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Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
The Theosophical Society and its Subaltern Acolytes (1880-1986)
Alan Trevithick
The Theosophical Society (est. 1875), and its associated texts have sometimes been characterized as
counter-Orientalizing or only partially Orientalizing, in the sense of at least departing from
"official" British-Indian Orientalism and providing a critique of that discourse. In somewhat the
same vein, the society has also been characterized as playful, self-ironic and/or postmodernist,
and/or as broadly reformist in not only an anti-colonial but also an anti-patriarchal and pro-or-proto-
feminist way. These approaches fail to grapple with the nature of the orientalism that was
fundamental to the foundation of the TS, as well as the pronounced entrepreneurial and exploitative
aspect of the cult, its strategic and emotional structuring, and the significance of its syncretizing and
revitalizationist processes.
The great white brotherhood and their little dark helpers
The Theosophical Society (est. 1875), and its associated texts have sometimes been characterized as
counter-Orientalizing or only partially Orientalizing, in the sense of at least departing from
“official” British-Indian Orientals and providing a critique of that discourse. In somewhat the same
vein, the society has also been characterized as playful, self-ironic and/or postmodernist, and/or as
broadly reformist in not only an anti-colonial but also an anti-patriarchal and pro-or-proto-feminist
way. These approaches fail to grapple with the nature of the orientalism that was fundamental to the
foundation of the TS, as well as the pronounced entrepreneurial and exploitative aspect of the cult,
its strategic and emotional structuring, and the significance of its syncretizing and revitalizationist
In several important recent works on syncretism, Stewart has been careful to keep in the forefront
that the term syncretism, and related terms, have been defined and deployed in a variety of ways.
Objections to the term have included the idea that it 1) “derides mixture,” suggesting impurity, and
2) that it “presupposes ‘purity’ in the traditions that combine.” Its defenders have, on the other hand,
embraced syncretism and related concepts exactly because they involve mixture and challenge the
primacy of entrenched traditions. Thus, it seems very true that “in literary theory and cultural
studies . . . the condition of hybridity has become something to celebrate.” From a more
anthropological viewpoint, Stewart notes, Melville Herskovits conceived of syncretism “as
indicative of resistances to domination or as pointing to sites of survival for cultural survival,” and
this viewpoint has perhaps “anticipated more recent studies of syncretism that have elaborated this
framework of resistance and the politics of culture,” (Stewart 1999: 40-41, 51)
I only wish to add to this the notion that when one confronts a case like the Theosophical Society,
which most certainly was a syncretic movement, and frequently derided as an impure mixture, one
does not have to conclude that the movement was ipso facto a vehicle of resistance. Stewart does
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
not, by the way, build into his argument that resistance is a necessary ingredient, but recent studies
of the TS have indeed tended to celebrate its hybridity in this regard. However, in this paper, I
suggest that we need to be alert to the strategic intentions of the founders of a syncretic
organization, and to its function as an entrepreneurial cult, and to issues of its internal stratification,
its reward structure, and its treatment of new recruits.
Competition, costs, and real estate in early TS history
In an interesting paper by Gauri Viswanathan, which casts the TS as an important anti-colonial
movement as well as a philosophically vital one, we read of “the phenomenal, worldwide growth of
The Theosophical Society” (Viswanathan 2000: 2, and see also Viswanathan 2005: 131), but the TS,
as a cult which at one time seemed poised to become an established religion, “failed to live up to its
early promise,” according to Stark and Bainbridge. As these authors point out, in writing about US
membership, the Theosophists followed a path that closely tracked that of Christian Science, Divine
Science and Ba’hai, starting in the urban northeast and subsequently experiencing most of its
growth on the Pacific shore. (Stark and Bainbridge, 242-43) Also, if the 1926 U.S. Census data is to
be believed, Christian Science had shown great expansion at that time, which only leveled off in the
1950’s, while various Theosophist groups in the United States had dwindled to a handful.i By 1926,
even the Liberal Catholic Church (a T.S. offshoot) boasted more members than the TS.
