Excerpts from an Interview with
K. Paul Johnson
(edited by K. Paul Johnson)
On fiction and non-fiction in HPB's writings
This question is the most crucial, in my opinion, to future studies of Blavatsky (HPB). The distinction between fiction and non-fiction has been a basic theme in my books. In the cases of both HPB and Edgar Cayce (Cayce), my primary emphasis has been on the search for evidence that provides some basis for evaluating the claims made in the literature each has inspired. But the issue is far more complex in HPB's case than in that of Cayce, for whom accusations of fraud and forgery are not at issue. No one has credibly accused Cayce of deliberate falsehood, although there are clearly areas in which he was deluded. HPB, by contrast, has been accused of deceit by a large number of observers, in her own lifetime and throughout the twentieth century. She is acknowledged as author of both fiction and non-fiction works by both Theosophists and debunkers. But the line of demarcation is drawn quite differently depending on the bias of readers. Theosophical orthodoxy treats as non-fiction every word from HPB that is not explicitly labeled by her as fiction; skeptics regard as fiction every word that cannot be proven otherwise. Both these approaches have led to an impasse; neither Theosophists nor debunkers have written much that was fresh and interesting about HPB for many years. Nevertheless, the 1990s brought a wealth of fresh approaches to Theosophical history, exemplified by authors like Carlson, Godwin, Prothero, and Deveney, who are neither apologists or debunkers. Only by acknowledging that substantial portions of what HPB claimed as non-fiction are in reality fictional can Theosophists enter into constructive dialogue about her with non-Theosophist scholars. Only by acknowledging that the non-fiction basis for HPB's claims is far more substantial than heretofore supposed in their literature can skeptics advance beyond stale and repetitive hatchet jobs and contribute meaningfully to Blavatsky studies. Flexibility and openness to new paradigms has been much more characteristic of non-Theosophical scholars than among Theosophists, in my experience. Thus I see progress being made in coming to a more balanced and objective view of HPB, but not thus far among her disciples.
Theosophy is not unique in resisting critical examination of its history. During research for Initiates I became involved in Internet discussion sof the history of the Baha'i and Radhasoami movements with scholarly experts on the subjects.
For several years I have seen revisionist scholars fiercely attacked by adherents of the faith traditions they study. Juan Cole, the leading scholar on Baha'u'llah, resigned Baha'i membership in protest of a crackdown on a scholarly e-list, ordered by authorities in Haifa. His website includes extensive Baha'i-related material at ~ http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai.htm.
David Lane, the leading scholar on the current Radhasoami scene (including American offshoots like Eckankar and MSIA) has been legally hounded by various groups intermittently for years. His website is at http://www.mtsac.edu/~dlane ( http://vclass.mtsac/edu:940/dlane/masterindex.htm ).
Both have suffered years of abusive remarks online from disciples of the movements they write about. Although my Theosophical disappointments pale in comparison, there is a family resemblance in these stories. They are similar to Fawn Brodie's situation as a critical Mormon biographer excommunicated for her study of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, and that of Adventist biographer Ronald Numbers in the wake of the publication of his book Prophetess of Health. Numbers, whose biography of Ellen G. White led to revisionist conclusions about her use of sources, was progressively alienated from the Seventh-day Adventist leadership by its negative reactions to his research. In discussing the Numbers case, Jonathan M. Butler writes that the best historical scholarship on new religious movements comes from "skeptical believers," persons deeply grounded in the faith community about which they write but firmly committed to academic standards of evidence and argument. Such ambivalent, marginal figures are best qualified to balance insider knowledge with outsider objectivity. I have been welcomed in this role by the ARE and the Cayce family, where critical, objective inquiry is more valued than in the abovementioned movements. Organized Theosophy remains more like Baha'i, Radhasoami, Adventism, or Mormonism in its resistance to such an approach.
"Skeptical believer" historical researchers ask uncomfortable questions about the truth claims on which faith traditions rest. In doing so they can find themselves alienated not just from uncritical believers but also from outside scholars who are firmly avoidant of such questions. That is extremely unfortunate, a kind of censorship by intimidation. But the emergence of this website offers hope that inquiry about the Masters' historical reality has not been permanently silenced.
