Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society/Statement and Conclusions of the Committee
1. Statement and Conclusions of the Committee.
In May, 1884, the Council of the Society for Psychical Research appointed a Committee for the purpose of taking such evidence as to the alleged phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society as might be offered by members of that body at the time in England, or as could be collected elsewhere.
The Committee consisted of the following members, with power to add to their number:—Messrs. E. Gurney, F. W. H. Myers, F. Podmore, H. Sidgwick, and J. H. Stack. They have since added Mr. R. Hodgson and Mrs. H. Sidgwick to their number.
For the convenience of Members who may not have followed the progress of the Theosophical Society, a few words of preliminary explanation may be added here.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York, in 1875, by Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, ostensibly for certain philanthropic and literary purposes. Its headquarters were removed to India in 1878, and it made considerable progress among the Hindus and other educated natives. "The Occult World," by Mr. Sinnett, at that time editor of the Pioneer, introduced the Society to English readers, and that work, which dealt mainly with phenomena, was succeeded by "Esoteric Buddhism", in which some tenets of the Occult doctrine, or so-called "Wisdom-religion", were set forth. But with these doctrines the Committee have, of course, no concern.
The Committee had the opportunity of examining Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, who spent some months in England in the summer of 1884, and Mr. Mohini M. Chatterji, a Brahmin graduate of the University of Calcutta, who accompanied them. Mr. Sinnett also gave evidence before the Committee; and they have i had before them oral and written testimony from numerous other members of the Theosophical Society in England, India, and other countries, besides the accounts of phenomena published in "The Occult World," "Hints on Esoteric Theosophy," The Theotophist, and elsewhere.
According to this evidence, there exists in Thibet a brotherhood whose members have acquired a power over nature which enables them to perform wonders beyond the reach of ordinary men. Madame Blavatsky asserts herself to be a Chela, or disciple of these Brothers (spoken of also as Adepts and as Mahatmas), and they are alleged to have interested themselves in a special way in the Theosophical Society, and to have performed many marvels in connection with it. They are said to be able to cause apparitions of themselves in places where their bodies are not, and not only to appear, but to communicate intelligently with those whom they thus visit, and themselves to perceive what is going on where their phantasm appears. This phantasmal appearance has been called by Theosophists the projection of the "astral form." The evidence before the Committee includes several cases of such alleged appearances of two Mahatmas, Koot Hoomi and Morya. It is further alleged that their Chelas, or disciples, are gradually taught this art, and that Mr. Damodar K. Mavalankar in particular, a Theosophist residing at the headquarters of the Society, has acquired it, and has practised it on several occasions. It may be observed that these alleged voluntary apparitions, though carrying us considerably beyond any evidence that has been collected from other sources, still have much analogy with some cases that have come under the notice of the Literary Committee.
But we cannot separate the evidence offered by the Theosophists for projections of the "astral form," from the evidence which they also offer for a different class of phenomena, similar to some which are said by Spiritualists to occur through the agency of mediums, and which involve the action of "psychical" energies on ponderable matter ; since such phenomena are usually described either as (1) accompanyingapparitions of the Mahatmas or their disciples, or (2) at any rate as carrying with them a manifest reference to their agency.
The alleged phenomena which come under this head consist—so far as we need at present take them into account—in the transportation, even through solid matter, of ponderable objects, including letters, and of what the Theosophists regard as their duplication; together with what is called "precipitation" of handwriting and drawings on previously blank paper. The evocation of sound without physical means is also said to occur.
In December, 1884, the Committee considered that the time had come to issue a preliminary and provisional Report. This Report, on account of its provisional character, and for other reasons, was circulated among Members and Associates of the Society for Psychical Research only, and not published. In drawing up the present Report, therefore, the Committee have not assumed that their readers will be acquainted with the former one. The conclusion then come to was expressed as follows: "On the whole (though with some serious reserves), it seems undeniable that there is a prima facie case, for some part, at least, of the claim made, which, at the point which the investigations of the Society for Psychical Research have now reached, cannot, with consistency, be ignored. And it seems plain that an actual residence for some months in India of some trusted observer—his actual intercourse with the persons concerned, Hindu and European, so far as may be permitted to him—is an almost necessary pre-requisite of any more definite judgment."
