from The Theosophist July 1972

Some Basic Problems of the Theosophical Society's History

By Hugh Shearman

In the inaugural address which Colonel Olcott made on 17 November, 1875, as first President of the Theosophical Society, he said that "in the coming time it is inevitable that the birth of this Society of ours must be considered a factor in the problem which the historian will be required to solve". He was thinking, no doubt, of the entirely new influence which he believed was going to work upon the world through this new Society which he was participating in founding. But his words have a certain oblique meaning for anybody who tries to discover the true history of the Society itself. Even the most modest attempt to tell what seem to be the known facts about the Society, and its leading figures, and the various other movements which they created, is best with great difficulties. These difficulties are similar to those which confront the historian of any movement which is largely concerned with thoughts, sympathies and subjective experiences. The history of religion has presented many of these difficulties.

Two particularly intractable factors enter the history of the Theosophical Society from its earliest days. One was transcendental experience of an occult or mystical kind. The other was psychic phenomena. The nature and aims of the Society being what they were and are, it was right and proper that such factor should arise; but they present very great problems to anybody who attempts later to tell what happened.

There is the first and obvious drawback that there is no generally accepted criterion for assessing experiences of this nature. Indeed there is often no objective in their whole character. All that we can try to find our is what effect they had upon people at the time. But events and experiences of this kind also carry large implications, and if one is inclined to attribute to them any truth and reality, however qualified, they challenged many accepted values.

Even more difficult, for those who seek afterwards to discover and record the truth, is the very marked though varied influence of any claimed transcendental experience, both upon the person experiencing it and upon other people. This is an influence which has always, justly or unjustly, brought into question people's capacity for telling the exact truth.

It is not that one has to deny or confirm the experience itself, but it is in what may follow from it that problems arise. For a person to whom such experience comes, it is immensely important; and it is very easy for him then to try to regroup and modify any related material facts so as to give to that subjective experience the central importance which he feels that it ought to have at the factual and material level as well as at the more subjective. Indeed a very truthful and sincere person may, as the result of some interior and value-changing experience, deviate into what can be shown evidentially to be great illusions about strictly material facts connected with it. This in turn, when discovered , can produce in others a critical rejection of the whole experience which seems very unjust and unkind.

The career of Madame Blavatsky offers several examples of this. To take one of them, we have often been told that, in a period of her life before the founding of the Theosophical Society, she spent several years at the ashrama of her Master and obtained there a profound training in the occult. Mrs. Cleather, for example, in the foreword to her edition of The Voice of the Silence, published in Peking in 1927, says that Madame Blavatsky spent "many years of study and initiation in Tibet".

Now the biographer of Madame Blavatsky who came closest to her personally, knew her most intimately during her own lifetime, and brought to his task the warmest sympathy for all that she was and represented, was her close colleague, A.P Sinnett; and, at the time, she expressed cordial gratitude to him for the devoted effort he put into this work of writing a biographical sketch an vindication of her. Yet readers of his Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky (1886) may have noticed that he says nothing about that stay of several years at the Master's ashrama in Tibet.

It was only after many years that he explained why he had drawn a veil of reticence over that whole subject. "Directly I began to handle dates", he confessed in memoirs published in 1922, "the difficulties became desperate. She had originally told us, when she first made our acquaintance at Allahabad, that she had spent three years with the Masters in Tibet; other episodes taken into account, no three years could anyhow be identified as those so spent. I had good reason to feel sure that she really had been - at some period - with the Masters in Tibet, but eventually the three years became condensed into about eleven months". (The Early Years of Theosophy in Europe, p.84)

One can understand how, with her temperament, Madame Blavatsky could hardly fail to extend the time scale of an experience which had profoundly influenced and transformed her. But those who write about her afterwards are thrown back largely upon a personal judgment or a personal intuition. Those who, like Sinnett, or like the writer of this article, believe that she had an encounter and s sojourn which deeply influenced her can assert this on little more than the basis of a unique value that they attach to her later work and career and a personal readiness to attribute some credibility to the words of one who was undoubtedly much inclined to enhance meagre fact by giving it color and extension which others could not find in it. But many who take a less sympathetic view of her will write the whole thing off as fabrication, and have indeed done so .

Yet what Madame Blavatsky often did was something that nearly all of us do. We remember events by their significance in our own lives rather than by their factual details. And we sometimes do this more as we become older. Colonel Olcott did it when, in several instances in his Old Diary Leaves, he telescoped events or put them in a wrong chronological order. He had remembered what had seemed to him to be the effects and significance of the events but their precise details.

