Contemporaries of Rudolf Steiner:
Charles Webster Leadbeater
C.W. Leadbeater (1854-1934) was a charismatic, powerful figure, brimming with the youthful energy well into old age. He was born in 1854 in Stockport, Cheshire, in Great Britain. His father was a railway bookkeeper and Charles was born into a rather humble background. Not much is known about his childhood and youth, and much of what he claimed for himself is demonstrably untrue. When he was close to 50 he added seven years to his life, claiming to have been born in 1847. It wasn't until 1982 that his birth certificate was found and his misstatement corrected. Likewise other aspects of his youth were accepted at face value until they crumbled under investigation. In his telling, his father was chairman of a railway company, and his family moved to deepest South America when he was a youth. In the jungles of Brazil he had many adventures, probably inspired by H. Rider Haggard novels. He was ambushed by Indians in the jungle, roasted alive by headhunters, shot and wounded by rebels, and in one adventure a nonexistent brother named Gerald was tragically killed. Visiting Peru, he was led underwater to a secret stockpile of Inca treasure. Back in England he entered Queens College at Oxford (though in one telling its St. John's College in Cambridge) and hung out with his father's "good friend" Edward Bulwer-Lytton, famous author of several novels of Rosicrucian initiation, and a well-known expert on the occult. In a visit to Scotland he was tragically forced to stab a werewolf. Whereas Blavatsky really had journeyed through the known world and had more adventures in a month than many people have in a lifetime, Leadbeater would copy the model without really living it.
The more prosaic historical Leadbeater was impoverished when his father died at the young age of 36. The intervention of a family friend allowed the young man to be ordained an Anglican minister, and he became the curate of a small parish in Hampshire, at Bramshott. Explaining how he ended up here, Leadbeater described how his father's fortune was lost in a bank failure, forcing him to drop out of college and take a position as a curate. He appears to have been somewhat bored by his work, and the one area that he did really enjoy was organizing events and outings for young people, and especially for boys. He was apparently a very dynamic youth leader, and young people were drawn to him. Like many people of his day, he was not completely satisfied by the theology of his religion, and so continued his search. At one point in London he attended a lecture by Annie Besant, then in her atheist phase. He also became interested in the supernatural, and discovered a bunch of books that greatly interested him. What they all had in common was that they were published by the Theosophical Society. Leadbeater join the society in 1883. Eager to help, he was given the task of answering letters, and quickly the Theosophical Society became the most important thing in his life. He met Blavatsky herself in 1884, and sailed with her for India that same year.
Leadbeater spent about six months in intense study at the society's headquarters in Adyar, whereupon he declared he had achieved "astral consciousness". Starting around this point, he also began claimed to receive visits by Blavatsky's Masters, and they began to relate messages to him. Two years later he joined Olcott in Ceylon, where he discovered the reincarnation of his (fictional) brother in the young Jinarajadasa. He succeeded in becoming the boy's legal guardian, and they returned to London together in 1889 after three years in Ceylon. After six years of preparation Jinarajadasa entered Oxford, graduating four years later. Leadbeater was in London for Blavatsky's final two years there, but they did not have much to do with each other. Leadbeater was already frequently channeling messages from Blavatsky's Masters of which she found puzzling, but she kept silent on the matter. When Blavatsky died, Leadbeater emerged as the leading clairvoyant in the movement and the Theosophical Society's main connection to the Masters that had founded it.
It was Annie Besant with whom Blavatsky was closest in her last days. She stayed in Besant's house and in the eyes of many groomed Besant to take over. Besant became president of the Blavatsky Lodge (the London branch of the Theosophical Society), co-editor of Blavatsky's journal, and also a member of the Esoteric Section, a very small group of Blavatsky's personal students. When Blavatsky died, Besant took over leadership of the Esoteric Section, and eventually the entire Theosophical Society.
Besant and Leadbeater first met in 1890, but it was not until 1894, after Blavatsky's death, that they began their collaboration. Besant's natural interests included two of the Theosophical Society's three declared objectives. She was very interested in creating a universal brotherhood of man, and also in the study of comparative religions. The third objective, investigating the unexplained laws of nature and the physical powers latent in man, was one in which she would need guidance. And it was Leadbeater who would help her with this. He became her esoteric teacher, and by 1895 they had established a lifelong, close working relationship. She would defer to him in all matters occult, and he would defer to her at all matters administrative. They would continue this relationship for the next 40 years.
