Theosophy as a Cult in India
Boston Index, April 1 & June 3, 1886
The pictures fabricated in our youthful minds, with infinite care by missionary zeal, regarding India, are fast fading away. And, as the unreal image dissolves into the nebulous recesses of the missionary headquarters, the outlines of things as they really are in that country come into view. What reasons these paid servants of the Church had for thus beginning a deception, and for now keeping it up, we need not inquire into. It is sufficient to know that they do so.
The other day, in Brooklyn, N.Y., a returned missionary said, in a public meeting, that the poor Hindus need and are asking for the gospel of the Christians; that the condition of their women is deplorable; and lastly, to cap the climax, that Buddhism never could satisfy the intellectual needs of the people there, that it is fast losing ground, and that now is the time for the good Christian here to step in, payout his money, and send more men—like the speaker—to bring these poor people into the true fold. Such is the constant cry at every missionary meeting.
In order intelligently to consider the question of Theosophy as a cult in India, it is necessary first to see how much truth there is in the statements we have just quoted.
They are undoubtedly false, and flow either from ignorance or from willful tergiversation. The proposition that Buddhism will not satisfy the needs of the people is a species of trick, because the Hindus do not, except in some few cases, hold to Buddhism. They are of the Brahmanical and Mohammedan faiths, and of course do not pay any attention to Buddhism. But those who are Buddhists—in Ceylon nearly all the people, and many in India—could never accept Christianity, because the latter is based on as much faith, suppression of intelligence, and miracle as the most corrupt form of Buddhism; while it is well known and accepted among students and thinkers that pure Buddhism is of the highest metaphysical and intellectual character. The experiment only succeeds in cases where, as has been done in Ceylon, the Roman Catholic Church makes converts by adopting and adapting later and popular Buddhist practices and legends as a part of the religion offered to the people, just as was done in the early part of our era, when pagan feasts, fasts, and saints were incorporated into the new religion.
For about the last fifty years, the English government has been giving to the Hindus free education in the colleges which confer degrees; and, if there is anything a Hindu of the better class likes, it is a degree given by a competent college. But these colleges are absolutely unsectarian; while those schools and colleges which the missionaries established are, of course, sectarian, according to the particular sect to which the missionaries belong. Previous to the establishment of these governmental institutions, almost the only way in which Hindus could learn English—absolutely necessary to them from the ever—growing English influences with which so much trade had to be done—was by going to the schools of the missionaries, in which English was taught. Several Hindu merchants have said to me, in India, that that was their only reason for attending those schools, and that they had a feeling of gratitude to the missionaries for the service thus rendered, but that they never did and never could accept their religion. Since the spreading of the governmental colleges, the natives attend there, to the sorrow of the missionaries. But the natives like it better for two reasons: first, because they give degrees under government auspices; and, second, because they are let completely alone in their religious convictions. To all this, the missionaries have made and are now making violent objection; and each issue of the Epiphany in Calcutta, and other organs in their interest, are full of the matter. They have even gone so far as to try to influence the British government.
Having understood this, let us now pass to another branch of the subject. The young Hindus of whom we have been speaking are, by nature, in possession of metaphysical faculties of the highest order, transmitted to them by heredity, and necessarily cultivated not only by the system of religious teaching, but also by the very structure of the language in which they have to study their religious and philosophical tenets. In Madras, I have given out prizes at Sanskrit schools to little boys of from four to five years of age, as well as to those older. The Sanskrit is not, properly speaking, a dead language; for it is in constant use at any gathering of pandits met for religious or sociologic discussion, and of these there occur many. I remember one which was held at Madras in 1884, to consider the subject of child marriages. The Deputy Collector of Madras, Mr. Ragonath Row, who is also a prominent member of the Theosophical Society in India, came from the meeting to see me, and told me about the discussion, and that it was conducted altogether in Sanskrit. I have also numerous young and old Hindu friends who all read, and can, if needed, speak in Sanskrit.
