Published by Blavatsky Study Center. Online Edition copyright 2004.

The Theosophists.

Moncure D. Conway on "Occultism" - A Great Hindu Revival -
Mme. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott Among the Brahmins -
Royal Receptions.

by Moncure D. Conway

[First published in The Glasgow Herald, April 11, 1884; reprinted in
The Religio-Philosophical Journal (Chicago, Illinois), May 10, 1884, p. 1)

ADYAR (Madras), January 1, 1884.

And what or where is Adyar? It is the center of the new cult called theosophy, whose believers see in it the fulfillment of past visions and prophecies, while unbelievers find a repetition of the pious frauds which have attended the history of religious enthusiasm in all time. One hears stories of able men - European as well as Hindu - who have abandoned fair prospects, left family and friends, to devote themselves to this new movement. One hears rumors of a new pythoness and a thaumaturgist, by whom are fulfilled old fables, so that the tree so long deemed mythological, which yields whatever is asked of it - rubies or rupees included - is actually at Adyar. When I smiled at these rumors my convinced friends in Australia said: "Only go and investigate the matter for yourself." And so, bearing a letter from one of them, I made my way from the revered footprint of the doubting disciple at St. Thomas's Mount to this shrine of the undoubting. As I approached Adyar bridge I stopped to inquire for the residence of the "Countess Blavatsky," that being the name on my letter of introduction. Every native on the roadside knew the place, and a girl trotted beside the carriage to make sure of my entering the right gate. On it was written, "Headquarters of the Theosophical Society."


Just inside the gate was the dilapidated carcass of a big blue pasteboard elephant, one of two, as I afterward learned, which some Madras gentlemen had set up at the gate on the occasion of a recent theosophist anniversary. The carriage road winds through a large and leafy park up to a handsome mansion. The spacious veranda displayed every elegance, but it was unoccupied. For a time my coolies vainly tried to find someone about the place, and I was conscious of a half hope that no one might be at home. I had promised several friends in Ceylon interested in Spiritualism and its dark-complexioned sister, Theosophy, that I would make this call and heed whatever fact or truth might be offered, but had no faith that anything lay for me in "occultism," after thirty years' observation of similar "phenomena." I was afraid of being out of place among enthusiasts of a movement I believed superstitious, but at the same time had already recognized Theosophy as an important contemporary phenomenon in India. Buddhist Ceylon was ablaze with it, the Theosophical Society at Colombo being united with the Freethinking Association of the same place.


My hesitation between fear of obtruding on those whose belief I was little likely to share and the feeling that I ought to know whatever they could show or tell me was ended by the appearance of a gracious young Babu, who came to bring me the Countess Blavatsky's welcome and to say she would presently receive me. Next, a youth of more remarkable appearance, delicate and almost maidenly, advanced, but when, in response to his greeting, I offered my hand, he said, gently, "I cannot shake hands with you." I afterwards learned that this youth is what his mystical faith terms "a lay Chela;" that he already possesses the power of appearing at a distance in his astral body, and that he fears to shake hands lest his magnetism, or whatever his occult virtue is termed, may depart. Colonel Olcott was absent, founding in some distant place a new branch of the society, of which he is President. The Countess was cordial and urged my remaining until the morning. I agreed to remain during the rest of the evening, and consequently was with her and her co-workers for near six hours.


Besides the two mentioned, other Indian gentlemen were present, among them Mr. Novendranauth, Sr., known to me by reputation as editor of the Indian Mirror. America was represented in the company of Dr. Hartmann of Colorado. Another person present was W. T. Brown of Glasgow, a young man of education and pleasant manners, who told me some of his marvelous experiences. Indeed, they all told me their own marvelous experiences, but when I hinted that I would like to carry away some little marvel of my own experience the reply unpleasantly recalled vain attempts made these many years to witness a genuine spiritualistic phenomenon. I was once more put off with narratives of what had occurred before I came and predictions of what might occur if I should come again - in the great "by-and-by." A cabinet shrine was pointed out, in which letters were deposited and swift answers received from the wonderful Mahatmas far away in the Himalayas; but when I proposed to write a note I was told that only a few days before the Mahatmas had forbidden any further cabinet correspondence. Just my luck! The Countess Blavatsky, as I have since learned, had been forewarned of my visit by one of her friends in Sydney, and it seems a little unreasonable that the Mahatmas, with whom she is in daily communication, should have terminated their cabinet miracles just when one was coming who needed them more than the convinced already, to whom, apparently, the signs were limited.


The Theosophists said that probably even if an occult phenomenon occurred, I would have suspected it of being a trick, but in this they were mistaken. If a Mahatma, or the Countess, or anybody else, can answer a note I can write, and show that they understand the matter to which it should refer, I will believe in Theosophy. Though I was not shown any evidence of occult phenomena beyond the familiar testimony which would equally confirm the miracles of Romanism (and they are none the less miracles because the Theosophists say they are not miraculous), I was not to go away without experiences of a startling kind. I was invited to see the cabinet-shrine. It was tastefully, not to say aesthetically, decorated, and when the doors were opened richly wrought metal-work was displayed. In the midst sat a small figure of Buddha, and on each side was the portrait of a Mahatma, in frames about seven inches high, done, as I was given to understand, by some "occult" process. These faces were not without a certain beauty, but, had I not been told they were actual men, I should say they are ideals on their way to conventionalization, like the face of Buddha. One of the two is the famous Kootoomi, or Khothume (as I saw it written on a document in the house). He holds a praying machine in his hand!


