“A thousand kisses darling”: Sex, scandal and spirituality in the life of Charles Webster Leadbeater – III
This post examines Leadbeater’s return to the Theosophical Society, problems with the press and the “second scandal” – the court case over Krishnamurti.
Return to the fold
Leadbeater’s resignation from the Theosophical Society was only temporary. His return to the TS was, in no small measure, assisted by Mrs. Besant’s election in 1907, to the office of President of the TS. Colonel Olcott had made an announcement that Mrs. Besant’s election was “the will of the Masters.” Not all members accepted this however, and some members were critical of the notion of unquestioningly accepting the ‘judgement and sanity’ of those who were the Masters’ representatives. G.R.S. Mead for example, argued that Mrs. Besant’s election would be tantamount to “the death of our constitution and the handing over of the society to the mercy of an irresponsible psychic tyranny”. At the same time, some Theosophists began to call for Leadbeater to be reinstated, and by the time of the Annual Convention in 1908, it had become a central issue. Leadbeater’s supporters (particularly in the USA) began to issue a series of pamphlets defending Leadbeater. All the details of the 1906 trial were republished and recirculated – although references to ‘sodomy’ and similar delicate matters were replaced by asterisks. One of Leadbeater’s supporters in America, a Dr Van Hook, asserted that to attack Leadbeater was to attack Mrs. Besant, and thereby, the “will” of the Masters (see Tillett,1986, pp386-400).
This in itself is an interesting point. One of the puzzles of the Leadbeater cases – certainly something that seemed to puzzle some Theosophists during the period – was Mrs Besant’s apparent total reliance and deferral to Leadbeater when it came to matters of a “higher nature” – and in particular, those pertaining to the will of the Masters.
Occult authority in the TS was grounded in the approval and sanction of activities by the Masters and the TS was formed in the first place to enact the Will of the Masters in the world, so whoever could successfully position themselves as acting in accordance with the Will of the Masters was potentially in a position to wield power. Madame Blavatsky was of course, their emissary and co-worker but once Blavatsky died, however, everything became a lot more complicated. There was a fairly immediate split between Theosophists who favoured the western mysteries, and those who turned towards India and a struggle for ascendancy ensued between William Judge and Mrs Besant. Judge claimed that the Masters endorsed him and that Mrs Besant was being controlled by “dark forces”. The schism ended with all but 10 of the American lodges going to Judge and his associate Mrs Katherine Tingley. 1
Mrs Besant’s problem was that she had to demonstrate her contact with the Masters. It’s clear from her written works that she believed she had such a contact, but she lacked the flights of Leadbeater’s imagination.
Theosophical ideology tended to make a clear distinction between the inner planes and the outer life, with access to the former as taking precedence over the latter as a source of authority. Adepts such as Leadbeater were able to exert a great deal of influence over members by correctly interpreting events and actions within the terms of Theosophical beliefs – which were superior to either the ordinary religious doctrine or scientific materialism of the time. The Inner Planes and their inhabitants – be they thought-forms or discarnate masters, were sources of authority, and only the privileged few had access to these sources. Ordinary people, it was asserted, lacked both the training and degree of spiritual evolution to understand or question the authority of adepts and their contacts. Knowledge acquired from these sources was absolute and objective – a higher truth which was not open to cross-examination or critique. To do so would be to question not only the truth itself, but the person speaking that truth – who by their very capacity to do so, would be an adept. Theosophical doctrine in this regard had little time for individual subjectivity or relativism. Leadbeater, in his books which deal with astral or higher phenomena, often declared his confidence that his declarations – even when they were only admittedly, his own opinion, would be borne out by further research and made even more valid by scientific advances. As Gregory Tillett points out, Leadbeater at no time received information from the inner planes which conflicted with his own beliefs and desires – “his visions always confirmed his opinions.” Leadbeater did not stop at merely helping others ‘recall’ their own astral experience – he quite often told people what they had experienced and went on to ‘correctly’ interpret it for them.
The discovery of Krishnamurti
Early in 1909, the newspaper John Bull edited by Horace Bottomley (which some years later, would find so much good copy in Aleister Crowley) caught hold of the “Leadbeater Case” and begun to publish the details of Leadbeater’s readmission to the TS and the ensuing controversy. 2
Bottomley professed alarm that the TS was “gathering into its ranks an army of moral degenerates, and said that he would be alerting the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions to the matter. In successive issues, Bottomley continued his attack, proclaiming that Leadbeater was “undermining the character and latent manhood of youths” and that Mrs Besant “must either prove herself a pure woman, or stand condemned as an avowed ally of a dangerous sex pervert – a loathsome moral degenerate.” 3
But 1909 was to bring a great wonder – Leadbeater’s discovery of Krishnamurti. In April of that year, whilst staying at the TS headquarters in Adyar, Leadbeater and some of his friends encountered a group of Indian boys – children of theosophical workers on the estate. Leadbeater was ‘attracted’ to one of the boys, saying that he felt a sense of well-being emanating from him and predicted that this boy – Krishamurti – would become a great spiritual teacher and leader – the vehicle for the Lord Maitreya – the great World Teacher of the age (previous vehicles of which included Jesus Christ).