Clearly, the TS, founded in the United States, faced considerable competition there, and this goes
far in explaining the founders decision to move out into the world. Formed in 1875 in New York
City, by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, the founders moved, in 1880,
to India, where they were able to establish a headquarters at Adyar, near Madras (now Chennai).
There, for awhile, they were able to develop a following that included members of the Anglo-India
community, including professionals, merchants and some former and serving British civil servants
and military officers, and also Indians, Sinhalese and other “oriental” colonial persons, drawn from
a variety of social formations.
The movement of the TS to India was inspired by a number of considerations. Blavatsky had
previously attempted to institutionalize some pre-TS versions of her esoteric project in Europe and
Egypt and these had not thrived, so India seemed like a natural next site.ii One sees, for instance,
that the list of ancient cultures invoked by Blavatsky, which previously had centered on middle
eastern ideas, spirit figures, ritual forms and so-on, now shifted to the Indian and the Indo-Tibetan.
Another consideration, which has not hitherto been adequately addressed, is that in America the TS
faced stiff costs and competition, and the move to India considerably improved TS prospects on
both fronts, while also improving living standards for the founders. Nothing illustrates this more
clearly than the TS’s acquisition of its considerable properties near Madras. In Volume II of his Old
Diary Leaves, Olcott recalled that “I had been observing places, people, and climates, with a view
to selecting the best place for a permanent headquarters for the Society.” He was initially attracted
to Ceylon, as it “presented a most charming appearance to one seeking an Asian home,” but decided
against it on several grounds including distance from India, “the cost of postage, and the backward
intellectual state of the people as a whole.”
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
This, then, is about costs of doing business: the TS depended at that time, and for a long time to
come, on income generated by the sales of texts and memberships, and both required expensive
mail communication and shipping. It is also about the recruitment pool: some critical mass was
required for memberships to rise, and Indians and Anglo-Indians, more than Ceylonese, were
numerous and displayed a mental outlook to which Theosophy might be expected to appeal. This is
somewhat ironic in light of the fact that Colonel Olcott was to spend so much time in Ceylon, on
“Buddhist-Theosophical” projects, but the fact remains that India promised the best conditions for
the organization’s expansion.
Thus, in Spring of 1880, the founders were asked by a local supporter in Madras to have a look at a
sizable estate that had come on the market at a reasonable price.
We were driven to Adyar, and at the first glance knew that our future home
was found. The palatial building, its two riverside smaller bungalows, its
brick-and-mortar stables, coach-house, storerooms, and swimming-bath;
its avenue of ancient mango and banyan trees, and its large plantation of
casuarinas (one of the cone-bearing trees) made up an enchanting country
residence, while the price asked—Rs. 9000 odd, or about £600—was so
modest, in fact, merely nominal, as to make the project of its purchase
seem feasible even for us. We accordingly decided to take it, and in due
course this was effected by the noble help of P. Iyaloo Naidu and Judge
Muttusawmy Chetty, the first of whom advanced part of the money and the
other secured a loan of the rest, on very easy terms. An appeal was at once
issued for subscriptions, and within the next year I had the satisfaction of
being able to pay it all off, and receive the title-deeds.
“We have never regretted our choice,” wrote Olcott, for Adyar is a sort of Paradise.” Indeed it was,
and still remains—now as part of one of the more upscale neighborhoods of Chennai. Olcott and the
TS, it turns out, were on the winning side of a real estate phenomenon brought on by the opening of
the hill station (see below) at Ootacamund, which now hosted the Anglo-Indian community of
Madras for almost half the year. This had inspired many British to throw “their grand Madras
bungalows on a market without bidders.” What Olcott paid for “Huddlestone’s Gardens,” as it was
previously known, “was about the price of the old materials if the buildings should be torn down.”iii
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
The Theosophists as political reformers
The three basic aims of the TS, still given great importance by its adherents, are as follows:
1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without
distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color
2, To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and
3. To investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in
man. (in Washington 1993: 69)iv
To begin with the first aim, this included broadly democratic and anti-colonial tendencies.
