OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fourth Series (1887-92)
by Henry Steel Olcott
TELLS OF THE WORK AND DEATH OF
C. F. POWELL, F.T.S.
IT was so cold going down the Red Sea that the men wore their overcoats and the ladies their furs as far as Aden. To those who have only seen the sea in the hot season, when the air is like the draught of a furnace and the people on the ship gasp for breath, this will sound strange, yet it is true. We had as passengers the Siamese Ambassador and family, with whom I made pleasant acquaintance; there were also three members of the Japanese Imperial Commission at the French Exposition, who knew of me and were extremely friendly. A sad case occurred on the ninth day out. A poor young French conscript, bound for Cochin-China to join his regiment, died of starvation, his grief for leaving home being, for some cause or other, so poignant that he had long refused to eat, and at last succumbed on the day mentioned. He was buried on the morrow in a sea as clear and azure as a sapphire of purest water, but the forms observed revolted me, who had seen numbers of similar functions on British
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ships. There was no appearance of interest on the faces of the crew; some masses were mumbled by a passenger priest, the boatswain blew a shrill blast on his pipe, the coffined corpse, with a shot at its feet and auger-holes bored in the rough box, was pitched through a port, and the ship sails on. But the poor boy piou-piou’s heart had broken.
After passing Aden the temperature rose and the punkahs were set a-swinging in the saloons, for the warm hand of Mother India was now stretched out to us, with, to me, a welcome thrill. I had now to face another year of Indian work, and under pleasanter circumstances than when the London friction was grinding our wheels of action.
We reached Colombo on 16th January, at 9.30 p.m., and I went ashore to notify our people in Maliban Street and telegraph to Adyar, but our formal landing was made the next morning. I installed Fawcett at our Headquarters, and then took the Japanese Commissioners to see our College and the busy Headquarters, after which I bade good-bye to the Siamese Ambassador and other new friends.
One of our very best and most beloved Buddhist colleagues, A. P. Dharma Gunawardene, Muhandiram, lay dying. He was in his 80th year, was President of the Colombo (Buddhist) T. S., Chief Dyakaya (lay supporter) of the High Priest Sumangala’s College, and might be called the father of that institution. Respected by the whole Buddhist public, honorable in all his doings, successful in business, simple as a child, and
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generous in all works of philanthropy, the progress of his disease was watched with deep concern. The Foundation of our Sinhalese journal, the Sandaresa, and our flourishing printing works, is due to his having headed the subscription list with the sum of Rs. 500. He died while I was in the island, and two days later his body was cremated. Three thousand persons walked behind the hearse, and a sea of heads could be seen from the pyre, a towering structure of sandal and other woods, 12X10 feet in size. Sumangala Thero, with about seventy-five other monks, the chief mourners, Mr. Fawcett, Mr. Powell, and I stood close to it. Sumangala deputed his pupil, Gnassira Thero, a very eloquent young monk, to pronounce the funeral discourse on his behalf and to give Pansil; after which, standing on the pyre itself, I spoke on behalf of the Society, and then the son of the deceased set fire to the pile, according to immemorial custom.
The relations between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Ceylon are so friendly that the Hon. P. Ramanathan, M.L.C., the accepted leader of the latter community, had several conferences with me about the feasibility of founding a Hindu-Buddhist College for the benefit of the two nationalities. We consulted our friends respectively and were inclined to think it might be done, but, after all, the project failed to gain the necessary support. Mr. Ramanathan and I were also of one mind about starting a crematorium, which would be a real blessing to the whole public, and this is a thing for the future, when a less busy man
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than I, and a resident, can devote his time to the business. The Hindus of Ceylon follow the ancestral fashion of burning their dead, but the Sinhalese, save in the cases of their bhikkus and the feudatory chiefs of Kandy, have forgotten that it was formerly considered a disgrace to bury the corpse of any but a very low caste person, and stick to burial for lack of somebody to arouse their attention to the immense advantages of cremation.
