Colonel Olcott at Home
Sunday Providence Journal, 1896
Re-Printed in the Theosophical Forum, February, 1901
There are few more picturesque things in the world, and also few more horribly inconvenient, than landing in the harbor of Madras from one of the big steamers that touch there on their way from Ceylon to Calcutta. While you are still some distance from the land, all seems fair and easy; those white lines of foam on the sand under the green fringe of cocoanut palms, seem only a touch of beauty added to the sunlit scene, a shining margin of division between the bright blue sea and the thickly wooded land that stretches away back to the mountains, shimmering through the luminous air. But when you come nearer to the shore you begin to notice, with curiosity as yet unshadowed by dismay, that that white line of froth at the water’s edge makes a thunderous murmur quite out of proportion to its seeming size, and that the high stemmed native boats near the land seem to careen and dance with a force that the round blue wavelets neither explain nor excuse. But these same innocent wavelets of smooth, oily blue take another look when one notices that they almost cover the high landing pier as they pass; then leave it a great bare pile of timbers, heavily laden with barnacles and sea weed, that seem to gasp for a moment at the sun before being plunged deep under the succeeding oily billow. So potent are these innocent-looking waves that our steamer, believing discretion to be valor’s better part, heaves to some distance from the pier, and the anchor tumbles into the waves with a noise as of elephants trumpeting in the vast forests of Mysore.
Then as if suddenly created out of nothing, a whole fleet of those high-stemmed native boats, with rough-hewn timbers sewn together, appear all round our ship, and the boatmen, dark brown almost to blackness, make the air resonant with shrill cries. How one hardly realizes afterwards, but one finds oneself in a moment perilously poised in the poop of one of these boats, amid a pile of hat boxes and portmanteaus, and the walnut shell craft is reeling and staggering across the corrugated blue towards that white line of surf on the beach. Talk of channel crossings, talk of that shocking bit of sea between Granton and Burntisland, on the Firth of Forth; talk of the wicked Categat and the wily Skaggerack. Talk of all these things, and then go and land at Madras, and you will talk of them no more. The only thing that prevents a huge physical revolution is the fact of one’s wild dismay and alarm at the madness of the whole venture, so that the motor nerves are paralyzed and all vital function including those erratic ones provoked by channel crossings, completely arrested.
So one arrives, safe but shaken, on the beach, and the extortions of the native boatmen make room for similar service from the black, muslin-clad driver, whose great, rattling, ram shackle box on four wheels set askew is dragged along with an astonishing amount of motion in proportion to forward progress; while the Venetian blinds let into the sides of the conveyance—to call it a carriage would be flattery—clash and creak and clatter to admiration.
The road from the beach leads past old Fort St. George, the most ancient British stronghold in India; its venerable walls, loop-holed for antiquated cannon, are cracking and mouldering under the tropical sun and rain; and the moat is banked with green and resonant with music of innumberable toads. A turn from the fortress takes us through a street of native shops, fragile edifices a story high,—let us say nine feet or so—built, if it can be called building, of bamboo posts, interwoven with reeds, the roof of reeds stretching out over the little platform, where the worthy Madrasi shopkeeper sits crosslegged among his wares. Very beautiful things you will find in some of these shops; black broadcloth, embroidered with leaves of gold thread and yellow floss silk, or black crape with gold thread tracery, adorned with green and rainbow tinted beetle’s wings; how they gleam and glitter in the sunlight, the shining wing covers of splendid Indian beetles, in every shade of iridescent beauty from purest gold to deepest emerald. With infinite taste, the leafy patterns of slender gold wind in and out among the glinting wing covers; the theme of the arabesque always the same, though carried out with unnumbered variations. This much one sees as the crazy vehicle reels and totters past, and one’s attention is momentarily drawn away by these lovely things from the problem whether the decrepit ponies are likely to die before the equipage comes to pieces or whether the sides will cave in and the wheels roll off, the ponies still surviving.
Gigantic banyan trees, with great gnarled roots and stems and big oval shiny leaves rise up along the roadside; from the high up elbows of the branches, themselves as big as trees, great ropelike twists of roots hang down their frayed ends into the air; when they reach the ground these roots will gradually thicken and, taking fast hold of the earth, become new stems to prop the heavy-laden branches overhead. Between the banyans great clumps of brown bamboos, towering up into feathery masses of rustling leaves; and behind these again tall palms, palmyras and cocoa nuts—a whole forest of giant ferns, lifted up by the gaunt, slender stems high up into the blue.
