Sarat Chandra Das the Bengali Spy, Sengchen Tulku and the Maha-Chohan Connection
Kazi Dawa Samdup (1868-1922) pioneered the introductions of Tibetan Buddhism to Europe and America, and was one of the earliest translators of Tibetan Buddhist texts into the English language. One of these Tibetan Buddhist texts was the “Book of the Dead” with Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz. Kazi Dawa Samdup said of Helena P. Blavatsky’s writings, that they clearly indicate an “intimate acquaintance with the higher lamaistic teachings.” This view is rejected by K. Paul Johnson on the grounds that other scholars show that certain doctrines of H.P.B. are not recognizably Tibetan or Buddhist, and other theories he held about the Theosophical masters. However, time since 1997 has shown a chink in the armor of these theories about the identities of the elusive mahatmas underlying the Theosophical Movement. The public is reminded of Arthur Lillie’s critique of Theosophy, but then not shown the direct rebuttals to his misunderstandings. When a British Spiritualist by the name of Rev. Stainton Moses reviewed critic of Theosophy and Buddhist, Arthur Lillie’s Buddha and Early Buddhism, he attempted to make a connection between Buddhism and Spiritualism. In January 1882, H.P. Blavatsky had commented on the review of Moses, in which she said she would submit his review to two Buddhist authorities she was acquainted with. The first was a Sinhalese high priest, named Sumangala, H.P.B. described as “the most learned expounder of Southern Buddhism.” The second is identified as “the Chohan-Lama of Rinch-cha-tze (Tibet) the Chief of the Archive-Registrars of the secret Libraries of the Dalai and Ta-shu-hlumpo Lamas-Rimboche….A Pan-cchen, or great teacher, one of the most learned theologians of Northern Buddhism and esoteric Lamaism.”
So, who would fit the description of the Chohan-Lama? K. Paul Johnson suggested that this regent and librarian is Sarat Chandra Das’s sponsor and mentor in Shigatse, Sengchen Tulku. Sarat Chandra Das was a spy, an Indian scholar of Tibetan language and culture. We will discuss some information regarding his two journeys to Tibet in 1879 and in 1881–1882 in relation to the arguments that happened between K. Paul Johnson and the Theosophists.
In Das’s Autobiography, he describes Sengchen Tulku as:
“the great Lion Lama incarnate (…) the embodiment of the spirit of Naga Bodhi, the chief disciple of Siddha Nagarjuna (…) the Panchen Lama’s spiritual minister.”
Sengchen Tulku, an avid truth-seeker, according to Peter Hopkirk in Trespassers on the Roof of the World was murdered and suffered a horrible death at the hand of the Tibetans, “arrested, imprisoned, flogged, then flung—still living and with his hands tied behind his back—into the Tsangpo.” The servants of the Panchen had their feet and hands cut off, their eyes gouged and left to die. Officials who had let Sarat Chandra Das past the check-point or barrier gates had their properties confiscated, were executed, and nineteen years later two of them had been still chained in a Lhasa dungeon. Charles Bell in Tibet Past and Present detailed this gruesome execution of “a high Incarnate Lama (i.e., Sengchen Tulku) from the report of a 1910 conversation with then chief minister of Tibet.
§ A Panchen is a title meaning “great scholar,” and is a Tibetan contraction of the Sanskrit paṇḍita (scholar) and the Tibetan chenpo (great).
The main teachers behind the Theosophical movement regarded themselves as followers of Tsongkhapa and his Gelugpas, which includes the Chohan-Lama, otherwise referred to as the Maha-Chohan and in one letter of H.P.B. to A.P. Sinnett as “the Old One” — and who is different from Serapis Bey of the “Egyptian Brotherhood of Luxor.” Upon mentioning Tsongkhapa, H.P.B. states of Tsongkhapa, that “this great Tibetan Reformer of the fourteenth century (…) is the founder of the secret School near Shigatse, attached to the private retreat of the Teshu-Lama” (H. P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, vol. 14, p. 425). The Maha-Chohan is the chief of this secret Himalayan Brotherhood, and the Panchen Lama is the head of the Tashi-lhunpo monastery located near Shigatse, where the secret school is alleged to have been the source of the Theosophical teachings. The Chohan had once ordered that the 14-year-old son of Nobin K. Bannerjee, a disciple, should be accepted as a pupil at one of their lamaseries near Chamto Dzong, about 100 miles from Shigatse, indicating their connection again to Shigatse.
