Table of Contents

Previous Chapter

Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
Table of Contents

Next Chapter

--- 147 ---

Chapter 6: Buddhism and India

          Whilst staying in Colombo with HPB and Colonel Olcott, Leabeater was presented to the leading Buddhist scholar Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero, High Priest of The Peak and of Galle, and Principal of the Widyodaya Monks College at Maradana. [1]  On an earlier visit to Ceylon both HPB and Olcott had mado public professions of the Buddhist faith and had been formally received into that religion.   Now HPB asked Leadbeater to do likewise:

          " ...she thought that, as I was a Christian priest, the open acceptance of a great oriental religion would go far to convince both Hindus and Buddhists of my bona fides, and would enable me to be far more useful in working among them for our Masters." [2]

          Assured by HPB that this would not involve the renunciation of what she defined as "the true Christian faith", the arrangements were made for Leadbeater to be presented to the High Priest for the ceremony.

          In the garden of the Buddhist College, Leadbeater repeated the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts of Buddhism in the presence of Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thero, and became a Buddhist:


--- 148 ---

          I reverence the Blessed One, the Holy One, the

          Perfect in Wisdom....

          I take the Lord Buddha as my guide.

          I take His Law as my guide;

          I take His Order as my guide...

          (1) I observe the precept to refrain from the destruction of life.

          (2) I observe the precept to refrain from taking that which is not mine.

          (3) I observe the precept to refrain from unlawful sexual intercourse.

          (4) I observe the precept to refrain from falsehood.

          (5) I observe the precept to refrain from using intoxicating liquors or stupefying drugs. [3]

          HPB saw it as a personal triumph, and wrote:

          "I sent for the High Priest of the Buddhists and introduced the English parson Theosophist to him;  I proclaimed in the hearing of everyone that he was to enter Buddhism.  He blushed but was not greatly disturbed, for he had seriously made up his mind to do it, and in the evening a solemn


--- 149 ---

ceremony was performed on the shore in the temple of Buddha.  The parson Theosophist uttered the pansil (les cinq preceptes);  a lock of his hair was cut from his head;  to become a Buddhist and a novice - I was revenged." [41]

          Although Leadbeater may not have Interpreted this as a rejection of Christianity, he did write to the Secretary of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament in London resigning his membership, and giving as the reason the fact that he had become a Buddhist. [5]

          After a day or two in Colombo, the Navarino continued on its voyages and eventually arrived in Madras, after considerable difficulties in landing due to a heavy swell necessitating the use of small boats to put the passengers ashore.  As she was being winched off the ship in a chair, HPB used language which Leadbeater recalled "rather surprised even the hardened officials".   Eventually they set foot on Indian soil.  Thousands of people were present to greet them, including members of the TS and hundreds of local people who regarded HPB as a heroine for her attacks on the local missionaries.  HPB's party was transported in a cart pulled by enthusiastic Indians, and travelled to the Hall of Pachiappas College;  the latter part of the journey was in car provided by the local Maharaja.  Addresses of


--- 150 ---

welcome were delivered, including one by a Mr Gyanendranath Chakravarti, whose eloquence and charm surprised and impressed Leadbeater. [6]  Colonel Olcott and HPB replied to the speeches:

          "[HPB] began very well by saying how touched she was by this enthusiastic reception, and how it showed her what she had always known, that the people of India would not accept tamely these vile, cowardly, loathsome and utterly abominable slanders, circulated by these unspeakable - but here she became so vigorously adjectival that the Colonel hurriedly intervened, and somehow persuaded her to resume her seat, while he called upon an Indian member to offer a few remarks." [7]

          At the end of what Leadbeater described as "almost interminable proceedings", they departed for Adyar, where yet another reception awaited them. [8]

          It was on December 21st, 1884, that Leadbeater arrived at the headquarters of the TS at Adyar, an estate which had been purchased by HPB and Olcott on May 31st, 1882.  A nominal price of six hundred pounds had been asked since the recent opening of the railway to the Nilgiri Hills, a popular holiday centre for government officials,


--- 151 ---

had caused property values in Madras to fall.  The original estate consisted of some twenty-eight acres, with a main building on south bank of the Adyar river and a number of outbuildings.  The estate was covered in rich tropical vegetation, including mangoes, banyan trees and a plantation of casuarinas.  In 1883 Colonel Olcott had begun a series of improvements to the buildings.  A library building, with an outer wall bearing panels with sculptured elephants' heads, was the first major addition. [9]

