Seventeen Years Ago and Now
The Path, November, 1892
In November, 1875—seventeen years ago—the Inaugural Address of Col. Henry S. Olcott as President of the Theosophical Society was delivered at Mott Memorial Hall in the City of New York. The members present included a great many who have since abandoned our ranks. The spiritualists were perhaps in the majority on that day, but they soon retired. Col. Olcott remains in the same office; the Secretary of the meeting, Bro. John Storer Cobb, is yet a member in Boston; but H. P. Blavatsky, who then as afterwards was really the central figure, has for the present left this life. The first great change, then, between seventeen years ago and now is the removal from the scene of the personage who for so long was the pivot of the whole movement. The other differences are in the geographical distribution of Branch Societies, our status both in workers and means for accomplishing our work, the increase of members, and the sphere as well as the depth of the influence wielded by the Society and the literature bearing its name.
Until H. P. B. and Col. Olcott went to India in 1879 the Society was confined to New York, with a few scattered members in India and other foreign lands. The foreign diplomas and those given in America were for a long time engrossed by hand, and among the first European members were some in Corfu, Greece. But upon the advent of the two pioneers in Asia Branches sprang up there, and in England the London Lodge was started by Mr. A. P. Sinnett. For some time the centre of activity was in Asia, because there, in a nation which had been for centuries under the heel of a conqueror, the pioneers were working to gain its confidence in order that the influence of the mysterious and distant East might react upon the West and enable us to bring to light again important religious and philosophical truths. This reaction came, and manifesting itself first in America with full force, a host of Branches began to arise in different cities throughout the United States, until now they number over sixty, reaching to California, entering Canada and British Columbia, and running down to New Orleans.
The so-called “Coulomb expose” in Madras resulted in H. P. B.’s coming again to Europe, where she settled down in London and once more became, even in old age, the centre of an active propaganda. This last outburst of the same energy and force which were manifested at New York in 1875 led to the founding of the Blavatsky Lodge, now having over four-hundred members, the inclusion among the workers of such a well-known, active, and sincere woman as Annie Besant, to the foundation of many lodges throughout Europe, and at last to the formation of the European Section.
Thus in seventeen years the whole movement spread itself over the globe, with three principal official centres, in India, Europe, and America.
December, 1878, witnessed the departure of H. P. B. and Col. Olcott from New York, leaving not more than three persons who could carry on any official work here, although there were quite a number of members in the country. The movement was still so young that it was weak, but one book had appeared which was distinctively its own. That was Isis Unveiled. This was the forerunner of many another. Upon reaching the hospitable shores of India the two pioneers founded the Theosophist, which began to emit article after article from the pens of both editors as well as from those of more or less learned Hindus. In it also appeared those articles called Fragments of Occult Truth—which were afterwards embodied in Esoteric Buddhism. Today, instead of having but Isis Unveiled, we have a long list of works all distinctively Theosophical and creating almost a new language for the needs of a very metaphysical philosophy. Humbler workers arose too on every hand. At first Damodar K. Mavalankar at the Indian Headquarters, then others in Europe and elsewhere. Today the sun never sets on the labors of those devoted men and women who in the face of every obstacle diligently work for the movement which was laughed at in 1875, so that now when the busy Theosophist lays the work aside in India it is taken up in Europe to be carried forward in New York, travelling with the light across the wide United States, until upon the Pacific Slope the band of devotees hands it over again to the lands beyond the Western sea. Yet, strange to say, this is all done without wealth but with nearly empty purses. We thus have to our hand organized Branches, smoothly working Sections, many books to offer enquirers, pamphlets and leaflets uncountable, magazines at all the centres in English and other languages, everywhere activity and energy, while all with one accord must draw their chief inspiration from the life, the labors, and the words of that wonderful and still but faintly understood woman, Helena P. Blavatsky.
A handful of members but seventeen years ago-today enrolled friends of the movement in every land on the planet.
When the Society began its work but little attention was paid to psychical research except among the spiritualists, and that continued in a rut made some forty years before: it was profitless; it represented an immense opportunity unused. The world of science, and those whose thoughts are affected by science, thought hardly at all about the psychic nature of man. General literature was devoid of it. The great and ancient doctrines of Karma and Reincarnation were unknown to our people, all reference to them being rare and fugitive. Today the literature of the West is full of all these things, and “Theosophy” has become a word so familiar that it can be found even in our humorous publications, a sure sign that it has ceased to be unknown. When such a weekly as Harper’s prints a column about the shrine in London for the ashes of H.P.B., illustrating it with a picture reproduced from the photograph brought from Europe by the General Secretary, we can see what extension the influence of our labors has had.
H.P.B. and her teachers declared in 1875 that the age, in the West, was about to swing back from a materialism “which enthroned scepticism while it destroyed spirituality,” and an effort had to be made to furnish the only philosophy which would prevent a return to dogmatism or superstition by giving a rational explanation to the race mind now about to put questions that science is yet unable to answer and the churches had never pretended needed any reply save a reference to the mercy or the favor of God. This satisfying system of philosophy was once more brought out from its place of preservation, and today it brings comfort to many who without it would be forced to blaspheme against nature. Nothing but the influence of these doctrines could have raised up on every hand men and women who without money or hope of fame work on for the real man who is mind and not body. The sphere of influence of the Society is, then, not so much in works of a material character, where physical wants are supplied for the moment and the real man left to his own devices for the perpetuation of a civilization that breeds poverty and a criminal class, but is in the field of man’s real nature, which lasts through crash of civilization or cataclysm of nature. Its depth therefore is measurable only by a plummet which touches the depths beyond today. It will be known in its entirety when the present centre of eternity shall have moved itself into the far-distant future and become a new present, a glorious reincarnation.