A Recondite Scholar of Intelligence

[Letters of T Subba Row (1856-’90)

and Allied Material]








Compiled by

Dr N C Ramanujachary













Col H S Olcott and T Subba Row

Letters of T Subba Row: Introduction

First Letter of T Subba Row to Madame Blavatsky

Students’ Preparation to Learn Occult Science

The Masters, The Way and The Learning

Observations on Letter to the London Lodge

The Last Straw

Seeming Differences

Articles culled from T Subba Row’s Reviews:

(1) Rules of life

(2)  The Hindu Philosophy

(3) Cosmology in The Bhagavad-Gita

(4) Occultism in south india

(5)  Some factors of Occult Philosophy

(6) Occultism: Ancient and Modern

(7) Taraka Raja Yoga







Col. H S Olcott (1832-1907) arrived at Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1879, along with Madame H P Blavatsky (1831-91) for strengthening the theosophical movement by collecting more and more esoteric information on Occult Sciences. To draw attention of the scholars and to generally diffuse the findings, they started a monthly magazine by name ‘The Theosophist’ in 1879. Madame Blavatsky’s book ‘Isis Unveiled’ was available by then and it created lot of enthusiasm among the Indian scholars. One such who were enthralled by the contents of the book and its deep probe into Eastern Wisdom was T Subba Row (1856-90), a practicing lawyer at Madras (now Chennai). He entered into correspondence with Madame Blavatsky to mutual advantage. His first article ‘The Twelve Signs of the Zodiac’ was contributed to the journal in 1881 and was received by the readers with great acclaim. This article is an attempt to trace the story of manifestation on this globe, drawing references to Mantra and Tantra-sastras. Procuring vital information and related books through Blavatsky, Subba Row pursued his studies in Chaldean, Egyptian and Kabala systems of philosophy.

T Subba Row was a student of the Madras Presidency College with remarkable academic achievement. For his extensive memory, he was acclaimed as ‘Devil Subba Row’ in his college days. This accomplishment helped him both in his scriptural studies and the later professional career.

Subba Row was eager to meet Blavatsky and he expressed the desire, through a letter addressed to her, that she should accompany Col. Olcott as well, when he planned to visit Madras. This desire was fulfilled in April 1882, when both the founders, of the Society, landed by ship at the port of Madras. Subba Row made elaborate arrangements to meet them, welcome and place them comfortably in a bungalow owned by Dewan Madhavarao in Mylapore. Eventually a branch association of the Society was formed at Madras, with Subba Row as secretary and one Dewan Raghunatharao as its President. He was formally admitted to the membership of the Society on April 25, 1882 in a ‘solitary and sublime’ function, the reason for which Olcott says he does not even know. The same year the Society instituted a T Subba Row medal in his honor, to be awarded every year for scholarly work.

From that time till the end of his life, Subba Row was in close contact with them and assisted the work of the Society as a member of the Council and as Counselor for some years. His association in administrative matters with Olcott and in philosophical matters with Blavatsky was well recorded in the history of the Society. Olcott did openly state that his decision to establish the world headquarters of the Society at Madras was greatly because of Subba Row’s presence here. His knowledge in occult sciences and eastern doctrines of philosophy were matters of deeper and vital consideration. Subba Row spent lot of his time in study of Occult Science texts and palm-leaf manuscripts. His erudition and memory were of admirable amazement to Olcott. Besides writing reviews, some years editing the magazine ‘The Theosophist’ during Blavatsky’s absence in India made his knowledge of the oriental philosophy available to the commoners. He encouraged the writing of ‘The Secret Doctrine’ by Blavatsky and made available his own knowledge of the Eastern Wisdom. She too often quoted him while elaborating some abstruse theories. However he could not assist her till the end since he held an opinion that she was revealing ‘too much to the profane’. Olcott attempted to bring a sort of reconciliation between the two but could not succeed because of the stern stand taken by Subba Row. Eventually, the incidents leant towards the resigning of Subba Row from the primary membership of the Society. Even after this unfortunate incidence, Subba Row continued his association with the president, Olcott, and the friendship between them lasted till the end. He made his studies deeper and ventilated his ideas on spiritual matters liberally. He had some foreign members of the Society especially interested in his instructions and ideas. Subba Row used to visit them in the evenings, after his tennis play at the Cosmopolitan Club, and spend hours discoursing with them, answering questions and bringing up certain niceties and twists of philosophic inquiry. The only Indian who had the privilege to attend them was S Subramanya Iyer (later Judge and Sir).

