Table of Contents Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
Table of Contents
Chapter 4: Introduction to Theosophy
In 1883 Leadbeater met an old school friend who had become the captain of a vessel of the British India Steam Navigation Company, and was told a curious story. In 1879 this man had been the second officer on a steamer which carried Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a remarkable Russian woman who had been the co-founder of the Theosophical Society, from Bombay to Calcutta, and he had met her. HPB, as she was almost universally known to disciples and enemies alike, startled the second officer with two phenomena for which he could offer no natural explanation. First, she struck a match and lit a cigarette in a howling gale, and, second, she accurately predicted that he would be appointed a captain when they reached Calcutta. Leadbeater was naturally interested in these stories, but he had not previously heard of Theosophy, and had no idea of how he could contact this mysterious lady. 
But later in 1883, by one of those strange coincidences that Jung called synchronicity, and Leadbeater would later attribute to the Masters, he received a catalogue of secondhand books, which included The Occult World, by A.P. Sinnett.  Leadbeater ordered the book and read it with interest. The book was dedicated to "the Mahatma Koothoomi", and included chapters on occultism and
--- 113 ---
the adepts, the Theosophical Society, the teachings of occult philosophy, and an account of the phenomena, including the materialization of a cup and saucer, which had occurred in the presence of H.P.B. 
The book began with a remarkable claim:
"There is a school of philosophy still in existence of which modern culture has lost sight." 
and commented tantalizingly:
"The whole edifice of occultism from basement to roof is so utterly strange to ordinary conceptions that it is difficult to know how to begin an explanation of the contents." (5)
It presented a clear direction to those who wanted to pursue the path of this "utterly strange" philosophy:
" ...the Theosophical Society remains the one organization which supplies to enquirers who thirst for occult knowledge a link of communication, however slight, with the great fraternity in the background which takes an interest in its progress, and is accessible to its
--- 114 ---
The book also made references to the letters A.P. Sinnett had received from the Mahatmas, or Masters, implying that communication with them by quite ordinary means, and without the need for moving tables or seance rooms, was possible. 
Leadbeater was fascinated, and eager to join the Theosophical Society. Reading Sinnett's account of H.P.B. he was more inclined to believe the stories, having had what he believed to have been "strong first-hand evidence" of her phenomenal powers from his friend. He was anxious to know more about her. He did not then have the benefit of all the biographies, passionately favourable and violently hostile, which were subsequently written.  A remarkable woman whatever one may think of her, HPB cannot be summarized in a few words. Much of her life remains, as she would no doubt have wished it, surrounded by controversy and mystery.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) was born at Yekaterinoslav in the Ukraine on July 30, 1831, the daughter of Colonel Peter Hahn. She received no regular education. On July 7, 1848, she married General Nikifor Blavatsky, Vice-Governor of Erivan, and some twenty years her senior. The history of this marriage and its subsequent ending is
uncertain, but it seems that HPB left the General after little more than three months to begin a career of travel and adventure, the history of which is even less certain. Her early life, like that of Leadbeater, was described as "mysterious" - a time of secret occult development according to her pupils, and a time of partially hidden debauch and immorality according to her detractors. Separating fact from fantasy is difficult; her own accounts are not always consistent and her disciples and her enemies vie with one another to produce exciting explanations.
It does seem certain, however, that around 1858 she was converted to spiritualism whilst in Paris, where she met Daniel Home.  She returned to Russia briefly before continuing her travels, including, if one believes the story, a time in the home of the Masters, Tibet. 
She arrived in the USA in 1874. Spiritualism was then coming in to fashion, and the fashion was nowhere apparent than at a farmhouse in Vermont, where the Eddy family had established themselves as practitioners of the mysterious arts. Amongst those investigating the phenomena was Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), an expert on agricultural chemistry and a lawyer, who was writing on spiritualism for the New York Daily Graphic and HPB's meeting with him on October 14, 1874, marked a change of
--- 116 ---
direction in her previously random wanderings.  The Colonel and HPB eventually settled in New York, where HPB married again (bigamously, one presumes, since General Blavatsky was still alive ) for reasons connected, so she said, with her karma.