At this time Mr. Charles Francis Powell, F.T.S., was serving with us at Adyar, and on tour in Ceylon and Southern India. I found him in Ceylon, but anxious to get back among the Indian Branches. He had been doing excellent work in the island, visiting schools, starting new ones, giving lectures in villages, and founding new Branches of our Society to the number of seven. He was the son of a Philadelphia millionaire, who must have been very eccentric, for in his will he left Charles the mere sum of $10. The son had served well and faithfully in a Volunteer regiment during the Rebellion, and later, after various vicissitudes and changes of employment, had found himself in California, where he was attracted into our Society. Possessing a most energetic and enthusiastic temperament, he determined to come out and offer himself to me in any capacity I might choose for him. I set him to the work above described, and the result justified my estimate of his worth. With myself and Fawcett, he now visited several of our schools for boys and girls before crossing over to India on the 27th (January)
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in compliance with an Executive Notice, dated 21st January, in which I commended him to the affectionate regards of our Indian members and thanked him for his work in Ceylon. In an address published by himself at Colombo on the same day he said: “Absence from India has shown how strong a love has sprung up in my heart for the land of my adoption and for her sons, and how much a life in that land means to me. That we may be permitted to journey on together to the goal of all our hopes is my earnest prayer.” The goal was, of course, the attainment of spiritual knowledge. He was welcomed by the Hindus with open arms, and all seemed to promise for him and for them a loving relationship that would last for many years. True, he was living a life of extreme asceticism, taking far less food than he ought, and that of the simplest kind—a couple of handfuls of wheat, some curds, a few fruits, and tea as a beverage—but when we shook hands on his steamer at parting I thought he looked as strong and tough a man as I had seen for a long time. At Ambasamudram or some other village he had had his horoscope compiled by a good astrologer, and it prophesied that he would live to be 90; but, alas! ten days later he was dead. I shall come to that presently. Meanwhile, I went on with my Ceylon work as usual, finding plenty to occupy my time. H. E. the Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon, hearing of my return to the island, wrote and asked me to come and see him. I found a very kind reception awaiting me. His Excellency wished to know whether
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I could not manage to secure from Japan a large number of immigrants of the cultivator and mechanic class to take up the extensive tracts of public lands which the repair of the huge irrigating tanks of the interior of the island would restore to their ancient fertility. He thought that, with their industrious and sober habits, Japanese would become most valuable residents, while the identity of their religious creeds with that of the Sinhalese Buddhists would remove all cause of fear as to conflicts between the two races. It was a statesman-like and far-seeing scheme, and I did what I could in Japan to bring it about; but although the pressure of population there was considerable, and they were looking out for countries in which to colonise, the terms offered by Ceylon were not so good as those tendered to the Japanese Government by Australia, Mexico, and some other Governments. So I left the matter there for further consideration. The Governor and I also had some talk about the Buddhist Temporalities Bill, which was one of the subjects of my conferences with Lord Derby at the Colonial Office in 1884.
As I had become tired of the misrepresentations of Western scholars of the contents of Southern Buddhism, I profited by the presence of so able a metaphysician as Mr. Fawcett to arrange a discussion between him and Sumangala Thero, which should furnish an authoritiative exposition of the teachings of the Buddha, as understood by the Southern Church, and expounded in its version of the Abhidhama. The services of the ablest lay Pali scholar of Ceylon, the
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late Wijesinhe Mudaliyar, Government Translator of the Mahavansa, were obtained, and Mr. Fawcett himself wrote the report of the discussion for the number of the Theosophist for March, 1890, to which the reader may profitably refer. Having my doubts, however, whether the views of the High Priest had been altogether exactly reported, I have submitted the article to him for comment before summarising its points for the present chapter of Old Diary Leaves. A very wise precaution it was, as the High Priest upset the greater part of the structure which Fawcett built upon the very erroneous interpretation of Mr. Wijesinhe. We now have what may be taken as an authoritative declaration of the contents of Southern Buddhism as the High Priest understands it—always provided that his views have not been again misreported. He is conceded to be the most erudite monk in the Southern Division of the Buddhistic Sangha. The interpreter this time was Mr. D. B. Jyatilake, Assistant Principal of Ananda (Buddhist) College, Colombo, and Editor of the Buddhist magazine.