Together, Besant and Leadbeater worked tirelessly as systematizers of Blavatsky's work. It is an established pattern that the first generation in a popular movement such as a religion is the creators, and boldly establishes new principles and ideas against great resistance. Once these ideas have been established, the next generation is left to deal with them as established facts. At this point, the logical contradictions start to appear, and a systematic effort is usually undertaken to create a rigid structure of doctrine or belief. Such a pattern played out during the Reformation with figures such as Luther and Calvin, and was repeated again with Blavatsky. Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are rich troves of knowledge and ideas about spiritual realities and occult history. But they are not systematic bodies of knowledge, and considerable effort was required to make them such. But both Besant and Leadbeater were tireless writers and indefatigable workers, and spent decades on the effort, starting already in the 1890s. Between them they produced well over 100 books and pamphlets and countless articles. In keeping with the spirit of the times, they strove to convey a sense of scientific rigor in their work. The cosmos as revealed by Blavatsky was complex but classifiable. And classify it they did.
Steiner and Leadbeater
It was against this background that Rudolf Steiner joined the Theosophical Society as General Secretary of the German branch in 1902. He quickly rose to prominence within the European Theosophical movement, attracting the respect of all the major figures. However, because he worked exclusively in German and the Society was predominantly an English-speaking one, Steiner remained a marginal figure overall. From the outset, a small circle of friends translated and published his some of his works in English. By 1905 private copies of notes of his lectures were circulating as far away as London. But most of his work remained available only in German, and to this day more than half of his work has not been translated. Thus, due to language barriers Rudolf Steiner's influence on the Theosophical Society as a whole remained negligible. There were other reasons as well.
Steiner himself had big plans for Theosophy, plans that went well beyond the existing Theosophical Society. Theosophy, his understanding of Theosophy, that is, should become practical and transform the world. And Steiner was also sure that the Theosophy of the current Theosophical Society was incorrect in many regards. Privately he could be quite open about this, though in public he generally maintained a discrete silence on the matter. After one lecture a long-term Theosophist came forward and said to Steiner: "But what you have been saying is by no means an agreement with Mrs. Besant's teaching." The speaker was an expert in Theosophy. Steiner replied: "Then it is, no doubt, as you say." Steiner had many corrections, both small and large, to the doctrines of Theosophy, the works of Blavatsky, and especially those of Leadbeater.
Steiner said little directly about Leadbeater. In his autobiography Steiner wrote of his one meeting with Leadbeater in 1902 that, "… he made no particular impression upon me". To those familiar with Leadbeater's work, it is possible to see how Steiner was continually correcting it in his own lectures and books. Two examples should suffice. In his 1903 book Clairvoyance, Leadbeater writes, "It may help to dispel this sense of unreality if we try to understand that clairvoyance, like so many other things in nature, is mainly a question of vibrations..." To which Rudolf Steiner wrote:
"We must not fall into the error of certain theosophical circles, and imagine that the etheric and astral bodies as consisting simply of finer substances than are present in the physical body. For that would be a materialistic conception of these higher members of man's nature. The etheric body is a force-form; it consists of active forces and not a matter. The astral or sentient body is a figure of inwardly moving, colored, luminous pictures."
The second example comes from the same book, where Leadbeater describes Reading the Akashic Record as follows:
"When the visitor to [the mental, a.k.a. Devachanic] plane is not thinking specifically of them in any way, the records simply form a background to whatever is going on, just as the reflections in a pier-glass at the end of the room might form a background to the life of the people in it. It must always be born in mind that under these conditions they are really merely reflections from the ceaseless activity of a great Consciousness upon a far higher plane, and have very much the appearance of an endless succession of cinematographs, or living photographs. They do not melt into one another like dissolving views, nor do a series of ordinary pictures follow one other; but the action of the reflected figures constantly goes on as though one were watching the actors on a distant stage. But if the trained investigator turns his attention especially to any one scene, or wishes to call it up before him, an extraordinary change at once takes place, for this is the plane of thought, and to think of anything is to bring it instantly before you. For example, if a man wills to see the record of that event to which we before referred – the landing of Julius Caesar – he finds himself in the moment not looking at any picture, but standing on the shore among the legionnaires, with the whole scene being enacted around him, precisely in every aspect as he would have seen it if he had stood there in the flash on that autumn morning in the year 55 B.C. Since what he sees is but a reflection, the actors are of course entirely unconscious of them, nor can any effort of his change the course of their action in the smallest degree, except only that he can control the rate which the drama shall pass before him – can have the event of the whole year rehearsed before eyes in a single hour, or can at any moment stop the movement altogether and hold the particular scene in view as a picture as long as he chooses."