In the same year the Colonel, a rank attained in non-combatant service during the American civil war, published People From the Other World, and he received a letter from the mysterious "Brotherhood of Luxor".  This was but the beginning of a long series of occult communications. In September, 1875, HPB suggested the establishment of a Society for the discussion of things occult and psychical, and the Theosophical Society was born.  Its original object was:
" ...to collect and diffuse a knowledge of the laws which govern the universe," 
and by 1878 this had expanded to:
" ...to acquire an intimate knowledge of natural law ...to develop [man's] latent power[s] ...exemplify the highest morality and religious aspirations... to make known among western nations... facts about oriental religious
philosophies... disseminate a knowledge of that pure esoteric system of the archaic period, and, finally, and chiefly, to aid in the institution of a Brotherhood of Humanity... of every race." 
By 1881 the objects had been revised to virtually what they are today:
"1. To form the Nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity.
"2. To study Aryan literature, religion and science.
"3. To vindicate the importance of this enquiry and correct misrepresentations with which it has been clouded.
"4. To explore the hidden mysteries cf Nature and the latent powers of Man, on which the Founders believe that Oriental Philosophy is in a position to throw light." 
The birth of the Society encouraged the writing of HPB's first major literary effort, the two volumes of Isis Unveiled, subtitled "A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology".  It was published on September 27, 1877, the two volumes sweepingly titled, "I. Science", and "II. Theology". It received
generally bad reviews, but criticisms - and suggestions that the work had been largely plagiarized - did not deter a small but growing band of disciples coming to sit at HPB's feet in "The Lamasery", as the residence she shared with Colonel Olcott in New York was called. In July, 1878, HPB became an American citizen, and in January, 1879, she and the Colonel arrived in London.
The Theosophical Society established its English headquarters in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum. Within a few weeks HPB and the Colonel departed for India, and, on May 25, 1880, in a temple in Ceylon, both took pansil, that is, became Buddhists.  The following year A.P. Sinnett's book The Occult World was published in London, and attracted further interest in the Theosophical Society and its founders.  Seeking a world headquarters for the new Society in the mystic east, HPB and the Colonel purchased Huddlestone's Gardens, a twenty-seven acre estate in Adyar near Madras. Thereafter, they departed from India early in 1884, and returned to London via France.
The Theosophical Society, although theoretically free from doctrine and working for research and the promotion of brotherhood, quickly developed its own philosophical bases, essentially deriving from HPB's writings and teachings. These, of course, were said to have
--- 119 ---
their origin in the "Ancient Wisdom", underlying all religions, and in the teachings of the Masters or Mahatmas, advanced Beings with access to information and sources of knowledge denied to ordinary men and women in the world, who constituted the Inner Government of the World. These Beings were said to sometimes select pupils in the world for the purpose of reviving knowledge of the Ancient Wisdom, and HPB was proclaimed, initially by herself and later by her disciples, to be one such person. She produced teachings and messages supposedly coming from the Masters; letters were received by various of her colleagues and acquaintances
purporting to be communications from the Masters. The origin of such messages was the centre of great controversy in HPB's lifetime, and throughout the later history of the Society.
Although the teachings of Theosophy developed and changed even within Blavatsky's lifetime, certain key themes appear to have remained constant, and continued even in the versions of Theosophy presented by later teachers, like Leadbeater. These included monism (as opposed to dualism), an oriental concept of emanation and evolution (and eventual re-absorption into the divine) rather than creation and continuing separation of the creation from the creator, with life perceived as manifesting in and evolving through forms including the mineral, vegetable, animal and human. The
--- 120 ---
manifestation and evolution of life was believed to occur through many lifetimes (that is, reincarnation), in different forms, on different planets, and in different races and civilizations. Present manifestations are the consequence of previous lives; this is usually described as the working of karma, a law of the universe in which cause manifests in effect. Forms of life manifest on a number of planes of existence, of which the physical is but one. Man exists, and has "bodies" which function on other planes.
The evolutionary scheme presupposes higher and lower, or more advanced and less advanced, manifestations, including human beings. High in the evolutionary scheme are the Masters or mahatmas, some of whom constitute a spiritual government of the world, and may become teachers or gurus to pupils in the world. The founders of all the great world religions, which are seen, in varying degrees, to express spiritual truth, or Theosophy, were Masters. Theosophy, or the "ancient wisdom", is understood to be less a religion, in the conventional sense of something to be believed in, than to be a science, that is, a system stating the facts of the nature of the cosmos. It has traditionally been revealed either by Masters to their pupils, or by those whose spiritual development has led to the opening of spiritual (or what would probably be called, outside Theosophy, psychic) faculties of perception. 
