The Theosophical Mahatmas

A Critique of Paul Johnson’s New Myth

David Pratt

November 1997


    1. Introduction
    2. Fact vs. fiction
    3. The mahatma letters
    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, and also 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 Himalayas” (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 a member of the Esoteric Section 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.

4. Chelas and confederates

Johnson states: “Hodgson’s suspicion that HPB and the supposed chelas of the Masters were engaged in a massive fraud was indeed accurate” (ISM 242). His claims concerning which chelas and associates of HPB were dupes and which accomplices differ somewhat from those of other critics. Johnson, like Hodgson, claims that Damodar was one of her main confederates, while the Coulombs – Hodgson’s “star” witnesses – claimed he was a dupe.* Hodgson regarded Olcott as a credulous fool, while Johnson believes he became a confederate after his arrival in India. Hodgson regarded Ramaswamier as a dupe, while Johnson says he was a confederate.

*Charles Ryan says that Mme. Coulomb “made only one attempt – a very feeble one – to inculpate [Damodar], seemingly in order to bolster up her reputation with Hodgson. In all her dealings with Damodar she treated him as a dupe, not a confederate.” (BTM 175)

Johnson writes: “Ramaswamier, Damodar, Pillai, Babaji and Mohini all believed in (or indeed knew of) the reality of the Mahatmas, wanted to help prove it, and were willing to use deception in order to mislead the public”– especially about where the masters really lived (see Gnat). But if the chelas knew that the Himalayan masters were a “myth”, why would they have received private letters in the handwriting associated with these supposedly nonexistent masters? If Johnson believes the chelas thought that the letters were written by Ranbir and Thakar, they obviously could not have been responsible for helping HPB to “forge” them. So who did?

The greater the number of confederates, the greater the chance of betrayal or exposure. Yet this apparently never happened. None of those who – in Johnson’s scenario – knew that the Indo-Tibetan KH and M were fictional or that Thakar Singh and Ranbir Singh were the “real” KH and M, ever disclosed this, not even those chelas who, as Johnson puts it, later “defected” from the TS. Babaji accused HPB for a time of desecrating the masters’ names by associating them with occult phenomena and said she had been abandoned by them. Subba Row, with his brahmin exclusiveness, at one time accused HPB of having been deserted by the masters, but when HPB took him to task, he answered that she had been guilty of the crime of giving out “secrets of occultism”, and that it was time to throw doubt into people’s minds (see LBS 95-6). But neither Babaji nor Subba Row ever claimed that the Himalayan masters were a sham.

Johnson cannot produce a single document that even faintly suggests that Ranbir and Thakar were the inspiration behind the characters of M and KH, or that Ranbir and Thakar acted as HPB’s secret teachers and advisors. A conspiracy on the scale Johnson is alleging, involving concocted letters, fraudulent occult phenomena and numerous cross-references by different people to supposedly fictitious people and events would have required tremendous planning and coordination. There is no documentary evidence for any such conspiracy. Even private correspondence between HPB and those who were supposedly her accomplices, or between the accomplices themselves fails to provide any genuinely incriminating evidence (e.g. see Damodar 467-9, 482-3). It is certainly remarkable that HPB seems to have found so many confederates who were willing to work for nothing – since she rarely had any money herself. Although Johnson is quite happy to accuse people of being liars and deceivers despite a complete lack of evidence, he never goes into much detail about how particular frauds and hoaxes might have been accomplished. The Coulombs at least realized that they would need to forge a bit of “hard” evidence to support their accusations that HPB had masterminded the production of bogus phenomena and letters. Johnson does not have so much as a fig leaf.

In September 1882 Ramaswamier received a letter from M with a message for Olcott: “Tell him that he but too often mistakes Upasika [HPB]. She is all he thinks her to be, and nothing what he suspects her of. Let him understand the riddle. She has never deceived him – only left him ignorant of many things in accordance with my orders” (LMW 2:96). If Johnson believes that this letter was written by HPB, the following situation emerges: Ramaswamier, whom Johnson regards as an accomplice of HPB, receives a letter from M (HPB), in the handwriting associated with the “nonexistent” M, telling Olcott – another of HPB’s “accomplices” – that she had never deceived him, but had sometimes left him ignorant of many things in accordance with M’s – HPB’s – orders (to herself)! This is typical of the absurdities to which Johnson’s hypothesis gives rise. If Johnson believes that this particular letter was not written by HPB but by a “co-conspirator”, an equally absurd situation arises: one conspirator (unnamed) writes in the script associated with a mythical mahatma to a second conspirator (Ramaswamier) instructing him to tell a third conspirator (Olcott) not to distrust the chief conspirator (HPB)! What a complicated business these conspiracies must be!

Johnson’s portrayal of Colonel Olcott – a crucial witness to the existence of the masters – is confused and contradictory. Olcott received ample evidence of the existence of adepts of various nationalities during the early days of the TS in New York. In 1877 he received an astral visit from Mahatma M which made a tremendous impression on him (ODL 1:376-81; OWMB 86-8; HPB 179-80; DTM 159-61). Johnson says that Olcott appears to have been Blavatsky’s dupe in the early days of theosophy, in the sense that she deliberately manipulated him with distorted portrayals of her masters, but that he gained considerable understanding of the real nature of the theosophical masters after the founders’ arrival in India (ISM 259).

In India, Olcott saw M in his astral body on several occasions, and met him in his physical body in Bombay on 15 July 1879.* In November 1883 he met the Maharaja of Kashmir – the supposed prototype of Master M. There is no doubt that as far as Olcott is concerned, Morya and the maharaja were two different people. In Johnson’s view, Olcott was lying, for he had by this time become a participator in HPB’s alleged fraud concerning the Tibetan masters. As we have seen, Johnson claims that Olcott was involved in forging mahatma letters to Sinnett in June 1883. He also speculates that after HPB’s death Olcott may have revealed some of the secrets about the “real”, “historical” masters behind the TS to Annie Besant (ITM 197-8). Olcott was often severely reprimanded by the masters, especially for his attitude towards HPB. In a note received in 1884, M wrote: “These are foolish, insane ideas of yours about Upasika [HPB], Henry, wretched thoughts ... You are ungrateful and unjust, and even cruel” (LMW 2:89-90). If Olcott was party to the supposed fraud, he would hardly have received such a note.

*For Daniel Caldwell’s trenchant critique of Johnson’s double standards regarding Olcott’s encounters with adepts, see Cards, parts 1 & 2.

Johnson is saying that after deceiving and lying to Olcott for a long time with stories about “fictitious” mahatmas, HPB finally came clean in India and told him the truth – i.e. that her Tibetan mahatmas were masks for the historical figures identified by Johnson. Yet instead of turning on her and exposing her, Olcott then joined in the fraud, thereby showing himself to be as unscrupulous and dishonest as HPB supposedly was. He continued to endure her sometimes vehement tirades against his “flapdoodles”, and even meekly allowed himself to receive bogus messages in the handwriting of “mythical” masters reprimanding him for being unjust to HPB! A reading of Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves and other writings, and the letters he received from the masters, lends no support whatsoever to Johnson’s bizarre fantasies. As Olcott himself said: “If [HPB] was the unmitigated trickster alleged I should have been the first to know it, and must have been her accomplice. Some, after vainly trying to impeach my own character have put forth the paltry theory that my integrity is saved at the expense of my intelligence; in short, that if not a knave I must be a perfect fool! But my past proves me to have been neither the one nor the other” (DTM 4).

