Maji – The Yogini of Benares

A Brief Biography of a Little Known Initiate

Those who have looked with any real depth into the history of the modern Theosophical

Illustration of Maji from “The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India”.
Illustration of Maji from “The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India.”

Movement will most probably have noticed a number of references to a mysterious Indian woman known as Maji, sometimes spelt Majji. This name literally means “revered mother” and was not her birth name.

Although apparently fairly well known in certain circles during her lifetime (1826-1898), she is very much unknown today, even in India and amongst the Hindus of Benares, now named Varanasi. She has only ever been mentioned in one book, as far as we know, outside of the Theosophical books. That was “The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India” by John Campbell Oman, published in London in 1905. The next few paragraphs are quoted from that work . . .

“Though common amongst the Jains, female ascetics are rare amongst Hindus. There was one, however, who resided near Benares for many years, honoured and respected by the Hindu community. I regret that I did not see her myself, but the following particulars regarding her were communicated to me: —

“Shri Maji, the Benares Yogini, was born in 1826 a.d. Her name was Hari Kuer Bai, but the love she inspired earned for her the affectionate title Maji, by which she was known to a large public. Her family came originally from Gujrat, but as her ancestors had been residents of Benares for some generations, and she herself had been brought up there, her admirers, connecting her with their sacred city, gave her the cognomen Benarsi. Maji, who was the youngest of six children, was but five years old when her mother died. Her father, Shri Rameshwar Dev, was a good Sanskrit scholar and a man of strong religious feelings. The youngest child, inheriting his devotional temperament and love of learning, became his favourite. To her he devoted much of his time, teaching her Sanskrit and instructing her in religious duties. She proved an apt pupil, who by her progress amply repaid the fond instructor for his labours as teacher and spiritual guide.

“When ten years of age, Maji was married at Benares to a Brahman youth. Three years after her marriage she went to the house of her father-in-law; in other words, she joined her young husband. Hardly two years after that she became a widow, and returned to her father’s house, being then only fifteen years old, fully resolved to devote her life to the study of religious books and the practice of yoga. Within a short time Maji acquired a fair reputation amongst the learned pandits of Benares. Her father made many pilgrimages on foot, and she accompanied him, carrying on her head, in Indian fashion, all the simple necessaries for their journey. In these pedestrian pilgrimages, which occupied some five years, the father and daughter visited Jugganath, Hardwar, Brindaban, Badrinath, Kedarnath, and many other holy places. When they returned to Benares in 1846, Rameshwar Dev’s guru, Swami Sri Sachda Nand, who used to live in an underground cave or cell known as Annandgupha, situated some twelve miles to the east of Benares, breathed his last, and the gufha or cave was left unoccupied. So the father of Shri Maji took up his abode there, and with him Maji also, always studying the sacred books of the Hindus and practising yoga. There, in the gupha, they lived together for fourteen years, till in 1860 the father died, and Maji was left alone. But she did not desert the spot, and continued to live her solitary life there till her death in November 1898, at the age of seventy-two.

“Thus it appears that for thirty-eight years this religieuse had lived quite alone in the underground cell, Annandgupha, where indeed she had passed in calm tranquillity and religious study no less than fifty-two years of her life.

“To her cave came, year after year, people from all quarters to consult the recluse whose fame had spread to distant places, and, knowing the respect in which Hindus hold such a character as Maji, we may be certain that she endured no real personal want or hardship in her old age, but passed her declining years honoured by her co-religionists, and in as much comfort as might be consistent with her ascetic professions or her self-denying simplicity would accept. A portrait of this lady, reproduced from a wood engraving, stands at the commencement of the chapter.”

The “yoga” mentioned in the quotes above is of course Raja Yoga, the noble spiritual Yoga of Hinduism, as opposed to Hatha Yoga, which is physical Yoga. The latter is thoroughly discountenanced by the Masters behind the Theosophical Movement, as well as by numerous philosophically minded and truly wise Hindus, including the great Adi Shankaracharya himself (founder and codifier of the Advaita Vedanta form of Hinduism) who at times spoke quite strongly against the breath suppression techniques known as pranayama and the many different bodily postures or asanas.

