Echoes from India What is Hindu Spiritualism?
Banner of Light, October 18, 1879
To the Editor of the Banner of Light:
Phenomena in India, beside the undoubted interest they offer in themselves, and, apart from their great variety, and in most instances utter dissimilarity from those we are accustomed to hear of in Europe and America, possess another feature which makes them worthy of the most serious attention of the investigator of psychology. Whether Eastern phenomena are to be accounted for by the immediate and sole interference and help of the spirits of the departed, or attributed to some other and hitherto unknown cause, is a question which, for the present, we will leave aside. It can be discussed, with some degree of confidence, only after many instances have been carefully noted and submitted, in all their truthful and unexaggerated details, to an impartial and unprejudiced public. One thing I beg to reaffirm, and this is, that instead of exacting the usual “conditions” of darkness, harmonious circles, and nevertheless leaving the witnesses uncertain as to the expected results, Indian phenomena, if we except the independent apparitions of bhuts (ghosts of the dead), are never sporadic and spontaneous, but seem to depend entirely upon the will of the operator, whether he be a holy Hindu Yogi, a Mussulman Sâdhu, fakir, or yet a juggling Jadugar (sorcerer).
In this series of letters I mean to present numerous examples of what I here say; for, whether we read of the seemingly supernatural feats produced by the Rishis, the Aryan patriarchs of Archaic antiquity, or by the Achâryas of the Puranic days, or hear of them from popular traditions, or again see them repeated in our modern times, we always find such phenomena of the most varied character. Besides covering the whole range of those known to us through modern mediumistic agency, as well as repeating the mediæval pranks of the nuns of Loudun and other historical possédées in cases of “bhut” obsession, we often recognize in them the exact counterparts—as once upon a time they must have been the originals—of Biblical miracles. With the exception of two—those over which the world of piety goes most in raptures while glorifying the Lord, and the world of skepticism grins most sardonically—to wit, the anti-heliocentric crime performed by Joshua, and Jonah’s unpleasant excursion into the slimy cavern of the whale’s belly—we have to record nearly everyone of the feats which are said to have so distinguished Moses and other “friends of God,” as occasionally taking place in India.
But alas, for those venerable jugglers of Judea! And alas for those pious souls who have hitherto exalted these alleged prophets of the forthcoming Christ to such a towering eminence! The idols have just been all but knocked off their pedestals by the parricidal hands of the forty divines of the Anglican Church, who now are known to have sorely disparaged the Jewish Scriptures. The despairing cry raised by the reviewer of the just issued Commentary on the “Holy” Bible, in the most extreme organ of orthodoxy (the London Quarterly Review for April, 1879), is only matched by his meek submission to the inevitable. The fact I am alluding to is one already known to you, for I speak of the decision and final conclusive opinions upon the worth of the Bible by the conclave of learned Bishops who have been engaged for the last dozen of years on a thorough revision of the Old Testament. The results of this labour of love may be summarized thus:
1. The shrinkage of the Mosaic and other “miracles” into mere natural phenomena. (See decisions of Canon Cook, the Queen’s Chaplain, and Bishop Harold Browne.)
2. The rejection of most of the alleged prophecies of Christ as such; the said prophecies now turning out to have related simply to contemporaneous events in the Jewish national history.
3. Resolution to place no more the Old Testament on the same eminence as the gospels, as it would inevitably lead to the “disparagement” of the new one.
4. The sad confession that the Mosaic Books do not contain one word about a future life, and the just complaint that: “Moses under divine direction (?) should have abstained from any recognition of man’s destiny beyond the grave, while the belief was prominent in all the religions around Israel,” . . . is “confessed to be one of those enigmas which are the trial of our faith.”
And it is the “trial” of our American missionaries here also. Educated natives all read the English papers and magazines, and it now becomes harder than ever to convince these “heathen” matriculates of the “sublime truths” of Christianity. But this by the way of a small parenthesis; for I mention these newly evolved facts only as having an important bearing upon Spiritualism in general, and its phenomena especially. Spiritualists have always taken such pains to identify their manifestations with the Bible miracles, that such a decision, coming from witnesses certainly more prejudiced in favor of than opposed to “miracles” and divine supernal phenomena, is rather a new and unexpected difficulty in our way. Let us hope that in view of these new religious developments, our esteemed friend, Dr. Peebles, before committing himself too far to the establishment of “independent Christian churches,” will wait for further ecclesiastical verdicts, and see how the iconoclastic English divines will overhaul the phenomena of the New Testament. Maybe, if their consistency does not evaporate, they will have to attribute all the miracles worked by Jesus also to “natural phenomena”! Very happily for Spiritualists, and for Theosophists likewise, the phenomena of the nineteenth century cannot be as easily disposed of as those of the Bible. We have had to take the latter for nearly two thousand years on mere blind faith, though but too often they transcended every possible law of nature, while quite the reverse is our case, and we can offer facts.