In June 1883, Olcott received a letter from M with an enclosed letter to Subba Row, in which M reproaches Subba Row for not doing enough to win support for the Phoenix, and for not doing enough for the Madras branch of the TS. Johnson does not say who he thinks wrote these letters, nor whether he thinks Olcott received them paranormally. Regarding the delivery of the letter to Subba Row, M tells Olcott: “Pass it off to him someway” (LMW 2:81). Johnson says that this sounds like a suggestion to deliver the letter in a way intended to make it seem paranormal (ITM 34), and he sees this as an indication that Olcott was “caught up in a web of deceit” (ISM 261).

That this is a gross exaggeration will become clear from a consideration of some pertinent remarks about the delivery of letters that KH makes in an often humorous letter to Sinnett in August 1882 (MLc 230-7 / ML 294-302). KH says that he finds himself in an embarrassing situation with regard to Hume, as a result of entrusting his correspondence into the hands of M. “The wretch laughs since yesterday,” he says, “and to confess the truth I feel inclined to do the same.” He explains that since they had two regular chelas at Simla plus an “irregular” one – the candidate Fern – he “conceived the unfortunate idea of saving power”. Edmund Fern was a secretary to Hume and was for a time a chela of M. In September 1882 M wrote: “Fern was tested and found a thorough Dugpa* in his moral nature. . . . Had I hinted to him to deceive his own father and mother he would have thrown in their fathers and mothers in the bargain” (MLc 278 / ML 270).**

*The general meaning of dugpa is any person who makes mischief or does harm.
**Johnson quotes from a letter to Fern in which M comments that “one so high in a Society that neither tolerates not practices deceit, could not care to belong to our poor Brotherhood that does both – regarding its probationists”. Johnson sees this as “an admission of deception” (ISM 261). He neglects to point out that the letter concerned is a masterpiece of irony and that when read in context the above remark takes on a very different complexion (LMW 2:142-5).

KH says: “Another of our customs, when corresponding with the outside world, is to entrust a chela with the task of delivering the letter or any other message; and if not absolutely necessary – to never give it a thought.” He goes on to describe the delivery of three letters to Hume, stressing that “No one has ever attempted a deliberate deception, nor would anyone be permitted to attempt anything of the sort”:

The first letter – the one found in the conservatory – I gave to M. to have it left at Mr. H.’s house by one of the two regular chelas. He gave it to Subba Row – for he had to see him on that day; S.R. passed it in the ordinary way (posted it) to Fern, with instructions to either leave it at Mr. Hume’s house, or to send it to him through [the] post, in case he were afraid that Mr. H. should ask him – since Fern could not, had not the right to answer him and thus would be led to telling an untruth.* Several times D.Kh. [Djual Kul] had tried to penetrate [in his mayavi rupa] into Rothney Castle [Hume’s home], but suffered each time so acutely that I told him to give it up. ... Well, Fern did not post it but sent a friend – his dugpa – to leave it at the house and the latter placed it in the conservatory about 2 a.m. This was half of a phenomenon but H. took it for an entire thing, and got very mad when M. refused as he thought to take up his answer in the same way [i.e. by occult means]. Then I wrote to console him, and told him as plainly as I could say, without breaking M.’s confidence in relation to Fern that D.K. could do nothing for him, at present, and that it was one of Morya’s chelas that had placed the letter there, etc., etc. I believe the hint was quite broad enough and no deception practised?** The second letter, I think, was thrown on his table by Dj. Khool ... and, as it was done by himself it was a pukka orthodox phenomenon and Hume has no need to complain. Several were sent to him in various ways – and he may be sure of one thing: however ordinary the means by which the letters reached him, they could not be but phenomenal in reaching India from Tibet. But this does not seem to be taken into any consideration by him. And now we come to the really bad part of it, a part for which I blame entirely M. for permitting it and exonerate Fern, who could not help it.

*KH writes in the same letter: “when we take candidates for chelas, they take the vow of secrecy and silence respecting every order they may receive.”
**In a letter received by Hume on 30 June 1882, KH wrote: “It was one of M’s chelas who left [my letter] for you in the flower-shed, where he entered invisible to all yet in his natural body ...” (MLc 170 / ML 45)

... Fern had received a letter of mine through a chela, with the injunction of causing it to reach its destination immediately. They were going to take breakfast, and there was no time to lose. Fern had thrown the letter on a table and ought to have left it there, since there would have been no occasion for him then, to lie. But he was vexed with H., and he devised another dodge. He placed the letter in the folds of Mr. H.’s napkin, who at breakfast took it up and accidentally shook out the letter on to the floor; it appears, to the terrible fright of “Moggy” [his wife] and the contented surprise of Hume. But, his old suspicion returning to him, ... Hume looks at Fern full and asks him – whether it was he who had placed it there. Now I have the entire picture before me of F.’s brain at that moment. There’s the rapid flash in it – “this saves me ... for I can swear I never put it there” (meaning the spot on the floor – where it had fallen) – No – he boldly answers. – “I have never put it THERE” – he adds mentally. Then a vision of M. and a feeling of intense satisfaction and relief for not having been guilty of a direct lie. ... Truly then, our friend [Hume] was taken in but once, but I would pay any price could I but recall the event and replace my letter with somebody else’s message. But you see how I am situated. M. tells me he gives me carte blanche to tell anything I like to you, he will not have me say a word to Hume; nor would he ever forgive you – he says, were you to interfere between the punishment of Hume’s pride, and – fate.

Clearly, then, in the masters’ opinion, there is no deception involved in a chela who has received a letter from a master by occult means, leaving it at the house of the person it is intended for. Deception only arises if the recipient is lied to about how it was delivered. KH ends with a warning to Sinnett: “Dark and tortuous as may seem to your Western mind the paths trodden, and the ways by which our candidates are brought to the great Light – you will be the first to approve of them when you know all. Do not judge on appearances – for you may thereby do a great wrong, and lose your own personal chances to learn more.”

Johnson claims that Damodar was one of HPB’s chief confederates, and that he probably colluded with HPB in deceiving Olcott (another accomplice!) (ISM 154). On one of his astral journeys in November 1883, Damodar thought he had seen HPB have an accident and fall on her knee; this was later confirmed by a telegram (Damodar 346-9). Olcott saw this as evidence of how Damodar’s psychic powers were developing, and commented:

There have been critics of limited acumen but great conceit, who wish us to believe that this might have been a vulgar conspiracy between Damodar and H.P.B. to deceive me; but I am not aware that it is likely that a fat woman of 16-stones’ weight would give herself a serious injury to her knee for the purpose of befooling me, when she might as easily have agreed with Damodar that he should have seen her doing something that would have been queer and yet harmless in itself ... (ODL 3:36)

Damodar received a letter from KH on 27 February 1884 when HPB was away in Europe (BTT 401-2; Damodar 528; LMW 1:62). It begins by telling him not to feel so dejected. Did Damodar go to the trouble of forging a letter to himself in the KH script to cheer himself up?! Since Dr Paul L. Kirk and Vernon Harrison see no resemblance between Damodar’s handwriting and the KH script, perhaps in this instance Johnson will prefer to abandon his preferred thesis (“ordinary” materialistic explanations for everything) and resort to the hypothesis that Thakar or one of his colleagues did in fact possess the advanced occult powers necessary to produce such a phenomenon. (And if he could do it once, why not many times?) The only thing Johnson absolutely rules out is that the theosophical masters were exactly who they said they were. He prefers to hurl groundless accusations of fraud at HPB, Olcott and the Hindu chelas than accept the existence of the Himalayan Brotherhood.

