The Theosophical Mahatmas

A Critique of Paul Johnson’s New Myth

by David Pratt

September 1997
(This version: 4.11.97)


Part 1 of 2


(Part 1)
    1. Introduction
    2. Fact vs. fiction
    3. The mahatma letters

(Part 2)
    4. Chelas and confederates
    5. A “scheme of deception”?
    6. A “disinformation pilgrimage”?
    7. Fraudulent vs. genuine testimony
    8. Babaji and “the whole truth”
    9. Conclusion


BHT Blavatsky and Her Teachers, Jean Overton Fuller, East-West Publications, 1988
BSPRH.P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885, Vernon Harrison, TUP, 1997
BTMH.P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement, Charles J. Ryan, TUP, 2nd ed., 1975
BTT H.P. Blavatsky, Tibet and Tulku, Geoffrey A. Barborka, TPH, 1966
Cards K. Paul Johnson’s House of Cards, Daniel Caldwell,
CavesFrom the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan, H.P. Blavatsky, TPH, 1975
CWH.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings (vols. 1-14), TPH, 1950-85
Damodar Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement, Sven Eek (compiler), TPH, 1978 (1965)
DTM The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement, Michael Gomes, Quest, 1987
EchoesEchoes of the Orient (3 vols.), W.Q. Judge, PLP, 1975-87
Gnat Strain at a Gnat, Swallow a Camel: A Reply to Daniel Caldwell’s Criticisms, K. Paul Johnson,
Guide Readers’ Guide to The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, G.E. Linton & V. Hanson, TPH, 2nd ed., 1988
HMM The Hall of Magic Mirrors, Victor A. Endersby, Hearthstone, 1969
HPB H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, Sylvia Cranston, Tarcher/Putnam, 1993
ICM Indian Chelas on the Masters, M. Gomes (compiler), Adyar Lodge, Madras, 1992
Incidents Incidents in the Life of Mme. Blavatsky, A.P. Sinnett, Arno Press, 1976 (1886)
ISMIn Search of the Masters, Paul Johnson, privately published, 1990
ITM Initiates of the Theosophical Masters, K. Paul Johnson, State University of New York Press, 1995
LBS The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, TUP, 1975 (1925)
LCWLThe “KH” Letters to C.W. Leadbeater, TPH, 1980
LMW Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, TPH, 1st series, 5th ed, 1964, 2nd series, 1977 (1925)
Memory In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, by some of her pupils, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1891
ML The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, TUP, 2nd ed., 1975 (1926)
MLC The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, TPH, chron. ed., 1993
MTL The Mahatmas and Their Letters, Geoffrey A. Barborka, TPH, 1973
ODL Old Diary Leaves (series 1-6), H.S. Olcott, TPH, 1900-1941
OW The Occult World, A.P. Sinnett, TPH, 9th ed., 1969
OWMBThe Occult World of Madame Blavatsky, compiled and edited by Daniel H. Caldwell, Impossible Dream Publications, 1991
Reminisce     Reminiscences of H.P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine, Countess Constance Wachtmeister et al., Quest, 1976
Report Report of the Result of an Investigation into the Charges Against Madame Blavatsky, General Council of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, 1885
ROTRebirth of the Occult Tradition, Boris de Zirkoff, TPH, 1977 (also included as the Historical Introduction to the Collected Writings edition of The Secret Doctrine)
SD The Secret Doctrine (2 vols.), H.P. Blavatsky, TUP, 1977 (1888)
TMR The Masters Revealed, K. Paul Johnson, State University of New York Press, 1994

1. Introduction

According to H.P. Blavatsky, Master Koot Hoomi was a Kashmiri Brahmin by birth, and Master Morya was a Rajput by birth. She first met M in his physical body in London in 1850/51, and she first met KH in 1868. The two masters generally lived in Tibet, though KH in particular travelled widely. They possessed highly developed occult powers, and were members of an adept Brotherhood that had existed for countless millennia. According to Paul Johnson, on the other hand, the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood is a myth, and HPB’s portrayal of the mahatmas is largely fiction. He does not deny that beings like the masters of the theosophical tradition could exist, but he denies that HPB was ever in contact with, or the agent of, a brotherhood of spiritually advanced adepts. He contends that “Morya”, “Koot Hoomi”, etc., were the names of characters created by HPB, who drew their attributes partly from actual historical figures she had met, and partly from her imagination.

Morya          Koothoomi

Johnson claims that the “primary prototype” for KH was Thakar Singh Sadhanwalia, a Sikh aristocrat, who was one of the founders the Singh Sabha, a Punjabi Sikh reform organization. Master M was supposedly modelled mainly on Ranbir Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir. Johnson also suggests historical identifications for Djual Kul (Dayal Singh), the Chohan (Baba Khem Singh Bedi), Serapis (Paulos Metamon), Tuitit Bey (Max Theon), and Hilarion (Ooton Liatto). Narayan and one or two other masters have so far been spared “identification”. This paper takes a critical look at Johnson’s theory, concentrating on Masters M and KH.

2. Fact vs. fiction

Johnson admits that the links he perceives between KH and Thakar Singh and between M and Ranbir Singh are extremely tenuous and inconclusive (for a summary of his evidence, see Gnat). There is not a single piece of convincing evidence to support his “identifications”, only a few scraps of circumstantial and coincidental evidence. In the words of John Algeo: “Johnson’s ‘evidence’ consists of a few general similarities, some coincidences of place and time, and a strong desire to prove a thesis” (Theosophical History, July 1995, p. 245).

Numerous details about M and KH and events in their lives are reported in theosophical literature that could not have involved or been based on Ranbir Singh or Thakar Singh. But Johnson does not regard such information as counter-evidence; indeed, he believes it is “naive” to do so. Instead, he either says that some other candidate for M or KH may have been involved in such cases, or he dismisses such details as irrelevant, fictitious, or deliberate disinformation. His basic position is therefore unfalsifiable and must be classed as a dogma rather than a testable hypothesis.

Johnson regards all the witnesses who claimed to have personal knowledge of the existence of the Himalayan masters as either accomplices of HPB or dupes of HPB and her accomplices. Such witnesses include Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, William Quan Judge, T. Subba Row, Damodar K Mavalankar, Mohini Mohan Chatterji, S. Ramabadra Ramaswamier, Babaji D. Nath, Bhavani Shankar, William T. Brown, Godolphin Mitford, Franz Hartmann, Countess Constance Wachtmeister, and many others. At the end of his first book, Johnson writes:

Readers may wonder, if I portray HPB, Olcott, Damodar, Mohini and Ramaswamier (the major witnesses to the Mahatmas’ existence) as liars, how do I select the evidence which is deemed reliable? Hostile critics may suspect that it has been a simple matter of picking and choosing only those bits of evidence which confirm my hypotheses. While this may be to some extent an inevitable human failing, it seems less characteristic of the foregoing explorations than of the pro- and anti-Theosophical approaches of my predecessors. (ISM 260)

Picking and choosing only those bits of evidence which confirm his “hypotheses” is a very accurate description of Johnson’s method. Most of the information reported about M and KH etc. by the above witnesses is rejected as false because it is inconsistent with or contradicts his “identifications”. But he is quite happy to use any information provided by the same witnesses if it seems to support his beliefs.

Johnson’s search for evidence sometimes takes on an air of desperation, and at times he indulges in what John Algeo calls “Wonderland logic”, whereby lack of evidence becomes evidence (Theosophical History, July 1995, p. 244). For example, a report in the January 1884 Theosophist states that when Olcott, Damodar, and W.T. Brown arrived in Lahore on 18 November 1883, “His Highness Raja Harbans Singh and other Sirdars sent their conveyances to bring the party to their quarters”. Johnson says that the reference to “other Sirdars” is “most intriguing”, and that “the lack of any mention of Thakar Singh’s name seems inevitable if he was indeed the Master K.H.” (TMR 160). Does this mean that if Thakar Singh’s name had been mentioned, Johnson would have regarded it as a contradiction of his hypothesis?! Johnson has no difficulty believing that Mahatma M is based on the Maharaja of Kashmir, even though the latter is mentioned by name on several occasions by HPB, Olcott, and Damodar.