The first installment of Kālacakra teachings was said to be brought out from the secret commentaries given by H.P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine, in association with this secret school “attached to the private retreat of the Teshu-Lama,” i.e., the Panchen Lama. These secret books which contain a “digest of all the Occult Sciences” is in the charge of this “Teshu-Lama of Shigatse.”
“The movement for the spread of the Kālacakra teachings outside of Tibetan Buddhist lands was started by the Ninth Panchen Lama four or five decades after Blavatsky’s time. Only in the last few decades have these teachings become known throughout the world, thanks to the many Kālacakra Initiations given by the present Fourteenth Dalai Lama and other Tibetan lamas. The stage has now been set for some of the keys to these teachings to come out from the secret commentaries referred to by Blavatsky.” (David Reigle, Panchen Lama, Book of Dzyan, and Kālacakra)
“The Books of Kiu-te [rgyud-sde. the Buddhist tantras] are comparatively modern, having been edited within the last millennium, whereas, the earliest volumes of the Commentaries are of untold antiquity, some fragments of the original cylinders having been preserved. With the exception that they explain and correct some of the too fabulous, and to every appearance, grossly-exaggerated accounts in the Books of Kiu-te—properly so-called—the Commentaries have little to do with these. They stand in relation to them as the Chaldaeo-Jewish Kabalah stands to the Mosaic Books. (…) No student, unless very advanced, would be benefited by the perusal of those exoteric volumes. They must be read with a key to their meaning, and that key can only be found in the Commentaries.” (H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, Vol. 14, pp. 422-424)
However, the critics of Theosophy and H.P. Blavatsky often argue, that the sources for H.P.B.’s knowledge of the Kālacakra teachings does not come from Tibet, but reached her through other persons: Das and Gyatso, Csoma de Körös’s and Ranbir Singh’s translations of the Kangyur.
Interestingly, in Existence of the Himalayan Mahatmas (The Theosophist, Vol. V, No. 3, December, 1883 pp. 98-99), Blavatsky describes a young Bengali Brahmachari on his way to Almora she had met in May or June 1882 or 1883 to hear his discourses on Vedantic Philosophy and Hinduism. The Bengali narrated several incidents he encountered in his travels to Manasa-sarovara and returning. In one story, he speaks of his travels back from Kailas, where he met a party of Sadhus. He went to them to beg for some food, as he had not eaten for two or three days, subsisting on leaves of trees and grass. He saw an elderly Sadhu engaged in reading the Vedas, he took to be the chief of this company of Sadhus. He inquired about his name, and some told him, that his name was Kauthumpa and by others, Kauthumi. H.P.B. states, that although if it is her master Koot-Hoomi (or Kuthumi) he had met, K.H. does not look elderly. The Brahmachari, a chela of the Swami of Almora had said, he had never heard of Theosophy or of the Himalayan Brothers. He told Blavatsky and company that he saw several persons at, and near Manasa-sarovara, due to there being a large gathering, because of the pilgrimage of Kumbh Melas. He then mentions, that at Manasa-sarovara he met a Chohan Lama.
