As one author notes, Charles Johnston “left us very little in the way of autobiography,—if biography still mean to us, as it had ceased to mean to him, a record of the personal outer life.”1 The personal facts of his life are few, and, as with all personal facts, are but sign-posts that mark the stations along the track of an inward journey, a journey traceable, if only slightly, through his voluminous writings.
Johnston “was born at Ballykilbeg, Co. Down, Ireland, on February 17th, 1867, the son of ‘Johnston of Ballykilbeg’, Member of Parliament for Belfast, a famous Orangeman and leader of the Temperance movement. His mother was a daughter of Sir John Hay, a Scotch Baronet. He was educated at Derby, England, and later at Dublin University.”2 Though we know little about his early life, we know that he maintained a deep love for his homeland, its history, its people, and its natural beauty. In one of this three popular books on Ireland,3 we read:
“. . . in the life of nations there works a providential destiny, not only in prosperity but in adversity, and perhaps most of all in adversity . . . in Ireland’s life this Providence, working through conquest, oppression and misery, has miraculously preserved the pure spirit of the race in its pristine unworldliness and faith, its belief in holiness and in the spiritual world; and that this spirit is so preserved, and now dispersed through many lands, is today one of the great treasures of humanity.”4
This pure faith, belief in holiness and in the spiritual world shines through with bright colors in Johnston’s life and writings, and we may say that he himself played a noble role in dispersing this quality throughout the world. It was as a youth in Ireland, amid this spirit of unworldliness, that Johnston’s feet would first be set upon a path that would come to be the hallmark of his life. Indeed, this path becomes so deeply imprinted as to cause the personal details of his life to pale into near insignificance when viewed alongside the impersonal essence of it, for Johnston seems to have taken to heart that message in The Voice of the Silence, that: “Thou canst not travel on the Path before thou hast become that Path itself.”5
Among the friends of his youth Johnston counted a group of young thinkers, philosophers and poets, including, most notably, W. B. Yeats6 and G. W. Russell.7 These three, seeking deeper answers to life’s riddles, began exploring the profound vistas of hidden wisdom that lie concealed in the world’s major religious and philosophical systems, a search that lead them ultimately to the modern theosophical movement and its burgeoning presentation of esoteric wisdom. At the center of this movement stood the powerful and enigmatic figure of H. P. Blavatsky, a woman that would come to have a profound influence upon the direction of Johnston’s life, as she has had on many others. As Johnston relates:
“I had been first introduced to her by reading A. P. Sinnett’s Occult World in November, 1884, and Esoteric Buddhism8 in the following spring; and had been completely convinced of the truth of her message, of the reality of Masters, and of her position as Messenger of the Great Lodge. This conviction was tested by the attack made on her by the Society for Psychical Research in London, in June, 1885,9 when I made a vigorous protest in H. P. B.’s defense, and by further study of Isis Unveiled,10 Five Years of Theosophy,11 and Light on the Path12 in the months that followed.”13
It becomes immediately clear, as one explores his life and work, the profound impact the theosophical philosophy had on the direction of his life. It is important to keep in mind that in 1884, when first coming into contact with Theosophy, Johnston was but 17 years old. Yet from that moment forward, until his last breath, in his 65th year, he would dedicate his life to the cause of Theosophy and to the study and elucidation of theosophical wisdom. And Johnston was not alone; his youthful friends were impacted deeply by their early contact with Theosophy and the theosophists as well, though not as immediately, and perhaps not as deeply. A modern biographer of W. B. Yeats explains:
“After reading [The Occult World and Esoteric Buddhism] . . . he [Johnston] recommended that his friend, W. B. Yeats, read Esoteric Buddhism. The book also had a profound influence on Yeats, and he and Johnston then formed the Dublin Hermetic Society. . . . The inaugural meeting . . . was held on 16 June 1885, and Yeats was named president. Two weeks after Johnston joined the Hermetic Society, he travelled to London to meet A. P. Sinnett and Madame Blavatsky.* When he returned to Dublin he suggested to the members of the Dublin Hermetic Society . . . that the Society reorganize as a lodge of the Theosophical Society. Yeats, however, refused Johnston’s suggestion. The Hermetic Society preserved its original title for nine months, but in April of 1886 it was dissolved and became the Dublin Theosophical Society. At that time both Yeats and AE [Russell] declined membership, but both were associated with the Society and attended some meetings. During the summer of 1886, Mohini Chatterjee, a Hindu mystic and a student of Madame Blavatsky, visited Dublin. Both AE and Yeats went to hear him speak, and both were dazzled. His visit may have encouraged them to join the Society. Yeats joined a year later in 1886, and AE joined in 1888 or 1889.”14
* Johnston did not, in fact, meet H. P. B. at this time, as she was in Italy en route to Wurzburg, Germany, though he may have met A. P. Sinnett and other theosophists. Johnston himself tells us that he did not meet H. P. B. until Spring of 1887, when she had relocated to Upper Norwood, London. (see “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky”, Theosophical Forum, April, May, June, July, 1900.)