Overwhelmingly, these tendencies were voiced in moderate ways by the Theosophists, even by the
most politically active of them, Annie Besant and A.O. Hume. These important figures, and
Blavatsky and Olcott, the founders, were very often in friendly or at least cordial contact with
official British India, and talked and wrote exclusively of reform and political “evolution,” very
seldom of civil disobedience, and never of revolution. Olcott, for his part, was content to see an
India (and Ceylon) ruled by the British and once wrote dismissively of A.O. Hume’s establishment
of the National Congress that “he has his heart’s desire in being Boss-General in Native
politics,” (Barker 1925: 327), and elsewhere that the TS had helped to make Indians “more tractable
as subjects.” (in Prothero 1996: 135-36)
Furthermore, as Frost points out, in all of the imperial cities around the Indian Ocean, emergent
and/or “westernizing” or “modernizing” elites, often in conjunction with sympathetic westerners,
“shared similar concerns for reform and oversaw parallel campaigns for religious revival, social and
educational improvement and constitutional change.” (Frost 2002: 937) Very few of these groups, in
fact, had anything to do with the TS. So, while Dixon, for instance, writes that “one of the functions
of the Theosophical Society was to bring together men and women with a range of progressive and
humanitarian interests” (Dixon 2001: 9-10, and see also van der Veer 2001: 56-58 for a similar
view), this may be less a specific observation to make about the TS and much more just one
instance of a general tendency. The same can be said about Viswanathan’s idea that TS members
were “exploring alternative possibilities for imagining colonial relations outside a hierarchical
framework.” (Viswanathan 2000: 2, also see Bevir 1998: 66) Perhaps they were, but many others
were as well. That is, the Theosophists were politically more or less of their time and not ahead of
it, in regard to their generally very mild critiques of imperial rule.
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
Feminism, sexuality, women: the TS as social reformer
It has become conventional to regard the Theosophical Society as pro-or-proto feminist. In this, it
carries forward analyses offered by scholars of the earlier Spiritualist movement, who broadly
endorse the notion that Spiritualism created a new sphere in which conventional gender categories
could be challenged and in which women’s voices could be publicly heard (for instance, Braude
1989: 200-02; Owen: 1990-8-12; Tromp 2003: 67, 78) In similar fashion, Dixon writes, largely with
the TS in mind, that “esoteric religion—what we now might call alternative or New Age spirituality
—provided a crucial space for the articulation of this unorthodox vision,” by which she means the
union of feminist politics and feminist spirituality. (Dixon 2001: 3, 19)
More specifically, in the Indian case, according to Metcalf, “Some few English women sought to
create a space for female authority within an India free of colonial domination.” Blavatsky,
according to this view, and later Annie Besant, “defiantly asserted a power of their own . . . building
upon, but inverting, the stereotypes which depreciated India as a ‘spiritual land,’ and women as
‘religious’ they challenged the accepted discourses of both empire and gender.” (Metcalf 1994: 110)
This seems problematic. To begin with, theosophy was, as Mullin puts it, “in tune with
contemporary social purity campaigns to impose a single moral standard of sexual continence and
self-restraint.” (Mullin 2001: 78) If anything, this is too mild, because the Theosophists glorified a
celibacy that went well beyond conventional purity attitudes. Blavatsky herself claimed to be a
virgin, though various of her biographers dispute this possibility, pointing out that Blavatsky did
marry twice and that she probably bore a son (who died in childhood). (Carlson 1993: 40, Johnson
1994: 34). Olcott, for his part, disparaged sexual pleasure and the advocated of strict celibacy,
especially for young recruits, though he had been married, had fathered children, and probably had
kept a mistress. (Prothero 1996: 47-48)
Of course, disparagement of heterosexuality and advocacy of celibacy could go very well with
some feminist trends, but this seems out of place here. The connection between these attitudes about
sexuality and feminism proper is perhaps best made with regard to Annie Besant, Olcott’s successor
as TS president. Besant, who came into the Theosophical Society from a personal and political
background, as a divorced mother, socialist, and agitator for sexual equality, as a vanguard feminist
of her time, very completely renounced her previous advocacy of contraception. (Besant 240;
Candy 2001: 39, Viswanathan 1998:196) She also came to identify the notion of “spirituality”—
recall Metcalf’s idea that this was “inverted” in its meanings—with Eastern womanhood, so that
while western women might be working toward some perhaps androgynous status, Indian women
were to be celebrated for their unchanging femininity. Furthermore, although Besant came to be
known in India for, among other things, her advocacy of women’s education, she was wary of going
too far: “We have women enough who are brilliantly intellectual and competent; let us leave
unmarred the one type which is the incarnation of spiritual beauty.” (in Kraft 2002:164-179) This
seems a tepid challenge to conventional gender discourse.