Leadbeater undertook a detailed investigation of the past lives of Krishnamurti and his brother. This became a major preoccupation for Leadbeater, and an obsession for many of his associates. The results of these researches were published as the Lives of Alcyone (Alcyone being the symbolic name for Krishnamurti) and Man: Whence, How and Wither? Amongst the accounts of past lives – mainly focusing on what Leadbeater termed as “a Band of Servers” – a collection of Theosophical heroes and their relationships and adventures. For example, in 40,000 BC Leadbeater was Annie Besant’s wife, and Krishna & Nitya were two of their ten children. At another point, the band of Servers are incarnated in a colony on the Moon, inhabiting monkey-like bodies. Leadbeater also produced genealogical accounts showing the interrelationships between individuals across different lives. These accounts were not without their critics, and not all Theosophists were overwhelmed at the marvellous revelations of “The Lives” as they came to be known (see Occult gender regimes: reincarnation and ‘Uranian’ souls in the Nineteenth century for some related discussion).
Leadbeater stated that it was necessary that the young Krishnamurti be trained for this purpose, and began also to investigate the past lives of Krishna and his brother Nitya. Krishnamurti was not the first boy whom Leadbeater had identified as a possible vehicle for the Lord Maitreya. Previously, this honour had fallen to Hubert Van Hook, the son of Dr. Weller Van Hook, one of Leadbeater’s most ardent supporters in America, who had done much campaigning on behalf of Leadbeater’s reinstatement in the TS. Once Krishnamurti turned up, though, it seems that Leadbeater became progressively less interested in Hubert, eventually banning him from each even touching Krishna’s bicycle, lest ‘bad vibrations’ should pass into it and affect Krishna. 4
By October 1909, Leabeater had persuaded Krishna’s father, Narayaniah, to remove him and his brother from school and have them educated privately at Adyar, where Leadbeater could supervise Krishna’s occult training closely. Narayaniah however, did not get on with Leadbeater – and Leadbeater viewed Narayaniah as a “disruptive influence”. Narayaniah’s mistrust of Leadbeater was fuelled by one of Mrs. Besant’s servants, Lakshman, who allegedly told him that he had seen Krishna naked in Leadbeater’s presence – a serious breach of caste rules.
Leadbeater then received a letter from the Master Koot Hoomi which gave instructions on the training of Krishna and his brother 5:
“They have lived long in hell; try to show them something of paradise. I want them to have everything the opposite of those previous conditions. Instead of hostility, distrust, misery, squalor, irregularity, carelessness and foulness, I want them to be surrounded by an atmosphere of love and happiness, confidence, regularity, perfect physical cleanliness and mental purity …Keep them as far as you can within your aura and Annie’s so that they may be protected from evil and carnal thoughts… I want you to civilise them; to teach them to use spoons and forks, nail brushes and tooth brushes, to sit at ease upon chairs instead of crouching on the ground, to sleep rationally on a bed, not in a corner like a dog.”
Pupul Jayakar points out that this letter is loaded with the “contempt with which the British in India regarded Indian culture and living habits” and finds it inconceivable that a Master of wisdom could have written the letter.
Mrs Besant made the first public announcement of the forthcoming ascendancy of Krishnamurti – “the Coming” – as it came to be known – at a lecture in Adyar, in 1908. In 1911 she announced the formation of the Order of the Star in the East (OSE) which was to prepare for the ascendancy of Krishnamurti. Membership of the OSE required a vow of devotion, and an aim to make ‘gentleness’ and ‘steadfastness’ qualities to work towards. The OSE’s general secretary, James Wedgwood (who came to play a key part in the later scandals) wrote that the OSE served as a ‘counter-balance’ to the TS’s tendency to over-intellectualise’ its metaphysical investigations.
A second scandal
1911 brought more controversy with TS lodges in Germany, under the leadership of Dr. Rudolf Steiner, breaking away, to form the Anthroposophical Society. More trouble came in the form of a newspaper campaign against Mrs Besant and Leadbeater led by The Hindu – one of India’s most influential newspapers. The Hindu condemned Theosophy and made references to “the preaching and practice of the sin of Onan” by a high initiate.” Colonel Olcott’s former physician, Dr. M.C. Nanjunda also wrote a vitriolic attack on Leadbeater and Mrs. Besant, mentioning the investigation of the TS by the Society for Psychical Research.
In 1909 A Mr Joseph H. Fussell of Point Loma published a pamphlet entitled Mrs Annie Besant and the Moral Code. A Protest 6 which reiterated the allegations made against Leadbeater in 1906 and charged that Leadbeater was “teaching boys, under a pledge of secrecy, a private vice” and that he was endorsed and defended in this by Mrs Besant. The pamphlet also reproduced Alex Fullerton’s “official circular” to the American TS; a letter from Mrs. Besant which stated that ‘my opinion that such teaching as this given to men, let alone innocent boys, is worthy of the sternest reprobation. It distorts and perverts the sex impulse, implanted in men for the preservation of the race; it degrades the ideas of marriage, of fatherhood and motherhood, humanity’s most sacred ideals; it befouls the imagination, pollutes the emotions, and undermines the health. Worst of all is that it should be taught under the name of the Divine Wisdom, being essentially “earthy, sensual, devilish.”‘ Fussell attacked Mrs Besant’s defence and readmission of Leadbeater in to the TS, and similarly castigated Dr Van Hook for blaming the parents of the boys for having the temerity to object to Leadbeater’s “teachings”.
