THE ADYAR YEARS
During the first years of the 1880s
the Theosophical Society expanded commensurately with the fame which adhered to
the Mahatma letters. Sinnett's publications of The Occult World
(1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1883), in which he included excerpts of the
correspondence as well as a sometimes breathless commentary, became instant
best-sellers and garnered many enthusiastic converts. The removal of the
Society to a new and spacious headquarters at Adyar, Madras, further
contributed to the sense of stabilisation. The pervasive calm of the early
1880s was not to last, however, and the Masters proved to be the catalysts for
a brewing storm.
The 'Kiddle Incident'
A portion of an early Mahatma letter of 10 December, 1880, was included in Sinnett's The Occult World, published in June, 1881. In his letter to Sinnett, the Master Koot Hoomi had stated the following:
Plato was right: ideas rule the world; and, as men's minds will receive new ideas, laying aside the old and effete, the world will advance; mighty revolutions will spring from them; creeds and even powers will crumble before their onward march crushed by the irresistible force. It will be just as impossible to resist their influx, when the time comes, as to stay the progress of the tide.
An American Spiritualist, and one time president of the American Spiritualist Alliance, Henry Kiddle, had found himself somewhat taken aback upon reading the Master's prediction, as he recognised not just the sentiment, but the words themselves. In a lecture he had given on the fifteenth of August, 1880, to a Spiritualist assembly at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts, entitled 'The Present Outlook of Spiritualism', he had opined the following:
My friends, ideas rule the world; and as men's minds receive new ideas laying aside the old and effete, the world advances. Society rests upon them; mighty revolutions spring from them; institutions crumble before their onward march. It is just as impossible to resist their influx when the time comes, as to stay the progress of the tide.
Kiddle, having received no reply to his letter to Sinnett (via the latter's publisher), decided to publish his consternation in the English Spiritualist journal, Light:
I was very greatly surprised to find in one of the letters presented by Mr. Sinnett as having been transmitted to him by Koothoomi ... a passage taken almost verbatim from an address on Spiritualism by me at Lake Pleasant, in August 1880, and published the same month by the Banner of Light ... How then did it get into Koothoomi's mysterious letter?
How indeed! After much comment in The Theosophist, sometimes of a rather fatuous nature, Sinnett decided to enquire of the source how such an apparent plagiarism may have occurred. Koot Hoomi's reply is rather reminiscent of Blavatsky's indignant rejoinder regarding accusations levelled at her over passages she was supposed to have mined in the writing of Isis Unveiled: Masters, too, store images, words, and texts, in their minds, having precipitated them from the Astral Light. At the time in question, Koot Hoomi had been overwrought from a 48 hour journey on horseback, and had entrusted the dictation of the letter to a junior chela, and had inadvertently failed to edit the missive prior to its psychic/physical transmission. Thus had whole passages inadvertently been reproduced from the Lake Pleasant Spiritualist camp address, which the Master had been psychically overseeing as a result of his interest in 'the intellectual progress of the Phenomenalists'.
The 'Kiddle incident', as this episode is termed in Theosophical publications, has become notorious as the pivotal moment during which much public sentiment turned against the Masters and their amanuensis, Blavatsky. Certainly, a number of prominent Theosophists resigned from the Society, as much on the basis of insufficient explanation of the event, as from the suspicion of Blavatskian plagiarism. Perhaps the most significant result of the incident was the arousal of interest in the phenomenal aspects of the Mahatma correspondence by the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research; its own subsequent investigation, though hardly a model of methodological impartiality itself, was to provide a damning indictment of Blavatskian Theosophy as nothing less than, and certainly nothing more than, ingenious fraud.
Though it is not the objective of the present work to provide argument for the veracity of Theosophical claims regarding the Masters' corporeal existence (nor indeed can such an aim be attempted on the basis of an agnostic empirical methodology), the Kiddle incident has broad implications for Theosophical research. The apparent plagiarism of Kiddle by Koot Hoomi is the point of departure for virtually all scholarship devoted to the dismissal of the Masters as Blavatskian fiction. The natural defence which confronts this often preordained axiomatic position is yet again of a methodological nature: given the Masters' self-revelation via the Mahatma letters, as well as the extraordinary claims made in their behalf by their acknowledged chela, Blavatsky, there is no means by which to justifiably falsify Koot Hoomi's account. He is a keeper of records and the overseer of esoteric orders and, by his own admission, humanly fallible. Certainly those commentators who choose to accept Blavatsky's account of her 'borrowings' for Isis Unveiled are ipso facto required to extend the same scholarly equanimity to her Masters. So too, those who assume that the Kiddle incident is sensu lato proof of the non-existence of Masters must reassess the limitations of their methodological apparatus. The most that can be claimed for this incident is that Koot Hoomi knowingly plagiarised Kiddle; it says nothing about the Master's ontic existence.