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
Science and Theosophy
Let me start this section with a comment on some New Age notions. In a 1974 invitation to a
conference at the “Institute for the Study of Consciousness,” in Berkeley, Ira Einhorn informed
Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue, of an attempt to “reach some agreement on
the new paradigm that is emerging from the study of consciousness, physics, and parapsychology.”
This was the discourse world in which Brand and other pioneering new agers wandered: the utopian
narratives involved “a convergence of specialized fields in a single ‘paradigm’ expressed in an
‘emergence’ whose pure form would exchange the dogmatism of formal scholarship for the direct
experiential face-to-face interactions of inspired seekers.” (Binkley 2003: 302-03)
This sounds Theosophical. Of course, in their second aim, the Theosophists express their approval
of science, which would certainly include parapsychology, along with philosophy and comparative
religion. They were scientific, in some way, if we use, for instance, a late popular nineteenth-
century sense captured by Hammer as follows: “each spokesperson argues for his or her own
conception of the world as compatible with contemporary science, but also as a body of knowledge
that transcends the unnecessary or artificial limitations imposed by modernism.” (Hammer 2001:
223) Viswanathan similarly finds that Theosophists were people “looking for new forms of religion
not founded on faith alone that would also be amenable to the tools and techniques of
science.” (Viswanathan 2000: 6) There is some distance, perhaps, between Ira Einhorn’s “new
paradigm, and Viswanathan’s position, and that of Candy, for whom the TS is “that masterful mix of
magic, science, and philosophy, (which) insisted that all knowledge was part of one ancient
wisdom.” (Candy 2001: 8) But not much.
I wonder, really, if any contemporary scholar believes that the Theosophists were successful in their
explanations of “the unexplained laws of nature.” According to Bevir, writing of Annie Besant’s
version of science, “her theosophy really does avoid supernaturalism,” because it adopts an
emanationist monistic pantheism which comprehends “the whole universe as a unity unfurling and
returning to itself in an evolutionary process.” (Bevir 1998: 16) McMahan, in somewhat the same
vein, writes that the Theosophists “made liberal use of Darwinian theory to promote the idea of
spiritual evolution,” and also notes Olcott’s aim of presenting Buddhism in a way that “could be
interpreted as consonant with the modern, scientific worldview (though broadly interpreted vis-à-vis
Theosophy).” (McMahan 2004: 908-09) The question is, of course, how broadly?
To take another example of the problem, in regard to evolution, Viswanathan claims that the TS
offered an alternative theory, to the extent that “here, indeed, was a quasi-religion that satisfied
spiritual drives while grounding them in the biological development of human consciousness, from
insensate matter to thinking subject.” (Viswanathan 2000: 6) Here I agree with Kraft that it is
important to distinguish emic from etic levels in the study of Theosophy. (Kraft 2002: 153)
Darwinian evolution, for instance, had been, in Blavatsky’s eyes, one of the main artificial or
unnecessary limitations spoken of earlier, and she was confident enough to offer her own
alternative, which, in one version, begins as follows:
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
1. The eternal parent wrapped in her ever invisible robes had slumbered
once again for seven eternities.
2. Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration.
3. Universal mind was not, for there were no ah-hi to contain it.
This is from the Book of Dzyan. written in Senzar and transmitted through Madame Blavatsky,
according to whom Senzar is "a tongue absent from the nomenclature of languages and dialects
with which philology is acquainted" (I, xxxvii).v There were, as you can see, no Ah-Hi in the
beginning—Ah-Hi, being a Senzar word meaning “wise serpents.” They did show up, of course,
and so did Universal Mind, a bit after that. In the in passages that follow, the rest of the conditioned
universe comes into being as well. The degree to which this can be regarded as a view grounded in
the biological development of consciousness is open to question. Granted, it is “evolutionary.”
In sum, we should allow for some latitude in our understanding of science, when considering the
uses to which the term is put by Theosophists and their admirers. Some of these latter have gone so
far as to link the rise of the modern occult to science and modernity in general, but we should
remember, as Laquerer has recently put it “If modern means anything—and maybe it does not—it is
that we do not believe in a secret history of angels.” (Laqueuer 2006: 126) Or wise serpents.
From spirits to Masters
A secret history of the “masters” is central to understanding the TS, and this involved a move from
a disconfirmable Spiritualism, which delivered client-centered information, to a more secure form
of occult communication, which delivered universal wisdom. A typical medium in the Victorian
parlor might give out the wrong details about a deceased relative and might, herself, be exposed as a
fraud, but in the Theosophical reformulation of matters, messages of great but attractive abstraction
could be received, from “perfected Masters” or “Adepts” who were thought to be actually existing
but inaccessible beings who had mastered occult science.
There were two steps involved here. First was to show that Spiritualism was unreliable and subject
to fraud. This Blavatsky and Olcott both had done in various ways. Olcott, though entirely and
some have said extraordinarily capable of belief in unseen beings, had written that the spiritualism
of his day had been corrupted and was unreliable, not to mention in various cases stimulating sexual
immorality. (Prothero 1996: 44-45; also see Tromp 2003) Blavatsky, for her part, had developed by
the time of her meeting with Olcott the notion that what is seen in a séance is not the actually spirit
of a deceased person, but only an impermanent “shell,” a kind of subtle material remains of the
person which would itself decompose. (Godwin 1994: 282; Carlson 1993: 29)vi
Related to this is another Theosophical idea: the distinction between exoteric and esoteric truths. It
is an exoteric truth that conventional spiritualism summons up impermanent “shells,” with whom
one can “exchange sentimentalities,” but it is an esoteric truth that one may achieve real occult
powers. (Godwin 1994: 292) Then too, there is a distance between the two kinds of knowledge,
which can be marked off in intervals which measure the progress of an individual, and also a
corresponding path for self-improvement, under proper guidance, which involves degrees, along the
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
lines of a Masonic organization.
Here then, enter the “The Great White Brotherhood,” “Brotherhood of the White Lodge,” “The
Masters,” or Adepts, Masters of Wisdom, Masters of Compassion, or Mahatmas. Blavatsky claimed
to have met one of these, the Master Morya, in 1851 (Washington 1993: 34), in London, where she
indeed seems to have been in the 1850’s—a rare confirmable Blavatsky sighting in the years
1849-59 (Carlson 1993: 39)—but the “brotherhood” of masters, a sort of corporate body of
perfected adepts, did not appear until later (Hammer 2001: 380-81) They immediately appealed to
Olcott, and became a centerpiece of the Theosophical system for years to come.
The “precipitated “ communications of the Masters, received through the minds of Blavatsky and
others and written down by them, formed the essential occult link that was claimed as a
Theosophical property and sold by the TS in the form of texts. The Masters were not, properly
speaking, any sort of “spirit,” but they might as well have been, as they could disembody at will and
at once, and were normally resident in some unknown section of Tibet. They could transport
themselves from their world to ours, and sometimes did so. Finally. one could, by one’s own efforts,
and aided by the intermediary knowledge of the founders, become a Master.
