The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Londan, Bombay, and Allahabad

After a brief stop in England, Blavatsky and Olcott continued their sea journey to India, arriving in Bombay in February 1879, where they established their Theosophical Headquarters. Soon after landing, they were contacted by Alfred Percy Sinnett, then Editor of the Government paper, the Pioneer of Allahabad. This contact soon proved of the utmost importance.

After a tour of northwestern India, the Founders returned to Bombay and started, in October 1879, their first Theosophical Journal, the Theosophist (still published today), with H. P. Blavatsky as editor. The Society experienced then a rapid growth, and some very remarkable people were attracted to it both in India and elsewhere.

8a. Charles C. Massey, January 1879, Norwood, near London [Massey 1884]

One evening in January 1879 I had come down to Norwood by train, and found a company of some half-dozen persons assembled in the dining-room of Dr. and Mrs. Billing's house. Madame Blavatsky was not in the room when I entered, but joined us very shortly afterwards. I had hung up my overcoat in the hall outside. Madame Blavatsky turned to me and asked if I would like to name some article for myself to be produced then and there. Having for some time been in want of a card case—a want I had certainly not mentioned to any one present or, I believe, to anyone at all—I named that article.

I [was] immediately afterwards dissatisfied with that particular article I had named, as a test [and] wished to substitute another choice, but was told I was too late. I was to go into the hall, and put my hand in the pocket of my overcoat. Be it observed—and this I can state most positively—that no one but myself left the room after I had asked for the card case, and I went out into the hall as directed, unaccompanied by anyone. The hall was just outside the room, which had no other door than the one I went out at. I at once put my hand into the pocket of my overcoat, and there, sure enough, was an ivory card case, which I still have. It was a large, square, lady's card case, not the small oblong one used by men. The card case was not in my pocket when I entered the house. Madame Blavatsky was "not prepared" for my desire. I have long regarded the incident as inexplicable (except by occult power) on the facts present to my recollection.

8b. Henry S. Olcott, January 1879, London [Olcott 1900, 2: 4-6]

The most striking incident of our stay in London was the meeting of a Master by three of us as we were walking down Cannon Street. There was a fog that morning, so dense that one could hardly see across the street, and London appeared at its worst. The two who were with me saw him first, as I was next to the curb, and just then my eyes were otherwise occupied. But when they uttered an exclamation, I turned my head quickly and met the glance of the Master as he looked back at me over his shoulder. I did not recognize him for an acquaintance, but I recognized the face as that of an Exalted One; for the type once seen can never be mistaken. We three friends kept together in the City and went together back to Dr. Billing's house, yet on entering we were told by both Mrs. Billing and HPB that the Brother had been there and mentioned that he had met us three—naming us—in the City. Mrs. Billing described him as a very tall and handsome Hindu, with a peculiarly piercing eye which seemed to look her through. For the moment she was so staggered that she could not say a word, but the stranger said: "I wish to see Madame Blavatsky," and moved towards the door of the room where she sat. Mrs. Billing opened it for him and bade him enter. He did so, and walked straight towards HPB, made her an Oriental salutation, and began speaking to her in a tongue the sounds of which were totally unfamiliar to Mrs. Billing.

8c. George Wyld, January 1879, Norwood near London [Wyld 1903, 71-3]

It was in 1879 that, at a dinner party at the house of Mr. Billing, I first met Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. As I left the house, accompanied by a friend, he asked me what my impression was as to the character of Madame, and my reply was: "She seems to me quite the Kalmuck, and my impression is that she might have been a worn-out actress from some suburban theatre in Paris." But her undoubtedly mediumistic powers, her striking personality, her cleverness and humor, and her evidently kindly instincts interested me; and so out of curiosity, and interest, and belief in her promises, I joined her Theosophical Society, and after some two years, I became the President of the British Branch.

On one occasion when I was dining with her at the Billing’s, I observed that she and Colonel Olcott ate very freely of animal food; and this startled me, for she had always taught us that those who eat animal food were never admitted to the higher circles of the occult societies, and I thought to myself, "I wonder if that woman is altogether an impostor." As I asked myself this question, she knocked on her plate with her knife, and when I looked at her she said, "Not quite so bad as that, doctor"; and we both good-humoredly laughed at the comicality of the situation. I think it was also at the same dinner party that she suddenly turned round on Colonel Olcott, who sat a few places from her, engaged in the consumption of animal food, and in an angry and loud voice exclaimed: "You baboon!" This shocked me, for Colonel Olcott was, although very credulous, yet an intelligent, self-denying, and kindly man. After dinner was over I took him aside and asked him what Madame Blavatsky meant by so coarsely addressing him at the table, and his reply was: "Dr. Wyld, her conduct is part of my training; and I do not believe there is another man in the United States who would submit as I do to the continual insults I receive at her hands."