Many details about KH’s travels in Tibet, India, Sikkim, Japan, China, and other parts of Asia in the period 1880 to 1884 emerge from the letters written by KH and HPB (see Guide 389-99). As far as Johnson is concerned, most of this information is pure fiction. However, since Thakar Singh lived in Amritsar, in northern India, the references to KH’s visits to Amritsar, Lahore, and Kashmir are regarded as partly based on fact and as providing support for the identification of KH with Thakar Singh. All other details are dismissed as false. With such a selective approach, anything can be “proved”!

Most of the events in KH’s life, as reported in theosophical literature, are left unmentioned by Johnson. For example, in October 1881 KH retired to a secret location for a three-month samadhi. In a letter to Mrs Hollis-Billing, dated 2 October 1881, HPB states that KH has “now gone to sleep for three months to prepare during this Sumadhi or continuous trance state for his initiation, the last but one, when he will become one of the highest adepts” (The Theosophical Forum, May 1936, p. 344). She adds that his body lies in a stone tower in a beautiful location near a monastery. Mahatma M took over KH’s correspondence with Sinnett and Hume during this period. In one of his letters he wrote: “At a stone’s throw from the old Lamasery stands the old tower, within whose bosom have gestated generations of Bodhisatwas. It is there, where now rests your lifeless friend – my brother, the light of my soul, to whom I made a faithful promise to watch during his absence over his work” (MLC 87 / ML 219). In his first letter to Sinnett after his retreat, KH wrote: “I have been on a long journey after supreme knowledge, I took a long time to rest” (MLC 129 / ML 264). This important event in KH’s life is ignored by Johnson, presumably because he can find nothing remotely resembling it in Thakar Singh’s life. Most likely he regards it as pure fiction.

The following two incidents cannot be dismissed so easily:

(1) The Vega incident (OWMB 143-7; OW 169-75; Damodar 185-95). On 15 March 1882 the English spiritualist medium William Eglinton set sail from Calcutta in the Vega after a stay in India. At that time he was firmly convinced that the Himalayan “Brothers” were not real beings. On 22 March, KH, in his astral body (mayavi rupa), visited Eglinton on board ship. On the 24th, Eglinton wrote a letter to Mrs Alice Gordon, wife of Lt.-Col. W. Gordon, saying that KH’s visit had forced him to accept that the Brothers were distinct living persons. This letter, together with one to HPB, were transmitted to HPB and other witnesses in Bombay by occult means. The letter to Mrs Gordon was then tied together with a message from HPB and taken away again, and dropped down a few moments later among a group at Calcutta, comprising the two Gordons and Col. Olcott (the latter saw KH and M in their mayavi rupas outside the window).

(2) The Kiddle incident (Guide 384-8). On 10 December 1880, Sinnett received a letter from KH containing certain remarks about ideas, the remarks being attributed to Plato (MLC 37-9 / ML 22-4). In 1883 the spiritualist Henry Kiddle claimed in the English spiritualist organ Light that the remarks had been plagiarized from an address delivered by him in August 1880 and published the same month by the Banner of Light. However, when carefully read, the passage by KH is seen to be directed against what Kiddle was saying. Moreover, the wording indicates that something had gone wrong in the transmission of the letter. In a letter received by Sinnett in December 1885 (MLC 396-404 / ML 420-9), KH explained that he had composed the “Kiddle letter” while on a journey on horseback and had been in the saddle for 48 hours without sleep. The letter was “dictated mentally, in the direction of, and ‘precipitated’ by a young chela not yet expert at this branch of Psychic chemistry, and who had to transcribe it from the hardly visible imprint”. KH had been too tired to check it over. Two months previously, he had clairvoyantly surveyed the current state of spiritualism, and some of the ideas had remained impressed on his memory. KH then reproduced for Sinnett the much longer passage that he had originally dictated, taken from the astral record.*

*Victor Endersby comments: “Consider the howling logical absurdity of this ‘Kiddle Incident.’ Here is H.P.B. using all her cunning to build up these Mahatmas’ characterizations, according to [Richard Hodgson]; and she deliberately copies passages out of an organ of her worst enemies, the spiritualists, to put in a Mahatma letter! If she did that she couldn’t help getting caught – this genius at deception!” (HMM 159)

It would be interesting to hear Johnson’s view of these incidents and the possible involvement of Thakar Singh – his “prototypical” KH.

An important character in HPB’s largely fictional travelogue From the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan is Gulab Lal Singh, the Rajput ruler of a small central Indian state, who is depicted as possessing occult powers, and as the main companion of HPB and Olcott on their adventures. He is clearly based in part on Morya. Gulab Singh was also the name of the father of Ranbir Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, and Johnson believes that HPB’s use of the name Gulab Lal Singh supports his “identification” of M with Ranbir Singh.* He points out that Gulab Singh was “notorious for abuse of power and cruelty” (TMR 128). The worst accusation against his son, Ranbir, is that he tortured a half-brother to death by slowly lowering him into a cauldron of boiling oil at the rate of an inch a day, but Johnson adds that false accusations against the maharaja were frequent (ISM 144). Ranbir is also said to have continued “gruesome punishments” for cow-killers (TMR 129). In the main, however, he was a philosopher-king, a patron of learning, and a philanthropist for his people, and Johnson claims that HPB used him as the model for M’s virtues.

*Johnson is mistaken when he tries to make out that M was sometimes referred to as “Cashmere” or “Kashmiri”. It was actually KH (who is said to have been born in Kashmir) to whom these names were always applied, especially in the early days of the TS in New York (see Cards, part 5).

Ranbir had five wives and six children (ISM 269, 144) – a “virtue” not of course shared by HPB’s M! When Olcott met Ranbir in 1883 at the latter’s request, they had long discussions on Indian philosophy and religion, and Olcott says that the maharaja believed fully in the existence of living mahatmas (Johnson sees this as evidence that Ranbir was Mahatma M!). At Ranbir’s request, Olcott performed mesmeric passes and managed to relieve some of the pain caused by his illness. This was actually soon after Mahatma M had ordered Olcott to suspend his healings, as he was exhausting his vitality, having treated some 8000 patients during the previous 12 months (ODL 3:23). M is also said to have saved HPB’s life three times (CW 7:248; SD 1:555). Any details about M that are not based on Ranbir are simply dismissed by Johnson as imaginary or an attempt to conceal the fact that M was really Ranbir Singh.

In a series of Russian articles entitled The Durbar in Lahore, HPB describes an official occasion attended by the Maharajah of Kashmir. The maharaja failed to appear in the viceregal procession, finally arrived for the ceremony looking very pale, and left hastily at the end. At first the British suspected “Russian intrigues” and a deliberate attempt to snub the viceroy, but it turned out that the maharaja had taken a laxative that morning! This irreverent tone contrasts starkly with the manner in which HPB normally spoke about her master. She says, for example: “I venerate the Masters, and worship MY MASTER – the sole creator of my inner Self which but for His calling it out, awakening it from its slumber, would have never come to conscious being – not in this life, at all events” (LBS 104).

After A.P. Sinnett had been given notice to quit as editor of The Pioneer in November 1882, largely as a result of his interest in theosophy, the idea arose of founding a new paper, The Phoenix, with the backing of native capitalists. KH supported this plan and the masters instructed their chelas to help win support. The support was not forthcoming and the project collapsed. KH said that his own guru, the Chohan, had forbidden him to use any occult power otherwise the outcome might have been different. He told Sinnett that the Maharaja of Kashmir was “the prince first on the programme” – which Johnson sees as evidence of his identification of M with the maharaja (TMR 138-9). However, the maharaja ended up not supporting the project, partly due to A.O. Hume’s attacks on the TS – which surely puts a huge dent in the “identification” of Morya with Ranbir.

