Madame Blavatsky in India
A REPLY TO MONCURE D. CONWAY
The Arena, March 1892
There are three reasons when I reply to Moncure D. Conway’s article in the October ARENA, entitled “Madame Blavatsky at Adyar.”
First, I am an old and intimate friend of hers, while Mr. Conway met her but twice according to his own account, and then only for a short time. Second, she has given up her mortal body and cannot reply to his attacks. Third, because, although his article is given as an account of her, it is, in fact, an attack on the Theosophical Society I had the honor to take part in founding with Madame Blavatsky and others, and with the history of which in all its details I am well acquainted, from having been one of its secretaries ever since its organization in 1875.
The October article covers twelve pages, and is mainly a rehashing of old charges made by other people, and about which Mr. Conway has no personal knowledge whatever, besides a good deal of matter in which the mistakes are too evident to mislead anyone who has really given the theosophical movement any study.
Let us observe in the beginning the qualifications which Mr. Conway possesses as a reporter. He says Adyar is fifteen miles from Madras when at the most it is only six, and the extent of Madras itself is only fifteen. “Palms” are described as being at the entrance, whereas the only palms on the place were a few weak ones at the seaside of the compound and where the road did not run. No doubt the “palms” he speaks of are to give a better color to the luxuriousness of the self-sacrifice he does not approve. In the next few lines the “guru” of a chela is described as a “mahatma” (page 508), a definition invented solely by the critic. In this little scene he gives the command of a mahatma as the reason for a Hindu’s not shaking his hand; all travelers know that the Hindus do not shake hands with one another, much less with strangers; Mr. Conway must have observed this as i did when there, if he met any but the official English. His description of the “shrine,” on page 582, is so far removed from fact that i am constrained to doubt the accuracy even of his recollection of what was said to him by Madame Blavatsky. I know the shrine well, have examined it fully, and just after he was there, and not only that, but by own orders it was taken from the wall, and its contents removed soon after he left India, and in that removal I took chief part just before the famous so-called exposé, in the Christian College magazine. According to Mr. Conway “it reached nearly to the ceiling,” the fact being that it was a wall cabinet and nothing more, and its total height from bottom to top was not four feet, which would be a very low ceiling. Its doors were painted black and varnished, but his recollection attributes to it a decoration of “mystical emblems and figures,” perhaps to accord with what he thought a theosophical shrine out to have. “The interior of the shrine was inlaid with metal work,” he says, and evidently he saw it but once in haste. I saw it for several days together, examined it fully, took charge of it, with my own hands removed the objects within it, and instead of its interior being inlaid with metal work it was lined with common red plush. The description given by Mr. Conway makes a better newspaper story, however. Painting the interior with his imagination, he says there was a Buddha there, which is not so; and then occurs the crowing absurdity that the portrait of Koothumi “holds a small barrel-shaped praying machine on his head.” This is curious instance of hypnotism and bad memory mixing facts, for there was a tibetan prayer wheel in the shrine, but it lay on the bottom shelf, and the picture of Koothumi which I then removed, gives him with a fur cap on. It sounds like a bad dream that the learned doctor had. But further, and this is the case when any good journalist would have verified the mere facts of record, he says, speaking of the effect of the scandals on the branches of the society in India, that the seventy-seven branches there in 1879 are now (1891) “withering away under the Blavatsky scandal,” the fact being that now over one hundred and fifty branches exist there which pass resolutions of high respect for her memory, and continue the work she incited them to begin, included in that being a growing correspondence with the increasing membership in America, and the helping forward of a special department of the society’s work, especially devoted to the translation of their old books and the procurement of manuscripts and treatises that Max Muller and others wish to have. If Mr. Conway had never before taken part in attacks upon Madame Blavatsky and the society, some inaccuracy might be attributed to inexperience; but as the case is otherwise, one is led to the conclusion that some other motive than zeal for fact must have stimulated the present article. And it may interest him to know that Madame Blavatsky herself said to me of him after he had seen her:—”The gentleman is in his decadence, with a great disappointment hanging over his life; from this point he will find himself of less and less importance in the world, and you will find him at last for a paltry pay attacking over my shoulders the cause you wish to serve,” a part of which we know to be now true.