On another occasion I was sitting at her side on the drawing room stairs when she again and again cried out and jumped about; and on my asking her what it all meant, she said: "They won't let me alone!" and when I asked: "Who won't let you alone?" she answered: "These Mahatmas are always pinching me to attract my attention!" Lastly, on one occasion when, with a most refined and interesting woman, I was in her society, and the lady asked her what her views as to the nature of Jesus Christ were, she answered: "Madame, I have not the honor of the gentleman's acquaintance."

I do not idly record these experiences, but because I think it right that her irreverence and vulgarities should be known. For, although she knew some curious Eastern occult secrets of psychical origin, yet it has always seemed to me a marvelous thing how any refined and thoughtful man or woman could continue to believe in this queer woman who smoked so incessantly, as an inspired expounder of the highest spiritual secrets of the human race.

8d. Henry S. Olcott, February-July 1879, Bombay, India [Collated from Olcott 1900, 2: 8-25, and Hume 1882, 78-80]

On the 17th [of January] we left for Liverpool, after a delightful stay of a fortnight [in England] with and among our kind friends and colleagues. The next day we passed at the Great Western Hotel, Liverpool, and at 5 p.m. embarked on the Speke Hall in a downpour of rain. The vessel was dirty and disagreeable to see; and what with that, and the falling of rain, the smell of damp tapestries and carpets in the saloon and cabins, and the forlorn faces of our forty fellow passengers, all equally disgusted as ourselves, it was a wretched omen for our long voyage out to India.

Meanwhile HPB was making it lively for the servants and her fellow passengers who, with one or two exceptions, were shocked by her ironclad language [and] outraged by her religious heterodoxy. The ship being struck by a tremendous sea, HPB was pitched against a leg of the dining-table, got her knee badly bruised, [and was] laid up in her cabin with her lame knee.

At the rate of 250 to 300 miles a day, we sailed up the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar, past Algiers, on to Malta. Port Said [Egypt] was reached on 2nd February, and then came two days and nights in the Suez Canal. [We] emerged into the Red Sea and began the third and final stage of our sea pilgrimage to the Land of Desire. That night the moon paved with silver the waters of the Gulf of Suez, and we felt as if we were sailing on a dream sea. Nothing of moment happened until the 12th, when a flue burst in the boiler, and we had to stop for repairs. On the 15th [of February], at noon, [we] were but 160 miles away from [the Bombay lights], and the next morning entered Bombay Harbor. Before sunrise I was on deck and, as we steamed rapidly towards our anchorage, reveled in the panorama of the harbor that was spread before me. Elephanta, ahead of us, was the first locality we asked to be shown us, for it was the type and visible representative of that Ancient India. Alas! as one turned towards the promontory of the Malabar Hill the dream was dispelled. The India we saw there was one of sumptuous bungalows, framed in the luxury of English flower gardens, and surrounded with all the signs of wealth gained in foreign commerce.

The ship's anchor was hardly dropped before we were boarded by three Hindu gentlemen in search of us. All seemed strangers to us, but when they pronounced their names I opened my arms and pressed them to my breast. We went ashore in their bunder boat and landed on the Apollo Bunder. The first thing I did on touching land was to stoop down and kiss the granite step; my instinctive act of puja!

The noonday Bombay sun of mid-February is a surprise to a Western visitor, and we had time to feel its full power before Mr. Hurrychund came.

The streets of Bombay charmed us with their strikingly Oriental character. The tall apartment houses in stucco, the novel dresses of the motley Asiatic population, the quaint vehicles . . . all these vivid impressions filled us with delight.

Before leaving New York, I had written Hurrychund to engage for us a small, clean house in the Hindu quarter. We were taken to a house on Girgaum Back Road, standing in a comparatively forlorn compound, and adjoining his glass-roofed photographic studio. Cocoa palms nodded their fronds over our roof, and Indian sweet-scented flowers rejoiced our sense of smell; after the dismal sea voyage it seemed like Paradise. The ladies of our friends’ families called on HPB and a number of Hindu and Parsi gentlemen on our whole party; but the rush of visitors began the next morning.