In accordance with this view, a member of the Committee, Mr. R. Hodgson, B.A., Scholar of St. John's College, Cambridge, proceeded to India in November, 1884, and, after carrying on his investigations for three months, returned in April, 1885. In the Madras Christian College Magazine for September and October, 1884, portions of certain letters were published which purported to have been written by Madame Blavatsky to a M. and Madame Coulomb, who had occupied positions of trust at the headquarters of the Theosophical Society for some years,but had been expelled from it in May, 1884, by the General Council of that Society during the absence of Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in Europe. These letters, if genuine, unquestionably implicated Madame Blavatsky in a conspiracy to produce marvellous phenomena fraudulently; but they were declared by her to be, in whole or in part, forgeries. One important object of Mr. Hodgson's visit to India was to ascertain, if possible, by examining the letters, and by verifying facts implied or stated in them, and the explanations of the Coulombs concerning them, whether the letters were genuine or not. The editor of the Christian College Magazine had already, as Mr. Hodgson found, taken considerable pains toascertain this; but he had not been able to obtain the judgment of a recognised expert in handwriting. Accordingly a selection of the letters, amply sufficient to prove the conspiracy, was entrusted by the editor, (in whose charge Madame Coulomb had placed them,) to Mr. Hodgson, who sent it homo before his own return. These, together with some letters undoubtedly written by Madame Blavatsky, were submitted to the well-known expert in handwriting, Mr. Netherelift, and also to Mr. Sims, of the British Museum. These gentlemen came independently to the conclusion that the letters were written by Madame Blavatsky. This opinion is entirely in accordance with the impression produced on the Committee by the general aspect of the letters, as well as by their characteristic style, and much of their contents.
The Committee further desired that Mr. Hodgson should, by cross-examination and otherwise, obtain evidence that might assist them in judging of the value to be attached to the testimony of some of the principal witnesses; that he should examine localities where phenomena had occurred, with a view to ascertaining whether the explanations by trickery, that suggested themselves to the Committee, or any other such explanations, were possible; and in particular, as already said, that he should, as far as possible, verify the statements of the Coulombs with a view to judging whether their explanations of the phenomena were plausible. For it is obvious that no value for the purposes of psychical research can be attached to phenomena where persons like the Coulombs have been concerned, if it can be plausibly shown that they might themselves have produced them : while, at the same time, their unsupported assertion that they did produce them, cannot be taken by itself as evidence.
After hearing what Mr. Hodgson had to say on these points, and after carefully weighing all the evidence before them, the Committee unanimously arrived at the following conclusions :—
(1) That of the letters put forward by Madame Coulomb, all those, at least, which the Committee have had the opportunity of themselves examining, and of submitting to the judgment of experts, are undoubtedly written by Madame Blavatsky; and suffice to prove that she has been engaged in a long-continued combination with other persons to produce by ordinary means a series of apparent marvels for the support of the Theosophic movement.
(2) That, in particular, the Shrine at Adyar, through which letters purporting to come from Mahatmas were received, was elaborately arranged with a view to the secret insertion of letters and other objects through a sliding panel at the back, and regularly used for this purpose by Madame Blavatsky or her agents.
(3) That there is consequently a very strong general presumption that all the marvellous narratives put forward as evidence of the existence and occult power of the Mahatmas are to be explained as due either (a) to deliberate deception carried out by or at the instigation of Madame Blavatsky, or (b) to spontaneous illusion, or hallucination, or unconscious misrepresentation or invention on the part of the witnesses.
(4) That after examining Mr. Hodgson's report of the results of his personal inquiries, they are of opinion that the testimony to these marvels is in no case sufficient, taking amount and character together, to resist the force of the general presumption above mentioned.
Accordingly, they think that it would be a waste of time to prolong the investigation.
As to the correctness of Mr. Hodgson's explanation of particular marvels, they do not feel called upon to express any definite conclusion; since on the one hand, they are not in a position to endorse every detail of this explanation, and on the other hand they have satisfied themselves as to the thoroughness of Mr. Hodgson's investigation, and have complete reliance on his impartiality, and they recognise that his means of arriving at a correct conclusion are far beyond any to which they can lay claim.
There is only one special point on which the Committee think themselves bound to state explicitly a modification of their original view. They said in effect in their First Report that if certain phenomena were not genuine it was very difficult to suppose that Colonel Olcott was not implicated in the fraud. But after considering the evidence that Mr. Hodgson has laid before them as to Colonel Olcott's extraordinary credulity, and inaccuracy in observation and inference, they desire to disclaim any intention of imputing wilful deception to that gentleman. The Committee have no desire that their conclusion should be accepted without examination, and wish to afford the reader every opportunity of forming a judgment for himself. They therefore append Mr. Hodgson's account of his investigation, which will be found to form by far the largest and most important part of the present Report. In it, and the appendices to it, is incorporated enough of the evidence given by members of the Theosophical Society to afford the reader ample opportunity of judging of both its quantity and quality.