The Coulombs published their accusations against HPB in the Madras Christian College Magazine in September 1884. Five months later, Damodar left Adyar, intending to go via Darjeeling to join his master (KH) in Tibet. Despite unconfirmed reports of his frozen corpse being found, the “orthodox” view is that he arrived safely. But Johnson comes up with a much more dramatic (or rather tragicomic) scenario. Apparently, with the collapse of the “myth” of the Tibetan masters and HPB’s exposure as a fraudulent psychic (in the eyes of Johnson and the Christian missionaries at any rate), Damodar fled Adyar so that he could take on a new identity elsewhere. Johnson writes:

Alas for poor Damodar! The entire period of his attachment to the Headquarters had been extremely stressful, as he was HPB’s only truly trusted chela. Whatever the mysterious connection between the real Masters and the dubious phenomena, the secret died with him and HPB. But while she could rebound, as she had from so many other trials, his honour was destroyed and his only salvation was escape. Motivated by love for India and hope for reviving its degraded spiritual heritage, he had labored for the Masters and gained as his reward public humiliation as an accomplice of a fraudulent psychic. Small wonder that he felt he had no choice but to quietly disappear into “Tibet.” Damodar’s destination was probably neither the death by freezing to which Meade and her predecessors condemn him, nor the glorious reunion with Tibetan Masters as believed by Theosophists. In Kashmir or the Punjab, he was rewarded for his labors with a new identity and a new life in service to the real Masters whose existence was denied by Richard Hodgson. (ISM 257)

Johnson’s imagination appears to have run riot here! Contrary to what he implies, the Coulombs did not accuse Damodar of being HPB’s accomplice in the production of fraudulent phenomena; Hodgson did, but his report was not published until December 1885, 10 months after Damodar had left Adyar. In a series of letters and articles Damodar easily rebutted the Coulombs’ charge that they had helped HPB to defraud him with bogus letters. Anybody reading Damodar’s writings with an open mind is likely to be struck by his honesty and sincerity, and to agree with him that the Coulombs’ accusations against HPB are “absurd twaddle” – a description which might equally well be applied to Johnson’s accusations against Damodar.

Nor does Damodar’s diary in the days leading up to his final departure for his master’s ashram in April 1885 provide any evidence for Johnson’s wild claims (Damodar 12-15 / ODL 3:272-6). Damodar was in very poor health when he left Adyar. Olcott says that his delicate constitution was run down from overwork, and that he showed signs of consumption and had started spitting blood. Damodar hoped to be allowed to go to Lhasa with a certain Tibetan functionary, whom Olcott does not name, but who he says “is equally well known on both sides of the mountains, and makes frequent religious journeys between India and Tibet” (ODL 3:270). Elsewhere he calls the functionary “an ‘Avatari Lama,’ a very influential and mysterious Tibetan prelate” (BTM 100). After visiting various TS branches, Damodar reached Darjeeling on 1 April 1885, and agreed the details of his trip to Tibet with a representative of the functionary. He left Darjeeling on 13 April, and met up with the functionary on 19 April in the capital of Sikkim. To conceal his connection with the functionary, Damodar was ordered to go on ahead two days’ march and then wait for him. On 23 April Damodar left Kabi alone, sending back the coolies with his superfluous luggage and diary. Olcott later spoke to the chief coolie, who told him that on their return journey to Darjeeling they had passed the person who was following Damodar; the chief coolie “heard subsequently that the junction had been effected, and the caravan proceeded on towards the pass through the mountains” (ODL 3:278). Olcott says that Damodar had reached his destination safely and had written three times to two persons in India.

On 5 June 1886 Tukaram Tatya of Bombay wrote to Olcott to inquire after the fate of Damodar, from whom nothing had been heard since his departure for Tibet. (HPB was living in Germany at the time.) 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. (LMW 2:7; Damodar 18)

What would Johnson make of this? Was Thakar Singh taking time off from his international conspiracy to have a last fling concocting letters from “nonexistent” Tibetan masters? Or was it a hoax perpetrated by Olcott? If he suspects so, let him seek expert opinion on whether this letter might have been forged by Olcott.

*A reference to Damodar’s role in misleading Hodgson instead of telling him frankly that he was not allowed to speak about certain things (see LBS 122).

HPB asserted that she had received a letter from Damodar after his arrival in Tibet, that she had seen him astrally, and that he had written, at the dictation of the masters, some passages for The Secret Doctrine, which Sinnett had mistaken for Dharbagiri Nath’s writing (Damodar 18-20). A witness to Damodar’s safe arrival in Tibet was Sriman Swamy, who, in a letter published in The Theosophist for 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 HPB’s occult guardian since her infancy. He goes 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” (MTL 373-4). Perhaps Johnson would like to add Sriman Swamy to his list of fictitious characters or paid (?) impostors!

5. A “scheme of deception”?

R. Keshava Pillai was an Inspector of Police in Nellore, and became a probationary chela of KH in 1882. On 14 September 1882 in Bombay, in the presence of HPB, Mme. Coulomb, Tukaram Tatya, Damodar, and another theosophist, he received a letter from KH which fell from the ceiling. In it KH stated that he wanted to send two of his chelas to Simla to “confound the skeptics” among the theosophists there. Although they had two chelas at Simla, their vows prevented them from addressing a European before their final initiation. He had called “Deb” (another chela) to Darjeeling, and intended to send him to Simla with letters for Sinnett, “the best of all”. He asked Pillai if he wanted to accompany Deb, adding that “the task is easy and there will not be much to do for either but be silent, and successfully play their parts”. KH promised that if the mission was successful, he would permit some of their secrets to be taught to him. He told Pillai that if he placed his reply behind the Buddha’s statue he would find it gone after a few minutes (LMW 2:116-8). In a long account of his encounters with masters published in The Indian Mirror in March 1885 (ICM 24-35; see also Report 87-91), Pillai said that he did as instructed, and the letter disappeared.

That night he received an astral visit from KH, who told him, in Telugu, to go and see him beyond the Himalayas. The next day, 15 September, he and HPB started for the north. On 17 September, a letter from KH fell to his feet in the compartment of a railway carriage, while he was travelling between Allahabad and Mogul Sarai, a railway junction near Benares (Varanasi). The letter answered his thoughts and advised him to carry out the instructions received from Damodar and HPB. This involved a change of name to Chandra Cusho and a change of attire to a yellow robe and cap. KH also told him that he would receive further instructions from him at Darjeeling by post (LMW 2:118-9). Pillai met up with HPB again in Allahabad on 18 September, and they reached Chandernagore by train the next morning. There, he left HPB and travelled to Darjeeling, where he arrived the following evening, and met Babaji Dharbagiri Nath. Pillai continues:

We were both together until the 28th idem. We travelled together, both on horseback and on foot in Bhutan, Sikkim, etc. ... In the course of these travels, just about Pari or Parchong* on the northern frontier of Sikkim, I had the good fortune and happiness to see the blessed feet of the most venerated Master Kut Humi and M. in their physical bodies. The very identical personage whose astral bodies I had seen in my dreams, etc., since 1869, and in 1876 in Madras and on the 14th September 1882 in the head-quarters at Bombay. (ICM 34-5)

In Johnson’s view, this is a pack of lies. He accuses Pillai of lending himself for use in a “scheme of deception”, a conspiracy to prove the masters’ existence, while giving the impression that they lived in Tibet rather than northern India (ITM 28, 32).

*Phari Dzong is situated in Tibet, a few miles from the northwest frontier of Bhutan, on the route from Sikkim to Lhasa.

