The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Sri Lanka and Bombay, 1800

During May–July 1880, the Founders spent some time in Ceylon, where Colonel Olcott laid the foundations for his later work to stimulate the revival of Buddhism. They both took Pansil, that is Pancha Sila, a formal recitation of the five precepts renouncing harmfulness, stealing, sexual immorality, lying, and alcohol, preceded by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma or teaching, and the Sangha or religious community. The public ceremony of repeating these vows after a leader of the Buddhist community is the official profession of Buddhism.

9a. Anonymous, May 1880, on board the S.S. Ellora, traveling from Bombay, India, to Colombo, Sri Lanka ["Voyage with Mme. Blavatsky" 1891]

Early in May 1880, I took passage from Bombay for Colombo in Ceylon [Sri Lanka], on one of the comfortable little coasting steamships of the British India Navigation Company.

The fun of the trip consisted in the delight that the old woman [Madame Blavatsky] took in making life miserable for the first officer of the vessel, a huge, raw-boned, awkward Scotchman, with fiery red hair and whiskers, and an inborn hatred of anything in the way of religious belief that deviated an iota from the faith of his own Presbyterian church.

From the very first hour after sailing from Bombay harbor the first officer had wrangled with Mme. Blavatsky in argument until at last he openly declared he believed she was the only daughter of the Father of Lies, and added that he prayed to heaven that the ship bearing such an unholy person might reach port in safety. For his part he doubted it, but he prayed it might be so. This expression of the sturdy maritimer’s opinion only caused the old woman to shake with laughter. Finally, one evening as we sat over coffee and raisins after dinner she told him that she was weary of his pigheaded disbelief in her powers to force natural laws to assist her in performing what he was pleased to call showmen’s tricks, and that she meant to teach him then and there to hold his tongue.

"Vera well, madame, do it if ye can. I’m sure y’re truly welcome to try," he replied with a sneer.

"Have you a handkerchief in your pocket?" she asked.

He unbuttoned his coat and handed her his handkerchief, a plain cotton one with a narrow blue border.

Mme. Blavatsky tossed it on the table in front of her, pushed away her plate, coffee cup, and glasses, and pulled her chair in as close to the table as she could. I was sitting directly beside her and watched her with the greatest interest, as, indeed, did all the rest, the first officer looking on from his place at the foot of the table, only a few feet away, with a very plain sneer on his rugged face.

Having cleared the space in front of her, she placed both elbows on the edge of the table, picked up the handkerchief and began to roll it into as small a compass as she could. Then having done so, she squeezed it in her two fists until she turned scarlet in the face and then almost purple. The perspiration started out on her forehead and ran down her face and neck, but still she squeezed harder and harder, with her eyes tightly shut, and as we watched her, an expression of pain came on her face, and the color rapidly faded away until she was as livid as a corpse.

I suppose all this occupied two minutes, certainly not more, and then she opened her hands and gasped as if her throat were parched from thirst. Col. Olcott motioned us to be silent, and in a few moments she opened her eyes and a faint color came back to her face. She made an effort to speak, but could only whisper, "Give it to him," at the same time pointing to the handkerchief. It was handed to the Scotchman, who looked somewhat anxious as he opened it and utterly astounded when he found his monogram most exquisitely embroidered in the center, the letters being in white silk, and enclosed in a circle of light blue of the same color as the printed border of the handkerchief. The diameter of the circle was about two inches.

For a moment the first officer looked intently at the monogram, then at the pale but triumphant old woman, who was gazing at him with blazing eyes, and then he uttered a mighty oath and walked away to his cabin on the forward deck. During the rest of the voyage he would not come near her, speak to her, nor sit at the table while she was there, and the only thing he would say about the affair was to repeat the hope that the vessel would be permitted by Providence to reach Ceylon in safety.

9b. Henry S. Olcott, May 1880, on board the S.S. Ellora, traveling from Bombay, India, to Colombo, Sri Lanka, and later [Olcott 1900, 2: 154–5]

The old Captain [of the S.S. Ellora] was a fat, goodnatured person without the glimmering of a belief in things spiritual or physical. He used to joke with HPB on our notions with such a delicious ignorance of the whole subject that it only made us laugh. One day she was playing her favorite solitary game of Patience, when the Captain broke in upon her meditations with a challenge that she should tell his fortune with the cards. She at first refused, but at last consented, and, making him cut, laid out the cards on the table. She said, "This is very strange: it can’t be so!" "What?" asked the Captain. "What the cards say. Cut again." He did so, and with the same result, apparently, for HPB said the cards prophesized such a nonsensical thing that she didn’t like to tell him. He insisted; whereupon she said that the cards foretold that he would not be much longer at sea; he would receive an offer to live ashore, and would throw up his profession. The big Captain roared at the idea, and told her that it was just as he anticipated. As for his quitting the sea, nothing would please him more, but there was no such good luck in store for him. The thing passed off without further remark beyond the Captain’s repeating the prophecy to the Chief Officer, through whom it became the laugh of the ship. But there was a sequel.