--- 121 ---
However, in 1883, Leadbeater knew little of Theosophy, and still less of HPB and her Masters. Sinnett concluded The Occult World with the suggestion that those who found interest in what he had written should join the Theosophical Society (known, in keeping with the penchant for initials, as the TS). But he gave no address to which prospective members could write. His reference to a branch in London was equally unhelpful since the Post Office directory contained no reference to it. Leadbeater enquired of his friends, but none of them had any knowledge of the Society.
However, some time later Leadbeater journeyed to Scotland to gather more evidence of second-sight amongst Highlanders and, whilst staying at a hotel, he came across a small pamphlet published by a spiritualist group which included an announcement about the London Lodge of the Society. It mentioned that the President of the Lodge was Dr Anna Kingsford (1846-1888), and that she was the wife of a West Country vicar.  Leadbeater immediately wrote to Dr Kingsford seeking information, and received a printed pamphlet in reply.
"It was some time before I received a reply, for, as it transpired afterwards, Dr Kingsford was away
--- 122 ---
on the continent for a holiday; and even when it arrived it proved only to be only a printed circular - very beautifully printed, however, with much of silver about it. But it gave me the information I wanted - the address of the Secretary in London, and it further told me that in order to join the Society I must be proposed and seconded by two members." 
Leadbeater responded by writing to the Secretary, Mr Kirby, saying that he did not know any members of the Society who could nominate him, but he wanted to join.  After a considerable delay, Kirby replied suggesting that Leadbeater might call upon Mr Sinnett or a Mr G.B. Finch, so Leadbeater immediately wrote to Sinnett, who suggested he go up to London to visit him. 
Leadbeater was appropriately impressed by the Theosophical author, whose work the two men spent much time discussing. But an obstacle lay in the way to Leadbeater's membership of the Society:
"The more I heard of Theosophy the more anxious I became to learn all that could be told to me; but when I spoke of joining the Theosophical Society, Mr Sinnett became very grave and opined that that
--- 123 ---
would hardly do, seeing I was a clergyman. I wondered why the Society should discriminate against members of the cloth; and at last I ventured timidly to put the question. Mr Sinnett replied: 'Well, you see, we are in the habit of discussing every subject and every belief from the beginning, without any preconceptions at all; and I am afraid that at our meetings you would be likely to hear a great deal that would shock you profoundly.'" 
Leadbeater reassured Sinnett on that point, recalling his investigations into the supernatural, and mentioning that he had already attended some of Mrs Annie Besant's lectures at the Hall of Science in London. Mrs Besant was not at that time a member of the TS, which she joined in May, 1889, but was already a controversial speaker on unorthodox themes, and from 1874 onwards had been lecturing on Free Thought, sectarianism, rationalism, socialism and atheism.  Leadbeater suggested that he thought it unlikely that any members of the Society could say anything that would shock him. He assured Sinnett that he was "that kind of clergyman". Sinnett "partially thawed", and then suggested that they would have a "peculiar pleasure" in admitting a clergyman to membership, but that the matter would have to be considered by the Council. So Leadbeater returned to his
--- 124 ---
parish to await their decision.
Within a week the reply came. The Council agreed to his admission and Sinnett was prepared to nominate him, and suggested that he call upon Mr Finch who would, in all probability, be prepared to second the nomination. Thus Leadbeater was duly nominated and seconded, and finally accepted. And he then received notification that his initiation would take place at Mr Sinnett's residence, and attended the house on February 21, 1884. His application of membership was dated November 20, 1883, and the record of his membership kept by the London Lodge noted that he had been elected to membership on December 16 of that year.  His entry was number 2530 on the roll of members kept by the Recording Secretary at Adyar.
Leadbeater's initiation into the TS took place in distinguished company: Professor William Crookes (1832-1919) and his wife were initiated on the same occasion, and their distinguished presence greatly impressed Leadbeater, who knew Crookes as the discoverer of thallium, the inventor of the radiometer, and the "apostle of radiant matter".  Crookes was also noted as an investigator of psychical phenomena, in which area he achieved a marked degree of
--- 125 ---
The occasion of the initiation was a solemn one:
"To join the Theosophical Society in those days was a somewhat formidable undertaking. We found Mrs Sinnett's drawing room crowded to excess, the assembly was in fact overflowing on to the landing and a little way up the stairs. I suppose there may have been some two hundred people present, including some who bore very distinguished names - such as Professor Myers, C.C. Massey, Stainton Moses and others. We three were planted together upon a sofa in the midst of the crowd, and Mr Sinnett after delivering a homily upon the objects and works of the Society, duly communicated to use a series of signs and passwords by means of which we were able to recognize our fellow members in any part of the world." 