Johnson uses the fact that HPB concealed some elements of her past and occasionally gave out conflicting information as an excuse to reject “most if not all” of what she says about the masters as false (TMR 41-2). His attempts to make mountains out of molehills do not alter the fact that the overall picture that HPB presented of the masters and her relations with them, both publicly and privately, from her arrival in New York to her death is quite consistent. There are two main reasons why the accounts HPB provides about her past are sometimes contradictory. Firstly, her memory on such matters was far from perfect. She told Sinnett: “Everything is hazy, everything confused and mixed” (LBS 150). She said that she could hardly remember exactly where she had been in India since 1880, let alone the details of her travels several decades earlier. Secondly, she sometimes gave out fragmentary or misleading information because she believed that the public had no right to know about certain things that she considered sacred.

Regarding her first meeting with M, HPB wrote to Sinnett: “I cannot, I must not speak of this. I would not publish it for the world” (LBS 150). Although she provided Sinnett with a certain amount of information, it was not included in the biography that he was then compiling (Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky). There are certainly inconsistencies in the information she provided to Sinnett and others about her first meeting with M, but this appears to have more to do with her poor memory than an attempt to hide the truth. One of the few indisputable facts is that her sketchbook contains a pen and ink drawing of a harbour, beneath which is a note, obviously written in a moment of excitement, referring to a meeting with M, “the Master of my dreams”, at Ramsgate, on the English coast, on 12 August 1851. In Caves and Jungles (pp. 272-3) HPB relates that she first met Gulab Singh in England, sometime before 1853, where he had come in the company of a dethroned native prince. The deposed Maharaja of Lahore, Dalip Singh, arrived in England in June 1854, and some writers have concluded that HPB met M again around this time, though she made no explicit reference to this. Attempts to reconstruct HPB’s first meetings with M are inevitably speculative and interpretations vary (see HPB 44-7, 52; BHT 7-12; BTT 17-23).

Johnson’s version of HPB’s meeting with M is certainly in a class of its own as far as wild speculation is concerned. In his view, HPB did not encounter the Indo-Tibetan Morya (who did not exist), or Ranbir Singh (his “prototypical” M), but Giuseppe Mazzini, who lived in exile in London during most of the 1850s. He describes Mazzini as a prophet of Italian nationalism and claims that he was a mentor of HPB (TMR xi). He is alleging that HPB was so taken with Mazzini that she decided to invent an imaginary character – Morya – whose name began with the same letter, and later incorporated into his character the virtues of Ranbir Singh, whom Johnson speculates she may have met in Kashmir in 1857 and 1869. We are supposed to believe that she then maintained the existence of this semi-fictitious “M” for the rest of her life, falsely claimed to have stayed with him in Tibet, to have met him in his physical or astral body on many occasions, to have been in frequent communication with him, and to have been assisted by him in her writings. Johnson’s unsupported accusations concerning HPB’s persistent mythmaking and mendacity sound immeasurably more far-fetched than anything HPB relates about the masters. His tales belong to the popular genre of what HPB called “cock-and-bull stories” that have been spread about her (CW 11:363).

Some of the “discrepancies” which Johnson stumbles over are actually figments of his imagination. For example, he claims that KH’s home is variously said to be in Ladakh (Little Tibet), Kashmir, and Shigatse (see Gnat). In a letter to Mrs Hollis-Billing dated 2 October 1881, HPB wrote: “Morya lives generally with Koot-Hoomi who has his house in the direction of the Kara Korum Mountains, beyond Ladak, which is in Little Tibet and belongs now to Kashmire”. This is in keeping with Damodar’s statement that he made an astral journey to KH’s house at “the upper end of Cashmere at the foot of the Himâlayas” (Damodar 60). Several other statements to the same effect could be quoted (see D. Caldwell, Theosophical History, July 1990, pp. 92-4).

But Johnson then claims that HPB had told Sinnett and Hartmann that KH’s home was in Shigatse. He does not however provide any quotations to back up this assertion. In one letter to Hartmann dated 3 April 1886, HPB says that the Tashi Lama – who has his seat at Tashilunpo, near Shigatse – knows some of the masters, and that M and KH “are there, coming and going”, but she does not say that Shigatse is their main place of residence (The Path, March 1896, p. 370; BTM 84-5); in fact, in another letter to Hartmann (5 December 1886) she clearly indicates that Mahatma M did not live at Shigatse (The Path, January 1896, p. 299; HPB 95). However, M and KH travelled a great deal and certainly appear to have stayed at or near Shigatse fairly frequently (see MLC 103, 161, 435 / ML 254, 122, 367; LBS 361). Johnson also complains that it is not clear whether the headquarters of the Himalayan Brotherhood are supposed to be in Shigatse or in Ladakh, where Damodar said he had seen the “Chief Central Place” where initiations were held. But neither HPB nor the masters ever gave out the exact location of the main headquarters of the Brotherhood. In The Secret Doctrine (1:xxiii) HPB says that the chief seat of the brotherhood lies beyond the Himalayas, and that it has branches in China, Japan, India, Tibet, Syria, and South America.

Johnson quotes the following from a letter from M to Sinnett: “She [HPB] is forbidden to say what she knows. You may cut her to pieces and she will not tell. Nay – she is ordered in cases of need to mislead people . . .” (TMR v). By ending the quotation here, Johnson himself is guilty of misleading people, for it continues: “and were she more of a natural born liar – she might be happier and won her day long since by this time. But [she] is too truthful, too outspoken, too incapable of dissimulation: and now she is being daily crucified for it. . . . Martyrdom is pleasant to look at and criticise, but harder to suffer. There never was a woman more unjustly abused than H.B.” (MLC 134 / ML 272). Of course, if one has decided that the masters’ letters were probably written by HPB, then such testimony counts for very little – though Johnson is clearly quite happy to use it if it can be twisted to suit his purposes.

In a letter to an ES member in November 1889, HPB said that for 15 years she had spoken only the truth, depicting the mahatmas not as disembodied spirits but as living men, generally living beyond the Himalayas. She continues: “And still people will try to make out that I am a liar and deceiver, without even asking themselves why I should have invented such a preposterous and useless lie” (ICM 40). Johnson claims that HPB fictionalized her portrayal of the masters “to protect their privacy and the neutrality of the TS” (Theosophical History, Oct. 1995, p. 264). But this makes little sense, for it was no secret that several native Indian rulers, including Ranbir Singh, and the Singh Sabha, Thakar’s organization, were sympathetic to the TS. But Johnson is unable to supply a single piece of concrete documentary evidence suggesting that Thakar and Ranbir acted as HPB’s secret sponsors, teachers, and advisors, or were the prototypes for KH and M. No doubt Johnson sees this lack of evidence as “evidence” of how skilfully they covered their tracks! Even assuming that Ranbir and Thakar were dishonest and unscrupulous enough to condone or encourage the alleged fraud concerning the Himalayan masters, what did they stand to gain?

In Johnson’s view, HPB and her “confederates” were involved in outright deception and fraud on an unprecedented scale. He writes: “During her Indian period, HPB had gotten in over her head in a network of fraud and intrigue. The motive was political, at least in part, and in this Hodgson was correct. But the interests she served were Indian, not Russian . . .” (TMR 256). As far as HPB’s “political” motives are concerned, she certainly worked for the cultural and spiritual renaissance of India, and was in favour of peaceful social reforms; after the founders’ arrival in India, alliances or friendly associations were formed with various native Indian progressive bodies (BTM 82-4). But there is no evidence that she engaged in overt (or covert) political agitation, and, despite its faults, she was opposed to the overthrow of British rule, which was considered preferable to the alternative – dominance by Russia. She told Sinnett that according to Morya the British would not withdraw from India “till next century and that ‘late enough to see even Dennie an old, old man’ as K.H. said some time ago” (LBS 206). Dennie was Sinnett’s son, and if he had not died young, he would have been 79 when India became self-governed in 1947.