There is a further and less generally recognized effect of the entry of a transcendent factor into people's lives. Many an individual has ridden high upon the afflatus of some great interior experience. It is predominantly an experience of the "heart", an experience which is supra-rational. Though leaving some imprint upon memory and the discursive mind, it is not predominantly and experience of that mind. In the light of that experience the individual does various things, express himself in various ways. Then, later, he loses that experience and is left with nothing but its elusive imprint upon memory.

Looking back upon that past era of his life, he now tries to rationalize what happened, quite omitting the real core of that central experience which gave meaning to his acts at the time. Often, too, there is in his loess a certain resentment, and the story of his past which he now tells exhibits factual inaccuracy and sometimes an embittered or often at least an unfriendly interpretation of other people upon whom he puts blame for having misled him in some way.

When an individual describes the past in this way, trying to give a rational account of it and yet omitting a certain experience or enthusiasm which at one time was the motivating heart of his own actions, there is nearly always a visible flaw or incompleteness in the rational structure which he tries to erect. A good example of this may be found in a book by Lady Emily Lutyens called Candles in the Sun. Those who are acquainted with past events in the Theosophical Society will know of Lady Emily figuring in the early 1920;s as an immensely devoted and committed worker in certain causes. Then a kind of disillusionment set in and she dropped out of sight, to come before the public again in her old age in the 1950's as the writer of several very readable works of reminiscences, of which Candles in the Sun deals with her activities in the teens and twenties of this century in the Theosophical Society and other movements.

At first glance Candles in the Sun deems to be a very candid and honest book; but the reader who has some background knowledge of the history of the Theosophical Society soon begins to find that on certain points the narrative, however convincing, is just not factually accurate. To take one simple and outstanding example, one of the most prominent figures of the various movements with which Lady Emily was concerned was Mr. Oscar Kollerstrom. One looks in any detailed narrative of those events for some account of the part he played, and we known from other sources that he was a person well in the foreground of Lady Emily's life at that time; but his name is simply no to be found in Lady Emily's book. She wrote as if he had never existed. Thus, although the book appears to be a coherent narrative, reliably consistent with itself, a very little research shows that Candles in the Sun is not factually reliable or complete as an account of those events.

Another example of an attempt to rationalize in old age a past that had been lived through with a certain inspired enthusiasm was a pamphlet published in 1963 by Mr. E.L. Gardner, entitled There is No Religion Higher than Truth. This again does not stand up to critical examination at the factual level. Based, as would appear from its own opening paragraphs, upon an impression that Mrs. Besant was influenced in decisions which she took in 1909 and 1910 by letters which Bishop Leadbeater wrote to her from 1916 onwards, the booklet just does not stand up to critical investigation at the factual level (Sandra Hodson and M. J. van Thiel, C.W. Leadbeater, a Great Occultist, p 3 et seq.) and can be regarded as having significance mainly or solely in relation to the personal psychological adjustments of its writer.

Some writings about the past of the Theosophical Society are very controversial and indeed have sometimes a degree of personal bitterness in them. Basically mot of these controversies have been concerned with the authentication of the authority of certain people. And yet, if one looks for it, one does not find any substantial evidence that it was ever the intention of the Founders of the Theosophical Society to establish within it a sort of apostolic succession of authority or to designate certain people as authorities whose sayings and writings were to be believed and acted upon. One might cite, as an extreme example of this zeal to assert an established authority, the writings of Alice Leighton Cleather who seemed to claim in effect that every prominent Theosophist - Mrs. Besant, Bishop Leadbeater, Mr. Judge, Mr. Tingley, the lot - was wickedly and wilfully out of step, with the sole exception of Mrs. Cleather herself and her faithful disciple , MR. Crump. (H.P. Blavatsky, a Great Betrayal, Calcutta, 1922, and other writings). People who are strongly established in this kind of attitude tend to over-sell their case, leaving the reader sceptical as to whether all the other people could really be so wrong and the particular exponent so dreadfully right. A strongly compulsive attitude, even an attitude of malice, can sometimes quite usefully bring facts to light, but it cannot offer acceptable balanced judgments.

It is worth noticing that one of the most important figures in the history of the Theosophical Society and one of the most influential in the life stories of many of its members, Mr. J. Krishnamurti, has not at any time felt called upon to re-interpret his own past. He took it that it was not his business to effect reconciliations or to create consistent images of the past. He realized that he knew the past mainly in terms of its residual imprint upon himself. When he was questioned fairly soon after crucial events in his own career he dismissed them as things that he could not really distinctly remember in factual terms (Rom Landau, God is My Adventure [1935]p. 348).