Soon afterwards, Babaji and Pillai delivered two letters to Sinnett from KH (and not from M, as Johnson mistakenly says [ITM 25]). In the covering letter, KH said that the other letter would be delivered by Dharbagiri Nath, one of his young chelas, and his brother chela, Chandra Cusho. He stated that they were forbidden to shake hands, or to enter anyone’s house without being invited to do so, and that Mrs Sinnett should not address them since they were forbidden by their religious laws to speak to a woman. He also told Sinnett that Dharbagiri Nath would collect his reply, and that he could invite him to come and talk with him as much as he liked (MLc 253-66 / ML 446-7, 178-91).

Pillai received another letter from KH during the TS Convention at Adyar in December 1883. It began: “I hope that the effect produced upon your mind by Damodar’s conversation with you will remain permanent and [you will] not be affected by any more ‘unfortunate doubts’. Live in the present for the future, and let the past be a closed book” (LMW 2:120). The nature of these “doubts” is not explained, but Johnson assumes they are the result of the “strange” instructions (about assuming a different name and dressing in yellow robes) received in the previous letters – letters received over a year earlier (ITM 30). This is by no means certain, however, for in his letter in The Indian Mirror in 1885, Pillai explained that he had dressed in a yellow cotton blouse on leaving Bombay with HPB because that was the costume of the chelas – and not to “give the thing a mysterious appearance”, as Mme. Coulomb had alleged (ICM 32). As for changes of name, this is a common occurrence in many religious, mystical and esoteric schools, and is hardly evidence of “deception” or likely to occasion “doubts”. It is quite possible, however, that Pillai’s doubts concerned HPB, whom he did not fully trust. He confesses this in a letter to Damodar, and in his reply, dated 26 October 1882, Damodar upbraids him for his attitude towards HPB (Damodar 299-302). This hardly supports Johnson’s claim that Pillai was a “willing accomplice” of HPB in spreading the “myth” of Himalayan masters.

Olcott tells of an earlier attempt to find a Hindu messenger whom KH could send to Sinnett. During their stay in Amritsar in 1880, Olcott and HPB met a delegation of Arya Samajists, headed by Rattan Chand Bary and Siris Chandra Basu.

[HPB] made a proposal to them which led to an unfortunate misunderstanding between them and herself ... Up to that time Mr. Sinnett had had no opportunity of discussing Indian mystical philosophy with any educated Indian, much to his and our regret. His correspondence with Mahatma K.H. was going on, but he wanted to come face to face with him or one of his pupils. Finding Mr. Rattan Chand well qualified to be such a spokesman, H.P.B. – as she told me and him – with the Master’s concurrence, tried to persuade him to go to Mr. Sinnett as the bearer of a note from K.H. and play the part of his messenger. He was to abstain from giving Mr. S. any facts about himself, his name, condition, and place of residence, but to answer fully all his questions on religious and philosophical subjects; the assurance being given him by H.P.B. that every needed idea and argument should be put into his head at the moment when needed. Mr. R.C. and his friend S.C.B., not aware of the extent to which this thought-transference could be made, and seeing neither Mahatma nor letter about H.P.B., showed the strongest repugnance to undertaking the affair. Finally, however, they consented and left for Lahore to get the required short leave and return next day. . . . The next day, instead of their returning, a telegram came to say that they positively refused to carry out the compact; and in a letter they plainly said that they would not be parties to such an act of deception, as it seemed to them. H.P.B.’s annoyance and indignation were strongly expressed. She did not hesitate to call them a couple of precious fools for throwing away such a chance as few persons had had to work with the Masters in accomplishing great results; and she told me that if they had come, the letter would have been dropped out of space right before their eyes and all would have gone well with them. (ODL 2:252-3)

Olcott was unaware that on 29 October 1880 KH had written to Sinnett from Amritsar about the above incident:

I desired Mad. B. to select among the two or three Aryan Punjabees who study Yog Vidya, and are natural mystics, one whom – without disclosing myself to him too much – I could designate as an agent between yourself and us, and whom I was anxious to despatch to you, with a letter of introduction, and have him speak to you of Yoga and its practical effects. This young gentleman who is as pure as purity itself, whose aspirations and thoughts are of the most spiritual ennobling kind, and who merely through self-exertion is able to penetrate into the regions of the formless worlds – this young man is not fit for – a drawing-room. Having explained to him that the greatest good might result for his country if he helped you to organize a Branch of English mystics by proving to them practically to what wonderful results led the study of Yog, Mad. B. asked him in guarded and very delicate terms to change his dress and turban before starting for Allahabad – for, though she did not give him this reason, they were very dirty and slovenly. You are to tell Mr. Sinnett, she said, that you bring him a letter from our Brother K., with whom he corresponds, but, if he asks you anything either of him or the other Brothers, answer him simply and truthfully that you are not allowed to expatiate upon the subject. Speak of Yog and prove to him what powers you have attained. This young man, who had consented, wrote later on the following curious letter: “Madame,” he said, “you who preach the highest standards of morality, of truthfulness, etc., you would have me play the part of an impostor. You ask me to change my clothes at the risk of giving a false idea of my personality and mystifying the gentleman you send me to. And what if he asks me if I personally know Koot’hoomi, am I to keep silent and allow him to think I do? This would be a tacit falsehood, and guilty of that, I would be thrown back into the awful whirl of transmigration!” Here is an illustration of the difficulties under which we have to labour. Powerless to send to you a neophyte before you have pledged yourself to us – we have to either keep back or despatch to you one who at best would shock if not inspire you at once with disgust! The letter would have been given him by my own hand; he had but to promise to hold his tongue upon matters he knows nothing about and could give but a false idea of, and to make himself look cleaner. Prejudice and dead letter again. (MLc 18 / ML 15-16)

Writing to Mohini in Paris in March 1884, KH sheds further light on the tactics sometimes adopted by the masters:

Appearances go a long way with the “Pelings”. One has to impress them externally before a regular, lasting, interior impression is made. Remember and try to understand why I expect you to do the following: When Upasika [HPB] arrives, you will meet and receive her as though you were in India, and she your own mother. You must not mind the crowd of Frenchmen and others. You have to stun them ... And know for your own edification that One far greater than myself has kindly consented to survey the whole situation under her guise ... You will thus salute her on seeing and taking leave of her the whole time you are at Paris – regardless of comments and her own surprise. This is a test. (LMW 2:111-12)

Whatever Johnson thinks of KH’s remarks about “pelings” (westerners), the contents of this letter are difficult to reconcile with his claim that Mohini was an accomplice of HPB.

6. A “disinformation pilgrimage”?

As an example of the incredible lengths to which Johnson believes HPB was prepared to go to propagate the alleged hoax of the Himalayan masters, consider the following account of the events leading up to her meeting with M and KH in Sikkim in 1882, remembering that in Johnson’s view KH’s letters may have been written or composed by HPB herself.

In the middle of 1882 HPB was hoping to pay a visit to her master’s ashram in Tibet, but at the last minute the trip was called off. In July 1882, KH wrote to Sinnett: “H.P.B. is in despair: the Chohan refused permission to M. to let her come farther than Black Rock, and M. very coolly made her unpack her trunks. Try to console her, if you can” (MLc 203 / ML 116). Soon afterwards Sinnett received a letter from HPB:

My plans are burst. The “Old One” [the Chohan] won’t let me go, doesn’t want me. Says all kinds of “serenades” – bad times; the English will be behind me (for they believe more in the Russians than in the brothers); their presence will prevent any Brother to come to me visibly, and invisibly I can just as well see them from where I am; wanted here and elsewhere but not in Tibet, etc. etc. ... I had all ready, the whole itinerary was sent from Calcutta, M. gave me permission, and Deb was ready – Well you won’t prevent me from saying now at least from the bottom of my heart – DAMN MY FATE, I tell you death is preferable. Work, work, work and no thanks. (LBS 28-9)

Johnson presumably considers such anger and despair to be feigned. By September HPB was seriously ill (did she fake this as well?), partly due to the emotional stress caused by Hume’s attacks, and the longed-for visit to the masters became a necessity. That month, Sinnett received a letter from KH, saying:

I am not at home at present, but quite near to Darjeeling, in the Lamasery, the object of poor H.P.B.’s longings. I thought of leaving by the end of September but find it rather difficult on account of Nobin’s boy*. Most probably, also, I will have to interview in my own skin the Old Lady [HPB] if M. brings her here. And he has to bring her – or lose her for ever – at least, as far as the physical triad is concerned. (MLc 266 / ML 190-1)

The same month Sinnett received a letter from M referring to HPB as “a woman so sick that as in 1877 I am again forced to carry her away” (MLc 278 / ML 270).

