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Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Blavatsky Book Review: Troubled Emissaries - Brett Forray

After Ernest Pelletier’s ambitious 2003 book The Judge Case, we have another ambitious account of this cause célèbre: Troubled Emissaries: How H.P. Blavatsky’s Successors Transformed the Theosophical Society from 1891 to 1895. Brett Forray.  Alexandria West, 2016. This hefty 554-page hardcover volume is very dense and academic packing in a lot of information with over a hundred pages of endnotes, but is nonetheless quite focused, mainly covering a short five-year period that saw simmering tensions erupt into a full-blown crisis that seriously changed the dynamics of the theosophical movement at the turn of the 19th century.
Chapter 1 Early Dynamics within the Theosophical Society (pp. 3-20) –  is an introductory section examining  mainly the question of the Mahatma letters and the controversies that they have generated up to the present time in various organisations.
Chapter 2- The successors (21-60) gives brief bios of Judge and Besant and covers the period following  the death of Theosopohical Society co-founder and spiritual guide, Helena Blavatsky in 1891, until 1893, focusing on Judge, co-founder and International president Henry Steel Olcott and famous social activist and recent member Annie Besant’s evolving relationships with each other. It deals with and the re-organisation of the Esoteric Section, co-headed by Judge and Besant and includes a misunderstood incident involving a rumor that Olcott was attempting to administer poison.
Chapter 3 – The Master’s Seal (61-90) More events from 1891-93 centered around a mysterious seal mark for documents and an incident where Olcott resigned his presidency but later changed his mind due to a Mahatmic directive.
Chapter 4 – New Friends and Old Ennemies (91-166) This could be considered the central chapter, as it deftly tackles the fundamental events in the allegations against Judge. We are introduced to notorious figures such as Walter Old, Henry Edge, Gyanendra Chakravarti, Judge Khandavala. The TS participation at the World Parliament for Religions is covered, ending with the resolution of the first inquiry where Olcott importantly acknowledged that the inquiry would involve accepting the existence of the Mahatmas and thus implying that belief in the Mahatmas is an official society position, which would be incompatible with the policy of freedom of belief and anti-dogmatism. There is an interesting account of Besant’s relation with the London Lodge lead by A. P. Sinnett in 1994 that indicates the beginnings of ‘’Neo-Theosophy’’ a so-called style of Theosophy that Besant would champion, in collaboration with C.W. Leadbeater (p. 143).
Chapter 5 – The Clash of Certainty (167-242) Taking us through the 1993-95 period, it covers Walter Old’s epic betrayal in giving documents to F. Edmund Garrett, who published an exposé in the Westminster Gazette entitled ‘’Isis Very Much Unveiled’’, later issued as a pamphlet that went through several printings. Judge’s controversial ‘’By Master’s Directive’’ esoteric section document is also discussed.
Chapter 6 – The End of All of Our Troubles (243-286) Focusing on the year 1895. The Garrett and Judge pieces hit the Theosophical movement like bombshells, resulting in a dizzying proliferation of pamphlets commenting on the situation. Part of the outcome of this affair was the intensification of underlying issues, tensions and problems that had been simmering in the background and so a full blown crisis of the general role and position of the Theosophical society and an international level was taking place, with a lot of interesting debates, which are covered in this chapter including the East versus West debate sparked by the notorious Prayag letter. The actual separation of the American section, where they voted to declare autonomous governance free from international control and the subsequent cancelling of their charter by Olcott is covered and the untimely passage of Judge shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1896.
Chapter 7 -  Forming a Universal Brotherhood (343-354) Covers the aftermath of Judge’s passing with election of Katherine Tingley to the head of the American section followed by her international ‘’Crusade’’ and the founding of the Point Loma community.
Chapter 8- The Future of Annie Besant and William Q Judge (343-354) This short epilogue raises many interesting questions, and nicely summarizes the debates and accounts that occurred regarding the Judge case over the years.
Appendices: There are three interesting short pieces: 1-The Early History of the TS; 2-How the Mahatma Letters were Written; 3- General Report of the 1888 convention of the TS (a document that contained important administrative amendments). A detailed index is included and the book is of excellent printing quality.
The quality of academic research is impressive in its detail and accuracy, with in-depth use of Theosophical literature and academic studies. Not only are blow-by-blow events from the 1891-1895 period covered, but all of the underlying issues are discussed as well, such as the relationship between Eastern and Western cultures, especially India, the importance of Blavatsky in the society, the legitimacy of Judge as an occultist, the role of Mahatmas, the role of temporal versus esoteric governance, the role of the international leadership at Adyar, and the emergence of a neo-theosophy tendency.
Many interesting obscure recollections, anecdotes, opinions, speculations, critiques and observations are included. Of merit as well is the critical, skeptical stance taken aiming at a neutral and objective analysis. Different sides of accounts are discussed and evaluated. Assertions and statements by the parties of the time are questioned, contradictory testimonies noted, making this a thorough and balanced account of much of the early TS history. What can we conclude from all of this? Is the Judge case finally resolved? On the contrary, this study brings little new to the story (and does not claim to attempt to do so) but rather proposes a tight summary of the history of the case and then points out the need for new perspectives and deeper investigation, including a further examination of unpublished internal documents.
In terms of critiques, because the affair was closely linked to ongoing tensions and complex issues related the Theosophical Societies international governance and the role of the Mahatmas since Blavatsky's passing, it is actually difficult to get a clear view of what the case is about. Judge formal published replies, to my knowledge, remain the documents that give the clearest explanation of the events and so can be considered fundamental; however,  these specific documents seem to have comparatively little coverage (see Moreover, regardless of Judge’s guilt or innocence, it seems plain that, like Blavatsky on several occasions, he was the victim of certain illicit machinations, mainly forged letters, and it seems that a detailed investigation of this question has never really been undertaken. Sadly, it seems that few original documents in relation to alledged forgeries of Mahatma letters seem to have survived, or in the case of the Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett in the British Museum, are deemed too fragile to undergo close technical examination.
With the coverage of Katherine Tingley, although treated with a solid level of accuracy and scholarship, there seems to be a greater level of charity and appreciation towards her role in the case. For example, the existing accounts of the role of Tingley in last year of Judge’s life and the Mahatma/Blavatsky letters associated with her can be said to range  from minimal to maximal, Forray opts to posit a maximal influence, and  in that sense this study can perhaps be considered a Point Loma-friendly account. Nonetheless, the works remains a strong example of quality academic scholarship, which is heartening, since a certain portion of academic Theosophical historical studies can be marred by serious inaccuracies and inconsistencies, although the situation is improving.
Still, as this study amply demonstrates, the issues are not just about Judge and real or bogus Mahatma letters, they involve fundamental issues that are still relevant to the TS, hence this work can be useful in healing the wounds and resolving the issues, thus helping the TS to face the future challenges that lie ahead with better insight and freedom. In certain way, with the Pelletier study (The Judge Case) we have a ULT  perspective, with the Forray study we have a Point Loma / Pasadena perspective, and the Adyar perspective still exists as originally spelled out by Besant and Olcott (although Judge has been given more credit from Adyar in recent times). Therefore we have the three main accounts of the affair clearly on the table, making it easier to review the case in a fresh light, and bring in new perspectives in order to seek resolution and reconciliation.

New Book on the History of Theosophical Society post-Blavatsky

September 19, 2016 Frater Lux Ad Mundi
Troubled Emissaries
July 26, 2017 Paul Johnson

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