The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge

The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge

by K. Paul Johnson
State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994; paper, xxii+288 pages.

Fortunately the word myth has come to have a dual meaning, one of which has restored the concept to its rightful place among philosophical ideas, while the other meaning confines it to the popular tradition of "tall stories" or fanciful imaginings. As James Cowan, a contemporary interpreter of the Aboriginal legends of Australia, has put the matter, "Myth is the supreme metaphysical language." Or, as Jocelyn Godwin states in his excellent foreword to the book under review, myth "embodies lost knowledge and higher truths than mere stories."

These statements help us identify the meaning of myth as K. Paul Johnson uses the term in the subtitle of his latest effort to identify the teachers of H. P. Blavatsky; the correspondents of A. P. Sinnett, A. O. Hume, and several other early Theosophists; as well as those spiritually developed individuals referred to in theosophical literature as mahatmas, adepts, or masters. Let us acknowledge at the outset that Johnson is a tireless and careful researcher, that he has opened up, to quote Godwin again, "an entirely new dimension… to the history of Western esotericism at its most complex moment:' and that he has presented to the reader willing to set aside personal bias and prejudgment on the central question of Blavatsky's "teachers" a reasoned and well-documented case for identifying their personae.

Having said that, however, we need to examine the work more closely in order to understand both Johnson's aim and the criteria he used for achieving his purpose. He has not sought to deny the fact that spiritually wise men and women exist, individuals who may be called masters or mahatmas. As Johnson says in his introduction: "To call the occultist view of the Masters a myth is not to deny its value or validity." Rather he proposes that "the Masters were real people whose portrayal has been inflated by myth."

Johnson states unequivocally that he has defined the term "master" on the basis of" objective, measurable factors" and that "because their 'spiritual status' and psychic powers are inaccessible to historical research, these alleged criteria ... arc treated with agnosticism." Fair enough, since the individuals whose biographies he presents were "authorities in one or more spiritual traditions." The question still remains: does being such an authority constitute one a "master”? Perhaps it is that question which haunts the reader throughout this work.

The book itself, following the foreword by Godwin and a very useful introduction by Johnson, is divided into three parts, each consisting of a number of short chapters. Part one, titled "Adepts," consists of biographical sketches of some eighteen individuals, for the most part Westerners by birth, all of whom touched HPB's life in one way or another. Why the term "adept" is used for so widely divergent a group of individuals is not made clear. But here they are, a strange assemblage beginning with Prince Pavel Dolgorukii, HPB’s maternal great-grandfather, whose library, "containing hundreds of books on alchemy, magic and other occult sciences," Johnson proposes "were the most important influence on HPB's conception of the Masters."

Others on Johnson' s list are Albert Rawson. Paolos Metamon, Agardi Metrovitch, Giuseppe Mazzini , Sayyid Jamal ad-Din, Lydia Pashkov, Ooton Liatto, Sir Richard Burton, Dr. James Peebles (questionably entitled to the "Mahatmic status" Johnson suggests for him,) Charles Sotheran (among the original founders of the Theosophical Society,) and Mikhail Katkov ("the dominant figure in Russian journalism when he published HPB's Caves and Jungles of Hindustan in the Moscow Chronicle.”)

Was Rawson indeed the inspirer of HPB' s "confession," in which she wrote, " I loved one man deeply, but still more I loved occult science"? Was Paolos Metamon HPB's "first occult teacher in Egypt" so making him "the most likely original for the Master Serapis"? Was Metrovitch, whose relationship with HPB "is one of the great unsolved mysteries of Theosophical history," H. S. Olcott’s "first initiate teacher"? To what extent did Mazzini's views contribute to HPB’s "vision of the Theosophical movement’s mission?” Was Liatto really the "elusive" master HPB called "Hilarion"? Politics, Masonry, secret societies, Sufism: all figure prominently as interweaving elements in the lives of these "adepts."

Part two of the book is devoted to the biographies of some fourteen additional people whose lives touched Blavatsky's. Johnson calls this section "Mahatmas," although without explanation as to what differentiates them from the "adepts" of the previous section. This group, beginning with the strange story of Swami Dayananda Sarasvati and his Arya Sarna, with which the fledgling Theosophical Society was briefly associated, is composed of Indians, a Sinhalese high priest of Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhist lamas.