As regards HPB’s occult phenomena, Johnson says: “my own guess is that they were a combination of fraud and genuine psychism, done without the aid of the Masters, although with their foreknowledge and approval” (ISM 280). HPB was quite adamant that she had never produced fraudulent mahatma letters or phenomena. In July 1885 she wrote to Sinnett:

Of course, you all who believe in, and respect the Masters cannot without losing every belief in Them, think me guilty. Those who feel no discrepancy in the idea (Hume was one of such) of filthy lying and fraud even for the good of the cause – being associated with work done for the Masters – are congenital Jesuits. One capable of believing that such pure and holy hands can touch and handle with no sense of squeamishness such a filthy instrument, as I am now represented to be – are natural born fools, or capable themselves of working on the principle that “the end justifies the means.” . . . [H]ad I been guilty once only – of a deliberate, purposely concocted fraud, especially when those deceived were my best, my truest friends – no “love” for such one as I! At best – pity or eternal contempt. (LBS 102-3)

If Johnson’s theory is correct, these are the words of a bare-faced liar and hypocrite. Alternatively, if HPB is telling the truth, Johnson is guilty of a colossal “flapdoodle”.

In a letter written in October 1882, KH told Sinnett that there was one respect in which HPB was guilty of deception, or untruthful exaggeration:

it was when in the presence of phenomena produced she kept constantly denying – except in the matter of such trifles as bells and raps – that she had anything to do with their production personally. . . . She could never be made to realize the utter uselessness, the danger of such a zeal; and how mistaken she was in her notions that she was adding to our glory, whereas, by attributing to us very often phenomena of the most childish nature, she but lowered us in the public estimation and sanctioned the claim of her enemies that she was “but a medium”! . . . She can and did produce phenomena, owing to her natural powers combined with several long years of regular training . . . [W]hile fathering upon us all manner of foolish, often clumsy and suspected phenomena, she has most undeniably been helping us in many instances, saving us sometimes as much as two-thirds of the power used, and when [we] remonstrated [she answered that] her only joy was to be of some use to us. And thus she kept on killing herself inch by inch* . . . (MLC 295-6 / ML 312-3)

*Charles Ryan remarks: “Few, even of the theosophists, realized the great expenditure of vital energy required to precipitate matter out of the atmosphere into an astral matrix formed by the trained imagination and held by an intense act of will, and so apparently to ‘create’ objects, or to make writing appear on paper.” (BTM 113)

If Johnson were right about HPB’s fictionalization of the masters and the lengths to which she went to hide their “true” identities, she would have had to be an expert in the art of trickery, duplicity, and dissimulation, and a consummate actress. G.R.S. Mead, however, described her as “over-trustful of others and quite prodigal in her frankness” (OWMB 274). As well as being very outspoken, she had a very impulsive and excitable temperament, which the masters attributed partly to her occult training in Tibet (MLC 79-80 / ML 203-4; LBS 307). Alice Gordon wrote: HPB was “so constituted that in her case systematic deceit was impossible. She had neither the cunning nor the self-control needful for plotting and concealment; and she lived so openly among her friends that the many falsehoods about her are absurd to those who have lived in the same house with her” (Memory 68). Franz Hartmann wrote: “H.P.B. – as all who were acquainted with her will testify – was never capable of disguising herself, and any imposture, great or little, which she could have attempted, would have immediately been found out, even by a child” (Memory 65). Charles Ryan comments:

No charlatan would have either spoken or behaved so unceremoniously as she often did to persons whom she hoped to convince of her genuineness. No trickster would have dreamed of presenting fraudulent manifestations in the utterly casual and unmethodical way described by numerous witnesses. All this was part of her complex character which was curiously unsophisticated and childlike in many ways and as far removed from that of a cunning impostor as could be. She is known to have put her trust in the most disappointing people, even after being warned by her Master, though at other times she showed an amazingly keen perception of character. (BTM 106)

The masters told Sinnett that whatever HPB’s personal defects, she possessed “exceptional and wonderful endowments” and was thoroughly unselfish, and had been chosen by them as the most suitable agent for the task at hand – the revival of interest in some of the teachings of the ancient wisdom in order to strike the keynote of a new age (MLC 9, 124-5, 437 / ML 9-10, 263, 370).

There is overwhelming testimony to the occult phenomena performed by HPB (see The Occult World of Madame Blavatsky [OWMB], compiled by Daniel Caldwell). It certainly seems as if her occult powers were completely subject to her will and were far superior to those possessed by the average psychic or medium (who sometimes resort to fraud as a result of the unreliability of their “gifts”). One indisputable fact is that HPB was never caught faking any occult phenomena. If the phenomena performed by HPB and the mahatmas are genuine, there is no problem – except of course for dogmatic materialists, who naively dismiss the existence of an occult world out of hand. If, however, Johnson “guesses” that HPB sometimes resorted to fraud, it is up to him to provide plausible hypotheses to explain how particular phenomena might have been accomplished and with whose help. Hodgson and the Coulombs failed miserably in this regard, and it remains to be seen whether Johnson can come up with explanations that are less comical and far-fetched. So far he has not ventured beyond accusations.

In Johnson’s view, occult phenomena represent “extraordinary claims” and require “extraordinary proof”, and the testimony to such phenomena in theosophical literature is “dubious and ambiguous”. He asserts that his own explanation of HPB’s relationship with the masters “relies on ordinary factors and is based on ordinary historical evidence” (see Gnat). But while making such a claim, and accusing HPB of “fraud and intrigue”, he does not rule out the possibility that some occult phenomena may have been genuine. In fact he defines HPB’s masters as “her spiritual teachers and occult sponsors, highly evolved human beings with various paranormal abilities” (Theosophical History, Oct. 1995, p. 266). As far as astral visits by Mahatma M are concerned, for example, he says that, if genuine, such appearances might have been Ranbir Singh, because we don’t know whether or not he was capable of such phenomena. It doesn’t matter that, as Johnson admits (TMR 136), no evidence has come to light that would suggest that Ranbir Singh possessed any occult powers. If his theory requires Ranbir to be endowed with occult powers, then that he what he shall have! To avoid committing himself to such a groundless supposition, Johnson can always invoke the possibility of there being a “more plausible”, as yet unidentified candidate for M – though naturally we can rule out the Indo-Tibetan Morya, who did not exist because Johnson says he didn’t! For Johnson, almost anything is possible except the existence of the Himalayan mahatmas – and if this means dismissing everybody who testifies to the contrary as a liar or dupe, so be it.

3. The mahatma letters

Johnson writes:

Although the judgment of handwriting experts on the Mahatma/Blavatsky question is evenly divided, the most recent analysis, by Dr. Vernon Harrison, concludes that HPB did not write the letters analyzed by Hodgson. . . . Should the letters in the British Museum be definitely proven to have been written by another hand than Blavatsky’s, this would still leave open the possibility that they were composed by her and copied by a confederate. (TMR 175)

Richard Hodgson of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was convinced that HPB had written the mahatma letters. However, F.G. Netherclift and R. Sims, the two handwriting experts engaged by Hodgson for the purpose of his investigation, originally concluded that HPB had not written the KH letters they had examined. Hodgson then talked the matter over with them and supplied further handwriting samples, and as a result they changed their minds and declared that HPB had written all of them. Vernon Harrison describes Hodgson’s blatant efforts to influence the judgement of his experts as “highly improper”, and says that no English court would accept a report known to have been made in such circumstances (BSPR 16).