We had formed one acquaintanceship on the Speke Hall that turned into a lasting friendship, that of Mr. Ross Scott, B.C.S., a noble fellow and an Irishman of the better sort. His long conversations with us about Eastern philosophy had resulted in his joining our Society. He called on the evening of our first day ashore and provoked HPB to doing a phenomenon that was quite new to me. They were sitting together on a sofa and I was standing with Hurrychund at the center table, when Scott reproached HPB for her evident intention of letting him go North to his official post, without giving him the least proof of the existence of the psychical powers in men, of which she had so much spoken. She liked him very much, and so consented to comply with his request. "What shall I do for you?" she asked. He snatched the handkerchief she was holding in her hand and, pointing to her name "Heliona" embroidered across one corner, said: "Well, make that name disappear and another to take its place." "What name do you want?" she rejoined. Looking towards us, where we stood at a distance of a few paces, he pointed to our host and said: "Let it be Hurrychund's." We came over to them on hearing this, and saw what was done. She [told] Scott to hold tight in his hand the embroidered corner of her handkerchief, retaining the opposite corner herself. After a minute or so she told him to look. He did so, found the substitution of names had been made, Hurrychund’s being there in the same kind of embroidery, and in the first impulse of excitement, cried out: "Where is your physical science now? This beats all the professors in the world!"

On the evening of 17th February, a reception was held at the photographic studio, at which over 300 invited guests were present. The usual welcome address, with garlands, limes, and rose-water as accompaniments, was given us.

We changed quarters, bought furniture and other necessaries, and on 7th March settled ourselves down in the little house, 108 Girgaum Back Road, for the next two years. Every evening we held an impromptu durbar, when the knottiest problems of philosophy, metaphysics, and science were discussed. Visitors kept on crowding our bungalow, and stopping until late every evening to discuss religious questions. We were completely happy in our retired cottage under the cocoa-palms. And under those umbrageous palms, we were visited in person by Mahatmas; and their inspiring presence made us strong to proceed in the path we were treading.

[On July 15, Mahatma Morya] visited me in the flesh at Bombay, coming in full daylight, and on horseback. He had me called by a servant into the front room of HPB’s bungalow (she being at the time in the other bungalow talking with those who were there). He came to scold me roundly for something I had done in TS matters, and as HPB was also to blame, he telegraphed to her to come, that is to say, he turned his face and extended his finger in the direction of the place she was in. She came over at once with a rush and, seeing him, dropped on her knees and paid him reverence. My voice and his had been heard by those in the other bungalow, but only HPB and I, and the servant saw him.

[Note: In Colonel Olcott’s diary for July 15, 1879, the following entry is written: "Had visit in body of the Sahib!! [He] sent Babula to my room to call me to HPB’s bungalow, and there we had a most important private interview. Alas! how puerile and vain these men make one feel by contrast with them." –D.C., Editor.]

8e. A. P. Sinnett, December 1879, Allahabad, India [Collated from Sinnett 1886, 221-2, 224, 226, 234, and Sinnett 1881, 42-8]

Col. Olcott[’s] and Mme. Blavatsky[’s] arrival in India had been heralded with a few newspaper paragraphs dimly indicating that Mme. Blavatsky was a marvelous person, associated with a modern development of "magic," and I had seen her great book, Isis Unveiled, which naturally provoked interest on my part in the authoress. From some remarks published in the Pioneer, of which I was at that time the editor, the first communications between us arose. In accordance with arrangements made by letter during the summer, she came to Allahabad to visit my wife and myself at our cold-weather home at that station in December 1879.

I well remember the morning of her arrival, when I went down to the railway station to meet her. The trains from Bombay used to come into Allahabad in those days at an early hour in the morning, and it was still but just time for chota hozree, or early breakfast, when I brought our guests home. She had evidently been apprehensive, to judge from her latest letters, lest we might have formed some ideal conception of her that the reality would shatter, and had recklessly painted herself as a rough, old "hippopotamus" of a woman, unfit for civilized society; but she did this with so lively a humor that the betrayal of her bright intelligence this involved more than undid the effect of her warnings. Her rough manners, of which we had been told so much, did not prove very alarming, though I remember going into fits of laughter at the time when Col. Olcott, after the visit had lasted a week or two, gravely informed [us] that Madame was under "great self-restraint" so far. This had not been the impression my wife and I had formed about her, though we had learned already to find her conversation more than interesting.