The brief description of her life given above is interesting but deals only with externals. Let us see what we can discover of her true nature, of her inner being, and of her connection and involvement with H. P. Blavatsky and the Masters of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood.

In 1879, HPB and Col. Olcott moved from New York to India, transferring the headquarters of the Theosophical Society there. Towards the end of that year – states Col. Olcott in his “Old Diary Leaves” – “We all drove to the retreat of Majji, a very well known female ascetic, learned in Vedanta, who occupied a guha (excavated cave) with buildings above ground, on the bank of the Ganges, a mile or two below the city of Benares . . . At that time Majji appeared about forty years of age, fair-skinned, with a calm dignity and grace of gesture that commanded respect. Her voice was tender in tone, face and body plump, eyes full of intelligence and fire . . . A return visit paid by Majji to H.P.B. the next morning caused surprise, as, we were told, it was a most unusual thing for her to call upon anybody save her Guru, and upon a European never . . . she freely told Mrs Gordon, Damodar, and myself, in H.P.B.’s absence, a marvellous tale about her. She said that H.P.B.’s body was occupied by a Yogi, who was working it so far as he could for the spread of Eastern philosophy.”

We learn more, both about the high spiritual status of HPB and also about Maji herself, from a letter written in January 1880 by Damodar K. Mavalankar (see the article Damodar and The Hall of Initiation for more about him) to William Quan Judge (see the important article Who was William Quan Judge? for more about him), one of the three main co-founders of the Movement, who had stayed behind in New York to look after Theosophy in the USA. Damodar writes . . .

“Shortly afterwards Madam [i.e. Madame Blavatsky] and Col. Olcott accompanied by two or three European members of our Society joined me at Benares. To my great surprise, when asked by Madam, Swamiji [i.e. Swami Dayanand Sarasvati of the Arya Samaj, who was initially closely associated with the Theosophists in India, until he “fell” through personal pride and ambition, as related in some depth by the Masters in letters to A. P. Sinnett] mentioned the place where “Maji” resided and offered to take us there, adding that he knew her well and that she very often came to see him . . . Madam could not accompany us at that time as she did not feel well, but when we told “Maji” accordingly, she turned a glance of significance at Col. Olcott who returned it, thereby asking her to remain silent, as they alone had then felt Madam’s presence near them. “Maji” then said that though she had never visited Europeans, she would herself come to see Madam once or twice before our departure from Benares. . . .

“The next day came “Maji” (who never speaks of herself but as “This body”) to see Madam, and I alone was then with them, as Col. Olcott and Mrs Gordon had gone with Swamiji to see the girls’ school. I then gathered from what she said that she had been first in the body of a Fakir who, upon having his hand disabled by a shot he received while he passed the Fortress of Bhurtpore, had to change his body and choose the one that was now “Maji.” A girl about seven years of age was dying at that time and so, before her death, this Fakir had entered her body and taken possession of it. “Maji” is not therefore a woman but a real Hindu Fakir in the body of a woman. It is but one by one that I gathered all these particulars.

“In his former body, this Fakir had studied the Yoga science for 65 years, but his study having been arrested and incomplete at the time his body was disabled and consequently unequal to the task he had to perform, he had to choose this other one. In his present body he is 53 years, and consequently the “Inner Maji” is 118 years old.

“She then asked Madam whether she knew that they had had the same man for their “Guru.” But Madam desiring her to give some proofs of what she said to me, she readily furnished them. She said that Madam’s Guru [i.e. the Master M.] was born in Punjab but generally lives in the Southern part of India, and especially in Ceylon [i.e. Sri Lanka]. He is about 300 years old and has a companion of about the same age, though both do not appear even forty. In a few centuries he will enter the body of a “Kshatriya” (the Warrior caste among the Hindus) and do some great deeds for India, but the time had not yet come.