The arrival of Mohini Chatterjee seems to have had a galvanizing impact on the group of Irish youths, not only providing the needed impulse to bring them fully within the sphere and work of the Theosophical Society, but also providing direction to their further studies, such that each of the above three mentioned developed an eye towards the light of eastern wisdom. As for Johnston, having already established an inward conviction of the truths of Theosophy, and having given himself to theosophical study through 1884-5, the year of 1886 would mark the beginning of his life-long work on behalf of Theosophy and the Theosophical Society. This visible work began with his first article: “The Second Wave”, which was given the leading place in the December, 1886, issue of The Theosophist.15 In this article, written at the young age of 19, Johnston displays an already keen, awakened and mature vision of Theosophy and its movement in the world. He writes:
“The Theosophical movement claims to be the returning tide of the Spirit and Truth which have ebbed from the world’s religions. Its first advance has already been made, and it has been marked by strange and marvellous occurrences,—no longer ‘miracles’ but ‘phenomna,’—by wonderful theories and new-born Ideas. When first coming to the study of Theosophy we have talked learnedly of such things as Sthula-sariras and Mulaprakriti, of psychic currents and astral forms, and a hundred others as extraordinary. We have gathered together to talk of the decadence of religions, and of the wonderful future before Theosophy. But while doing so we have not always remembered that it is we ourselves who must make the future, if it is really to exist at all; and while accusing the old religions of superstition and materialism, we have ourselves, perhaps, been lacking in the earnestness and sincerity, without which the religions we find fault with would never have survived their birth. Let us ponder well on the matter, for now is the dead-point of Theosophy, and it depends on each one of us whether it will ever pass that dead-point, and go on towards the glorious future we are so ready to predict for it. A year or two will decide whether there is in Theosophy the vitality of true life. If the seed which was so prolifically sown in the beginning of the movement has borne real fruit in the minds of those who have received it: if the lessons so patiently taught have been profitably received, the movement will become a real power in the world of suffering men and women.
“When the first generation of theosophical teachers has passed away, and the early supporters of the Society are no more, how shall we be able to take our stand in their places and carry on the work they have begun, unless we have been strengthened and purified by the lessons they have taught? Is theosophy to advance a second time, or is it to perish out of sight like some imperfect thing born out of due time? It is useless for us to say ‘we are weak and unworthy, we are unable to bear the burden which is laid upon us,’ for if we do not carry on the work entrusted to us, who is to give it permanence and power to live? Rather let us strive, with an earnest appreciation of our duty, to make ourselves worthy and able to maintain the light which is given into our hands.”
The wisdom in these words, yet young and newly growing in his heart, would continue to shine through in his life and in his work for theosophy. He took his own advice to heart and made himself worthy and, in time, became one of those who would “carry on the work” that would indeed allow theosophy “to advance a second time” and give to it the “permanence and power to live”, a power that would allow it to continue on even to the present day, over a century and a quarter later.
Having helped to found a theosophical lodge in Dublin, having defended his teacher when she was attacked and the movement threatened, having begun his work for theosophy with the wielding of his ever-powerful pen, the time arrived for Johnston to meet the woman who stood at the center of this inspiring force that had so stirred his soul, Madame H. P. Blavatsky. Of this first meeting, Johnston writes at length in a series of articles published in the Theosophical Forum.16 We quote here a brief opening selection from these articles, not solely for its historical importance, but because it also exemplifies another characteristic of Johnston: his lofty literary and poetic skill (something he shared in common with H. P. B.).17
“I first met dear old ‘H. P. B.,’ as she made all her friends call her, in the spring of 1887. Some of her disciples had taken a pretty house in Norwood, where the huge glass nave and twin towers of the Crystal Palace glint above a labyrinth of streets and terraces. London was at its grimy best. The squares and gardens were scented with grape-clusters of lilac, and yellow rain of laburnums under soft green leaves. The eternal smoke-pall was thinned to a gray veil shining in the afternoon sun, with the great Westminster Towers and a thousand spires and chimneys piercing through. Every house had its smoke-wreath, trailing away to the east.”
These strokes of a master’s literary brush typify Johnston’s skill with the pen, a skill that would be put to use not solely to make profound spiritual truths understandable, but to cause them to veritably leap from the page and stream headlong into the breast of their reader. Many have tried their hand at turning Sanskrit stanzas into English verse; many have sought to sing the songs of hidden wisdom to western students; and many have failed where this touch of poetic genius was found wanting.
In the above mentioned articles, Johnston proceeds to narrate his visit with H. P. B., providing a glimpse into both his own character and the wonderful personality of his revered teacher. Later, upon her passing, he would again relate his first, and lasting, impressions of the “dear Old Lady”.
“The first and earliest impression I received from Madame Blavatsky was the feeling of the power and largeness of her individuality; as though I were in the presence of one of the primal forces of Nature. . . .
“This sense of the power of individuality was not what one has felt in the presence of some great personality, who dominates and dwarfs surrounding persons into insignificance, and tyrannously overrides their independence. It was rather the sense of a profound deep-seated reality, an exhaustless power of resistance, a spirit built on the very depths of Nature, and reaching down to the primæval eternities of Truth.
“Gradually apparent under this dominant impression of power, arose a subtle sense of great gentleness and kindliness, an unfailing readiness to forget herself entirely and to throw herself heartily into the life of others.”18
Having met with H. P. B., Johnston’s dedication to the theosophical movement was solidified. It fell on him next to establish, in the words of the Upanishads, his own “firm foundation”, his own deep-roots in the living-philosophy itself. And this quest, this building of his foundation, would carry him outwardly around the world and inwardly through the realms of his own being.
Through the following year, Johnston remained in Ireland and England, perusing his studies in Theosophy. During that year we find several of his articles published in theosophical periodicals, perhaps most notable is one titled “Gospels and Upanishads”, published in The Path, an American periodical under the editorship of another Irishman, William Quan Judge.19 This article marks Johnston’s first commentary on the wisdom of the Upanishads and demonstrates an approach that would typify his later commentaries: the bringing together of eastern and western wisdom, and the unveiling of the wisdom of the New Testament through the light of the Upanishads. It is a feature that makes his writings so accessible and inviting to western students. The article is also our first glimpse of contact between himself and Mr. Judge, who would in time become not only a respected co-worker, but a teacher and guide, and who would play a profound role in shaping Johnston’s life and the focus of his work.