The burning question in certain circles is, Does Khothume really exist? Theosophists declare that Khothume is the descendant of Rajput kings, chief successor of the most venerable Rishis, or Rahats, heir of their power over nature, able to render himself invisible and to visit a man in New York or elsewhere by his "astral" body, while his physical form is in Thibet. On the other hand, the Chief Priest of Ceylon, though friendly to the Theosophists, affirmed in my hearing that the last Rahat died a thousand years after Buddha, that no such being can now exist. Skeptics declare that Khothume is a name made up of the last part of Colonel Olcott's name, combined with that of Allen Hume (now undergoing theosophic austerities at Simla), these two (Cott-Hume) being Mme. Blavatsky's particular friends. (I have been informed by an eminent Oriental scholar that the name lies completely outside the analogies of any language ever spoken in India). The skeptics also challenge Theosophites to name the spot where Khothume resides. Theosophists reply that their Mahatma or Master, must conceal himself and reserve the secret of his powers, lest that secret become the possession of unworthy persons, who might use them for evil or selfish purposes. Against this I have heard it argued that, ex hypothesi, the powers can only be used by one who has reached the sanctification implied in the title Rahat, and, by all Buddhist orthodoxy, a Rahat cannot use any power for evil ends.


The evidence for Khothume's existence would be complete if the testimony of those I met at Adyar be accepted. Nearly all declared they had seen him, and there is no need to doubt their good faith in so declaring; but, when cross-examined, their experiences appeared too largely subjective to be of value to others but themselves. Some of them had seen Khothume only in his "astral" body, and one familiar with the phenomena of visions and dreams can attach only pathological or psychological significance to such testimony. Three affirmed that they had seen Khothume in his material body, but the only such witness whom I was able to question closely or satisfactorily (Mr. Brown of Glasgow) gave a narrative of his meetings with the mysterious Mahatma which raised grave doubts. There were two or three such meetings, at one of which Mr. Brown was so overwhelmed with religious awe and emotion that he "could not look upon him;" at another the Master was at some little distance, his head and lower face being covered, after the manner of Rajput Rajas; the third occasion was at night, Mr. Brown being in bed, and he knew that the Master had visited him only by finding in his hand a letter and a handkerchief with "K.H." (Khot-Hume) on it. (It may be that the second of these meetings was that of another person present). Mr. Brown evidently told me exactly what he believed true, and I think must have felt that no such testimony could prove Khothume's existence in a court of law, for he made much more of certain letters he had received signed "K.H." The force of the letters could not, of course, be felt by one to whom the nature of their revelations was unknown.


Two of the young man (natives) prostrated themselves on the floor before the cabinet with their heads towards the portrait of Khothume. It struck me then that whatever its origin, Theosophy is becoming a purely Oriental thing. It can hardly be expected that Western people should take seriously the notion of a thaumaturgic sage, greater than any other man of our time, who yet carries a praying machine, permits physical abasement before himself, and unlike Buddha, or any other recognized "master" of ancient or modern times, lurks and hides and keeps himself apart from the people. It is probable that the goddess Maya, whom we call "Glamor," is weaving her spells around these gentle Hindu pilgrims from a crumbling to an ideal temple. For a time, at any rate, they have found refuge in a spiritual air-castle, whose solidity they do not doubt. One of them ascribed the skepticism of English people concerning "occultism" to their consumption of beef. However that may be, I had to remind the Countess Blavatsky that the footprint of the disciple that doubted the existence of his Mahatma is on the neighboring hill, where I had just seen it. If I could accept Khothume and his miracles there would be no difficulty in taking Rome in on my way home and submitting myself to the Pope. She promised to visit me in London in her "astral" form, and then, no doubt, the misgivings of this letter will appear to me as ridiculous as to those who believe so devoutly in the wonder-working Mahatmas.


I was considerably surprised on the morrow of my visit to Adyar to hear from a Theosophist that the young man had heard a mysterious bell-ringing, when I went into the room where the cabinet is. This ringing of a bell, where no bell is, I had heard of as one of the more frequent signs and wonders accompanying the Countess, but I certainly heard nothing of the kind. If it occurred it seems unaccountable that some one of the persons present did not mention it at a time when it could be investigated. I was a day out at sea before I heard of it. But probably the Countess knew that a bell ringing in a strange house would be a rather absurd apology for an evidence of occultism. I saw and heard nothing favorable to Theosophy or occultism at Adyar, but I carried away from my interview with these young men an impression that Theosophy is taking a deeper hold on the mind of young India than is generally supposed. There seems to be little doubt that Colonel Olcott has a great deal of personal force among these Orientals. The pathology of imagination is sufficiently well understood to prevent many of his "cures" from being absolutely denied, but his fame among adherents goes beyond such cases, as may be rationally explained.


