was a great or extraordinary man or a man well versed in the secret and esoteric knowledge, properly a sakatote.
She also said that in her contemporary world the meaning of the word magician has been wholly perverted. The uncorrupted significance of the word magic according to her or the meaning which it has in the minds of Oriental students and practitioners was in existence in the east. She said in this book, The Isis Unveiled, the phenomena of natural magic that we witnessed in Siam, India, Egypt and other Oriental countries bear no relationship whatsoever to sleight of hand, the one being an absolute physical effect due to the action of natural forces, the other a mere deceptive result opted by dextrous manipulations supplemented with confederacy. I unquote.
Relying heavily on descriptions of supernatural phenomena given by the French administrator, judge and writer, Louis Jacquouille, who spent a number of years in India during the 19th century, she offered them as proof of the existence of ancient knowledge of magic in India. She claimed to have observed one such incident in Raichur, fakir, a Syrian half heathen, half Christian from Kudankulam, Colchene state which is in the southern part of India, a reputed sorcerer given exhibition off what Blavatsky called white magic. The man in broad daylight made a tiger, a monkey and an oriole drowsy in front of a gathering of six European and one Indian man – six European and Indian men and there were two ladies in the gathering including Blavatsky. This is a lie. She had never been to India while she was writing it, she went to India for the first time in 1879, she couldn’t have seen this and this possibly won’t have happened.
Such were the abilities of the fakir that while he was overpowering the animals he made flowers float about the room and as someone complained of heat he brought into being a shower of delicately perfumed dew on the observers which fell fast, drying instantly before touching the bodies of those present.
The magical powers, the use of which he so described were in her opinion present in the ancient world where magic was considered a divine science which led to the participation in attributes of divinity itself. Therefore, an ancient science which modern savas were yet to discover was being discovered by Blavatsky herself. She however cautioned her readers that from the earliest times magic had a double nature. There was divine magic or white magic and there was evil magic or black magic.
And she said, and I quote, in the oldest documents now in our possession, the Vedas - which is Aryan literature of ancient times and the Vedas as we see them now weren’t written, they were part of an oral culture, they were written much later - in the oldest documents in our possession, the Vedas, and the older laws of Manu which is the law court of Hindus, the ancient law court of Hindus, we find many magical rites practised and permitted by the Brahmins. Brahmins means Hindu priests. Having thus made a claim on Indian history she added magic is as old as man, it’s impossible to name a time when it sprang into existence as to indicate what day the first man himself was born.
At the time of the publication of this book, Isis Unveiled, it was thus evident that Blavatsky believed that India was the land of magical knowledge and she went there in February 1879. In India she and Olcott faced a number of setbacks in their initial few months of which the most serious one was their fallout with Swami Dayanand Saraswati, a Hindu holy man and the founder of the Arya Samaj, a 19th century body to reform Hinduism and Hindu society. They fell out in 1882.
Dayanand wrote a scathing piece against the Theosophical Society titled ‘Humbuggery of the Theosophists’ in which he said neither Colonel Olcott nor Madame Blavatsky know anything of Yogi Veda which he called occult science as practised by the Yogis or the Hindu holy men of the old. They may know a little of mesmerism as well as of the natural and physical sciences taught at Bombay institutions, especially the science of electricity and that they may know that clever art of conjuring but for them to say they perform their phenomena with apparatus without any secret prearrangement and solely through the forces existing in nature and by what they call willpower is to tell a lie.
Besides Dayanand Saraswati’s accusation one of the main reasons behind the differences between the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society was the latter’s belief in magic. Blavatsky said that for theosophists magic was as I already said the science of the sciences which meant the higher study of knowledge of nature and deep research into her hidden powers, those occult and mysterious laws which constitute the ultimate sense of very element. And she said that this knowledge of magic was to be found in Aryan philosophy and Aryan literature.
