from the Caves and Jungles of Hindostan
Introduction by FWP
Madame Blavatsky wrote this series of letters for a Russian newspaper during her India trip of 1879-80. Here's how she described them, according to her unnamed Russian *translator*:
"Broadly speaking, the facts and incidents are true; but I have freely availed myself of an author's privilege to group, colour, and dramatize them, whenever this seemed necessary to the full artistic effect; though, as I say, much of the book is exactly true, I would rather claim kindly judgment for it, as a romance of travel, than incur the critical risks that haunt an avowedly serious work."She thus labeled her work as "a romance of travel," even though she also claimed that "much of the book is exactly true." She is, in short, forthcoming about her evasiveness. Such authorial coyness keeps us guessing, and thus itself becomes a clever narrative device.
First let me give the technical information. The e-text with which I started was that of the invaluable *Project Gutenberg* (#6687). The text as I give it is complete. All ellipsis dots (...) are in the original etext, as are the dividers (= = =). However, all the sections within chapters that are roughly picked out by keywords are mine. I have also engaged in rather free re-paragraphing, to break up some extremely long paragraphs and consolidate occasional one-sentence ones. And I've done a fair amount of adjustment of the punctuation, since the Russian translator had an excessive fondness for commas. I also may insert an occasional comment within square brackets. But I haven't done even the smallest correcting of spelling, terminology, etc.; I'm treating this as a primary source.
But really, why am I treating it as anything at all? What is it a primary source of? That's the question, after all. I'm a rationalist to the core, and not religious or "spiritualist" in any way, and Madame Blavatsky to me has always evoked dubious seances, gnomic aphorisms of the occult, and bizarre mystical communications from charlatans. I'm extremely far from being a scholar of Blavatsky, theosophy, or spiritualism, and I don't plan ever to become one. So I'd like to say a few things about this particular book alone, regardless of the rest of HPB's career and influence.
The real reason I'm putting this book online is that I ran into it on the Gutenberg website-- and once I decided to take a look, to my surprise I genuinely enjoyed reading it. I think others might enjoy it too, and I also think it would be extremely discussable in a classroom setting, since it grapples with many major issues of HPB's time-- and some from ours as well. Let me mention some of those issues, and HPB's treatment of them in the course of her "travel romance":
==British colonial rule in India: In HPB's view, its worst sin is its contemptuous notions of racial superiority and inferiority (Ch.6). These notions are all the more inappropriate since Europeans are, she reports with amusement, thought by Hindus to descend from Hanuman (Ch.1). She sympathizes with the common people in their degradation, and has a bad word for all their masters in historical succession:
"Remember also the long centuries of tyrannical treatment from Brahmans; from fanatical Mussulmans who regard a Hindu as nothing better than an unclean reptile; and nowadays from the average Englishman, and maybe you will pity this wretched caricature of humanity" (Ch.4).We learn (Ch.8) that the English are guilty of two major blunders: giving Western education to the upper classes (see also "Kaliyug" in Ch.2), and protecting idol-worship. But "English engineers are wonderful builders" of mountain railways (Ch.2), and the Raj also deserves great credit for the decrease in female infanticide (Ch.9) and for stamping out Thuggee (Ch.12).
==Brahminical tradition and ritualism as a powerful force: She sees it as oppressive, but also fascinating (especially because she's always seeking indigenous knowledge systems). People must be liberated from it, but when they're liberated they've inevitably lost something as well. Chapter Six provides an almost ethnographic case study of Sham Rao and his family; it also includes an indignant denunciation of traditional Brahminical views, and treatment, of women.
==Equality and openness between westerners and Indians: HPB's party consists of four westerners ("the Colonel" [Olcott]; his secretary Mr. Y---, "an architect by profession"; HPB herself; and her secretary, Miss X---, an "old lady"), and five free-thinking English-educated Indians: "One was a Brahman from Poona, the second a moodeliar (landowner) from Madras, the third a Singalese from Kegalla, the fourth a Bengali Zemindar, and the fifth a gigantic Rajput, whom we had known for a long time by the name of Gulab-Lal-Sing" (Ch.2). In Bombay, this party lived "in the native part of the town," so that they could see the "real" India-- "unlike English people, who are only surrounded by India at a certain distance" (Ch.1). People are astonished, but "we are true Americans, and we have come hither to study not Europe, but India and her products, on the spot" (Ch.2).
The party is depicted as traveling together in a friendly and egalitarian manner that often shocks British and Indians alike:
"This evening we dined at the refreshment rooms of the railway station. Our arrival caused an evident sensation. Our party occupied the whole end of a table at which were dining many first-class passengers, who all stared at us with undisguised astonishment. Europeans on an equal footing with Hindus! Hindus who condescended to dine with Europeans! These two were rare and wonderful sights indeed" (Ch.12).
