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 Colonels 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
generals 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 Blavatskys 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
How interesting also to the young philosopher is the Oriental Literature?
item of the Colonels 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
Blavatskys 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 Blavatskys 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
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 Olcotts
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
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
Blavatskys 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.