While upholding such a view she repeatedly stated that theosophists didn’t believe in miracles but they firmly believed in magic. To prove that such knowledge existed she performed, or produced as theosophists said, inexplicable or magical phenomena from after arriving in Bombay and always in the presence of observers. Their accounts soon started appearing in English language press in India bringing her instant fame. In addition, Blavatsky and Olcott used their mouthpiece, The Theosophist, a periodical they founded in 1879, to publicise the phenomenon.
For example, while in Bombay the editor of the Amrita Bazar Patrika, an English language daily published from Calcutta. The editor called Sisir Ghosh paid her a visit and asked her to duplicate objects at his request. Blavatsky feigning reluctance and fatigue at first took a mirror in her hands, turned around and duplicated it within less than a minute in full view of her visitor. Using the publicity which such phenomena brought her Blavatsky made friends and acquaintances with Indian princes and eminent and influential Europeans in India.
Jill Rowe, the Australian historian of the Theosophical Society says that Blavatsky’s Indian friends and followers had provided her with money which she used in setting up the Theosophical Society headquarters in Adyar in Madras in December 1882. Madras is a colonial port city in the southeast coast of India.
Olcott, had in the meanwhile, established contacts with Europeans of India and soon after arriving in the country, he and Blavatsky corresponded with Alfred Percy Sinnett. By the way this is their first residence in Bombay and this is what later became the headquarters of theosophy, the global headquarters of theosophy in Adyar in Madras. Madras has now been renamed in India, it’s called Chennai now.
Blavatsky and Olcott had corresponded with Alfred Percy Sinnett, the editor of The Pioneer, an Anglo-Indian English language daily published from the north Indian city of Allahabad. Sinnett was influential within the European community in India and was known for his proximity to the Viceroy of India, Lord Ripon and other European high officials in civil and military administration. At his invitation in September 1880 Blavatsky and Olcott went to India. Simla is a colonial health station built in the Himalayas and a place for summer sojourn of the Viceroy and the high officials.
Sinnett said about this visit in his book, The Occult World, and I quote, ‘about the beginning of September 1880 Madame Blavatsky came to Simla as our guest and in the course of the following six weeks various phenomena occurred which became the talk of all Anglo India for a time and gave rise to some excited feeling on the part of persons who warmly espoused that they must be the result of imposture’.
Having arrived in Simla Blavatsky produced – sorry, unquote – having arrived in Simla Blavatsky produced a number of phenomena, for example, she started by producing a note from the Mahatmas for Mrs Sinnett at her request. Then on the 3rd of October 1880 at a picnic she produced a cup and a saucer that belonged to a set, two bottles of drinking water and a certificate of initiation into the Theosophical Society for a European Army officer who, being impressed with her abilities, joined the Society there itself.
Having been witness to the phenomena Sinnett came to the conclusion that the objects couldn’t have appeared if they were not deposited by occult agency. He published a description of the phenomena in The Pioneer and later wrote about them in detail in his book, The Occult World which was published in 1881. This helped Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society to become popular among Europeans in India. These were followed by what is known as a brute incident which received much wider publicity and turned Blavatsky into a celebrity in the European circles.
At a dinner hosted by Allan Octavian Hume – this is Sinnett and these are Sinnett’s books, The Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism which were influential in finding theosophy its followers in late 19th century. And this is Allan Octavian Hume. Hume was an ICS Officer which means an officer of the Indian Civil Service and he was extremely influential and very highly placed at the time when the incident which I’m going to narrate had occurred and he was also the founder of The International Congress, the first modern political party of India. And Hume is supposed to be in this way being the founder of the Congress, is credited with being the father of India nationalism in one way, though that’s being debated now among historians. And this is a stamp which the Government of India brought out in 1973 to honour Hume.
Allan Octavian Hume’s residence - Hume was then a highly placed officer of the Indian Civil Service – at his residence during dinner Blavatsky, she asked Hume’s wife whether she longed to find any of her lost belongings. Mrs Hume said that she wished to find a brooch that her mother had given her and she lost the ornament after coming to India, having lent it to someone. Blavatsky made the ornament appear after a while on the flowerbed in Hume’s garden where it was found lying on the ground wrapped in secret paper which Blavatsky used.