The treatment of such occurrences of
potential or probable fraudulence as the Kiddle incident by much of the current
analytical material reveals the degree to which there is a detectable trend
toward the 'psychologising' of the Masters. It has become almost de rigueur
for scholars to reduce the Masters to the status of simple instantiations of
Blavatsky's over-abundant imagination, or indeed the product of psychological
illness. This methodological standpoint has its roots in the ex post facto
application of certain modern psychological theories in the assessment of
historical persons and movements. While such a methodological standpoint
may avail under certain circumstances, its inherent danger for the present
study is all too evident. Were Blavatsky, and perhaps Olcott, the only
individuals to claim to have met the Masters, then a case could be brought that
they undertook an exercise in Masters-mythopoeia either in mendacious
self-aggrandisement, entirely mundane self-interest or as a result of some
species of subconscious psychological need, perhaps arising from childhood
romanticising or trauma. Such a position becomes much more strained, however,
when it is acknowledged (as few scholars have done) that two dozen or more
individuals claimed personal commerce with the Masters. Aside from
recourse to diagnostic notions such as group hysteria, or to entirely
unsupportable claims of elaborate transcontinental conspiracy, there are few
grounds upon which an exclusively psychological interpretation of the Masters
phenomenon can be established. To emphasise this point, it is worthwhile
to note briefly a couple of incidents of the Masters appearing in physical
The Masters in propriis personis
On one occasion the Master Morya appeared to a group of seven:
We were sitting in the moonlight about 9 o'clock upon the balcony which projects from the front of the bungalow ... The library was in partial darkness, thus rendering objects in the farther room more distinct. Mr. Scott suddenly saw the figure of a man step into the space, opposite the door of the library; he was clad in the white dress of a Rajput, and wore a white turban. Mr. Scott at once recognised him from his resemblances to a portrait in Col. Olcott's possession ... He walked towards a table, and afterwards turning his face towards us, walked back out of our sight ... when we reached the room he was gone ... Upon the table, at the spot where he had been standing, lay a letter addressed to one of our number.
On another occasion, K. H. visited Olcott, Damodar, and William T. Brown immediately outside Lahore in November, 1883:
Lahore has a special interest, because there we saw, in his own physical body, Mahatma Koot Hoomi himself. On the afternoon of the 19th November, I saw the Master in broad daylight, and recognized him, and on the morning of the 20th he came to my tent, and said 'Now you see me before you in the flesh; look and assure yourself that it is I,' and left a letter of instructions and silk handkerchief, both of which are now in my possession ... On the evening of the 21st ... we were visited by Djual Khool (the Master's head Chela, and now an Initiate), who informed us that the Master was about to come. The Master then came near to us, gave instructions to Damodar, and walked away.
Such visitations by Masters in propriis personis were not
uncommon in the early years of the 1880s. As skepticism about the
existence of the Masters mounted, a number of those who claimed to have been
the subject of such visits signed testimonials to emphasise the veracity of
their accounts. It is interesting to note that a number of highly
critical analyses of Blavatsky and Theosophy regularly omit any reference to
such encounters: Peter Washington included in his Madame Blavatsky's Baboon
only those claims to contact made by Blavatsky and Olcott, thus improperly
strengthening his thesis that the Masters were invented by Blavatsky simply to
shore up her authoritarian control over the movement, and that Olcott was her
unwitting dupe. Marion Meade's assertion that '[i]n all, about nine
or ten persons testified to having seen the Mahatmas: Annie Besant, Henry
Olcott, Damodar Mavalankar, Isabel Cooper-Oakley, William Brown, Nadyezhda
Fadeyev, S. R. Ramaswamier, Justine Glinka and Vsevolod Solovyov' falls
significantly short of the mark. Daniel Caldwell has properly noted the
figure to be in the vicinity of twenty five. While the present work
does not (and, indeed, cannot) devolve upon the physical existence of the
Masters, such testimonials are instructive for those who too rapidly dismiss
Theosophical claims as fraud or hysteria. Indeed, were such visitations
from Masters to be proved somehow to be a remarkable mass hallucinatory
delusion, it would only emphasise the significance of this phenomenon of
esotericism as a potent symbolic force deserving of critical analysis. The
tendency to focus on the possibility of Blavatskian intrigue entirely evades
the question of the remarkable reception which the Masters received; the latter
remains the far superior enquiry.
Occident or Orient?