On Ranbir Singh:
I did not obtain specimens of the handwritings of Ranbir Singh or any of the other Theosophical maharajas, nor that of Thakar Singh and his Singh Sabha colleagues. At the time of my Indian research, the Punjab was closed to foreigners so Amritsar could be not included in my itinerary (much less Lahore) which limited my ability to pursue evidence of early Singh Sabha leaders. I was refused access to the Adyar archives, which ruled out that avenue of investigation. In the case of Ranbir Singh, I examined indexes of his official correspondence in Jammu, but found no evidence of any of it being in English in his own handwriting. So in a sense, I did make a preliminary attempt in one case. However, I think it extremely unlikely that the K.H. and M. handwritings will ever be found to match those of any historical persons, and consider this line of inquiry unprofitable.
"Ranbir was Morya" is a simplistic, potentially misleading way to summarize my hypothesis. "Morya was a fictional character based to a significant degree on Ranbir but also on other prototypes" reflects my view more accurately. But even that fails to represent my position, which is that "Gulab-Singh" was a fiction based to a significant degree on Ranbir Singh, and Morya is a more elaborately fictionalized version of the same figure. The two passages in the Mahatma letters that refer to Ranbir were cited in TMR(*) in order to place the maharaja in the context of Theosophical history. That he was alleged to have helped plan Olcott's North Indian journey in collaboration with K.H. is particularly important in light of the fact that K.H. was later reported by Olcott and Damodar to have appeared at the maharaja's palace in Jammu and taken Damodar away for several days. This certainly indicates some very close ties between Ranbir Singh and "Koot Hoomi." Ranbir being called by "Koot Hoomi" the "first on the programme" for support of the Phoenix venture likewise places the maharaja in a crucial role during the heyday of the Mahatma correspondence. The later collapse of the venture, and Ranbir Singh's failure to rescue it, does not seem to have any impact on the points made above.
On misinformation and the Masters' orders
Here is the passage quoted: "There is more to this movement than you have yet had an inkling of, and the work of the T.S. is linked with similar work that is secretly going on in all parts of the world... know you anything of the whole brotherhood and its ramifications? The Old Woman is accused of untruthfulness, inaccuracy in her statements. "Ask no questions and you will receive no lies. She is forbidden to say what she knows. You may cut her to pieces and she will not tell. Nay -- she is ordered in cases of need to mislead people.".... In this single passage, we have a clearcut confession that the true nature of the T.S. and its secret allegiances is being withheld, and that HPB has been ordered not only to participate in this concealment but to actively mislead people when her sponsors require it. We also have an implicit confession that when asked certain questions she is obliged to lie. My own suspicion is that HPB herself authored these words, trying through the persona of Morya to retain Sinnett's allegiance despite his growing suspicion that he was being fed half-truths and lies. But if a genuine Morya wrote them, they are no less revealing about the position HPB found herself in at the time. The subsequent protestations claim that HPB was innately too truthful, outspoken, and incapable of dissimulation to be successful at the task of concealing the nature of her sponsorship and misleading others. I have no problem with this additional "confession," since in fact HPB seems to me quite remarkable in having been a great impostor yet also having punctured her own self-created myth repeatedly.
On Vernon Harrison's studies of the Mahatma letters
I have no quarrel with Mr. Harrison's "main issue" which is that "the Hodgson Report is a bad report" and "untrustworthy" particularly in matters related to handwriting. And the author is quite explicit in saying that he does not claim to "demonstrate from an analysis of Madame Blavatsky's 'ordinary' writing that she could not have been responsible for the KH letters." Nevertheless, I get the distinct impression that his study is being put to polemical use by Theosophists overinterpreting Harrison as "vindicating" HPB -- which he explicitly told me, in person, that he has not done. Harrison allows for the possibility that in altered states of consciousness HPB wrote in handwritings so different from that of her normal waking personality that they could not be recognized as coming from the same hand, even by experts. Given Olcott's testimony to this effect, and abundant references to HPB as "amanuensis" of the Masters, it seems to me the most plausible explanation of the physical origin of most of the Mahatma letters. There are two particular logical problems I find in Harrison's study, specifically in his Replies to Criticism. First, he distinguishes between Hodgson's thesis that HPB was "an ingenious but common fraudster and impostor having no supernatural powers whatever" who produced the KH letters with intent to deceive and the alternative that the writing was "received automatically, in trance, sleep, etc., unknown to the conscious personality until he or she reads it." These are presented as mutually exclusive alternatives that exhaust the possibilities. I think the evidence leads us rather to consider that different letters were produced in different circumstances, and that no one-size-fits-all assumptions about those circumstances can be stretched to accommodate the various instances of questionable authorship.