The path of the Masters
The Masters participated in the workings of this world, and were said to retain some level of subtle
but material reality. Olcott himself, for instance, came to know the Masters when in 1875 he
received an ordinary letter, by mail, from “Tuitit Bey,” of the “Egyptian Brotherhood of Luxor.”
Among other things, Tuitit Bey assured Olcott that “Sister Helen is a valiant, trustworthy servant.”
Communications from other Masters followed, and were compelling in strengthening Olcott's
resolve to throw his lot in with Blavatsky. Prothero 1996: 59-61) This whole series of episodes,
which included a visit in the flesh by yet another Master, who left his turban as material proof of his
visit, highlights the issue of Olcott’s gullibility, and also illustrates the use of the Masters as a
recruiting tool for the new organization. Godwin says, of the same sequence, that it seems as though
the Colonel “was being manipulated in order to enroll him into the program that she and her
‘Brothers of Luxor’ were promoting.” (Godwin 1994: 291-92) Here, by the way, notice that some of
the Masters still had an “Egyptian” complexion: after the move to India this was deemphasized.
It is very important that the Masters could write physical letters that were delivered by regular mail,
and could choose to ‘wear’ a conventionally material body. By such retention of normal qualities,
they remained essentially human, and thereby provided an escape valve in case of error or unclarity
in doctrinal matters. As Kraft puts it, “The larger share of wisdom must remain covered, since it
would be incomprehensible (and potentially dangerous) to the profane mind of the day or,
alternatively, because it is unknown even to the Masters of Wisdom.” Nevertheless, both Blavatsky
(herself an apprentice Master) and the Masters themselves were to be regarded as “more evolved
than their contemporaries.” (Kraft 2002: 155, my emphasis)
Why, by the way, had Blavatsky not dematerialized and taken up residence with the more ethereal
Masters in their Himalayan fastness? This was a question asked even by Theosophists, including
Alfred Sinnett, who managed to satisfy himself by observing that “she has stopped short of that
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further development in adeptship that would have tided her right over the boundary between this
and occult world altogether.” (Sinnett 1884: 33)
She was, herself, nearly a Master, but the path is a graduated one, with achievements on the way to
be measured by degree, as in Masonry, from which Theosophy borrowed heavily in its
organizational details. Ordinary humans, on joining the Theosophical Society, were allowed to enter
on the path of adeptship, though they need not, and, in some cases, certain individuals were
encouraged to do so. It was by no means expected that everyone would follow this path: ordinary
members could enjoy companionship and discussion at lodge meetings, and incidentally purchase
and read Theosophical materials, without ever taking on the burden of adeptship or “chelahood,”
which involved self-denial and celibacy.
The formulation of the route to masterhood has a history that has not yet been exhaustively
elucidated. For instance, at his inaugural address to the TS in 1875, Olcott had this to say, in
prefacing a section on Neo-Platonism:
Certainly the Theosophical Society cannot be compared to an ancient
school of theurgy, for scarcely one of its members yet suspects that the
obtaining of cult knowledge requires any more sacrifices than any other
branch of knowledge. (Olcott 1931: 12)
This seems coy—did one member know more than the others?— but, in any case, after the move to
India, the nature of the sacrifices began to be clarified. Sinnett put it like this:
Never, I believe, in less than seven years from the time at which a
candidate for initiation is accepted as a probationer, is he ever admitted to
the very first of the ordeals, whatever they may be, which bar the way to
the earliest decrees of occultism, and there is no security for him that the
seven years may not be extended ad libitum. (Sinnett 1881: 27)
“A Chela,” wrote A.O. Hume (before his break with the TS), “is a son, pupil, apprentice and
disciple, all in one, and a great deal more.” He cannot be a true chela unless he has “given up all his
worldly objects.” (in Johnson 1994: 238) Not surprisingly, while ordinary members were easy
enough to locate, suitable candidates for esoteric adeptship were sometimes hard to find, and this
will become relevant further on when we examine recruitment measures that were used to locate
promising adept-trainees.
