Theosophical Encyclopedia

P. C. Mukherji and Theosophical Archaeology – Part one

Andrew Huxley – England

TE 17 Andrew Huxley

The author

Introduction by Professor James Santucci

“P. C. Mukherji and Theosophical Archaeology” provides a fascinating insight in the colonialist view of archeology in India and the Theosophical perspective. Furthermore, the value of The Theosophist from its inception in 1879 to the end of the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. Aside from archival material, many of the activities and interests of its leaders are chronicled in the pages of both the journal and its Supplements, the latter especially serving as a veritable goldmine for historians. This was evident in Professor Baier’s article, “Mesmeric Yoga and the Development of Meditation within the Theosophical Society” (Vol. XVI, No. 3-4), as also in the present article. Keeping in mind the third reason for establishing The Theosophist (“the necessity for an organ through which the native scholars of the East could communicate their learning to the Western world, and, especially, through which the sublimity of Aryan, Buddhistic, Parsi, and other religions might be expounded by their own priests and pandits, the only competent interpreters”), it is no wonder that the policy of the Theosophists, especially its leaders Blavatsky and Olcott, was what Dr. Huxley describes as “Indology for the Indians,” a view that was in direct opposition to the colonialist policy to Belittle and conquer. How the Babus and pandits fared vis-à-vis government agencies such as the Archaeological Survey of India, is illustrated in the example of Rājendralāla Mitra and Purna Chundar Mukherji. Of the two, Mukherji takes on an added importance for those interested in Blavatsky’s erudition concerning Indian archaeology and history, for instance the controversy over the Buddha’s dates. Her response is pertinent today, especially with the varying opinions appearing in Heinz Bechert’s collection entitled When did the Buddha Live?: The Controversy on the Dating of the Historical Buddha (1996). 

The author, Dr. Andrew Huxley, was Emeritus Professor in the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) from his retirement in 2013 until his death on November 29, 2014.  From 1984 to 2012 Dr. Huxley was Lecturer of Southeast Asian law at SOAS and an authority on Burmese Buddhist Law and on the pre-colonial legal history of Southeast Asia.  In 2012, was appointed Professor of Southeast Asian law in 2012 and in 2013 delivered his inaugural lecture, “T. W. Rhys Davids and the Forged Relics of the Buddha,” which can be viewed on YouTube.


Babu Purna Chundar Mukherji was an author, an artist, a publisher, and an archaeologist. He was born around 1845 (either in Lucknow or Bengal) and died in Calcutta in 1903. As an archaeologist he drew mixed reviews. Professor Auguste Barth of Paris rated Mukherji’s dig at the Mauryan capital in 1895 as “rather useless” and his Report on Champaran of 1897 as “reading like a bad novel.” (1) The Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, on the other hand, eulogised Mukherji as “an enthusiastic, persevering, and acute antiquarian.” (2) Mukherji’s struggle to find permanent employment with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) lasted from the early 1880s until his death. He fought nobly, but unsuccessfully, to breach the color-bar that limited the top strata of ASI jobs to Europeans. It was during the dark decade of Indian archaeology—the interregnum between the 1870s (when General Alexander Cunningham ran the ASI) and the 1900s (when John Marshall took it over)—that Mukherji undertook his two most important digs. These were at Pāṭaliputta, Emperor Aśoka’s [Pāli: Asoka’s] capital city, and Kapilavatthu, the Buddha’s birthplace.

Babu Purna Chundar Mukherji was also a Theosophist and a member of the Radha Soami Society of Agra. His first contribution to The Theosophist appeared in 1882. In 1899 he credited his discovery of Kapilavatthu to “the Great Masters who are guiding our good work.” (3) Evidently he believed that Theosophical Archaeology differed from the ASI’s concept of archaeology. My aim is to explore these differences. My main source is the correspondence which Mukherji provoked in the pages of The Theosophist during 1883. His collocutor was the journal’s editor, Helena Blavatsky.

Blavatsky and “Indology for the Indians” 

Helena Blavatsky lived in India from 1879 to 1885. During those six years India developed a new kind of political consciousness. Lord Lytton (Viceroy from 1876–1880) favored aristocratic India over meritocratic India. His Great Durbar of 1877 smiled on the Mahārājas, but coldshouldered the Bengali Babus, the Madras native barristers, and the Bombay University graduates, in short the English-educated Indians. Lord Ripon (Viceroy from 1880- 84) tried his hardest to divert patronage from the aristocrats to the meritocrats. He had minimal success, but when he left office in December 1884, the English-speakers organized large demonstrations of their appreciation in all the cities of British India. Auckland Colvin, then one of the Viceroy’s cabinet, spoke (anonymously) of the Indian political mind waking “to the consciousness of its own powers and the assurance of its success.” (4) For the first time Indians were expressing their political opinion on a national basis. Three months later, Blavatsky left India for good. She deserves her share of credit for this new pan-Indian political consciousness. Her slogan was not India for the Indians (which would soon have brought her prosecution under the Arms and Vernacular Press Act of 1878), but Indology for the Indians.