Since I am trying to defend a friend who has passed beyond the veil, it is impossible to overlook the statement made in the note on page 582 of Mr. Conway’s article, in which he leaves the impression that that article is his first presentation of the matter to the public; indeed, such is his declaration, the only indefiniteness being the omission of the names of the “friends of Madame Blavatsky” to whom he mentioned the affair so as to give them the chance of replying. The omission of their names now prevents my having their testimony, for I know all her friends and they are a sort who would not fail to give me the facts. It may have escaped Mr. Conway’s recollection that after he had made his visit to Adyar and had his conversation with Mme. Blavatsky, he wrote a long account of it to the Glasgow Herald published in Glasgow, Scotland, in which he showed the same spirit as in the one under review, and that I wrote a reply to it for the same paper, which the paper published: and that later when I was in London on my way to Adyar he met Colonel Olcott and myself over one of the services in South Place Chapel, in which he had advertised himself as to speak on theosophy and spiritualism, but wholly omitted any reference to theosophy when he saw us there; and that our conversation was in the underground railroad, in the course of which he referred to the articles in the Glasgow Herald, and exhibited the same vexation of which he accuses himself in the present one at page 581, when he found that the shrine had been permanently closed just three days before he got there. Perhaps the “glamour” of Adyar still lingers around his recollections.
I come now to the particular incident around which the October article revolves. It is the explanation supposed to have been offered by Madame Blavatsky of all her life and work to a visitor who told her he wanted an explanation to give to his flock (in South Place Chapel) who were always ready to admit facts. From his account it is clear that he did not inquire of her as to the philosophical doctrines of man and mind, and theories as to cosmogenesis she had been engaged in promulgating, nor of the objects and purposes of the Theosophical Society to which her life was devoted, and then as now an active body working not only in India but in Europe and America. His sole inquiry was about paltry phenomena that she never spoke of with any particular interest. For, he goes on: “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.”
If this is all that passed—and no more is given of questions by him—there is not a word in it relating to philosophy nor any of the many other important subjects upon which Madame Blavatsky had been for long before assiduously writing and talking. Her reply therefore attaches solely to the question. It is given by him: “It is glamour, people think they see what they do not. That is the whole of it.” This reply has naught to do with the existence of Mahatmas, nor with their powers, nor with the theories of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis given by her, nor with the aims and work of her society, nor with her views as to many hidden and natural powers of man, on which she had before that spoken and written much. It simply offered an explanation she had never failed to give, included in the “glamour.” This power of producing glamour is now well known to the French and other schools of hypnotists, and it is a correct explanation of many of her very best and most wonderful phenomena. It is the explanation of numerous extraordinary feats to be witnessed in India. By its means a letter could be brought into the room and deposited anywhere without a person present seeing either letter or messenger. For grant the power, and the limits of the exercise cannot be fixed. Take the production of a teacup from beneath a chair where a moment or two before it had not been. The same power of glamouring would enable her to leave the room, still seeming to be present, to procure a teacup from the adjoining apartment and then to produce it suddenly from beneath the chair, all the while the spectators thinking they saw her sitting there. This is one of the possibilities of the realm of glamour, and admitted by Mr. Conway in my presence as I shall show. Glamour is only another name for hypnotism, partly understood by Dr. Charcot and his pupils, but fully known to Madame Blavatsky, who was taught in a school were the science is elaborated with a detail that western schools have not yet reached to but eventually will. And this she has often asserted of many of her own phenomena, for she has deliberately called them “psychological frauds.”