*The Chohan had ordered that the 14-year-old son of Nobin K. Bannerjee, a chela, should be accepted as a pupil at one of their lamaseries near Chamto Dzong, about 100 miles from Shigatse (see MLc 248 / ML 292).

In September HPB wrote to Sinnett:

I am afraid you will have soon to bid me goodbye – whether to Heaven or Hell – connais pas [don’t know]. This time I have it well and good – Bright’s disease of the kidneys; and the whole blood turned into water with ulcers breaking out in the most unexpected and the less explored spots ... This all primo brought by Bombay dampness and heat, and secundo by fretting and bothering. ... [Dr] Dudley says – I forced him to tell me this – that I can last a year or two, and perhaps but a few days, for I can kick the bucket at any time in consequence of an emotion. ... Boss [M] wants me to prepare and go somewhere for a month or so toward end of September. He sent a chela here, Gargya Deva from Nilgerri Hills, and he is to take me off, where I don’t know, but of course somewhere in the Himalayas. ... Well good bye all; and when I am gone – if I go before seeing you – do not think of me too much as an “impostor” – for I swear I told you the truth, however much I have concealed of it from you. (LBS 37)

At about the same time, HPB wrote a very similar letter to her relatives (HPB 229). In another letter to Sinnett, she wrote: “This morning I got up from my bed for the first time this week. ... Read this: ‘I will remain about 23 miles off Darjeeling till Sept. 26th – and if you come you will find me in the old place ... K.H.’ ” (LBS 34). (The note in the KH script was pasted on to HPB’s letter.) HPB left Bombay with R. Keshava Pillai on 15 September.

In a letter published in the 9 August 1884 issue of Light, HPB wrote: “Only two years back, as I can prove by numerous witnesses, when journeying from Chandernagore to Darjeeling, instead of proceeding to it direct, I left the train half way, was met by friends with a conveyance, and passed with them into the territory of Sikkim, where I found my Master and Mahatma Koot Hoomi” (CW 6:272-3). HPB wrote to Sinnett from Darjeeling on 9 October 1882, telling of her joyful reunion with the masters:

Oh the blessed blessed two days! It was like the old times when the bear [M] paid me a visit. The same kind of wooden hut, a box divided into three compartments for rooms, and standing in a jungle on four pelican’s legs; the same yellow chelas gliding noiselessly; the same eternal “gul-gul-gul” sound of my Boss’s inextinguishable chelum pipe; ... the same entourage for furniture – skins, and yak-tail stuffed pillows, and dishes for salt, tea etc. (LBS 38)

She ends by saying that she had seen M again the previous night at the Lama’s house. In a letter to M. Bilière, a friend in Paris, written the next year, she says:

My Mahatma and Guru has already twice patched me up. Last year the doctors condemned me. I had Bright’s disease in the last phase. ... Well, I went to Sikkim, to the entrance of Tibet, and there my beloved Master repaired kidneys and liver, and in three days’ time I was as healthy as ever. They say it was a miracle. He only gave a potion to drink seven times a day from a plant in the Himalayas. (Guide 395)

In a letter received by Sinnett in October 1882, KH wrote: “She [HPB] is better and we have left her near Darjeeling. She is not safe in Sikkim. The Dugpa opposition is tremendous and unless we devote the whole of our time to watching her, the ‘Old Lady’ would come to grief ...” (MLc 286 / ML 445-6). In another letter received the same month, written from Phari Dzong monastery, KH refers to HPB’s visit as follows:

I do not believe I was ever so profoundly touched by anything I witnessed in all my life, as I was with the poor old creatures’s ecstatic rapture, when meeting us recently both in our natural bodies, one – after three years, the other – nearly two years absence and separation in [the] flesh. Even our phlegmatic M. was thrown off his balance by such an exhibition – of which he was chief hero. He had to use his power, and plunge her into a profound sleep, otherwise she would have burst some blood-vessel including kidneys, liver and her “interiors” ... in her delirious attempts to flatten her nose against his riding mantle besmeared with Sikkim mud! We both laughed; yet could we feel otherwise than touched? Of course, she is utterly unfit for a true adept: her nature is too passionately affectionate and we have no right to indulge in personal attachments and feelings. You can never know her as we do, therefore – none of you will ever be able to judge her impartially or correctly. ... In your opinion H.P.B. is, at best, ... a quaint, strange woman, a psychological riddle; impulsive and kindhearted, yet not free from the vice of untruth. We, on the other hand, under the garb of eccentricity and folly – we find a profounder wisdom in her inner Self than you will ever find yourselves able to perceive. ... I pledge to you my word of honour she was never a deceiver; nor has she ever wilfully uttered an untruth, though ... she has to conceal a number of things, as pledged to by her solemn vows. (MLc 297-8 / ML 314-5)

Another letter from KH referring to HPB’s visit was received by his chela, Mohini, in September 1882:

He [Mohini] must bear in mind, that whenever Upasika [HPB] tells him anything of great importance or as emanating from me, her words must be prefaced with the sentence, “In the name of Amitabha,” otherwise even she can be inaccurate and repeat her own fancies, her memory being much impaired by ill-health and age. He must also know that Upasika was with us from Sep. 19 to the night of Sep. 21 – two days and that since then she was in direct communication with my confidential chelas. (LMW 2:105-6)

In Johnson’s view, HPB did not meet Thakar Singh and Ranbir Singh (his “prototypical” masters) in Sikkim in 1882, let alone her “fictitious” Tibetan mahatmas. Her trip from Bombay to Darjeeling was supposedly a “disinformation pilgrimage”, designed to support the “cover story” about her imaginary masters’ residence in Tibet (ISM 241, 245)!

S. Ramaswamier of Tinevelly was a chela of Master M, and remained devoted to his master and the TS until his death in 1894. His first letter from M, accepting him as a chela, was received in December 1881, when he saw M in his mayavi rupa at the TS Headquarters in Bombay (LMW 2:94). In September 1882, he received a letter from KH, telling him he could not yet go to Tibet but must first prove himself worthy (LMW 2:94-5). Later the same month he heard M’s voice ordering him to go to Bombay to see HPB. On arrival he found that HPB had already left for Darjeeling, and followed in pursuit. On 5 October 1882, he left Darjeeling on foot and ventured alone into Sikkim territory, and the next day he met Master M, who had a long talk with him in Tamil.

On M’s instructions, he wrote an account of the meeting in a letter to Damodar, which was published in the December 1882 issue of The Theosophist under the title “How a ‘Chela’ Found his ‘Guru’” (Damodar 289-98 / LMW 2:163-74 / MTL 321-30 / ICM 13-23). He then received a note from M telling him to dress as a pilgrim and travel from town to town preaching Theosophy and Vedantism. M wrote: “Every one must know he is my chela, and that he has seen me in Sikkim. ... His whole aspiration and concern must be directed towards one aim – convince the world of our existence” (LMW 2:95-6). Ramaswamier did as ordered and four TS lodges were founded by him on his way to Bombay, where he arrived with HPB on 25 November. On 1 December he received a note from M, telling him to return home (LMW 2:100).