There is, however, evidence for certain phenomena which did not occur in India, and are not directly dealt with in Mr. Hodgson's Report. Accounts of these will be found at p. 382, with some remarks on them by Mrs. H. Sidgwick.
The report of Mr. Netherclift on the handwriting of the Blavatsky-Coulomb letters will be found at p. 381. Extracts from the letters themselves are given in Mr. Hodgson's Report, pp. 211-216.The authorship of the letters attributed to Koot Hoomi, which are very numerous, and many of them very long, is fully discussed in Mr. Hodgson's Report. It may be mentioned here that it is maintained by some that the contents of these letters are such as to preclude the possibility of their having been written by Madame Blavatsky. This has never boon the opinion of the Committee, either as regards the published letters or those that have been privately shown to them in manuscript. Those who wish to form an independent opinion on the subject arc referred to "The Occult World" and "Esoteric Buddhism," which contain many of the letters themselves, and much matter derived from others.
In this connection may be conveniently mentioned what the Committee, in their First Report, called the most serious blot which had then been pointed out in the Theosophic evidence. A certain letter, in the Koot Hoonii handwriting, and addressed avowedly by Koot Hoomi, from Thibet, to Mr. Sinnett, in 1880, was proved by Mr. H. Kiddle, of Now York, to contain a long passage apparently plagiarised from a speech of Mr. Kiddle's, made at Lake Pleasant, August 15th, 1880, and reported in the Banner of Light some two months or more previous to the date of Koot Hoomi's letter. Koot Hoomi replied (some months later) that the passages were no doubt quotations from Mr. Kiddle's speech, which he had become cognisant of in some occult manner, and which he had stored up in his mind, but that the appearance of plagiarism was due to the imperfect precipitation of the letter by the Chela, or disciple, charged with the task. Koot Hoomi then gave what he asserted to be the true version of the letter as dictated and recovered by his own scrutiny apparently from the blurred precipitation. In this fuller version the quoted passages were given as quotations, and mixed with controversial matter. Koot Hoomi explained the peculiar form which the error of precipitation had assumed by saying that the quoted passages had been more distinctly impressed on his own mind, by an effort of memory, than his own interposed remarks: and, that inasmuch as the whole composition had been feebly and inadequately projected, owing to his own physical fatigue at the time, the high lights only, so to speak, had come out; there had been many illegible passages, which the Chela had omitted. The Chela, he said, wished to submit the letter to Koot Hoomi for revision, but Koot Hoomi declined for want of time.
The weakness of this explanation was pointed out (in Light) by Mr. Massey, who showed (among other points) that the quoted sentences seemed m have been ingeniously twisted into a polemical sense, precisely opposite to that in which they were written.
And more lately (in Light, September 20th, 1884) Mr. Kiddle has shown that the passage thus restored by no means comprises the wholeof the unacknowledged quotations; and, moreover, that these newly-indicated quotations are antecedent to those already described by Koot Hoomi, as forming the introduction to a fresh topic of criticism. The proof of a deliberate plagiarism aggravated by a fictious defence, is therefore irresistible.
In conclusion, it is necessary to state that this is not the only evidence of fraud in connection with the Theosophical Society and madame Blavatsky, which the Committee had before them, prior to, or independently of, the publication of the Blavatsky-Coulomb correspondence. Mr. C. C. Massey had brought before them evidence which convinced both him and them that Madame Blavatsky had, in 1879, arranged with a medium, then in London, to cause a "Mahatma" letter to reach him in an apparently "mysterious" way. The particulars will be found at p. 397.
It forms no part of our duty to follow Madame Blavatsky into other fields. But with reference to the somewhat varied lines of activity which Mr. Hodgson's Report suggests for her, we may say that we cannot consider any of these as beyond the range of her powers. The homage which her immediate friends have paid to her abilities has been for the most part of an unconscious kind; and some of them may still be unwilling to credit her with mental resources which they have hitherto been so far from suspecting. For our own part, we regard her neither as the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor as a mere vulgar adventuress; we think that she has achieved a title to permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history.