In a 1907 lecture, Rudolf Steiner explains:
"What is the Akasha Chronicle? We can form the truest conception of it by realizing that what comes to pass on our earth makes a lasting impression upon certain delicate essences, an impression which can be discovered by a seer who has attained Initiation. It is not an ordinary but a living Chronicle. Suppose a human being lived in the first century after Christ; what he thought, felt and willed in those days, what passed into deeds — this is not obliterated but preserved in this delicate essence. The seer can behold it – not as if it were recorded in a history book, but as it actually happened. How a man moved, what he did, a journey he took-it can all be seen in these spiritual pictures; the impulses of will, the feelings, the thoughts, can also be seen. But we must not imagine that these pictures are images of the physical personalities. That is not the case. To take a simple example. – When a man moves his hand, his will pervades the moving hand and it is this force of will that can be seen in the Akasha Chronicle. What is spiritually active in us and has flowed into the Physical, is there seen in the Spiritual. Suppose, for example, we look for Caesar. We can follow all his undertakings, but let us be quite clear that it is rather his thoughts that we see in the Akasha Chronicle; when he set out to do something we see the whole sequence of decisions of the will to the point where the deed was actually performed. To observe a specific event in the Akasha Chronicle is not easy. We must help ourselves by linking on to external knowledge. If the seer is trying to observe some action of Caesar and takes an historical date as a point of focus, the result will come more easily. Historical dates are, it is true, often unreliable, but they are sometimes of assistance. When the seer directs his gaze to Caesar, he actually sees the person of Caesar in action, phantom-like, as though he were standing before him, speaking with him. But when a man is looking into the past, various things may happen to him if, in spite of possessing some degree of seership, he has not entirely found his bearings in the higher worlds."
Without mentioning Leadbeater, Steiner has very clearly differentiated his experience from Leadbeater's descriptions of clairvoyance. Because of the delicate way Steiner presented these corrections, they are not obvious as such. To readers of either it is not evident that there was a substantial struggle between Leadbeater and Steiner concerning the nature of the spiritual world. Contemporary Theosophists, in as much as they were able to encounter Steiner's work (and due to language barriers, these were mostly German-speaking Theosophists in central Europe) did experience the tension between the two different worldviews. But most Theosophists outside Central Europe were unaware of the conflict.
Between Leadbeater and Steiner stood Annie Besant. She remained humble about her abilities, and upon commencing her working relationship with Leadbeater claimed personal clairvoyant insight only infrequently. Instead she placed herself at the service of a greater goal. She was a talented speaker and a phenomenal organizer. Under her leadership the Theosophical Society exceeded 100,00 members and had a worldwide impact. But she was dependent on Leadbeater for direction. This is the irony of her life, a life devoted to independence: she ended up dependent on Leadbeater for spiritual insight and direction. While she was indeed a talented and accomplished speaker, the fact she had nothing of her own to say was evident to discerning listeners, as shown by a comment that Albert Schweitzer made in 1906 to Steiner about his impression of one of her speeches: "A person quite lacking in independence, who has nothing to say." How Steiner related this to Marie von Sievers in a letter indicates that he agreed. It was characteristic of Besant that she placed her talents in the service of the vision of others. Whether it was Christ, Marx, Blavatsky, or Leadbeater, it was her intention to serve with all her ability and will. In that regard, her intentions were good.
Neither Besant nor Steiner appear to have held any real personal animosity towards the other. Her misfortune was her connection to her fellow countryman Leadbeater, which proved stronger than her drive for spiritual independence and truth. Events might have turned out differently had she placed her organizational and rhetorical skills in the service of Steiner's spiritual impulses, rather than Leadbeater's clairvoyant vision. However, given Besant's background and her experiences with Christianity, it would have required a lot of her.
