From the Archives: Passage to India: A Mission from the Masters

By Paula Chernyshev Finnegan

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Finnegan, Paula Chernyshev. “From the Archives: Passage to India: A Mission from the Masters.” Quest  96.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2008):188-189.

 

MOST OF US KNOW THAT THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY was founded in 1875, but the events leading to how the international headquarters was established makes another very fine story. Here we document the story of the move to India using passages from The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky by Daniel Caldwell; Old Diary Leaves by Henry S. Olcott; and The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement by Michael Gomes.

Madame Blavatsky had been instructed by her teachers, also known as the Masters to travel to America which she did in 1873. She met Colonel Olcott in October 1874 and together they founded the Theosophical Society in New York City. HPB was then instructed to establish TS headquarters in India. She was joined by Olcott who was at first reluctant, but was convinced after a visit from a Master, which is related in this issue (see “The Man Who Met the Masters: Colonel Henry Steel Olcott” page 181).

In chapter IV, “Pilgrimage to India 1878,” Gomes relates:

 

The decision to go to India came for Olcott during the writing of Isis Unveiled. From the time he learned “what India had been to the world, what she might be again,” from H. P. Blavatsky, “an insatiable longing” had possessed him to go “to the land of the Rishis and Buddhas, the Sacred Land among lands; but I could not see my way clear to breaking the ties of circumstance which bound me to America.”

He continues with Olcott’s words after Olcott’s experience with the Master, “Before the dawn of that sleepless night came, I began to devise the means and to bend all things to that end.”

 

In The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky, Caldwell writes that in September 1877, the publication of Isis Unveiled had a powerful public impact and the New York Herald-Tribune considered the work as one of the “remarkable productions of the century.” On July 8, 1878, HPB became a naturalized U.S. citizen, an event that received widespread publicity in various newspapers. Soon after her naturalization, Blavatsky announced that she and Colonel Olcott would be leaving for India by the end of the year. The New York Daily Graphic printed this interview with HPB on December 10, 1878:

 

 

Helen P. Blavatsky is leaving America, as she says, forever. A very damp reporter found his way into the pleasant French flat at Eighth avenue and Forty-seventh street this morning, and his ring was answered by a colored servant, who expressed serious doubts as to whether his mistress would see any one at so early an hour. The interviewer was, however, ushered into a breakfast room, which was in a very disordered condition, and invited to a seat on a vacant stool. The disorder was a necessary result of yesterday’s auction sale, and the only semblance of occupancy left were an uncleared breakfast table and three human occupants. Colonel Olcott sat at the table busily making memoranda in a notebook and burning his handsome moustache with a half-finished cigar that struggled ineffectually to reach beyond the outskirts of his beard.

When the reporter was finally ushered into Mme. Blavatsky’s own room, he found that lady seated at the end of a letter and tobacco laden table, twisting a fragrant cigarette from a quantity of loose tobacco of a famous Turkish brand. The room was the inner temple of the Lamasery, which has become so widely known in recent years.

The reporter said: “And so you are going to leave America?”

“Yes, and the Lamasery where I have spent so many happy, happy hours. I am sorry to leave these rooms, although there is little to regret about them now,” glancing about at the bare floors and walls, “but I am glad to get away from your country. You have liberty, but that is all, and of that you have too much, too much!”

“When shall you leave?”

“I know neither the time nor the vessel, but it will be very soon. I am going first to Liverpool and London, where we have branch Theosophical societies. Then I shall go direct to Bombay. Oh! how glad I shall be to see my dear Indian home again!” and as she arose and wrapped a morning gown of strange design about her, she looked very much the Oriental priestess which she claims she is—not.

 

In Old Diary Leaves 2:1, Colonel Olcott describes the “The Voyage Out.”

 

Though we left American soil on the 17th of December (1878), we did not get away from American waters until 12.30 p.m. on the 19th, as we lost the tide of the 18th and had to anchor in the Lower Bay. Imagine the state of mind of H. P. B. if you can! She raged against the captain, pilot, engineers, owners, and even the tides. My Diary must have been in her portmanteau, for in it she wrote:

“Magnificent day. Clear, blue, cloudless [sky], but devilish cold. Fits of fear lasted till 11. The body is difficult to manage. . . . At last the pilot took the steamer across the Sandy Hook bar. Fortunately we did not get stuck in the sand! . . . All day eating—at 8, 12, 4, and 7. H. P. B. eats like three hogs.”

I never knew the meaning of the phrase written by H. P. B.’s hand in my Diary on 17th December, 1878: “ All dark-but tranquil,” until at London, when her niece translated for me an extract from the letter written by her aunt to her mother (Mme. Jelihovsky) from London on 14th January, 1879, and which she has kindly copied out for the present use. H. P. B. writes her sister:

“I start for India. Providence alone knows what the future has in store for us. Possibly these portraits shall be the last. Do not forget your orphan-sister, now so in the full meaning of the word.

“Good-bye. We start from Liverpool on the 18th. May the invisible powers protect you all!

“I shall write from Bombay if I ever reach it. ELENA.”

 

 

LONDON, 14th January, 1879.
If she ever reached it? Then she was not certain that she would; that New York prediction might come true. Very well; but how, then, about all this romance we have been having circulated, about her having had complete foreknowledge as to our Indian career? The two clash . . .

On 15th January we sent on our heavy baggage to Liverpool; on the 17th I issued an Executive Notice appointing, ad interim, Major-General A. Doubleday, U. S. A., F. T. S., Acting President of the T. S.; Mr. David A. Curtis, Acting Corresponding Secretary; and Mr. G. V. Maynard, Treasurer; W. Q. Judge was already elected Recording Secretary. This arrangement was for the purpose of carrying on the work at the New York Headquarters until the future disposal of the Society should have been decided upon, according to what should happen after we had settled at Bombay.

 

 

Olcott and HPB then embarked on the one-month voyage to India aboard a British passenger/cargo steamer. The Speke Hall SS was built in 1878 by Charles Connell & Company in Scotstoun for Alexander & Radcliffe, Liverpool. It is surprising that Olcott describes it as “dirty and disagreeable” since it was a new ship. Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Bombay in February 1879 where they soon established temporary headquarters.

In chapter 8 of The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky, “London, Bombay, and Allahabad, 1879,” Caldwell relates the story told in Old Diary Leaves.

 

 

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.

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. 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.

 

Caldwell continues with A. P. Sinnett’s recollection of how he first made the acquaintance of HPB.

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.

Because of the dangerous nature of ocean travel at that time, HPB and Olcott were fortunate to have suffered only a bruised knee and bouts of sea sickness. They fared much better than their ship; the Speke Hall was lost on June 3, 1885 during a cyclone while on passage from Cardiff to Bombay. After their long voyage, the founders were rewarded with a warm welcome and wonderful reception. But Blavatsky and Olcott had come to India to establish the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society, and they wasted no time working toward that goal. By the autumn of 1879, they began publishing The Theosophist which continues to be the international journal for the TS. It was through their dedication and tireless energy that the Society and the Theosophical movement survived, and began to flourish, during those early days in India.


Paula Chernyshev Finnegan is a Theosophist, a biologist, and a native Chicagoan. Her interest in anthropology and Native American studies led her to the Quest Bookshop and the TS in the early 1990s. Paula has worked as coordinating editor for Quest magazine for three years. She would like to thank Janet Kerschner for combing the Archives in search of photographs and resources for this article.


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