Second, Harrison asks "if we accept Olcott's testimony as evidence that HPB could write in altered states of consciousness, do we accept his further testimony" about a specific paranormal event he witnessed, and "if not, why not? I do not see how you can select or reject evidence to suit your argument. Olcott's testimony is that HPB possessed psychic powers in abundance. You cannot accept both Olcott and Hodgson." My response to this is to say that we can accept Olcott's testimony as evidence of what he believed he had witnessed without accepting that his interpretation of his experience was accurate. That HPB appeared to be writing in a trance state from which she emerged with no memory, that she behaved as if this were the case, can be accepted as fact based on Olcott's testimony and others from the period. That she "possessed psychic powers in abundance" is Olcott's inference and not at all in the same category of evidence. Contemporary scholars cannot accept either Hodgson or Olcott as infallible interpreters of evidence, nor as unbiased reporters of that evidence. But each is a crucial primary source, and the testimony of each must be included in the process of sifting and weighing evidence for and against HPB's claims. Each deserves full, skeptical scrutiny. Neither can be assumed to be always right or always wrong. But the gist of Harrison's study, as I see it being "spun" by Theosophists, is to dismiss Hodgson across the board and allow continued acceptance of Olcott's and HPB's claims as entirely reliable.
On the 1900 letter allegedly from K.H. to Annie Besant
I have never suggested or believed that the Mahatma letters were either composed or physically written by Ranbir Singh or Thakar Singh. Only in one case of Sinnett receiving a letter mailed in London shortly after Thakar's arrival there did I suggest a possible connection. For the letters in general, the most plausible relationship Ranbir and Thakar might have to them is an advisory one. As to the question: there are two possible answers I could offer. A doctrinaire Theosophist might point out that having left the body would not necessarily make the Mahatma unable to correspond; a skeptic might point out that since the letters were written by HPB and/or Olcott all along, they could continue to be produced by them regardless of anyone else having died. (I find the gist of the 1900 letter to Besant so close to the position Olcott himself took towards HPB-worship and the ES that I suspect his involvement in that one.) (See the letter to Annie Besant, written in 1900)
On the authorship of the Mahatma letters
In fact, I am agnostic on the subject as the evidence does not seem to allow final conclusions. But the internal evidence noted by the Hare brothers persuades me that whatever the circumstances of their production, the Mahatma letters bear the marks of European authorship and could not plausibly have been written by Indians or Tibetans. Whether this points to conscious fraud on HPB's part, or to trance phenomena that may have involved genuine thought transmission from her teachers/sponsors, I do not know. In the latter case, some of the characteristics of the "vehicle" clearly crept in. Now, more directly in response to the question: HPB's volume of published work was greater before and after the Mahatma letters period than during it. If her authorship of the letters is assumed and they are counted among her own writings, they do not make her productivity for the period from late 1880 through early 1885 any greater than the periods before and after.
A large proportion of her closest associates, including Sinnett, Hume, and Olcott, eventually concluded that she was not always honest or reliable in her claims concerning her Mahatmic inspiration. Many more people who interacted with her closely later stated or implied that they came to judge her a fraud. William T. Brown, an eyewitness to Koot Hoomi's visit to Lahore in November 1883, later wrote of HPB "Her claims to be in communication with Mahatmas or 'souls regenerate' has not been established. On the contrary, she has been proved by myself to be an untruthful and unscrupulous deceiver upon the ordinary earth plane."