Mr. Fawcett begins by saying that “there are two co-existent but mutually dependent principles underlying cosmic evolution.
“The first is Nama, which may be said to correspond in a general way to the concept ‘spirit,’ that is to say, to a formless subject reality which both transcends, and yet lies at the root of, consciousness. Nama is, in fine, the impersonal spirit of the Universe, while Rupa denotes the objective basis, whence spring the
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varied differentiations of matter. Consciousness or Thought (vigñana) supervenes when a ray of Nama is conditioned in a material basis. There is then no consciousness possible without Nama and Rupa co-operating—the former as the source of the ray, which becomes conscious, the latter as the vehicle in which that process of becoming is alone possible.”
We here see the bias in favor of the doctrine taught in the esoteric school of the East, which was so strong as to make the author run away with an imperfectly grasped rendering of Sumangala’s views, for which, as I now understand the latter to say, Mr. Wijesinhe was primarily responsible. The High Priest disputes these assumptions, as the Abhidhama Nama is only a collective name for the four immaterial skandhas, of which consciousness (vigñana) forms one. It is therefore inaccurate to say that Nama “both transcends, and yet lies at the root of, consciousness”. There can be no other distinction drawn between Nama and Vigñana than that which exists between a whole and its part.
Nama and Rupa occur together, and in regard to their interdependence the High Priest furnished an illustration even more striking than the one given by Mr. Fawcett, and borrowed from Hindu philosophy. He compared their relation to the co-operation existing between two men, one born a cripple and the other blind. The cripple seated on the shoulders of the blind man directs the course which the latter should take.
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After disposing, as he thought, of the question of the relative functions of the supposed two factors in cosmic evolution, Mr. Fawcett passes on to the question of Nirvana. He says:
“On this moot issue we found ourselves, like Milton’s dilettanti demon philosophers in hell,
In wandering mazes lost,
the cause of which deadlock was subsequently apparent when, in an answer to a not too premature inquiry, the High Priest expressed his opinion to the effect that the laws of thought do not apply to the problem. The Brahmanical idea of the absorption of the ego into the Universal Spirit was, however, he declared, fallacious, as any such coalescence involved the idea of Cause and Effect obtaining in Nirvana—a state pre-eminently asankatha, that is to say, not subject to the law of Causality. He then proceeded to deny the existence of any form of consciousness, whether personal or that of coalesced Dhyanic entities, in Nirvana; rejecting the most rarefied notion of the survival of any consciously acquired memories in that state. Subsequently, however, he gave the lie to the annihilationists by admitting that this state was com-prehensible to the intuition of the Arhat who has attained to the 4th degree of Dhyana or mystic development, and furthermore that the ‘true self,’ i.e., the transcendental subject, actually entered Nirvana. The obscurity in which this avowal was veiled might be judged from the fact that, according to him, the refined
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phase assumed by the ego on the confines of Nirvana cannot be described as one of either consciousness or unconsciousness, the problem as to its condition being thus altogether removed from the sphere of intellectual research. Ordinary empirical thought works piecemeal by establishing unreal relations between ideas, and is hence incompetent to seize upon the mystery.”
I have italicised the sentence to which Sumangala Thero took decided objection. This objection is, of course, the logical outcome of the previous one, which implies that in the constitution of the being there is nothing beyond or behind the five skandhas. The High Priest would not, however, proceed to discuss the nature of Nirvana, which, he said, was beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mortal. To be candid, I must say that I did not like this attempt to waive aside the profoundest of all problems in Buddhistic metaphysics. If the state of Nirvana is something only comprehensible by an Arhat, then why should it be discussed at all by any less spiritually evolved intelligence; and why waste time on so confessedly obscure a teaching? It seemed to me too much like the hushing-up policy adopted towards me by my elders when my youthful mind naturally sought for an explanation of the evident shortcomings and inconsistencies in their theological dogmas: “These are mysteries which God does not mean us to penetrate.” The High Priest put me off at this latest interview as he did Fawcett in that of 1890, and the question is left as obscure as ever. Nirvana, he said, is a condition
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of perfect beatitude. “Very well,” I replied; “but who can experience it if the dissolution of the four skandhas is synonymous with the extinction of the Arhat? He exists no longer; then how can he distinguish the beatitude from his previous miseries during his course of evolution? According to this definition of yours, he is only first to reach the goal of annihilation.” Sumangala Thero is titular High Priest of Adam’s Peak, so I asked him if he had ever been to the summit. He had. “A man jumping off the verge of the narrow platform would be dashed to pieces at the foot of the precipice, would he not?” “He would.” “Then,” said I, “the Arhat seems to be a man who could run ahead of the others and be the first to take the fatal leap?” The venerable High Priest good-naturedly laughed and said we would not go farther in that discussion, so I changed the subject, but as unconvinced as ever that we had probed the secret of the Buddha’s teaching.