It is also during this early period (1887-88) that Johnston would first meet his future wife and life-long partner, Vera Jelihovsky. Another author relates this period of his life well:
“In August, 1888, he took, and passed brilliantly, his final examinations, notoriously “stiff”, for the Bengal Civil Service. Then he married Vera Jelihovsky, H. P. B.’s niece, whom he had met while she was staying with her aunt in London; and, shortly afterwards, he and his wife left for India, where they arrived in November of the same year. Stationed in an unhealthy district, he contracted jungle fever, and, after visiting other parts of India, became so ill that he was officially invalided home some two years after his arrival. In talking to a friend about his experiences at this time, when still living in or near the jungle, Mr. Johnston told of a yogi who used to emerge from its depths whenever a particularly bad attack of fever had him in its grip. He said that the yogi would squat on the veranda, near him, and smile sympathetically, occasionally discussing philosophy, but more often saying nothing; and that the effect of this man’s presence was extraordinarily soothing and helpful, seeming always to quiet the fever, or in any case to make it more endurable.
“On his return to Europe—his Civil Service career at an end—his first effort had to be to recover his health while somehow making a living, which must have been a matter of extreme difficulty for a young man who had been educated exclusively for a position now denied him, and who necessarily lacked either mercantile or professional training. There was nothing for it but to use a talent already helpfully employed on behalf of the Theosophical Society, and to become a professional writer. He succeeded in connecting himself with some English journals, to which he sent letters on foreign news, and he contributed, to the more serious reviews, articles on ethnological, political and economic questions. Thus employed, for the next six years he and his wife travelled extensively in Europe, visiting her relatives—Madame Blavatsky’s nearest kin—in Russia, and staying in different places in England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and France. They lived for some time in Salzburg, where Dr. Franz Hartmann20 then resided, and where Mr. Johnston finally threw off his jungle malaria.”21
Though Johnston struggled with malaria during his time in India he nonetheless carried on his work for Theosophy, writing about twenty articles for theosophical periodicals and continuing his own studies. In particular there is a group of articles during this time that give intimate insight into the nature of his studies while in India. These articles are: “The Birth of Space”, “The Tide of Life”, “The Occultism of Southern India”, “The Seven Dwipas”, and “The States of Consciousness”. In them we find a degree of practical insight rarely found among theosophists or philosophers, wherein Johnston invites us to explore the ranging states and planes of consciousness, the essence of sensory perception and the nature of the manifested world as it develops in the Mind of Self. This series and manner of exploration culminated in 1891-92 with a series titled: “An Outline of the ‘Secret Doctrine’”,22 a work all students of theosophy would be well to study. We may glimpse in these articles a little of the inward journey of Johnston himself. Though traveling outwardly from Europe to India and back, he was likewise traveling inwardly, exploring the depths and nature of his own consciousness. Having studied theosophical literature in preceding years, he then took the ideas found therein and subjected them to his own inner trials, weighing them on that “firm foundation” of his own developing soul-wisdom. In this he exemplifies what may be called “the theosophical method”, where intellectual knowledge fuels intuitional development and the power of one’s own will and inner-discernment are brought to bear on every subject, where mind and heart come together to reach towards inner, experiential wisdom.
In May of 1891, Johnston’s teacher and mentor H. P. Blavatsky passed away in London, England. The event marked a turning point in the life of the Theosophical Society that would give rise to a flurry disruptions and difficulties, beginning a roughly seven year period of trials and tribulations for those devoted to the cause of Theosophy. During this period we find two salient and enduring features of Charles Johnston: his dedication to duty and continuance of his work without distraction; and an absolute absence of condemnation of others.
From 1891 through 1893 Johnston contributed only a few articles to theosophical periodicals, though he undoubtedly continued his own studies and in particular his work with eastern texts. In autumn of 1892 the Dublin Theosophical Society began the publication of a small periodical, The Irish Theosophist, in which we find several articles by Johnston, as well as many others by his friend of youth, George Russell (AE), through its five year career. In its third number we find Johnston’s first complete translation of an eastern text: the Mandukya Upanishad,23 and we may look at this as marking the first early step of what would soon become a life’s work. For two years prior to this time, William Judge had been producing a small periodical titled “The Oriental Department”, with the goal of translating and elucidating the fundamental texts of the east for western students of Theosophy. During the months that followed Johnston’s translation of the Mandukya Upanishad, Mr. Judge reached out to him in the hopes of securing his services as a translator and commentator for his project. While no details of this communication reach us today, it is well apparent that it had a strong impact on the direction of Johnston’s life. Not only did he accept Judge’s invitation to volunteer his energy and knowledge on behalf of the Oriental Department, he seems to have taken Mr. Judge’s request deeply to heart—thus we find, even after Judge’s death, even after the Oriental Department came to a close, Johnston continued upon his task of translating and commentating upon central eastern texts until the very last days of his life. We may be justified, then, in imagining that Johnston viewed his acceptance of Mr. Judge’s request as taking on a supreme life’s duty, a task set for him, of which he would be rightful to dedicate his life.
Johnston’s work for the Oriental Department began in January, 1894, and marks a point of enlivening in the department’s work. Throughout the three and some years of its existence we see a steady expansion of both the quantity and quality of Johnston’s writings, as well as of his role in the Theosophical Movement on the whole. During these years we also find the fallout of Madame Blavatsky’s passing coming to a head, with increased conflict within the Theosophical Society, and with William Judge standing at the eye of the storm. Just as H. P. B. had bore the brunt of the counter-force to the theosophical movement in her time, so too did W. Q. J.. The storm that swept through the ranks of the Theosophical Society rent it in two, challenging each and every member to live up to their professed principles; the kind of trials any who dare to seek the Path inevitable face. While outward challenges were met, one after another, the true trials were within the hearts and minds of each theosophist, and while retrospect affords us a different, perhaps broader view, for those facing the tests of Brotherhood the difficulties are very real, very present and right-action not always easily discerned.24 During these years we find Johnston siding conclusively and strongly on the side of Mr. Judge, both continuing in his duty undeterred and defending the character of his colleague and mentor, exemplifying once again that great Irish spirit of holiness and duty that both men shared. The conflict surrounding Mr. Judge would continue on until, and indeed well past, his death in March, 1896, which, just as with the passing of H. P. Blavatsky, preceded a fresh wave of trials for those in the storm.