The volume of the letters does not require a large network of fellow conspirators, or a small one, or in fact any at all. Given what we know of HPB's ability to produce a large volume of writing in a short time, composing the Mahatma letters in the time period in which they appeared is quite within her abilities. The circumstances of the letters' delivery would, in a few cases, require some conspirators. Among those suggested by other writers have been Damodar and the servant Babula; in the case of the Coulombs two witnesses confessed to having been part of a conspiracy. As to who really wrote and composed the teachings of the Mahatma letters, no one knows. Not knowing this has not prevented generations of Theosophists and followers of related movements from making "certain claims." Nor has it prevented skeptical writers from claiming to have thoroughly debunked HPB.
Rather than HPB writing them alone (the Meade version) or their being psychic dictation from distant Masters (the orthodox version) the only plausible explanation to my mind is that they are a collaboration between HPB and Indian associates who are feeding her information. As to how they were physically produced, I consider that a blind alley and waste of time. No one will ever know. Damodar could have been helpful as a source drawn on by HPB for his inside knowledge of Indian religion, as were Subba Row and Mohini.
On HPB and Indian politics
I see HPB as having had political motives from the start in India -- why write to Moolji in 1878 that "we" were looking for a descendant of Ranjit Singh? What for? Who is "we?" I can only assume that at this point Katkov has suddenly assumed a role in HPB's priorities. Which means that she was acting, not on behalf of Russian government, but rather at least partly on behalf of Katkov and his military friends. A year before, there was no Russian publisher employer, and no plan to go to India. But after she got there, Dayananda proved himself not to be the kind of Master she wanted, and she started giving invisible and elusive Masters the public allegiance she'd previously focused on the Swami. When she was recruited to come to India it involved working hand in hand with Dayananda who at that time had the support of her sponsors. However my sense is that the kind of sponsorship these Indians offered HPB was far less significant from their point of view than it was from hers. I see it as casual, ad hoc, not involving much expenditure of time, energy or money on their part.
On the doctrines of root-races and rounds
Like other elements of her system, their origin is in Western ideologies, occult and/or pseudoscientific, but their application is extended to an Eastern context and they are misrepresented as having an exclusively Eastern provenance. From the Masonic pseudo-Rosicrucian milieu of her early environment she was exposed to romantic ideals of national liberation intertwined with anticlerical passions. Her great-grandfather allegedly owned a manuscript attributed to Saint-Germain filled with predictions of 19th-century political upheavals. Her family was identified with pan-Slavism, an inherently racial doctrine preaching the inevitable triumph of the Slavic peoples united under Russian leadership. Other racial doctrines were widespread and respectable during H.P.B.'s lifetime and provide some context for her views. By the time she arrived in India and started to proclaim her doctrines as those of specific Eastern Masters who had chosen her as their mouthpiece, she had already acquired the basic mixture of Western occult doctrines that would persist as the subtext of her writings throughout the rest of her career. But from 1879 onward, she included more and more Eastern vocabulary, had an ever-increasing fund of knowledge about Eastern religion, and carried out an agenda of exalting Hinduism and Buddhism particularly. This led to incorporation of such elements as Brahmin chronology into her synthesis, and attribution of her entire synthesis (filled with evidence of its 19th century origins) to secret traditions preserved for millennia by inaccessible Eastern Masters.
The most plausible sources of the doctrine, in order, are:
- Isma'ili gnosis, where all three uses of seven as in HPB's writings are combined: the sevenfold universe, sevenfold initiatory path, sevenfold evolutionary process. I know of nowhere else that those specific uses are found together.
- Kabbalah, where the sephiroth, globes of the Tree of Life, are part of esoteric framework HPB refers to consistently as relevant to her own understanding.
- The Sant Mat tradition, which in its Radhasoami manifestion encountered by HPB in 1880s India taught a system of multiple planes of existence that could be successfully navigated by Mahatmas and their initiates but not by others. But HPB took all this and gave it a pseudoscientific gloss.