But to return. If manifestations of occult nature of the most various character may be said to abound in India, on the other hand, the frequent statements of Dr. Peebles to the effect that this country is full of native Spiritualists, are —how shall I say it?—a little too hasty, and exaggerated. Disputing this point in the London Spiritualist of January 18th, 1878 [p. 36], with a Madras gentleman, now residing in New York, he maintained his position in the following words:
“I have met not only Sinhalese and Chinese Spiritualists, but hundreds of Hindu Spiritualists, gifted with the powers of conscious mediumship. And yet Mr. W. L. D. O’Grady, of New York, informs the readers of The Spiritualist (see issue Nov. 23rd) that there are no Hindu Spiritualists. These are his words—‘No Hindu is a Spiritualist’.”
And, as an offset to this assertion, Dr. Peebles quotes from the letter of an esteemed Hindu gentleman, Mr. Peary Chand Mitra, of Calcutta, a few words to the effect that he blesses God that his “inner vision is being more and more developed,” and he talks “with spirits.” We all know that Mr. Mitra is a Spiritualist, but what does it prove? Would Mr. Peebles be justified in stating that because H. P. Blavatsky and half a dozen of other Russians have become Buddhists and Vedantists, Russia is full of Buddhists and Vedantists? There may be, in India, a few Spiritualists among the educated reading classes, scattered far and wide over the country, but I seriously doubt whether our esteemed opponent could easily find a dozen of such among this population numbering 240,000,000. There are solitary exceptions, but exceptions only go to strengthen a rule, as everyone knows.
Owing to the rapid spread of Spiritualistic doctrines the world over, and to my having left India several years before, at the time I was in America I abstained from contradicting in print the great Spiritualistic “pilgrim” and philosopher, surprising as such statements seemed to me, who thought myself pretty well acquainted with this country. India, unprogressive as it is, I thought might have changed, and I was not sure of my facts. But now that I have returned for the fourth time to this country, and have had over five months’ residence in it, a careful investigation into the phenomena, and especially into the opinions held by the people on this subject, and seven weeks of traveling all over the country, mainly for the purpose of seeing and investigating every kind of manifestations, I must be allowed to know what I am talking about, as I speak by the book. Mr. O’Grady was right: “No Hindu is a Spiritualist” in the sense in which we all understand the term. And I am now ready to prove, if need be, by dozens of letters from the most trustworthy natives, who are educated by Brahmans, and know the religious and superstitious views of their countrymen better than any one of us, that whatever else Hindus may be termed, it is not Spiritualists. “What constitutes a Spiritualist?” very pertinently inquires, in a London Spiritual organ, a correspondent with “a passion for definition” (see Spiritualist, June 13th, 1879 [p. 287]), and then, after asking, “Is Mr. Crookes a Spiritualist, who, like my humble self, does not believe in spirits of the dead as agents in the phenomena?” he brings forward several definitions, “from the most latitudinarian to the most restricted definitions,” as he expresses it.
Let us see to which of these “definitions” the “Spiritualism” of the Hindus—I will not say of the mass, but even of a majority—would answer. Since Dr. Peebles, during his two short visits to India, and while on his way from Madras, crossing it in its diameter from Calcutta to Bombay, could meet “hundreds of Spiritualists,” then these must indeed form, if not the majority, at least a considerable percentage of the 240,000,000, of India. I will now quote the definitions from the letter of the inquirer, who signs himself “A Spiritualist,” (?) and my own remarks thereupon:
A. “Every one is a Spiritualist who believes in the immortality of the soul.”
I guess not; otherwise the whole of Christian Europe and America would be Spiritualists; nor does this definition, A., answer to the religious views of the Hindus of any sect, for, while the ignorant masses believe and aspire to Moksha, i.e., literal absorption of the spirit of man in that of Brahma, or loss of individual immortality, as means of avoiding the punishment and horrors of transmigration, the philosophers, adepts, and learned Yogis, such as our venerated master, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the great Hindu reformer, Sanskrit scholar, and Supreme Chief of the Vedic Section of the Eastern Division of the Theosophical Society, explain the future state of man’s spirit, its progress and evolution, in terms diametrically opposite to the views of the Spiritualists. These views, if agreeable, I will give in some future letter.
B. “Any one who believes that the continued conscious existence of deceased persons has been demonstrated by communication, is a Spiritualist.”