“When Madam and Col. Olcott had gone last summer to Karley Caves, they saw a certain Sannyasi with a five-legged cow, who took Col. Olcott aside and gave him the Theosophical grip. He had then told Col. Olcott that he was “Maji’s” disciple. I communicated this fact on this occasion to “Maji” who laughed and replied that it was none other than Madam’s Guru in the Fakir’s body, who had given Col. Olcott the grip, and that if we were to see that Fakir again, he would not be able to give us the sign again, as he was for the time being, taken possession of, by Madam’s Guru who often performs such things. Then she went home, promising to see us again before our departure. . . .

““Maji” then came for the second time and on this occasion all of us were present except Swamiji and Madam who came afterwards. Col. Olcott then asked “Maji” some questions about Madam. And “Maji” said that Madam was not what she seems to be. Her interior man had already been twice in a Hindu body . . . She also said that until that time she had never seen a European but, having got the information from her Guru, about Madam, she had come to see her. I then asked her if the real H.P.B. was still in the body [i.e. whether the original Helena Blavatsky had vacated her body at some point previously, with it then becoming solely occupied by an Indian yogi or initiate], but she refused to answer that question, and only added that she herself – “Maji” – was inferior to Madam. . . .

“She then told Col. Olcott that he had once been a young Hindu in the Southern part of India, but had died and had to be reborn again. She then explained to us the meaning of the action of the Fakir in having brought a five-legged cow at Karli when he saw Col. Olcott there and gave him the Theosophical grip. She said that every person has a right to repeat the Gayatri Mantram which consists of three “Padas” (Metres) but a Brahmachari has a right to repeat one “Pada” more while a Yogi could repeat as many as he liked and thereby perform wonders. Thus a Yogi has a right to repeat a Mantram consisting of five “Padas” which is equal to “Om Tat Sat,” and as the word “Pada” also means a foot or a leg, he had purposely brought a five-legged cow to signify this meaning. And she moreover said that this symbol was with Madam on her seal-ring, although neither she (Madam) nor any of us had intimated to “Maji” the fact. You will have thus seen how Indian instructions are conveyed by means of symbols and one who can decipher the ancient Aryan symbols will find a vast field to be explored. . . .

“She told me that if I wanted to make any spiritual progress and see any of our Brothers [i.e. the Masters], I must depend entirely for that upon Madam. None else was competent to take me through the right path. If I were to go alone anywhere, I may wander about here and there for years together but that will be quite useless. I must stop entirely with Madam and lay my full and only confidence in her. She told me to work in the Society and practise regularly twice a day what Madam had ordered me to do. In every respect I must act in obedience to her instructions. . . . She remarked that as India’s sons are becoming more and more wicked, they (these adepts) have gradually been retiring more and more toward the north of the Himalaya mountains. . . .

“You will thus have seen of what a great consequence it is for me to be always with Madam. From the beginning I felt all that “Maji” had told me. Only two or three days after I applied for admission into the Society I said to H.P.B., what I really felt, that I regarded her as my benefactor, revered her as my Guru and loved her more than a mother. Ever since I have assured her of what I then told her. And now “Maji” tells me the same thing, strengthens my faith and asks me to confide in her (Madam). And when I afterwards consulted Swamiji in regard to myself, he, without my telling him a word of what “Maji” had said to me, urged me to do the very same thing, that is to say, to put my faith in H.P.B. All along I have felt and do still feel strongly as if I had already once studied this philosophy with Madam and that I must have been once her most obedient and humble disciple. This must have been a fact or else how can you account for the feeling created in me about her only after seeing her not more than three or four times. All my hopes and future plans are therefore centred in her and nothing in the world can shake my confidence in her, especially when two Hindus, who do not speak English and could not have pre-arranged these things, tell me the very same things without previous consultation and what I all along had myself felt.”

In connection with some of the things mentioned here by Damodar and related to him by Maji, we may also quote these words from Julia Keightley, a fairly influential American Theosophist who was a close associate of William Judge and the recipient of most of the letters from Mr Judge published as “Letters That Have Helped Me” . . .