A month or two after our return to Bombay, HPB received a letter from Captain Wickes, in which he said he owed her an apology for his behavior about the card prophecy, and must honestly confess that it had been literally fulfilled. After dropping us at Ceylon, he continued his voyage to Calcutta. On arrival, he had the offer of the appointment of Harbor Master (Port Officer) at Karwar (I think it was, or if not, then Mangalore), had accepted it, and had actually returned as passenger in his own ship! This is a specimen of a great many card prophecies HPB made. I do not suppose the cards had anything to do with it save that they may have acted as a link between her clairvoyant brain and the Captain’s personal aura, thus enabling her clairvoyant faculty of prescience to come into play. Yet psychically endowed as she was, I scarcely remember her having foreseen any one of the many painful events that happened to her through treacherous friends and malicious enemies. If she did, she never told me or anybody else so far as I ever heard. A thief stole something she valued once, at Bombay, but she could not find out the culprit, nor help the police whom she called in.

9c. Henry S. Olcott, May–July 1880, Sri Lanka [Olcott 1900, 2: 151–205]

A visit to Ceylon, long urgently requested by the leading priests and laity of the Buddhist community, had been determined upon, and the preparations occupied us.

Everything being ready, we embarked on 7th May in a British India coasting steamer for Ceylon. The party consisted of the two Founders, Mr. [Edward] Wimbridge, Damodar K. Mavalankar, [and others].

We dropped anchor in Colombo harbor on the morning of 16th May, and after a while a large boat came alongside bringing Mohottiwatte Gunananda, the Buddhist orator-priest, John Robert de Silva, and some junior priests. We found the famed Mohottiwatte a middle-aged, shaven monk, of full medium stature, with a very intellectual head, a bright eye, very large mouth, and an air of perfect self-confidence and alertness, the most brilliant polemic [Buddhist] orator of the Island, the terror of the [Christian] Missionaries. HPB had sent him from New York a presentation copy of Isis Unveiled, and he had translated portions where she describes some of the phenomena she had personally witnessed in the course of her travels. His greeting to us was especially cordial. He requested us to proceed with the steamer to Galle, where arrangements had been made for our reception; he himself would go that evening by train.

Before dawn on the 17th we were off Galle. The monsoon burst, and there was tremendous wind and rain, but the view was so lovely that we stopped on deck to enjoy it. A beautiful bay; a verdant promontory to the north, against which the surf dashed and in foamy jets ran high up against the rocky shore; a long, curved sandy beach bordered with tile-roofed bungalows almost hidden in an ocean of green palms; the old fort, custom house, lighthouse, jetty, and coaling sheds to the south, and to the east the tossing sea with a line of rocks and reefs walling it out from the harbor. Far away inland rose Adam’s Peak and his sister mountains.

After breakfast, in a lull of the storm, we embarked in a large boat decorated with plantain trees and lines of bright-colored flowers, on which were the leading Buddhists of the place. On the jetty and along the beach a huge crowd awaited us. A white cloth was spread for us from the jetty steps to the road where carriages were ready, and a thousand flags were frantically waved in welcome. The multitude hemmed in our carriages, and the procession set out for our appointed residence, the house of Mrs. Wijeratne. The roads were blocked with people the whole distance, and our progress was very slow. At the house three Chief Priests received and blessed us at the threshold. Then we had a levee and innumerable introductions, the common people crowding every approach, filling every door, and gazing through every window. This went on all day. Our hostess and her son, the Deputy Coroner of Galle, lavished every hospitality upon us.

The monks, who had read [Mohottiwatte’s] excerpts from HPB’s book, pressed her to exhibit her powers, and young Wijeratne, on hearing about the handkerchief phenomenon on board ship, asked her to repeat it for him. So she did, and again for a Mr. Dias; each time obliterating her own embroidered name and causing theirs to replace it. The excitement, of course, rose to fever heat and culminated when she made some fairy bells ring out sharp in the air, near the ceiling and out on the verandah. I had to satisfy the crowd with two impromptu addresses during the day.