On 16 February 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott arrived in Bombay. They spent a month or two establishing their base-camp, then travelled to Lahore, Lucknow, and Vārāṇasī to meet the religious practitioners with whom they had corresponded. During the summer they finalized their strategy and launched it in Vol. I, No. 1 of The Theosophist: a monthly journal devoted to Oriental Philosophy, Art, Literature and Occultism: embracing Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and other Secret Sciences. On the first two pages, under the heading Namastae! [“Greetings!”], the Editor lists her four reasons for founding the Journal. The third is:

the necessity for an organ through which the native scholars of the East could communicate their learning to the Western world, and, especially, through which the sublimity of Aryan, Buddhistic, Parsi, and other religions might be expounded by their own priests and pandits, the only competent interpreters; (5)

This is the branch of the Theosophist program that I refer to as Indology for the Indians. Edward Said has sensitized us to the role played in imperial domination by the Indology written by some Europeans. Had they reduced their strategy to a slogan, it might have been Belittle and conquer. The politics of Allan Octavian Hume (1829- 1912: the retired Indian Civil Servant and godfather to the Indian National Congress) were based on his belief that the antidote to Divide and conquer is Unite and resist. Blavatsky’s politics assumed that the answer to Belittle and conquer is Indology for the Indians. She was licensed to say this in print because the reforming Tory Viceroy Lord Mayo (1869- 72) had already done so:

So far as possible, intelligent Natives may be employed in and trained to the work of photographing, measuring, and surveying buildings, directing excavations, and the like; while as regards deciphering inscriptions, it seems probable that Natives may be found better qualified to do this work than many Europeans, whose services could be at present secured for such employment in the Department. (6)

Lord Mayo wrote this preference into the ASI’s founding charter, but between 1871 and 1885 when Cunningham ran the ASI, it employed no English-speaking Indians. Not that Blavatsky had invented

Indology for the Indians. She took the strategy from Rājendralāla Mitra (1822-91), the brightest and best of the Babus. When Mitra was a child, Indians carried out most of the heavy work in Sanskrit studies while Englishmen gleaned most of the credit. That, at any rate, was the verdict of August Schlegel, the German Romantic and Indologist. The English Indologists, especially Horace Wilson whom he directly addresses, saw “scarcely any need for ... the principles of critical philology. ... You ignore them in favor of commissioning the subaltern labor of pandits.” (7) A later generation of German scholars criticied “Wilson’s continuing reliance on the indigenous scholarly tradition.” (8) That was two years before the Mutiny. Twenty years after the Mutiny, the Pandits, said Rājendralāla Mitra, had nearly disappeared:

The venerable old pandits—the repositories of traditional and book knowledge of ages,—whose erudition was the profoundest ... are rapidly dying out, and their places are not being supplied by the rising generation. (9)

He summed up the change in a brutal phrase: “Sanskrit is no longer a paying study.” (10) Each Pandit had learned from his own guru, but Mitra was educated at the Hindu Free School, studied medicine at Calcutta Medical School, and then law at Calcutta University. He was from a generation as fluent in English as in Bengali, and he wished to take personal credit for the scholarly work that he performed.

The Pandits had known their place, which was in India, and their language, which was Sanskrit. Mitra claimed the right to disagree with his European colleagues, and to do so in English language publications. In 1881 Mitra persuaded the British India Association to campaign against Rudolf Hoernle’s appointment as head of the Calcutta Madrasah by the Indian Educational Service. He argued that Hoernle, as a Christian missionary, must inevitably be biased against Indian religions. The Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal advised the Viceroy that “a little snubbing will do [Mitra and his supporters] no harm.”(11) James Fergusson, the Scottish authority on the development of Indian architecture was just then preparing a book to snub Mitra. Fergusson condemned the “sentimental nonsense” Mitra wrote and the “Babu English” he wrote it in. His Sanskrit learning “when properly examined ... may prove to be as shadowy and worthless as his archaeology.” Mitra has been the first “and I hope may be last” to bring “angry personal feelings” into the “hitherto fascinating pursuit” of archaeology. (12) When Fergusson wrote this self-defeating diatribe he was in his mid-70s. Old age perhaps provided some excuse. But Mitra too was  growing old: he was 62 when Fergusson’s attack was published. Babu Purna Chundar Mukherji, in his mid-30s when Blavatsky reached India, was the right age to replace Mitra as leader of the Indology for the Indians campaign. In 1885 Alfred Lyall (the Liberal Lieutenant-Governor of NWPO) appointed Mukherji to a job in the Lucknow office of the ASI. But Burgess, the incoming Director-General of the ASI and Fergusson’s protegé, countermanded him, and placed an Englishman in the job. Mukherji petitioned the Government for redress, and Lyall found some temporary archaeological work for Mukherji to perform (paid from the NWPO’s budget rather than the ASI’s). For the next eighteen years Mukherji was at the centre of the argument about whether Government should employ Indians to research Indology.