By the end of 1883, as has been noted, murmurings of discontent over the position of the Masters within the Theosophical Society, and also the ever-Orientalising direction of its gaze, caused the London lodge to fracture. Concerned at the level of discontent, Blavatsky journeyed to England and oversaw the division between the Sinnett-influenced and Masters-oriented members, and those loyal to the Christian Hermeticism of the lodge president, Anna Bonus Kingsford (1846-1888). According to the newly-elected member, Charles Webster Leadbeater, the occasion of Blavatsky's visit to the London lodge created the sort of uproar to be expected of the prime chela of the Masters:
[A] stout lady in black came quickly in and seated herself at the outer end of our bench. She sat listening to the wrangling on the platform for a few minutes, and then began to exhibit distinct signs of impatience. As there seemed to be no improvement in sight, she then jumped up from her seat ... [Sinnett] spoke in a ringing voice the fateful words: 'Let me introduce to the London Lodge as a whole - Madame Blavatsky!' The scene wass indescribable; the members, wildly delighted and yet half-awed at the same time, clustered round our great Founder, some kissing her hand, several kneeling before her, and two or three weeping hysterically. After a few minutes, however, she shook them off impatiently.
Olcott, as Founder-President of the Society, and certainly with the goodwill of Blavatsky, agreed to allow Kingsford to establish a Hermetic Lodge of the Theosophical Society, to be devoted specifically to the study of Western esoteric themes and motifs. Kingsford, no great respecter of Blavatsky's claims to supramundane revelation, ultimately led her followers outside of the ambit of Theosophy by constituting a separate body, the Hermetic Society.
The schism in the London lodge is
rarely granted the importance it deserves in Theosophical histories. The
London fracas is often, and rightly, interpreted as the opposition occasioned
by conflicting Occidental and Oriental emphases; less well acknowledged is the
the implication which such a break had for the concept of the Masters in
Theosophy. Until the schism, belief in the Masters was widely interpreted
as an individual's prerogative in accordance with the Society's affirmed stance
on anti-dogmatism. Though never enunciated afterwards, the result of the
split was that Masters-Theosophy became a de facto doctrine of the
Society, belief in which amounted in many cases to a sine qua non for
The Coulombs and the 'Hodgson Report'
Blavatsky's 1884 European travels are significant for two further reasons. Back at the Society's headquarters in Adyar, a simmering disputation, which Blavatsky's presence had hitherto constrained, finally boiled over with the result that Alexis and Emma Coulomb (nee Cutting) were called upon to quit the compound. Blavatsky had known Emma Cutting in Cairo in the early 1870s and had subsequently offered the penurious Coulombs accommodation and work with the Society, first in Bombay and then at Adyar. (There are some indications that Blavatsky offered the positions to the Coulombs for fear that Emma may have exposed details of her Cairene adventures to public scrutiny). Though granted the grandiose appellations of Librarian and Assistant Corresponding Secretary, the tasks amounted to little more than domestic overseer for Emma and general factotum for Alexis, a circumstance much to the displeasure of Madame Coulomb.
During Blavatsky's absence, Emma had been entrusted with the keys to her mistress' private suite and also to the Shrine room, so-called for Blavatsky's installation of a specially-appointed room set apart for the veneration of the Masters. Arguments arose between Emma and resident Theosophists about access to these apartments, and as the insults volleyed from one party to the other, Emma began to voice extraordinary accusations about fraud and mendacity on the part of Blavatsky, culminating in her allegation that the Masters were a fiction - indeed, Emma claimed to possess documentary evidence in support of her contentions. Incensed at Emma's umbrage and apparent slander, the Board of Control (established by the Founders to represent their interests during their European sojourn) demanded that the Coulombs be expelled both from membership and the headquarters; ultimately charges of slander, extortion, and profligacy were brought by the Executive Committee of the General Council. Following a tense impasse, the couple finally departed for Madras on 23 May, 1884.
Apart from fielding an incessant correspondence from indignant Society members, and wondering whether Emma would seek her revenge by publishing letters which she claimed incriminated her mistress, Blavatsky was occupied in London by the fascinated curiosity which the Mahatma letters had aroused in members of the newly-formed Society for Psychical Research. The SPR, as it is known, had been constituted in 1882 with the stated aim: 'to examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable in terms of any generally recognized hypotheses'. The SPR has suffered much under the hand of revisionist historians who have tended to interpret it as a rationalist foil to the general 'flight from reason' which characterised the latter nineteenth-century. In reality, the SPR at the time of its origin was less concerned with the measurement of specific extra-sensory potentialities, than with investigating the philosophico-religious questions aroused by the necromantic activities of Spiritualism. As James Webb has noted, 'it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in certain cases the SPR fulfilled the function of Spiritualist church for intellectuals.