          The main house, "of the ordinary Anglo-Indian type", provided most of the living accommodation:

          "When I first saw it, it possessed on the ground floor a square central hall, on each side of which were two comfortable rooms.  At the back of the hall was a sort of ante-chamber, evidently intended to be the main drawing-room, which ran almost the whole length or the house and opened out on to a broad terrace overlooking the Adyar River.  That room was being used as the office for the Recording Secretary of the Society and the Manager of The Theosophist, and we also kept there our little store of books for sale, out of the nucleus of which has grown the extensive business of the Theosophical Publishing House.  As is usual


--- 152 ---

in India, the whole of the house was covered by a flat cemented roof." [10]

          HPB occupied a room constructed for her on the roof, and Olcott lived in one of the pavilions in the garden on the eastern side of the main building.  Dr Franz Hartman occupied the other room in the pavilion. [11]   When HPB and her party arrived, the accommodation on the estate was virtually fully occupied, and Leadbeater spent his first few nights on a settee in the Colonel's room.  But no inconvenience mattered, for living at Adyar was the fulfilment of a dream for him:

          " ...what it was for me to find myself at last upon the sacred soil of India, among dark-skinned brothers of whom I had heard so much - any one of whom might, for all I knew, be a pupil of one of our holy Masters - all of whom, I thought, must at any rate have been from childhood students of the Sacred Lore, knowing far more about it all than we Westerners could know." [12]

          Leadbeater had arrived in time for the annual Convention of the TS for 1884.  Each year in December a large gathering of Theosophists met at Adyar, or, in later years, sometimes at Benares, for lectures and meetings.  In 1884 the


--- 153 ---

Convention was held in a huge temporary hall, known as a pandal, with walls and roof of palm leaves. [13]  Much of the convention was devoted to discussions about appropriate ways of responding to the allegations of fraud against HPB, charges made by former employees of the Estate, and members of the TS, and propagated by hostile Christian missionaries.  Much to HPB's indignation, the Convention decided against the prosecution of the defamers on the grounds that it would bring the TS and its doctrine of the Masters into public ridicule, and, as Olcott argued, resolve itself into

          "a trial of the Esoteric Philosophy and of the existence of the Mahatmas, and, as these subjects are the most sacred, not only to Hindus, but to occultists of all religions... the prospect is shocking to their feelings." [14]

          The Convention also heard the Colonel's proposal to erect a Parthenon to house portraits of all the Founders of the World Religions, and listened to speeches from Mrs Cooper-Oakley and Baron Ernest von Weber, President of the German League Against Scientific Cruelty.  A Committee was formed, under the leadership of the Colonel, to receive and transmit teachings from the Masters, and the Masters, so the Convention was told, agreed to establish a parallel committee of their own chelas, to give out material through


--- 154 ---

T. Subba Row and Damodar K. Mavalankar. [15]  The TS Committee consisted of the Colonel, HPB, T Subba Row, Damodar, A. J. Cooper-Oakley, Mrs Cooper-Oakley, and S. Ramaswami Iyer. [16]

          While staying at Adyar Leadbeater saw and heard many things which further convinced him of the reality of the Masters.  One night, when sleeping in the Colonel's room, he was woken in the middle of the night by the presence of a tall figure carrying a lantern;  this surprised him, since the door of the pavilion had been locked.

          I half raised myself in bed, but as I saw that the visitor had aroused the Colonel, who apparently recognized him, I sank back reassured.  After a few minutes of earnest conversation the figure suddenly vanished - which was the first intimation to me that he was not an ordinary physical plane visitant." [17]

          The Colonel immediately went back to sleep, and Leadbeater did likewise, but the following morning told Olcott what he had seen.

          "He informed me that the messenger was Djwal Kul - now a member of the Great Brotherhood, but then


--- 155 ---

the principal pupil and lieutenant of the Master Kuthumi - the same whom I had already seen in the Hotel d'Orient at Cairo, though in this case the light was not strong enough to enable me to recognize him." [18]

          And, later, Leadbeater met KH himself on the flat roof of the headquarters building, outside HPB's room.  Leadbeater was on the roof, casually looking towards the balustrade running round the edge of the building

          "when the Master materialized in the very act of stepping over the balustrade, as though He had previously been floating through the air.  Naturally I rushed forward and prostrated myself before Him;  He raised me with a kindly smile, saying that though such demonstrations of reverence were the custom among the Indian peoples, He did not expect them from His European devotees, and He thought that perhaps there would be less possibility of any feeling of embarrassment if each nation confined itself to its own methods of salutation." [19]

          Apart from this brief lesson in occult etiquette, KH did not say anything more.


