Colonel Henry Steel Olcott through the Eyes of the Mahatmas

Mary Anderson

It has often been said of the two principal founders of the Theosophical Society, the Russian noblewoman Mme Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, that to her we owe Theosophy and to him we owe the Theosophical Society. We are indebted to her for the inner life and to him for the outer form of the Society. The question has been raised: ‘Which was the greater gift?’ It is an academic or a theoretical question, for both life and form are necessary, just as both spirit and matter are necessary in the world in which we live. They are partners, like the lame man who can see riding on the shoulders of the blind man who can walk. Thus Colonel Olcott and Mme Blavatsky were ideal partners: together differently. Although they sometimes quarrelled, there was deep friendship between them. They called themselves ‘the Theosophical twins’ and gave each other nicknames.

Before meeting Mme Blavatsky, the Colonel had a remarkable career. He was a self-made man. His studies having been interrupted due to the failure of his father’s business, he became an expert or even an authority in the different fields he took up: agriculture, journalism, the law. He was responsible for uprooting corruption in the US army. In this work, fighting against hardened criminals, he showed remarkable courage, as he did when, as a journalist siding with the north in the American Civil War, he attended in the south the hanging of John Brown. Had he been recognized, he would surely have been lynched.

In their work to establish the Theosophical Society, Mme Blavatsky and he evinced great courage. They swam against the stream at a time when both religion and science imposed their dogmas and thus they incurred the enmity of both religious bigots and scientific dogmatists. Neither of them lacked courage, but in many respects, above all in temperament, they differed. HPB was, on the surface in any case, emotional, temperamental, and not entirely reliable, at least in some ways. The Colonel was stable and reliable, although sometimes he acted foolishly out of overenthusiasm, but he was ever ready to admit his mistakes.

We can perhaps understand Colonel Olcott more easily in contrast to Mme Blavatsky and her in contrast to him. We may also have the feeling that we know him better when we read, for example, the engrossing account of his life and of the life of the Society during the years from 1874 to 1898 in Old Diary Leaves. We can also appreciate the span of his thought on different subjects and his appreciation of different religions if we read some of his articles and his talks.

But in studying his character and achievements, it is perhaps the testimony of those who knew him best that can throw most light on him: his and Mme Blavatsky’s Adept teachers. What picture do The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett (ML) paint of their faithful disciple? What had they to say about his good qualities, his weaknesses and what made up for or explained them, the attacks made on him, how they defended him and their attitude to him in general?

It is interesting to note exactly what they said about him. Many of the quotations which follow may be well known to us, but it is useful to review them and to see the light they cast not only on his character but also on the attitude of the Masters, their kindliness and understanding, and at the same time their practical sense.

Among his good qualities we find his readiness to sacrifice, his faithfulness, and trustworthiness, his modesty, unselfishness, and discretion, his high aim and zeal, his loving nature, his sympathetic magnetism and his efficiency.

His readiness to sacrifice:

Of these two persons (Mme Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott) one has already given three-fourths of a life, the other six years of manhood’s prime to us. Both will so labour to the close of their days, though ever working for their merited reward, yet never demanding it, nor murmuring when disappointed. (ML, chron. ed., p. 9)

His faithfulness:

His faithful service is pledged to us, come well, come ill…. Where can we find an equal devotion? He is one who never questions but obeys; who may make innumerable mistakes out of excessive zeal but never is unwilling to repair his fault even at the cost of the greatest selfhumiliation, (p. 17)

His trustworthiness:

‘Him we can trust under all circumstances.’ (p. 17)

His modesty:

[He] esteems the sacrifice of comfort and even life something to be cheerfully risked whenever necessary; will eat any food, or even go without; sleep on any bed, work in any place, fraternize with any outcast, endure any privation for the cause, (p. 17)

These quotations also show his unselfishness, his discretion, his high aim, and his zeal.

His loving nature:

Referring to C. C. Massey, said by the Mahatma to be a misanthrope, a hater of mankind, his mind full of doubts and pessimistic illusions, it is said:

Every lawful effort has been tried to save him, especially by Olcott, whose warm brotherly love has prompted him to make to his heart the warmest appeals, (p. 408)

His sympathetic magnetism:

Olcott’s magnetism after six years of purification is intensely sympathetic with ours – physically and morally [it] is constantly becoming more and more so. (p. 143)

Moreover, he was efficient, he got things done: ‘What we want is good results and you will find that we have them.'(p. 425)

Reference is also made to his weaknesses and what made up for them or explained them. He was devoid of tact, but he himself confessed it; he made mistakes but admitted them:

Olcott has behaved like an ass, utterly devoid of tact; he confesses it, and is ready to confess it and to say mea culpa before all the Theosophists — and it is more than any Englishman would be willing to do. (p. 427)

He was irreverent: ‘We may not be quite “the boys”, to quote Olcott’s irreverent expression when speaking of us’ (p. 48). He was indiscrete; there is reference to ‘his Simla indiscretions’ (p. 58). He did not always carry out suggestions, ‘almost wholly due to his own active mentality preventing his distinguishing our impressions from his own conceptions’ (p. 52).