A copy of this pamphlet was sent to The Hindu, which followed up with an article entitled Psychopathia Sexualis in a Mahatma and based on material published in a Madras medical journal called The Antiseptic by a doctor T.M. Nair. The article claimed that Leadbeater was ‘initiating’ select pupils into “the mysteries of onanism” and wondered whether or not Leadbeater, during his investigatons of past lives, had discovered that he had been Onan, the son of Juda. Mrs Besant later initiated court actions against both organs over their allegations against Leadbeater, but lost both cases. 7
In July 1912, Mrs Besant wrote to Leadbeater from London, informing him that Narayaniah had been informed of his sons’ continued association with Leadbeater, and had written to her demanding the boys’ return. This letter was published by The Hindu, which once more went on the attack against Leadbeater, Mrs. Besant, and the OSE. In October, Narayaniah submitted a written statement to the Court of the District Judge of Chingleput, including charges that despite assurances from Mrs. Besant, Leadbeater had continued to have access to his sons. He also claimed to have witnessed “an unnatural act” between Leadbeater and Krishna. He claimed that his failure to take action was a direct result of the power that Mrs Besant had over him. The case was heard on 20th March 1913.
Leadbeater, in giving his own evidence, admitted teaching masturbation, but denied any sexual contact with either Krishna or his brother. However, he also admitted that in one case, he had sought to help a boy overcome the necessity of circumcision by “indicative action”. Mrs. Besant’s evidence was that for Initiates, no sexual activity is possible. 8
The judge found that the allegations of unnatural acts between Leadbeater and Krishna were unfounded, but did hold that Leadbeater, given his views on masturbation, was an unsuitable person for the boys to associate with, and declared them to be wards of the court. Mrs Besant immediately lodged an appeal against this ruling. The details of this case was published in the Times of London which reported that the judge had said that Leadbeater was an immoral person instead of the correct statement, that his ideas were immoral – a fine distinction. Crowley, in The Equinox declared:
“I am no prude. But I am a stickler for the value of words, and I deem that the French slang, ‘Petit Jesus’ is being taken too seriously when a senile sex maniac like Leadbeater proclaims his catamites as Coming Christs.”
An appeal was made, and in January 1914 the Privy Council granted a stay of execution, and during the interim, Krishna and his brother would stay in England. Meanwhile, Leadbeater had made another ‘discovery’ – a 13-year-old Brahmin boy named Rajagopalacharya who was, according to Leadbeater, destined to become a Buddha on the planet Mercury. In February, Leadbeater embarked on a tour of Burma, Australia and New Zealand – a great success by all accounts, and by the end of August Leadbeater had settled in Sydney, which would take on an increased importance in the Master’s scheme for the world.
In the next post in this series I will examine the “third phase” of the Leadbeater scandal – the events in Australia.
Joy Dixon Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Emmett A Greenwalt, California Utopia: Point Loma: 1897-1942, (Point Loma Publications, 1978)
Joscelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University of New York Press, 1994)
Mary Lutyens, Krishnamurti: The Years of Awakening, (Shambhala Publications, 1975)
Alex Owen The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Pupul Jayakar J. Krishnamurti: A Biography (Penguin Books, 1986)
Gregory Tillett The Elder Brother (Routledge Kegan and Paul, 1982)
Peter Washington Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (Secker & Warburg, 1993)
Gregory Tillett Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 : a biographical study (University of Sydney eScholarship Repository)
- Katherine Tingley (a.k.a. “The Purple Mother”) headed the Point Loma utopian Theosophical community in San Diego. ↩
- This was not the first time that an “occult” sex-scandal had attracted the attention of the popular press – the Golden Dawn’s Horos Scandal in 1901 had similarly drawn much press interest. ↩
- “A Teacher of Filth”, John Bull 6 February 1909, and “Plain Words to Mrs. Besant,” John Bull 13 February 1909. See Joy Dixon (2001) for further discussion. ↩
- Hubert Van Hook’s brief candidature for the vehicle of world teacher had been initially encouraged by Annie Besant who, after meeting him in 1909, had begun to investigate his former lives. Hubert’s mother brought him to Adyar, apparently with great expectations, only to have her hopes dashed. Years later, according to Mary Lutyens, Hubert swore to Mrs. Besant that Leadbeater had “misused” him (presumably in a sexual manner). Lutyens opines however, that due to Hubert’s embitterment regarding being passed over in favour of Krishnamurti, that he was not an altogether reliable witness. ↩
- See Jayakar, p26 ↩
- Available from Open Library Annie Besant and the moral_code ↩
- See The Annie Besant Defamation Case (pdf) ↩
- Leadbeater also happened to mention, during cross-examination, that he had seen the Solar Logos and the Lord of Evolution – The Solar Logos being “all that we mean by the title of God”. ↩