Mukherji and Blavatsky  

Mukherji’s first encounter with Theosophy was in March 1882 when he attended Henry Olcott’s public lecture at Lucknow. It seems that afterwards Mukherji and Olcott talked about techniques of healing. Three months later Mukherji’s article “Mesmerism in India” appeared: he identified himself as a Fellow of the Theosophical Society. (13) The article is a competent piece of ethnology which pigeonholes Indian curative processes into five types. It seems to have impressed Olcott, whose first mesmeric healing took place in August 1882. By the following summer Olcott was treating 2812 patients a month, and had to take daily saltwater swims to regalvanize his energies. (14) By November 1883, when Olcott next gave a public lecture in Lucknow, he was restricting his healing to the inner circle:

Later in the evening at a special meeting of the branch, Col. Olcott initiated several new candidates into the Society, and after that he discoursed on mesmerism, illustrating his remarks by highly interesting experiments, and giving practical hints for the treatment of various diseases. (15)

Soon after this the Hidden Masters ordered Olcott to cease his healing activities. (16) The branch of the Theosophical Society mentioned was the Satya Marga of Lucknow. It was first conceived after the

March 1882 lecture and incorporated four months later. Pandit Pran Nath of Gwalior was its first President, and Rai Narain Dass, the judge of Lucknow Small Cause Court, its Vice-President. (17) The Management Committee consisted of three executive officers and two non-executives, among the latter “Babu Purun Chandra Mukerji.” The Branch Report describes Mukherji as “an archaeologist in the Government service” who during 1882/83 “did good work at Nainital and Sitapur.” (18)

Mukherji and Blavatsky never met in person. However in June 1883 he initiated a long, public, correspondence with the Editor of The Theosophist, which progressed curiously like a flirtation. In June

1883 Mukherji states a personal interest: Blavatsky replies brusquely, but helpfully. In October 1883 Mukherji unleashes a flood of demands: Blavatsky cold-shoulders them and him. In November 1883 Blavatsky yields, and gives him nine pages of what he asked for. In December 1883, when Mukherji wants a second helping, Blavatsky slaps his face. Three months later Mukherji tries again, but is told to work out his own relief. That ends the correspondence, and Blavatsky left to spend the next ten months in France, convalescing. When Mukherji approached Blavatsky, he had just produced his first book, Pictorial Lucknow, whose three sections are headed History, Ethnology and Architecture. The first chapter of his Architecture section deals with Archaeology and takes a staunchly pro-Rājendralāla Mitra line on the controversies with Fergusson and Cunningham. So when Blavatsky read Mukherji’s first letter to her, she either knew or could have found out that Mukherji was a successful and ambitious Lucknow Babu, an amusing and informative author, and that he had sound views on Indology for the Indians.

Blavatsky published Mukherji’s initial Blavatsky published Mukherji’s initial letter under the heading “Psychometry and Archaeology.” Mukherji begins by explaining that he is a field archaeologist

operating with British approval. He has “gathered a great deal of information and sketches” and is presently writing his report. He refers to his 1882-83 cold season visit to Northern Oudh, where he probably visited Sahet-Mahet (which Cunningham correctly identified as Sāvatthi, the Buddha’s favorite city) and Nimkhar (the Hindu fort-temple complex where Viṣṇu’s disk fell to earth). He has a problem:

Of the many ancient mounds, the remains of towns or buildings of a bygone age, I could not get any information, not even their names. Sometimes I discover a fragment of an inscription, which I cannot read nor complete. ... The utmost we can infer, where tradition is lost, is their religious and aesthetic attainments and a partial knowledge of their architecture, as evidenced by exhumed foundation walls.