Harrison says that it is extremely hard to write page after page of original composition in an assumed handwriting and literary style, without reversions to normal practice (BSPR 40). After studying slides of all the mahatma letters in the British Library line by line, he says that he finds “no evidence of common authorship of the KH, M, and HPB scripts” (BSPR 56); he comments: “The scripts of both KH and M are far removed from the explosive bursts of HPB which suggest a Meteorological Office warning of the approach of Hurricane Helena” (BSPR 54). He says that A.P. Sinnett’s writing is much closer to KH’s than HPB’s is, but that it is sufficiently different to preclude the possibility that Sinnett forged the KH letters (BSPR 57-8). He is also satisfied that the mahatma letters were not dictated to chelas who wrote them in their own handwriting. He says that he is “left with the strong impression that the writers KH and M were real and distinct human beings” (BSPR 67).

Harrison’s conclusions are in line with the findings of two earlier handwriting experts. In 1886 two letters, one from HPB and one from KH, were submitted to Dr Ernst Schütze, calligrapher to the Court of the German Emperor, who concluded that there were “glaring differences” between them and that it would be a “tremendous error” to suppose that both had come from the same hand (LBS 348-50; Incidents 323-4). In 1963 three handwriting samples, from HPB, KH, and Damodar, were submitted to Dr Paul L. Kirk, one of the best-known handwriting experts in the US, who concluded that they were written by three different persons (HMM, 89, 132, 160). (See HPB 273-4.) So much for Johnson’s assertion that the judgement of handwriting experts is “evenly divided”.

A computer analysis of samples of writings by HPB, Mahatmas KH and M, and a control group of other writings has been carried out, focusing on such parameters as the number of syllables in words, and words in sentences, and the frequency of appearance of groups of prepositions and conjunctions. The results of the investigation were presented by Charles Marshall in a paper read at the international Modern Language Teachers Institute Conference in Leningrad in January 1980, and strongly support the view that HPB was not the author of the mahatma letters (HPB 274).

Johnson seems to think that HPB wrote at least some of the Morya letters (ITM 60), and he does not explicitly suggest that Ranbir Singh played any role in their production (indeed, with five wives and six children to attend to, Ranbir probably had little time or energy for correspondence!). Johnson is ambiguous about Thakar Singh’s supposed role in the production of the KH letters. His statement that Thakar Singh’s anticipated departure for England in the autumn of 1883 led him to resign temporarily from his role as Sinnett’s correspondent and that he may have resumed the correspondence after arriving in London (TMR 174) implies that Thakar did write some of the letters. But Johnson also says that HPB was the writer, and Thakar mainly a willing character and advisor (ISM 236-7), and that his suggestion that there was an agreement between HPB and Thakar about the KH letters “does not mean that Thakar necessarily wrote them, but rather that he approved and encouraged the correspondence” (Theosophical History, Oct. 1995, p. 267).

Johnson contends that Thakar and HPB produced the KH correspondence with the aim of converting Sinnett and Hume to the cause of Indian cultural revival and social reform (ISM 244). Why this could not have been done without inventing elaborate stories about supposedly fictitious Himalayan masters is not clear. Furthermore, the argument fails to account for the very broad range of scientific and metaphysical issues covered in the mahatma letters. Many letters relate to spiritualism, and reveal a profound knowledge of Sinnett’s spiritualist acquaintances in Britain. Several letters concern the organization of the British Theosophical Society. The Phoenix project, on which Johnson places such great emphasis, is referred to in only about a tenth of the letters, and only five letters are entirely devoted to this subject.

Despite the fact that Johnson believes that the “fantasy of the Mahatma letters” was produced by congenital liars, he still maintains that the letters are “timeless documents and treasures of spiritual teaching” (ISM 236). He is presumably referring mainly to the teachings on brotherhood and the spiritual path. Most of what the letters say about the masters themselves, the Himalayan Brotherhood, HPB’s training in Tibet,* and her role as their agent, he regards as false. He does not say what he thinks of the masters’ criticisms of materialistic science, or the teachings on cosmology and evolution, rounds and races, planes and globes, after-death states, etc., or where he thinks HPB might have obtained her ideas on all these subjects.

*Johnson alleges that HPB’s claims regarding her travels and studies in Tibet are “dubious” (ITM 177). For evidence supporting HPB, see HPB 80-104, and BTT 108-44.

Many of the masters’ letters contained criticisms of HPB’s actions, or instructions to various people about matters of which they wished her to remain ignorant, or instructions that were quite opposed to her own desires. At one point, for example, KH advised Sinnett not to oppose Anna Kingsford’s re-election as President of the London Lodge – against the wishes of both Sinnett and HPB, who regarded Kingsford – for all her intellectual gifts – as an insufferable snob. The difference of style between the letters of HPB and the masters is very marked, though in cases where she acted as the direct instrument of transmission her mind may have coloured the phrasing. Her own letters often show her to be in an agitated mood, whereas the mahatma letters are generally pervaded by an unruffled calm. In view of HPB’s often emotionally disturbed state of mind, her frequent serious illnesses, and the fact that she was involved in a constant round of exhausting activities, the idea that she could have composed the voluminous letters to Sinnett and Hume, and managed a network of confederates dedicated to producing bogus letters and phenomena without ever being found out is quite ludicrous – even supposing she had the warped mentality to attempt such a fraud.

Since some of the mahatma letters were received when HPB was thousands of miles away, she obviously could not have been responsible for composing all of them. If the letters were really an imposture, then HPB would have required a large network of confederates and fellow-conspirators, at least some of whom would have needed to be able to write fluently in the scripts of the various masters and in their distinct literary styles. As already mentioned, Vernon Harrison rejects this hypothesis. If Johnson seriously believes that Ranbir and Thakar, or Olcott, or some of the chelas wrote any of the mahatma letters by ordinary means, he ought to have samples of their handwriting examined by other experts. If he believes that occult methods were not employed, he needs to present plausible hypotheses to explain how specific letter “frauds” could have been accomplished.

Neither M nor KH claimed that the letters were written in their own handwriting. The M letters received in the New York days and until the end of 1881 are in a script which is small and neat. The last letter in this script was received by Ramaswamier at the TS Headquarters in Bombay on 28 December 1881. On the same occasion, a brief note of one sentence was received by Olcott in a third script, but with the usual signature. All subsequent letters from M, and all those received by Sinnett from October 1881 onwards, are in a different script, which is difficult to decipher (LMW 2:66, 75; ODL 1:256-7). Although Vernon Harrison believes that all the KH letters originated from the same person, he points out that in some of the early letters in particular some of the characters show variations. However, these “do not bare the hallmark of the apprentice forger. They seem to have been introduced by the method (unknown) of transmission of the Letters” (BSPR, Affidavit, 2). If Johnson rejects the occult explanation for the different scripts and their variations, he should try to identify which “confederate” was responsible for each one.

The physical appearance of the letters also needs to be explained. In many of the documents apparently written in blue pencil, the writing is built up not of normal pencil strokes, but of thin, diagonal lines, spaced with extreme precision. Harrison has tried to imitate the effect by writing with the paper supported on ribbed bookcloth, but failed to get the same clean, sharp effect. As regards letters apparently written in black ink, the writing seems to be within the paper rather than on the surface; the ink has not faded and there is little ink penetration even where thin rice paper is used. This contrasts with the ordinary writing inks of the period, which generally fade in the course of a century to brown or yellow or even complete invisibility, as well as penetrating right through thin paper. In some letters corrections have been made; erasures seem to have been made with a chemical ink eradicator, yet there is no staining or roughening of the paper. (BSPR 31-2, 45-6; see also MTL 109-22; BTT 222-99.)

Here are five examples of occult phenomena involving the production of mahatma letters. None of them are referred to by Johnson, no doubt because they are “entirely useless in identifying prototypes for M. and K.H.” – i.e. they do not lend support to Johnson’s pet theory.