Thereafter Leadbeater attended almost all meetings of the London Lodge, usually spending the night with the Sinnetts before travelling by train back to Bramshott. His Theosophical career had begun.
Having now heard of the Masters or Mahatmas, the mysterious beings who were said to constitute the inner group of the TS, Leadbeater was anxious to make contact with
them.  In the course of his investigations into spiritualism he had been attending a series of seances with William Eglinton (1857-1933) . Eglinton was a leading exponent of slate writing, a technique popular for a time, in which a sealed slate would have a message written on it during a seance, even though the slate was supposedly inaccessible to human agents.  Eglinton had previously provided more spectacular phenomena in the form of levitation and materializations, once being - so it was claimed - "translated" from one room to another during a seance. He had travelled widely during his spiritualist career, visiting South Africa, Scandanavia, Germany and India. In Calcutta he met HPB and Colonel Olcott, although for some reason he later denied this. Eglinton was initially sceptical about Masters and Mahatmas, but became convinced when one of his spirit controls affirmed their existence and instructed Eglinton to work for them. Eglinton had a number of "controls" - Ernest, Daisy (oddly enough, a Red Indian), Abdullah and others. Eglinton also joined the London Lodge of the TS in 1884.
During one of his seances with Leadbeater, the "control" Ernest mentioned the "Masters of the Wisdom" and Leadbeater immediately enquired further. Ernest said he could take a letter to the Masters, and accordingly Leadbeater wrote a letter to the Master KH (that is,
Koothoomi), one of the better known of the Theosophical Masters, asking the Master to accept him as a pupil. He also enquired whether it was necessary, as Theosophical belief then held, for him to spend seven years of probation in India prior to his acceptance as the pupil of a Master. The letter was placed in an envelope, and sealed; this envelope was then placed in another envelope, with a letter to the spirit Ernest reminding of his undertaking to deliver the letter, and this was placed into another envelope which, with a letter to Eglinton, was placed into yet another envelope and posted to the medium. The seals of all the envelopes were "examined microscopically" by a friend of Leadbeater's to eliminate the possibility of fraud.
By return mail came a letter from Eglinton announcing that the envelope marked for Ernest had duly disappeared. A few days later an envelope addressed in a hand unknown to Leadbeater was delivered at Bramshott. On opening it, he found his own envelope addressed to Ernest, with that name crossed out and his own written underneath it. The seal was intact. On opening the letter to Ernest, Leadbeater found that his letter to KH had vanished and the letter addressed to Ernest had a few words written underneath its original text informing him that his letter to the Master had been delivered, and that a reply might be received. Once again, the seals were intact.
--- 128 ---
Meanwhile, Leadbeater had plenty to occupy his time. His work in the parish cannot have been demanding for he had begun to work enthusiastically for the TS. Sinnett had been receiving hundreds of letters enquiring about Theosophy, and was unable to answer them. He suggested, in response to Leadbeater's request for some practical work to do, that he take charge of the correspondence. There was not a great deal of literature on Theosophy then available: Mr Sinnett's The Occult World, together with HPB's Isis Unveiled and Dr Kingsland's The Perfect Way.  So in response Leadbeater had to write at length in longhand. He had, of course, read all the books available on Theosophy, together with a great many on spiritualism, psychical research and the supernatural. He took the accumulated mass of letters back to his parish: he noted that in the first batch there were four hundred and thirty-seven. Allowing himself only four hours sleep a night, he wrote reply after reply in his neat laborious handwriting. Naturally, these replies occasioned further enquiries and so a large-scale work of correspondence was established. Writing letters on Theosophy occupied most of his time thereafter, but it was work which he enjoyed, and he found it more rewarding than the dull routine of parish life. He possessed a fluent, easy style and considerable skill in communicating the ideas of Theosophy, and settled happily into what was to prove the
--- 129 ---
beginning of a career as a Theosophical teacher.
But he was still awaiting a reply from KH.