On 2 May, 1884, the SPR convened a committee to investigate the phenomena produced by Blavatsky: the committee comprised the President, Henry Sidgwick, and members E. Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, F. Podmore, and J. H. Stack (soon thereafter completed by Mrs. Eleanor Sidgwick and Richard Hodgson). The SPR committee interviewed Olcott, Sinnett, and an Indian Theosophist named Mohini Mohun Chatterji (1858-1936); last of all they met with Blavatsky, who was much overcome with a sense of foreboding. The resultant report, entitled First Report of the Committee of the Society for Psychical Research, Appointed to Investigate the Evidence for Marvellous Phenomena Offered by Certain Members of the Theosophical Society, proved to be a rather innocuous document, failing to arrive at substantial conclusions. There is the sense that the committee maintained strong reservations about the extraordinary breadth of claims made in Blavatsky's half, but were somewhat overcome by the strength of testimonial support. It was agreed that the phenomena required further examination.
In an effort to broaden the investigation and, it seems, to create of it an exemplar for the burgeoning industry of psychical research, the SPR dispatched one of its young recruits, the Australian Richard Hodgson (1855-1905), to India. Hodgson was eager to begin his investigation, surprising staff at Adyar by arriving before their mistress had returned from Europe. Although he had been granted a broad brief by his superiors, centred primarily around Blavatsky's Spiritualistic phenomena (raps, mysterious music, and so on) and the generation and delivery of the Mahatma letters, Hodgson soon began to focus upon the Masters, having correctly divined their centrality to the Theosophical movement. Hodgson's investigations lasted three months; by the end of his sojourn he had come to believe that Blavatsky was an inveterate fraud, her Masters were mythical, and the premises upon which the Society rested were illusory. His final report (Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society) was devastating for the entire membership.
Hodgson was serendipitously provided with ample material to declare the Masters a fiction by the disaffected Emma Coulomb. Having sought vengeance upon the Adyar Theosophists since the disgrace of her departure, Madame Coulomb had ultimately fulfilled her promise by publishing her correspondence with Blavatsky in the Madras Christian College Magazine. Beginning in September, the magazine published the letters in two instalments, entitled, tellingly, 'The Collapse of Koot Hoomi'. Taken on face value the letters are highly incriminating; they document several occasions when Blavatsky had solicited the couple's help in producing fraudulent phenomena or masquerading as Masters. The question of the veracity of these letters is a vexed one. Certainly, Blavatsky claimed that portions of the correspondence were genuine, but that interpolations had corrupted the text and perverted her meaning. It is unlikely that the controversy over these pivotal documents will ever be resolved: the originals of the letters appear subsequently to have been destroyed.
Having arrived at the a priori conclusion that the Masters were illusory, Hodgson proceeded to dismantle what he saw as the apparatus of the deception. He concluded that the fabled Mahatma letters had been penned by Blavatsky (with the probable assistance of Damodar), and that the shrine was an elaborate artifice specifically designed to obscure common conjuring tricks. Recent investigations, as previously noted, have summarily rejected his findings, at least with regard to the authorship of the Mahatma letters. Unfortunately, the shrine itself had been dismantled by Hartmann and William Quan Judge (1851-1896) prior to Hodgson's arrival in India. It is now impossible to ascertain whether the shrine apparatus was originally intended to facilitate deception, or whether Alexis Coulomb altered it so as to implicate Blavatsky in fraud. Hodgson departed for Europe 26 March, 1885, having informed Blavatsky and Olcott of his general conclusions.
By this time life in India was becoming untenable for Blavatsky. She had become extremely ill, often requiring confinement in bed; her relationship with Olcott had deteriorated markedly on account of his growing suspicion of possible duplicity on her part; the General Council of the Theosophical Society had intervened in the dispute with the Coulombs, preventing her from prosecuting her defamers in court; and now she faced sure ignominy once the final report was tabled. As a consequence, five days after Hodgson's departure from Adyar, Blavatsky left for Naples aboard the SS Pehio, never to return to India.
Hodgson read a synopsis of his report to the SPR on 29 May and tabled his findings before the General Meeting of 26 June, 1885. By December the Report had received the imprimatur of the SPR and was published in their Proceedings. The opinion of Hodgson, one ratified by members of the SPR, is best summed up in the oft-quoted Committee's conclusion which prefaces the Report:
For our own part, we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters in history.
The 'Hodgson Report' caused major scandal for the Theosophical Society. Not only had Blavatsky been summarily condemned as yet another Spiritualist fraud, but the Masters had been exposed to ridicule as a vast conceit:
I must express my unqualified opinion that no genuine psychical phenomena whatever will be found among the pseudo-mysteries of the Russian lady alias Koot Hoomi Lal Singh alias Mahatma Morya alias Madame Blavatsky.
A more penetrating observation was offered by F. W. H. Myers, a member of the investigating committee. His comment suggests the significance and ramifications of the 'Hodgson Report':
Madame Blavatsky (one may say) was within an ace of founding a world-religion, merely to amuse herself and to be admired.