The Vicissitudes of Theosophy

from A.P. Sinnett

July, 1907, an article

THE following article will appear in the next - the August number - of BROAD VIEWS, but having so important a bearing on recent events it has seemed to me desirable to circulate it in advance as an independent address to the members of the Theosophical Society:-

Hitherto in these pages I have said but little concerning the history or work of the Theosophical Society, choosing rather as my task the effort to show how occult research in the last thirty years has illuminated a great many other problems besides those to which it is specifically related, and has been effective very often in putting a new complexion on problems of science, politics and sociology. But in view of recent events within the Society, it seems worth while to attempt a survey of its past history, its present condition, and its possible future, for the information, not merely of those who may be looking on at its progress from the outside, but also for that of the vast majority within its pale, who have lost sight of the circumstances under which that progress has been accomplished. As almost the only survivor of those associated with the early growth of the Society, much that I might say if the subject were to be reviewed with entire candour would probably be surprising to many of those in whose minds a mythological period of theosophical history has gradually been evolved. By many of those who have been attracted to theosophy since its literature has been abundant, an impression has certainly been derived, no matter how for the moment, to the effect that this mighty wave of regenerating thought is the product of clearly designed, specific action, in the first instance, by those representing accomplished evolutionary progress, spoken of in theosophical writing as the great Masters of Wisdom, sometimes as the Elder Brethren of Humanity, or the Adept Chiefs of that "Occult World," concerning which I wrote more than a quarter of a century ago. People have been led to believe that a certain Russian lady, of very wonderful gifts and characteristics was chosen by the adept Masters as their representative in the world of ordinary life and sent out to inaugurate the theosophical movement. As we see it now, spreading its branches all over the world, those coming at late date within the range of its influence have been encouraged to believe that the seed was sown in the beginning with a conscious foresight concerning the nature of the tree that would grow.

Beliefs of this kind belong to the mythology of the theosophical movement. The little society founded in America in the year 1875, and happily selecting the word "Theosophical" as its designation, had no very clear idea concerning its own purpose, was professedly aiming at the study of Egyptian antiquities, and seems to have interested its original members, chiefly because it was associated with a wonder-working magician, Madame Blavatsky. A scoffing crowd has always supposed that because the doings attributed to her were of a kind that seemed miraculous, she must be an impostor. This stupid misconception, culminated much later on in misleading publications issued by the Psychic Research Society, but meanwhile those who were in personal touch with the lady in question, and who knew that she possessed extraordinary and abnormal power over hidden laws of nature as yet unfamiliar to physical science, were carried away with enthusiasm on her behalf and invested her in their imagination with attributes as foreign to her real nature as those of a contrary order imputed to her by the representatives of contemptuous incredulity.

During the earliest period of bewildered excitement amongst the little group personally cognisant of Madame Blavatsky's wonder-working powers, she and her staunch ally, Colonel Olcott, drifted to India, vaguely believing that important results would ensue if they attached themselves to a Hindoo religious association, the Arya Sumaj, of which a certain native philosopher, Swami Dyanand Saraswati, was the chief. The scheme ultimately came to nothing; but the fact that at one time it engrossed the zealous efforts of those generally spoken of as the "founders" of the Theosophical Society will be enough to show how tentative in the beginning were the efforts they were concerned in making. They had indeed attempted, on their way out to India, to establish a European branch of the Theosophical Society in London, but the handful of people whose excited interest in Madame Blavatsky's wonder working induced them to constitute themselves members of this branch, had no definite purpose in view, and their organisation faded almost out of existence within the next few years. But then it came to pass that in India, becoming acquainted with Madame Blavatsky, I came through her intervention into close relations with some of those great Elder Brethren of the Adept world, of whom, for the first time, I had heard from her. The results which followed are matters of literary history, although, in the confusion of later events, the true course of that history has generally been forgotten. I found the Master who responded to my appeal ready to answer questions of a penetrating character; ready, also, to give me unmistakable proofs of his abnormal power, proofs which naturally contributed to render me eagerly respectful with reference to his teaching. This in the beginning did no more than illuminate my mind to some extent concerning the place in Nature of the Adept Brotherhood. Thus my first book, "The Occult World," did no more than pass on this illumination to my readers.

But after its publication, a more important correspondence began. The Master encouraged me to inquire more and more boldly concerning the mysteries of life and evolution, the laws governing re-birth and existence on superphysical planes. His letters on these great subjects were of thrilling interest to Madame Blavatsky as well as to myself, for their teaching was as new to her as to me, as she frequently assured me in the frank conversation of that period. Her magic powers that rendered her so interesting a personage had been acquired under circumstances that did not invest her with the theoretical knowledge we have since accumulated.

