The Theosophical Society in America

The Theosophical Odyssey of D. M. Bennett, Part Two

Originally printed in the November - December  2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bradford, Roderick. "The Theosophical Odyssey of D. M. Bennett, Part Two." Quest  89.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER  2001): 212-217.

By Roderick Bradford

We, who know something of his private life, and believe in the impartial judgment of some of our best friends in America, who knew him for years, maintain that he was made a martyr to, and has suffered for, that cause of freedom for which every right-minded man in America will stand up and will die for, if necessary. . . . we proclaim Mr. Bennett a kind, truthful, quiet, right-minded man, imperfect and liable to err, as every other mortal, but, at the same time scrupulously honest.

—H. P. Blavatsky
Collected Writings 4:79 -80

 

Roderick BradfordThe anniversary meeting of the Theosophical Society at which D. M.Bennett, the American freethinker, told his audience that the religions and morals of India were superior to those of Christianity infuriated Joseph Cook and his fellow missionaries. A full-blown brouhaha erupted after Cook published an article in the Times of India vilifying Bennett and denouncing Theosophy. Bennett was incensed by the article's "alluding to those private letters . . . the unfair remarks of Scribner's Monthly . . . replete with such malicious falsehoods as he [Cook] so well knows how to use." He and Olcott immediately drafted letters challenging Cook to a debate to be held on January 20, 1882. Bennett's letter, dated January 18, 1882, from the Crow's Nest bungalow, reads:

Sir: You have defamed my character, impugned my motives, and cast a slur upon the whole Free thought party who take the liberty of thinking for themselves. That the Indian public may know whether your several statements are true or false, I shall make on Friday evening, at 5:30, at the Framji Cowasji Institute, a public statement. On that occasion I invite you to meet me face to face and answer the statements I shall make. Your failure to do so would be construed into an inability to substantiate the reckless allegations flung out under the protection of a crowd of sympathizers. Should you plead other engagements, I may say that to meet your calumnies I have myself put off my engagement. Like yourself, I am on a voyage around the world, and have no time to waste.

For the whole truth, yours, etc., D. M. Bennett

Cook declined the invitation and returned Bennett's note unopened. The meeting went ahead as planned in order to refute the Cook slanders against Bennett and the Theosophical Society. Hundreds had to be turned away before the meeting started, and the Hall was packed to overflowing to hear the publisher and the Colonel speak. Prior to their speeches a reply from Cook was received and read to the audience:

 

Bombay, Jan. 20, 1882

Col. Olcott, of The Theosophical Society, Bombay,

Sir:

I am not open to challenges of which the evident object is to advertise infidelity. You ask me to sit on your platform with a man whose career has been described in an unanswerable article in Scribner's Monthly as "The Apotheosis of Dirt." No honorable man can keep company of this kind. For using this man as a weapon with which to attack Christianity the enlightened public sentiment of India will hold theTheosophical Society to a stern account. Men are measured by their heroes.

Several days before I received your communication I was definitely engaged to be in Poonah on the night proposed for your meeting in Bombay.

Yours, etc., Joseph Cook

During his speech, Bennett informed the audience of the history of Cook's attacks on free thinkers like himself, only because they did not believe in Christianity. Cook had been an enemy for several years and "has poured upon us all the vile epithets which he was able to command." As to his unfair trial in New York, at which Cook had been present, Bennett added, "I may say I owe, in part, at least, my conviction to the influence of Joseph Cook."

Bennett demonstrated Cook's hypocrisy by giving an overview of the "crimes of adultery and seduction" by Christian clergymen. Why wasn't Cook shocked at the crimes and immorality of the scandalous Henry Ward Beecher case? "He has never denounced Mr. Beecher in his lectures, and doubtless still recognizes him as a brother in Christ." Bennett answered Cook's repeated assertions that he was a "criminal" with the names of Socrates, Galileo, and Jesus Christ. "Does Mr. Cook, or any of his Christian friends," he argued "think any the less of Jesus because he was arrested, tried, and convicted, and executed for expressing his religious sentiments?" He gave a litany of freethinkers, including Thomas Paine, who were imprisoned but "committed no crime. . . . The catalogue of men who have been unjustly arrested, tried, convicted, imprisoned, or executed for exercising the right of thinking and expressing their thoughts is a very long one, and it embraces many ofthe best men who have lived."