“A few days after Madame Blavatsky died, HPB awoke me at night. I raised myself, feeling no surprise, but only the sweet accustomed pleasure. She held my eyes with her leonine gaze. Then she grew thinner, taller, her shape became masculine; slowly then her features changed, until a man of height and rugged powers stood before me, the last vestige of her features melting into his, until the leonine gaze, the progressed radiance of her glance alone remained. The man lifted his head and said, “Bear witness!” He then walked from the room, laying his hand on the portrait of HPB as he passed. Since then, he has come to me several times, with instructions, in broad daylight while I was busily working, and once he stepped out from a large portrait of HPB.”

James Morgan Pryse, another American Theosophist of those days, once wrote the following . . .

“One evening [in 1889] while I was thus meditating the face of H. P. B. flashed before me. I recognized it from her portrait in Isis [i.e. her first book, “Isis Unveiled”], though it appeared much older. Thinking that the astral picture, as I took it to be, was due to some vagary of fancy, I tried to exclude it; but at that the face showed a look of impatience, and instantly I was drawn out of my body and immediately was standing “in the astral” beside H. P. B. in London. It was along toward morning there, but she was still seated at her writing desk. While she was speaking to me, very kindly, I could not help thinking how odd it was that an apparently fleshy old lady should be an Adept. I tried to put that impolite thought out of my mind, but she read it, and as if in answer to it her physical body became translucent, revealing a marvellous inner body that looked as if it were formed of molten gold. Then suddenly the Master M. appeared before us in his mayavi-rupa. To him I made profound obeisance, for he seemed to me more like a God than a man. Somehow I knew who he was, though this was the first time I had seen him. He spoke to me graciously and said, “I shall have work for you in six months.” He walked to the further side of the room, waved his hand in farewell and departed. Then H. P. B. dismissed me with the parting words, “God bless you,” and directly I saw the waves of the Atlantic beneath me; I floated down and dipped my feet in their crests. Then with a rush I crossed the continent till I saw the lights of Los Angles and returned to my body, seated in the chair where I had left it.”

In response to this, Mr Judge commented: “Your vision that when you looked at HPB and saw no old woman but a God is correct. You were privileged to see the Truth – For the Being in that old body called H. P. Blavatsky is a mighty Adept working on his own plan in the world. And thus we do not need to go to Tibet or S. America to find the sort of Being so many wish to see. Yet having seen the reality better keep silent and work with that in view. For even did you go and tell Him you knew He was there he would smile while he waited for you to do something such as you could in your limited sphere. For flattery counts not and professions are worse than useless. But it is a great thing to see as much as you have, and a greater thing it will be if you do not doubt – for you may never see it again.”

To another, he wrote, “As to HPB you cannot judge her by any rule. There is a great Adept there and he uses that body for His own purposes, both for use and trial of others.”

“Madame Blavatsky’s temper is bad enough, as you say, in some respects,” wrote T. Subba Row (another close Indian colleague of HPB and a known disciple of the Master M.) to V. V. Sivavadhanulu, “However she happens to be the only agent that can be employed by the Mahatmas for the purposes of the Theosophical Society. . . . Please recollect also that the person inhabiting Madame Blavatsky’s body (who is a Hindu Chela) has tremendous difficulties to cope with, and is not always able to keep in check the influence of the auric impressions of that body left there by the former personality with which it was associated.”

Not only a chela but “a high and initiated Chela” according to the Master K.H.

It may surprise non-Theosophists reading this article to learn that many people today who call themselves Theosophists are thoroughly ignorant of the life, work, and teachings of H. P. Blavatsky, not to mention her true inner nature and identity and high spiritual status. Many of these even view her in a somewhat negative and critical light, due largely to being deliberately kept in ignorance of the real facts by the likes of later “Theosophists” such as Annie Besant, C. W. Leadbeater, and Alice Bailey, who were all keen on making people believe that HPB was merely a type of forerunner for them and little more in reality than a rather hapless and bumbling individual of lesser spiritual degree, prone to many mistakes and inaccuracies, and used by the Masters as a stopgap, so to speak, until they could come along. From much personal experience, we are also well aware that many Alice Bailey followers almost border on contempt in their view of HPB and their attitude towards her and her teachings, which in most cases they have never even bothered to read. Indeed, we recently received through our site a very lengthy message from a keen student of the Alice Bailey teachings, filled with real and undisguised venom (there is no other word for it) for HPB and those who hold her and her teachings in high regard, rather than accepting the Bailey teachings!

