C.W. Leadbeater: Saint or Sinner?

This article was published in New Dawn 96 (May-June 2006)

Rare is the man or woman whose controversy in life outlives their death into the next century. But such were H.P. Blavatsky and C.W. Leadbeater, the founder and promoter, respectively, of Theosophy. Their legacy of notoriety and fame are generated less by the unorthodox, even heretical ideas they espoused with such unrepentant vigour during an era of Victorian sensibilities, than their outrageous personal behaviour which, even today, would have gotten them both into deep trouble. But of the two, Charles Webster Leadbeater was the most influential Theosophic spokesperson of the twentieth century, the man who some now regard as the true founding-father of the so-called “New Age” movement.

At a time when Western civilisation was almost exclusively Christian, he boldly presented an alternative spirituality based on the psychic powers innate in all human beings, obviating the need for any priestly intermediaries in a direct (or virtually direct) personal relationship with the Compassionate Mind that organises all Creation. To best achieve that gnostic awareness, teachers like himself and an occult college of elusive (if mostly invisible) Masters from the higher planes of existence exist to serve the nobler spiritual aspirations of man. It was an unlikely stance taken by an established English clergyman locally renowned for his devotion to conventional religion.

Born in 1854, Leadbeater was a twenty nine year-old Anglican priest when he was welcomed into the Theosophical Society by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who celebrated his membership as a personal triumph over mainstream churchmen, with whom she was at logger-heads. “I was revenged,” she later recalled. Leadbeater’s defection stemmed from his restless dissatisfaction with contemporary Christianity, particularly as it was preached in Britain. He felt it had ossified over the centuries into a meaningless repetition of traditional ceremonialism that extinguished the original enlightenment initiated two thousand years ago by Jesus.

To India With Madame HPB

In Theosophy, whose followers strove to penetrate the mystical truth they believed was at the core of every religion, he found the authentic mystical experience he sought. They convinced him that a synthesis of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs combined with exercise of mankind’s innate psychic powers could elevate our species to its godlike destiny. Madame Blavatsky warned him, however, that attaining the lofty spiritual illumination he desired was no easy matter. She urged him to address a personal letter to the Master Kuthumi, a usually invisible entity of great wisdom who chose to interact with mortal men of particular promise.

In his missive to this profound spirit, Leadbeater asked if he should go to India for enlightenment. Madame Blavatsky alone knew how to put his request before the Master, so it was entrusted to her. A response was promptly received in the affirmative, and the former church official set out with Madame Blavatsky, who undoubtedly forged the letter, the envelope of which, in fact, had been stamped with a London postmark indicating the very neighbourhood where she resided at the time. Nonetheless impressed, Leadbeater and his dowdy mentor sailed across the Eastern Mediterranean, through Suez, and into the Indian Ocean.

While on board, Madame Blavatsky put her enthusiastic follower through a series of exercises meant to humble his spirit, all the better to strengthen him for the transformation ahead. As part of this preparatory regimen, she had him walk around the deck of the steamer carrying a chamber-pot brimming with human waste, something the other passengers could never forget. Nor, apparently, did Madame Blavatsky. In later years, she alluded to his on-board performance by addressing him as “W.C. Leadbeater.”

Once at Adyar, the Theosophical headquarters located outside Madras, his unquestionable abilities as a writer and speaker combined with his impressive physical appearance as a kind-eyed, wise-bearded teacher. Even so, years were to pass before he gained the clairvoyant insight that was later to make his fame. How he acquired it was recounted by Leadbeater after he became Theosophy’s most articulate spokesman. He recalled his stay in 1885 at the Adyar headquarters, which was virtually empty, the Society having fallen on hard times. Until then, he said:

I possessed no clairvoyant faculty, nor had I ever regarded myself as at all sensitive. I remember that I had a conviction that a man must be born with some psychic powers and with a sensitive body before he could do anything in the way of that kind of development, so that I had never thought of progress of that sort as possible for me in this incarnation, but had some hope that if I worked as well as I knew how in this life I might be born next time with vehicles more suitable to that particular line of advancement.