In a letter addressed to recipients of the Oriental Department Papers in April of 1896, Johnston provides us with important insights into both his life’s work and his relationship with the man who commissioned it. We reproduce the letter in full here:
When the Oriental Department was entrusted to the present editor by Mr. Judge, two years and a half ago, it was decided to lay special stress on the Upanishads, and, after them, on the works of Shankara Acharya and Buddha, while giving such space to other religions as might be found advantageous.
The reasons for putting the Upanishads in the first place were these traces of the teachings which have become known to us as Theosophy, are found in the records of all ancient religions in both hemispheres, but nowhere are these teachings so fully, lucidly and profoundly recorded as in the oldest Upanishads and this is true not only of large generalizations, like the doctrines of rebirth and liberation, but also of those more particular and recondite doctrines which come gradually to the knowledge of students who follow a special line of study and work. So that, in the Upanishads, we have an invaluable proof of the antiquity and authenticity of both general and particular doctrines, a guarantee at least three thousand years old, and, in all probability, very much older. And if the Upanishads lend this invaluable support to our modern teachings, it is, on the other hand, true, that without these modern teachings, much that is most profound and of greatest value in the Upanishads is hardly intelligible, so that one may read the ordinary translations without gaining any idea of the meaning, or even the presence, of those particular teachings which we have spoken of. It was, therefore, necessary to read and translate, the Upanishads, in the light of Theosophy.
Following out this purpose, seven out of the ten chief Upanishads have already been translated, and very fully commented on; the eighth is in course of translation, and a considerable part of it has already appeared in the Oriental Department. The greatest and most profound of Upanishads will be translated in the future, and commented on in the light of the Upanishads already translated.
Besides this, its most important part, the Oriental Department has contained portions of three of the Buddhist Suttas, three hitherto untranslated works of Shankara Acharya, and a fourth work, already somewhat loosely translated, but only obtainable with great difficulty. Other translations have been taken from the hymns of Rig Veda, Manu’s Code, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas; while the Mohammedan religion has been represented by a tract on the Sufi adepts and their precepts, here for the first time translated into English, and the extremely interesting Mussulman traditions of Issa or Jesus, which show “the son of Mariain” as a master-magician and teacher of pure morality.
Various essays on Oriental subjects have been added; amongst them short accounts of the scholars who brought the sacred books and ancient languages of the east to the west, and this series will shortly be completed.
It may not be quite in order here, but I should like to add a few words on the subject which has been in all our heart,—Mr. Judge’s death. In the ten years that I have known Mr. Judge, two features of his character have been most prominent: his profound practical wisdom and knowledge of spiritual and moral law, a knowledge that could only be gained in one way, individual and particular experience in the world of spiritual and real life; so that in innumerable pronouncements as to spiritual law and fact which he has made, often quite informally and privately, there is not one but experience has shown or is showing, its truth and validity, as a guide to real life. Add to this Mr. Judge’s power of giving opportunity to his associates to do their best work in the best way, and we understand how every year only strengthened the bond that bound us to him, a bond that his death does not even touch. For Mr. Judge is not dead where he was most alive, and his influence, and the work which he guided will daily grow greater and more real.
Let this brief note carry with it a sincere and hearty greeting, which I hope one day to renew in person.
April 10, 1896
From this we see that the task given to Johnston by Mr. Judge was viewed by him as no small endeavor, but rather a grand work: the work of a lifetime. We also find insights into his approach to eastern translations, an approach that makes them of the highest value to students of Theosophy. And lastly, we glimpse the reverence and respect he held for W. Q. J.—a respect that had been earned by the sheer strength of character of that great man.
In October of 1896, only a few short months after Mr. Judge’s passing, Johnston and his wife Vera relocated permanently to New York, to carry on the work of theosophy and give what energy they could to the task. The fallout of Mr. Judge’s death would come to a head in the spring and summer of 1897, this time with another figure standing at the center of the storm: Katherine Tingley. This fallout caused yet another split within the theosophical movement, leading to two further distinct organizations, both using the name “The Theosophical Society”. Johnston weathered this storm, as he had done in years past, by staying true to his duty, by continuing his work and by holding to that “firm foundation” within.
Throughout this period of conflict and adversity within the theosophical movement, we find a great insight into Johnston’s character not solely by what he says, but by what he doesn’t say. While many fell into the trappings of the fight, while many slung words of anger, resentment, hatred and all manner of abuse and accusation at fellow theosophists, Charles Johnston remained silent. He lashed out at none; he had not a dark word to say, not a single condemnation to fling. In fact, even in the many years that followed this time of trial, in the calm aftermath when reflection on such events would’ve been easy, perhaps even relieving, we find hardly a word on it from Johnston’s pen. His duty was in the present and was presently clear, and his focus remained with it.
As the storm began to subside, Johnston, along with several other of his close co-workers—students who had worked intimately with Mr. Judge in the preceding years—began the slow and arduous task of rebuilding a Society along the lines they perceived to be the most true to the purpose and cause of Theosophy. Among these close co-workers and friends, with whom Johnston would work for years to come, were Dr. Archibald Keightley and his wife Julia (a.k.a. Jasper Niemand), Clement Griscom and his wife Genevieve (a.k.a. Cavé); Miss Katharine Hillard, Ernest Hargrove, Henry and John Mitchell, and many others.
