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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Spiritualism and Theosophy

By the latter quarter of the 19th century, the Spiritualist Movement, which began in the United States, had spread throughout the world. [For further information about the history of Spiritualism, see PSYCHICAL RESEARCH.] There were many noted — and many fraudulent — mediums practicing in the U.S. Two who get no mention at all in the literature of psychical research or parapsychology, were the brothers William and Horatio Eddy, who owned a farm in Chittenden, Vermont where they held nightly séances. These séances came to the attention of Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) while he was working for a New York newspaper, The Daily Graphic, now defunct. Olcott, who expressed an interest in Spiritualist phenomena, requested the editor of his newspaper to send him to Chittenden to investigate. The results of that investigation are published in his book, People from the Other World (1875) and clearly establish Olcott as a careful, objective, and ingenious investigator. More importantly, it was there, late in the morning of October 14, 1874, that Olcott first met Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (1831-1891), who had been sent to Chittenden on the directions of her Master.

The phenomena Olcott reports are primarily full body manifestations of entities purporting to be people previously deceased, among whom were an American Indian girl who delighted the attendants by performing a little dance. The séances were held in a darkened room, though Olcott reports that there was sufficient light to observe the materializations. Since the Eddy brothers were, as was the custom with many mediums, confined in a small “closet,” there was always a suspicion that they themselves — and perhaps other confederates — were the real source of the manifestations. Olcott eliminated that suspicion by searching the house for costumes which might be worn by the “spirits” (and finding none), carefully checking the “closet” for doors (there were none except that facing the sitters), placing a measuring stick next to the “closet” to determine the height of the manifestations (which varied in size in such a manner that it would have been impossible for the Eddy brothers to have personated all of them), searching the house for confederates (and finding none), and binding the arms of the mediums with very fine thread so that any suspicious movement would break them (which never occurred). When Blavatsky appeared, the manifestations took on a rather different character; she later explained that she had been using her psychic powers to create them, thus indicating to Olcott that he could not accept such séance phenomena at face value. She also tended not to use the term “Spiritualism,” but rather made a distinction between “Western Spiritism” and “Eastern Spirituality.”

During the following years, Blavatsky wrote extensively for various newspapers in an attempt both to defend Spiritualism against the attacks of critics and to try, generally unsuccessfully, to steer its philosophy into a deeper understanding of its phenomena. In one interesting, and controversial case, she exposed a fraud of the Philadelphia mediums Mr. and Mrs. Holmes while defending them as genuine mediums. They had conspired with a Dr. Henry T. Child to have a Mrs. White personate “Katie King,” a common figure of many séances, both in America and England. Blavatsky’s exposé appeared first in the January 30, 1875, issue of the noted Spiritualist paper Banner of Light and subsequently in the April 1875 issue of Spiritual Scientist, a journal published by Gerry Brown, who initially showed interest in theosophical ideas, though he eventually rejected them. In another case, HPB vigorously defended the medium Dr. Henry Slade (d. 1905) against charges of fraud (cf. CW I:56-83, 221-233, 525). Olcott, too, investigated several American mediums in Hartford, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and New York City. When the two Founders stopped in England in 1879 en route to India, they held some séances with Mrs. Hollis-Billings and also met Rev. W. Stainton Moses (1839-1892), a noted British medium who was known by the pseudonym “M.A., Oxon,” with whom they had corresponded previously. Moses was highly regarded by the founding members of the Society for Psychical Research, partly because he was a clergyman with a degree from Oxford and partly because his séances were clearly free of fraud. Unfortunately, he never could be convinced that mediumistic communications purportedly coming from a lofty intelligence which called itself “+ Imperator” were not what they claimed to be. Many statements about him, both complimentary and critical, appear in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. Despite Olcott’s futile attempt to dissuade him of his opinions about “Imperator,” Moses, who initially joined the TS but later resigned, remained on friendly terms with Olcott and Blavatsky whom he held in high esteem, unlike some SPR members, such as Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick or Richard Hodgson.

