Damodar K. Mavalankar – theosophical pioneer

H.P. Blavatsky and H.S. Olcott sailed from New York for India at the end of 1878. In February 1879 they arrived in Bombay, where they established their temporary headquarters. A few months later, a young Hindu came to help them with their theosophical work: Damodar K. Mavalankar.

    Damodar was born in a wealthy Brahman family at Ahmedabad in September 1861. His father taught him the tenets of his religion, and he also received an excellent English education. Between the ages of 10 and 14, he devoted himself to the orthodox practices of his faith. Later his religious observances were displaced by his academic studies, but his religious ideas and aspirations remained unchanged until mid-1879. It was then that he came into contact with theosophy by reading Isis Unveiled. He applied for membership of the Theosophical Society in July 1879, and was admitted on 3 August, a month before his 18th birthday.1
    In his childhood, Damodar had a very dangerous illness, and the doctors despaired of his life. But while close to death, he had a vision in which a godlike person gave him a peculiar medicine, after which he began to recover. Several years later, while meditating, he saw the same person, and on another occasion the man again saved him from the clutches of death.2 After joining the TS, he met several members of the Himalayan brotherhood, in both their astral and physical bodies, and discovered that the sage whom he had already seen three times was Mahatma Kuthumi, who became his guru.
    Damodar began to work at the TS headquarters in September 1879 and took up permanent residence there in January 1880, after he had made the momentous decision to abandon caste. He quickly proved himself to be an energetic and devoted worker. Col. Olcott writes:

Frail as a girl though he was, he would sit at his table writing, sometimes all night, unless I caught him at it and drove him to bed. No child was ever more obedient to a parent, no foster-son more utterly selfless in his love to a foster-mother, than he to H.P.B. ...3

Damodar was made joint recording secretary of the Society, and helped Blavatsky with the growing volume of correspondence. He also became business manager of the Publications Department. The first issue of The Theosophist appeared in October 1879, and Damodar soon became a regular contributor on a wide range of subjects. He also wrote many letters and articles for other magazines and newspapers.
    In an article in the May 1880 issue of The Theosophist, Damodar wrote:

It is no exaggeration to say that I have been a really living man only these few months; for between life as it appears to me now and life as I comprehended it before, there is an unfathomable abyss. ... My aspirations were only for more Zemindaries [land], social position and the gratification of whims and appetites. . . . The study of Theosophy has thrown a light over me in regard to my country, my religion, my duty. . . . [It] has taught me that to enjoy peace of mind and self-respect, I must be honest, candid, peaceful and regard all men as equally my brothers, irrespective of caste, colour, race or creed.4

    While on a lecture tour in Sri Lanka in 1880, Damodar, along with Blavatsky and Olcott, took pansil, thereby formally becoming a Buddhist. This was too much for his family. His father begged him to return home and live with his young wife, to whom he had been betrothed while very young, and threatened to cut him out of his will. But Damodar stood firm. He gave up an income of 50,000 rupees, made provision for the future of his wife, and continued to devote himself to the theosophic cause. Responding to the complaint of some Hindu theosophists that the mahatmas never communicated with them, Master M stated:

unless a man is prepared to become a thorough theosophist i.e. to do as D. Mavalankar did, – give up entirely caste, his old superstitions and show himself a true reformer (especially in the case of child marriage) he will remain simply a member of the Society with no hope whatever of ever hearing from us.5

    Damodar’s father, uncle, and an older brother resigned from the TS in early 1881 and became openly hostile. Damodar’s family troubles, the public misrepresentation of the facts, and the resulting slander directed at the founders of the Theosophical Society, caused him to become depressed. On 25 August 1881, the following letter from KH materialized before his eyes:

Do not feel so disheartened! ... Your fancy is your greatest enemy, for it creates phantoms which even your better judgment is unable to dispel. Do not accuse yourself and attribute the abuse lavished upon ... [words omitted by Damodar] to your imaginary crimes. Abuse! I tell thee, child, the hissing of a snake has more effect upon the old eternal, snow-covered Himavat, than the abuse of back-biters, the laugh of the skeptics, or any calumny on me. Keep steadily to your duty, be firm and true to your obligations, and no mortal man or woman will hurt you ...6