(1) In June 1882, a number of people were gathered together at Bhavnagar, including an atheist and two theosophists. Neither Olcott nor HPB were present. The group was debating the probability of the existence of the mahatmas. During their discussion, a triangular folded piece of paper came fluttering down. It was addressed to “the honourable doubting company”, and began: “Foolish are the hearts who doubt of our existence! or of the powers our community is in possession of for ages and ages.” (LMW 2:147; MTL 266-7; BTT 404-5)

(2) In August 1883 Major-General H.R. Morgan visited the TS headquarters. When Mme Coulomb opened the door to the “shrine” (a cabinet in which letters were sometimes transmitted and received) so that he could examine KH’s portrait, a China tray fell out and shattered. The pieces were tied in a cloth, and placed in the shrine. Five minutes later, Damodar, who was sitting opposite the shrine, and had seemed wrapped in reverie, exclaimed: “I think there is an answer.” The doors were unlocked and a small note, in the KH handwriting, was found, which read: “To the small audience present. Madame C– has occasion to assure herself that the Devil is neither so black nor so wicked as he is generally represented; the mischief is easily repaired.” (This was a playful reference to Mme. Coulomb’s belief that many of the wonderful occurrences at the headquarters were the work of the devil.) When the cloth was untied, the China tray was found to be perfectly restored. (Damodar 341-4; MTL 285-8; HMM 281-7; CW 6:418-9)

(3) In February 1884, while discussing TS matters with HPB, Dr Franz Hartmann decided to ask her opinion regarding a certain subject he had been thinking about. HPB advised him to put his question to her master mentally. Mme Coulomb then came into the room and asked for a pair of pincers. Remembering he had a pair in the drawer of his writing desk, Hartmann went downstairs, took the pincers out of the drawer, and was about to close it when he saw a large envelope. It was addressed to him, in M’s handwriting, the seal bearing his initials in Tibetan characters. The long letter included a detailed answer to his question and an explanation of certain matters which had been at the forefront of his mind for some time but which he had not mentioned to HPB. Hartmann says that the letter must have been written, sealed, and put into the drawer in less than four minutes, while it took him exactly 40 minutes to copy it the next day. This convinced him of the masters’ authenticity. (OWMB 166-70; MTL 293-5)

(4) On 1 August 1884 Olcott left Elberfeld with Dr Hübbe Schleiden by train for Dresden. They were seated in a carriage with other passengers, when Hübbe Schleiden received a letter from KH which answered a question he had just put to Olcott (LMW 2:124-5; HMM 257-8). He saw the letter between his body and the next passenger when resuming his seat after handing their tickets to the guard. Olcott comments: “The case seems free of taint of fraud, but the kind, generous S.P.R. critic who reviews it hints at the possibility of an agent of (the penniless) H.P.B. having been in the train with us! Really, with such people is it worth while to waste time in taking them seriously?” (ODL 3:175)

(5) On 25 August 1884, a group of people, mostly theosophists, were sitting in the Gebhards’ drawing-room at Elberfeld. HPB said she felt the presence of the masters, and asked the group what they would like the masters to do for them. The group asked for a letter, addressed to Gustav Gebhard on a subject he would mentally decide himself. HPB stated that she had seen a ray of light shooting in the direction of a large oil painting hanging over the piano, and Laura Holloway and Mrs Gebhard said they had also seen something. Gustav’s son, Rudolf, climbed onto the piano, lifted the picture away from the wall, but not off the hook, and looked behind it, but found nothing. HPB told him to look a second time, but again he found nothing. As he turned to HPB, she exclaimed, “I see the letter; there it is!” He quickly turned back to the picture and saw a letter dropping from behind it onto the piano. It was addressed to “Herr Consul G. Gebhard”, and contained the information he had just asked for about one of his sons who was in America. Rudolf had always taken a great interest in conjuring tricks but was certain that no sleight-of-hand had been involved (OWMB 188-91).

If Johnson has “ordinary”, materialistic explanations for these events, it would be interesting to hear them, and to see whether they are not more “extraordinary” than the occult explanation. For example, Mrs Sidgwick of the SPR suggested that in the Gebhard incident (no. 5), a confederate had been present. Victor Endersby comments: “With this quick pat she dismisses this hot potato entirely, perhaps realizing just a little too late that the notion of a confederate involves one who could read the senior Gebhard’s mind, write a letter in a few seconds in correct Mahatma script in the middle of the crowd, then heave same at the picture, presumably through Rudolf’s torso, unobserved, with everybody’s eyes fixed breathlessly on Rudolf and the picture, and the space between” (HMM 259).

Sinnett was convinced that the letters he received from KH were not composed by HPB, partly because KH’s literary style was quite different from hers. He regarded the “telegram incident” as positive proof of KH’s independent existence. On 24 October 1880 Sinnett was at Simla and wrote a letter which he sent by registered mail to HPB in Amritsar for transmittal to KH. HPB received the letter at 2 pm on the 27th, as shown by the delivery postmark on the envelope, and immediately transmitted it by occult means to KH, who says he received it on a train 30 miles beyond Rawalpindi five minutes later. He sent a telegram to Sinnett in Allahabad from the next station, Jhelum, at 4.25 pm the same afternoon (MLC 15-16 / ML 12-13; MTL 387-8). KH commented that unless HPB “had the gift of flying from Amritsar to Jhelum – a distance over 200 miles – in two minutes, how could she have written for me the dispatch in my own hand-writing at Jhelum hardly two hours after your letter was received by her at Amritsar?” (MLC 26 / ML 19). On KH’s advice, Sinnett later obtained the handwritten copy of the telegram; it was written by KH with his own hand, and the calligraphy is not the same as that adopted for use in the correspondence with Sinnett and Hume, which was generally transmitted via chelas (MTL 387-8). Johnson refers to this “alleged paranormal communication” (TMR 155-6), but does not offer an alternative explanation or discuss the possible role of Thakar Singh, his “prototypical” KH.

Another event that convinced Sinnett of KH’s existence happened shortly before the above incident. On the night of 19 October 1880 Sinnett woke up for a moment, then lost consciousness and woke again in an adjacent room, conscious but not in his body. There he caught a glimpse of KH and another adept (whom Olcott later identified as Serapis). The next morning Sinnett found a letter from KH, saying: “In dreams and visions at least, when rightly interpreted there can hardly be an ‘element of doubt.’ . . . I hope to prove to you my presence near you last night by something I took away with me. Your lady will receive it back on the Hill . . . ” (MLC 10 / ML 10). Later that day a brooch belonging to Patience Sinnett was materialized inside her cushion, in the presence of many witnesses (OWMB 134-8; OW 95-100). If Johnson suspects that the astral visit and materialization of the brooch involved trickery, perhaps he would like to suggest how HPB/Thakar/unnamed confederates accomplished these remarkable stunts.

Sinnett mentions further evidence that occult powers were involved in the production of the mahatma letters:

In one or two cases I have got back answers from Koot Hoomi to my letters in my own envelopes, these remaining intact as addressed to him, but with the address changed, and my letter gone from the inside, his reply having taken its place. In two or three cases I have found short messages from Koot Hoomi written across the blank parts of letters from other persons, coming to me through the post . . . (OW 125)

HPB wrote a letter to Sinnett about the Kiddle incident on 17 November 1883, and when Sinnett received it he found that several lines had been erased and in their place was precipitated the following note in KH’s writing: “True proof of her discretion! I will tell you all myself as soon as I have an hour’s leisure” (LBS 67). In another letter to Sinnett later the same month, complaining about the masters’ insistence that Anna Kingsford remain President of the London Lodge, she wrote: “I suppose Mahatma K.H. played first fiddle and my Boss [M] second as usual. I have as you say to obey.” When Sinnett received this letter he found a brief comment from M precipitated next to the last sentence: “Quite so for it is the best policy” (LBS 72).

On 2 November 1880, while recovering from Punjab fever, HPB wrote Sinnett a letter from Lahore (LBS 6-7) in a state of emotional distress, caused by an insulting letter from Hume and an item in the Bombay Gazette containing several innuendos about her being a Russian spy. She told Sinnett that she had written a statement repudiating the “stupid and vile insinuation” in the Gazette and had sent it to him with the request that he publish it in The Pioneer. She had done this even though KH had tried to persuade her that it would be far better to let Sinnett write a few editorial comments on the matter. Much to her annoyance, this letter had been lost, and she accused KH of playing a trick on her and disposing of her first letter, saying that she did not “hold it as friendly on his part”. “If I am so useless and foolish why don’t they annihilate me?” she asked, and ended: “Oh, I have enough of this old carcase!” When Sinnett received this letter, he found that KH had added some calm and dignified remarks in explanation of her outburst, using it to give him a lesson on the duality of human nature.