From the above it will be clear that the High Priest is not prepared to accept in their entirety the conclusions arrived at by Mr. Fawcett. He would not admit the reality of an overshadowing soul or self which transcends consciousness. The wisdom of an Arhat is only a higher form of consciousness. In regard to the apparent difficulty of linking one life to another, in the opinion of the High Priest no such difficulty existed, as there was no break between the consciousness of the death-moment and the consciousness of the moment of birth in the next life. The law of cause
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and effect held good in this connection in the same way as it did in the case of two successive consciousnesses in this life itself. Herein he but repeated the parallel between the linked consciousnesses and moral responsibility for actions in a man of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 70, or any other epoch in his life—the person being always the same maker and worker-out of previous Karma, although physiologically his body may have been completely made over and over in the processes of growth—and the beings of the present the anterior, and the succeeding births, which he gave me long ago when I was preparing the second edition of the Buddhist Catechism. It was this explanation which threw a bright light upon the whole puzzle of the responsibility of a man for what had been done by him in his next preceding birth, and led me to define for the first time in Buddhistic exegesis the distinction between the “Personality” and the “Individuality”. I am glad to have again drawn from him this most important teaching. This point conceded, the intelligent reader may decide for himself the likelihood or unlikelihood of so persistent a consciousness becoming extinguished at the moment when the being reaches the goal of all his strivings—escape from the miseries of rebirth.
On the 29th, Fawcett took Pansil publicly from the High Priest at our hall and made an address. The High Priest and I also addressed the great crowd which had assembled to witness the ceremony. Mr. Fawcett and I sailed for Madras in the French steamer on 2nd February, and got to Adyar on the 5th, thus
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finishing a twelvemonth of distant journeyings, of which I had made 29,000 miles by sea. Mr. Jun Sawano, Doctor of Agriculture and Agricultural Chemistry, and Mr. Enri Hiyashi, sent by the Japanese Government as Special Commissioners to report upon the best methods of tobacco raising, curing, and manufacture, and rice and cinchona cultivation, in India, came with me, having accepted my invitation to put up with us at Headquarters. I introduced them in the proper quarters, and they were invited to a ball at Government House, and given every necessary facility for collecting the desired information. Dr. Sawano was a trained scientist and graduate of Cirencester Agricultural College, while Mr. Hiyashi was just a noted practical farmer, of excellent repute in every respect. Thus the Japanese Government showed its habitual wonderful foresight in so constituting the Commission that the facts brought back should be of the most practical value as a guide for its own treatment of the cultivators and manufacturers of Japan. What wonder that such rapid and complete success has crowned its efforts to raise the people to a high place among the nations when this same wise policy has been pursued throughout since Perry’s mailed fist battered in the doors of her exclusiveness. Dr. Sawano told me that his Government was in the habit of engaging very successful farmers to go about in the slack season and explain to other cultivators, in different districts, the best way to raise the crops for which they themselves had earned the greatest credit. Was ever a wiser
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course pursued? Have we anything to show to equal it? It was for this reason that Mr. Hiyashi was sent to India in company with his erudite colleague--practical and scientific farming experience equally contributing to make the Commission useful in its results.