--- 156 ---

          Shortly after the end of the Convention, Leadbeater accompanied Olcott to Burma, sailing to Rangoon on a vessel, the Asia, the captain of which was Leadbeater's old school friend who first told him of HPB.  Their visit to Burma was at the invitation of the king, Thebaw III. [20]  After their arrival in Rangoon, they set about introducing Theosophy to the Burmese, Olcott lecturing both on Theosophy and one of his specialities, Mesmerism. [21]   A sudden urgent telegram from Adyar, announcing that HPB was seriously ill, summoned Olcott back to headquarters, and left Leadbeater to carry on the work.  With some trepidation he took the lectures, discussions and meetings, fearing that he lacked the Colonel's "ready wit and facility of exposition".

          HPB was gravely ill, and hope for her recovery had largely been given up.  However, whilst Olcott was with her at Adyar, one of the Masters visited her, and, as had happened on other occasions, gave her the choice of giving up her work and her old, sick body, or of continuing to do another piece of work for the Masters.   She decided to continue her work, and made an immediate recovery, so much so that Olcott felt he could safely return to Burma and continue his work there.

          During the period in which Leadbeater and Olcott


--- 157 ---

were in Burma, three separate branches of the TS were established there, and they toured the country, lecturing and visiting the great Buddhist shrines.  They also met with the Chief Abbot of Mandalay, and the Roman Catholic Vicar Apostolic of Southern Burma, Bishop Bigandet.  Having been told that the King was an exceedingly bad character, "a debauched tyrant, a monster of vice and cruelty", and that his reason for inviting them was curiosity to see white Buddhists, they cancelled their tour of northern Burma, which was to have included an audience with the King in Mandalay.  A planned tour of lower Burma, Assam and Bengal was cancelled when news of HPB's renewed illness came from Adyar, and they hurriedly returned to India.

          They arrived to find the Adyar estate in a condition of crisis;  although the Convention had decided that no libel action should be initiated against those making accusations of fraud against HPB, there was still considerable dissension amongst the members.  Additional dissatisfaction had been aroused over the management of the estate, then totally in the hands of Olcott as President.  Olcott and Leadbeater reached Adyar on March 19th, and by the 21st the situation had deteriorated to such a condition that HPB resigned her position as Corresponding Secretary and prepared to return to Europe.  She sailed from India on the 31st, accompanied by Dr Hartmann, and never returned.


--- 158 ---

The popular rumour that she was a Russian spy - which had followed her for years - was given credence by this move, and her enemies immediately spread abroad the story that she was fleeing because of imminent war in Afghanistan. [22]

          Olcott, alarmed by the dissension and controversy, decided to change the form of administration of the Society, and appointed an Executive Committee which, with him, would govern it.  Amongst the eight members were two Europeans, Leadbeater, who acted as secretary, and Mr Cooper-Oakley.   The Committee operated for several months, but eventually faded away.

          In May, Olcott left for another lecture tour, visiting various centres in southern India.  Leadbeater remained at Adyar, filling the office of Recording Secretary

          "principally because it allowed me to stay in the centre of the movement where I knew that our Masters frequently showed Themselves in materialized forms." [23]

          He also looked after the book depot, and acted as manager of The Theosophist in succession to Damodar, who left Adyar on February 23rd to travel to Tibet at his Master's command,


--- 159 ---

and was never seen again. [24]  Leadbeater discovered that his predecessor had "lived entirely on higher planes [so] that he had actually had no time for the physical" and had therefore neglected the more mundane duties of his administrative office, leaving huge piles of unanswered correspondence.

          Leadbeater settled down to the task of organizing the chaos, answering the letters, and fulfilling the other, rather dull duties of his new work.  He eagerly anticipated the appearance of the Masters, for whom he had travelled to India.  It was not a long wait.


Table of Contents

Previous Chapter

Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
Table of Contents

Next Chapter