I have said Mr. Conway admitted in my presence something germane to this inquiry. It was in his own South Place Chapel where I went in 1884 to hear him discourse on a subject which he advertised to be upon spiritualism and theosophy. For some reason unknown to me, he omitted all reference to theosophy, but dwelt at length on his experiences in India with fakirs, juggles, and yogis. He related with a sober mien marvels of magic, of hypnotism, or of fraud that outshine anything he has criticised in Madame Blavatsky. Among those, he told of seeing an old fakir or yogi make coins dance about a table at the word of command and following Mr. Conway’s unexpressed wish, there being no connection between the operator and the table, as he averred. “This,” he said, “is very wonderful. I do not know how to explain it. But some day I will go back and inquire further.” And yet Madame Blavatsky explained it for him at the Adyar conversation.
I do not think, as some have said, that she was making fun of him by thinking: “You soft-headed and innocent old goose, do you really suppose that I am going seriously to answer a person who proclaims in advance his mission here as you did and expects to see me execute phenomena whereon he may write a sermon for his London babes?” 1 On the contrary, she was ready to go on with him further if he chose to proceed beyond mere marvels that she had often dubbed with the name of glamour before he came. But he went no further, and calmly proceeded, plodding along with grotesque solemnity that is refreshing in the extreme.
In fine, all that Mr. Conway’s somewhat labored article amounts to is that we are asked by him to believe that after Madame Blavatsky had duped some of the brightest minds of both West and East, and secured a firm hold on their loyalty, reverence, and affection,—including many hundred Hindus of learning and wide experience in their own land of marvels, as they have told me with their own lips—had succeeded in establishing a system of imposture upon which, if we accept his view, she must depend, she was ready in a casual conversation to confess all her acts to be frauds and to throw herself on the mercy of Mr. Conway merely because he preached in South Place Chapel and had a congregation—hardly. If confession,—”an unwitnessed confession” as he calls it,—were her determination at the interview, it is interesting to ask why she did not confess to him that there were trap-doors and sliding panels to help phenomena? But there was no such confession, no trap-doors, no frauds.
On p. 587, Mr. Conway says: “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 Rahat (Sic), and they declared Koothoomi to be without analogies in any Hindu tongue ancient or modern.
It is easy to lose one’s self in the ocean of Indian literature with its vast number of names, so perhaps Mr. Conway can be forgiven. But the name of Sir. W. W. Hunter is not that of a great orientalist, and those of the “other orientalists” whom he asked are not given, so they must be considered of doubtful authority. On turning to The Classical Dictionary of India (by Mr. John Garrett, Director of Public Instruction at Mysore, India, printed in 1871 at Madras, Higginbotham & Co.) under K we find,
Kuthumi: a pupil of Paushyinji and teacher of Sama Veda.
The name is the same as the one spelled “Koothoomi” in The Arena, for the double “o” stands for “u”.
Proceeding with his peculiar analysis of this “myth,” Mr. Conway says: “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.” The evident recklessness of statement here is noticeable and inexcusable. No name of the “good authority” is given; certainly it was not Mr. Sinnett who first gave publicity to the name Koothoomi; perhaps it was some learned orientalist who never read John Garrett’s book. But as I knew H.P. Blavatsky well in 1874, before she met Messrs. Sinnett or Hume, and before this name—now dubbed a myth—was ever given to the public, I may be allowed to say that it was not originally “Cotthume,” but was one that I and others in New York were perfectly familiar with through his correspondence with us at that time on matters connected with the society. And when Mr. Sinnett published his Esoteric Buddhism, giving this name to the world, we all felt that ribaldry would follow. I wrote then to Madame Blavatsky expressing regret that the name was given out. To this she replied:
Do not be alarmed nor grieved. The name was bound to come out some day, and as it is a real one its use instead of the New York substitute is better, because the latter was unreal. The mud that you fear is now to be thrown at sacred names will not hurt them, but inevitably will fly back in the face of those who throw it.