As to Cook's remarks calling him a "poisoner of youth" and "promoter of vice," printed in the Times of India, Bennett denied ever sending a book or any "immoral circulars" to any Indian youth. "I have had no communication with the youth of Bombay, either to poison them or to give them an antidote for poison," he declared. As to Cook's statements regarding the decline of freethought: "I know this to be false, and I have good opportunities for knowing. Ten years ago there was but one Freethought journal published in the United States; nowthere are six."

Bennett also ridiculed Cook's attempts to "harmonize" Christianity and science. He found it "absurd and untruthful . . . to pretend that science has any connection with either the Bible or Christianity." The attempts of Cook and his fellow "Christian Scientists" to co-opt science to bolster their religion merely infuriated freethinkers. It was, after all, science that liberals believed would elevate mankind and that had always been an arrow in their quiver against superstition. He concluded his lengthy speech reviewing Christianity and using his encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible to show the audience there was nothing new about Christianity. Furthermore, he argued, Christianity had never been "a religion of love and peace, but the bloodiest religion in the world, fostering ignorance, retarding science, favoring slavery and opposing women's rights."

Damodar K. Mavalankar and Kavasji M. Shroff, the men who accompanied Olcott when he met Bennett at the steamship, also gave speeches that evening. Damodar was the Society's recording secretary and an intense young Brahmin who discarded his wealth and abandoned his caste to devote his life to Theosophy. An ascetic and seeker of occult knowledge, Damodar, according to Theosophical history, developed occult powers and eventually received messages from the Masters. Shroff was the secretary of the Bombay branch of the National Indian Association and the Bombay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals. During his speech, he welcomed Cook to India and expressed admiration for Cook's scholarship, eloquence, and oratorical power. But he could not accept the Christian teachings. Shroff reminded Cook that "the progress of science has already given a death-blow to Christianity in Europe. . . .Christianity is not the religion for India."

Colonel Olcott spoke for an hour and a half, defending American Spiritualists and fully vindicating the Theosophical Society, showing Cook "to be simply an untruthful and malignant slanderer," Bennett reported. Following the meeting, Olcott went to Poonah, and was again maligned by Cook, who was also there to give speeches. The Colonel challenged Cook to debate him on the same platform. But the clergyman refused and went on to insult his audience at Poonah. After unsuccessfully attempting to induce the audience to join him in repeating the Lord's Prayer, a frustrated Cook blurted out a quip about "casting pearls before swine." Cook's bluster and inflammatory remark salienated many, so his lecture tour of India was not as successful as his supporters had hoped.

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Bennett stayed in Bombay longer than planned, remaining at the Crow's Nest from January 10 to 26. While hoping to enjoy a few days rest, he spent most of his time responding to Cook's attacks—and also learning about Theosophy. In a letter to his skeptical readers in America, Bennett explained his fascination with "Occultism" and began reprinting extracts from Sinnett's book The Occult World. "Although hidden and mysterious," he wrote, " I like it for the reason that it does not claim to be miraculous or supernatural."

Admittedly anxious to see some of the paranormal phenomena he heard so much about, he was disappointed that he did not see any of the mysterious "adepts" or "Astral Brothers," as they were sometimes called."The nearest to a marvel I have had brought to my vision," he wrote, "is the writing in or upon letters received by mail by Col. Olcott." The Colonel told him that some of the letters he received by mail were occasionally mysteriously marked by one of the "invisible Brothers "living 2,000 miles away in the Himalayan Mountains. The letters were received unopened and parts often underlined in red ink with comments and suggestions about the content and the writer.

Bennett gave a detailed account of an occasion when letters arrived from the Post Office while he was sitting with Olcott. Olcott handed the letters to him for his inspection and they seemed "perfectly intact, and presented not the slightest appearance of having been opened." But after Olcott opened them with his penknife, Bennett saw the"mysterious words in red ink" and lengthy comments and "ever-attendant mystic signature." The letters came from different parts of India and Ceylon; while Bennett was skeptical, he didn't think it possible that all the red marks could have been written by the same man. He found that the "chances for collusion seemed extremely remote," and while it could be said that Olcott had "manipulated" the letters, he knew "the gentleman too well to believe him capable of such subterfuge. I believe him a strictly honest man. He possibly may be deceived himself, but he is not a deceiver."