Sinnett and Hume wrote an account of the incident there itself and got it signed by nine people who witnessed it. Sinnett published it in The Pioneer and it led automatically to a sensation. Later he printed the account in The Occult World and said that Blavatsky made solid objects appear by disintegrating them into infinitely minute particles which were carried on the currents and then reintegrated at its destination.
From the time that - from that time onwards letters from Blavatsky’s invisible masters started appearing in the mail of her friends and followers. There’s sufficient evidence as Bruce F Campbell, the American historian says, to suspect that these letters were in fact written by Blavatsky herself. During her time the authorship of these letters had been traced back to her and she had been accused of deceit in their miraculous appearances but to theosophists all over the world, they have been the evidence of the existence of masters.
From after 1880 most of the letters from the masters were addressed to Sinnett and some to Hume and the rest to other theosophists. The majority of the letters bore the name of two centres, Kuthumi and Morya. The letters were handwritten and were always in English barring a few, they contained theosophical teachings. Sinnett used them to write his book Esoteric Buddhism published in 1883. In addition, Blavatsky, Olcott and Sinnett used The Theosophist, their mouthpiece in India, to publicise teachings given in these letters.
The first letter to Sinnett had the name, Gutume Lalesaint as its writer and contained a lengthy explanation behind the bright future of Indian theosophy. The letters which followed had instructions on bringing Anglo-Indians within the folds of the Society in India. Sinnett and Hume replied to these letters which had to be sent via Blavatsky to the masters. Letters from the masters were either – sorry, letters from the masters either appeared in the receiver’s mailbox or they dropped magically from the ceiling or appeared mysteriously resting on the receiver’s pillow.
As the Theosophical Society moved to Adyar in December 1882 the headquarters became the site of many such magical phenomena. Most of them took place in a wooden shrine which was a small cabinet in which Mahat monitors materialised on request within seconds and broken objects were restored to their previous undamaged state. Letters and note from the Mahatmas also dropped magically from the walls and ceilings of the building which were covered decoratively in glazed calico.
For many the Mahat monitors combined with the sightings of the Mahatmas firmed up believing their existence and Blavatsky occult powers and - occult and psychic powers became a matter of immense importance in contemporary India.
Sinnett who had publicised the Mahat monitors claimed that he had seen one of the Mahatmas on the night of 19th October 1880. Blavatsky said that she had met her first maha masters in London in 1851, a claim not supported by any evidence, and later to have studied occultism under him and the rest of the Brotherhood in Tibet in 1856/57 which is highly improbable as the land was inaccessible to outsiders back then.
She however claimed to be one of the initiates, that is, a chilla or disciple, giving to others the occult knowledge that they in turn had given her.
In America after the founding of the Theosophical Society, Olcott said that one evening while at Blavatsky’s apartment he had seen a Hindu walk in and disappear after taking off his turban and giving it to him, indicating that he should go to India with Blavatsky. Olcott said that initially Blavatsky introduced him to the African masters and later still to Indian masters.
Indian theosophists corroborated such claims, offering eyewitness accounts of having seen the mahatmas converse with Blavatsky. One Indian theosophist named [Mantradas Babatinatnat] 35:29 claimed to have seen Master Morya with Blavatsky one night in April 1881 in Bombay at about 10pm. He said, and I quote, ‘one dark night while talking in the company with other theosophists with Madame Blavatsky about 10pm in the open veranda of the upper bungalow’ a man, six feet in height clad in white robe with a white rumal, that is, handkerchief, or a [fetda] 35:59, which is scarf, on the head made his appearance on a sudden, walking towards us through the garden adjacent to the bungalow from a point, a precipice where there is no path for anyone to tread.