    Damodar’s first face-to-face meetings with the masters took place during his trip to Sri Lanka from May to July 1880, and are described in letters he wrote to W.Q. Judge.7 On another occasion, in Bombay, Damodar was helped by his master to project his astral body (mayavi-rupa). He found himself at

the upper end of Cashmere at the foot of the Himalayas. . . . [T]here were only two houses just opposite to each other and no other sign of habitation. From one of these came out [KH] ... It was his house. Opposite him stops [M]. Brother K– ordered me to follow him. After going a short distance of about half a mile we came to a natural subterranean passage which is under the Himalayas. [This] is a natural causeway on the River Indus which flows underneath in all its fury. Only one person can walk on it at a time and one false step seals the fate of the traveller. ... After walking a considerable distance through this subterranean passage we came into an open plain in L––k [Ladakh]. There is a large massive building ... This is the Chief Central Place where all those of our Section who are found deserving of Initiation into Mysteries have to go for their final ceremony and stay there the requisite period. I went up with my Guru to the Great Hall. The grandeur and serenity of the place is enough to strike anyone with awe.8

After returning to his body, Damodar wondered whether the experience had been a dream, but at that moment a note from KH dropped out of the air confirming that it had really happened.
    Damodar helped the masters with the occult transmission of letters to A.P. Sinnett and A.O. Hume. However, he refused to lend any further assistance after Hume accused him of forgery. He expressed his anger in a letter to Sinnett in August 1882, protesting that he was incapable of ‘such an infamy’.9 He wrote: ‘I have at least one consolation and that is I stand clear before my MASTERS who being clairvoyant can see through me any time ...’ Damodar was one of the 12 chelas who signed the protest to a letter from ‘HX’ (Hume), which accused the masters of ‘sinning’ by not immediately giving out all they knew. Hume’s letter and the chelas’ protest were published in the September 1882 Theosophist on the instructions of the Maha Chohan, KH’s own guru.10
    In July 1882 Damodar had to go to Poona for a month’s rest, as his health had broken down due, said KH, to ‘his foolish austerities and hard work’.11 In December 1882, the TS headquarters were relocated to Adyar, largely at the suggestion of T. Subba Row, a chela of Master M. He and Damodar worked closely together; both were high-caste Hindus, steeped in the traditions of ancient Aryavarta, and eager to promote the moral and spiritual regeneration of their country.

In this photo, taken at a theosophical convention in Bombay in 1882, Col. H.S. Olcott is seated on the left of H.P. Blavatsky, and Damodar is sitting on the ground to her right.

    Damodar accompanied Colonel Olcott on his lecture tour in northern India from September to December 1883, during which he had further meetings with the masters. On 25 November he unexpectedly disappeared from the house in Jammu where they were staying. He was taken to a secret retreat, and returned two days later a changed man.12 Olcott remarked: ‘seemingly robust, tough, and wiry, bold and energetic in manner: we could scarcely realize that he was the same person.’ Damodar’s psychic powers were developing very rapidly during this period. A corroborated account of one of his astral journeys was published in the December 1883 issue of The Theosophist.13
    1884 proved to be one of the most turbulent years in the early history of the Theosophical Society. On 20 February Blavatsky and Olcott left India and made a successful eight-month visit to Europe. During their absence, the Society was run by a Board of Control, whose members included three Europeans, Franz Hartmann (the chairman), George Lane-Fox, and W.T. Brown. Just prior to her departure, Blavatsky had thwarted an attempt by the housekeeper, Mme. Coulomb, to obtain a large sum of money from Prince Harisinghji. Mme Coulomb was furious and vowed to take revenge. She began to spread lies and rumours about fraudulent phenomena, and her husband secretly began to make holes in the walls and construct movable panels. The Coulombs were expelled from the TS on 14 May 1884 for dishonourable conduct and left headquarters 11 days later.
    Various disagreements and personal antagonisms arose among the headquarters staff, both before and after the Coulombs’ departure. On several occasions the masters intervened directly with advice and instructions. On 2 August 1884, Hartmann received the following message from KH:

D[amodar] has undoubtedly many faults and weaknesses as others have. But he is unselfishly devoted to us and to the cause, and has rendered himself extremely useful to Upasika [HPB]. His presence and assistance are indispensably necessary at the Headquarters. His inner self has no desire to domineer, though the outward acts now and then get that colouring from his excessive zeal which he indiscriminately brings to bear upon everything, whether small or great.14

In another letter to Hartmann, M wrote:

One of the first proofs of self-mastery is when one shows that he can be kind and forbearing and genial with companions of the most dissimilar characters and temperaments. One of the strongest signs of retrogression when one shows that he expects others to like what he likes and act as he acts.15

    After their eviction, the Coulombs joined forces with the Christian missionaries – the arch-enemies of Blavatsky and the TS. The first part of Mme. Coulomb’s attack on Blavatsky appeared in The Christian College Magazine in September 1884. It included extracts from letters allegedly written to her by Blavatsky, but containing clumsy interpolations ordering the performance of fraudulent phenomena.
    Damodar played a central role in publicly countering the Coulombs’ allegations of fraud and deception, and showed them to be ‘absurd twaddle’. C.W. Leadbeater, who arrived at Adyar with Blavatsky in December 1884, found Damodar

established in the Secretary’s office, crouched up in the seat of the chair in the strange frog-like attitude which he affected, smoking always a bubbling hookah, and writing interminably – all day long and into the night. ... I can never forget him, nor the impression that he made on me. Grave, kindly and courteous ever.16

    Richard Hodgson, sent by the British Society for Psychical Research to investigate the occult phenomena connected with the Theosophical Society, arrived at Adyar on 22 December 1884 and remained in India until the end of March 1885. The infamous Hodgson Report appeared in December 1885 and denounced Blavatsky as an impostor and a Russian spy. Incredibly, Hodgson insisted that Damodar was Blavatsky’s main accomplice, despite the fact that the Coulombs – his ‘star’ witnesses – had depicted him as a dupe! Forgery expert Vernon Harrison says that the Hodgson Report is ‘badly flawed’: it is ‘riddled with slanted statements, conjecture advanced as fact or probable fact, uncorroborated testimony of unnamed witnesses, selection of evidence and downright falsity’.17
    In a letter to Sinnett in October 1885, Blavatsky stated that KH held Damodar, Dhabagiri Nath (a chela of KH who eventually failed), and Subba Row responsible for two thirds of Hodgson’s delusions. She says that they regarded Hodgson’s cross-examinations as insulting, and his mocking references to the masters as blasphemous, and instead of telling him openly that there were many things they could not speak about, they went on ‘to augment his perplexity, allowed him to suggest things without contradicting them, and threw him out of the saddle altogether’.18
    In December 1884 a committee was formed at Adyar for receiving letters and teachings from the masters, but it collapsed before any teachings were transmitted. KH explained why:

The secret Committee ... was ready, when a few Europeans ... took upon themselves the authority of reversing the decision of the whole Council. They declined (though the reason they gave was another one) – to receive our instructions through Subba Row and Damodar, the latter of whom is hated by Messrs. L. Fox and Hartmann.19

Hartmann later described Damodar as a ‘mental pigmy’ who ‘imagined himself to be the mouth-piece of an invisible power’.20 He believed that Damodar had sometimes imitated KH’s writing to give his own views greater authority. It appears that during the Coulomb crisis Damodar did in fact precipitate a very important ‘KH letter’ without KH’s consent.21
    Damodar’s health was seriously affected by all the troubles at headquarters and by overwork. He began to cough blood, a recurrence of his previously arrested tuberculosis. He obtained permission to go to his master’s ashram in Tibet, and left Adyar with Blavatsky’s blessing on 23 February 1885. According to Blavatsky, ‘Damodar was ready from his last birth to enter the highest PATH and suspected it. He had long been waiting for the expected permission to go to Tibet before the expiration of the 7 years [of probation] ...’22 When he came to bid her farewell, he told her: ‘I go for your sake. If the Maha Chohan is satisfied with my services and devotion, He may permit me to vindicate you, by proving the Masters do exist.’23 Blavatsky herself was in poor health at this time, and left India a month later, never to return.
    Damodar was hoping to go to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, with a certain Tibetan functionary; Olcott calls him ‘an “Avatari Lama,” a very influential and mysterious Tibetan prelate’, who ‘is equally well known on both sides of the mountains, and makes frequent religious journeys between India and Tibet’.24 After visiting several TS branches and consulting with Maji, a female ascetic living in Varanasi, Damodar reached Darjeeling on 1 April 1885, and agreed the details of his trip to Tibet with a representative of the Tibetan. He met up with the Tibetan on 19 April in the capital of Sikkim. To conceal the connection between them, Damodar was ordered to go on ahead and then wait. The final entry in his diary reads:

April 23rd. – Took bhat [rice] in the morning, and proceeded on from Kabi alone, sending back my things with the coolies to Darjeeling.25

    A few months later rumours began to circulate that Damodar’s frozen corpse had been found in the snow. But Olcott spoke to the chief coolie, who told him that on their return journey to Darjeeling after leaving Damodar, they had passed the person who was following him; the chief coolie ‘heard subsequently that the junction had been effected, and the caravan proceeded on towards the pass through the mountains’.26 Olcott says that a maya of Damodar’s body may have been left to make it appear as if he had succumbed, and in a letter to Hartmann Blavatsky confirmed that it was probably a trick, adding that Damodar would not come back, at least not for many years.27
    A year later, on 5 June 1886, Tukaram Tatya, a Bombay theosophist, wrote to Olcott to inquire after the fate of Damodar. When Olcott received the letter two days later, he found that KH had added a message to it in transit:

The poor boy has had his fall. Before he could stand in the presence of the ‘Masters’ he had to undergo the severest trials that a neophyte ever passed through, to atone for the many questionable doings in which he had over-zealously taken part, bringing disgrace upon the sacred science and its adepts. The mental and physical suffering was too much for his weak frame, which has been quite prostrated, but he will recover in course of time. This ought to be a warning to you all. ... To unlock the gates of the mystery you must not only lead a life of the strictest probity, but learn to discriminate truth from falsehood.28

    Both Blavatsky and Subba Row received letters from Damodar after his arrival in Tibet, though none of them have been preserved.29 In one of them, Damodar informed Blavatsky that the masters’ influence at Adyar was steadily weakening. Blavatsky also said she had seen Damodar astrally, and that the masters had dictated to him several passages for The Secret Doctrine, which Sinnett had mistaken for Dharbagiri Nath’s writing.30
    A witness to Damodar’s safe arrival in Tibet was Sriman Swamy, a sannyasin, who, in a letter published in Lucifer in September 1889, stated that he had visited Tibet twice since 1879 and had become acquainted with several mahatmas, including M and KH, who confirmed that they and others were interested in the work of the TS and that M had been Blavatsky’s occult guardian since her childhood. He went on: ‘in March, 1887, I saw Mr. Damodar K. Mavalankar at L’hassa, in a convalescent state. He told me in the presence of Mahatma “K.H.” that he had been at the point of death in the previous year’.31 Blavatsky informed her friend N.D. Khandalavala that this letter contained two ‘fibs’: ‘(a) Damodar never was at Lhassa nor Sriman Swamy either, and not being permitted to say where he saw Damodar he gave a wrong name; and (b) My Master never told him what he says of me, but he heard it from a chela.’32
    In April 1890 Blavatsky wrote an open letter to ‘My Brothers of Aryavarta’, explaining why she did not return to India. Referring to the TS’s role in the reawakening of India, she stated:

Most important of all, one at least among you has fully benefited by [the TS]; and if the Society had never given to India but that one future Adept (Damodar) who has now the prospect of becoming one day a Mahatma, Kali Yuga notwithstanding, that alone would be proof that it was not founded at New York and transplanted to India in vain.33

In 1930, G. de Purucker stated that Damodar was currently working in Shambhala, a secret district in central western Tibet where the headquarters of the adept brotherhood are situated.34
    Sven Eek, who devoted many years to compiling the very valuable work, Damodar and the Pioneers of The Theosophical Movement, summed up the key role played by Damodar in the early history of the TS as follows:

    Damodar’s significance to the Theosophical Movement lies not merely in his consistent hard work, or in his intelligent defense of the embattled Society, but primarily in the fact that he set a standard for Theosophic conduct. Of the seventy odd Theosophists who presented themselves for discipleship, Damodar was virtually the only complete success. A desire to see the Adepts in person or to witness phenomena caused many to accept the rigors of chelaship, but one by one, as they placed their own personalities and idiosyncracies above the common good of the Movement, failed.
    One of the cornerstones upon which the superstructure of the Theosophical Society has been reared is inscribed with the name of Damodar. The design may be altered, as each generation makes its contribution, but the foundations laid by the early pioneers will remain until, Phoenix-like, a new dispensation is given to the pilgrims of this earth, and then, perhaps, our chela will return, as an Adept in his own right, redeeming the anguished hopes of the many who believe that ‘There is no religion higher than Truth.’35


  1. Sven Eek (comp.), Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement, Theosophical Publishing House (TPH), 1965, pp. 139-40, 493; Michael Gomes, ‘Damodar – a Hindu chela’, The Theosophist, Sept. 1985, pp. 447-51.
  2. Damodar, p. 496.
  3. Ibid., p. 4.
  4. Ibid., pp. 140-1, 143.
  5. Ibid., p. 7; A.T. Barker (comp.), The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Theosophical University Press (TUP), 2nd ed., 1926, p. 462.
  6. Damodar, pp. 485-6.
  7. Ibid., pp. 55-8.
  8. Ibid., pp. 60-1; see Sylvia Cranston & Carey Williams, H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Tarcher/Putnam, 1993, pp. 99-101.
  9. Damodar, pp. 262-5; see C. Jinarajadasa (comp.), Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, TPH, 1964, 1:12.
  10. Damodar, pp. 286-8; The Mahatma Letters, p. 293.
  11. Damodar, pp. 285, 523.
  12. Ibid., pp. 332-7, 350-1, 387.
  13. Ibid., pp. 355-8; see also pp. 344-9, 482-3.
  14. Ibid., p. 604; Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, 1:63.
  15. Damodar, pp. 604-5.
  16. ‘Damodar – a Hindu chela’, p. 450.
  17. Vernon Harrison, H.P. Blavatsky and the SPR: an examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, TUP, 1997, pp. 32, 69.
  18. A.T. Barker (comp.), The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, TUP, 1975 (1925), p. 122.
  19. Damodar, p. 527; The Mahatma Letters, p. 363.
  20. Franz Hartmann, Some Fragments of the Secret History of the Theosophical Society, Theosophical History, 2000, pp. 19-22.
  21. Damodar, pp. 471-3, 583-4; Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, TPH, 1977 (1925), 2:131-2; F. Hartmann, Report of Observations made during a nine months’ stay at the head-quarters of the Theosophical Society, Madras, 1884, Edmonton Theos. Soc. reprint 1995, pp. 32-4; Some Fragments of the Secret History of the Theosophical Society, p. 22. (See also: C. Jinarajadasa, The Early Teachings of the Masters 1881-1883, TPH, 1923, pp. viii-xi.)
  22. Damodar, p. 10.
  23. Ibid., p. 533.
  24. Charles J. Ryan, H.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement, TUP, 2nd ed., 1975, p. 100; Damodar, p. 11.
  25. Ibid., p. 15.
  26. Ibid., p. 16.
  27. Ibid., pp. 16, 533.
  28. Ibid., p. 18; Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, 1:64; Victor A. Endersby, The Hall of Magic Mirrors, Hearthstone, 1969, pp. 299-300.
  29. H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, TPH, 1980, 12:163; Damodar, p. 18; Blavatsky Collected Writings, 1950, 6:272.
  30. The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, pp. 157, 248-9.
  31. News of Damodar’, Blavatsky Archives,; Geoffrey A. Barborka, The Mahatmas and Their Letters, TPH, 1973, pp. 373-4.
  32. ‘News of Damodar’.
  33. Blavatsky Collected Writings, 12:159-60.
  34. Dialogues of G. de Purucker, TUP, 1948, 1:145-6.
  35. Damodar, pp. 21-2.

by David Pratt. July 2000.

T. Subba Row (1856-1890)