When I left India in the beginning of 1883, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, representing the Theosophical Society, were already established in a comfortable house at Adyar, Madras, bestowed upon them by a wealthy native sympathiser. There Madame Blavatsky declared, it was her intention to remain for the rest of her life. She had found her final resting place! Her work she conceived to lie entirely in the Eastern world. The Western races, and the European especially, she held to be quite incapable of appreciating occultism, and altogether outside the pale of her operations. But by this time the teaching[s] of my Adept Master were embodied in the volume which had so curious a destiny, "Esoteric Buddhism." It was published immediately on my return to England, and excited attention to an extent for which I had been but little prepared. The fact was that far from being incapable of appreciating the results of occult research, a considerable proportion of the European world was so ripe for its appreciation, that the moment some of its results were available for consideration, intelligent readers in considerable numbers eagerly embraced the magnificent philosophy thus unveiled for the first time. It represented for the West a new development of thought, though the body of knowledge from which it sprang had long been in the possession of initiates pledged to secrecy. The justification of that earlier policy will be found in the literature itself, and I need not interrupt my present story to review it.

Around the minute nucleus of the British Theosophical Society the influence of "Esoteric Buddhism" gathered ever increasing numbers, and the new revelation, for it was little less, was most quickly appreciated by people of the highest culture. In the beginning the Theosophical movement in Europe first took root in the classes representative of that culture. Within the first twelve months, the growth of the Society in London was of a kind at once surprising and encouraging; associated also, by reason of its character, with magnificent promise concerning future possibilities. For it had become rooted amongst those who were capable of exercising influence in the world. The habits of civilisation have greatly changed during the progress of the Christian era. In the present day, new views of life and spiritual science are not expected to emanate from the carpenter's shop. In the Western world no one can be respected as a teacher unless he has to some extent the prestige of intellectual achievement, impossible on the lower levels of social life. New thought, to put the matter crudely, may grow from below upwards in the East, it must descend from above in the West, and thus it seemed to those of us who were concerned with the Theosophical movement at its inception, highly desirable that, as far as Europe was concerned it should become firmly established amongst those whose social and intellectual prestige would protect it from ridicule and discredit.

Unhappily, however, a curious change soon came over the scene. Madame Blavatsky changed her mind in regard to the permanent character of her settlement at Adyar. Attracted by the unforeseen expansion of the movement in Europe under the circumstances I have described, she, herself, accompanied by Colonel Olcott, came over to this country. Undoubtedly her presence inspired the movement with extraordinary force. Her personal magnetism was marvellously powerful, but while exciting passionate regard with some, it was provocative of exactly the opposite feeling with others. It is improbable that the inner history of the events leading up to the dispatch by the Psychic Research Society, of a Commissioner appointed to investigate Madame Blavatsky's doings in India, will ever be publicly written. But for the time, the result was the utter collapse of the Theosophical Society in Europe, as regards the public esteem in which it was held in the beginning. A mere remnant survived the storms of that period. But Madame Blavatsky was not a person whom it was easy to crush. Gathering by degrees around her a few of those who were still faithful to the original inspiration, Madame Blavatsky, after a stay of some year or two in seclusion at Wurtzburg and Ostend, was brought back to London by a committee of admirers, and her personal influence was revived; although the second growth of the Society bore but little resemblance to that which had been swept away.

For the rest its history comes within the recollection of multitudes besides myself. Madame Blavatsky published her great work. "The Secret Doctrine," a book the history of which as regards the circumstances of its production would itself be not a little surprising for many of those who have been taught to revere its curiously variegated contents. Later occult research has invested us with capacities for judgment which show us "The Secret Doctrine," a rather dangerous study for those who take it up without being fully armed with knowledge enabling them to steer their course amongst the frequent passages which later experience has discredited. But, indeed, for all who have come into the movement in the period succeeding the publication of the "Secret Doctrine," that book itself, like so much that belonged to its wonderful authoress, is already tinged with theosophical mythology.

I should have some curious explanations to give if I went at length, in connection with the history of "The Secret Doctrine," into the subject of my original correspondence with the Master - and Mme. Blavatsky's relations therewith. Some - though by no means all - of the letters in question came to me through Mme. Blavatsky's intermediation, and some - though by no means all - were curiously amplified in transmission. I am the last person in the world to underrate the powers Mme. Blavatsky exercised during the wonderful period when the Theosophical Society was going through its early vicissitudes, though such powers had nothing to do with the philosophical teaching then in process of development.