A Hindu, whether an erudite scholar and philosopher or an ignorant idolater, does not believe in “continued conscious existence,” though the former assigns for the holy, sinless soul, which has reached Swarga (heaven) and Moksha, a period of many millions and quadrillions of years, extending from one Pralaya1 to the next. The Hindu believes in cyclic transmigrations of the soul, during which there must be periods when the soul loses its recollections as well as the consciousness of its individuality, since, if it were otherwise, every person would distinctly remember all his previous existences, which is not the case. Hindu philosophies are likewise consistent with logic. They at least will not allow an endless eternity of either reward or punishment for a few dozens of years of earthly life, be this life wholly blameless or yet wholly sinful.
C. “Anyone is a Spiritualist who believes in any of the alleged objective phenomena, whatever theory he may favor about them, or even if he have none at all.”
This definition is a totally wrong one. Such persons are “Phenomenalists,” not Spiritualists, and in this sense it answers to Hindu beliefs. All of them, even those who, aping the modern school of Atheism, declare themselves materialists, are yet phenomenalists in their hearts, if one only sounds them.
(D.) E. “Does not allow of Spiritualism without spirits, but the spirits need not be human.”
At this rate Theosophists and Occultists generally may also be called Spiritualists, though the latter regard them as enemies; and in this sense only all Hindus are Spiritualists, though their ideas about human spirits are diametrically opposed to those of the Spiritualists. They regard “bhuts”—which are the spirits of those who died with unsatisfied desires, and who, on account of their sins and earthly attractions, are earth-bound and kept back from Swarga (the “Elementaries” of the Theosophists)—as having become wicked devils, liable to be annihilated any day under the potent curses of the Brahman exorciser. The “spiritual control” so much sought for and appreciated in mediums, the Hindu regards as the greatest curse a person can be afflicted with—possession and obsession by a bhut, and the most loving couples often part if the wife is attacked by the bhut of a relative, who, it seems, seldom or never attacks any but women.
(F.) G. “Consider that no one has a right to call himself a Spiritualist who has any new-fangled notions about ‘elementaries,’ ‘spirit of the medium,’ and so forth; or does not believe that departed human spirits, high and low, account for all the phenomena of every description.”
This one is the most proper and correct of all the above given “definitions,” from the standpoint of Orthodox Spiritualism, and settles our dispute with Dr. Peebles. No Hindu, were it even possible to bring him to regard bhuts as low, suffering spirits on their way to progress and final pardon (?), could, even if he would, account for all the phenomena on this true Spiritualistic theory. His religious and philosophical traditions are all opposed to such a limited idea. A Hindu is, first of all, a born metaphysician and logician. If he believes at all, and in whatever he believes, he will admit of no special laws called into existence for men of this planet alone, but will apply these laws throughout the universe, for he is a Pantheist before being anything else, and notwithstanding his possible adherence to some special sect. Thus Dr. Peebles has well defined the situation himself, in the following happy paradox, in his Spiritualist letter above quoted, and in which he says:
“Some of the best mediums that it has been my good fortune to know, I met in Ceylon and India. And these were not mediums; for, indeed, they held converse with ‘the Pays and Piśachas, having their habitations in the air, the water, the fire, in rocks and trees, in the clouds, the rain, the dew, in mines and caverns’.”
Thus these “mediums” who were not mediums, were no more Spiritualists than they were mediums, and—the house (Dr. Peebles’ house) is divided against itself and—must fall. So far we agree, and I will now proceed further on with my proofs.
As I mentioned before, Col. Olcott and myself, accompanied by a Hindu gentleman, Mr. Mulji Thackersing, a member of our Council, started on our seven weeks’ journey early in April. Our object was two-fold:
1. To pay a visit to and remain for some time with our ally and teacher, Swami Dayanand, with whom we had corresponded so long from America, and thus consolidate the alliance of our Society with the Ârya Samâjes, of India (of which there are now over fifty); and
2. See as much of the phenomena as we possibly could; and, through the help of our Swami—a Yogi himself and an Initiate into the mysteries of the Vidya (or secret sciences)—settle certain vexed questions as to the agencies and powers at work, at first hand. Certainly no one could find a better opportunity to do so than we had. There we were, on friendly relations of master and pupils with Pandit Dayanand, the most learned man in India, a Brahman of high caste, and one who had for seven long years undergone the usual and dreary probations of Yogism in a mountainous and wild region, in solitude, in a state of complete nudity, and constant battle with elements and wild beasts—the battle of divine human Spirit and imperial will of man against gross and blind matter in the shape of tigers, leopards, rhinoceroses and bears, without mentioning venomous snakes and scorpions. The inhabitants of the village nearest to that mountain are there to certify that sometimes for weeks no one would venture to take a little food—a handful of rice —to our Swami; and yet, whenever they came, they always found him in the same posture and on the same spot—an open, sandy hillock, surrounded by thick jungle full of beasts of prey—and apparently as well without food and water for whole weeks, as if he were made of stone instead of human flesh and bones.2 He has explained to us this mysterious secret which enables man to suffer and conquer at last the most cruel privations; which permits him to go without food or drink for days and weeks; to become utterly insensible to the extremes of either heat or cold, and, finally, to live for days outside instead of within his body . . .