One day, however, when the Master Kuthumi honoured me with a visit, He asked me whether I had ever attempted a certain kind of meditation connected with the development of the mysterious power called kundalini. I had of course heard of that power, but knew very little about it, and at any rate supposed it to be absolutely out of reach for Western people. However, He recommended me to make a few efforts along certain lines, which He pledged me not to divulge to anyone else except with His direct authorisation, and told me that He would Himself watch over those efforts to see that no danger should ensue.

I worked at it for forty-two days, and seemed to myself to be on the brink of the final victory, when the Master Himself intervened and performed the final act of breaking through which completed the process, and enabled me thereafter to use astral sight while still retaining full consciousness in the physical body — which is equivalent to saying that the astral consciousness and memory became continuous whether the physical body was awake or asleep. It must not for a moment be supposed, however, that the attainment of this particular power was the end of the occult training. On the contrary, it proved to be only the beginning of a year of the hardest work that I have ever known. He would make a vivid thought-form, and say to me: “What do you see?”

And when I described it to the best of my ability, would come again and again the comment: “No, no, you are not seeing true; you are not seeing all; dig deeper into yourself, use your mental vision as well as your astral; press just a little further, a little higher.”

The result achieved is assuredly far more than worth while, for it leads directly up to the union of the lower and the higher self and produces an utter certainty of knowledge based upon experience which no future happenings can ever shake.2

Thus enlightened, Leadbeater was credited with discovering Jiddu Krishnamurti, who was staying at the Theosophical Society’s headquarters with his family for some months. They met while walking along the private beach that formed part of the Adyar complex. Leadbeater declared to his companion Ernest Wood that the boy would become a great spiritual teacher and speaker. He also told Wood that Krishnamurti was in all probability to become the “Vehicle” for the coming “World Teacher” in the incarnational pattern of Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad. Leadbeater personally supervised the raising of Krishnamurti, under conditions occasionally less than tender. Annoyed at the young man’s habit of sometimes staring with a blank expression into vacant space, with mouth open, he reprimanded Krishnamurti by striking him violently on the chin, an act of violence that spoiled the hitherto “blessed relationship” between them.


Thereafter, the temperamental tutor departed for Australia, settling in Sydney in 1914, where he felt particularly called to fulfill some as yet ill-defined mission. His instinct was correct, judging from the profound public success he enjoyed there. Attendance at his lectures swelled with overflow crowds of people to whom the ancient principles he described so beautifully were entirely new. For all the accusations of his critics, it was chiefly Charles Leadbeater, in the tradition of his predecessor Madame Blavatsky, who introduced the contemporary Western world to the age-old spiritual ideas of the East.

In Sydney, he became a leading member of the Liberal Catholic Church. A flurry of booklets, manuals, and full-length books flowed from him in a spate of creativity that brought the Theosophical Society much-needed prestige, income and membership in the tens of thousands.

As his modern biographer, Gregory Tillett, writes in The Elder Brother:

The range of his writings, and the wealth of material that flowed from his prolific pen, was vast. Some forty volumes, even more pamphlets, and for much of his life probably five or six journal articles a week constituted his literary output. The modern occult revival owes more to him than to anyone else; his concepts and ideas, his popularising of occult and Theosophical terms and principles, run through all modern works on these subjects.

Leadbeater’s written words were as successful as those he spoke, and his readership was truly international. A sampling from his very many published materials provides a glimpse of his active mind: “The Astral Plane: Its Scenery, Inhabitants and Phenomena”; “The Aura: An Enquiry into the Nature and Functions of the Luminous Mist Seen about Human and Other Bodies”; “Invisible Helpers: A Story of Helping at Night the So-called ‘Dead’ by Those Who Are Still in the Land of the Living”; “Dreams: What They Are and How They Are Caused”; “Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation”; “Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance”; “The Other Side of Death: Scientifically Examined by Clairvoyant Observation and Carefully Described”; “Guardian Angels and Other Unseen Helpers”; “The Perfume of Egypt and Other Weird Stories”; “The Life After Death, and How Theosophy Unveils It”; “To Those Who Mourn: Solace for Bereaved Person based on Principles of Evolution and Reincarnation”; “Vegetarianism and Occultism: On the Effects of Meat Eating and Slaughter of Animals”; “Australia and New Zealand as the Home of a New Sub-race”; “The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals”.