I want to give my readers an idea of Mme. Blavatsky, as I have known her, that shall be as nearly complete as I can make it, and I shall not hesitate to put in the shadows of the picture. The first visit she paid us was not an unqualified success in all respects. Her excitability, sometimes amusing, would sometimes take an irritating shape, and she would vent her impatience, if anything annoyed her, by vehement tirades in a loud voice directed against Col. Olcott, at that time in an early stage of his apprenticeship to what she would sometimes irreverently speak of as the "occult business." No one with the least discernment could ever fail to see that her rugged manners and disregard of all conventionalities were the result of a deliberate rebellion against, not of ignorance or unfamiliarity with, the customs of refined society. Still the rebellion was often very determined, and she would sometimes color her language with expletives of all sorts, some witty and amusing, some unnecessarily violent, that we should all have preferred her not to make use of. She certainly had none of the superficial attributes one might have expected in a spiritual teacher.

Recollection of this time supplies me with a very varied assortment of memory portraits of Madame, taken during different conditions of her nerves and temper. Some recall her flushed and voluble, too loudly declaiming against some person or other who had misjudged her or her Society; some show her quiet and companionable, pouring out a flood of interesting talk about Mexican antiquities, or Egypt, or Peru, showing a knowledge of the most varied and far-reaching kind, and a memory for names and places and archaeological theories she would be dealing with, that was fairly fascinating to her hearers. Then, again, I remember her telling anecdotes of her own earlier life, mysterious bits of adventure, or stories of Russian society, with so much point, vivacity, and finish, that she would simply be the delight for the time being of everyone present.

I have said a good deal of her impetuosity and indiscretions of speech and manner and of the way in which she will rage for hours, if allowed, over trifles which a more phlegmatic, not to speak of a more philosophical, temperament would barely care to notice. But it must be understood that, almost at any time, an appeal to her philosophical intellect will turn her right off into another channel of thinking, and then, equally for hours, may any appreciative companion draw forth the stores of her information concerning Eastern religions and mythology, the subtle metaphysics of Hindu and Buddhist symbolism, or the esoteric doctrine itself.

The record of Mme. Blavatsky’s residence in India is, of course, intimately blended with the history of the Theosophical Society, on which all her energies are spent, directly or indirectly, and indirectly in so far only as she was obliged during this period to do what literary work she could for Russian magazines to earn her livelihood and supplement the narrow resources on which the headquarters of the Society were kept up.

The Theosophist, the monthly magazine devoted to occult research, which she set on foot in the autumn of her first year in India, paid its way from the beginning and gradually came to earn a small profit, subject to the fact that its management was altogether gratuitous, and all its work in all departments performed by the little band of Theosophists at headquarters. But all the while the sneering critics of the movement in the papers would be suggesting, from time to time, that the founders of the Society were doing a very good business with "initiation fees" and living on the tribute of the faithful, Mme. Blavatsky was really at her desk from morning till night, slaving at Russian articles, which she wrote solely for the sake of the little income she was able to make in this way, and on which, in a far greater degree than on the proper resources of the Society, the headquarters was supported, and the movement kept on foot.

It has been through my acquaintance with Madame Blavatsky that I have obtained experiences in connection with occultism. The first problem I had to solve was whether Madame Blavatsky really did, as I heard, possess the power of producing abnormal phenomena.

During her first visit to my house, Madame Blavatsky was allowed to show that "raps" like those which spiritualists attribute to spirit agency, could be produced at will.

Spiritualists are aware that when groups of people sit round a table and put their hands upon it, they will, if a "medium" be present, generally hear little knocks which respond to questions and spell out messages. The large outer circle of persons who do not believe in spiritualism imagine that all the millions who do are duped as regards this impression. It must sometimes be troublesome for them to account for the wide development of the delusion, but any theory, they think, is preferable to admitting the possibility that the spirits of deceased persons can communicate in this way; or, if they take the scientific view of the matter, that a physical effect, however slight, can be produced without a physical cause. Such persons ought to welcome the explanations I am now giving, tending as these do to show that the theory of universal self-deception as regards spirit-rapping is not the only one by means of which the asserted facts of spiritualism can be reconciled with a reluctance to accept the spiritual hypothesis as the explanation.