Our rooms were packed with visitors all day. There were no end of metaphysical discussions with the aged High Priest Bulatgama Sumanatissa. Old Bulatgama was a particularly persistent disputant, very voluble and very kind. Among other topics of discussion was that of the psychical powers, and HPB, who thoroughly liked him, rang bells in the air (one a booming explosion like the striking of a large steel bar), made spirit raps, caused the great dining table to tremble and move, etc., to the amazement of her select audience.

This was the prologue to such a drama of excitement as we had not dreamt we should ever pass through. In a land of flowers and ideal tropical vegetation, under smiling skies, along roads shaded by clustering palm trees, the people could not do enough for us; nothing seemed to them good enough for us: we were the first white champions of their [Buddhist] religion, speaking of its excellence and its blessed comfort from the platform, in the face of the [Christian] missionaries, its enemies and slanderers.

On 25th May, HPB and I "took pansil" from the venerable Bulatgama, at a temple of the Ramanya Nikaya and were formally acknowledged as Buddhists. We had previously declared ourselves Buddhists long before, in America, both privately and publicly, so that this was but a formal confirmation of our previous professions. HPB knelt before the huge statue of the Buddha, and I kept her company. We had a good deal of trouble in catching the Pali words that we were to repeat after the old monk. A great crowd was present and made the responses just after us, a dead silence being preserved while we were struggling through the unfamiliar sentences. When we had finished the last of the Silas, and offered flowers in the customary way, there came a mighty shout to make one's nerves tingle, and the people could not settle themselves down to silence for some minutes, to hear the brief discourse which, at the Chief Priest’s request, I delivered.

The next morning we began our journey northward in carriages supplied by the fishermen of Galle. Almost the entire Buddhist population of Galle massed together to see us leave town, and rent the air with friendly shouts.

At Panadure we were lodged [in a] building comprising small bedrooms opening on a verandah which extended on all sides, and one small hall through the middle. There were no bathrooms. The windows were furnished only with wooden shutters, and when they were shut in the daytime, the rooms were dark. HPB had one of the rooms in the south end. She wanted to bathe, and, as there was no other place, I arranged for a tub in her own room. As she would be in pitch darkness if the shutters were closed, I tied a large soft mat across the end of the shutters, left standing open, and she began her toilet. The rest of us were sitting around the corner, on the other verandah, chatting, when I heard my name shouted, and ran around to see what was the matter. At that moment three Sinhalese women were in the act of creeping out beneath the edge of the mat, and the old lady was abusing them in grand style. On hearing my voice, she said that these impertinent creatures, to gratify their curiosity, had actually crept under the mat and, when she happened to turn her head, she saw them standing close against the window still, calmly watching her ablutions. Her indignation was so tragic that, while hustling the intruders away, I could not help laughing heartily. Poor things! they meant no harm.

We left for Kandy by train on the 9th [of June], and after the run of one and a half hours through one of the most picturesque tracts of country in the world, arrived at about 7 p.m. Along with the usual crowd, a deputation of Kandyan Chiefs received us at the station and accompanied us to our quarters in a great procession, bright with torches and ear-splitting with tom-toms and native trumpets. Two addresses were made to us, by the Chiefs’ Committee and by a society of Buddhists connected with the Temple of the Sacred Tooth of Buddha, the Dalada Maligawa. We went to the temple at 2 p.m. for my lecture. [On the] morning [of June 14th], the unusual honor was conferred upon us of admitting us to a special exhibition of the Buddha Tooth Relic. This is kept in a separate tower, protected by a thick door of entrance studded with iron and fastened with four great locks. The relic is of the size of an alligator tooth, is supported by a gold wire stem rising from a lotus flower of the same metal, and is much discolored by age. If genuine, it would, of course, be twenty-five centuries old. On our return to our lodgings, the educated Sinhalese about us were eager to know HPB’s opinion as to the genuineness of the relic, whether it is or is not a real tooth of the Buddha. This was a nice, not to say ticklish, question. HPB’s jovial answer to her interrogators [was]: "Of course, it is his tooth: one he had when he was born as a tiger!"

At 2 p.m. [we] took train for Colombo. [Then] we proceeded on to Bentota. The trip was delightful, both by rail along the sea beach, where the track skirts almost the wash of the surf, and by road through the continuous groves of palms. Our reception at Bentota was princely indeed. There was a procession a mile long, at least ten miles of decorations along the roads and lanes. I lectured from a large decorated pavilion or platform. We passed the night at the rest house, or travelers’ bungalow, a Government affair. We were all agreed that we had never seen so delightful a house in the tropics. The lofty ceilings, the floors of red tiles, the walls of laterite, thick and cool, a wide verandah at the back just over the rocky shore of the sea, the rooms at least thirty feet square, the sea breeze sweeping through them night and day, a bathing place on the beach, abundance of flowers . . . HPB declared she should like to pass a whole year there.

