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VOL. XXIV NO. 17, December 16-31, 2014
Sowing the seeds of freedom
(by Sakuntala Narasimhan)

K.V.S. Krishna writes: “The International Headquarters of The Theosophical Society has been functioning from Adyar from December 19, 1882.

“A study of Col. H.S. Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves (6 volumes, 2500 pages) was undertaken by K. Ravi Menon and me for our book South of the Adyar River, brought out for the centenary year of Olcott’s passing away (2007). ‘Sowing Seeds of Freedom’ is an article based on that 140-page study.”

In 1857/58, after the Great Revolt, the British Crown took over the governing of India, a country then of 200 million people, scores of languages, seven different religions, a caste system, child marriage and some 500 mini-kingdoms ruled by Rajahs and Nawabs. It was to this country that Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian aristocrat, and Colonel H.S. Olcott from the US came in 1879 to set up the world headquarters of the International Theosophical Society.

A.O. Hume.

In 1851, 20-year-old Helena Petrovna Blavatsky met Mahatma Morya. Her life was never to be the same again. Her later travels took her to Canada, U.S.A., Mexico, India, Java, Tibet and South America (1851-58). Blavatsky by the time she came to India had been widely exposed to various cultures and in Tibet her occult powers greatly improved. She wrote several spiritual books (Secret Doctrine, etc.) and, in July 1878, was the first Russian to get American citizenship.

Col. Olcott was 23 years old when he gained international renown for a model scientific agriculture farm he had developed in 1855. He was co-founder of the Westchester Farm School, New York. At 26, he travelled to Europe on an agricultural assignment. Subsequently, he became Correspondent of Mark Lane Express (London), Agriculture Editor of the New York Tribune, and published his second and third books on agriculture.

As a reporter in 1859 he was present at the hanging of John Brown, the campaigner against slavery. Olcott joined the Northern Army. After the American Civil War, Olcott was appointed member of a commission to assist in the investigation of this tragedy. Later he was drafted as Special Commissioner by the War and Navy Departments to investigate corruption in the armed services.

In 1868, Olcott was admitted to the Bar and practised till 1878.

In 1874 he met Blavatsky while both were visiting the Eddy farm in Vermont. His interest in the spiritualist movement and his budding relationship with Blavatsky helped to foster his development of spiritual philosophy.

Blavatsky and Olcott founded the Theosophical Society and he was elected founding President of the Society on November 17, 1875.

The two of them arrived in Bombay in February 1879. The first thing he did upon disembarking from their ship was to stoop down to kiss the granite step in an instinctive act of devotion. Then, both went on a tour of North India.

One of the first persons they met on that tour was Allan Octavian Hume of the Bengal Civil Service who had arrived in India in 1849 as a 20-year-old. He was to serve as Secretary to the Government of India in 1870-79. The Great Revolt of 1857 made a strong impression on him. Hume authored Awakening. He feared yet another and more terrible uprising and wanted to ensure that India gained self-government without violence and bloodshed. Hume told the newly arrived Viceroy Northbrook in 1872 that the British were not loved in India and warned, “A studied and invariable disregard, if not actually contempt, for the opinions and feelings of our subjects is at present the leading characteristic of our government in every branch of the administration.”

Hume, impressed by Blavatsky and Olcott, was more than willing to assist the Theosophical movement to spread its message. Olcott lectured to a huge crowd in December 1879 on ‘Theosophy and its relations to India’, followed by an address by Hume. A.P. Sinnett, another early friend of Blavatsky and Olcott, was the editor of The Pioneer, Allahabad, and several contributions from Olcott and Blavatsky were published in it until The Theosophist magazine was started on October 1, 1879. Sinnett became a Theosophist that year.

Over the years the British Government did not appreciate Hume, resulting in him being demoted by the time he was 50 years old. This coincided with the emergence of the Theosophical movement in India. Hume, after having met Olcott and Blavatsky at Sinnett’s residence, was most attracted by Theosophy’s tenets which propagated and stated the essential unity of all religions and the universal brotherhood of man. He became a Theosophist. This set him free to devote his time and energy to the cause of Indian nationalism.

In 1880, over a period of 60 days, Olcott and Blavatsky went on their first tour of Ceylon and during that trip they took Pansil at the Ramanya Nikaya to formally accept the Buddhist faith.

One night during their second tour of North India, Blavatsky and Olcott were invited by the Humes to dinner. When Blavatsky asked if anyone wanted something, Mrs. Hume said that she would like to have an old family jewel that she had not seen for a “long time”. This, to everyone’s astonishment, was found. The dinner resulted in several influential Europeans joining the Theosophical Society after witnessing the occult powers of Blavatsky. The same evening, Lord Ripon invited Olcott for a ball at Government House, a significant move indicating improved relations with the Government, a far cry from the earlier days when it was spying on Olcott and Blavatsky!

Hume, who had by then escaped political isolation, served as an intermediary between the Viceroy and the Indians to ascertain and organise Indian opinion in favour of Lord Ripon’s liberal policies. Educated Indians called him ‘Ripon the Righteous’.

Right from the start, both Olcott and Blavatsky were preparing Indians and Ceylonese for holding positions of higher responsibility. Olcott assisted this by starting schools in India and Ceylon. Olcott felt Madras to be “the most enlightened of the indian Presidencies as to Sanskrit Literature and Aryan Philosophy. There are more learned Pundits in villages, and the educated class, as a whole, has been less spoilt by Western education and Adyar is a sort of paradise.” They saw the site called Huddleston Gardens on the south bank of the Adyar River on May 31, 1882. Their very first viewing told them that “their future home was found” and they settled there in December that year.

In Madras, Olcott started several schools for Harijans and in 1884 he formed the Aryan League of Honour for teenage boys, as well as a number of boys’ clubs and societies. Educationist Dr. Kewal Motwani writes in a biographical sketch of Olcott, “As a result of his fervent appeal to the patriotic instincts of the people, seventeen of those delegates were present at the annual Convention of the Theosophical Society. In 1884, the Indian National Union was formed which changed to the Indian National Congress the following year ‘to serve the motherland’.” Strictly speaking, Olcott was the father of the Indian National Congress, though that title has been given to A.O. Hume.

Certainly, in this historical movement, Hume provided perfect leadership. He had the time and tremendous energy to execute his duties, and he had the necessary contacts as well as organisational skills and the support of Indian leaders. With the tacit support of the new Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, Hume made a political pilgrimage covering the whole of India, enlisted 70 delegates who, till then, had not met each other and inaugurated the first Indian National Congress (INC) on December 28-30, 1885. Hume did not occupy the highest position at the INC but continued till 1901 to be the General Secretary of the Party. Lord Dufferin soon sensed that Hume was helping the INC to become a national party which intended India to become a free country.

The Congress decided to hold its annual conference in Madras on December 27, 1894. The Theosophical Convention traditionally took place from December 27th. However, knowing that all its members were also members of the INC, the Theosophical Convention was held four days earlier so that its members could attend both the conferences. This is further evidence of how closely the Society was related to the freedom movement.

(To be concluded)

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In this issue

Are we waiting for their collapse?
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
Crowd-funding to support social causes?
Deja vu!
Sowing the seeds of freedom
Laurence Hope – A life of mystery
The Red Hills Railway
A 2500-year-old 'industrial estate'

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Dates for your Diary


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