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Subba Row, T.

(1856-1890). An important early theosophist, born July 6, 1856, at Cocanada (now Kakinada), in the Godavari District on the Coromandel Coast of eastern India. Subba Row was an Advaita Ved€ntin of the Niyoga caste of Smārata Brahmins (Sk. Brāhmana); his native language was Telugu. His father died when he was six months old and he was brought up by an uncle. In 1876 he graduated from the Madras Presidency College with a B.A. degree and later gained his B.L. Subba Row was an acknowledged authority on Advaita esotericism.

Subba Row met Helena P. Blavatsky in 1882 and joined the Theosophical Society (TS) on April 25th of the same year. He was considered a Chela of the Master Morya and there is frequent mention of Subba Row in The Mahātma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. It was Subba Row who recommended the purchase of the Adyar property which became the site of the headquarters of the TS. He assisted Blavatsky regarding the arrangement of the first draft of The Secret Doctrine, and Blavatsky held him in high regard as an authority on Advaita esotericism, but they eventually disagreed on certain philosophical matters. Just what these disagreements were is hard to determine, but it is on record that the nomenclature of the human subtle principles and the publication of statements regarding the Masters was a source of friction. It seems that Subba Row, being an orthodox Brahmin, was very critical of Blavatsky’s disclosure of certain hitherto esoteric teachings and in 1886 Subba Row left the TS (Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, p. 95-96). In spite of the disagreement between them Subba Row never expressed the slightest doubt regarding Blavatsky’s status as an exponent of the Ancient Wisdom Teaching.

Shortly after resigning from the TS, Subba Row fell gravely ill and called on Henry S. Olcott for aid. Olcott had gained a considerable reputation as a healer using mesmerism. He found Subba Row in great pain, covered extensively with boils and other skin lesions, probably caused by septicemia. For a while Subba Row seemed to improve, then died on June 24, 1890.

Although a TS member for about four years only, there is no doubt that Subba Row had an important influence on both its early direction and some of its philosophies. He served as a councillor, legal advisor and Secretary of the Madras Branch. The first outline of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine carried on the title page, “Assisted by T. Subba Row Garu, B.A., B.L., F.T.S.”

Subba Row was an exponent of Tāraka RĀJA YOGA, about which he wrote, “Tāraka Rāja-Yoga is, as it were, the center and the heart of Ved€ntic Philosophy, as it is decidedly, in its higher aspects, the most important portion of the ancient Wisdom-Religion. Very little of it is known at present in India. What is generally seen of it in the books ordinarily read, gives but a very inadequate idea of its scope or importance. In truth, however, it is one of the seven main branches into which the whole occult science is divided . . .” (Esoteric Writings, TPH, 1931, p. 364-5).

Since the system of classification of the human principles according to “esotericism” seems to have been a source of difference of opinion between Blavatsky and Subba Row, it is of interest to outline Subba Row’s scheme. He postulated four principles for the cosmos, namely, Parabrahmam, Logos, Mūlaprakrti and Light of the Logos (Daiv…prakti) and relates them to the human constitution as Physical Body, Sūksma-śarīra, Kārana-śarīra, and groups them within the “Light of the Logos.” This passage is illustrative of the difficulties confronting early attempts to interpret in English the esoteric teachings. Blavatsky, in a footnote, defines Sūkshma-śarīra as being the “’dream-like’ illusive body, with which are clothed the inferior Dhyānis of the celestial Hierarchy.” (SD I:132 fn.; noted in CW IX:63 fn. by the compiler, Boris de Zirkoff).

Row left few published works, due mainly to the shortness of his life. The 1883 Convention of the TS founded the “Subba Row” medal to be awarded to writers of works of outstanding merit on Eastern and Western philosophy.

Publications include:

Discourses on the Bhagavad-Gītā (TPH, 1946), Philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gītā (TPH, 1886), Esoteric Writings (TPH, 1896, 1931), and a collection of his writings on the Bhagavad Gītā, published in The Theosophist (1886-7) were reprinted as Notes on the Bhagavad Gītā (TUP, 1934).


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