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Syncretism and revitalization styles in Theosophy
Putting aside for the moment the interesting question of whether or not all cultural products, and
even culture itself, can be regarded as syncretic, it is at least clear that the velocity and richness of
syncretic assembly varies over time and across space. One reason for this, of course, is that
syncretic movements have often been smashed by police power: the heretic is almost always
peddling a syncretism. Thus, one way to think about syncretisms is that they will increase in time as
ecclesiastical police power diminishes, that is, as religions are disestablished. For the present case,
one should not lose sight of the fact that in India at the time of the early Theosophists, religion was
certainly disestablished, had never been formally establishedvii, in practical terms, since the arrival
of the East India Company in the 17th century, and had been symbolically disestablished, by the
terms of Victoria’s very popular Proclamation of 1858, which guaranteed non-interference in
religious matters. (Trevithick 1990: 504; Taylor 2004: 271)
So we expect syncretism to arise with the disestablishment that is part of the rise of modernity as
officially tolerant of religious diversity. This, interestingly, is exactly what Colonel Olcott himself
noticed in his “Inaugural Address” to the newly constituted TS in New York 1875:
However much or little we may do, I think it would have been hardly
possible to hope for anything if the work had been begun in any country
which did not afford perfect political and religious liberty. It certainly
would have been useless to attempt it in except in one where all religions
stand alike before the law, and where religious heterodoxy works no
abridgement of civil rights. (Olcott 1931: 11)
This is syncretism, heterodoxy, as an option, a choice, and this is one thing that connects the TS to
the “New Age,” wherein all religious goods are on open display. However, syncretism can also arise
as ‘revitalization’ movements, in conditions of imperialist or other cultural “stress,” on the model
outlined by Wallace many years ago. And this, in the Theosophical and Indian context, can bear
some analysis. First of all, in the Wallace-defined revitalization movement, ‘culture clash,’ or
‘culture contact’ was the precipitating element, and the recombination of religious elements in a
revitalization movement were drawn from indigenous and foreign sources. This is a cultural crisis,
in short, for the dominated group. A second feature of the revitalization movement, however, is a
related crisis, experienced not only by a group, but also, following Weber’s ideas about charismatic
origins of cults, by an individual whose inspirations are subsequently translated and
institutionalized. (Wallace 1956: 273-74) One issue here, I think, is that, in the case at hand—the
Indian and Theosophical situation—the individuals involved are situated at various distances from
possible triggers of crisis.
If, for instance, British imperial control of India can itself be thought of as a crisis to at least some
Indians, it cannot be thought to be so for the Theosophical founders themselves, who after all
voluntarily entered India in order to further the fortunes of a cult they had established in New York
City. They may indeed have undergone personal crises of a sort that are often associated with
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
religious founders or converts viii, but not of the type that one tends to associate with revitalization.
On the other hand, some of the Indian or Sinhalese Theosophists may well have experienced crises
in regard to their own subaltern status in the imperial context. The Theosophist and Buddhist
activist Anagarika Dharmapala, for instance, whose life is examined at length further on, frequently
recorded in his diary experiencing the sorts of racist slights and arbitrary imperialist injustices that
might constitute a personal crisis of the colonial encounter. I have examined, for instance, a small
1904 diary of Dharmapala’s, in Sarnath, at the back of which is scrawled a list of life-complaints.