Olcott invited Subba Row to deliver a series of lectures on Bhagavad-Gita during the annual convention of 1886 which he did most eloquently and deeply highlighting the concepts of Taraka Raja Yoga in aid to the study. Incidentally, Subba Row happened to be the first theosophical speaker on the sacred text ‘The Bhagavad-Gita’. His talks were well appreciated by the scholars, and they continue to inspire the students of philosophy even now. Pundit Bhavani Shankar was one of the listeners to take up the study of the text in greater detail and diffuse the lively ideas therein the rest of his life.

Subba Row organized the lecture tours of Olcott in South India; particularly the Tamil speaking areas and the success of these helped the expansion of theosophical ideas of living in the land. Subba Row writes in his reports that Olcott had grandeur welcome at all places, than that usually received by the royal kings of the day.

Olcott desired that Subba Row should write more articles, essays and treatises on philosophy but the later was very ‘indolent’ to writing. He would talk for hours without the listeners feeling tired or dissipated. In fact, Subba Row was a leading lawyer and did not find adequate time to pursue his oriental studies in the pace he wanted that to be. He was fascinated to write a comprehensive treatise on Prasthana Traya (the Brahma sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita) on his retirement from profession. His desire to acquire a farm-land, build a solitary place for himself did not material because he was called back by destiny. He died at a very young age of 33, leaving his young wife, numerous relatives and friends, admirers to great despair. His death was caused by a mysterious disease, though treated by Allopathic, Ayurveda doctors. Olcott, at his request, gave mesmeric passes to him and he could only relieve him from acute pains but not the end. Olcott wrote a longish obituary note conveying the death to the theosophical world, where he summarized many facts of his life not known in public. Their association was more friendly and intimate.                                                                                   ###


Letters of T Subba Row (1856-’90)


T Subba Row wrote letters of philosophic import to Madame Blavatsky, A P Sennett, and some other members of the Theosophical Society around the world; but not many of them are available with us now. We have only ten such letters available, here and there, in print. It is possible he wrote several letters to the Founders, co-members of the Society, and other well wishers; but unfortunately, they are lost beyond any possible scope of recovery. These letters, indeed, have bearing on his theosophical understanding; contain vivid explanations of matters connected thereto. It will decidedly be of great interest to go into the available material, as this helps one to get into his ‘insights.’

As could be made out from this literary output, he arrived at certain settled views on philosophical, occult and metaphysical subjects after considerable thought and developed a sort of ‘independent thinking.’ It would be of interest to note that his expressed views have sufficiently found place in his Lectures on The Bhavad-Gita, delivered in 1885 and 1886 to the theosophical conventions.

The Chronological Order of the Letters is as below:


Sl.no    Date of Letter     Addressee      Printed Text ref     Pages


  1.  3 Feb 1882          HPB                A                          316-8
  2. 7 May 1882          APS                B                          450-1
  3. 2 June 1882          HPB               B                           452-3
  4. 26 June 1882        APS                B                           451-2
  5. 13 Aug 1882         HPB               A                           316-8
  6. 16 Aug 1882          KH                A                           323
  7.   1884               London lodge    C                           391-447
  8. June 1884             HPB               A                           322
  9.  1885                    VVS               C                            562-7
    1. Mar-Apr 1885   Unknown          D                             --

[Full Names of addressees: HPB: Madame Blavatsky; APS: A P Sinnett: KH: Master Koot Humi;

VVS; Vavilala Venkata Sivavadhanulu, a friend-disciple.