With what motive, it may be asked, have I thus reviewed the strange history of the movement to which the latter part of my life has been devoted? Recent circumstances will suggest the answer. The stream of events which my own humble efforts first set flowing has become a roaring torrent over which I have long since ceased to have any appreciable control. And now it has taken a new departure since the death of the original President, Colonel Olcott, under circumstances which are regarded from different points of view with widely different feelings. A lady of remarkable personal magnetism, unrivalled eloquence, and unquestionable devotion to the theosophical cause, has been accepted as the new President of the Society, on the nomination of the one who has passed away, with enthusiastic approval by enormous majorities. Probably that approval would have been quite unqualified had it not been that the nomination is described as having been prompted by the appearance at the dying President's bedside, under what the world at large would conceive to be miraculous conditions, of two great Adept Masters undeniably associated with the movement from the beginning, one of them being supposed to be the great teacher from whom that early flood of occult information embodied in "Esoteric Buddhism" originally emanated. It would be impossible here to set forth in detail the reasons which induce some of those amongst theosophists of the largest experience, to regard these alleged manifestations as having been - we know not exactly what - but certainly not what they seemed. It is hardly necessary to say that no one supposes they were the product of any contemptible imposture, of the kind not infrequently associated with alleged appearances of materialised spirits through the agency of mediums. I entertain no doubt whatever that two figures closely resembling the Masters in question, actually stood by Colonel Olcott's beside, materialised and visible to physical plane eyesight. But if they were not those whom they represented, it is obvious that they may have been in reality the result of occult activities distinctly antagonistic to the true welfare of the movement. Should that view be a correct one - and I hold it to be nothing less than my duty to declare that in my opinion the theory that they were what they seemed is absolutely untenable - we may have arrived at a curious turning point in the history of the great movement. It is premature as yet to make any forecast as to the probable course of events. With these we can only deal as they may arise, and amongst the possibilities of the situation, even from the point of view of those who share the disbelief I have just expressed, it will be recognised that loyalty of intention on the part of those concerned with the direction of the movement on the physical plane, may, after all, disconcert any attempts to misdirect its force proceeding from mysterious superphysical agencies.

At the same time we must be prepared for the worst, even though the worst need not be of very great moment. The Theosophical Society might vanish off the scene like a burst soap bubble, but the literature that now embodies the results of the last thirty years of occult research will remain for the service and enlightenment of mankind throughout the coming generations, destined beyond any possibility of doubt to play an enormously greater part in the thinking of this century in its later decades than it has been able to perform for a generation amongst which it has arisen. Those few of us who have been in touch with the original sources of its inspiration have long been aware that the seed sown has taken root. We have long been assured, and with advancing knowledge can now understand the assurance, that within the current century all that body of knowledge relating to human evolution, the conditions of its normal progress, and the possibilities of its abnormal acceleration, will be the common property of all cultivated thinkers in the civilised world. And the influence of such knowledge on human welfare will be grandly independent of the fate that may attend specific organisations of a transitory character, or individual activities that may have contributed to the result. The final moral of all this is, that the teaching concerning the great natural laws governing human evolution, set afloat in the first instance under the conditions I have described, and fortified by the manifold results and records of later investigation, constitute, in fact, the Theosophical movement, the health and future of which is independent of all personalities known to the world so far. But even though it may be probable that, in the long run, future generations will devise some better machinery for the promotion of theosophical study than any which exists at present (and is more or less tainted with unhappy traditions), it seems to be the business of those of us who have been working with this machinery so far, to do the best we can with it, as long as our present life's activities may last. For some reasons, looking back on the curious record of my own experiences in its service, it would be a personal relief to me if I could think it right to stand altogether aside, and leave the future developments of theosophy to work out their own assured destiny, perhaps, by shaking themselves altogether free from the embarrassments of the past - and the present. But undoubtedly the great masters from whom, and from whom alone, the teaching I have been able to put forward for the service of the world, has come, have been interested in the Theosophical Society as a useful organisation - though by no means blind to its defects and vagaries, as I have had the means of knowing. I think they would wish all of us, who have had to do with its beginnings, to work on in connection with it, each doing our best to guide it into desirable channels.

At present its organisation is unhealthy and unpractical to a grotesque degree. If it is destined to survive and be a leading influence in the religious and philosophical thinking of the European and American worlds, it is ridiculous to suppose that its affairs can be continuously controlled, and its government carried on from so remote and inconvenient a headquarters as that at present established in a suburb of Madras. It is absurd in only a minor degree that its General Council should consist of members of diverse nationality, scattered all over the globe and incapable of meeting. But it is unnecessary at this moment to go into further criticism of its chaotic rules. It will be enough for those, who, with myself, may be disposed to regard them in that light, to consider with me, perhaps, at some future date (if circumstances should appear to prompt such an attempt), the possibility of putting them on a more reasonable footing.

A. P. SINNETT.

July, 1907

Scanned by Alan Bain, July 1996


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