Bennett knew it would be very hard for materialists to accept these paranormal incidents, but he thought it no harder than it would have been a century earlier to accept some of the scientific and technological wonders of the late nineteenth century. "I do not condemn this occult power as fraud or an impossibility," he declared and added,"because we of the Western world know nothing about it is not a sureproof that it has no existence."

In Bombay, Bennett heard accounts by numerous persons whom here garded as "strictly truthful" about strange phenomena including bells, musical instruments, and "Brothers" appearing in their "astral" bodies.He was told Olcott and HPB were "entirely in rapport and recognition with these 'Astral brothers.' " Olcott assured him that, while he was still in New York, one of the masters had appeared in his "astral body."And after conversing, the Master gave Olcott an Indian shawl and handkerchief, which he showed Bennett. He was also shown a gold ring reportedly produced by Madame Blavatsky's occult power with the "aid of the Brothers."

While Bennett found Olcott an honest fellow seeker of truth, his assessment of HPB was somewhat less enthusiastic. Writing to his readers back home in America, he tried to explain Blavatsky's ability to communicate with the "Brothers," who seemingly regarded her as a"special protégé." Unlike American spiritualistic mediums, she claimed that paranormal phenomena were not produced by the dead but by living persons aided by "elementals" or "elementary spirits." And as nearly as he could understand, "she does not believe in personal immortality, and that as persons we retain our identity in the state after death." Her" distinction between personality and individuality," he confessed, "is almost too obscure for my obtuse brain." And although he admitted that some of her amazing statements and claims "stagger me not a little and put my credulity to the utmost stretch . . . I have learned to modify my prejudices. . . . I am ready to believe Hamlet was right when he assured his friend Horatio that there is in heaven and earth many things not dreamed of in his philosophy. I think I will reserve my verdict and wait for more facts."

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D. M. Bennett's skepticism concerning some of Olcott and Blavatsky's miraculous claims did not prevent him from applying to join the Theosophical Society. He approved of their work and "to show this sympathy and a desire to cooperate with them," he wrote, "I proposed to become a member of the society." After thoroughly discussing Theosophy with Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, he applied for membership. But the Cook controversy and hostile attacks by the press caused Olcott to hesitate in admitting his friend into the Society. Bennett also thought it might be harmful to the burgeoning Society to accept him as a member because of the negative publicity instigated by the "various slurs" and "foul slanders" uttered by Cook before the Bombay public and printed in the press. He expressed his concern to Olcott, who chronicled his own reservations in his Old Diary Leaves (2:331). Bennett's application would cause a troubling "dilemma" for himself and Theosophy, but would, as he admitted in his diary, "teach a lesson too much needed by us all."

Colonel Olcott feared the negative publicity generated by Cook and played out in the influential Indian press. They attacked and reviled Bennett "to such an extent," he noted, "that I hesitated to take him into membership, for fear that it might plunge us into another public wrangle, and thus interfere with our aim of peacefully settling down to our proper business of theosophical study and propaganda." His reluctance, he admitted, "was an instinct of worldly prudence, certainly not chivalric altruism." After discussing the issue with Blavatsky, "she was overshadowed by a Master who told me my duty and reproached me formy faulty judgment." The Colonel was reminded of his own imperfection and advised not to judge fellow men. "I knew that the applicant had been made the scapegoat of the whole anti-Christian party, and richly deserved all the sympathy and encouragement we could give him. I was sarcastically told to look through the whole list of our members and point out a single one without faults. That was enough; I returned to Mr. Bennett, gave him the application blank to sign, and HPB and I became his sponsors."