Madame then rose up and told us to go inside the bungalow so we went in but we heard Madame and he was talking for a minute to each other in an eastern language unknown to us. Immediately after we went out again to the veranda as we were called but the brother had disappeared.’
Apparently inexplicable incidents such as these and those which Blavatsky produced in Simla publicised by Sinnett in his books and in The Pioneer created such a stir that the Society for Psychical Research, a body founded in Cambridge in 1882 led an investigation into them. Richard Hodgson, an Australian educated at the University of Cambridge, carried out the investigation and in a report published in May-June 1885 accused Blavatsky and [his] followers of producing psychical, that is magical or inexplicable phenomena, practising fraud.
Okay so these are two people who are supposed to have – on the right you’ll see this Indian man called Norendronath Sen who was a journalist based in Calcutta and he was the editor of a newspaper called The Indian Mirror founded in the 1860s and he is supposed to have been a disciple of one of the masters, he used to get letters from the masters and he used to publicise these letters, he used to reprint those letters in his newspaper. And in one of his reports which I read here it’s interesting to note that the membership fee of The Theosophical Society back in say the 1880s was 10 rupees a year which was quite a bit of money back in those days. And to subscribe to The Theosophist, the mouthpiece of the organisation would cost you eight rupees a year back in those days in India which meant that basically it wasn’t meant for consumption of the people who were not well-heeled.
To your left you see this man called – okay, that’s to my left – to your right and to my left, this man called William H Terry. William H Terry was born in England then he migrated to Australia and he was a shopkeeper by profession but he took an interest in spiritualism and he edited and published this periodical called ‘The Harbinger of Light’ from Melbourne where he lived. And he’s the man who is credited with introducing theosophy to Australians. He published news about The Theosophical Society, about Blavatsky, her phenomena and he advertised The Theosophist and he was a dealer for the periodical over here in Australia. So that’s how, with his agency, theosophy and Theosophical Society reached Australia.
This is another theosophical periodical which was published from Sydney in Australia and which I found in the Library over here. I wasn’t aware of this periodical earlier and very interestingly it’s also titled Magic.
Okay. This is a book – these are two books with Letters of the Mahmatas, were reprinted. The red book that you see over here, it contains almost all the letters that were sent to A P Sinnett and you can find this at the Cooper Collection in this library and this one also, you’ll see Jinnarājadāsa’s book which is a collection of a select few of the letters that were received from the Mahatmas. And this is an artist impression of the Mahatmas so in the middle the man standing right behind Blavatsky is Morya then there is Kuthumi and there’s another Prince Ragossi. These three are supposed to be Mahmatas and there was another Mahatma also whose name was [Jewel Kule] 40:12 but I haven’t been able to find any artist’s impression of how the Mahatma looked.
Okay. This is a quote from Blavatsky where she stresses that she had been in touch with the Mahatmas and seen the Mahatmas from 1851 onwards which was published in a book written by one of the Indian theosophists published in 1951. This is a photo of early Theosophical Society in India taken in Adyar and it has Blavatsky, Olcott and all the important theosophists who contributed to the popularity and the growth of the society in India. And this is the man I’m talking about, Richard Hodgson, and this is the report that I’m going to refer to, the Hodgson report which exposed Blavatsky which is available here in the Special Collections of this library.
Alright so the Society for Psychical Research, a body founded in Cambridge in 1882 led an investigation. Richard Hodgson, an Australian educated at the University of Cambridge, carried out the investigation and in a report published in May-June 1885 accused Blavatsky and [his] fellow theosophists of producing psychical or magical phenomena by practising fraud. Hodgson had stayed at the theosophical headquarters in Adyar and concluded having finished his investigation that there could be no doubt whatever that the theosophical phenomena were a part of a huge fraudulent system worked by Madame Blavatsky with the assistance of Coulombs and other confederates.