On David Reigle's research on the Book of Dzyan
Lacking the specialized knowledge required to evaluate the particulars of his scholarship, I can make only general comments. On one hand Reigle's work is the most rigorous and intellectually honest I have seem devoted to Theosophical apologetics, and makes a real contribution to Blavatsky studies. On the other hand I doubt the eventual discovery of an original Stanzas of Dzyan discussed by Reigle in a way that takes for granted that such a literary work exists.
Two entirely separate questions are conflated by Theosophical apologists who admire Reigle, and seemingly by the researcher himself. The first question is whether or not HPB's writings (particularly those alleged to have some connection to Tibet) show by internal evidence that they might be genuinely based on authentic Asian sources. Reigle has gone some distance toward establishing a positive answer to this question. But the second question is whether or not HPB's specific claims about her sources are reliable. Here, Reigle appears to assume a positive answer, never dealing with contrary evidence, or acknowledging its existence. I would like to see a discussion of these questions with recognized scholars of Tibetan religion and history, rather than research that exists entirely within the charmed circle of Theosophical apologetics. Donald Lopez, for example, calls "preposterous" the suggestion that the Stanzas or the Voice could be derived from authentic originals and it would be interesting to see such an expert appraise Mr. Reigle's work.
On A.O. Hume
What most strikes me about Hume is how strongly his approach to the Masters contrasts with Sinnett's, and what this contrast suggests about the occultation of the Masters in Theosophical history. The standard Theosophical view of the two is that Hume's intellectual pride and irreverence prevented him from attaining the Masters' favor, making him an occult failure, whereas Sinnett's greater receptivity and devotion earned him the right to serve them through the TS and his writings. This reading of the contrast between the two sees Sinnett as a successful lay chela, recipient of letters that are authoritative both as Theosophical doctrine and as history. The "as told to Sinnett" version invariably trumps all conflicting narratives about the Masters and HPB from whatever source, and its credibility is never questioned. Sinnett remained prominent in Theosophical affairs until his death in 1921, when he was TS Vice President. But this "successful lay chela" fell out with HPB soon after her arrival in London in 1887, and henceforth pursued independent links with her Masters through other channels, including "Mary" and C.W. Leadbeater. Having been drawn into Theosophy through a quasi-mediumistic process of communication with distant adepts, Sinnett neither enjoyed nor seemed to desire any relationship with actual, living spiritual teachers Eastern or Western. His autobiography reveals that after his split with Blavatsky, Sinnett continued to imagine himself in communication with Masters until the end of his life. Despite the obviously delusional tone of his autobiography (not published until the 1980s), Sinnett has been largely exempt from criticism in Theosophical literature.
Hume, by contrast, was interested only briefly in the Masters as represented by HPB. While he believed that real adepts of some sort (but far less exalted beings than those depicted by HPB) were somehow involved in the Mahatma correspondence, he also judged HPB guilty of fraudulent phenomena, and after the Hodgson report had no further involvement in the Theosophical movement. Drawn to the Founders by a common interest in Western secret societies, Hume soon concluded that the TS's usefulness for Indian reform was hopelessly compromised by HPB's frauds. Yet he was still strongly interested in Eastern spiritual Masters, and became for some time a student of the Almora Swami. After HPB's departure for Europe, Hume wrote to the Viceroy Lord Ripon in terms that make it clear that for him the Masters were normal flesh and blood Indian leaders he knew personally rather than through the agency of any occult mouthpiece. Until his death he continued to interest himself in Indian politics, and to correspond with friends in the Indian National Congress. From the point of view of Indian history, Hume is vastly more significant than Sinnett, and will always be remembered for his role in founding the Congress. Hume emerges in non-Theosophical accounts as a hero whose passage through the TS was a mere footnote in a life memorable more for political than spiritual involvements.