Apparently Sinnett also had some reservations about admitting Bennett to their ranks. He too was mildly chastened through a letter he received that month in Allahabad. He had been advised by the chela who wrote him earlier: "If you can see your way towards giving him [Bennett] a correct idea of the actual present and potential future state of Asiatic but more particularly of Indian thought, it will be gratifying to my Master." Shortly after he received a letter (no. 42) from that Master himself, enlightening him about Bennett's value to Theosophy in no uncertain terms: "Were he [Bennett] to die this minute and I'll use a Christian phraseology to make you comprehend me the better few hotter tears would drop from the eye of the recording Angel of Death over other such ill-used men, as the tear Bennett would receive for his share. Few men have suffered as he has; and as few have a more kind, unselfish and truthful heart." The Master, who signed himself "M," admonished Sinnett for seeing only Bennett's "unwashed hands, uncleaned nails and coarse language." And although Bennett was "not exactly an angel," he was morally superior to some "gentlemanly" members. "B is an honest man and of sincere heart," M asserted, "besides being one of tremendous moral courage and a martyr to boot."

About the matter of his admission, Bennett wrote, "It seems a conference was held upon the subject between Col. Olcott, Madam Blavatsky, and a few other members of the society who were present, and, as is the custom, Madam Blavatsky referred the matter to the Brothers for their advice. It seems that the desirability of every candidate foradmission is referred to the Brothers, they approving of some and rejecting others. My case seems to have been laid before them, and they decided favorably upon it. The response was that I am an honest,industrious man, and well fitted to become a member of the Theosophical Society. I hope their opinion is well founded. At all events, I became a member." According to archival records of the Theosophical Society in Adyar, India, D. M. Bennett was formally admitted on January 14,1882.

In the March 1883 issue of the Theosophist, Olcott addressed what Bennett had written about his own admission. The Colonel corrected Bennett's claim that "every candidate for admission is referred to the Brothers." But "advice was indeed asked as to Mr.Bennett's admission," Olcott announced, because of the controversy surrounding the publisher of the Truth Seeker.

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After spending over two weeks at the Crow's Nest, D. M. Bennett departed from Bombay on January 26, 1882, and began his three thousand-mile-journey across the Indian continent. He traveled to Darjeeling, a scenic village at the foot of the Himalayas on a sightseeing visit. In Colombo, he found himself "famous" and learned that the Truth Seeker was popular and that several of his tracts had been translated into Sinhalese. He was well received by the local Buddhist priests, whose belief system he admired, although he foundfault with their ubiquitous display of images of Buddha.

While in Colombo, he stayed at the Theosophical Society's hall,and enjoyed the "most comfortable quarters," including a cook and a room where he could write. He was surprised by all the new friends he found waiting at the stations for his arrival and providing carriages and paying his hotel and railway bills. And although he knew the Truth Seeker had subscribers in Colombo, he never dreamed he was so popular on the opposite side of the globe or that so many friends were anxious to greet him. He suspected Colonel Olcott had written on his behalf, advising those friends about the time of his arrival and asking them to meet him. "I think," Bennett wrote, "I have Col. H. S. Olcott to thank for much of this."

During his twelve days in Ceylon, Bennett was persuaded to travel to different cities and give lectures. He addressed an audience on the subject of education and women's rights, citing their accomplishments throughout the ages and informing them of the scholarship of Annie Besant and countless American women authors, editors, physicians, and lawyers. He concluded his speech by urging his listeners not to give up their religion for Christianity. He asked them to cooperate with Col.Olcott and the Theosophical Society, "whose march is in the right direction, and I am sure your lives will be spent in doing good, and that a rich reward will crown your efforts."

During his trip abroad, Bennett kept the readers of his journal apprised of his activities, including his Theosophical sojourn. His letters were printed weekly in the Truth Seeker, and his association with Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky caused a good deal of criticism from subscribers. But he continued to defend his decision to join theTheosophical Society and its founders until his death, which came soon after he arrived home in New York in fall, 1882. There is no way to determine how devoted a Theosophist he would have remained, had he lived longer. His wife Mary also joined the Theosophical Society and continued as a member until her death in 1898. It is easy to understand D. M.Bennett's attraction to Theosophy, however, because of its idealistic motto: "There is no religion higher than truth."


Roderick Bradford (rodbradford51@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer and documentary video producer in San Diego,California. He has recently finished the manuscript of his first book, tentatively titled "The Truth Seeker: The Biography of D. M. Bennett,the Nineteenth Century's Most Controversial Publisher and First-Amendment Martyr." This article is abstracted from that work.