Independently of the founders, Charles W. Leadbeater had become interested in Spiritualism as a result of reading a newspaper report of a séance held by D. D. Home (1833-1886) with Emperor Napoleon III (1852-1870), probably around 1870. In fact, Leadbeater had long been interested in paranormal phenomena, having been taken as a child to meet the famous occultist Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) and later having personally investigated several reputedly haunted houses. Leadbeater, initially skeptical of the report, decided to attempt a simple mediumistic experiment at home with his mother and “a small boy of twelve, who, as we afterwards discovered, was a powerful physical medium” (Leadbeater, Spiritualism and Theosophy, 1928, p. 9). Subsequently, a friend who knew a bit about spiritualistic phenomena and a skeptical friend joined them. The dramatic results, including sparkling lights, the appearance of pale luminous bodies, and the movement of some heavy furniture, are reported by Leadbeater (op. cit., pp. 9-18). He noted that for some time after such phenomena had occurred, the parlor “appeared to become charged with some kind of force, as though electricity; for at least an hour after the séance was closed the furniture continued to creak mysteriously, and the table on several occasions moved out two or three feet from its corner . . .” (p. 16). Such residual phenomena have been reported by some contemporary psychical researchers as well (cf. William Roll, The Poltergeist, 1972, 1973).

“In this way,” Leadbeater says, “I soon acquired a good deal of experience, and was able to satisfy myself beyond all doubt that some at least of the manifestations were due to the action of those whom we call the dead” (op. cit., p. 19), though he later attributed those early phenomena to a “decidedly mischievous” entity (op. cit., p. 17) rather than to an intelligent discarnate human being. In fact, because the phenomena caused considerable damage to furniture in the parlor of the Leadbeater home, his mother finally put an end to his experiments in the house. But they did instigate Leadbeater to conduct personal investigations of a number of professional mediums, attending more than a hundred séances. He reports, “I spent much time during a good many years in patient investigation of spiritualism, and there is scarcely a phenomenon of any sort of which I read in the books which I have not repeatedly seen under test conditions . . .” (op. cit., p. 6). Among the various phenomena which he discusses in his book Spiritualism and Theosophy, especially in chapters 3-10, are partial and complete spirit materializations, precipitations of letters or photographs (which he also calls “psychography”), reduplication, apport, psychokinesis (or “telekinesis”), levitation of various objects, and handling of live coals without harm. Although he frequently quotes from the writings of others, he also describes his own experiences with mediums. It was this background which eventually attracted Leadbeater to The Theosophical Society, which he joined in 1883 (the same day as William Crookes and his wife). When he accompanied Madame Blavatsky to India in 1884, he undertook yogic training, probably between June and late August 1885, which resulted in his developing clairvoyance. He then began what he called “clairvoyant investigations” in 1893, resulting in the publication of a number of important books which reported the results of using his psychic abilities to explore non-physical and microscopic physical realms of reality. It is interesting that psychical research — and its modern offshoot, parapsychology — concentrates mainly on scientific investigations of psychic phenomena in an attempt to demonstrate their reality whereas Leadbeater and other theosophical clairvoyants used their psychic abilities, which they knew to be genuine, to explore non-sensory realms in a scientific manner. This is the fundamental difference between theosophical psychical research and such research by the SPR, ASPR, Parapsychological Association, and other such organizations. Few scientists have been willing to admit that credible, objective observations can be made in such altered states of consciousness. Yet until they do, it is unlikely that much significant understanding of psychic abilities will come out of what is presently called “psychical research.” Leadbeater was convinced that the theosophical philosophy offered a comprehensive explanation of “the phenomena of the séance-room” (loc. cit., p. 3; cf. Chapt. 11), which he developed more fully in his books Clairvoyance (1899) and The Other Side of Death (1903).

Among the phenomena for which he believed there was credible evidence are extra-sensory abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, which enabled the medium to locate passages in a closed book or find missing persons or objects, and psycho-kinetic abilities, such as causing raps, playing musical instruments at a distance, table-tipping, and levitation. The latter he explained in terms of the extrusion from the medium’s body of what he called “teleplasm” or “ectoplasm” (a term coined by Charles Richet). In fact, chapter 7 of Spiritualism and Theosophy contains a lengthy description of some ingenious experiments performed in the early years of the 20th century by W. J. Crawford to determine what might be termed the “mechanics” of ectoplasm.