Perhaps the Editor can help:

Are there no data by which we can find out the age of ancient trees, or some occult sympathy ... or again psychometrical means by which we can discover archaeological relics or records that are hidden under the ancient mounds? I hear, psychometry is a great aid to the archaeologists. If so, how can I cultivate it? (19)

First, replies the Editor, you should hold the epigraphic fragment against your forehead, then think yourself

en rapport with the magnetic aura of its surroundings. Once landed in the world of Akasic impressions, the book of Nature is opened at every page ... as though photographed on the etheric waves. (20)

It is easy to learn, she adds, as long as you prepared to practice.

Mukherji wrote again within a week of receiving Blavatsky’s reply. He thanked her for “the kind advice you have given me in cultivating psychometry” and promised to practice it on “my next archaeological tour.” Meanwhile, “that I may conduct my researches on new lines,” may I have answers or clues to these five questions? (21) To summarize the questions:

  1. When was the Buddha born? When did he die?
  1. Where are Kapilavatthu, the Buddha’s birthplace, and Kusinara, the place of his death, located?
  1. Are General Cunningham’s findings generally correct?
  1. Are there no other helpful foreign travel accounts other than Faxian and Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrims?
  1. Do any Āryan buildings predating Aśoka still exist?

Questions 1 and 2 are both factual and controversial. Were Mukherji to find new evidence to settle either question, his archaeological reputation would be made. Questions 3 and 5 seek to adjudicate the quarrel between Rājendralāla Mitra on the one hand and Fergusson and Cunningham on the other. Question 4 suggests that he was researching non-Indian sources on the Buddha. He reminisced that in the mid 1880s he had been busy studying “the Lives of the Buddha from the Nepalese and the Tibetan sources” in search of information about Buddhist geography. (22) Blavatsky promised to answer them in the next issue.

The November 1883 issue does indeed contain Helena Blavatsky’s most pregnant pronouncements on Theosophic archaeology. (23) Indian history, she begins, can be simple, as long as we waste no time on the “conglutinative methods” used by Western philologists. (24) She speaks on behalf of “the Eastern Initiate” against “those Orientalists who, abusing their unmerited authority, play drakes and ducks with the Eastern Initiate’s most sacred relics.” (25) Of the three “Western methods” (Sanskrit manuscripts, numismatics, and archaeology) only the coins ring true. She takes issue with General Cunningham, Mr. Fergusson, and Prof. Max Müller. She excoriates Albrecht Weber’s statements that both Hindu architecture and Āyurvedic medicine are Greek in origin. Well may Rājendralāla Mitra 

hold out particularly against the idea of any Greek influence whatever on the development of Indian architecture. ... The outcome of this palaeographic spoliation is that there is not a tittle left for India to call her own ... India is hellenized from head to foot, and even had no physic until the Greek doctors came. (26)

So far she has been answering Mukherji’s Q3 and Q5. She now turns, under the sub-heading “Sakya Muni’s place in history,” to his Q1, Q2 and Q4. I shall deal with this material in my final section. She ends her eight page analysis with a prophesy:

The chronological ship of the Sanskritists has already broken from her moorings and gone adrift. ... Past will be uncovered to the dismay of western theorists, and the humiliation of an imperious science. This drifting ship, if watched, may be seen to ground upon the upheaved vestiges of ancient civilizations, and fall to pieces. (27)

Sometime soon, in other words, archaeological discoveries will be made which will thoroughly invalidate the claims of Müller, Weber, Cunningham, and Fergusson.

Mukherji wrote back to Blavatsky immediately, probably making some combative point about the dates of the Buddha. She slapped him down:

P.C. MUKERJI.- (Oudh). The subject is a debatable one, and you give but your own views, without reference to those of eminent authorities. (28)

Three months later, Mukherji tried again, asking The Theosophist for a reading list of “Sanskrit or Buddhistic books, printed or manuscript” which are of help to the “archaeological student.” He dares to hint, in this final letter of the correspondence, that Blavatsky’s article has left him unsatisfied:

I have enough of archaeological gropings in the dark. No unerring data have I found yet to aid me in my researches. ... And shall we continue in this miserable helpless state, when we have guiding angels in the background? (29)

Blavatsky fobs him off with her usual formula of dismissal. All that can be said with safety has been imparted to him. He must do his own share of the work. “But unfortunately too many people sit in silent expectation of a miracle ... but do nothing.” (30) And that is her final word. T. Subba Row took over the editorship for the rest of the year. (31) In later years Mukherji contributed often to The Theosophist, but that was under Henry Olcott’s editorship.

