Theosophical Encyclopedia

P. C. Mukherji and Theosophical Archaeology – Part two

Andrew Huxley – England

TE JS 2 319 Andrew Huxley 010

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.


Theosophical Archaeology: an appraisal 

Blavatsky’s sole methodological innovation in archaeology has been psychometrical forehead-pressing. Most archaeologists most of the time do something similar. They stare blankly at the potsherd, or bone-fragment, or sword-hilt for minutes on end in the hope that inspiration will strike them. Sometimes it does. This may also be true of psychometry. At least it is a non-destructive technique, unlike Cunningham’s spoliation of the stūpas at Sāñci. (32) Blavatsky’s important innovations are not methodological but doctrinal: they concern the relative usefulness of sources, and the relative strength of interpretations. On the vexed question of the main Buddhist dates Blavatsky limits herself to using such conventional sources as the Tibetan scriptures, Pliny, and the Purāṇas. From these she asserts that there were two different kings of the Mauryan dynasty called Aśoka, and several kings who bore the title

Candragupta. Her sources are expressed rather vaguely as “the Indian annals” and the “Brahmanical as well as the Burmese and Tibetan versions.”(33) Mukherji waited fifteen years before developing Blavatsky’s information. While writing up his dig at the Mauryan capital of Pāṭaliputta, he started “dabbling a little in historical investigations on an original line.” (34) The hint, he fully acknowledged, came from Blavatsky’s Archaeological “Difficulties” article. During 1899 he published a further twenty-six pages on Mauryan chronology in The Theosophist. At the end of the year he published the whole sequence in Lucknow as a pamphlet under the title The Indian Chronology, Buddhistic Period and distributed copies to European orientalists. (35) Rhys Davids gave it a sympathetic review, though he deplored Mukherji’s citation of a Theosophical memoir in a scholarly work. (36) However, Vincent Smith’s “minute and impartial examination” concluded that Mukherji’s chronology was “utterly untenable.” (37) Nonetheless, Smith felt it necessary to write two more articles in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society attacking the “two Ashokas” theory. (38) Today most historians of India follow Smith’s chronology rather than Mukherji’s, but this is due more to habit than evidence. Scarcely any new evidence on the dating of the Mauryan kings has turned up in the last hundred years. My judgement is that Mukherji’s dates, though the less popular choice, are still tenable. It is when Blavatsky uses written sources that are closed to Max Müller and Fergusson that she reveals her agenda. She dismisses Fergusson’s Hellenization thesis:

Occult records show differently. They say that Alexander never penetrated into India further than Taxila. ... The only colonies he left behind them that the Brahmans ever knew of amounted to a few dozens of disabled soldiers, scattered hither and thither on the frontiers. (39)

On this question the modern consensus favors Blavatsky. Hellenistic cities were founded across the Indus Valley and the northern headwaters of the Oxus, but no further east than that. It is a pity that Blavatsky’s sources said nothing about Mohenjo-Daro and its earlier Indus Valley civilization. Such a revelation would have proved plainly that the Occult Records knew stuff that the Cunninghams and Marshalls did not. Blavatsky invoked esoteric texts to settle the controversy over the location of the Seven-leaved Cave above Rājgīr. She cites a manuscript “written in Anudrata Magadha characters” that she consulted in the oldest Lamasery in Tibet. (40) The text purports to be a sūtra giving the text of a sermon preached by the Buddha in the Seven-leaved Cave. She also quotes a later commentary to the sūtra which describes events that took place a thousand years after the Buddha. These texts are Blavatsky’s most elaborate fabrications, and from them we can take back-bearings as to what her archaeological intervention was intended to achieve. First I must explain the state of the debate in 1883 on the Seven-leaved Cave.

The Cave above Rājgīr is mentioned under this name in the earliest Pāli scriptures. The Buddha often visited it for meditation, and once held a very significant conversation there with Ānanda [Dīgha Nikāya ii 116]. (41) It is one of twelve outlying places well outside central Rājgīr, where visiting monks were sometimes quartered. (42) According to later Sri Lankan sources, the First Buddhist Council (which transformed Buddhism from a personal cult to an institutional religion) was held outside the entrance to the Seven leaved Cave. This seems unlikely, but it explains why Cunningham and Fergusson were so eager to locate it. Early in the 1870s General Cunningham declared that he had found it on the southern slope of the hill that looms over Rājgīr. The following year Cunningham’s assistant, Joseph Beglar, located it much higher up the hill on the northern slope. Beglar and Cunningham met at Rājgīr in 1873 to examine the hill together. Beglar stuck to his identification, though he withdrew one of the arguments by which he had advanced it:

I must leave it to my readers to judge whether the residuum of my arguments against General Cunningham ... carry conviction or not. ... How can I adequately shew my worthiness of noble confidence thus placed in an adversary but by unhesitatingly acknowledging my error? (43)

Two of his readers were struck by Beglar’s odd mixture of deference and stubbornness in the matter of the Seven-leaved Cave. Fergusson and Burgess co-authored a book in which they supported Beglar over Cunningham. (44) Here is Beglar’s description of the cave on the northern slope:

It is a large natural cavern which has been untouched by art, and portions of it have fallen in and over. The cavern is divided by natural septa of rock into compartments, six of which I counted and there was space between the last one I counted and the vertical face of the ledge above it for a seventh compartment, but the jangal was too dense to allow me to penetrate to it and establish its existence by actual sight. ... The various chambers are neither regularly shaped not equal in size, they are in fact natural fissures in the rock. One ... is only 4 feet wide, others are 6, 8, and 10 feet wide. (45)

And here is Blavatsky’s sūtra, which fictionalizes Beglar’s account:

When our Lord first sat in the [Seven leaved] cave for Dhyana, it was a large six-chambered natural cave, 50 to 60 feet wide by 33 deep. One day, while teaching the mendicants when teaching the mendicants outside, our Lord compared man to a Saptaparna (seven leaved) plant, showing them how after the loss of its first leaf every other could be easily detached, but the seventh leaf,—directly connected with the stem. “Mendicants,” He said, “there are seven Buddhas in every Buddha, and there are six Bikshus [bhikṣu-s] and but one Buddha in each mendicant. What are the seven? The seven branches of complete knowledge. What are the six? The six organs of sense. What are the five? The five elements of illusive being. And the one which is also ten? He is a true Buddha who develops in him the ten forms of holiness and subjects them all to the one—“the silent voice” (meaning Avalokiteswara). After that, causing the rock to be moved at His command the Tathagata made it divide itself into a seventh additional chamber, remarking that a rock too was septenary, and had seven stages of development. From that time it was called the Sattapanni or the Saptaparna cave.

Beglar sees six chambers, but intuits the possibility of a seventh. Blavatsky describes a six-chambered cave to which the Buddha miraculously added a seventh to illustrate a doctrinal point. By contrast there is nothing seven-fold or six-fold about the topology of Cunningham’s cave. With some dexterity Blavatsky has mingled her evidence against Cunningham’s geography with support for her Esoteric Buddhist doctrine. The Buddha’s silent voice must be related to Blavatsky’s The Voice of Silence (1889). The Buddha’s “seven stages of development” are unlike the Buddhism I am familiar with, but very similar to the Theosophy expounded by Allan Hume and P.C. Mukherji. (46) Julie Hall has looked for antecedents, but concludes that the seven-leaved doctrine “originated with Theosophy despite its debt to Western esoteric and Eastern traditions.”(47) However one or two European esoteric texts may have given Blavatsky some help. There is no proof that she knew the 1609 edition of Heinrich Khunrath’s Ampitheatrum sapientiae aeternae, from which I take this detail of the Gate to the Ampitheatre. It shows a Paracelsian Seven-natured Cave which postulants reach by climbing “the seven steps of the Theosophists.” Blavatsky’s final contribution to Theosophical Archaeology was her pastiche of a Tibetan religious chronicle, apparently dating from the 9th-12th centuries. (48) To summarize her summary: After the First Buddhist Council was held in the mouth of the Seven-leaved Cave, the king had his artificers cast seven gold statues of the Buddha. One statue was placed in each of the seven compartments of the Cave. Gradually the statues disappeared in the direction of Central Asia. The first was plundered by Chinese robbers when Dhammashoka [Dhammāsoka] sent Bhikkhu Sali Suka on a mission beyond Nepal. The second met the same fate at Ghar-za before its bearers even reached Tibet. The third was taken by a barbarous tribe of Bhons, then rescued in 120 BCE by a Chinese general. The fourth was shipwrecked between Magadha and Chittagong in 250 CE. The fifth, sixth and seventh statues reached their destination in Tibet where (presumably) they are still to be found. The back-bearings here point to Blavatsky’s wish to establish credibility for her occult sources. She offers a history of the first thousand years of Buddhism, which she thinks will be persuasive to people like Max Müller and August Barth. It sounded more persuasive in the 1880s (when Indologists were prone to exaggerate the role that Nepal played in early Buddhist history) than it does now. But it can still hold water, as long as we accept that early Buddhism’s anti-iconic stance did not extend to royally commissioned statues.