Johnson declares that Ramaswamier’s account of his meeting with M in Sikkim is “inherently preposterous”, “a long, fanciful tale of a weak and fearful man”, and that, as with Pillai, HPB had found in him a “willing accomplice”. The goal of the operation, he says, was to distract attention from the Punjab and Kashmir, where “KH” and “M” – i.e. Thakar Singh and Ranbir Singh – really lived (ISM 246; ITM 25-8). But while Ramaswamier’s account of his meeting with M and the events surrounding it has a ring of truth, Johnson’s tale is certainly “inherently preposterous”. The note that Ramaswamier received from KH in September 1882 stated that he could not go to Tibet, which implies that Ramaswamier still believed in the alleged myth of Tibetan masters. Yet by the next month Ramaswamier had supposedly become a fully fledged accomplice of HPB, willing to invent a tale about meeting M in Sikkim. After this event he continued to receive further instructions in the handwriting associated with the supposedly mythical M. In 1883 he received a short note from M instructing him to take an enclosed letter to Subba Row, and M says that the note is “a new proof of our reality independently of Upasika [HPB]” (LMW 2:100-1) – a rather strange thing for “M” (HPB?) to write to one of her supposed accomplices. Johnson may be wrong, but at least he is entertaining.

7. Fraudulent vs. genuine testimony

The December 1883 issue of The Theosophist contained an article by Mohini entitled “The Himalayan Brothers – Do They Exist?” (LMW 2:174-85 / MTL 333-41). Mohini reports interviews by himself and others with a Tibetan pedlar (Sundook) in Darjeeling and a Bengali Brahmacharin in Dehra Dun (about 700 miles northwest of Darjeeling), who both told of their personal knowledge of a Tibetan Buddhist sect known as the “Koothumpas”. After being shown a portrait of KH, the pedlar said he had seen him and his disciples at Giansi, two days’ journey southward of Shigatse (in western Tibet). The Brahmacharin stated that he had seen the Koothumpas near Taklakhar, a place about a day’s journey from Lake Manasarowara (in far western Tibet). They were going to attend a festival on the banks of the Lake, and then intended to proceed to the Kailas mountains.

Johnson says that Mohini’s article, like Ramaswamier’s, was part of a “well-orchestrated scheme to shore up faith in the Masters” (ISM 252; ITM 42). In evidence, Johnson quotes from a letter to Mohini from KH telling him to make his article as strong as possible, and “have all the witnesses at Darjeeling and Dehra”.* This, says Johnson, “sounds more like instruction for fraud than a truthful record” (ISM 253). KH’s exact words are as follows:

I want you, my dear boy, to write an account for the Theosophist of what the pedlar said, and the Dehra Bharmacharia. Make it as strong as you can, and have all the witnesses at Darjeeling and Dehra. But the name is written Kuthoompa (disciples of Kut-hoomi) tho’ pronounced Kethoomba. (LMW 2:108)

KH is clearly not telling Mohini to invent witnesses to an imaginary interview with an imaginary Tibetan pedlar and an imaginary Brahmacharin about an imaginary Tibetan sect. The underlying assumption in what KH writes is that the events Mohini relates really did take place. KH merely reminds Mohini to mention all the witnesses and to write as forcefully as possible, which he duly does. Given that several of the witnesses Mohini names held respectable positions in life, it is unlikely that he would have got away with making the whole story up.

*The quotation of the relevant passage in Johnson’s book ITM (p. 42) is followed by a reference to note 58, but the corresponding note at the end of the book is actually number 59.

Johnson’s habit of twisting remarks is very revealing, but, in addition, he neglects to mention two further pieces of evidence that support the truthfulness of Mohini’s account. Firstly, the issue of The Theosophist containing Mohini’s article also included a letter from Preo Nath Bannerjee, a law-pleader, referring to his meeting in Bareilly with the same Brahmacharin that Mohini interviewed at Dehra Dun, and reporting similar remarks about the Koothumpas. Secondly, Johnson fails to mention that a letter from the Brahmacharin himself appeared in The Theosophist for August 1884, providing a few additional facts. Although the Brahmacharin says that Mohini’s article contained some mistakes, Damodar points out in an appended note that none were actually mentioned in his letter (Damodar 454-9 / MTL 341-51).

In response to Daniel Caldwell’s criticisms, Johnson has conceded that he was wrong to suggest that Mohini invented the whole story (see Gnat). However, his new line is that the pedlar and the Brahmacharin were probably not genuine witnesses to the Koothumpas – in other words, we can add them to the list of paid (?) impostors! Johnson claims that no other evidence of “Koothumpas” has come to light. However, during his travels in Tibet in the 1920s, Nicholas Roerich met a wandering lama, and asked him whether he had met Azaras and Koothumpas. The lama replied: “Many of our people during their lives have encountered the Azaras and the Kuthumpas and the snow people who serve them. Only recently have the Azaras ceased to be seen in cities. They are all gathered in the mountains. ... The Kuthumpas are no longer seen now. Previously they appeared quite openly in the Tsang district [in western Tibet] and at Manasarowar, when the pilgrims went to holy Kailasa. ... There are profound reasons why, just now, the Great Ones do not appear so openly” (HPB 233-4).

Johnson regards the accounts by Olcott, Damodar and W.T. Brown of their meetings with KH at Lahore and Jammu in November 1883 as genuine testimony to the existence of the masters (i.e. his “prototypical” masters). The first mention of these encounters was in an editorial note to Mohini’s article in The Theosophist for December 1883. In the early morning of 20 November 1883, KH visited Olcott and Brown in their tents on the outskirts of Lahore, and materialized a letter in the hand of each. He made another visit, in the company of a high chela, Djual Kul, the following evening, and spoke with Damodar and Olcott. The next day, the group headed to Jammu, in Kashmir, to visit the maharaja, Ranbir Singh (supposedly Mahatma M). On 25 November Damodar disappeared from the house in Jammu where they were staying, and was taken to a secret ashram. He returned on the 27th, greatly altered by the experience (MTL 236-40, 242-50; Damodar 350-1).

Johnson writes: “This is one of the great true Mahatma stories of Theosophical history; KH and his colleagues Dayal Singh Majithia and Bhai Gurmukh Singh did indeed welcome Olcott, Damodar, and Brown to Lahore” (ITM 40). He does not cite any historical records that would suggest that Thakar Singh, his “prototypical” KH, was in Lahore and Jammu on the dates concerned. But even if it were proven that Thakar was elsewhere on those dates, it would not bother Johnson, for he would simply say that on this occasion the role of “KH” was played by some other figure – though not of course by the Indo-Tibetan KH, whom Johnson dismisses as a figment of HPB’s imagination! Whoever it was, he seems to have been so good at conjuring that he made both Olcott and Brown believe that a letter had materialized in their hands. Johnson clearly implies that by this time Olcott was in league with HPB in her alleged fraud, and knew that KH was “really” Thakar Singh and that M was Ranbir Singh. He says that Brown’s report of these events, entitled “Some Experiences in India” (see Theosophical History, July-Oct. 1991, pp. 214-23), was never published during his lifetime, perhaps because the details about his encounters with KH were considered too indiscreet for public consumption and “possibly raised concerns in the minds of Olcott and HPB” (ITM 35). Johnson is mistaken here, for, as Daniel Caldwell has pointed out, Brown’s pamphlet was actually published in 1884 by the London Lodge of the TS (see Cards, part 1).