End of part one - To be continued

Endnotes (part one) 

1 Auguste Barth. “Bouddhisme,” Revue de l’histoire des religions 41 (1900):166–203, 179.

2 Lieutenant Governor of Bengal’s Resolution, dated 17 October 1903, bound into V/24/295,

held in the India Office Collection, British Library, London.

3 “Cuttings and Comments” [Editorial]. The Theosophist 20, No. 8 (May 1899): 507–508, 507, citing a letter from Mukherji to Olcott.

4 Auckland Colvin. “If it be real—what does it mean?” Pioneer-Mail (17 December 1884). Cited in Briton Martin. New India 1885 (LA: University of California Press, 1969), 22.

5 [Editorial], “Namastae!” The Theosophist 1, No. 1 (October 1879): 1-2.

6 Resolutions 64950 of 2 February 1871, cited in Upinder Singh, The Discovery of Ancient India (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 313.

7 A.W. Schlegel. Réflexions sur l’étude des langues Asiatiques addressées à Sir James Mackintosh. suivies d’une lettre à M. Horace Hayman Wilson (Bonn: Weber, 1832), 141, translating “... habitué comme vous l’êtes à commander le travail subalterne des pandits.

8 Otto N Bohtlingk and Rudolf von Roth. “Preface.” Petersburger Wörterbuch, volume 1 (1855), cited in R. Rocher, “British Orientalism in the Eighteenth Century: The Dialectics of Knowledge and Government.” In Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, editors. Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 240.

9 Singh, Discovery of Ancient India, 328.

10 Singh, Discovery of Ancient India, 328.

11 Ashley Eden to Lord Ripon, 20 May 1881. Ripon papers Add. Ms 43,592, held in the India Office Collection, British Library, London.

12 James Fergusson. Indian Archaeology, with especial reference to the works of Babu Rajendralala Mitra (New Delhi: Rajesh Publications, reprint 1982, first published 1884), 14, 15, 30, 100.

13 Poorno Chandra Mukherji [Babu Poorno Chandra Mookherjee, F.T.S.]. “Tharhna, or Mesmerism in India.” The Theosophist 3, No. 9 (June 1882): 219-20.

14 Stephen Prothero. The White Buddhist: the Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 109.

15 Jwala Prasad Sankhadar. “Col. Olcott at Lucknow.” The Theosophist Supplement 5, No. 3 (December 1883), 36.

16 Prothero, White Buddhist, 207.

17 Pran Nath (educated at La Martinière College in the 1850s) moved to Lucknow in late 1881 to take up a position at Canning College (the Residential College for Kashmiri Pundits, which was affiliated to Calcutta University). These Kashmiri students became immediate and generous supporters of Theosophy. Compare Johnson’s remarks on the policies of Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Kashmir in Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994), 129-47.

18 Jwala Prasad Sankadhara. “The Satya Marga Theosophical Society,” The Theosophist Supplement 1, No. 5 (May 1884), 77–78.

19 P.C. Mukherji. “Psychometry and Archaeology,” The Theosophist 4, No. 9 (June 1883): 235–36.

20 “Editor’s Note” [to Mukherji’s, “Psychometry and Archaeology”]. The Theosophist 4, No. 9: 236.

21 P.C. Mukherji. “Some Questions on Archaeology,” The Theosophist 5, No. 1 (October 1883): 23.

22 P.C. Mukherji. A Report on a Tour of Exploration of the Antiquities in the Tarai Nepal the region of Kapilavastu during February and March 1899. Archaeological Survey of India Imperial Series, No. XXVI, Part I (Calcutta, Government Printing, 1901), 2. Mukherji was probably making use of Mitra’s catalogue of Hodgson’s collection of Nepali Buddhist manuscripts published in 1882. Perhaps he also sought help from the Tibetan exile community in Darjeeling.

23 H.P. Blavatsky. “Replies to Inquiries Suggested by Esoteric Buddhism’. Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’.” [Editorial]. The Theosophist 5, No. 2 (November 1883), 35-43.

24 Blavatsky, “Replies to Inquiries Suggested by Esoteric Buddhism’. Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 35.

25 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 35.

26 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 38.

27 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 43.

28 “Answers to Correspondents.” [Editorial]. The Theosophist 5, No. 3 (December 1883), 89.

29 P.C. Mukherji, “Archaeological Difficulties,” and in the section “Answers to Correspondents.” The Theosophist V, No. 5 (February 1884), 121.

30 “Editorial Note.” [Editorial]. The Theosophist 5, No. 5 (February 1884), 121.

31 “Editorial Note.” [Editorial]. The Theosophist 5, No. 6 (March 1884), 154.

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