At the same time, with these changes in the matter of education, there was also going on another change among the young men of India, in that they were beginning to run after and follow English manners and style of thought. They were giving up all hope of reviving Aryan literature, morals, or manners, adopting as much as they might of Western scientific thought in its most materialistic phase. Some of them, deluded by Huxley, Tyndall, Mill, Bain, and others, began to hold to such negations that they believed there was no such thing as Aryan literature or thought. And one of the learned Hindu founders (behind the scenes) of the Theosophical Society said he “went down to Calcutta, and there saw some of the descendants of ancient Aryavarta wearing the philosophical and mental garb of Western pessimism and Western materialism, boldly asserting that Patanjali was an ancient fool.” All the older Hindus deplored this state of things, and vainly longed for a revival of pure Hindu thought and philosophy. The hope seemed indeed vain.
At the same time, here in the West, it was thought by some that Christianity had turned out a failure, leaving the people floundering into agnosticism and all forms of materialism.
At this point, in 1875, the Theosophical Society was formed in New York, with the distinct design in view of benefiting India and the whole of the Western world at the same time. This was its main object, and is expressed in its first declaration, “Universal Brotherhood.” The means for accomplishing that were only to be found in India; and, therefore, after it had acquired some corporeal form, its headquarters were transferred to Bombay.
At first, it was viewed by the government with suspicion; for, as Madame Blavatsky was at its head, and she being a Russian, the ridiculous rumor was spread that she was a spy in the pay of the Russian emperor. After a time, that was given up; and the English officials declared that it was no longer tenable, resulting in a real triumph; for many of those high in authority declared that the society was an instrument of great good for India.
As soon as this spy theory was abandoned, the Hindus, heretofore deterred from affiliating, began to join in large numbers; for they saw that it [the Society] really was determined to unearth all that is good in the philosophy, in the religions, and in the sciences of ancient India.
Instead of being engaged, as so many self-styled scientists in England so often declared, in exploiting phenomena or in getting up a new kind of Spiritualism, it was really organizing Buddhist schools in Ceylon, Sanskrit schools in Hindustan, encouraging Mohammedans to see what, if anything, was to be found of truth in the philosophy of the Sufis, and in bringing together, on one platform, men of the most widely divergent creeds for the purpose of finding out the one truth which must underlie all religion.
Since the writing of the preceding article in the April Index, I have been asked by several persons, “Why do you speak so oracularly on the subject of Theosophy as a Cult in India?” If any of the statements in that article has an oracular sound, it is due only to faults in expression, caused perhaps by the writer’s profound convictions upon the subject. In consequence of having been in correspondence for over ten years with various learned Hindus, and from personal observations made in India,-not as a foreigner, who is refused intimate relations with the Hindus, but as a theosophist, who, so to say, had known them for years and was entirely in their confidence, the writer had arrived at certainty as to the facts in the case. This feeling naturally produces what some call dogmatic statement and what others feel to be oracular enunciation. But, for all allegations of fact, I can produce evidence in written and printed reports from Indian daily newspapers, the words of others and myself, as well as correspondence.
The Rev. Mr. Ashburner, in the Independent of a recent date, indulged in very congratulatory reflections upon the collapse in India of theosophy since the learned report of the London Psychical Research Society. Mr. Ashburner styles himself. a missionary to the heathen of the blessed religion of Jesus the Jew, and pleasantly supposes that because the London expert, in a truly British style, declares that Madame Blavatsky invented the Mahatmas and adepts, therefore the Hindus will now abandon this new delusion called theosophy. This idea, although ridiculous, leads us to a point which ought to be cleared up in our inquiry into the cultivation of theosophy in Hindustan. Theosophy presents itself in one aspect to the Hindu, and in quite a different one to the European and American. In this country and in Europe, the doctrines which have filtered out to the world, through theosophical literature, seem to us new. They are in fact quite novel to us, so they color our conception of what theosophy is, representing themselves to us to be theosophy. And, as we have nothing in our past, in our literature, or in our ideas like them, it is quite natural that an ignorant missionary, learned in Christian rhetoric, should imagine, when a reputable Englishman declares the Mahatmas to have been evolved from Blavatsky’s brain, that therefore there are no Mahatmas, because his first knowledge of them came from her. Even the learned Swedenborg, who saw many things clearly, did not speak of these great Beings. He only said that, “if the Freemasons desired to find the lost word, they must search for it in the deserts of Tibet.” However, he did not explain himself; and our only conclusion must be, that in some way he found out that in Tibet exist persons who are so far advanced in knowledge that they are acquainted with that much-sought-for lost word.
