Theosophical Encyclopedia

David-Neel, Alexandra (1868-1969)

Celebrated traveler, opera singer and writer, Alexandra David was born on October 24, 1868, at Saint-Mande near Paris, France. She was the only child of elderly parents and frequently ran away from home to escape a repressive atmosphere. As a young girl she attended lectures on Eastern religions at the Paris Theosophical Society and took singing lessons. She joined the Opera Comique and toured the Middle East, the Far East, and North Africa with that company, singing leading roles in Gounod's Faust and Massenet's Manon. Massenet thanked her in a letter for the excellent way in which she had interpreted her part in his opera.

Alexandra David joined the European Section of the Theosophical Society in London on June 7, 1892. Shortly after joining, she returned to Paris and became a member of the Ananda Lodge there. In a letter to G. R. S. Mead dated December 10,1892, she wrote that she had broken off relations with her family because of her refusal to renounce Theosophy.

In 1904, Alexandra married Philippe Francois Neel, a French railway engineer, in Tunis, but she was not suited to the conjugal state, and they went their separate ways after a short time. Although the marriage failed, she and Neel remained friends and he financed many of her journeys and maintained a cordial correspondence with her until his death in 1941.

In 1911, Alexandra David-Neel left Paris and traveled to Northern India where she studied Buddhism. It is typical of her dedication and physical endurance that she, dressed only in a cotton garment, spent a winter in a cave with a young Sikkimese lama called Yongden, studying Buddhist teaching. Sometime later she spent three years in a Peking monastery.

In 1923 David-Neel began her epic journeying. Accompanied by Yongden, she traveled from Calcutta in India through Burma, Japan, and Korea to Peking, covering nearly 5,000 miles by mule, yak, and horse across China into northeastern Tibet, then into Mongolia and the Gobi to the Mekong River. From there, disguised as Tibetan pilgrims, David-Neel and Yongden traveled through Tibet to Lhasa, the "Forbidden City." While in Tibet, she was a disciple of an abbot of the monastery of the White Conch, where she became the first European woman to be ordained as a lama.

In 1925 David-Neel returned to France a celebrity, and was awarded many honors, including the Grande Medaille d'Or of La Societe de Geographie, and in 1924 the French Government made her a Commandeur de la Legion d'Honneur. In 1937 she, with Yongden, went to Asia for the last time; they journeyed to China and took up residence in Peking where she often had dinner with Chiang Kai Shek and met Teilhard de Chardin, the celebrated Jesuit anthropologist. It is claimed (The Middle Way, May 1984) that David-Neel took part in Mao's Long March. David-Neel returned to France after the end of World War 11. She died on September 9, 1969, at Digne in Southern France just short of her 102nd birthday.

David-Neel was a skilled and objective observer whose intimate knowledge of Tibetan and Sanskrit languages enabled her to interpret and convey to Western readers much concerning Tibet that was hitherto hidden behind a veil of ignorance and misinformation. Her account of her journey to Llasa ranks among the great travel stories in literature. Her sense of humor is illustrated by her reply to a woman who wrote and asked her to kill her husband by magic. She replied, "Dear Madam, if I had to kill all unfaithful husbands, the world would be populated only by widows."

David-Neel's published works include Le Modernisme et le Buddhisme du Bouddha (1911); My Journey to Lhasa (1927); Initiations & Initiates in Tibet (1931); With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (1931), retitled Magic and Mystery in Tibet; Tibetan Journey (1936); Buddhism, Its Doctrines and Methods (1939); A L'ouest Barbare de la Vaaste Chine (1947); L'inde: hier-aujourd'hui-demain (1951); and Le vieux Tibetface a la Chine nouvelle (1953).

Arundale, Rukmini Devi (1904-1986)

A Theosophist noted for her significant contributions to the revival of Indian classical dance and as a campaigner for animal welfare, Rukmini Devi was born in Madura in South India on February 20, 1904. Her father, Nilakanta Sastry, was a professional consulting engineer to an Indian prince. Rukmini Devi was educated at a Madras (now Chennai) College. At the age of 16 years, she married George Arundale, the third International President of the Theosophical Society.

From an early age, Rukmini Devi showed exceptional talent as a dancer; Anna Pavlova, the celebrated ballerina, en-couraged her to pursue a career in Indian dance. In January 1936, she founded the International Academy of the Arts at Adyar, known as Kalakshetra (Sanskrit kala meaning "arts" and kshetra meaning "sacred place"). Through her Academy, Rukmini systematically promoted Indian dance. The then-current practitioners of the art were not held in high regard; so she used her artistic sensibility to enhance the image of the traditional dance.

She replaced the existing style of costume with those of better quality and design and added a lavish amount of jewellery. She persuaded first-class musicians and dance instructors to join the faculty, dedicated to artistic excellence. In addition to her work in reforming Indian dance, Rukmini was an energetic campaigner for animal rights and also a strong advocate of vegetarianism.