In 1906 Leadbeater brought a scandal upon the Theosophical Society. He was always surrounded by boys, mostly ages 10-16. His interest was seen as paternal, and well within the norms of late Victorian and Edwardian society. Even his sleeping in the same room, or even the same bed, did not strike his contemporaries as unusual, nor even his daily ritual of bathing naked with them. And especially in the circles in which Leadbeater traveled he was seen as an advanced clairvoyant, and thus beyond ordinary human urges, much less anything depraved. Thus it was a shock to many when a hotel porter came forward with a letter found at a room in which Leadbeater had just vacated. It was written in a crude code, but was easily deciphered. The contents were considered so obscene for that time that they could not be printed in England. They were instructions to a boy on how to masturbate. Around the same time, and independently, two other boys, both sons of prominent Theosophists, told their parents of the similar instruction they had received. Olcott convened a panel of inquiry, and Leadbeater in interviews did not deny giving such instructions, and did not disclaim authorship of the letter. He even confessed that his "instruction" might have included some touch. Before Olcott had decided how to handle the issue, Leadbeater resigned, "to save the Theosophical Society from embarrassment." But he never personally evinced any regret or sense of impropriety. Opinion remains split to this day, some seeing Leadbeater as a martyred progressive, others a sex pervert.
Leadbeater's continuing occult leadership within the Theosophical Society proved fractious. Already a divisive personality because of the earlier scandal, his new project would further divide Theosophists. Reaching back to an oral statement of Blavatsky's, Leadbeater and Besant began to consider the importance of the coming of a new World Teacher. Despite the fact that Blavatsky had indicated this was to happen in the second half of the 20th century, they would prepare for this now. The World Teacher Project was already in the back of their minds in 1907. The idea was useful on a number of levels. Purely from the organizational point of view, it gave a rallying point and focus to a membership that at times appeared a bit adrift.
With thoughts of the World Teacher Project in the back of his mind, Leadbeater, out on a daily swim in the ocean with companions, suddenly noticed the remarkable aura of a young boy on the beach who was otherwise in every way unexceptional. The boy would be great, Leadbeater decided. After a few interviews, and some time for consideration, Leadbeater declared that the boy, Jiddu Krishnamurti, would become the World Teacher.
Leadbeater threw himself into the project. The boy must be educated, both traditionally and spiritually. And the Theosophical Society must be prepared to receive the World Teacher. He researched the previous lives of an important individuality he called Alcyone, publishing his findings in a series of articles titled “Rents in the Veil of Time” in the English periodical Theosophist starting in April 1910. These were collected in his book The Lives of Alcyone. Going back 23,650 years before Christ, Leadbeater described Alcyone (whom he later identified as Krishnamurti) and the people around him over successive incarnations. Important people in the Theosophical movement were involved in these previous lives, usually the more important the person in the present Theosophical Society, the more prominent they were in history. Leadbeater was “Sirius” and Besant was “Hercules.” Even among Theosophists his descriptions were not always taken seriously, as evidence by the limerick “In the Lives, in the Lives, I've had all sorts of husbands and wives.” Steiner was notably absent. While some at the time doubtless wondered, Steiner himself knew why. In June 1909 Besant had offered him the position of John the Baptist in the scheme – a role that was to have paralleled the one Besant imagined for him: the herald of the Christ. Steiner had politely declined. His response was to continue to hold lectures throughout Europe on his understanding of the Christ event, which he had long termed “The Mystery of Golgotha.” The descent of God into a human body was a one-time event, central to earth evolution. From the beginning Steiner had been clear that he would only teach what he himself perceived, and would not under any circumstances represent some party doctrine.
A new society was set up within the Theosophical Society to promote and prepare for the world teacher: The Order of the Star in the East. The irony was that Besant, who had spent her adult life inveighing against orthodoxy, was now promoting one. But it was in the service of higher truth, as revealed by Leadbeater. In Germany, Rudolf Steiner decided that no one could belong to The Order of the Star in the East and also to his German Section of the Theosophical Society. Besant decided this was against the statutes of the Theosophical Society and demanded his resignation. She also accused him of being a tool of the Jesuits. It would have taken several months for the letters to travel halfway around the world and back, but she didn't wait that long, and expelled him a few weeks later. Members of the German section were outraged. Virtually all of them resigned their own memberships in the Theosophical Society and joined the newly formed Anthroposophical Society. In India, the loss of 8000 members in 48 lodges was barely noticed. They were a fraction of the Society's 100,000 worldwide members. The true cost should be measured rather in lost potential. Steiner lost the backing of a large worldwide and fairly respectable movement, as well as potential access to the English-speaking world through an established organization. The Theosophical Society lost more.