This group worked together to re-start the publication of the Theosophical Forum, the continuation of a newsletter-style periodical originally founded by Mr. Judge. In this newsletter, between July, 1898 and August, 1900, we find another glimpse into Johnston’s inner life through a series of articles which have been collated posthumously under the title “The Beginning of Real Life”. In these articles we find a new height to Johnston’s poetic skill and inspiration, while we are given a glimpse, it would seem, into a transformative period in his inner life. There is therein an continued expression, in beautiful lucidity, of an awakening to a more expansive view of human life. We cannot help but imagine that Johnston is here relaying something of his own inner journey, and perhaps the shared journey of his closest co-workers and co-students, something of an emergence from a period of trials and tests into open fields of victory and new spiritual vision.
Johnston opens this series of articles with a statement of profound import:
“One has heard good people, during these stormy years, express, with sighs, a deep regret for all our turmoils, and a devout longing that we might have peace, balmy peace. The lords of life who arranged these things, must have smiled,—an inscrutable eastern smile,—knowing well that the turmoil was the work; that all these shocks and storms and stresses were the very heart of the whole matter, the essential part of the educational process; the very end and aim for which they were working. The lords of life have little taste for peace, balmy peace.”25
He proceeds to enumerate and elucidate the victories attained by those who passed through these trials, which we reproduce here as an demonstration of Johnston’s own vision of these years, of which so many various opinions abound. If we read through the words we may gain a glimpse into the true spirit of the man.
“First, this: We all,—that is, all the survivors,—have come to hold a very real belief in the Occult World,—to use a fine old phrase that has many excellent associations. We got our training in the Old Lady’s days, and through her temperament and genius. For without the Occult World, Mme. Blavatsky was simply unintelligible, and more than that, exasperating. And she greatly exasperated all who came across her, unless they succeeded in gaining some hold of the Occult World, and some insight into it, and thereby, into her also. One simply could not know Mme. Blavatsky without getting one’s mind full of adepts and initiations, and reincarnations, and elementals, and mysteries, whether lost or found. These things were the air she breathed, and made you breathe, or smother. One had the feeling, in her presence, that it was quite unfashionable not to have been initiated,—like wearing a hat of a by-gone day, in a well-dressed crowd. So she gave you the sense of the Occult World,—the other half of things, and more than half; and reduced to due humility this self-assertive world we are all so fond of. And the other people got wildly exasperated, and fell upon her and multiplied epithets exceedingly, and that was the first glorious row, grim enough as it looked at the time, to all who had the pleasure of taking part in it. And all who survived found that they had a very real and solid belief in the Occult World, though perhaps no quite clear understanding as to what kind of world it might be. And this belief was not a matter of logic or reason at all;—logic and reason really count for so very little in life; it was a matter of character, of will, automatic, involuntary,—a solid reality. People say they believe this or that; but it is character that really counts. They act as they must act; as their will is, to that they go.
“Then came the second great row, not equal at all in stress to the first, but yet very full of power and light—for the survivors. This time it was a question of principle,—was the Occult World thus or thus? Or, in other words, am I justified in judging and condemning any person whatever, under any circumstances whatever? And this brings in the question of what is called “brotherhood,” the matter that was really tried, during that second time of storm. . . . We used to look at people as things outside ourselves, not in any sense a part of us; whom we had to profit by, or suffer by, as the case might be; but always in relation to ourselves. But, with the sense of the occult in life, we begin to get a sense of the occult in people. We begin to feel a second element in them. besides their relation to our own profit and loss. We begin to get a glimpse of their individual selves. It may seem a small thing to say this, but it is not really a small thing. On the contrary, it is the greatest thing possible, excepting only one thing. And most people are born, get married, and die, without ever getting a glimpse of any individual life of anyone whatever, beyond their particular selves. To touch the life of another person, really and consciously, is the rarest thing in this cloud-wrapped world. We all live in a maze of mirrors, and even when we look into each others’ eyes we see—ourselves. So with the sense of the Occult, came the revelation; the sense of the individual life of other people: in whatever small and limited degree. And the moment when you first feel the life of another, as vividly as if it were a part of your own consciousness,—that moment is the beginning of an epoch. You realize that the life of each is as interesting to him, as important to him, as much his own possession, as your life is for you. And from that time forth, it becomes inherently impossible to judge or condemn anyone whatever for anything whatever. . . . And there is no use saying, or pretending, or wishing, to have reached this insight. It is a question of fact. Either we have, or we have not. And as our will is, so shall we act, no matter what we believe our convictions to be. And the second great storm brought out that sense of things. Those who had the intuition went one way; those who had not, went the other way. And all judgments and condemnations were ludicrously irrelevant, as they always are. So we took our second step in the Occult World. We “gained the human world” . . .
“Now there comes another question to be tried. When we have gained some sense of the Occult World,—when we have consented that is, to live for our souls, as well as for our bodies,—and when we have further opened the doors of our souls, just a little, so that we get faint glimpses of other people, and see that they have souls too,—there comes another matter to be decided. Are we going to get carried away by the genius of other people, and follow after what we see in their souls? or are we going to hold a balance between our souls and theirs, giving due allowance to each? And this question brings us to the third world. For, if we are to find a true balance, we can only do it in one way. The matter seems to be something like this. We all have our desires, and our fancies, and our hopes, and our fears. And we might well spend an age in watching these things in each other, and find great entertainment therein. But there is more of us than our desires, our hopes, our fears. There is the Will in us; the Genius; the common Power, which possesses us all, rather than is possessed by us. And this Will in us has this quality: whereas our desires may contradict each other, and bring us into conflict with each other, our wills never contradict each other, and they never imitate each other. Thus: all true poetry is the work of the Genius, the Will, above the man’s desires. And all true poets have united in singing one great poem, the song of man. There is no contradition; no imitation; no repetition. There is absolute originality throughout, yet perfect oneness of design. And thus the Will works through our lives. Each of us has an inner power, a genius, a gift; something that never was before, nor shall be again. Something spheral and infinite and immortal. And for that, we live. The whole purpose of our lives is to draw that genius forth through ourselves, and thereby to be ourselves. And I do not mean a poetic gift, or any artistic production of any kind, but something quite different, and much more vital: namely, that each of us has a gift for dealing in a certain way with all other souls; for standing in a certain relation to them; for affecting them by our wills; for touching them and being touched by them; and this gift is singular, and peculiar to each of us. It has never been anticipated, and will never be repeated. Now the question comes: have we the courage to be ourselves?—to stand by our gift, our own revelation? . . .