Emma Coulomb who had been a housekeeper at the theosophical headquarters in Adyar had published Blavatsky’s letters addressed to her in the Madras Christian College magazine which showed that she had instructed her to produce what she called psychical phenomena. Coulomb and her French husband who worked as a handyman in Adyar had fallen out with Blavatsky, her accusations aided Hodgson greatly who after investigating Blavatsky’s phenomena and interviewing theosophists at Adyar gave a detailed account of how she misdirected the Sinnetts and the Humes in Simla and made objects appear by trickery performed with careful planning.
For example, the cup and saucer which appeared at a picnic spot on a hill in Simla were in fact buried over there by Blavatsky’s servant. Similarly, Blavatsky and Olcott had come into possession of Mrs Hume’s lost brooch while in Bombay and knew how much it meant to her. Likewise, the astral appearance of Mahatmas were performed with a dummy which Blavatsky had endearingly christened Christoph or Christopholo which was hoisted on a bamboo in the night to create the illusion of a man floating in thin air. And British calligraphy experts confirmed that the handwriting in Mahatma letters were indeed that of Blavatsky.
The shrine at Adyar proved to be a device which had a panel which could open secretly like the false bottom of a state magician’s basket and it was connected to Blavatsky’s chamber through a narrow passage cut through a wall. Objects which appeared in it thus were placed to fool people. And it was removed and destroyed by theosophists when charges of fraud were levelled against Blavatsky and them.
The letters of Emma Coulomb and the Hodgson report were a serious setback for Blavatsky and having learnt the preliminary findings of Hodgson’s report in December 1884, Blavatsky left India for good in March 1885. Her departure from India marked the end of the phase of magical phenomena, though a few Mahatma letters appeared in similar fashion even after her death. The accusation of having been a fraud notwithstanding as Joy Dixon, the feminist historian says, Blavatsky re-emerged in 1888 with the publication of her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine.
Okay so this is a report which Hodgson published in The Age Melbourne in September 12, 1885 in which he produces the gist of his expose on Blavatsky. The report is published from the third to the seventh column of the newspaper and I found this on Trove over here. Blavatsky re-emerged in 1888 with the publication of her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, and it turned her into the leading occult teacher of the world and the Theosophical Society continued to grow and continued to spread to other countries, to new countries.
Published in two volumes and spread over 1,400 pages The Secret Doctrine was like her earlier books, an exceptional piece of work. Blavatsky wrote it combining the religious ideas of the then contemporary scientific discoveries about earth, evolution and the origins of human society and religions. The first volume titled Gospel Genesis is her exposition of the evolution of the cosmos and the second one, Anthropogenesis, is that of the evolution of man. Concepts taken from Hinduism and Buddhism constitute the core of ideas of The Secret Doctrine. The first among them is the Hindu and Buddhist concept of the earthly world as an illusion or maya. The concept second, the concept of karma or having to suffer from the result of one’s actions of the past. Third, reincarnation and fourth, the concept of the inner or divine man and his outer or terrestrial self in which the former perpetually at odds with the latter.
While Blavatsky was accused of plagiarism as in the past for Secret Doctrine, it is in the opinion of Bruce Campbell the most important work on occultism of the 19th century. It found a large number of readers from upper and middle classes of the west as it gave meaning to individual destiny in a conceptual framework made up with Indian religions.
Following The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky published another short book, The Voice of Silence. In it she used two ideas of [Brumhan or atman and Idvana] 47:06. Using again Hindu and Buddhist beliefs she underscored the illusory nature of human life on earth and said that like a Yogi the aim of man should be to unite with the higher self or atman for that would mean Nirvana or true liberation.
In the book Blavatsky reiterated the theosophical belief in existence of human wisdom which is to be found in Indian religions. The publication of The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of Silence marked a transition in Blavatsky’s life and that of the Theosophical Society. Unlike before she no longer relied on production of inexplicable phenomena for fame and following, rather the large and varied corpus of ideas for which she relied openly on Hinduism and Buddhism became the reason why people looking up to her.