During this voyage we visited the very cradle of Indian mysticism, the hot-bed of ascetics, where the remembrance of the wondrous phenomena performed by the Rishis of old is now as fresh as it ever was during those days when the school of Patañjali—the reputed founder of Yogism—was filled, and where his Yog-Sankhya is still studied with as much fervor, if not with the same powers of comprehension. To Upper India and the Northwestern Provinces we went; to Allahabad and Cawnpore, with the shores of their sacred “Gangâ” (Ganges) all studded with devotees; whither the latter, when disgusted with life, proceed to pass the remainder of their days in meditation and seclusion, and become Sannyasis, Gosaïns, Sadhus. Thence to Agra, with its Taj Mahal, “the poem in marble,” as Bishop Heber happily called it; and the tomb of its founder, the great Emperor-Adept, Akbar, at Sikandra; to Agra, with its temples crowded with Śakti-worshippers, and to that spot, famous in the history of Indian occultism, where the Jumna mixes its blue waters with the patriarchal Ganges, and which is chosen by the Śâktas (worshippers of the female power) for the performance of their pujas; during which ceremonies the famous black crystals or mirrors mentioned by P. B. Randolph, are fabricated by the hands of young virgins. From there, again, to Saharanpore and Meerut, the birthplace of the mutiny of 1857. During our sojourn at the former town, it happened to be the central railway point to which, on their return from the Hardwar pilgrimage, flocked nearly twenty-five thousand Sannyasis and Gosaïns, to numbers of whom Col. Olcott put close interrogatories, and with whom he conversed for hours. Then to Rajputana, the land inhabited by the bravest of all races in India, as well as the most mystically inclined—the Solar Race, whose Rajas trace their descent from the sun itself. We penetrated as far as Jeypore—the Paris, and at the same time the Rome of the Rajput land. We searched through plains and mountains, and all along the sacred groves covered with pagodas and devotees, among whom we found some very holy men, endowed with genuine wondrous powers, but the majority unmitigated frauds. And we got into the favour of more than one Brahman, guardian and keeper of his god’s secrets and the mysteries of his temple; but got no more evidence out of these “hereditary dead beats,” as Col. Olcott graphically dubbed them, than out of the Sannyasis and exorcisers of evil spirits, as to the similarity of their views with those of the Spiritualists. Neither have we ever failed, whenever coming across any educated Hindu, to pump him as to the ideas and views of his countrymen about phenomena in general, and Spiritualism especially. And to all our questions who it was in the case of holy Yogis, endowed with “miraculous powers,” that produced the manifestations, the astonished answer was invariably the same: “He (the Yogi) himself having become one with Brahm, produces them”; and more than once our interlocutors got thoroughly disgusted and extremely offended at Col. Olcott’s irreverent question, whether the “bhuts” might not have been at work helping the thaumaturgist. For nearly two months uninterruptedly our premises at Bombay—garden, verandahs and halls—were crammed from early morning till late at night with native visitors of the most various sects, races and religious opinions; averaging from twenty to a hundred and more a day, coming to see us with the object of exchanging views upon metaphysical questions, and to discuss upon the relative worth of Eastern and Western philosophies—occult sciences and mysticism included. During our journey we had to receive our brothers of the Arya Samajes, which sent their deputations wherever we went to welcome us, and wherever there was a Samaj established. Thus we became intimate with the previous views of hundreds and thousands of the followers of Swami Dayanand, every one of whom had been converted by him from one idolatrous sect or another. Many of these were educated men, and as thoroughly versed in Vedic philosophy as in the tenets of the sect from which they had separated. Our chances, then, of getting acquainted with Hindu views, philosophies and traditions, were greater than those of any previous European traveler; nay, greater even than those of any officials who had resided for years in India; but who, neither belonging to the Hindu faith, nor on such friendly terms with them as ourselves, were neither trusted by the natives, nor regarded as and called by them “brothers,” as we are.