“And the third great storm in our sea decided that. Either we elected each to stand by his own genius, or we did not. And to criticise, and to judge, and to condemn, and to recriminate, are ludicrously irrelevant; they simply have nothing at all to do with the question at issue; nothing at all to do with the Occult World; but belong wholly to the region of desire and fear, and general cussedness in which one side of us will still linger through long, glad, enjoyable ages. It is curious, but it is absolutely true, that while we condemn each other, we remain wholly unconscious of each other. The moment we reach the first real consciousness of each other, of each others’ lives and souls, that moment we become wholly incapable of condemning at all. Life looks so different after that.
“So the survivors have become conscious of three things: first, of their own souls; then of other peoples’ souls; then of the universal Soul, manifested in themselves, as in others. And that is our victory, and it is one worth cheering over, for long ages to come.”26
So we find Johnston passing through one stage of his inner life and emerging into another. The early days of study and trial have been waded through and new days of work—a transformed work, as we will see—lies in wait.
We feel justified in seeing the emergence of a new man in the latter part of Johnston’s life. With the turn of the century he moves steadily from the role of student to the role of instructor. Yet while becoming a teacher in one sense of the term, elucidating the wisdom of theosophy and particularly of the Upanishads and Indian wisdom, he remains, as we all do, a student. It is in this latter part of Johnston’s life that we find his great work coming to fruition in his translations and commentaries of those eastern texts that form the heart and soul of India—the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the works of Sankaracharya and the Suttas of Buddhism—and in his unveiling of the wisdom that lay hidden in other traditions—most notably of the Tao Teh King and the New Testament.
We saw the beginning of Johnston’s work with eastern texts as far back as 1887, and his first full translation in 1892. We then saw his first great effort, under the direction of William Q. Judge, with his translations and commentaries in the Oriental Department Papers between 1894 and 1897. The final stage in this lifelong work begins to come to light with the founding of the Theosophical Quarterly in 1903. Of all Johnston’s writings, the publications made in this periodical are the greatest in both quantity and quality. We find him revisiting the key translations previously done for the Oriental Department, but with a new degree of insight, with an increased quality of translation, and with finer and deeper commentary.
We find first a complete translation, with commentary, of the Bhagavad Gita, appearing in 1906-07. This is followed by a translation of Gaudapada’s Mandukya Karika in 1908, and a translation with commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in 1909-10. During these years we also find a series of articles on the world’s religious systems, commentaries and explorations of eastern and western texts, deep insights offered into the esoteric wisdom of the New Testament and of the Vedanta Philosophy of Sankaracharya. In all these Johnston shines through as one who is well-rooted in the fundamental wisdom of the ages, whose “firm foundation” is not only secure but wide and expansive.
In these early years of the Theosophical Quarterly, we also see Johnston providing much leadership within the Theosophical Society,27 stepping into the role of chairman of the Executive Committee, acting as chairman at several annual conventions where also providing yearly talks on the subject of Theosophy, and generally guiding the ship of the T. S. forward, through the first World War and beyond. His talks on Theosophy were serialized in the Quarterly, making their yearly appearance in the July numbers, and these provide much insight into Johnston’s approach to Theosophy, the Theosophical Society and the larger Movement.
In 1920, nearly thirty years after his initial efforts of translation, Johnston began his final effort to translate and comment upon the ten Principle (Mukhya) Upanishads. We find the Isha and Kena Upanishads completed in 1920, the Katha in 1921, Prashna in 1922, Mundaka and Mandukya in 1923, Taittiriya in 1924, Aitareya in 1925, Chhandogya between 1926 and 1929, and the Brihad Aranyaka between 1927 and 1931, the final installment coming but a few months before his passing. During this time we also find a full translation, with commentary, of Lao Tse’s Tao Teh King (1921) and Sankaracharya’s Crest-Jewel of Wisdom (1923-24).
The value of these translations and commentaries, representing the fruition of Johnston’s lifelong study, testing and practice of theosophical wisdom, must be left to each student to discover for themselves. We feel confident that they will be found of inestimable aid to any who, like Johnston, wish to walk the path of the ancients.