Endnotes (part two)  

32 Singh, Discovery of Ancient India, 231.

33 Blavatsky, Archaeological “Difficulties,” 42.

34 P.C. Mukherji. “Asoka Chandragupta,” The Theosophist 19, No. 4 (Jan. 1898): 241-42.

35 P.C. Mukherji. “Asoka-Sandracottus (1),” The Theosophist 20, No. 10 (July 1899), 611–17; “Asoka-

Sandracottus (2).” The Theosophist 20, No. 12 (September 1899), 751–54; “Date of Mahavira,” The Theosophist 21, No. 1 (October 1899), 50–53; “Asoka I., the Nanda,” The Theosophist 21, No. 2 (November 1899), 108-14; “Asoka II.—the Maurya” The Theosophist 21, No. 3 (December 1899), 167–75. P.C. Mukerjee. Indian Chronology—the Buddhistic Period (Lucknow: Express Office, 1899). After Mukherji’s death, R.C. Temple printed a shortened version of the pamphlet in his journal: P.C. Mukherji, “An Independent Hindu View of Buddhist Chronology,” Indian Antiquary, May 1903, 227–233.

36 T.W. Rhys Davids. “Book Review,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 32, No. 3 (July 1900): 568-70.

37 Vincent Smith. “Preface” to Babu Purna Chandra Mukherji’s A Report on a Tour of Exploration

of the Antiquities in the Tarai, Nepal (Calcutta: Government Printing, 1901), 2.

38 V.A. Smith. “The Authorship of the Piyadasi Inscriptions,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 33, No. 3 (July 1901), 481–99; V.A. Smith, “The identity of Piyadasi (Priyadarśin) with Aśoka Maurya, and some connected Problems” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 33, No. 4 (October 1901): 827–58. Mukherji had asked that his pamphlet be reprinted as part of his forthcoming report on Kapilavatthu and Lumbini. Smith, the overall editor, refused to allow this. Mukherji’s wish may explain Smith’s apparent overkill in writing two long articles to attack Mukherji’s “utterly untenable” chronology. P/6138 B September 1901 No 18 of 1901, Mukherji’s Report file in India Office Collection, British Library, London.

39 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 39.

40 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeological ‘Difficulties’,” 39.

41Dīgha Nikāya ii 116. References in this form are to the Pāli Buddhist scriptures. For an explanation of the citation system, see Oskar v. Hinüber, A Handbook of Pali Literature (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1996).

42 The Buddha appointed Dabba the Mallian as quartermaster in charge of lodgings. Dabba was fully enlightened, and, by meditating on the fourth jhāna, could make his fingers glow white hot. When monks came to him late in the evening, he would guide them to their quarters by the light of his glowing fingers. This became an attraction. Monks came to him late at night and asked him for lodgings in far-off spots such as the Seven leaved Cave, thinking “We will see the wonder of the psychic potency of the venerable Dabba the Mallian.” Dabba went up the path ahead of them, his fingers glowing, lighting their way. [V iii 158, V ii 75]

43 Archaeological Survey of India Reports Vol.8, xiv. Though completed in 1873, this volume was not published until 1878.

44 James Fergusson and James Burgess. The Cave Temples of India (London: Allen, Trubner, Stanford, Griggs, 1880), 49.

45 Archaeological Survey of India Reports Vol. 8, 95.

46 Anon [Allan O. Hume], “Isis Unveiled and the Theosophist on Re-incarnation,” The Theosophist, 3, No. 11 (August 1882), 288-89; P.C. Mukherji, “Antiquity of the Aryan Evolution,” The Theosophist 13, No. 1 (October 1891), 3-14; P.C. Mukherji, “Antiquity of the Aryan Civilization,” 17, No. 2 (November 1895), 71-80.

47 Julie Hall, “The Saptaparṇa: the meaning and origins of the Theosophical Septenary Constitution of Man” Theosophical History 13, No. 4 (October 2007), 22, 24.

48 Blavatsky, “Question VII. Philological and Archaeo-logical ‘Difficulties’,” 39-40 [note].

This article is published with the kind permission of Professor James Santucci, editor of Theosophical History. For more interesting articles and subscriptions follow this link:

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