On 21 October 1880, HPB and Olcott left Sinnett’s mountain residence at Simla for Amritsar, and Johnson speculates that HPB met Thakar Singh on that trip and finalized an agreement with him concerning the deception of Sinnett with bogus “KH” letters (TMR 154). However, Sinnett received his first letter from KH at Simla on 17 October 1880, and received another long letter and three short notes before HPB’s departure for Amritsar. It is worth remembering that the first mahatma letter, written in French in the KH script, was received in Odessa, Russia, on 7 November 1870, by Nadyevhda de Fadeyev, HPB’s aunt. It reassured her that HPB, who was then away on her travels, probably in Tibet, was in safe hands and would return before 18 new moons had risen (LMW 1:84, 132-4, 2:3-5; CW 6:274-7; HPB 102-3; MTL 17-20). Fadeyev says that it was delivered “by a messenger of Asiatic appearance, who then disappeared before my very eyes”. M later indicated that it was he who had delivered it (MLC 102 / ML 254). Johnson says that the statement by Vera de Zhelihovsky, HPB’s sister, in 1892 that HPB’s relatives had never heard of her Indian masters until she started writing about them in letters from New York contradicts her aunt’s claim to have received this letter (TMR 41). He is apparently insinuating that she was yet another of HPB’s accomplices! This is rather unlikely, however, for HPB said that she did not like to speak to her aunt about the masters due to her fierce religious orthodoxy (LBS 154).

Thakar Singh was planning to go to England in the fall of 1883 to visit his cousin Dalip Singh, but the authorities refused permission. Nevertheless, he was in England by late 1884, and remained there until late summer 1885. Johnson speculates that “his plans and preparations for the trip led him to resign temporarily from his role as correspondent to Sinnett”, and he claims that Olcott was selected to fill the gap (ITM 34). In evidence, he quotes two letters to Olcott from the masters. On 13 June 1883 Olcott received a letter from Hilarion, beginning: “You are asked by Maha Sahib to put your whole soul in answer to A.P.S. [Sinnett] from K.H. Upon this letter are hinged the fruits of the future. Let it be one that can be shown with honour to every one including Crookes” (LMW 2:85). (The scientist Sir William Crookes had begun to show an interest in theosophy, and he joined the TS on 20 November 1883.) Two days later Olcott received a letter from M, warning him: “Be careful about letter to Sinnett. Must be a really Adeptic letter” (LMW 2:86).

Johnson does not say who he thinks wrote these letters, but he claims that they are urging Olcott to fabricate a letter to Sinnett from KH. This is illogical. For if Olcott believed in the masters – i.e. if, in Johnson’s view, he was a dupe rather than a confederate of HPB – he is unlikely to have been instructed to concoct a mahatma letter. And if Olcott was already party to HPB’s alleged fraud, why would he have received instructions in the handwriting associated with two supposedly mythical masters? If Johnson believes that Olcott wrote any of the KH letters that Sinnett received in the months leading up to Thakar’s arrival in London, he ought to take steps to have Olcott’s handwriting compared with KH’s. Vernon Harrison, at any rate, sees no resemblance between them. Moreover, if, as Johnson suggests elsewhere, Thakar may not have written any of the KH letters himself, no “replacement” was necessary.

A more reasonable interpretation of the two letters to Olcott is that he was being told to write a careful letter to Sinnett – in his own handwriting and over his own signature – to convey certain information from KH. Whether such a letter was written is not known. We do know, however, that KH instructed Olcott to write to Sinnett on several occasions. On one occasion he was ordered to “tell Sinnett the whole truth about the message which I gave you in London [in January 1879] about the 100 pounds in Mrs. Billing’s and Upasika’s [HPB’s] presence” (MLC 351 / ML 415-6). In his own letter to Sinnett, KH mentions that he has asked Olcott to write to him. Olcott enclosed the note from KH with his own reply to Sinnett (received in January 1883). In a letter received the next month, KH mentions that he has asked Olcott to send Sinnett the necessary official authority to reform the arrangements concerning membership fees (MLC 364 / ML 202).

On 26 May 1883, Olcott received a letter from KH containing information for Sinnett about the Phoenix project. The letter ends: “This is ‘a K.H. letter’ and you may say to Mr. S. from – K.H.” (MLC 370-2 / ML 371-2). Olcott sent Sinnett this letter, perhaps instead of writing himself, and Sinnett received it in mid-June. That Olcott did not always accurately convey to Sinnett the information the masters asked him to pass on emerges from a letter Sinnett received in late February 1883, in which KH says that Olcott had presented M’s views “in a somewhat crooked shape” (MLC 365 / ML 383). This may be one of the reasons why, in the two notes quoted by Johnson, the masters advise Olcott to write a careful and “adeptic” letter. That these two notes should be cited as “proof” that Olcott was involved in concocting bogus KH letters is an indication that Johnson is scraping the bottom of the barrel in his trawl for “evidence”.

According to Johnson, “Thakar Singh may have resumed the correspondence after arriving in London. By then Sinnett had relocated there, and he did receive letters from K.H. mailed in London during Thakar’s stay” (TMR 174). The last part of this statement is inaccurate (it is not repeated in ITM, p. 34). Sinnett is not known to have received any letters mailed in London during the period in question. He did, however, receive one KH letter mailed in Bromley, Kent, England, on 9 October 1884. Sinnett returned to London from Elberfeld on the same day, and received the letter on the 10th. (HPB arrived in London from Elberfeld on 6 October and left for Liverpool on 1 November.) The letter is in the KH script, but the writing on the envelope is not. The letter begins:

For reasons perfectly valid though not necessary for me to enter into in detail, I could neither answer your letter at Elberfeld, nor transmit it to you through L.C.H. [Laura C. Holloway]. Since it has become impossible to utilize the main channel – H.P.B. thro’ which I have hitherto reached you, because of your [estranged] personal and mutual relations with her I employed the common post. Even this required more expenditure of power from a friend, than you can imagine. (MLC 434 / ML 366-7)

The identity of this “friend” is unknown.

It is not known whether any of the other letters Sinnett received from KH during Thakar’s stay in England were posted in that country, as Sinnett rarely kept the envelopes (perhaps he only kept them if they indicated that the letters had followed unusual routes). However, C.W. Leadbeater received his first letter from KH at midday on 31 October 1884 on returning to his home in Bramshott, Hampshire, from London, where he had gone to say farewell to HPB. The letter was received by post, and the postmark shows that it was mailed in Kensington, a district in west London, the previous day; in this case, both the letter and the writing on the envelope are in the KH script (LCWL 6-14, 97). Leadbeater returned to London the same afternoon, and a second letter to him from KH was precipitated on HPB’s upturned palm in the presence of Leadbeater and others at around midnight (LMW 1:113-5; LCWL 47-52). If Johnson wishes to pursue a possible Thakar Singh connection, he could have specimens of Thakar Singh’s handwriting compared with the handwriting on the envelope of the first letter, and with the KH script itself, and also try to find out Thakar’s whereabouts on 9 and 30 October 1884. This could at least produce something more concrete than his usual speculations.

Johnson provides a further relevant piece of circumstantial evidence. On 1 April 1884, HPB sent a letter to Alexis Coulomb, just after she had been warned of the Coulombs’ threats in Adyar. She wrote: “If you compromise me before Lane-Fox, Hartmann and the others – ah well, I shall never return to Adyar, but will remain here or in London where I will prove by phenomena more marvellous still that they are true and that our Mahatmas exist, for there is one here at Paris and there will be also in London.” Johnson points out that this letter was written in the middle of Jamal ad-Din’s stay in Paris (whom he claims to be a “theosophical master”*) and five months before Thakar Singh’s arrival in London (ISM 263-4). Johnson does not say whether he has investigated on what date Thakar finally received permission to visit England and whether HPB could have known of this in April 1884.