The story of the Theosophical Society is very much a story about people, and we sometimes unwisely imagine that we have to keep passing judgments upon them, approving or condemning them by certain criteria. But enough time has now elapsed to show how inadequate and ephemeral the criteria of a particular day and age can be. In the first decade of this century, for example, furious and horrified attacks were made on Bishop Leadbeater because of certain advice he age a very few adolescent boys about juvenile sex problems. But today that advice is given in nearly every acceptable book about sex.

If time brings to us a measure of wisdom, that wisdom is likely to reveal itself in the discovery that people are always people, even in the Theosophical Society. They are neither saviors nor scapegoats. Yet we do feel that some people have in them a quality of greatness which is overtly manifest, while in others it is only an unexpressed latency. TO recognize greatness one needs both self-forgetfulness and reverence. The self-forgetfulness is necessary because to see people truly one has to abandon the impulse to use them as justifications for some attitude of one's own. And reverence, like humor, is a sense of proportion, a response to the bigness and littleness of things.

One of the greatest problems of anybody who tries to write about other people, whether in biographies or in novels, is that nobody can fully convey a portrait of somebody bigger than himself. We know how unreal and wooden are all fictional portraits of Masters and supermen. One can think of a character in a novel who has a certain largeness, for example Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace. He is in the truest sense a gentleman, compassionate, responsible, sensitive, vulnerable, intelligent, fallible. Tolstoy could convey such a character out of his own largeness; but one could not imagine Balzac or Dickens succeeding in a similar creation. Widely gifted as they were, some element of stature was lacking. And it is the same with writing about real people. It is largeness in the writer that can give life to a biography; and a lack of it often lies at the root of a certain indefinable inadequacy that we may feel in some portrayal of a historical character.

Some will have felt that an example of some inadequacy of this kind is presented in Arthur H. Nethercot's two large volumes about the life of Annie Besant (The First Five Lives of Annie Besant and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant, 1963). Obviously the work was very conscientiously researched. One can fault the author only occasionally in his factual framework and this usually only in minor parts of it, as where he gets a name wrong or interestingly attributes two non-existent daughters to the late E.L. Gardner. But one is left with a feeling that Annie Besant could never have achieved the career he describes if she had not been a bigger, more powerful and more stable person that he manages to convey. It is almost as if Nethercot was at times a little afraid of the heroine of his story, for there is a slightly patronizingly ironical tone which suggests a self-defensive dissociation of himself from his subject. Fascinated as he evidently is by her career, he does not make Annie Besant herself completely real. He presents her as a much more superficial person that the woman of whom Count Keyserling, after meeting her, said, "She owes her importance to the depth from which she directs her faculties".

With all these problems of personality and interpretation, then, what an we make of our past in the Theosophical Society? And what can we make of the past of that still wider and less easily definable complex which we sometimes call the Theosophical Movement, consisting not only of the Adyar Society but of many other organizations derived from it or inspired by it, such the Liberal Catholic Church, Co-Freemasonry, the various secessional societies such as the Point Loma Theosophical Society, the United Lodge of Theosophists and the movements originated by Mrs. Bailey and many more, and blending at its frontiers with yet other contemporary movements, such as Jungian psychology, neo-Vedantism or the teachings of Ramana Maharshi?

The first things to do with one's past, or one's present, is to accept it. It has been made what it was and is by the forces of Nature, the interplay of the gunas, the operation of Karma, or whatever way we like to express it. Those who have created it and are creating it are members of a universal brotherhood. We do not have to approve or disapprove of them, agree or disagree with them. If we look into some of the various groups that have come into being within that wide movement, we find that these groupings arose from natural affinities, that the people in them "belong" together and that it is right for them at a given time to be in their particular group rather than in some other. We may even speculate that they have been similarly grouped together in past lives. Those who have wanted to group themselves round some teacher, be it Blavatsky, Besant, Leadbeater, Tingley, Krishnamurti, Bailey or some other , are responding to the necessities of their own temperaments; and if we also are responding to the true promptings of our own nature we do not need to condemn or dissuade others.

To the spectator, it is all one rich and rewarding spectacle, with tragedy, comedy, tension and color in it. It is only when we are failing to cultivate or own gardens that we become agitated about the weeds that are growing in other people's. Or, to use another metaphor, it is when the actions of others hold up a mirror in which, unconsciously and yet with embarrassed distaste, we see our own faces that we are most compulsively eager to repudiate and condemn. So let us accept our past with good humor and look with grateful affection and wonder at the fascinating people who created it. In nearly a hundred years all sorts of things have happened, some of which, to the people immediately involved, must have seemed cataclysmic. And yet really very little has happened. Human nature has not altered and the same human problem confronts us. The ancient outline of the hills has not changed much in a century.

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