Harkive: ‘The Theosophical Headquarters at Adyar’

This month’s article brings together different aspects of Harkness’s international career. In the early years of the twentieth century she travelled to India and present-day Sri Lanka (called Ceylon in the text) as a correspondent for the West Australian, and this article reports her visit to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, now a neighbourhood in the city of Chennai (referred to in the text as Madras). One of the leaders of the Theosophical society was Annie Besant, who had been one of Harkness’s contacts in the London labour movement in the 1880s.

No mention is made of Harkness’s personal connection with Besant – in fact, by far the most prominent voice to speak for theosophy in this article is that of the society’s first president, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who is quoted at length. Nevertheless, some of the aspects of theosophical thought that are brought forward in the article chime with sentiments expressed in Harkness’s work both before and after the publication of this article. The idea of a philosophy that engages with but also transcends religion shares common ground with the words she puts into the mouths of social and religious activists in novels such as Captain Lobe (1889) and A Curate’s Promise (1921). The article also reflects an interest in Indian culture and in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which Harkness would explore in her Indian travelogues Glimpses of Hidden India (1909) and Indian Snapshots (1912), and her novel The Horoscope (1913), set in Sri Lanka.


Source: West Australian, 9 July 1906, p. 5. Available via Trove. 



(By “John Law.”)

Many people hold many opinions about the Theosophical Society, but none can now ignore it. When the Prince and Princess of Wales were in Madras Colonel Olcott was presented to them by Lord Ampthill, and they held conversations with him. And at Benares, the Princess of Wales sent for Mrs. Besant and requested the successor of Madame Blavatsky to write her name in the private autograph book kept by H.R.H. This year on the Day of Pentecost (that day has been chosen because so many languages will be heard) a great Theosophical Conference will be held in Paris. In London a hall to hold 1,000 persons is being built by the Theosophists, the luxurious and commodious premises in Albermarle-street no longer being large enough to accommodate the audiences that attend Theosophical lectures and discussions. Among the members of the Society are found leaders of society in the various European capitals, savants and scientists. In India the Government acknowledges the important educational work now being done by members of the Theosophical Society—young men from the English universities who devote their lives to the education of young Hindus, and educated women from America, England and Australia (and one at least from Perth), who live among Hindu and Mahomedan women and educate Indian girls of all castes.

The Society was founded in New York in 1875, and in the words of Colonel Olcott, its object is:—“TO investigate the laws of Nature and disseminate the knowledge of the same, and to study the ancient religions and philosophies from which all modern ones have been derived.”

“Speaking for myself,” says Colonel Olcott, “as a founder of the Theosophical Society, I will say that it was not so much what I had read of Buddhism, Zoastrianism and other religions that induced me to take up this work as what I heard from Madame Blavatsky of her personal observations of religions and sciences in Asia and other remote quarters of the globe. Her expositions of the various ancient philosophies were so lucid, and they so clearly indicated a common basis for human thinking and aspiration, that such a society as ours seemed a necessity. If we could only secure the affectionate co-operation of the pious of all creeds and the learned of all schools of philosophy and science, in a search after truth, it was inevitable that immense good must result to the world. Such a co-operation could only be brought about by a union upon the basis of mutual toleration and mutual help. Behold the genesis of our league of philosophy. Having decided upon a society, we were obliged to give it a name. What should it be? How could we best [?] the general purpose of our organisation? There was a long debate of this question, various names were considered, and our choice was finally made for the following reasons: The general drift of thought under the influence of English, French and German literature is to a hard materialism. The tendency is to cramp all our feelings, observations, aspirations, and pleasures within the narrow limits of our five senses. This ignores entirely the far nobler, vaster, more exquisite experiences that a man can have by the awakening within himself of certain latent faculties or powers to which the Buddhists give the name Irdhi and which the Hindus call the Siddhis of Krishna. We have the testimony of every devotee, ascetic, mystic, clairvoyant, and seer that what the inner eye of man can see, his inner ear hear, infinitely transcends in beauty, majesty, and delightfulness the things of this grosser world of shifting pains and pleasures through which we are passing. The founders of all the great religions have either exercised those usually latent powers, or had their possession ascribed to them.”

And here it may be said that if you meet a person who is interested in Theosophy, that person will nearly always be one who has experienced something of what the Orientals call Irdhi, or the Siddhis of Krishna. The few persons who go to the Theosophical Society through idle curiosity are soon “choked off.” The man who has never studied the five senses, and who imagines that when he dies there is an end of him—that is to say, the materialist—does not go the Theosophical Society. To many a materialist the thought of life beyond the one he knows at present is decidedly unpleasant. If when he dies his sins do not perish with him, then he must alter his whole line of conduct. There is nothing the materialist knows so little about as the five senses he accepts as the whole of man.

In 1880 Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky first visited Ceylon, and at that time the society had few members and so little money the founders did not know how to finance the first issue of their magazine, “The Theosophist.” Not long afterwards they travelled on to India, and established themselves at Adyar, the fashionable suburb of Madras. Since then the Society had spread all over the world: and now Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Mohammedans, and Christians belong to it. The writer of this article was talking a few days ago with a clergyman of the Church of England who is a member of the Society, and who with his wife has come to India to do educational work. True, this man no longer wears his cloth, no longer calls himself “Rev.”; but he is still a Christian, and he says that his Christianity is now for him a real, tangible thing. Christ is not in some far-off heaven. Christ can be seen to-day by those who follow Him. Christ is in this world, in a body like unto the body of which He said, “Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.” Christ is in the world, and can be seen by those who have eyes to see Him. This man is not mad. If he were mad, he would not have been sent from England to fill an important educational appointment. He has developed certain faculties that are latent in all of us, and which all can develop if they choose to do so.