As author Alvin Boyd Kuhn observed in Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom:

He wrote elaborate descriptions of these things in a style of simplicity and clearness. He asserted that such powers enabled one to review any event in the past history of the race, inasmuch as all that ever happened is imprinted indelibly on the substance of the Astral Light or the Akasha, and the psychic faculties of trained occultists permit them to bring these pictures under observation. With the same faculties he asserted his ability to investigate the facts of nature in both her realms of the infinite and the infinitesimal. For years he stood as perhaps the world’s greatest ‘seer,’ and in books dealing with Clairvoyance, Dreams, The Astral Plane, The Inner Life, The Hidden Side of Things, etc., he labored to particularise and complement Madame Blavatsky’s sweeping outline of cosmic evolution and human character, as given in The Secret Doctrine.

Scandal and Seership

At the height of Leadbeater’s renown, however, serious moral charges were brought against him. As Nevill Drury and Gregory Tillett explain in their authoritative study of the occult in Australia, “the police undertook an investigation into Leadbeater and his relationships with his pupils, although Leadbeater himself would not be interviewed.

The official conclusions of the enquiry were that there was no evidence to sustain any charge, however the officers undertaking the investigation were satisfied Leadbeater did have a sexual relationship with at least some of his young male pupils, although he denied this. He did not deny habitually sleeping with his pupils, or sharing his bath with them. The precise details of Leadbeater’s sexual relationship with his pupils, and his occult teachings of these matters remain one of the mysteries in his life.3

Many of Leadbeater’s public pronouncements were igniting no less heated controversy, both inside and outside the Society. He stated that mankind originated on the Moon, eventually came to Earth several hundred thousand years ago, and is destined to some day leave this world, resettling on the planet Mercury. Mars, he said, was a pleasant place inhabited by human beings not much unlike ourselves, though more spiritually and intellectually elevated, and go around like Buddhist monks, bare-footed and dressed in common robes. In the midst of this balderdash, there nevertheless appear flashes of apparent psychic insight. For example, Leadbeater stated that Mars,

is a smaller planet than the Earth and more advanced in age, and was in much the same condition as is the Earth at the present time; that is to say, there was much more water than land on its surface. Now it has passed into comparative old age, and the water surface is far less than that of the land. Large areas of it are at present desert, covered with a bright orange sandwich giving the planet the peculiar hue by which we so readily recognise it.4

In his book The Masters and the Path, Leadbeater told of a secluded ravine in Tibet, where ancient records documenting an otherwise forgotten prehistory were preserved at an occult “museum” staffed by initiates of the Great White Brotherhood. “The museum houses images of every type of man which has existed on the planet,” he wrote, “from gigantic, loose-jointed Lemurians to pygmy remains of even earlier and less human races.”

More than sixty years after the publication of The Masters and the Path, American scientists found suggestions of unusual early human habitation at Liang Bua, a “cool cave” in the local Manggarai language, extending 130 feet into a hillside on Flores, a remote Indonesian island east of Java and northwest of Australia. They eventually revealed a virtually complete human skeleton unlike any they had ever seen. Beginning in September 2003, excavators undertook the laborious task of reassembling and identifying each of its bones in a Jakarta laboratory. Thirteen months later, the restored skeleton represented “a fundamentally new being,” according to Joseph B. Verrengia, science writer for the Associated Press, “a discovery that could rewrite the history of human evolution. It would be the eighth species in the Homo category.”

Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man, declared George Washington University anthropologist Bernard Wood, “is arguably the most significant discovery concerning our own genus in my lifetime.” The proportionally formed adult female stood just three feet tall, weighed no more than fifty-five pounds, and had a brain less than a third the volume of a modern human’s, small even for a chimpanzee. Although far smaller than any member of the genus Homo, her brain was complexly convoluted, suggesting a higher level of intelligence that belied its grapefruit size.

Dean Falk, a paleoneurologist at Florida State University, declared that the creature’s brain “has features I’ve not seen in anything this size.” She was not “some kind of ‘freak’ that we just happened to stumble across,” added Richard G. Roberts from Australia’s University of Wollongong, but an example of the first-known human dwarf species, as additionally confirmed by six other specimens found in the Liang Bua cave. They range in age from 9,500 to 12,000 years old, although the best-preserved skeleton belonged to a woman who lived 18,000 years ago. Nicknamed “Hobbit” after J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, she inhabited a real-life Middle Earth populated by giant tortoises large enough to ride, midget elephants no bigger than ponies, and monster rats the size of full-grown black Labrador hunting dogs.

Leadbeater’s “pygmies of even earlier and less human races” had become anthropological reality.

But it was his outspoken views on World War One that most divided his audiences. He seemed to contradict the concepts of humanity and compassion forming the bedrock of their faith, so much so, members, particularly new recruits and originally sympathetic followers, left the Theosophical Society in droves. The stampede of the disaffected had been prompted by Leadbeater’s uncharacteristically brutal remarks:

I am stating the facts based on knowledge and not on supposition when I say that it is actually a kindness to these ruffians [common German soldiers] to kill their bodies, for in that way we save their souls from this madness; we actually help in carrying out the training which will show them that they must not again let themselves be misled and hypnotised as they have been at this time. They are simply dangerous wild beasts who must be sent back into the savage tribes to which they belong.5

Leadbeater’s listeners were utterly divided by such comments, unsure he was speaking from a higher compassion or from his own, deeply engrained Tory conservatism. In any case, it seems strange that the founder of today’s New Age movement should have been almost totally forgotten by its modern followers. Throughout the early twentieth century, he was a father figure of global reputation, despised and revered by millions. Routledge & Kegan Paul, the publisher of Leadbeater’s biography, asked:

Is he the world’s greatest occultist and psychic? Or the worst sort of charlatan and con-man? These widely ranging views of Charles Leadbeater were current in his lifetime and even now, years after his death in 1934, he remains a controversial icon even for Theosophists. His disciples hailed him as the greatest seer of their age. His enemies attacked him as a fraud or worse. Yet, he has exerted great influence on modern ideas about the occult.6

Clearly, the controversy his life set in motion has not yet abated.

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1. Artist’s impression of C.W. Leadbeater which adorned the cover of a 1973 edition of his book The Inner Side of Christian Festivals published by the St Alban Press.

2. “The Third Object of the Theosophical Society”, Adyar Pamphlet Number 184, Adyar, India, 1930.

3. Other Temples, Other Gods: The Occult in Australia, Nevill Drury and Gregory Tillett, Hodder & Stoughton Australia Pty Ltd, 1982

4. The Inner Life by C.W. Leadbeater, Madras, India:  Theosophical Pub. House, 1912.

5. The Hidden Side of Christian Festivals by C.W. Leadbeater, as quoted in The Elder Brother: A Biography of Charles Webster Leadbeater by Gregory Tillett.

6. The Elder Brother: A Biography of Charles Webster Leadbeater,  Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, 1982.

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About the Author

Frank Joseph has published more books (eight) about the lost civilisation of Atlantis than any other writer in history. These and his twenty other titles dealing with archaeology, military history and metaphysics have been released in thirty-seven foreign editions around the world. He was the editor-in-chief of Ancient American, a popular science magazine, from its inception in 1993 until his retirement fourteen years later. He lives today with his wife, Laura, in the Upper Mississippi Valley of the United States.

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