So the contrast between Hume and Sinnett is a contrast between a man with a genuine, practical commitment to working with flesh and blood Indian leaders to bring about social reform and cultural revival, and a man whose sole commitment was to pursuing his own mediumistic contacts with imaginary Mahatmas in order to attain secret knowledge and occult advancement. The former is remembered outside Theosophical ranks as a heroic friend of India, but remembered by Theosophical writers as a failed chela unworthy of the Masters' instruction. The latter is honored by Theosophists as the recipient of authoritative accounts of HPB's life and relations with the Masters, and of the spiritual doctrines taught by the adepts. But to me, Sinnett seems most memorable for his credulity as a seeker of the miraculous who became the devotee of a succession of dubious claimants to paranormal communications from hidden Masters. Sinnett exemplifies the occultation of the Masters that took place within the Theosophical movement; Hume exemplifies the way that some Westerners succeeded in breaking through such fantasies and making connections with authentic exponents of genuine Asian spiritual traditions.
On what I would do differently today
Misreadings of my methodological assumptions have given rise to unjust criticisms from several sources. An explanatory paragraph or two added to the introduction might have prevented some of these misreadings. Two particular aspects of the book have been consistently misunderstood, mostly by Theosophists but occasionally by others. Most seriously, the basic objective of the book has been misconstrued due to the ambiguity of the phrase "Masters revealed." I would now add a paragraph something like this:
The title of this book requires a word of explanation, since its meaning can be read several ways. "The Masters" in Theosophical discourse are the literary characters Morya, Koot Hoomi, Serapis, etc. as described in the writings of HPB and Olcott (and for some factions, those of Leadbeater, Purucker, Bailey, and others.) These literary portraits are assumed to be accurate representations of historical persons, so within the framework of Theosophical assumptions, to "reveal the Masters" is to find individuals who correspond perfectly to the portraits in question. Such is not the intention of this book, as any such intention would lead inevitably to failure. There is no evidence of any historical persons corresponding exactly to the few Masters described in detail in HPB's writings, and considerable evidence of fictionalization on her part. Nor does the assumption that the Masters were complete inventions, almost universal in non-Theosophical accounts of HPB, have any place in this book. To assume that HPB's claims about Masters are either all true or all false is to evade the most fundamental scholarly question about these claims: what light does historical evidence shed on their credibility? The Masters identified here are the historical persons who were Blavatsky's teachers, mentors, and sponsors. Her writings and those of other early Theosophists are used as sources of clues to their identification, but only insofar as they provide details useful to the effort. Claims about Masters that are not useful as biographical or historical evidence are bracketed as irrelevant to the quest at hand. Readers will find here a chronologically arranged compendium of information about HPB's associates as discerned through historical research. In a handful of cases these associates are found to correspond in intriguing ways to the personae of Morya, Koot Hoomi, Serapis, etc. found in her writings. But such correspondences are a relatively minor theme of the book; given the nature of the evidence nothing more than informed speculation about the prototypes of such literary portraits is possible.
The second area of misreading that has been problematic involves methodological assumptions about the paranormal/supernatural. On one hand, John Algeo has falsely accused me of starting out with the assumption that there are no such spiritually evolved humans with paranormal abilities as depicted in HPB's writings. On the other, Frederick Crews has taken some very noncommittal references to alleged paranormal events as my endorsement of their genuineness. Therefore, I would now add to the introduction something like this:
Theosophical accounts of HPB assume the validity of the full range of paranormal phenomena claimed by her and on her behalf, while non-Theosophical accounts generally assume the impossibility of such phenomena. This book occupies an agnostic middle ground. Methodological naturalism is the principle that historians must rely on natural factors, avoiding supernatural or paranormal interventions as factors in historical explanation. In its strong form, methodological naturalism flatly denies the existence of supernatural or paranormal factors, and insists that explanations must presume their nonexistence. Theosophists have often seem this applied to their own history by skeptics. But the weak form of methodological naturalism simply asserts that the role of the historian is to offer the fullest possible natural explanations, leaving open the question of whether supernatural/paranormal factors have any reality. That is the approach taken here. In the case of the Theosophical Masters, this book assumes neither the accuracy nor the impossibility of the paranormal abilities attributed to them. Such claims are largely irrelevant to the research objectives and impossible to resolve.
(*)The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge; K. Paul Johnson, State University of New York Press, Albany, USA, 1994, 288 p.