Johan van Manen was born on April 16, 1877, in the city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, into a well-to-do Dutch family. As a youth he was not exactly a symbol of virtue. On the contrary, he gave his parents and teachers a lot of trouble. Van Manen was one of the innovative young artists and thinkers, and it is said that he remained a Bohemian for the rest of his life. However, Theosophy, its principles and tenets, took his fancy, and he started a thorough study of its teachings. At the same time, his remarkable linguistic talents helped him to explore the folklore of ancient peoples.
Not only was he fluent in several European languages, but without pretending to be a Sanskritist, he knew much about that ancient language, as well as about Tamil and other languages of south India. It is not surprising that ultimately van Manen was drawn to India. Between 1896 and 1908 he collaborated with Henry Olcott and Annie Besant by propagating Theosophy in the Netherlands, the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and Europe. In 1909 he set off for the international headquarters in Adyar to become Charles Webster Leadbeater’s private secretary, a function he fulfilled until 1916. During this period he witnessed the discovery and initial education of the young Krishnamurti. From 1910 until 1916 he was assistant general manager of the Western branch of the Adyar Library.
In her book So Rich a Life, Clara Codd writes about some amusing encounters she had with Johan van Manen, during his years at Adyar. She vividly describes his sleeping habits and the odd clothes he wore. She also discovered that, in a previous life in Greece, van Manen had been her husband there, an idea van Manen did not appreciate. She tells of his strong preference about food:
Mr. van Manen had a bad temper. He was devoted to roast potatoes, and every day the native butler cooked a large plateful for him. An English couple who were then resident at Adyar considered that our food was not hygienic, so they persuaded Mrs. Besant to let them manage the kitchen. The first thing they did was to cut off Mr. van Manen’s roast potatoes. I was there when he discovered this. A tremendous roar filled the dining room: “Where are my potatoes?” A plateful had to be hastily cooked. We were glad when finally the reformers gave up and we had the native butler again.
Van Manen left the TS because of his political differences with Annie Besant during World War I. He remained in India, however, and settled in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal in order to dedicate himself to Tibetology, developing a growing interest in Tibetan lore and language. He also became interested in the literature and philosophy of China, a nation impinging on Tibet. In 1918 he started working for the Imperial Library in Calcutta, and in 1922 he was also involved with the anthropological section of the Indian museum there. From 1923 until 1939 he held the position of General Secretary of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, promoting science, and he was the editor of the Society’s yearly Journal and Proceedings. In that capacity and through his publications, he earned recognition among scholars worldwide. During his term of office, the Asiatic Society’s established stature grew even more and was officially designated the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. Van Manen died in Calcutta on March 17, 1943.
The Kern Institute in Leiden (Holland) published a 1989 biography by Peter Richardus, entitled The Dutch Orientalist Johan van Manen, His Life and Work.