Among Theosophists one finds what Colonel Olcott calls “a republic of conscience.” Every member enjoys absolute freedom in religious matters, the sole condition being that he shall equally respect the religions of others. The Theosophical Society has, as a body, no creed, no sect, no school of its own; it stands for the principle of mutual tolerance and universal brotherhood. In this way it has drawn together a vast number of people who profess every known religion, but who are all more or less interested in “things unseen.” Such tolerance leads to mental politeness, and is to be recommended. Everyone must have noticed that while in the ordinary affairs of life people show to one another a certain courtesy, so soon as religious topics crop up the most polite people are often guilt of much mental rudeness. For instance, at dinner nobody would think of helping his neighbour to salt, but in conversation all sorts of unwelcome condiments are forced into other people’s minds. Much of the mental isolation that people complain of, much of the “being misunderstood,” arises from mental rudeness. Such mental rudeness, it must be said, is not found among Theosophists, who respect all creeds, believing them—knowing them—to be at bottom one and the same.

The headquarters of the Theosophists at Adyar are delightfully situated beside a river that winds through groves of cocoanut palms to the sea. The house has been added to from time to time, and will not be beautiful until covered by creepers. But from the flat roofs glorious sunrises and sunsets can be seen, and all around are trees with rich foliage and dainty-tasselled flowers, creepers, birds, and insects. The fact that all life is sacred with the Hindus makes animals very tame in India, and they run in and out of the rooms, fearless of man and undisturbed by human voice and movements. Lizards are on the walls, and large spiders, and merry little squirrels play on the floor. On the beach tiny water crabs investigate shoes and sun topees, and dig holes under one’s very nose.  The air is filled with the humming if [sic] innumerable insects, and in the Adyar River gay fish spring and play all day long.

Do not imagine that by visiting Adyar you will be able to grasp suddenly occult knowledge. Colonel Olcott will meet you in the marble hall, and assure you that you are “as welcome as the flowers in May.” The butler will make inquiries as to your whims and wants in the matter of food. Nearly all Theosophists are vegetarians, and all or nearly all are teetotallers. You must pay your bill, for the Society belongs to all Theosophists, and visitors as well as members are charged for food and lodging. Carriages with smart liveries are used by the staff, but visitors must hire from the livery stables in Madras, if they have no carriage of their own. Many servants are there, but each visitor has his own “boy,” for in India no European does anything for himself or herself that a native can do for him. When the butler has conducted you to your room, and received your orders, you can go, if you like, to the library. There, in cool rooms, with marble floors, and large open windows, you will find a valuable collection of books on occult subjects, and see pundits at work on priceless manuscripts. Some pundits read aloud, in a sing-song fashion, and if you are not very “advanced” you will feel sleepy. After struggling for a time with drowsiness, you send the servant for a cup of black coffee, which is brought to you with a pitying smile by the butler, who has been at Adyar for many years. You drink the coffee surreptitiously on the balcony, and begin to read again, and then there comes once more “that sleepy feeling,” due to the sea-air, perhaps. You go upstairs to a lofty drawingroom, where is a piano, and easy chairs, and you watch the fish jumping up in the river, and the butterflies hovering in the air. None disturb you. Colonel Olcott is busy with his secretary; Dr. Schraeder, the librarian is studying Sanskrit. The staff is at the native schools, or in the printing office. In the diningroom you see some of the resident Theosophists, and that is all.

All knowledge comes slowly and with difficulty, and so it must be with the highest and deepest knowledge. Each person must learn for himself. He must begin by being self-reliant. Theosophists will watch him, and sometimes he will see that strange smile that seems to be the pass-sign among these people. Hindus seek a Guru. You can do that, if you choose. That means you are a Hindu-Theosophist. Christians seek out the Gnostic Gospels, and wonder why they did not study these things before. That shows they are Christian-Theosophists. Another is weak in science, and wanders to the bookshelves where the latest and the oldest books on science stand side by side. Yet another is willing to accept the teachings of the leaders of the movement, Mrs. Besant and Mr. Ledbetter, and he buys the works of these people in the Theosophist office.

The Hindu writings tell of an exceedingly beautiful Princess, who imposed on her lovers all sorts of tests, and finally sent her handmaiden dressed in her own raiment to deceive them. To the brave man who passed through every temptation, and refused to look at the handmaiden, saying, “This is not she,” the Princess gave herself at last. So it is with truth, say the Theosophists. At Adyar you will meet Parsees, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Mahommedans and Hindus, and they are all courting the beautiful Princess, alone, without assistance. For the Theosophists say: —

“It is not in seeking

It is not in endless striving

The quest is found.

Be still and listen; be still and listen

To the silence all around.

Not for thy crying

Not for thy loud beseeching will peace draw near;

Rest with palms folded; rest with eyelids fallen.

Lo, peace is here.”


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