Damodar tells of his meetings with KH and other masters at Lahore and in Kashmir in his article “A Great Riddle Solved”, which appeared in the December-January 1883-84 issue of The Theosophist (LMW 2:186-9 / Damodar 332-7 / ICM 4-9). Johnson states: “How foolish ... for Damodar to write so freely of something so important and sensitive! The lack of wisdom shown by HPB and Olcott in publishing such reports could have led to revelations with the power to rock the thrones of princes” (ISM 242). Johnson’s fertile imagination seems to get out of control again here. He also states: “it is most peculiar to find Damodar, Olcott, and Brown proving the reality of the Masters in Punjab and Kashmir just a year after HPB, Ramaswamier, Babaji, and Pillai had proven them to be a thousand miles east, in Sikkim and/or southern Tibet” (ITM 41). This is a “most peculiar” statement. Are we supposed to believe that the masters are immobile?!

While in Kashmir, KH probably met another chela, Bhavani Shankar, who retained a lifelong interest in theosophy and died in 1936. While alone in Berabanki, near Lucknow, Bhavani Shankar says he received a letter from KH instructing him to go and see him in Kashmir. He went there and saw KH in his physical body. On 15 December 1883, he wrote a letter to Damodar from Moradabad, telling him he had met his guru (Damodar 331-2 / MTL 271-2 / ICM 10-13). KH confirmed that such a meeting had taken place in a letter to Pran Nath (LMW 1:26-7). Since Bhavani Shankar was involved in the transmissions of mahatma letters to Sinnett, perhaps Johnson would like to add him to his list of “lying Hindu chelas”!

From Kashmir, KH proceeded southward and met several other chelas. On 26 November 1883, HPB wrote to Sinnett and excitedly told him that KH had taken Damodar from Jammu. She also mentioned that KH was expected in Madras or in the neighbourhood by two chelas who had come from Mysore to meet him. She did not know whether she would see him herself. She ended: “Well strange things are taking place. Earthquakes, and blue and green sun; Damodar spirited away and Mahatma coming” (LBS 73). In an editorial note to Mohini’s article in the December 1883 Theosophist, HPB wrote: “we have been notified that Mahatma K.H. on his way to Siam [Thailand] would most likely pass via Madras in a week or so ...” (MTL 250). In December 1883, Sinnett, in England, received a letter from KH saying: “This day week I will be at Madras en route to Singapore and Ceylon [Sri Lanka], and Burmah. I will answer you through one of the chelas at the Headquarters” (MLc 403 / ML 428). On 7 December KH was in Mysore, the capital of the independent state of the same name bordering Madras Presidency, and wrote a letter to the London Lodge of the TS (MLc 409-13 / ML 398-402). He enclosed it with a letter to Sinnett, in which he says: “The journey before me is long and tedious and the mission nearly hopeless. Yet some good will be done” (MLc 408 / ML 405). On the same day KH sent a letter from Sanangerri to Damodar and Dharani Dar Kauthumi (LBS 64). On 17 December he wrote to Brown saying that he had left Mysore a week ago; he was on his journey and would cross over at the end of his travels to China and then home (LMW 1:55). Mohini says that he met KH in person when he passed through the Madras Presidency to China in 1883 (ICM 35-6). In a letter received in January 1884, M told Sinnett that KH was in the far-off woods of Cambodia (MLc 405 / ML 432).

Johnson makes no reference to KH’s travels from Kashmir through India and to other parts of Asia in late 1883 and early 1884. Most likely, he regards everything said about the journey as just another example of lies and disinformation – all designed, of course, to further the theosophical cause of truth!

8. Babaji and “the whole truth”

Johnson plucks another supposedly incriminating remark from a letter that HPB wrote in April 1886 to Babaji, who was then staying with the Gebhard family at Elberfeld, Germany. In it she criticizes him for arousing Dr Hübbe Schleiden’s doubts about two letters he had received from the masters, and accuses him of having played an instrumental role in the recent suicide of Walter Gebhard. She continues:

The fools who listen to a chela of the Mahatma K.H. and were made to believe that the Master had turned away from me – will reap the fruits of their credulity or – [be] made to choose between yourself and me. They will shake us off both – most likely when they learn the whole truth. (LBS 301)

Johnson asks: “What was this whole truth which would have been so damaging?” (TMR 207). HPB’s correspondence with A.P. Sinnett in 1885/86 clearly shows that this remark, far from implicating her in any sort of fraud, was a reference to the “whole truth” about Babaji.

Babaji was a young brahmin of South India, whose real name was S. Krishnaswami. He joined the staff at the theosophical headquarters in the early 1880s, a few months after becoming a probationary chela of KH. His mystery name was Dharbagiri Nath, but this was also the mystery name of an accepted chela, Gwala K. Deb, probably a Tibetan. As mentioned in an earlier section, in late 1882 Deb and Keshava Pillai were to travel to Simla from Darjeeling to deliver a letter to Sinnett from KH. According to HPB, however, instead of going in person, Deb remained in Darjeeling, but Babaji allowed him to overshadow his own body for the occasion.

Babaji accompanied HPB when she left India for Europe in March 1885, and was at first devoted to her. However, after going to stay with the Gebhard family in Elberfeld, he began accusing her of desecrating the masters’ names by connecting them with psychic phenomena. He also accused her and Olcott of trying to defraud an Indian prince (Harisinghji), though this charge was easily refuted. On 26 January 1886, Babaji wrote to HPB begging for forgiveness and pledging his devotion to her. But this change of mood did not last long. Babaji exercised considerable influence over the Gebhards and other theosophists, largely because he was a Hindu chela. But HPB explains that he was not the long-standing, accepted chela that he made himself out to be, and in this respect he had practised deception.

The following passage from a letter that HPB wrote to A.P. Sinnett in February 1886 makes this clear:

[Babaji] has as much right to call himself Dharbagiri Nath, as “Babaji.” There is – a true Dh. Nath, a chela, who is with Master KH for the last 13 or 14 years; who was at Darjeeling, and it is he of whom Mahatma KH wrote to you at Simla. For reasons I cannot explain he remained at Darjeeling. You heard him ONCE, you never saw him, but you saw his portrait his alter ego physically and his contrast diametrically opposite to him morally, intellectually and so on. Krishna Swami’s, or Babaji’s deception does not rest in his assuming the name, for it was the mystery name chosen by him when he became the Mahatma’s chela; but in his profiting of my lips being sealed; of people’s erroneous conceptions about him that he, this present Babaji was a HIGH chela whereas he was only a probationary one and now cast off ... [D]o not ask me anything more, for if I had to be hung, publicly whipped, tortured I would not, never would dare tell you anything more. You speak of “deceptions,” mysteries, and concealments in which I ought “never to be involved.” Very easily said by one, who is not under the obligation of any pledge or vow. ... Tell [people] that one living D.N. came to you at Simla, and another living D.N. the prototype of the first remained at Darjeeling and still remains and lives now even to this day with the Masters – and they will call us all liars, deceivers, and humbugs. (LBS 170-1)

In another letter to Sinnett, written the same month, HPB says:

I ought to have written “He assumed the attitude of the real D. Nath. ... [I]f the whole truth were told, he would be (found) guilty (by the uninitiated world and every profane) of false pretences.” ... [I]f he had the right to call himself Dharb. Nath he had no right to abuse this position by assuming an attitude which only the real Dh. Nath would have the right to assume, and which he never would, however. ... [H]e took advantage of the position assigned to him temporarily – to harm me and the Cause, and several Theosophists, who see in him the real, instead of the reflection of Dh. N. the high chela. I too was made a reflection several times and during months; but I never abused of it, to try and palm off my personal schemes on those who mistook H.P.B. of Russia, for the high Initiate of xxx whose telephone she was at times. And this [is] why the MASTERS have never withdrawn Their confidence from me, if all others (saving a very few) have. (LBS 174)