The road leads across a many-arched bridge over the Adyar river, towards the old home of Col. Olcott, where the Indian Theosophists meet in yearly gathering, when the Christmas season has cooled the Indian air to the moderate temperature of a hothouse instead of the wild heat of a furnace, as it is in May and June.
Col. Olcott stands on the veranda of his house to receive his guests; the red stucco pillars and moulded cornices of the long, rambling building standing out ruddy against the thick greenery of the park, while the blue Adyar river stretches broad behind the house, and the deep rumbling of the never-resting sea rises up from the shore, a mile further down the river. These are wonderful gatherings that yearly find their way from out-of-the-way corners of India to the headquarters of the Oriental Theosophists; but they are chiefly striking as the visible sign of Col. Olcott’s life-work, which bears testimony to an unselfish enthusiasm that this hard, grasping century of ours could not easily equal. Whree else could be found a man of singular administrative talent who in the prime of life had given up great prospects of wealth and success to engage in an extremely unpopular mission, designed, not to bring Western culture to the East, but rather, by endeavoring to arouse in the hearts of Orientals a sense of their own ancestral culture, to show that the East has everything to offer to the West, that conquered India is able to lead captive her rude conquerors and reward them with something infinitely more valuable than the restless commercialism which is all we ourselves have to offer. Col. Olcott’s enthusiastic mission for the revival of Indian culture has not, perhaps, brought forth all the good things that he hoped for; none the less, his record is a splendid testimony to the fact that under all the energies of American practical life there lies a deep well-spring of idealism which must one day break forth and build up a high and admirable culture as great in its way as the culture of Palestine or Greece, and yet new and original, embodying something that was unknown to either Greece or Palestine.
This sympathy for the mysticism and spiritual thought of the East, this ability to see life full of great fluid possibilities and splendid potencies hidden under the surface, which led Cot Olcott’s enthusiasm to devote his life to a revival of India, is strongly characteristic of one side of America’s genius, and that the side undoubtedly the highest and best. The affinity with the thought of the East has given its most characteristic color to the work of Emerson, to the transcendental dreams and hopes of Thoreau, to the highest songs of Walt Whitman, and to scores of writers more of equally mystic inspiration, though with lesser gifts of expression.
Meanwhile Col. Olcott’s guests have been arriving; several Parsees have made the journey across the hot plains of the Deccan, from their homes in Bombay or Gujerat; Brahmans from Bengal and the northwest provinces are here also; a Buddhist priest or two from the island temples of Ceylon, and, sometimes, visitors from more distant Siam or Burmah or Japan. But these more noteworthy visitors are lost in the numbers who come from Madras city and its immediate surroundings, and these latter, with a few exceptions, are students from the Presidency College, whose knowledge of the ancient literature of India, the glories of which they have met here to celebrate, is slender and superficial to a degree.
Indeed the whole assembly is far more remarkable as an illustration of Colonel Olcott’s enthusiasm and devotion than as a living representation of the wisdom of the mystic East. For the real truth is that the natives of India and Ceylon, and their friends, the important Parsis, are merely holders of great traditions of the past, and hardly at all representatives of high philosophic culture in the present. If you talk with Colonel Olcott’s visitors you find that most of them have heard of the splendid achievements of the past for the first time from Colonel Olcott himself, or his greater colleague, Madame H. P. Blavatsky, and that those who are really familiar with their own sacred books are rare exceptions. The visitors have taken their places on rows of chairs in the marble-paved lecture hall, which is really an extension of the veranda, a flat roof up-borne on red stucco-covered pillars, between which hang screens of finely split bamboo to keep out the glare of the sun reflected from the red earth and parched grass of the park. Colonel Olcott, in robes of white muslin, with a round smoking cap of Kashmiri embroidery, stands venerable under a square canopy raised on four silver pillars, the loan of a friendly Indian prince. Colonel Olcott’s white flowing locks and beard are in picturesque contrast to the ruddy bronze of his complexion, and his whole figure not very tall or commanding, has the sturdy solidity of a practical administrator rather than the striking power of an apostle or seer. And in truth, Colonel Olcott would claim to be neither; the ideals and inspiration of his work and much, almost all, of his insight into Eastern philosophy he received from Mme. Blavatsky, who, with all the impracticability of a woman of genius, needed just such a nature as his to supplement her larger and more potent character. Like Moses, she was the seer and law-giver, while her colleague was the chief speaker and manager of practical details. While they were together, from 1879 to 1884, Colonel Olcott’s eloquence and enthusiasm succeeded in creating a great movement for the revival of Eastern learning, having some 4,000 pledged adherents in India, almost wholly Brahmans, and about a thousand in Ceylon, all followers of the teachings of Buddha.
