By John Algeo
Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. â€œThe Man Who Met the Masters: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.â€ Quest 96.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008):180-185.
I was made simply to look upon them as men, my fellow-mortals; wiser, truly, infinitely more advanced than I, but only because of their having preceded me in the normal path of human evolution. [ODL 1.15:250]
WHEN COLONEL OLCOTT first met the masters who were working through Helena Blavatsky, he received an impression of them, which much later he recorded in his autobiographical book Old Diary Leaves. The epigraph above is Olcottâ€™s record of that impression. In this sentence, Olcott is talking about three things: himself (â€œIâ€), the masters (â€œthemâ€), and how he and they came to be different (â€œevolutionâ€). So to unpack the meaning of this sentence, we need to look at those three things: evolution, mastership, and Olcottâ€™s relation to the masters.
The idea of Darwinian-like evolution, of struggle for life and supremacy, and of the â€œsurvival of the fittestâ€ among the Hosts above as the Hosts below, runs throughout both the volumes of our earlier work [Isis Unveiled]. . . . But the idea was not ours, it is that of antiquity. [SD 1:202]
Theosophical tradition embraces evolution, albeit with some differences from the usual scientific ideas. First, whereas scientific evolution is concerned centrally with changes in material forms, Theosophical evolution postulates three independent but interrelated developments:
It now becomes plain that there exists in Nature a triple evolutionary scheme, for the formation of the three periodical Upadhis [vehicles or expressions]; or rather three separate schemes of evolution, which in our system are inextricably interwoven and interblended at every point. These are the Monadic (or spiritual), the intellectual, and the physical evolutions. [SD 1:121]
Science is necessarily concerned with only the third of these evolutions, as it can consider only material reality, which can be studied objectively and quantified. But intellectual and spiritual evolutions are also real, although subjective and qualitative.
The whole order of nature evinces a progressive march towards a higher life. There is design in the action of the seemingly blindest forces. [SD 1:277]
Science, however, is concerned exclusively with causes. Theosophy, on the other hand, sees evolution also as matter of progression, design, and control. But design does not imply a â€œDesigner,â€ that is, a personal God who creates the design. Rather, design is implicit in everything in the universe, and its expression through evolution is the working out of an inherent order:
The Universe is worked and guided from within outwards. . . . The whole Kosmos is guided, controlled, and animated by almost endless series of Hierarchies of sentient Beings, each having a mission to perform, and who . . . are â€œmessengersâ€ in the sense only that they are the agents of Karmic and Cosmic Laws. [SD 1:274]
In this way, Theosophical evolution differs from what today is called â€œintelligent design,â€ which may be no more than a way of trying to smuggle the Abrahamic God into what ought to be pure science.
Although we are all human, we are not all at the same level of human development. Our partial humanity varies in the degree of its fullness and its incompleteness. Yet there is a sort of common average humanity, from which most of us depart only slightly, however great the differences among us may seem to be.
Olcott and the Masters
Blavatsky had had some contact with the masters from her childhood. Consequently, she looked upon them as a normal part of her life. She referred to them, but she did not discuss them in any detail or record her specific relationship with them. Olcott, on the other hand, came into knowledge of the masters relatively late in his life, as a result of his meeting with Blavatsky in 1874, when he was in his forty-second year of age. So for him, knowledge of, communications from, and interaction with the masters were all quite remarkable and notable events. Consequently, he noted such events first in his private diaries and later in his published account, Old Diary Leaves.
Our eveningâ€™s work on Isis was finished, I had bade good-night to H. P. B., retired to my own room, closed the door as usual, sat me down to read and smoke, and was soon absorbed in my book. . . .I was quietly reading, with all my attention centered on my book. Nothing in the eveningâ€™s incidents had prepared me for seeing an adept in his astral body; I had not wished for it, tried to conjure it up in my fancy, nor in the least expected it. All at once, as I read with my shoulder a little turned from the door, there came a gleam of something white in the right-hand corner of my right eye; I turned my head, dropped my book in astonishment, and saw towering above me in his great stature an Oriental clad in white garments, and wearing a head-cloth or turban of amber-striped fabric, hand-embroidered in yellow floss-silk. . . . He told me . . . that it lay with me alone whether he and I should meet often in this life as coworkers for the good of mankind. . . . Suddenly the thought came into my mind: â€œWhat if this be but hallucination; what if H. P. B. has cast a hypnotic glamour over me? I wish I had some tangible object to prove to me that he has really been here; something that I might handle after he is gone!â€ The Master smiled kindly as if reading my thought, untwisted the fehtÃ¢ [turban] from his head, benignantly saluted me in fare-well andâ€”was gone . . . . on the table lay the embroidered head-cloth; a tangible and enduring proof that I . . . had been face to face with one of the Elder Brothers of Humanity. [1.24:377â€“80]
This contact was an astral, not a physical one, yet the turban that remained behind was a solidly material memento of the visit.