There are some purely personal difficulties, but other points are directly connected to the colonial
1. Abnormal punishments received as a child.
2. Kicked by a coolie
3. ill-treated by parents
4. mistreated by Christians
5. received knocks at Dehiwale
6. at Calcutta beaten by a European coward
7. insulted by an English blackguard at Muttra
8. insulted by Mrs. Besant and Col. Olcott (ADS 1904)
The last complaint, about Besant and Olcott, is particularly interesting because, after all, it was their
Theosophical Society to which he felt initially drawn in part because it had an anti-colonial
reputation. Dharmapala did eventually break off from the TS after, particularly, Olcott and he fell
into disagreement over religious matters, but not, on the other hand, in regard to any “colonial”
topic. For now, my main point is that Dharmapala, more than Blavatsky and Olcott, or any of the
other mainly Euro-American senior officers, felt in his body, with the intimacy of hard knocks, with
the same emotional force as though it were an internal family matter, the impact of colonial
realities. Later in his life, Dharmapala rewrote the family history that once featured abnormal
punishments and ill-treatment, and recalled that “My family, which is Sinhalese, has been Buddhist
without a break for twenty-two hundred years,” and that they lived in a home with a garden in
which “even snakes glided gracefully through the tangled underbrush; for, they knew they were
making their home with Buddhists, who would not disturb them. “ (Dharmapala, 1927: 721)
Between the two, the scribbled list of angry complaints and the polished autobiographical account,
there is a great deal of work that Blavatsky and Olcott and the other Theosophical founders simply
did not have to do, and could not have done. All of this means, I think, that we should be alert to the
different ways in which people can be part of and emotionally attached to the same syncretic—or
I shall return to Dharmapala at a later point. Now let me make the emotional part of the equation
even more plain: Dharmapala never forswore his attachment to Blavatsky, regarding her, with
Olcott, as one of his foster-parents. As to Besant, in 1893 he had written that “she was a mother to
me” during his first visit to America, where he spoke at the World’s Parliament of Religions. (ADC,
Aug., 15, 1893). Of Besant and Olcott both, here is a diary entry from 1918: “I attacked Annie
Marburg Journal of Religion: Volume 13, No. 1 (May 2008)
Besant in 1907”—Dharmapala did not approve of what he saw as a too-Hindu tilt on her part:
[but] in 1912 I remembered only the good she had done. In 1916 I sent her
rps. 500. I felt sorry I couldn’t see Colonel Olcott in his last days. I lost my
father feb. 17, 1906—Col. Olcott died on the same day a year later. (ADS
This is a simple point but worth making: as a child and as a subaltern, Dharmapala could not have
had a “Theosophical” experience that was like the experience of his older Euro-American mentors.
They had quite consciously cobbled together a syncretic entrepreneurial cult, while he had
discovered that cult, after the fact, as a revitalizationist resource.
Theosophy in Ooty: good and bad savages
The hill stations of India were designed by the British to institutionalize domestic and recreational
spaces that were appropriate to their predominantly middle-class British values and/or aspirations,
and several of them were of key importance to the early growth of the TS. In general Dharmapala
and other “indigenous” Theosophists, stayed away from, or were prevented from entering, the
spaces that had been carved out by Anglo-Indians, and which appeared in several forms, including
cantonments, clubs and, most interesting here, hill stations such as Simla, Ootacumund and Mount
Abu. These latter came into being (or were expanded from village beginnings) in the early 1800’s,
grew rapidly through the last century of British Indian rule, and were frequented by the middle-class
professional British who comprised an important pool of recruitment and leadership for the
The hill stations, each one of which was a sort of “England in the Tropics,” were places where one
might be recharged as a European, having been for most of the year baked into Asiatic form down
in the plains. This process took on almost an official therapeutic status and was at work, for
instance, on European children who were thought to improve on a range of health measures as
much by going to the hill stations as by returning to England itself. (Buettner 2004: 46-47)
The TS founders were frequently to be found in these stations, often as guests. Blavatsky, for
instance, spent enough time at Ootacumund to form her own opinion of the tribal peoples who
inhabited the surrounding hills. In an essay on some of these she knitted bits of her theosophical
cosmos into prevailing enthnographic understandings. Of the Todas and their rituals, and of the
Kurumba people, she wrote the following perfectly binary-orientalist paragraph:
All these peculiar ceremonies, t

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