Rukmini died in a hospital in Chennai on February 24, 1986. Her body was brought to Arundale House at the international Theosophical headquarters in Adyar and was cremated in the part of the estate known as Besant Gardens.

Art, Theosophy and

Helena P. Blavatsky considered the art of her time as being already in deep decline. In 1891 she wrote of "the gradual decadence of true art, as if art could exist without imagination, fancy and a just appreciation of the beautiful in Nature, or without poetry and high religious, hence metaphysical aspirations!" (Collected Writings 13:180). She herself had an educated talent for drawing, but no pretensions as an artist. Professional artists among the early Theosophists included the engraver Albert Rawson, the painter Isabelle de Steiger, and Hermann Schmiechen, who painted iconic portraits of Koot Hoomi, Morya, and Blavatsky.

Read more: Art, Theosophy and

Bhagavan Das (1869-1958)

A scholar and Theosophist, Bhagavan Das was born on January 12, 1869, at Benares (Varanasi), India, into a landholding family of bankers. He had a distinguished academic career, earning his B.A. at Calcutta University when he was sixteen and his M.A. (in philosophy) when eighteen. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1894.

Bhagavan Das was in government service as a deputy collector and magistrate in Uttar Pradesh from 1890 to 1899. He left those positions to become Honorary Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Managing Committee for the Central Hindu College in Benares, which he helped Annie Besant to found. In 1921 he was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for participating in the Non-Cooperative Movement, but was released after five weeks on a motion of the Government. For many years he served on the All-India Congress Committee and was elected to the Legislative Assembly in Uttar Pradesh in 1934. 

Bhagavan Das was awarded the T. Subba Row Medal in 1900, although most of his best-known publications came after that. They include The Science of the Emotions, The Science of Peace, The Science of Social Organization or the Laws of Manu in the Light of Theosophy, The Essential Unity of All Religions, and Annie Besant and the Changing World.

Zirkoff, Boris de (1902-1981)

Grandnephew of Helena P. Blavatsky, who edited her Collected Writings, Boris de Zirkoff was born on March 7, 1902, in St. Petersburg, Russia, to Lydia Dmitriyevna von Hahn, Blavatsky’s niece. A frail child, tutored at home and mastering several languages, de Zirkoff knew little of his great aunt until he was about sixteen. Escaping across Finland in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he settled in Stockholm (1917) with his mother and stepfather. At the home of the Russian Consul, he saw The Secret Doctrine for the first time. Its study became his first step in a lifetime dedication to Theosophy.

Read more: Zirkoff, Boris de (1902-1981)

Bright, Esther (1868-?)

Esther Bright, a pioneer in Co-Freemasonry in Britain in 1902, was a helper and close friend of Annie Besant. She was born on February 19, 1868, daughter of Rt. Hon. Jacob Bright, British member of Parliament and Ursula M. Bright. She joined the Theosophical Society on September 7, 1891, and was an active worker for many humanitarian movements. Her publications include The Ancient One (1927) and Old Memories and Letters of Annie Besant (1936).

Subba Row, T. (1856-1890)

A Brahman of the Vedanta philosophy, born on July 6, 1856, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, north of Madras, T. Subba Row’s native language was Telugu, and his family included prominent Indian government officials. His father died when he was six months old; consequently an uncle reared him. In 1876 he earned a B.A. degree at the top of his class from the Madras Presidency College and became a Registrar of the High Court in Baroda (Vadodara) in the western state of Gujarat. Then he returned to Madras, earned a legal degree, and became a highly successful lawyer.

Subba Row met Helena P. Blavatsky in 1882 and joined the Theosophical Society, although he had shown no interest in metaphysical matters earlier. Nevertheless, it appeared that he was a chela of Master Morya and became an expert in Advaita, the most prominent sub-school of Vedanta.  Subba Row recommended the purchase of the Adyar property that became the site of the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. He assisted Blavatsky when she was producing the first draft of The Secret Doctrine, but they eventually disagreed on certain matters, such as the classification of the human principles and publication of statements regarding the Masters. Subba Row, as an orthodox Brahmin, was critical of Blavatsky's disclosure of certain hitherto esoteric teachings, so in 1886 he left the Theosophical Society. Thereafter he fell gravely ill and despite healing treatment by Henry S. Olcott, eventually died on June 24, 1890. 

Although a member for only about four years, Subba Row had an important influence on both the Society and its teachings. He served as a councillor, legal advisor, and secretary of the Madras Branch. He postulated four principles in the cosmos, namely, Parabrahman, Logos, Mulaprakriti, and Daiviprakrti (Light of the Logos, the source of Fohat).

Subba Row left few published works, mainly because of the shortness of his life. He gave several lectures on the Gita, which were compiled and published as Notes on the Bhagavad Gita. A posthumously published collection is Esoteric Writings of T. Subba Row. The 1883 Convention established the Subba Row Medal, to be awarded to writers of works of outstanding merit on Eastern and Western philosophy.

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