*Johnson describes Jamal ad-Din as a Persian political organizer, religious reformer, and leader of subversive movements throughout the Muslim world (TMR xi).

On an earlier occasion, 26 March 1881, Sinnett, who was then in London, received through the mail a letter on rice paper from KH, written “from the depths of an unknown valley, amid the steep crags and glaciers of Terich-Mir [in the Hindu Kush mountains]” (MLC 54-6 / ML 240-2). The letter had been posted in France, and Sinnett’s address on the envelope was not in the KH script. KH had presumably transmitted it via a member of the adept brotherhood in France (MTL 83-5). Johnson does not say whether he has investigated whether one of his “historical adepts” was in France at that time. If there was, he ought to try to have this person’s handwriting compared with the handwriting on the envelope and the KH script. It is interesting to note that in January 1879, during HPB and Olcott’s brief stay in England en route to India, a “Scotch” Brother was involved in the occult transmission of a letter to C.C. Massey, and KH later explained to Sinnett that this was a reference to Brother H (Hilarion?), who was then in Scotland (MLC 352, 382 / ML 417, 385).

Johnson mentions that according to Margaret Conger’s Combined Chronology, the numbers of letters written by KH and M to Sinnett and Hume between 1880 and 1885 were as follows: 1880 – KH 15, M none; 1881 – KH 12, M 14; 1882 – KH 56, M 12; 1883 – KH 15, M none; 1884 – KH 12, M 2; 1885 – KH 1, M 1. He comments: “Sinnett’s departure from India in 1883 largely accounts for this pattern.” He says that the death of Ranbir Singh on 12 September 1885, “may explain the end of Morya’s correspondence in that year” – despite the fact that not even Johnson claims that Ranbir actually wrote any of the M letters. As it happens, Dr Hübbe Schleiden received at least one note from M in 1886, after Ranbir’s death (LMW 2:127; Echoes 1:321-9). Johnson continues: “KH’s [here equated with Thakar Singh] apparent loss of interest in the TS is best understood in light of the short-lived global conspiracy of which he was an instigator in his final years” (TMR 160). He explains that Thakar Singh’s final years were devoted to an international, anti-British conspiracy involving Mikhail Katkov (HPB’s former Russian publisher*) and Jamal ad-Din, aimed at restoring his cousin, the deposed Sikh Maharaja Dalip Singh, to the throne. Thakar Singh died on 15 August 1887, possibly of poisoning.

*In his first book, Johnson “identified” the Chohan with Katkov (ISM 133), whereas in his second book he identifies him with Khem Singh, a rich and reactionary Sikh aristocrat, whom HPB described as a disgusting parasite who indulged in drunken orgies (TMR 181). Have another guess, Mr Johnson!

Johnson forgets to mention here that in August 1888, a year after Thakar’s death, a letter from KH was precipitated in Olcott’s cabin on board the Shannon while he was on his way to England to discuss important business concerning the Esoteric Section with HPB. KH writes:

Just now, on deck, your thoughts about her [HPB] were dark and sinful, and so I find the moment a fitting one to put you on your guard. . . . H.P.B. has next to no concern with administrative details . . . But this you must tell to all:- With occult matters she has everything to do. We have not abandoned her; she is not “given over to chelas.” She is our direct agent. I warn you against permitting your suspicions and resentment against “her many follies” to bias your intuitive loyalty to her. (LMW 1:45-6)

Does this sound like the sort of letter a “confederate” would have received? Johnson refers to this letter in ITM (p. 198), but merely says that it was received “mysteriously”. He fails to explain why Olcott would have given HPB permission to publish such a critical letter in a pamphlet if he did not regard it as a genuine letter from KH (see CW 10:134-42).

KH added the following postscript to the above letter: “Prepare, however, to have the authenticity of the present denied in certain quarters.” This is a reference to Sinnett, who wrote to Leadbeater that the letter was “all just glorification of Mme. B”, and that, in his view, it had been written by chelas without the approval of the masters (LCWL 75). This indicates one of the main reasons why Sinnett’s correspondence with the masters came to an end.

The last known message in the KH writing was received by Annie Besant in London in 1900. She found it on the back of a letter she received from B.W. Mantri, a resident of Bombay, India. Among other things, it stated:

You have for some time been under deluding influences. Shun pride, vanity and love of power. . . . The cant about “Masters” must be silently but firmly put down. Let the devotion and service be to that Supreme Spirit alone of which one is a part. Namelessly and silently we work and the continual references to ourselves and the repetition of our names raises up a confused aura that hinders our work. . . . The greatest of your trials is yet to come. (The Eclectic Theosophist, Sept./Oct. 1987; LMW 1:99-100, 138-9)

The simplest explanation is that the message was added by the Indo-Tibetan KH by occult means while the letter was in transit. Vernon Harrison, however, regards it as a forgery (BSPR 46). He says that it is a good simulation of KH’s hand, but that the script shows imperfections, though he admits that these could be due to it being produced or transmitted under different conditions (letters of 3.6.97 and 23.8.97). Johnson is unable to attribute the message to his “prototypical” KH (Thakar Singh), who had been dead for 13 years, or to HPB, who had been dead for 9 years, but says that the author was “definitely an ideological ally of Olcott in the doomed struggle against worship of the Masters” (ITM 201). He does not discuss who might have had the motive, ability, and opportunity to intercept the letter to Besant and forge the message.

HPB herself occasionally received notes from the mahatmas. For example, on 8 September 1882, Francesca Arundale wrote HPB a letter, and when it was received, the following words were found to have been added in the KH script: “A good, earnest theosophist, a mystic whose co-operation ought to be secured thro’ you” (LMW 1:80-1). A note written by KH to HPB regarding Laura Holloway contains the following words: “I will not tell you her future; nor should you try to see. You know it is against the rules” (LMW 1:156). Would Johnson have us believe that HPB wrote these comments herself to fool later theosophists and historical researchers?

Although Johnson attempts to kill off Morya in 1885 (the year of Ranbir Singh’s death) and claims that “KH” (Thakar Singh) lost interest in the TS after 1885 as he was too busy organizing revolutionary conspiracies, and that he died in 1887, HPB does not seem to have noticed they had gone.* Her letters to Sinnett and others continue to refer to the masters in the same way as before. In particular, she speaks of their assistance with the writing of her masterwork, The Secret Doctrine; two “certificates” from M and KH (originally received by Hübbe Schleiden) confirm their involvement (see Echoes 1:321-9; BTT 246-51; ROT 12-21), as does the testimony of Countess Constance Wachtmeister and others (see Reminisce). It would certainly be inane to suppose that HPB could have produced The Secret Doctrine (or Isis Unveiled) without considerable assistance. She also made many references to the masters, including their advice and criticisms, in connection with the Esoteric Section, formed in 1888. Johnson’s claim that after 1885 HPB “rarely referred to the Masters” (TMR 10) is simply untrue. Did Ranbir and Thakar continue to guide HPB from beyond the grave, or does Johnson have “more plausible” historical candidates in mind?

*HPB wrote: “the true, the genuine ‘Masters,’ whose real names have, fortunately, never been given out, cannot be created and killed at the beck and call of the sweet will of any ‘opportunist,’ whether inside or outside of the T.S.” (CW 11:294)

The mahatma letters provide compelling evidence that Johnson’s version of theosophical history is untenable if not downright absurd. Their authors come across as real human beings, with distinct personalities, who are describing real events in a sincere and truthful manner. Johnson has not even begun to provide a plausible, alternative explanation for the production and content of the letters.

The Theosophical Mahatmas: Part 2

The Theosophical Mahatmas: Contents