Now, I soon found out not only that raps would always come at a table at which Madame Blavatsky sat with the view of obtaining such results, but that all conceivable hypotheses of fraud in the matter were rapidly disposed of by a comparison of the various experiments we were able to make. To begin with, there was no necessity for other people to sit at the table at all. We could work with any table under any circumstances, or without a table at all. A windowpane would do equally well, or the wall, or any door, or anything whatever which could give out a sound if hit. A half glass door put ajar was at once seen to be a very good instrument to choose, because it was easy to stand opposite Madame Blavatsky in this case, to see her bare hands or hand (without any rings) resting motionless on the pane, and to hear the little ticks come plainly, as if made with the point of a pencil or with the sound of electric sparks passing from one knob of an electrical apparatus to another. Another very satisfactory way of obtaining the raps—one frequently employed in the evening—was to set down a large glass clock shade on the hearthrug, and get Madame Blavatsky, after removing all rings from her hands and sitting well clear of the shade so that no part of her dress touched it, to lay her hands on it. Putting a lamp on the ground opposite and sitting down on the hearthrug, one could see the under surfaces of the hands resting on the glass, and still under these perfectly satisfactory conditions the raps would come, clear and distinct, on the sonorous surface of the shade.

It was out of Madame Blavatsky’s power to give an exact explanation as to how these raps were produced. But the fact that the raps were obedient to the will was readily put beyond dispute, in this way amongst others working with the windowpane or the clockshade, I would ask to have a name spelled out, mentioning one at random. Then I would call over the alphabet, and at the right letters the raps would come. Or I would ask for a definite number of raps, and they would come. Or for a series of raps in some defined rhythmical progression, and they would come. Nor was this all. Madame Blavatsky would sometimes put her hands, or one only, on some one else's head, and make the raps come, audibly to an attentive listener, and perceptibly to the person touched, who would feel each little shock exactly as if he were taking sparks off the conductor of an electrical machine.

At a later stage of my inquiries I obtained raps under better circumstances again than these—namely, without contact between the object on which they were produced and Madame Blavatsky’s hands at all. Madame Blavatsky used to produce the raps on a little table set in the midst of an attentive group, with no one touching it at all. After starting it, or charging it with some influence by resting her hands on it for a few moments, she would hold one about a foot above it and make mesmeric passes at it, at each of which the table would yield the familiar sound. Nor was this done only at our own house with our own tables. The same thing would be done at friends’ houses, to which Madame Blavatsky accompanied us. And a further development of the head experiment was this: It was found to be possible for several persons to feel the same rap simultaneously. Four or five persons used sometimes to put their hands in a pile, one on another on a table; then Madame Blavatsky would put hers on the top of the pile and cause a current, or whatever it is which produces the sound, to pass through the whole series of hands, felt by each simultaneously, and record itself in a rap on the table beneath. Any one who has ever taken part in forming such a pile of hands must feel as to some of the hypotheses put forward by determined skeptics to the effect that the raps are produced by Madame Blavatsky’s thumbnails or by the cracking of some joint—that such hypotheses are rather idiotic.

The raps gave me a complete assurance that she was in possession of some faculties of an abnormal character.

  • Hume, A. O. Hints on Esoteric Theosophy, No. 1: Is Theosophy a Delusion? Do the Brothers Exist? Calcutta, India: Calcutta Central Press, 1882. Selection 8d.
  • Massey, Charles C. Quoted in "Mr. C. Reimers, Mrs. Hollis-Billing, and Madame Blavatsky." The Light (London), August 30, 1884, 360. Selection 8a.
  • Olcott, Henry S. Old Diary Leaves: The Only Authentic History of the Theosophical Society. Vol. 2 (1878-1883). London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1900. Selections 8b, 8d.
  • Sinnett, A. P. 1881. The Occult World. London: Trubner & Co., 1881. Selection 8e.
  • ——, ed. 1886. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, Compiled from Information supplied by her Relatives and Friends. London: George Redway; reprint New York: Ayer, 1976. Selection 8e.
  • Wyld, George. Notes of My Life. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Truber & Co., 1903. Selection 8c.
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