==A struggle to recover knowledge about the past: This is one of the ever-present issues quests which HPB pursues most constantly and self-contradictorily. Sometimes she seems remarkably naive and credulous:
"India is the land of legends, and of mysterious nooks and corners. There is not a ruin, not a monument, not a thicket, that has no story attached to it. Yet however they may be entangled in the cobweb of popular imagination, which becomes thicker with every generation, it is difficult to point out a single one that is not founded on fact. With patience and, still more, with the help of the learned Brahmans, you can always get at the truth, when once you have secured their trust and friendship" (Chapter One).Just look at the sequence of ideas: India is inherently mysterious; everything in India has a story or legend that grows ever more obscured by the passage of time; virtually all such stories are "founded on fact" (though if India is so mysterious, how would we know this?); and finally (and most remarkably) "you can always (!) get at the truth" if you can induce "the learned Brahmans" to tell it to you! But this passage is atypical; HPB's view is usually much darker. She repeatedly laments, starting with her address to the Trimurti of Elephanta near the beginning of Chapter One, that so much ancient knowledge is irrecoverable and has been lost forever.
Moreover, throughout the book she also frequently rails against the Brahmins (since she's faithfully following Swami Dayanand's anti-Brahminical line) for corruption, exploitation, selfishness, greed, and perversion of their own ancient texts. She also exposes these Brahminical vices in very funny examples, such as the murder of the transmigrated vampire-bat (Ch.6) and the mumbo-jumbo of the Kankalim's Brahmin "voice" (Ch.7). How then can we trust these Brahmins to be accurate informants? How does all this fit together? Well, it doesn't; of course. But it's remarkable-- and sometimes almost poignant-- to see how determinedly HPB wrestles with her available sources of knowledge, in pursuit of her great theosophical goals.
==A search for indigenous knowledge systems: For HPB the most fascinating knowledge systems are ones that are ancient, esoteric, hard-won, powerful, and closely-guarded to the point of inaccessibility. She presents us with a number of examples: Yogis (Ch.1); secret libraries in Rajputana (Ch.2); Bhuta ascetics (Ch.3); Sadhus (Ch.3); Kuks (Ch.8); various Fakirs (Ch.12); and most consummately, Raj-Yogis (Ch.11). Along these lines she admires above all her Raj-Yogi traveling companion Gulab-Sing; he is eulogized as repeatedly as Swami Dayanand, and his wondrousness steadily increases throughout the work, culminating in Chapter Eleven. (Gulab-Sing emerges as an Indian cousin of the ageless M. de Cagliostro in Alexandre Dumas's The Queen's Necklace.) HBP's absolute, fundamental confidence that great mysteries lurk behind (almost) every veil is, whatever else it may be, an enjoyable narrative device. But she's not a complete sucker: she's also constantly reporting and denouncing the frauds practiced by devious Brahmins.
==An effort to open science to new fields of research: HPB is constantly brooding about questions of dating, chronology, origin. She reads the "Orientalist" (her word) authorities of her day, including Fergusson and her favorite, James Tod, who has written "the only true history of India" (Ch.2). But she finds the scholars generally pedantic, self-righteous, limited, and narrow-minded: if only they would agree that scientific research could legitimately be pursued into new domains-- if not by themselves, then by other and more daring pioneers! HPB wants to do real theosophical research, and this already-difficult project becomes much harder when she must guard herself not only against being bamboozled by the mendacious Brahmins, but also against being sneered at and ridiculed by the academics. A touching plea for this kind of rapprochement forms the latter part of the last chapter (Ch.12).
==The pleasures of travel: Just take a look at her enjoyable and highly detailed descriptions of the "Tower of Silence" and the "Pinjarapala" in Bombay (Ch.1). In view of her own caveat, these and many other quasi-ethnographical descriptions can't necessarily be taken as completely accurate, but they're often quite persuasive and always fascinating to read. Her vivid literary style helps put across evocative passages of "atmosphere" too: mountains, mysterious caves, heat and dust, crowd scenes, a witch's dance (Ch.7), a moonlit night (Ch.11).
She also has a sharp sense of humor, which is often directed at her own party, including herself. During an elephant ride "we slipped about in all directions, like quivering fragments of blancmange" (Ch.4). During a Hindu dinner her two male companions looked particularly silly: "the long beard of the one was white with grains of rice, as if silvered with hoar-frost, the chin of the other was yellow with liquid saffron." Finally, trying to lean forward to eat in native style, "[the Colonel] lost his balance and nearly tumbled head foremost, dropping his spectacles into a dish of sour milk and garlic" (Ch.6). Elsewhere she describes the company's united efforts to hoist her stout self through a small hole in the Bagh Caves: "with the Akali pulling from above and Narayan pushing from below, I safely made the passage, though the narrowness of the hole proved most disagreeable." She was grateful for her gallant friends' help, and remained undaunted, "however trying archeological explorations may be for"-- as she put it with amusing decorousness-- "a person afflicted by an unusually fine presence" (Ch.10).
In short, HPB's "romance of travel" is enjoyable on many levels and in all kinds of ways. I'm glad to have discovered it myself, and also now to have the pleasure of sharing it with you.