It implied that having been to India, having produced mysterious phenomena as proof of her knowledge of magic she was now revealing the hidden ancient wisdom to the modern world. It, according to Robert S Ellwood, signified the emergence of the Theosophical Society as the initiator of what would become later new age religion in the 19th century.
Blavatsky died in 1891, handing over responsibility of running the Theosophical Society to Annie Besant, an English lady, a former socialist. Besant carried on Blavatsky’s task and she publicised many of her ideas to her writings. For example, in an article written in 1909 Besant in a manner reminiscent of Blavatsky said that there were black and white magic in India and she added another kind of magic to this list called green magic. She said in an article and I quote, ‘western people will never understand eastern life unless they can appreciate intelligently, sympathetically the view of nature universally held. From this magic or the great science is purely a natural science in which human will strengthen to a high degree and directed by enlightened intelligence controls forces not generally understood and works by methods unknown to the profane’.
Theosophists after Besant carried forward the task of using Blavatsky idea’s to popularise the Theosophical Society. I’m going to cite two such books. The first one was written by C W Leadbeater, the Christian priest who turned to theosophy and was Besant’s protégé. He was a leading theosophist in the early 20th century and he came to Australia and he settled over here from 1916. He lived in Sydney and he spread the word of theosophy in this country.
Borrowing heavily from Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, Leadbeater presented to readers Blavatsky’s scheme of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis. He said that man is – and I quote ‘a [monart] 50:40, a spark of divine’ I unquote – whose personality has three vehicles, namely mental, astral and physical. His physical body is laid aside when he dies. After attaining fulfilment in his mental body he comes back to earth again for physical life, meaning he’s reincarnated.
Similarly, a theosophical manual produced – okay so this is Leadbetter – in this photography the bearded gentleman standing next to Annie Besant. Similarly, a theosophical manual published under the guidance of Katherine Tingley, an American from Point Loma, California stressed Blavatsky’s teachings. The book was written in 1907, it went through several editions and was reprinted in 1921, proving its popularity. It reminded readers of the material world – that the material world they lived in was an illusory one, quoting the Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, the holy book of the Hindus and citing Indian mythology it said that man was pure spirit or atman, sheathed in a little body. And theosophy or wisdom religions reminds us that he, in spirit, is a little image of the universe.
Now I conclude with these words. Blavatsky’s magical phenomena and her redefinition of magic have been from her lifetime matters of immense controversy. The number of those who believed in her is matched equally by that of her retractors and debunkers. Notwithstanding the fact that she was exposed as a fraud by Hodgson in 1884/85 her popularity grew all over the world. She did what other western spiritualists couldn’t possibly accomplish, that is, to turn spiritualism to Indian religions and mythology to create a belief in the undying human spirit.
For Blavatsky, Olcott and their followers India was magical but not for the purpose of general entertainment or that of sensation in the press. They, and especially Blavatsky, transformed Indian magic into an ancient and higher knowledge to look beyond the binary of normal or natural versus paranormal or supernatural. In this way she turned theosophy into what Janet Oppenheim says, a surrogate faith, which in Robert Ellwood’s opinion led to new age religious movements and counterculture from after 1950. Thank you very much.
K: Thank you, Sugata. I have so many questions. What an amazing woman to have been travelling independently around the world at such a young age, dumping her husband after 12 months of marriage at the age of 18. Quite an adventuress but what was her motivation? Why do you think she was driven to explore magic and set up the Theosophical Society?
S: Well Blavatsky was a maverick from a very young age and she is what historians call the marginal elite of a society, she’s somebody who challenged the customs and the beliefs of the times that she lived in and ‘though she is exposed as a fraud, as a liar, as somebody who performed tricks and passed them on as her – as examples of her psychic powers, at the end of the day Blavatsky managed to inspire an entire generation and especially women during the 19th century, to go off the beaten track. And it was possible because the historical – I’ll just highlight two things – first, this was made possible as historians say due to Blavatsky’s childhood. Blavatsky had a very different childhood as compared to other aristocratic Russian children of her times. She was growing up in an adult library, she had powers of imagination which people marvelled at and then Blavatsky had this ability of challenging customs.