Just a week after my return to Adyar I got the news of Powell’s death from my old friend V. Cooppooswamy Iyer, then District Munsiff of Ambasamudram, in the Tinnevelly District. From his official report and private letters I compile the touching incidents of the decease of our regretted colleague.1 The first news we had of the event was in a telegram from Mr. Cooppooswamy: “Brother Powell died peacefully, ten hours ago, of bilious diarrhoea.” India is the land of surprises, no doubt, but this was one we were ill prepared for. I could hardly realise it, and I felt very much like blaming our Ambasamudram colleagues for keeping back from me the fact of his illness, but Cooppooswamy had a good excuse. He wrote:
“As he said it was owing to excess of bile in his system, and as he did not wish that we should alarm you by informing you of his illness, and we ourselves had no reasons to fear any fatal termination, we did not write to Headquarters about the matter. He continued in much the same state from Tuesday to Friday last. His physical wants were as carefully attended to by us as was possible under the circum-stances. Yesterday we all thought him in a fair way
1Cf. Theosophist, vol. xi, p. 335.
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to recovery; and from his calling for and taking a reasonable quantity of food, we thought he had no more than weakness to contend against.”
He further reported as follows:
“Last night, at a few minutes after 8 o’clock, Mr. Powell called for and took a small dose of medicine, which seemed to do him good. He then threw himself on his couch, and while he was telling the Civil Apothecary, our Brother C. Parthasarathy Naidu, who had carefully attended him during his illness of the past few days, how to make for him a vegetable soup, the palm of his left hand was seen to tremble. His eyes and mouth opened. There were two or three hard breathings, accompanied by a low moan or sigh, and that proved to be the last of his life, though none of us could or would believe it. We thought him merely in a state of trance, but ere long we found he had drawn his last breath. Neither he nor any of us suspected he was so near his death. Thus quietly and without a pang did a good soul put off its mortal coil. There was no distortion whatever in the face. On the contrary, there was an air of serene calm, which made a deep impression on us all.
“In the course of general conversation, we had learned that he wished to die in India and to have his body cremated.
“All who have come into relations with Mr. Powell grieve for his untimely end. It would have been well if he had been spared a few years longer to continue his good work for the cause of humanity in general,
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and that of the Theosophical Society in particular. We all found in his daily exemplary life a good practical lesson in Theosophy. This is the first Branch founded by him in India. He used to call it his ‘first-born’. His personal influence upon all the members has been so powerful that it is sure to continue throughout life”.
My permission having been given by telegraph, the cremation was duly performed in the Hindu fashion on the evening of the 9th, and Mr. P. R. Venkatarama Iyer gave me the following particulars:
“The body was washed and clothed in his usual dress, Mr. Parthasarathy Naidu assisting us greatly in this. About thirty Brahmins—members and non-members of our Branch—assembled in the Reading-room, where the body was lying. Persons offered their services to carry the corpse on a cot to the burning-ground, thus showing how universally Mr. Powell was liked and respected here. The Taluq Magistrate and other respectable Brahmins walked in the procession, thus giving the event almost the character of a Brahmin ceremony. As he had asked for pomegranates and cooked vegetable food five minutes before his death, these articles, duly prepared, were placed beside the body on the pyre, agreeably to our custom to scrupulously gratify the last yearning desire of the dying person, and thus prevent any unsatisfied bodily desire to follow the astral man after death. The cremation was scrupulously effected, and this morning (10th February) the Civil Apothecary himself gathered together the ashes and unconsumed portions of bones;
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the former to be sent to you for disposal, the latter being put into an earthen jar and buried under the channel of the sacred river Tambraparni, as is the custom among Brahmins.”
Mr. Cooppooswamy added in a subsequent letter that it was the intention of the Branch to plant a teak or some other tree on the spot where the cremation took place, so as to secure it from possible pollution in the future. The Branch had also, at a special meeting, adopted Resolutions expressive of their love for Mr. Powell and regret for his loss, and requesting to be furnished with a photograph or other portrait of him to be hung upon the wall of their meeting-hall. In a word, these Hindu gentlemen did everything possible to testify their regard for our lamented colleague, and gave him the highest marks of respect which their religion prescribes. Needless to say how deeply grateful all of us at Headquarters were for this touching kindness.