To A. P. Sinnett, an influential English Theosophist who entertained a somewhat similar attitude towards HPB as today’s pseudo-Theosophists, HPB wrote these words, which become more comprehensible in their meaning in light of everything we’ve just seen from Maji, Damodar, and others . . .

“No; you do not hate me; you only feel a friendly, indulgent, a kind of benevolent contempt for H.P.B. You are right there, so far as you know her the one who is ready to fall into pieces. Perchance you may find out yet your mistake concerning the other – the well hidden party. . . . Now, do you really think that you know ME my dear Mr Sinnett? Do you believe that, because you have fathomed – as you think – my physical crust and brain; that shrewd analyst of human nature though you be – you have ever penetrated even beneath the first cuticles of my Real Self? . . . What I say is this: you do not know me; for whatever there is inside it, is not what you think it is; and – to judge of me therefore, as of one untruthful is the greatest mistake in the world besides being a flagrant injustice. I, (the inner real ‘I’) am in prison and cannot show myself as I am with all the desire I may have to.”

Another interesting reference to Maji is found in a letter written by Col. Olcott to Francesca Arundale, in which he mentions having been visited at night by the Master M. and Maji together, in their astral bodies.

By 1885, Damodar had reached such a degree of spiritual development and progress that the Master K.H. decided that it was time for him to go and live with the Masters in Tibet or, perhaps more precisely, the Trans-Himalayan region, in order to learn from them direct and in person, just as HPB had done two decades previously in preparation for her great Theosophical mission and work for humanity. The Master just mentioned, who was Damodar’s Guru, helped to plan the journey for him, including its various physical and spiritual stages. Part of this involved going to meet Maji again and staying with her for several days.

In the very interesting diary he left behind, Damodar records that on 8th March he “reached Benares and went to Maji’s ashram. Had long talks with her both morning and afternoon. She spoke about Subba Row, and told me things which he had only lately spoken to me in private. Also spoke about Bawaji and said things known only to Mme. B. and myself. Said various other startling things.”

The next day, “conversations with Maji continued. She spoke about the portraits of the Masters at the Headquarters and told me many surprising things. Four Benares Theosophists called in the evening. Maji’s talk was very interesting and instructive. In the afternoon she told me about Subba Row’s Guru and about himself.” The following day, 10th March, he “commenced to take internally some medicine she prepared for me. Had private talks with her during the day. Mme. B., she says will not die for a year or more yet.” As it happened, HPB lived another six years before departing from the physical plane. And on 11th March, “talks continued” and “Later, Maji showed me a portrait of her father which was precipitated after his death.” The next was Damodar’s final day in Benares and he had “a morning talk with her, and one at noon, entirely private, in her guha, when she discussed the plans in view and the persons concerned. She tells me startling facts and something about the future.”

Just over a month after that, Damodar wrote his final diary entry: “Took bhat in the morning, and proceeded on from Kabi [i.e. Kabi Lungchok in Himalayan Sikkim] alone, sending back my things [including the diary] with the coolies to Darjeeling.”

Although HPB and a few others heard in various ways from him after that time, he never returned to India but remained with the Masters. The full story is told – inasmuch as it can be told – in the book “Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement” compiled and annotated by Sven Eek.