The aspect in which theosophy presents itself to the Oriental is quite different from our appreciation of it. He sees in it that which will help him to inquire into his own religion and philosophy. The numerous books which have issued from our various presses here, would make him laugh in their endeavors to lay before readers, subjects which, with him, have been household words for ages. If Marion Crawford’s novels, Mr. Isaacs, and Zoroaster, were respectively translated into Persian and Sanskrit or Singhalese, the Hindus, Ceylonese, and Parsees would burst with laughter at such struggling with an ancient plot, as if it were new. So a thousand reports of the Psychical Society would not for an instant shake the faith of Hindus that there are Mahatmas. The word is a common one, derived from two others, meaning together Great Soul. In some parts of India, it grew so common, in the lapse of centuries, that now and then it is used in derision of blusterers or those who are given to placing themselves on a pinnacle. Many Hindus have told me of various Mahatmas whom they had heard of in various parts of India. One lived on an island, another in a forest, another in a cave, and so on. In Bombay, a Hindu related to me a story, whether false or true I know not, of a man whose wife was dying. In despair, he went into the forest where a Mahatma was said to live, and had the happiness to meet a man of calm and venerable aspect. Convinced that this was the one he had heard of, he implored him to cure his wife. The sage repulsed him; and, in sorrow, he returned home, to find that the wife had suddenly completely recovered at the time when he had been refused by the sage. Next day, he returned to the forest to offer thanks, but the so-called Mahatma had disappeared. This is only one of a thousand such stories, many of them being filled in with details of a highly sensational character, and all of them very old. The very children know that their forefathers believed in Mahatmas or Arhats or Rishees, or whichever be the name, all meaning the same.
If, then, we assume, as some malignant persons have asserted, that Blavatsky, aided by Olcott, introduced this cult into India with a design of mere personal aggrandizement, it must be further admitted that they displayed a deep knowledge of Indian life and manners in thus adopting the Mahatmas. But neither of them can be proved to have been in India before r878. Certainly, Olcott had, up to that year, to my certain knowledge, but a limited knowledge of the subject.
Yet at the same time there were many Brahmins who had about given up beliefs in Mahatmas now; for they said, “This is Kali Yuga (the dark age), and no Mahatmas will work with men until the next yuga.” So, of course, they, while thoroughly appreciating the object which theosophy had in the revivification of Aryan thought, remained agnostics as to Arhats and Mahatmas being in the society. Others had never lost their faith in them; and a great body of Hindus, unknown before the advent of the society, for years had had personal knowledge of those great beings, had been in their company, and now have, in several instances, publicly declared their belief. Some of these declarations are contained in protests published in India, deprecating the constant degradation of the names of their teachers. To this last class belonged a Brahmin friend of mine, who said to me, in Central India, “I have been for fifteen years personally convinced of the existence of Mahatmas, and have had messages from them.” And the class of agnostics mentioned above, is fitly described in a letter, now in print, from a Brahmin holding an official position, running thus:—
Many of my friends, out of sheer love to me, take me to task for being a member of the Theosophical Society. . . . Theosophy means “a science of divine things.” . . . The society has no Pope, no Grand Lama, no Saviour, no Mohammed, no Buddha, no Sankara Chariar, no Ramanuja Chariar, no Madhwa Chariar. . . . It is a society for the inculcation of universal brotherhood and its actual practice. Of this society I am a member, and shall continue one so long as the object of the society is not changed, whether I be blamed or pitied or loved in consequence.
Among this class of men, then, the society was hailed as a benefactor just as soon as they became convinced by deeds of the founders, that it was not another European trick for acquiring money, or territory, or power. And, in consequence of the old-time knowledge of the various doctrines which seem new to the Western mind, the Hindu section of our society regards theosophy as a power which has begun to make it respectable once more to be an Aryan who believes in Aryan literature. It rose upon the devoted minds of India as a lamp which would help them and their fellows to unearth the ancient treasures of the golden age, and has now become, for even the young men who had begun to follow the false gods of English money and English culture, a society, the initials of which, “F.T.S.,” can be appended to their names as an honorable title.