But after Mme. Blavatsky left India Col. Olcott’s enthusiasm seems to have been checked and his apostolic energies greatly restricted; he turned his mind chiefly to more practical schemes, such as the collection of old manuscripts; the administration of schools of cookery for Indian servants; the editing of “The Theosophist,” which Mme. Blavatsky’s genius and literary power had created; the improvement of his home at Adyar, and other matters of like nature which gave scope for his striking administrative talent.
Outside the house, in front of the veranda, where his theosophists are gathered together, is one sign of his activities—a fine avenue of golden cocoanut palms, which he imported from Ceylon, and which are growing admirably in the damp, hot air of Madras. Further back is another proof of his practical genius, a grove of casuarina trees, dark green, like drooping cypress, the wood of which in a few years is to be worth a good many thousand rupees.
Col. Olcott’s address is ended. In it are reflected many of the historical details which we have given, as well as the history of a scheme to bring about a dogmatic union of the Buddhists of the long separated northern and southern churches; the American apostle of Asiastic religious revival has drawn up a list of ten points of doctrine which has received the adherence of Buddhists in Ceylon, in Siam and Burmah, and in the flowery islands of Japan. On paper, at any rate, the unanimity of the Buddhists is complete as to the validity and importance of these ten cardinal points; and, in striking contrast to what we should expect to see in Christendom, the mention of points of union seems not to have brought to light and accentuated points of discord, so that Christians might we’ll learn from Buddhists a lesson, in doctrinal toleration.
It is chiefly due to Col. Olcott’s work, or at least to the joint work of which he was practical administrator, that the Eastern religions were elucidated by living representatives at the great Columbian Parliament of Religions. The Buddhist missionary from Ceylon and the Brahmanical orator from Allahabad are both his personal friends; the former, especially, has been a frequent visitor at Adyar in the past, where his great gentleness and sweetness, remarkably set forth, personified the Buddha’s religion of renunciation and unworldliness.
Other speakers follow the venerable President Founder; a Parsi, in black, glazed tiara, tells the assembly about the religion of Zoroaster; his keen, Jewish face and sparkling eyes lighting up as he says that there is not a beggar or a courtesan in the whole Parsi community. The Parsis, in fact, who are a better edition of the Jews, without the Jews’ inevitable tendency to usury, are one of the most successful communities in India, or indeed, in the whole world. Numbering altogether only a few thousands, their practical influence and their wealth are out of all proportion to their numbers. Indeed, the palace of the Parsi leader, Sir Dinshaw Manockji Petit, on Malabar Hill, and his huge cotton mills are one of the sights of Bombay. Curiously enough, he owes his prosperity almost wholly to America. When the war cut off England’s cotton supplies, and almost ruined Manchester Sir Dinshaw Petit saw that Manchest’s misfortune was India’s opportunity.
These memories are suggested rather by the person of the Parsi speaker than by what he says of Zoroaster’s religion, for he himself is an overseer in Sir Dinshaw Petit’s mills. He is followed by a Brahman from Bengal, who says much about the former greatness of India, and says it with a certain eloquence or, rather, rhetorical skill which produces its effect upon his listeners. He speaks rather rapidly, with the peculiar, rather strident voice that characterizes all Bengalis, telling how great his country once was, and how low it has fallen in the hands of invaders who have no reverence for the ancient land and its more ancient faith. He calls on his fellow countrymen to rally round the standard, to fight for the common cause, to join heart and hand in the splendid effort to call back their mighty past.
He is a born rhetorician; if he were less a rhetorician we should expect him not to say these things, but things quite different from these. We should expect him to show a real, individual insight into the great spiritual intuition of India, and to show, in his own thought and character, how that intuition can penetrate life and transform it as potently today as in that far away dawn of time that shines to us with the light of the golden age.
The first day of the Convention is ended; the shadows are falling rapidly over the palms and the banyans. The never ceasing rumble of the ocean is clearer now, when the noises of day are hushed. A few of Colonel Olcott’s friends are gathered on the terraced roof in the warm air of evening, and quite another side of the apostle’s character comes into view. He is singing, somewhat to the astonishment of the Asiatics but to the unlimited admiration of his white friends, the song of the “Fine Old Irish Gentleman, one of the real-old-stock!”