“Whether the “elderly” looking “Kauthumpa” as the Brahmachari calls the sadhu seen by him is our Mahatma Koothumi or not (we doubt this, for he is not “elderly” looking) it is shown at any rate that there are men known by the name of Kauthumpa (or the disciples, lit. men, of Koothumi) in Tibet, whose master’s name must, therefore, be Koothumi, and that we have not invented the name. Most probably the person seen by the Brahmachari was Ten-dub Ughien, the lama next to our Mahatma—and the chief and guide of his chelas on their travels. He is an elderly man and a great book-worm.” (Existence of the Himalayan Mahatmas, Blavatsky Collected Writings, Vol. VI, p. 38)
This lama Ten-dub Ughien, “next to our Mahatma—and the chief and guide of his chelas on their travels” is suggested by K. Paul Johnson to be the fellow and pundit Ugyen Gyatso, who accompanies Sarat Chandra Das in his travels. K. Paul Johnson connects the travels of Das and Sengchen with H.P.B.’s pilgrimage to Darjeeling in 1882. “The high-ranking lama” Charles Bell refers to from the report, Sengchen Tulku, was in charge of the Tashilhunpo library, head of the Ngag-pa or Tantrik College at Tashilhunpo, and held some political and religious authority in Lhasa. Das had been with Sengchen’s permission allowed to search the Tashilhunpo library for Sanskrit books where he found copious annotations, and he was allowed to take over two hundred volumes, manuscripts or block-prints back to India. K. Paul Johnson suggested that Sengchen’s generosity had been a source for the share of Tibetan scriptures in the hands of H.P.B. and the Theosophists, as over time, H.P.B. shows a better knowledge of Tibetan teachings. Das and Gyatso taught Sengchen Tulku about the printing press, lithography and instructed him in more mathematics. Sengchen was very interested in Western astronomy and science, questioning the Panchen on Kalachakra astronomy in relation to developments in astronomy in the West. Sengchen would even ignore his usual duties of receiving pilgrims, granting benedictions, and conducting ceremonies to converse with Das and Gyatso and engage in his literary activities. The minister’s seclusion and absence caused gossip and anxiety among his pupils and officiates of the pontifical chair, who were curious as to what he was so secretly engaged in. The entire time Das had been there, he had been informed, that Sengchen Tulku had composed two large volumes on the history of the philosophical schools of Tibet being reproduced on stereoplate at the Namring monastery.
The speculation that Sengchen Tulku is the mysterious correspondent of H.P.B. in the excerpts of the letters published as the “Tibetan Teachings” (written 1882 or 1883) found in her desk and published after her death was put forth in The Masters Revealed. It is because, in this letter, the unidentified correspondent of H.P.B. in the letters demonstrates a knowledge of Spiritualism, Western science, the Bible, and Tibetan Buddhism, that Sengchen Tulku is identified with the chief Lama (Mahachohan), or head abbot of the trans-Himalayan mystics in The Maha-chohan letter, or “The Great Master’s Letter” (1880 or 81).
In this letter, the Chohan-Lama demonstrates a knowledge of Spiritualism, Western science, the Bible, Tibetan Buddhism, Alexandrian Theosophy and Gnosticism. He has a battle-cry, “It’s time that Theosophy should enter the arena. No messenger of truth, no prophet has ever achieved during his life time a complete triumph, not even Buddha. The Theosophical Society was chosen as the corner stone, the foundation of the future religion of humanity. To achieve the proposed object a greater, wiser, and especially a more benevolent intermingling of the high and the low, of the alpha and the omega of society, was determined upon. The white race must be the first to stretch out the hand of fellowship to the dark nations, to call the poor despised “nigger” brothers. This prospect may not smile to all. He is no Theosophist who objects to this principle….” (“The Great Master’s Letter”: Chief Abbot of Transhimalaya Brotherhood explain the Mission of Theosophy)
K. Paul Johnson was very convinced of this hypothesis, especially because Das explains, that Sengchen remarked to him that he was one of only five men in the monasteries interested in foreign science and civilization.