At the recent Theosophist anniversary in Madras, Colonel Olcott stated that he had cured over 5,000 people, but had been directed by his guru (his occult master in occultism) to cease, because of the drain upon his strength and health. A more remarkable statement in his address was that he saw before him a gentleman, Mr. Ghose, to whose eyes, which had been blind from childhood, he had given sight. Mr. Ghose was in the audience and did not contradict this statement. Glamor must have operated pretty largely on Mr. Ghose's eye. Nobody has challenged or investigated the matter, apparently, though the missionaries are denouncing the Theosophists. Certain sympathizers with Theosophy in both Ceylon and India have expressed to me grave doubts of "occultism" and their regret that the movement should be committed to anything beyond an ethical and religious propaganda. Undoubtedly this American has shown the vast possibilities of a new non-Christian agitation that should strike the Indian heart and imagination. These Hindu scholars have always been aware that they have a great history and religious literature. After all the generations in which missionaries sent here have ignored that literature, despised their philosophy, counted their religion mere idolatry and them as idolaters on their way to hell - there has risen a new race of scholars like Max Muller, who have shown the high value and profound religious idealism of their systems.


While this revival of Orientalism has gone on in the universities of Europe, the missionaries have not been influenced by it, but have gone on with the same old denunciations of Hindu and Buddhist ideas and beliefs. But now there have appeared a few people of position (a "Countess" and a "Colonel") from the centers of Christendom, who formally give in their adhesion to an Oriental religion. They solemnly repudiate every form of Christianity and fix their abode in India, to lead in the work of resisting the missionaries and reviving the faith of Buddha and Krishna. In two or three years they have moved and attracted these Oriental people more than the missionaries have done in as many centuries. They have now seventy-seven flourishing theosophical societies. They are daily repeating from the unsettled Hindu mind a harvest where the missionaries merely trampled down the grain, because it was not such as made their own bread. Consider well the following fact:  I have just met an educated gentleman who has arrived here from the United States - Dr. Hartmann. When I was in Colombo, the Chief Priest of Ceylon told me that he had received from Colonel Olcott a request for "permission" to administer the pansala ceremony to Dr. Hartmann, and had granted it. Pansala (panchasala) means the five precepts of Buddhism, and their administration to any individual means his or her initiation into the higher grade of Buddhism. This is the ceremony that has just been performed in Madras by Colonel Olcott. In a circle of learned and devout Oriental people stood these two Americans. The one repeated, the other responded to a solemn formula older than Christianity:

I take refuge in Buddha!
I take refuge in religion!
I take refuge in truth!


Before the assembly Dr. Hartmann pledged his honor to observe the five precepts - to abstain from theft, to abstain from lying, to abstain from taking life, to abstain from intoxicating drinks, to abstain from adultery. The scene of two men advanced in years coming from Christendom to take refuge with Buddha is unique even in the anomalous history of religion. It has touched the Hindu imagination and heart. In Ceylon Theosophy has given a distinct check to the missionary successes reported in recent years. Mr. Sinnett and other English Theosophists have said a good deal about "sacrifices" made by Colonel Olcott and Mme. Blavatsky in leaving their country (for Mme.Blavatsky is a naturalized American) to devote themselves to work of this kind. It is difficult to see the appropriateness of that plea, for the lines of the innovators have fallen in pleasant places. The Theosophists have given them gratuitous use of the fine mansion and park here at Adyar, with a hundred acres of cultured land. Wherever Colonel Olcott goes his progress is like that of a nabob or a viceroy.  He is styled "the President," and I should not wonder if many of the masses regard him as the President of the New World, who travels with such a grand retinue and enjoys the hospitality of palaces. At Cawnpore the palatial bungalow of the Maharajah was placed entirely at the President's disposal, and when he and his party arrived at night they found the grounds lighted up.


Among the many gorgeous accounts in the Theosophist one relates to the President's reception at the court of Kashmir. The Maharajah Sahib had sent his state carriage to the nearest station, and when they crossed the river Colonel Olcott found two state elephants prepared - one for himself, fitted with silver howdah in finest Kashmir repousse, with dragon supporters and velvet cushions. The bungalow set apart for the British Resident and other grandest guests was placed at the disposal of the President for a week, horses were always kept saddled for him and his party and a guard of honor attended him. The President was treated as what is called technically "a first-class guest," there being four classes. This means that at the close of his visit he was presented with twenty-one pots of sweetmeats, seven rich cloths and 2,500 rupees. It is rumored, however, that Colonel Olcott's visit to Kashmir did not end so pleasantly, by reason of his failure to cure the Rajah's disease. The missionaries are not so far above human nature as not to groan at all this, nor Colonel Olcott so far removed from old New England Calvinism as not to find their groans part of the enjoyment of his Adyar paradise. So I infer from finding a sharp missionary comment on the Colonel's pageants quoted in the Theosophist and ascribed to jealousy. Apart from all interests of Theosophy, and none the less if it should be proved a humbug, this American might well be regarded by the English in India as a missionary who has shown how much may be accomplished among Hindus by kindness, sympathy, the absence of all arrogance and respect for their higher religious traditions.