I went to him, we walked off to a safe place at some distance where intruders need not be expected, and then for about a half-hour he told me what I had to know, and what does not concern third parties, since that chapter of T. S. history was long since closed. . . . There were no miracles done at the interview, no magic circles traced on the ground, no gum-burning lamps placed around it and burning with steely-blue flames: just two men talking together, a meeting, and a parting when the talk was over. [3.4:44â€“5]
Later in Olcottâ€™s life, his connection with some of the masters seems to have become so close that he no longer had any need of either letters or bodily contact (whether such contact was astral or physical). Instead, Olcott believed he was in telepathic contact with the masters. Thus, Olcott relates the following event, which occurred in his sixtieth year:
Just before daybreak, on the 10th of February , I received clairaudiently a very important message from my Guru: its impressiveness was enhanced by the fact that he told me things which were quite contrary to my own belief, and hence it could not be explained away as a case of auto-suggestion. [4.25:442]
In this message, Olcott was told six things, some of which involved specific information that proved to be correct. The first of the six things, however, was particularly surprising. It was that â€œa messenger from him [the master] would be coming,â€ whom Olcott should hold himself ready to go and meet. Olcott was greatly impressed by this prediction, so even though he had been told â€œneither the name of the person nor the time of his or her arrivalâ€ (5.8:90â€“1), he â€œkept a traveling-bag packed a full year-and-a-half, so as to be ready to start at a momentâ€™s notice.â€ But for all that time, there was no sequel: â€œNothing more having been heard of the matter I had, naturally, come to think that I had, perhaps, been deceived as to the terms of the message.â€
The familiar voice again spoke as I lay in that state between sleeping and waking, and said: â€œThis is the messenger whom I told you to be ready to go and meet: now do your duty.â€ The surprise and delight were such as to drag me at once into the state of waking physical consciousness and I rejoiced to think that I had once more received proof of the possibility of getting trustworthy communications from my Teacher at times when I could not suspect them of being the result of auto-suggestion. The development of Mrs. Besantâ€™s relations with our work in India have been, moreover, what, to me, is the best possible evidence that she is, indeed, the agent selected to fructify the seeds which had been planted by H. P. B. and myself during the previous fifteen years. [5.8:91â€“2]
An undated Mahatma Letter to A. P. Sinnett includes the following injunction from the Master KH: â€œMeanwhile use every effort to develop such relations with A. Besant that your work may run on parallel lines and in full sympathyâ€ (ML 463). This letter is tentatively dated by the editor of the chronological edition, Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., in 1884, ten years before the event reported above and five years before Besant joined the Theosophical Society. The editor also comments that the letter â€œwould seem to indicate that the Mahatma K. H. had fore-knowledge of her role in theosophical work.â€
What shall we make of such communications, of which those cited above are only a few examples? What were the letters, astral appearances, physical contacts, and telepathic messages? Were they all just fraud and imagination, or were they what Olcott thought them to be: veridical contacts with evolved human beings who were using him to further their work in the world? Do masters of the sort Olcott and Blavatsky talked about really exist? Was Olcott in touch with them as he believed himself to be? Answers to those questions cannot be supported by definitive, objective evidence. Instead, such answers depend on initial suppositions about what is possible and what is impossible.
ÂTo my beloved brothers in the physical body: I bid you all farewell. In memory of me, carry on the grand work of proclaiming and living the Brotherhood of Religions.To my beloved Brothers on the higher planes: I greet and come to you, and implore you to help me to impress all men on earth that â€œthere is no religion higher than Truth,â€ and that in the Brotherhood of Religions lies the peace and progress of humanity.
So spoke the man who had met the masters: Henry Steel Olcott.
Note: All citations of Old Diary Leaves (ODL) are by volume, chapter, and page(s). Citations of The Secret Doctrine (SD) are by volume and page(s). The citation from the Mahatma Letters is by page in the chronological edition.
John Algeo was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and has lived in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and Georgia. John joined the Theosophical Society at the age of sixteen and became president of the Florida Lodge (Miami) while still in his teens. He is a past president of the American Dialect Society, the American Name Society, and the Dictionary Society of North America. John retired in 1994 to accept the presidency of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently serves as international vice-president of the society, is revising his textbook, Origins and Development of the English Language for its sixth edition, and continues to lecture at academic and Theosophical meetings throughout the world.