“Charles Johnston died on Friday, October 16th , at about twenty minutes past three in the afternoon. His death was due to heart disease, from which he had been ill for nearly a year. He seemed much better in April, at the time of the T. S. Convention, but not long afterwards became seriously worse. To the end he retained his high courage, keen sense of humour, perfect cheerfulness, and steadfast aspiration; there was never a word or sign of complaint or self-pity. In conversation with one close to him, he spoke of his desire not only to accept his Karma, but to welcome whatever the Master might have in store for him, that he might learn its lesson as thoroughly as possible, since he wished only the Master’s will; and toward the end he spoke of the months of his illness as the most fruitful of his life.”28
The same author as provides the above notice of passing, also provides us with a glowing presentation of Johnston’s meaning to Theosophy and to his friends:
“No member of The Theosophical Society, no reader of the QUARTERLY, needs to be told of Mr. Johnston’s services to the Movement through the forty-six years of his association with it. The hundred and fifteen numbers of this magazine, which stand as a lasting memorial to Mr. Griscom, its founder and first editor, are only less of a memorial to Mr. Johnston, who, from its inception, has been its most generous contributor. Dependent always upon his earnings as a writer, he contributed his articles to the THEOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY, not only without financial recompense (no contributions to the QUARTERLY are ever paid for), but lavishly and with punctilious regularity: he was never late, or too busy or too tired. Not content with this, for many years past he had returned all the royalties due him from the sale of his books published by the Quarterly Book Department, insisting that the money be used for the benefit of the work. He was one of the few who made possible the continuance of the Society when it was all but disrupted after the turn of the cycle, and for more than a quarter of a century he was Chairman of its Executive Committee. He travelled from New York to the Pacific coast, and went again to Europe, in order to visit the Branches and isolated members of the Society, and it was upon him that the chief burden of public lecturing devolved. The list of our standard theosophical books owes more to him than to any save H. P. B.; and he has interpreted for us the great scriptures of India as has no other writer. One of his last expressions of satisfaction was that he had completed the material for the second volume of his translations of the Upanishads. In every department of the work, our debt to him is deep and lasting. But greater than his gifts, to some of us, was the man himself, and our deepest gratitude is for his comradeship.”29
And lest we should think that Johnston’s life was spent in leisurely writing of theosophical literature, with endless time available for the efforts, the same author gives us an insight into his many additional duties.
“Let us remember, too, as we look back over this record of his services to us and to our Cause, that while rendering them he had the common duties and responsibilities of outer life, which claimed his strength and time, so that his work for Theosophy was done in the hours which most men deem necessary for recreation and for rest. He lectured at Cooper Union, and for the New York Board of Education. In 1908, he was Special Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin—where he was presented with a loving cup by the members of the faculty—and he also delivered a number of addresses at Columbia University in New York. At one time he taught at the Russian Seminary. A great lover of nature and science, he was especially interested in ornithology, and was a valued member of the Linnaean Society. In 1918-19, he served as Captain in the Military Intelligence Division at Washington. But no matter where he was, or what his occupations, he permitted nothing to interfere with his contributions to the QUARTERLY.”30
On the whole, Johnston’s voluntary contributions to the cause of Theosophy are vast and perhaps beyond our appreciation at this distant time. Of his literary contributions, a fellow student of his recounted thus:
“His first article31 took the leading place in the December, 1886, issue of The Theosophist,32 when he was nineteen years old. A succession of articles followed, totaling 16 in all. He contributed 27 articles to Lucifer,33 . . . He contributed 15 articles to The Irish Theosophist;34 20 to the Path; 8 to Theosophy35 in the less than two years of its brief existence; 53 translations in the series of Oriental Department Papers,36 all from the Sanskrit; 53 that have been identified in the Forum37 (where in the later volumes all articles were unsigned), of which 26 were translations; and 242 articles to the THEOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY,38 from its first to the current volume, not including reviews, answers to questions, or his addresses reported during the sessions of Convention. This is an average of 8½ articles a year for the QUARTERLY, or more than two for each issue. The total number of articles is, therefore, about 434, of which 170 were translations, or an average of almost 10 articles a year for the 44 years he was writing for the Movement.”39
In our own explorations, in compiling Johnston’s Collected Writings, we have found the following:
The Theosophist: 22 articles
The Path: 19
Universal Brotherhood: 1
Irish Theosophist: 17
Oriental Department Papers: 97 (59 translations)
Theosophical Forum: 79
Theosophical Quarterly: 187
The Open Court: 7
In addition to this, Johnston authored several pamphlets and booklets on theosophical subjects,40 as well as eight books,41 two being translations. By quantity alone, then, Mr. Johnston ranks among the most prolific theosophical writers. In quality he may, perhaps, likewise rank.
In closing we will share the testimonial of the Rev. Dr. Clarence C. Clark, friend and theosophist, who officiated Johnston’s funeral. His words provide a glimpse of the power and presence that earned Johnston so much admiration and respect in life, and, we must say, in death.
“Many times they mentioned his name, those old friends, members long ago of the T. S. They said he would answer my questions convincingly, as they, for all their kindness, never succeeded in doing. They offered many opportunities to talk with him, which were never accepted because I had plans of my own to follow. Friends, I said mentally, even the kindest, always have something they want a young man to do, a book to read or a meeting to attend. A young man with a purpose, my mind thus chattered, must not let himself be diverted; must often listen, of necessity, to friends’ counsel, but need not give heed. So I followed my own path and did not cross Mr. Johnston’s, until ten years later when mine proved to be a blind alley. . . .
“. . . after ten years of hearsay, I called upon Mr. Johnston. There was conversation, of course, but I remember no word of it. For there was Mr. Johnston himself, convincing “by his presence”, by the authority with which he spoke. Arguments, plans, questions, Tolstoi,—all such futile things vanished in that “convincing presence”. Oxford, Cambridge, Göttingen, the Sorbonne, with their charm and their learning, had enrolled no such presence. He let me return the following day, and again and again, but the conversations I do not remember—only himself. For here was one who had done what X-Y-Z- feared to do; he had left the quicksand of earthly life to find himself, not in nothingness, but on his feet upon a Rock . Previous to those happy weeks with him, what I had treasured was a morning at Emerson’s42 grave, and an afternoon at Wordsworth’s,43 when those two had been found,—friends. But here incarnate was a friend, “a friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit”, encouraging and inspiring not only by words on paper but by his presence and example. Of those momentous days when he so generously permitted me to be with him, one thing only that he said has stayed in memory—a quotation from Whitman:
Allons! to that which is endless as it was beginningless,
To see nothing anywhere but what you may reach it and pass it,
To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as
roads for travelling souls.44
“Later he led me to understand that Whitman’s words are only a variant of Krishna’s in the Gita. Krishna’s words! Divine Wisdom, overlaid and forgotten in East and West alike! To share that treasure with any who would take it, to arouse deaf ears from their sleep of death, was not that the chief motive of Mr. Johnston’s living?”45
3. Ireland: Historic and Picturesque (1902), Ireland’s Story (1905), and Ireland Through the Stereoscope (1907).
4. Ireland’s Story, Preface, p. iv.
5. H. P. Blavatsky, The Voice of the Silence.
6. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet, Nobel laureate, etc.