This – the question that you ask is a theme which comes up repeatedly on books on her, that at the age of 18 she leaves home and let’s remember she’s a Russian. East European society as compared to contemporary west European society was far more conservative so it was a very courageous act of her to act on her will to leave home to seek what she wanted. And it’s while she was journeying through north of Africa, south of Europe, eastern Europe that she met a number of people who in turn influenced her to take through first to spiritualism and then to theosophy. And theosophy as I realised was – during my research over here as I realised was not only as a spiritualist movement of the late 19th century, there were several organisations of the late 19th century, all spiritualist, none of which have had the same glorious run as the Theosophical Society which exists still today, by the way. I found that there’s a rather active theosophical society in Australia in Sydney. I haven’t been able to go to Sydney but if I manage to travel to Sydney sometime in the future I’d like to see what the Theosophical Society in Australia looks like and what they do.
So it’s basically she was giving her contemporary society a body of ideas which would become what from 1950s onwards we know as counterculture in the sense that she was challenging not only the customs, she was challenging beliefs, the foundation of beliefs. And come to think about it she was opposing dogma. She was extremely democratic in theosophy in the sense that Theosophical Society which – this is a thing which I couldn’t touch upon during my talk because of the long history of the Society, it’s very difficult to compress everything within a 40-minute talk – the Theosophical Society is an extremely democratic society and that’s why I mean from the late 1880s there are many dissensions within the Society, the Society itself breaks up into many units and these units called branches, they perform almost independently of each other, there is no high priest of the Society. So, Blavatsky in many senses was far ahead of her times.
K: Thank you. Does anyone have a question before we conclude for today? While you’re thinking of that we have had one question online which is around whether there will be a bibliography available. Now am I right in thinking, Sugata, that all the references you showed us today were from the Cooper Collection?
S: Some from the main Reading Room as well.
K: Okay, we should be able to add a link to at least the Cooper Collection of which there’s over 3,000 items into the Facebook chat for you to follow up. Were there any other questions today? Then before we wrap up one of the joys of streaming is that people all around the world can watch us and I’d like to say hello to Sugata’s family who are watching us from Kolkata and he’ll be home soon and thank you all for coming today. We have another fellowship lecture coming up in a couple of weeks’ time, it will be on Thursday, the 10th of November and it’ll be delivered by Dr Kate Warren and of course if you want to catch up on any of our lectures, if you want to explore the collection just pop online to the National Library catalogue. Thank you all for coming today and special thanks to Dr Sugata Nandi for sharing your research with us. Thank you.
End of recording
Dr Sugata Nandi presents his 2020 National Library Fellowship research on theosophists and India from 1875 to 1930, and the resulting new interpretations and uses of Hinduism and Buddhism.
In 1879, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91), an émigré Russia noblewoman, and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), an American, reached India in search of knowledge of her two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. In 1875 they had founded The Theosophical Society in New York, a spiritualist organisation that, by the 1900s, enjoyed a global presence and had turned Western esoteric quests to India and her two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. Their quest led to radically new interpretations and uses of the religions which gave rise to a new, diverse and highly controversial body of knowledge on India as the proverbial Magical Orient.
Dr Sugata Nandi is a 2020 National Library of Australia Fellow supported by the Stokes Family.
About Dr Sugata Nandi
Dr Sugata Nandi is Assistant Professor of History at the West Bengal State University, Kolkata, India, where he teaches Modern Indian History, Early Modern European political ideas, Western Historiography and Research Methodology. He has been a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities of the University of Edinburgh (2018) and a Fulbright–Nehru Doctoral and Professional Research Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA (2011-12). He has recently been awarded the Junior Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study of Central European University, Budapest. which he will commence in early 2023.