It is, then, after constant researches and cross-questioning, extending over a period of several months, that we have come to the following conclusions, which are those of Mr. O’Grady: No Hindu is a Spiritualist, and, with the exception of extremely rare instances, none of them has ever heard of Spiritualism or its movements in Europe, least of all in America, with which country many of them are as little acquainted as with the North Pole. It is but now, when Swami Dayanand, in his learned researches, has found out that America must have been known to the early Aryans—as Arjuna, one of the five Pandavas, the friend and disciple of Krishna, is shown in Puranic history to have gone to Patal(a) in search of a wife, and married in that country Ulûpî, the widow-daughter of Naga, the king of Patal(a), an antipodal country answering perfectly in its description to America, and unknown in those early days to any but the Aryans, that an interest for this country is being felt among the members of the Samajes. But, as we explained the origin, development and doctrines of the spiritual philosophy to our friends, and especially the modus operandi of the medium, i.e., the communion of the spirits of the departed with living men and women, whose organisms the former use as modes of communication, the horror of our listeners was unequaled and undisguised in each case. “Communion with bhuts!” they exclaimed. “Communion with souls that have become wicked demons, to whom we are ready to offer sacrifices in food and drink to pacify them and make them leave us quiet, but who never come but to disturb the peace of families; whose presence is a pollution! What pleasure or comfort can the Bellati (white foreigners) find in communicating with them?” Thus I repeat most emphatically that not only are there, so to say, no Spiritualists in India, as we understand the term, but affirm and declare that the very suggestion of our so-called “spirit intercourse” is obnoxious to most of them—that is to say, to the oldest people in the world, people who have known all about the phenomena thousands upon thousands of years. Is this fact nothing to us, who have just begun to see the wonders of mediumship? Ought we to estimate our cleverness at so high a figure as to make us refuse to take instruction from these Orientals, who have seen their holy men—nay, even their gods and demons and the spirits of the elements—performing “miracles” since the remotest antiquity? Have we so perfected a philosophy of our own that we can compare it with that of India, which explains every mystery and triumphantly demonstrates the nature of every phenomenon? It would be worth our while—believe me—to ask Hindu help, if it were but to prove, better than we can now, to the materialist and skeptical science, that, whatever may be the true theory as to the agencies—the phenomena, whether Biblical or Vedic, Christian or heathen, are in the natural order of this world, and have a first claim to scientific investigation. Let us first prove the existence of the sphinx to the profane, and afterwards we may try to unriddle its mysteries. Spiritualists will always have time enough to refute “antiquated” notions by the logic of their new theories, and spirits to measure their strength with the mystical “elementals” of old. Truth is eternal, and however long trampled down will always come out the brighter in the expiring twilight of superstition. But in one sense we are perfectly warranted to apply the name of Spiritualists to the Hindus. Opposed as they are to physical phenomena as produced by the bhuts, or unsatisfied souls of the departed, and to the possession by them of mediumistic persons, they still accept with joy those consoling evidences of the continued interest in themselves of a departed father or mother. In the subjective phenomena of dreams, in visions of clairvoyance or trance, brought on by the powers of holy men, they welcome the spirits of their beloved ones, and often receive from them important directions and advice. . . .
If agreeable to your readers, I will devote a series of letters to the phenomena taking place in India, explaining them as I proceed.3 I sincerely hope that the old experience of American Spiritualists, massing in threatening force against iconoclastic Theosophists and their “superannuated” ideas, will not be repeated; for my offer is perfectly impartial and friendly. It is with no desire to either teach new doctrines or carry on an unwelcome Hindu propaganda that I make it; but simply to supply material for comparison and study to the Spiritualists who think.
H. P. Blavatsky.
Bombay, July, 1879.
1. For the meaning of the word Pralaya see Vol. II. of Isis Unveiled. I am happy to say, that notwithstanding the satirical criticisms upon its Vedic and Buddhistic portions by some American “would-be” Orientalists, Swami Dayânand and the Rev. Sumangala of Ceylon, respectively the representatives of Vedic and Buddhistic scholarship and literature in India, the first, the best Sanskrit and the other the most eminent Pali scholar, both expressed their entire satisfaction with the correctness of my esoteric explanations of their respective religions. Isis Unveiled is now being translated into Marathi and Hindi in India, and into Pali in Ceylon.
2. Yogis and ascetics are not the only examples of such protracted fastings: for if these can be doubted and sometimes utterly rejected by skeptical science as void of any conclusive proof, for the phenomenon takes place in remote and inaccessible places, we have many of the Jainas—inhabitants of populated towns—to bring forward as exemplars of the same. Many of them fast, abstaining even from one drop of water for forty days at a time—and survive always.
3. [Note: this proposal was apparently not followed through with.]