In a letter of 7 February 1886, Countess Wachtmeister wrote to Sinnett: “Don’t trouble any more about the two D.N.’s – there are two – but there is also a Mystery. . . . Some day you will know all for Madame has told me that at her death all that she has ever received from the Mahatma K.H. will be given to you ... Babajee is a chela, though not the high one he pretends to be” (LBS 286). That the masters had written to HPB providing certain information about Babaji is also mentioned in a letter she wrote from Elberfeld on 23 June 1886 to C.W. Leadbeater, who at that time was a probationary chela of KH. In it she says:

When [Babaji] came to Bombay to the Headquarters, your Master ordered me to tell all He accepted Krishna Swami, and had sent him to live with us and work for the TS. He was sent to Simla to Mr. S, that is to say, he gave up his personality to a real chela, Dharbagiri Nath, and has assumed his name since then. As I was under pledge of silence I could not contradict him when I heard him bragging that he had lived with his Master in Tibet and was an accepted regular chela. But now when he failed as a “probationary” owing to personal ambition, jealousy of Mohini, and a suddenly developed rage and envy even to hatred of Colonel and myself – now Master ordered me to say the truth. ... When I showed him Master’s writing in which your Mahatma corroborated my statement and affirmed that he (Bawajee) “had never seen HIM or [been] to Tibet” – Mr B. cooly said it was a spook letter; for the Mahatma could neither write letters, nor would He ever say anything about his chelas. (LCWL 85-6)

HPB wrote this letter in reply to a letter from Leadbeater asking her to pass on an enclosed letter to KH. She begins her reply by saying that she is returning his letter to KH because she is not prepared to transmit any more letters. However, when Leadbeater received HPB’s letter, his letter to KH was no longer enclosed, but written across the last page of HPB’s letter was a brief message from KH. It includes the sentence: “The little man [Babaji] has failed and will reap his reward.”

Thus, when HPB writes to Babaji that theosophists will probably shake both of them off when they learn the whole truth, she is referring to Babaji’s deception in pretending to be a high chela, and to her own inability to expose his pretences due to her pledge of silence. That Johnson should cite this passage as potential evidence for his hypothesis that HPB’s Tibetan masters were a myth is a clear indication that, due to a serious shortage of convincing evidence, he is reduced to clutching at straws.

Johnson quotes extensively in ITM from the correspondence concerning Babaji, but omits any references to the two DNs. In his view, there is only one Dharbagiri Nath, who is always the same person as Babaji and Gwala K. Deb (ITM 38). It is worth noting that the protest by 12 chelas to the letter from “HX” (Hume), which accused the masters of “sinning” by not giving out all they knew, was signed by both Krishnaswami (Babaji) and Dharbagiri Nath (Deb) (Damodar 286-8; MTL 317-20; Guide 374-83).* In case Johnson believes that HPB invented the story about the two DNs to cover up for Babaji’s “damaging” attacks on her, he should note that a hint was given to Sinnett that Babaji was not who he seemed to be at the time of the latter’s first visit to Simla in October 1882. In the letter delivered on that occasion, KH says: “do not forget – he is but an appearance” (MLc 266 / ML 191). Sinnett may have sought further information from HPB during her visit to Simla the following month, for in a letter to him in January 1886, she writes: “I will evoke him with Master’s permission, I will produce the true Dharb. Nath – and show this one [Babaji] a little pretender, and you may suspect the truth and understand the hint, you who have heard enough of it at Simla and elsewhere” (LBS 336). How very clever of Thakar/HPB to have “invented” this little story in anticipation of Babaji’s “defection” three years later!

*Hume’s letter and the chelas’ protest were published in the September 1882 Theosophist. Hume’s letter is preceded by a comment by HPB, saying that she would never have consented to publish such an ungenerous document if she had not been ordered to do so by the masters. KH wrote to Sinnett: “Let [Hume] know that the Protest of the Chelas is no work of ours, but the result of a positive order emanating from the Chohan. The Protest was received at the Headquarters, two hours before the postman brought the famous article, and telegrams were received from several chelas in India on the same day.” (MLc 249 / ML 293)

In asking: “What was this whole truth which would have been so damaging?” Johnson implies that Babaji was party to HPB’s alleged fraud concerning the Tibetan masters. Johnson speculates that the reason for Babaji’s breakdown and loss of faith in HPB in the fall of 1885 was that she continued to fabricate messages from M (for Hübbe Schleiden) as if he were alive even though Ranbir Singh (the “prototypical” M) had died in June of that year (elsewhere he says he died in September!) (ITM 60). This is rather far-fetched, for Babaji’s outbursts appear to have begun before Hübbe Schleiden received a note from M in early January 1886; a week or two after the receipt of the note there was a brief reconciliation, followed by a period of renewed hostility. HPB says that too much adulation had spoiled Babaji and that his wild and erratic behaviour was a remnant of his grandmother’s sorcery, while Olcott says he was an epileptic.

Babaji wrote a private letter to Mohini from Torre del Greco on 16 July 1885, in which he says that HPB’s master attracted his attention astrally and directed him to go to his room where he found a letter with instructions to send a letter to Olcott. He says that as he is not M’s chela he cannot understand why he sent it through him (LBS 343-4). Clearly Babaji writes as if both he and Mohini still believed in the masters and their occult powers, yet in Johnson’s view Mohini had long since become a willing accomplice in HPB’s alleged fraud. This is yet another of the countless absurdities produced by Johnson’s poorly thought-out myth about “prototypical” masters.

9. Conclusion

Paul Johnson fails to produce any compelling, concrete evidence to refute the view that the portrayal of the masters by HPB, the masters themselves, and their chelas is essentially true. He exaggerates the discrepancies in theosophical accounts of the masters in order to dismiss most of what HPB said on the subject as lies and disinformation. He hypothesizes that the theosophical masters were based on well-documented historical figures, and points to a number of extremely tenuous and tentative links between Koot Hoomi and Thakar Singh and between Morya and Ranbir Singh. He admits that there is no conclusive evidence to support these “identifications”. Many details concerning KH and M are reported in theosophical literature that contradict these identifications. In these instances, Johnson either speculates that a more plausible “historical” candidate may have been involved, or he dismisses the details as irrelevant, imaginary, or disinformation. His general position is therefore an unfalsifiable dogma rather than a testable hypothesis.

Johnson shows an astonishing willingness to dismiss all witnesses who offer testimony contrary to his pet theory as liars and frauds, but is happy to make use of anything reported by these same witnesses that seems consistent with his theory. He quotes out of context and twists statements to suit his beliefs. His interpretations lead to many inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities. He fails to account for the production of the mahatma letters, let alone their content. Nor does he satisfactorily account for the source of HPB’s teachings or the wide knowledge she displayed in her writings.

Many of the deeper and more technical theosophical teachings are impossible for us to prove, and whether we consider them worthy of study will largely depend on whether we believe that HPB really was the messenger of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood. In a letter to Sinnett, referring to Hume’s arrogant and combative attitude, M wrote:

either we are what we claim, or we are not. [I]n the former case, however exaggerated the claims made on behalf of our powers still, if our knowledge and foresight do not transcend his, then we are no better than shams and impostors and the quicker he parts company with us – the better for him. But if we are in any degree what we claim to be, then he acts like a wild ass. (MLc 277 / ML 269)

Last modified: July 2016.