They refer to the attacks made on him by the press and by the Christian missionaries: ‘Olcott attacked by all the hellhounds of the press and missions’ (p. 97):

In India it is: ‘either Christ or the Founders (!!). Let us stone them to death!’ They have nearly finished killing one — they are now attacking the other victim — Olcott. The padris are as busy as bees (p.449). Another filthy, heavy attack by an American paper. The C. and M. of Lahore hardly missing a day without having some attack and other papers reprinting them, etc., etc. (p. 97)

Even his colleague in Theosophical work, A. O. Hume, despised him. Hume had written:

I should not object in any way to dear old Olcott’s supervision, because I know it would be nominal. . . Sinnett and I are both quite capable of shutting him up if he interfered needlessly. But neither of us could accept him as our real guide. because we both know that we are intellectually his superiors. (p. 23)

But The Mahatmas defended him in no uncertain terms:

And now put yourself [Sinnett] the question how far you were justified in entertaining suspicions against Olcott, who knew nothing of the circumstances whatever. . .. Had you been in his place and guilty, you would have hardly permitted him to accuse you of falsification, slandering, lies, falsehoods, and the most idiotic incompetency for his work. And Olcott is entirely innocent of any such sin. (p. 425)

Let us consider the Mahatmas’ attitude to Olcott in general as well as to Mme Blavatsky. He was dear to them and they were grateful to him (‘Ingratitude is not among our vices’, p. 9). Moreover he was trustworthy (‘Him we can trust under all circumstances’, p. 17). But they granted him no privileges. (‘I am not permitted to do so for Olcott [to show himself to Olcott] — who has toiled for us these five years’, p. 43).

HPB and he were imperfect but unselfish. They were ready to sacrifice:

In adversity alone can we discover the real man. It is true manhood when one boldly accepts one’s share of the collective Karma of the group one works with, and does not permit oneself to be embittered, and to see others in blacker colours than reality, or to throw all blame upon some one ‘black sheep’, a victim, specially selected. Such a true man as that we will ever protect and, despite his shortcomings, assist to develop the good he has in him. Such a one is sublimely unselfish; he sinks his personality in his cause and takes no heed of discomforts or personal obloquy unjustly fastened upon him. (p. 437)

Olcott’s Teachers cared for his wellbeing. He had the gift of healing and, being a generous man, he treated all who came to him. But thus he became weak and exhausted and he was told, ‘You have been ordered home for a rest that you need — so you should decline any further healings until you hear from M.'(pp. 370-1)

We have considered some of the strengths and also the weaknesses of Colonel Olcott. Our weaknesses belong to the personality. One might say that our genuine strengths also belong to the personality, but are reflections in that personality of our true, perfect inner Self. Such great beings as the Mahatmas are able to see the inner person, the spiritual nature, and are able to strengthen it. so that it shines forth in the personality. They act as recommended in At the Feet of the Master:

Learn to distinguish the God in everyone and everything, no matter how evil he or it may appear on the surface. You can help your brother through that which you have in common with him, and that is the Divine Life; learn how to arouse that in him. learn how to appeal to that in him; so shall you save your brother from wrong.

The Mahatmas certainly see the weak points in those serving them, as Colonel Olcott and Mme Blavatsky did, but also their strong points and their potential and, through being aware of them, they activated and strengthened these strong points.

We may look at the spiritual path from different points of view, for example, from the inner and the outer points of view. From the outer, there is the weakening of selfishness, self-centredness, in the personality. Thus one may be said to cleanse the vessel for it to receive the divine nectar or to tune the instrument for the celestial musician to play. From the inner point of view, there is the strengthening of inner inspiration, devotion, aspiration, to prepare the nectar to fill the vessel to overflowing or to inspire the divine musician to play celestial melodies. Both aspects are necessary and the one should lead to the other. Olcott was, in spite of his weaknesses, very unselfish, even selfless, ready to work tirelessly. And therein lay his strength from the point of view of the Masters.

Their point of view is expressed to Sinnett as follows: ‘You look without [that is, from the outside], I see within'(p. 389). Being selfless in so many respects, Colonel Olcott was, like Mme Blavatsky, able to enter their world on their conditions, whereas Sinnett and, in particular, Hume wanted to lay down their conditions and could not enter that world:

Is any of you so eager for knowledge and the beneficent powers it confers as to be ready to leave your world and come into ours? Then let him come…. Let him come by all means, as the pupil to the master, and without conditions; or let him wait, as so many others have, and be satisfied with such crumbs of knowledge as may fall in his way. (pp. 8-9)

Colonel Olcott and Mme Blavatsky were thus able to enter their world, to be in closer contact with them.

When we look at him from this point of view — the point of view of the Masters — we may realize how their view differed from that of Sinnett and Hume. We may understand him better in contrast to Sinnett and above all Hume, and realize why it was that They were closer to him.

Today we remember above all Olcott. We remember Sinnett and, less so, Hume as having been recipients of the Mahatma Letters, which, as we have seen, give us insights into the points of view of the Masters and why they drew so close to HPB and to him. We may better understand why they were chosen if we reread that famous paragraph stating why they were selected for this mission, this apparently hopeless enterprise:

These two are … far from perfect — in some respects, quite the opposite. But they have that in them (pardon the eternal repetition but it is being as constantly overlooked) which we have but too rarely found elsewhere — UNSELFISHNESS, and an eager readiness for self-sacrifice for the good of others; what a ‘multitude of sins’ does not this cover! (p. 437)

I regard him as a benefactor to his kind who points out to the sceptical, the despairing, the world-weary, the heart-hungry, that the vanities of the world do not satisfy the soul’s aspirations, and true happiness can only be acquired by interior self-development, purification, and enlightenment.

H. S. Olcott