Damodar had once mentioned Maji in a short article titled “Can Females become Adepts?” After beginning by saying “It is difficult to see any good reason why females should not become Adepts,” he writes that “In Benares too, lives a certain lady, unsuspected and unknown but to the very few.” He provides a reference to another article from “The Theosophist” consisting of a transcript of questions and answers between Col. Olcott and Swami Dayanand Sarasvati. In that, Olcott enquires, “Can a Yogi thus pass from his own body into that of a woman?” to which the Swami replies, “With as much ease as a man can, if he chooses, put on himself the dress of a woman, so he can put over his own atma her physical form. Externally, he would then be in every physical aspect and relation a woman; internally, himself.” With both HPB and Maji in mind, Olcott then remarks, “I have met two such; that is to say, two persons who appeared women, but who were entirely masculine in everything but the body. One of them, you remember, we visited together at Benares, in a temple on the bank of the Ganges.” “Yes, Maji,” responds Swami Dayanand.

HPB herself explained to Countess Wachtmeister: “An Initiate or a Mahatma (like Mah-ji of Benares and others) who enters the body of another and lives in it has not on that occasion or on that account to pass through the Vikaras or awful changes in the womb, nor through the ordeals of chelaship and initiations which he had before gone through. But if afterwards that Initiate or Mahatma has to be born and to incarnate, then he must pass through the whole course of his past progress in a nutshell again.”

One of the last mentions of Maji in Theosophical literature is in William Q. Judge’s article “Habitations of HPB,” written shortly after HPB’s passing in 1891. In describing HPB’s writing room in the house in London where she spent her final years, he says, “There are two standing brackets, and on one of them at the end is a picture of the famous woman yogi of India – Maji.”

There seems to have been some contradiction between the Theosophists of that era as to whether Maji was generally well known or not. But one thing is for certain after reviewing all of these intriguing facts and references and that is that Maji was – and is – a great and special soul, working closely with the Brotherhood of Masters for the helping of humanity, just like HPB, although as Maji said herself, HPB is higher than her.

It is interesting to note that none of those individuals who were objectively proven and known to be chelas of the Masters, ever supported or endorsed in any way the work and teachings of those various later “Theosophists” who claimed (but could never actually prove or demonstrate) to be the chelas of the same Masters, such as Besant, Leadbeater, and Bailey, who were mentioned earlier. Quite the opposite in fact, since the last surviving Indian chelas from HPB’s Adyar days were so repulsed and disturbed by the actions and claims of such individuals, along with their thorough rewriting and alteration of the teachings of Theosophy, that they separated themselves entirely from the Theosophical Society and aligned themselves instead with the United Lodge of Theosophists (often known simply as the ULT) when B. P. Wadia established it at Bombay.

The most prominent of these was Bhavani Shankar, who is spoken of in glowing terms in certain letters written by the Masters. Recalling the written words of one of the Masters that the Adyar Society had become “a soulless corpse,” destined to “fall to pieces” as the inevitable Karmic result of its infidelity to HPB, and seeing how Besant and Leadbeater seemed hell-bent on destroying the legacy and sacrifices of HPB, he cut all ties with the Society and became an Associate of the ULT, feeling that here was an association – apparently the only one – which was true to the real Cause and real Teachings of the real Masters of whom he was the faithful disciple and with whom he was personally acquainted. As part of his regular daily sadhana or spiritual practice in the latter part of his life, Bhavani Shankar used to focus on HPB in heartfelt and reverential meditation and invited and encouraged others to do the same.

The ULT, founded in Los Angeles in 1909 by Robert Crosbie, continues around the world to this day. Its expressed mission statement is still the same now as it was then: “To spread broadcast the Teachings of Theosophy as recorded in the writings of H. P. Blavatsky and William Q. Judge.”

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2 thoughts on “Maji – The Yogini of Benares

  1. Many thanks for this article and its quotations. William Q Judge briefly mentions Maji

    “He also says that there can be no doubt of the truth of those Maji messages and that he thinks they have the stamp of the Master…”

    from “Letters That Have Helped Me” p 200

    The “he” was referred to earlier is “D”, possibly Damodar Mavalankar, the victorious chela.

  2. I heard/ seen in theosophical literature the name Maji. Now I am happy to know something about ‘Maji’ She lived as yogini, i.e spiritual life. she may be had good following by devotes.

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