Cultural and language barriers played a certain role as well. Besant felt more comfortable with Leadbeater, a fellow Britain, than with Steiner, a German-speaking Austrian. Translation barriers prevented Steiner's work from becoming instantly available among English-speaking Theosophists, limiting his influence to this day. The Great Powers Conflict that would soon pit German-speaking Central Europe against England, France and Russia in World War One was also a factor; the cultural chauvinism that would inflame this conflict was already apparent on several levels in 1907.
Christianity was also a substantial barrier between Besant and Steiner. Besant had suffered terribly under the established Church of England. She had given her whole heart and soul to Christ and dedicated her life to the Church, and her reward was utter misery. Her subsequent rejection of church doctrine and the very belief in God was not merely and emotional response; she was broadly read in theology, and hers was a reasoned position. In fact her 1887 pamphlet Why I Do Not Believe in God is considered to this day one of the best summaries of the arguments for atheism. She could move on to Theosophy because the teaching of karma satisfied her moral sense of justice in the universe (after all, her crisis question was why a merciful God allowed suffering), but she was incapable of integrating Christianity into Theosophy, which is something Steiner was determined to do.
1907 was an important year for Theosophy and for the Anthroposophical movement. The death of Olcott marked the end of the pioneering era of the Theosophical Society, and Annie Besant's ascent to the presidency started a new phase. What that phase would look like was not yet clear in 1907. Would it be a revival? Would new impulses flow into Theosophy to rejuvenate it? Likewise for Steiner the year proved pivotal, marking the transition from theoretical to practical work, the transition that would take him from just another philosopher to an inaugurator of an entirely new culture. While it could have been the year that these two impulses merged, instead it was the year that they separated, even if this would not be apparent for some time.
Steiner died in 1925. Annie Besant lived to 1933, Leadbeater to 1934. Jiddu Krishnamurti matured into a serious and strict spiritual teacher. His philosophy was that no path or teaching to enlightenment is any better than any other, and all were essentially useless. As such, he dissolved The Order of the Star in the East in 1928. Besant tried really hard to reconcile herself to this, and stayed a loyal friend to the end. Leadbeater moved to Australia and continued his occult research, writing prodigiously to the end. Krishnamurti became an important independent spiritual teacher and lived to 1986. The Anthroposophical Society grew in Central Europe, while the Theosophical Society continued in India. By the 1950's the Theosophical Society was clearly in decline, and Anthroposophy was starting a post-War boom. Today Steiner's followers outnumber Theosophists. But the main difference is in cultural impact. Steiner's work has directly and indirectly changed the lives of tens of millions of people, even if only a small number of these know his name or are familiar with his work. The rest experience the results of his cultural renewal, whether by eating Biodynamic food, sending their children to Waldorf schools, or visiting an anthroposophical medical clinic. While Steiner's impact is not as visible or complete as he intended, it is none the less substantial. And this is what Steiner was aiming for with the 1907 Whitsun Conference.
A more detailed description is offered by Alice Leighton Cleather, in a letter she wrote in 1913 and reprinted as part of a book in 1923:
"If a real Indian initiate, a Brahmin or otherwise, of ripe age, had come to Europe an his own responsibility or in the name of his Masters to teach his doctrines, nothing would have been more natural or interesting. . . . But it was not in this form that we beheld the new apostle from Adyar. A young Indian, aged thirteen, initiated by Mr.Leadbeater ... is proclaimed and presented to the European public as the future teacher of the new era. Krishnamurti, now called Alcyone, has no other credentials than his master's injunctions and Mrs. Besant's patronage. His thirty-two previous incarnations are related at length the early ones going back to the Atlantean period. These narrations, given as the result of Mr. Leadbeater's and Mrs. Besant's visions, are for the most part grotesquely puerile, and could convince no serious occultist. They are ostensibly designed to prove that for twenty or thirty thousand years the principal personages in the T. S. [Theosophical Society] have been preparing for the " Great Work " which is soon to be accomplished. In the course of their incarnations, which remind one of a newspaper novel, these personages are decorated with the great names of Greek mythology, and with the most brilliant stars in the firmament.
Cleather, Alic Leighton. H. P. Blavatsky: A Great Betrayal. Calcutta, India: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1922. Pages 12-13.