Perhaps most relevant for theosophical students are the biographical sketches of Ranbir Singh, Maharaja of Kashmir, whom Johnson proposes as the most likely candidate for the role of "Master Morya"; Sirdar Thakar Singh Sandhanwalla, founder of the Singh Sabha and Johnson's choice for the "Master Koot Hoomi"; Baba Khem Singh Bedi, the hereditary Sikh guru who qualifies as "The Chohan"; and Sirdar Dayal Singh Majithia, a Punjabi Sikh philanthropist who appears as "Master Dju al Kul." With the addition of these individuals to Johnson's list of "adepts," the story becomes complicated indeed, culminating in pan three, which he has titled "Secret Messages."

Johnson's final chapter ('''The Occult Imprisonment") quite rightly refers to the "fragmentary and labyrinthine nature of the evidence." He is clearly an avid historian, out neither to deny the validity of the concept of mahatmas nor to cast doubt on the spiritual motivation and occult prowess of H. P. Blavatsky. His effort has been to prove what the masters themselves repeatedly said in their letters: they are "men not gods." They are "adepts only when acting as such," as they wrote to A. P. Sinnett.

As for HPB, who brought the idea of mahatmas to the Western world, Johnson is generous in praise: "There is no reason to doubt," he writes in the final chapter, "that from first to last she saw the TS primarily as an agent of spiritual values, and allied herself with whatever political and social forces seemed useful to that purpose at the time."

Some Theosophists may not be happy with Johnson' s conclusion that "HPB's adept sponsors were a succession of human mentors rather than a cosmic hierarchy of supermen." But sincere students cannot help but agree with him and with his further statement: "In one sense, these hidden sponsors were indeed her masters. But in another sense, she may have been greater than any of them. While her portrayal of the masters was often historically inaccurate, the spiritual treasures she gathered and transmitted entitle her to recognition as a Great Soul in her own right."

At the end, many questions remain. Did all this varied assemblage of people from East and West really influence HPB' s thought and particularly her concept of adeptship or mahatmahood? In quite another context, James Santucci, in the October 1994 issue of the journal Theosophical History, quotes the Baha'i historian Robert Stockman on the question of historical influences on an individual or a movement. Stockman, responding to another of Johnson's historical researches, states: "Proving the existence of influence of one person or movement on another is a complicated scholarly task unless the influenced part acknowledges it. It is not adequate simply to show that one person met someone else or encountered another movement to prove an influence." As Santucci rightly points out, Stockman's statement "strikes at the heart of historical methodology," adding further, "This cautionary statement is especially true in theosophical and esoteric studies."

And there is the further question: is this all there is to adeptship or being a mahatma? However skeptical or agnostic one may be, is it possible to establish purely "objective" criteria for judging spiritual wisdom, occult know ledge, and esoteric authority? What weight should be given to HPB's own definition of a mahatma (Collected Writings 6: 239-41,"Mahatmas and Chelas"): "A Mahatma is a personage who, by special training and education, has evolved those higher faculties and has attained that spiritual knowledge, which ordinary humanity will acquire after passing through numberless series of reincarnations during the process of cosmic evolution.... The real Mahatma is then not his physical body but that higher Manas which is inseparably linked to the Auna and its vehicle (the 6th principle )." Is that state of consciousness a "measurable factor"?

Therefore, has Johnson really "revealed" the masters? Many will cling to the "myth" of god-like, omniscient beings, but HPB' s "teachers" never claimed to be of that genre, nor did she really claim it for them. Others will rejoice that Johnson has "unmasked" the masters, revealing them for what they themselves, in their correspondence with A. P. Sinnett and others, said they were: mortal men with access to and familiarity with occult knowledge. And a "brotherhood" of such individuals? Why not, when we all recognize our affinity with people of like mind, similar interests and objectives, however geographically separated we may be throughout the world?

So while this reviewer applauds Johnson’s work, for he has done his homework well, many questions still remain to be answered. If he has given us a "parade of heroes and eccentrics who wanted to change the world," not all of whom can be said to qualify as "masters," at least he has, as Godwin puts it in his foreword, presented us with "that most delightful of mysteries-an esoteric whodunit." And we could not agree more with Godwin's admonition: "All Theosophists ... should pluck up the courage to read this book." For whether read as a "whodunit" or as fact, it is a remarkable piece of research in a hitherto unexplored field of study.