[Finally returning to Galle,] the 12th [of July] was our last day in the Island [of Sri Lanka]; on the 13th our steamer arrived, and at two we embarked, leaving many weeping friends behind, and taking away with us many recollections of gracious kindnesses, cheerful help, lovely journeys, enthusiastic multitudes, and strange experiences.

9d. Anagarika Dharmapala, June 1880, Colombo, Ceylon [Dharmapala 1927, 720–2]

When I was ten years old, I attended a great debate in a temple pavilion sixteen miles from [Colombo] Ceylon, where the Christians on one side and [the Buddhist Mohottiwatte] Gunananda on the other argued out the truths of their respective religions. Thousands came from the most distant parts of the island to hear this famous debate. Mohottiwatte Gunananda supplied the oratory; and the Venerable Sumangala furnished him with the scholarly material and references. The debate lasted three days.

Dr. J. M. Peebles, an American Spiritualist, who was visiting Colombo at the time, obtained an English report of the controversy between the Buddhists and Christians and, upon his return to the U.S., showed it to Colonel Henry S. Olcott and Madame H. P. Blavatsky, who had organized the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875. Deeply impressed, they wrote to Gunananda and Sumangala that, in the interest of universal brotherhood, they had just founded a society inspired by oriental philosophies and that they would come to Ceylon to help the Buddhists. The letters from Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky were translated into Sinhalese and widely distributed. My heart warmed toward these two strangers, so far away and yet so sympathetic, and I made up my mind that, when they came to Ceylon, I would join them.

They did come to Colombo a few years later, when I was sixteen. The Buddhists entertained them royally. I remember going up to greet them. The moment I touched their hands, I felt overjoyed. The desire for universal brotherhood, for all the things they wanted for humanity, struck a responsive chord in me. I began to read their magazine. As I walked in the gardens overgrown with fragrant plants or along the shore shaded by teak and coco palms, I pondered on the conversations I had had with the two Theosophists. I made up my mind not to entangle myself in the net of worldly desires. I would endeavor from then on to devote my life to the welfare of others. Exactly how I was to carry out my resolve, I was not certain, but I felt that somehow the way would be found in the writings of Madame Blavatsky.

9e. Damodar K. Mavalankar, June 23—July 1880, Ceylon and then on ship back to Bombay [Damodar 1965, 55–8]

In Ceylon [in a] particular village, HPB, Col. Olcott, and myself were the only three persons that stopped one night, the rest of our party having gone to a further place. We were all busy there initiating people and forming a branch of our [Theosophical] Society till about lo' [CHECK TEXT] in the night. HPB and Col. Olcott went to bed at about one. As we had to stay in the village only one night, we had got down in the Rest House where comfortable accommodation can be had only for two travelers. I had therefore to lie down in an armchair in the dining room. I had scarcely locked the door of the room from the inside and laid myself in the chair when I heard a faint knock at the door. It was repeated twice before I had time enough to reach the door. I opened it and what a great joy I felt when I saw [Mahatma Morya] again! In a very low whisper he ordered me to dress myself and to follow him. At the back door of the Rest House is the sea. I followed him as he commanded me to do. We walked about three quarters of an hour by the seashore. Then we turned in the direction of the sea. All around there was water except the place we were walking upon which was quite dry!! He was walking in front and I was following him. We thus walked for about seven minutes when we came to a spot that looked like a small island. On the top of the building was a triangular light. From a distance, a person, standing on the seashore would think it to be an isolated spot which is covered all over by green bushes. There is only one entrance to go inside. After we reached the island, we came in front of the actual building. There in a little garden in front, we found one of the Brothers sitting. I had seen him before, and it is to him that this place belongs. [Mahatma Morya] seated himself near him and I stood hefore them. We were there for about half an hour. I was shown a part of the place. How very pleasant it is! And inside this place he has a small room where the body remains when the spirit moves about. What a charming, delightful spot that is! What a nice smell of roses and various sorts of flowers! The half hour was finished and the time for our leaving the place was near. The master of the place, whose name I do not know, placed his blessing hand over my head, and [Mahatma Morya] and I marched off again. We came back near the door of the room wherein I was to sleep and he suddenly disappeared there on the spot.

I omitted to mention to you the two other places where I was taken. One of them is near Colombo, a private house of [Mahatma Morya], and the other one near Kandy, a library.