As to whether or not the elderly man was K.H., Damodar K. Mavalankar explained this story of the Brahmacharin in meeting K.H. and other masters in Lahore and asked him why members in the Theos. Soc. have the notion that K.H. is an “elderly man.” This is the full context of the passage from Damodar Meeting With K.H. in Lahore:
“The fact is, that I had the good fortune of being sent for, and permitted to visit a Sacred Ashrum where I remained for a few days in the blessed company of several of the much doubted MAHATMAS of Himavat and Their disciples. There I met not only my beloved Gurudeva and Col. Olcott’s Master [Morya], but several others of the Fraternity, including one of the Highest. I regret the extremely personal nature of my visit to those thrice blessed regions prevents my saying more of it. Suffice it that the place I was permitted to visit is in the HIMALAYAS, not in any fanciful Summer Land and that I saw Him in my own sthula sarira (physical body) and found my Master identical with the form I had seen in the earlier days of my Chelaship. Thus, I saw my beloved Guru not only as a living man, but actually as a young one in comparison with some other Sadhus of the blessed company, only far kinder, and not above a merry remark and conversation at times. Thus on the second day of my arrival, after the meal hour I was permitted to hold an intercourse for over an hour with my Master. Asked by him smilingly, what it was that made me look at Him so perplexed, I asked in my turn:—‘How is it MASTER that some of the members of our Society have taken into their heads a notion that you were “an elderly man,” and that they have even seen you clairvoyantly looking an old man passed sixty?’ To which he pleasantly smiled and said, that this latest misconception was due to the reports of a certain Brahmachari, a pupil of a Vedantic Swami in the N.W.P.—who had met last year in Tibet the chief of a sect, an elderly Lama, who was his (my Master’s) travelling companion at that time The said Brahmachari having spoken of the encounter in India, had led several persons to mistake the Lama for himself.” (A Great Rittle Solvet, The Theosophist, Vol. V, Nos. 3-4, December-January, 1883-1884, pp. 61-62)
It did not seem that much of the action surrounding and underlying the Theosophical Movement was safe, for we find a disciple by the name of Chandra Cusho, which was only merely the pseudonym of a disciple of K.H. named R. Keshava Pillai. Pillai was instructed by K.H. to meet H.P.B. in Darjeeling, in which he was told to take up the pseudonym, Chandra Cusho, and dress in the yellow cap and robe of a Gelugpa monk.
“We were both together until the 28th idem. We travelled together, both on horseback and on foot in Bhutan, Sikkim, etc. . . . In the course of these travels, just about Pari or Parchong on the northern frontier of Sikkim, I had the good fortune and happiness to see the blessed feet of the most venerated Master Kut Humi and M. in their physical bodies. The very identical personage whose astral bodies I had seen in my dreams, etc., since 1869, and in 1876 in Madras and on the 14th September 1882 in the head-quarters at Bombay.” (The Indian Mirror, March 1885, p. 34-5)
R. Keshava Pillai was an Inspector of Police at Nellore, in Andhra Pradesh and a secretary of the Nallore Branch of the Theosophical Society in May 1882 May. Pillai is Case 27 in Daniel H. Caldwell’s Casebook of Encounters with the Theosophical Mahatmas. Many of these individuals were employed in particular offices. Sarat Chandra Das and Uygen Gyatso were spies, and employed by the Indian government’s Bengal Education Department. The spy life of Sarat Chandra Das sent by the British and who survived can be read in Meet Sarat Chandra Das: The spy who came in from the cold of Tibet and wrote a book about It and The Indian Spy Who Fell for Tibet by the The New York Times. The escapades of Das and Gyatso unfortunately was apart of what led to the deaths and torture of several servants, officials, and Sengchen Tulku. Although, K. Paul Johnson claimed that Pillai’s case is not indicative of the Himalayan masters’ existence, because Pillai is a “willing accomplice” in H.P.B.’s supposed “scheme of deception” (David Pratt, The Theosophical Mahatmas: A Critique of Paul Johnson’s New Myth, 1997) However, Pillai was no willing accomplice, as Damodar K. Mavalankar had actually took the young disciple to task for his distrust of H.P.B.
About this situation of R. Keshava Pillai, K.H. had explained the tactics sometimes employed by them during these times in relation to another disciple, Mohini M. Chatterji:
“Appearances go a long way with the “Pelings” [foreigners, Westerners, whites]. One has to impress them externally before a regular, lasting, interior impression is made. Remember and try to understand why I expect you to do the following: When Upasika [H.P.B] arrives, you will meet and receive her as though you were in India, and she your own mother. You must not mind the crowd of Frenchmen and others. You have to stun them (…) And know for your own edification that One far greater than myself has kindly consented to survey the whole situation under her guise (…) You will thus salute her on seeing and taking leave of her the whole time you are at Paris – regardless of comments and her own surprise. This is a test.” (K.H., Letter no 62., see Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom Second Series, Paris, March 1884)