Just as Olcott had done in his earlier book, Leadbeater attempted a classification of the phenomena he observed (op. cit., pp. 5-6). Since both classifications — as well as the one presently held by most parapsychologists — are pre-theoretic, they are subject to modification when science has studied such phenomena in greater detail. Because of the general hostility of most scientists to parapsychology, that study with its resultant analysis and classification of the data is still incomplete.

Leadbeater felt that Spiritualism had one advantage in that it offered proof, therefore solace, for some about the reality of survival of the human personality after bodily death (cf. The Other Side of Death, chap. 5, esp. pp. 89-90; Spiritualism and Theosophy, pp. 212-213), however he also warned of the dangers of practicing mediumship and attending séances. One finds similar admonitions in the letters of the Mahštmas. They may be classified into six categories. First, there is a danger to the medium. The point of the unfoldment of human consciousness, according to theosophy, is to make it more capable of independent judgment; the trance state involved in the séance requires passivity, the antithesis of self-volition. For this reason the Mahatma Koot Hoomi told Alfred P. Sinnett, “Mediumship is abnormal” (ML, p. 61). Furthermore, as Leadbeater states, there is a physical price to be paid which can sometimes lead to “nervous breakdown” which can only be avoided by “excessive use of stimulants” (Spiritualism and Theosophy, p. 210). Also, there is the danger that whatever entities communicate through the medium might begin to take more permanent control over the medium’s consciousness. Finally, to cite Leadbeater again, there is a temptation to commit fraud if the medium is being paid for his or her services and the sitters expect to receive a message or experience some remarkable phenomena in return for their money.

Second, there is a danger to the sitters. An uncritical acceptance of séance phenomena at face value negates their capacity for independent judgment. The Mahatma Morya even characterized Spiritualists as “thaumaturgic sots” and likened them to drunkards and opium-users (ML, p. 115). Also, Leadbeater warns, the sitter runs a risk of having the entity which manifests at a séance attach itself to him or her and cause physical distress, mental instability, or even in extreme cases possession. The type of entities attracted to séances will depend upon the physical “atmosphere” of the medium and sitters, that is, their physical purity (or lack of it) and their emotional and mental states. One of the Mahatmas wrote to A. P. Sinnett that vegetarians, such as Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland, were more likely to get reliable insights than Stainton Moses who did not abstain from eating meat or drinking alcoholic beverages (cf. ML, p. 138).

Third, Leadbeater states that there is the possibility of harm done to the discarnate in that “communication with the physical plane . . . intensifies and prolongs his attachment to the lower levels of the [astral] plane” and “sets up in him a habit of remaining closely in touch with earth-life” when he should be breaking that attachment and moving on into devachan, i.e., the heaven world (loc. cit., p. 212). More likely, however, is that the communicating entity is the “astral shell” (i.e., emotion-body corpse) of a deceased person animated by an elemental. In such a situation, that “astral shell” would not dissipate, as it should, but remain earth-bound for an unnatural period of time.

If that is the case, fourth, any communications received from such an entity would be highly suspect and should not be taken at face value — although there is a great temptation to do just that by Spiritualists and their modern counterparts “channelers.” Such entities usually represent themselves as notable historical figures (Cleopatra, Plato, Jesus, Shakespeare, etc.) or even mythical beings (the god Himalaya, Amen Ra, the Spirit of Truth, Imperator, etc.) in order to impress the sitters.

Fifth, when one reviews the range of such communications (and they have occurred in many cultures for over 2000 years), one realizes that there are inherent contradictions between different “communicators” such that they cannot all be true. As several modern parapsychologists have pointed out, the subconscious mind is a great myth-maker, so one has constantly to question the reliability of communications made under trance conditions. Besides, the mere fact that a discarnate person now realizes the reality of survival after bodily death does not guarantee that such a person is any wiser about other matters than he or she was before death.

Finally, sixth, as the Mahatmas repeatedly warned Sinnett, mere phenomena will never “shake the foundations of erroneous beliefs in the Western mind” (ML, p. 93); only a coherent philosophy of life can do that.

R.W.B.

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