7. George William Russell (1867-1935), Irish nationalist, writer, editor, critic, poet, painter, etc. Russell went by the pen-name AE in his various writings.
8. Alfred Percy Sinnett (1840-1921), was an English author and theosophist, whose books mentioned here were central in the early history of the Theosophical Society. The Mahatma Letters, published in 1923 are a record of his correspondence with the Mahatmas (lit. “great souls”) referred to by H. P. Blavatsky and other early theosophists. The books mentioned here were written based upon the ideas conveyed in this correspondence.
9. This refers to “Report of the Committee Appointed to Investigate Phenomena Connected with the Theosophical Society”, otherwise known as the “Hodgson Report” or the “S.P.R. Report”. For further reading, see:
H. P. BLAVATSKY and the SPR
An Examination of the Hodgson Report of 1885
by Vernon Harrison, Ph.D.
Member of The Society for Psychical Research, London, England
10. H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, 1877.
12. Mabel Collins, Light on the Path, 1885.
13. “H.P.B.”, Theosophical Quarterly, July, 1931.
14. “Heterodox Religions in Ireland: Theosophy, the Hermetic Society, and the Castle of Heroes”, Susan Johnston Graf, Irish Studies Review, Vol. 11, Iss. 1, 2003.
15. The Theosophist; “A Monthly Journal Devoted to Oriental Philosophy, Art, Literature and Occultism: Embracing Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and Other Secret Sciences”, founded by H. P. Blavatsky in Bombay, 1879.
16. “Helena Petrovna Blavatsky”, Theosophical Forum, April, May, June, July, 1900.
17. See “The Magicians of the Blue Hills, By Mme. H. P. Blavatsky”, The Calcutta Review, July, 1898.
18. “A Memory of Madame Blavatsky”, Lucifer, June, 1891. Reproduced in H. P. B.: In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, by Some of Her Pupils, 1891.
19. William Quan Judge (1851-1896), co-founder of the Theosophical Society.
20. Dr. Franz Hartmann (1838-1912), German Theosophist.
21. “Charles Johnston”, by H.B.M [Henry Bedinger Mitchell], Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1932.
22. This, along with the previous five articles have been posthumously collated under the title “Emanation & States of Consciousness”.
23. “Pages from the Upanishads (From the Mandukya Upanishad)”, Irish Theosophist, December, 1892 & January, 1893.
24. More can be learned about these years of trials and tribulations within the Theosophical Movement through a study of the history of the Theosophical Society. It is a fascinating tale, with many lessons to be learned.
25. “The Lord of the Three Worlds”, Theosophical Forum, July, 1898.
27. The Theosophical Society, of which Johnston was a member for 46 years. Following the numerous divisions of the parent Theosophical Society, Johnston and his co-workers maintained their Society with headquarters in New York, which remained active until a few years after Johnston’s death.
28. “Charles Johnston”, by H.B.M [Henry Bedinger Mitchell], Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1932.
31. “The Second Wave”, The Theosophist, December 1888.
32. The Theosophist; “A Monthly Journal Devoted to Oriental Philosophy, Art, Literature and Occultism: Embracing Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and Other Secret Sciences”, founded by H. P. Blavatsky in Bombay, 1879.
33. Lucifer; “A Theosophical Magazine, Designed to “Bring to Light the Hidden Things of Darkness.”, originally edited by H. P. Blavatsky and Mabel Collins, founded in London, 1887.
34. The Irish Theosophist; “A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Universal Brotherhood, The Study of Eastern Literature, and Occult Science”, founded in 1892 and edited by Daniel Nicol Dunlop.
35. Theosophy, a theosophical journal, founded in 1896, under the editorship of E. T. Hargrove, Katherine Tingley and E. A. Neresheimer.
36. The Oriental Department, American Section, Theosophical Society. Founded by William Quan Judge in 1891 “to procure articles or translations relating to eastern religions, philosophies, literature, folk-lore, social customs and observances”. It is for this department that Johnston first translated and commented upon several of the Principle (Mukhya) Upanishads.
37. The Theosophical Forum was initially a small publication issued monthly to all members of the American Section of the Theosophical Society, comprised of answers to questions on the Theosophical philosophy. It was founded in 1889, initially under the editorship of Alexander Fullerton (first series), then under the editorship of William Q. Judge (second series), and later re-formed under the editorship of Clement Acton Griscom and Ernest Hargrove (third series). Johnston’s articles appear entirely within the third series.
38. The Theosophical Quarterly, a theosophical periodical founded in 1903 and operated by the Theosophical Society (New York) under the editorship of Clement Acton Griscom.
39. “Mr. Johnston and the Upanishads”, Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1932.
40. See, for instance: “From the Upanishads”, “The Song of Life”, “Karma: Works and Wisdom”, “The Memory of Past Births”, “The Theosophy of the Upanishads”, etc.
41. Sanskrit Nouns and Verbs (1892), Julian the Apostate (translation) (1899), Kela Bai: An Anglo-Indian Idyl (1900), Ireland: Historic and Picturesque (1902), Ireland’s Story (1905), Ireland Through the Stereoscope (1907), Why the World Laughs (1912), The System of the Vedanta (translation) (1912).
42. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist, lecturer, poet, transcendentalist, etc.
43. William Wordsworth (1770-1850), English romantic poet, etc.
44. Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road”, Leaves of Grass, 1900.
45. “Charles Johnston”, by C.C. Clark, Theosophical Quarterly, January, 1932.