One evening on the steamer on our way back to Bombay [in July 1880], we finished our dinner [and] I went in [my cabin] and put on [my] coat. Without thinking I put my hands into my pockets as I usually do and lo! in the right-hand one I felt some paper. I took it out, and to my surprise I found a letter addressed to Mme. Blavatsky. I took it nearer to the light. The cover was open and on it were written in red the words: "For Damodar to read." I then read the letter. Thinking all the time of this matter, I lay down in my bed. Absorbed in deep thought, I was startled on the sound of footsteps in the cabin which I had locked from inside. I looked behind and there was [Mahatma Morya] again and two others! What a pleasant evening that was! Speaking of various things in regard to knowledge and philosophy for about half an hour!

9f. Henry S. Olcott, July–August 1880, Bombay [Olcott 1900, 2: 206–8, 213, 215, 225]

By way of contrast to the pleasant experiences of the Ceylon tour, we had a terribly rough sea passage from Galle to Colombo, and all of us were miserably seasick. It rained cats and dogs on the last day of our return voyage—as it had nearly every day; the decks were wet. HPB made absurd efforts to write at a table placed for her by the accommodating Captain on a couple of gratings, in a comparatively dry spot, but used more strong words than ink, her papers were so blown about by the gusts that swept the ship. At last we entered Bombay harbor and in due course had solid ground under our feet.

On the evening of 4th August, Mahatma [Morya] visited HPB, and I was called in to see him before he left. He dictated a long and important letter to an influential friend of ours at Paris, and gave me important hints about the management of current [Theosophical] Society affairs. I was sent away before his visit terminated, and left him sitting in HPB’s room.

[Then] we received from Mr. Sinnett an invitation to visit them at Simla. We—HPB and I, with our servant Babula—left Bombay for the North by the evening mail train of 27th August. We came in sight of Simla just before sunset [on September 8th]. A servant of Mr. Sinnett’s met us as we entered the town, with jampans—chairs carried by porters by long poles—and we were soon under the hospitable roof of our good friends the Sinnetts, where a hearty welcome awaited us.

9g. Damodar K. Mavalankar, September 1880, Bombay, India [Damodar 1965, 58–62]

[On] Aug. 27, 1880, HPB and Col. O. left Bombay for Simla and other places in the North [of India]. I worked all alone in HPB’s compartments. [One day in September] at about 2 in the morning after finishing my work, I locked the door of the room and lay in my bed. Within about 2 or 3 minutes I heard HPB’s voice in her room calling me. I got up with a start and went in. She said "some persons want to see you" and after a moment added, "Now go out, do not look at me." Before however I had time to turn my face, I saw her gradually disappear on the spot and from that very ground rose up the form of [Mahatma Morya]. By the time I had turned back, I saw two others dressed in what I afterwards learned to be Tibetan clothes. One of them remained with [Mahatma Morya] in HPB’s room. The other one I found seated on my bed by the time I came out. Then he told me to stand still for some time and began to look at me fixedly. I felt a very pleasant sensation as if I was getting out of my body. I cannot say now what time passed between that and what I am now going to relate. But I saw I was in a peculiar place. It was the upper end of Cashmere at the foot of the Himalayas. I saw I was taken to a place where there were only two houses just opposite to each other and no other sign of habitation. From one of these came out the person [Koot Hoomi, who] ordered me to follow him. After going a short distance of about half a mile, we came to a natural subterranean passage. After walking a considerable distance through this subterranean passage, we came into an open plain. There is a large massive building thousands of years old. The entrance gate has a large triangular arch. Inside are various apartments. I went up with my Guru to the Great Hall. The grandeur and serenity of the place is enough to strike anyone with awe. While standing there, I do not know what happened, but suddenly I found myself in my bed. It was about 8 in the morning. What was that I saw? Was it a dream or a reality? Perplexed with these ideas, I was sitting silent when down fell a note on my nose. I opened it and found inside that it was not a dream but that I was taken in some mysterious way in my astral body to the real place of Initiation.

  • Damodar K. Mavalankar. Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement. Comp. Sven Eek. Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1965. Selections 9e, 9g.
  • Dharmapala, Anagarika. 1927. "On the Eightfold Path." Asia (New York), September 1927. Selection 9d.
  • Olcott, Henry S. Old Diary Leaves: The Only Authentic History of the Theosophical Society. Vol. 2 (1878–1883). London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1900. Selections 9b, 9c, 9f.
  • "Voyage with Mme. Blavatsky: The Summary Manner in Which She Silenced a Skeptical First Officer." Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11, 1891. Reprinted in Canadian Theosophist 70.6 (January-February 1990): 1–2. Selection 9a.
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