References to printed Texts: A: Madame Blavatsky’s Letters to A P Sinnett; B: Mahatma Letters to A P Sinnett; C: Esoteric Writings of T Subba Row & D: Journal, Theosophical Forum, vol.VI, no.7, 1935. ]


 Before entering into the contents of the Letters, we shall look into the central focus obtained in each of them.

Letter at Sl.no.1:

This was in response to a letter dated 28 Jan 1882 to him from Madame Blavatsky. TSR in this letter invites HPB to visit Madras along with H S Olcott; and suggests that ‘the little of Occultism that still remains in India is centered in the Madras Presidency. This letter was super-imposed with the remarks of Master Morya. TSR also refers to ‘a certain amount of systematic occult training for those who are admitted into the Second Section of the TS.

Letter at Sl. No.2:

This was his first letter to A P Sinnett about ‘giving practical instruction in our occult sciences.’

Letter at Sl.no.3:

Parts of this letter are missing, reportedly. This letter has the comments of Master KH super-imposed thereon. Contents refer to the training TSR proposes to afford APS with.

Letter at Sl.no.4:

This is a further letter to APS, which says ‘practical instruction is impossible in view of the qualified assent given.’ TSR assents to give theoretical instruction only.

Letter at Sl.no.5:

This was in reply to Madame Blavatsky. TSR refers to the difficulties in imparting instructions, says M and KH wanted him to do this work and so he could not but obey their command.

Letter at Sl.no.6:

In this letter to KH, TSR explains the difficulty accompanying the instruction he agreed to give to APS and A O Hume.

Letter at Sl.no.7:

This letter was addressed to Madame Blavatsky but in fact is appended by a longish observation on a London Lodge letter. This was submitted to HPB for her forwardal to them, with ‘additional remarks as you (HPB) may think proper.’ But she has chosen not to add anything in particular, except a foot-note here and there. A keen observation on the London Lodge affairs and the attitudes carried out by those members towards the TS, Masters and Occult philosophy in general is thoroughly discussed; and an effort is made to set right their understanding of things.

Letter at Sl.no.8:

In this incomplete letter, TSR requests HPB to return to India very early. He says, ‘more harm was done by Europeans than the Hindus to the TS.’

Letter at Sl.no.9:

This was a personal letter to a friend, member, almost a student to TSR in philosophical studies. This letter contains many personal views of TSR in the matter of Occult status of TS, HPB and many other connected subjects. The attitude an aspirant should adapt is well detailed here. Some inconvenient events in the life of TSR also get mentioned here.

Letter at Sl.no.10:

This was letter addressed to a person who could not be identified ‘as such’. The general import of the contents makes it almost very important. Why did TSR join the TS at all? – An answer to this vital question is available here. It is only in the year 1935 that this letter came into print through a journal “The theosophical Forum.” Many matters of esoteric importance are available here.

Besides the above letters, there is an article appearing in the Journal “The Word” (January 1905 – p.188-191) under a title “What is Occultism?” The editorial note is as below:

Subba Row was one of the most brilliant lawyers in India, and as all Theosophists know, was an occultist of renown. Some years before his death he was asked by an American pupil to define Modern Occultism and in reply thereof he wrote the following article on the subject. ---L.L.

There need not be any objection in treating this also as a letter, particularly for the reason of its contents and its non-availability in any other collections. (Mr Henk. included this, however, in his Collected Writings of TSR.)

The effort made, in the essays to follow, is to cull out and annotate upon the views of TSR on subjects such as:

  • Philosophical and Occult training of aspirants to Spiritual Wisdom
  • Metaphysical statements of all-time value.
  • Organizational matters and structure of the society
  • Occult Stature of HPB
  • Relationship of the Masters to the TS

TSR made decidedly a pioneering contribution to the theosophical thought in the early years of the Society. With the striking all-timeness of his very many ideas, it will benefit the readers of the present generation, including the theosophists, if a proper study is made from both historical and philosophic perspective. It is open for students of philosophy to further explore the subjects for arriving at an in-depth understanding of the concepts.

In the course of the essays, abbreviations to several names of persons are used for purpose of brevity. It is hoped that it would not be difficult for the readers to identify the names contextually.



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