The remainder of the article shows an utter lack of acquaintance with the theosophical movement which has been classed by the great Frenchman Emile Burnouf, as one of the three great religious movements of the day. Mr. Conway appears to think it depends on Colonel Olcott, ignoring the many other persons who give life to the “propaganda.” Such men as Mr. A.P. Sinnett, and women like Mrs. Annie Besant, are left out of account, to say nothing of the omission to notice the fact that in each of the three great divisions of the globe, Europe, Asia, and America, there is a well-organized section of the society, and that there is a great body of literature devoted to the work. This was so well known to others that shortly before her death an article by Madame Blavatsky was printed by the North American Review, describing the progress of the movement. But Mr. Conway would have us suppose that Colonel Olcott’s few published speeches represent us or indicate our future, and he gravely advises that headquarters should be fixed in Ceylon, so that through a union with Buddhism, a lasting vitality may be assured. This can never be done. The society has had for several years a headquarters in Ceylon, just as it has others in London, New York, San Francisco, and Madras, but it is not, nor is it to be, a Buddhist society. A slight review of its literature, emanating form those centres, would have shown this to Mr. Conway, and perhaps enabled him to give us a better and broader article. Again, the interest it has excited in England make the last sentence of his article, “If theosophy is to live, it must ‘take refuge in Buddha’ ” a stale, emaciated joke. The convention of the society in London, in July last, attracted over twelve hundred people to a public meeting at Portman Rooms, and later St. James Hall and St. George’s were crammed with people, including such men as Sir Robert Peel, and Lord Justice Pollock, to hear Mrs. Annie Besant lecture as a theosophist on “Reincarnation,” while her lecture on theosophy at the Democratic Club brought such a crush that doors and windows were pressed in. All of this was the subject of newspaper reports, column after column having been devoted to it, with an immediate exhaustion of morning editions. It seems more likely that theosophy will “take refuge” in London than in “Buddha.”
Having now directly answered Mr. Conway’s article I will take advantage of the opportunity to append some facts directly known to myself, about the “shrine” and the rooms at Adyar.
I went to Adyar in the early part of the year 1884, with full power from the president of the society to do whatever seemed best for our protection against an attack we had information was about to be made in conjunction with the missionaries who conducted the Christian College at Madras. I found that Mr. Coulomb had partly finished a hole in the wall behind the shrine. It was so new that its edges were ragged with the ends of laths and the plaster was still on the floor. Against it he had placed an unfinished teak-wood cupboard, made for the occasion, and having a false panel in the back that hid the hole in the wall. But the panel was too new to work and had to be violently kicked in to show that it was there. It was all unplaned, unoiled, and not rubbed down. He had been dismissed before he had time to finish. In the hall that opened on the stairs he had made a cunning panel, opening the back of a cupboard belonging to the “occult room.” This was not finished and force had to be used to make it open, and then only by using a mallet. Another movable panel he also made in the front room, but event the agent of the psychical society admitted that it was very new. It was of teak, and I had to use a mallet and file to open it. All these things were discovered and examined in the presence of many people, who then and there wrote their opinions in a book I provided for the purpose, and which is now at headquarters. The whole arrangement was evidently made up after the facts to fit them on the theory of fraud. That it was done for money was admitted, for a few days after we had completed our examination the principal of the Christian College came to the place—a thing he had never done before—and asked that he and his friends be allowed to see the room and the shrine.
He almost implored us to let him go up, but we would not, as we say he merely desired to finish what he called his “exposure.” He was then asked in my presence by Dr. Hartmann what he had paid to Coulomb for his work, and replied, somewhat off his guard, that he had paid him somewhere about one hundred rupees. This supports the statement by Dr. Hartmann (made in print), that Coulomb came to him and said that ten thousand rupees were at his disposal if he could ruin the society. He merely exaggerated the amount to see if we would give him more to be silent.
The assailants of H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society have ever seemed to be beset by a singular fatuity. It seems that they must, as it were by force, deny all accepted laws of motive and of life in judging these things, explaining the conduct of members of the society on principles the reverse of any ever known to human beings, facts as plain as noonday being ignored, and other facts construed on theories which require the most tremendous credulity to accept. They perceive no fine impulse, and laugh at the idea of our desiring to give a basis for ethics although not a word in all the writing of Madame Blavatsky shows her or us in any other light.
1. Theosophical Forum for November, 1891