T. Subba Row (1856-1890)

The Life of T. Subba Row

(Reprinted from T. Subba Row Collected Writings (1:xv-xxiv) with kind permission of Henk Spierenburg)

Birth in 1856

    Obit: "Our great Vedantin [Tallapragada Subba Row] was of the Niyogi caste* of the Smarta (Advaita) Brahmans.** He was born on the 6th July 1856... His native country was the Godavari District on the Coromandal Coast of India; his vernacular tongue the Telugu. His grandfather was the Sheristadar of the District, and his maternal uncle was Diwan (Prime Minister) to the Rajah of Pithapur. His father died when he was but [a] six months’ baby, and the uncle brought him up."

*In the 1931 edition of the Esoteric Writings of T. Subba Row, this word is changed into 'sect', which is a better word.
**From the Sringeri matha (monastery) at Shringeri in Mysore, north-east of Mangalore. He had contacts with the head of the monastery, for in BCW, V, 62 (1883), it can be found that Subba Row had received a letter from the Head of the Sringeri Matha, Sri Candrasekhara Bharai, on an occult manuscript written in Senzar. H.P.B. published a part of the letter. For the name of the head, see Henk J. Spierenburg, The Vedanta Commentaries of H.P. Blavatsky, San Diego 1992, Index, lemma Sringeri.

Student and Vakil, 1872-1880

    Obit: "He first attended the Coconada Hindu School, where he was not at all suspected of possessing any surprising talent. He passed his first Matriculation examination at the Hindu School, Coconada, then under the direction of Mr. J. Kenny. From thence he passed, in 1872, into the Madras Presidency College, where his career was a brilliant one, and ended in his passing B.A. [Bachelor of Arts] in 1876 as the first of the University in his class."

    Disc, 59: "A note in the college records says: ‘Obtained a number of marks which has been rarely reached in the annals of the University.’"

    Obit: "In the latter part of the same year that astute statesman, Sir T. Madhava Row, then Diwan of Baroda, offered him the Registrarship of the High Court of that State, and Subba Row stopped there about a year, but then returned to Madras and prepared himself for and passed the B.L. [Bachelor of Laws] examination, number 4 in the class."

    Obit: "Having adopted the Law as his profession, he served his apprenticeship under Messrs. Grant and Laing and was enrolled a Vakil (Pleader) of the High Court in the latter part of 1880. His practice became lucrative, and might have been made much more so had he given less attention to philosophy; to which, however, as he told me, he was drawn by an irresistible attraction."

The Headquarters at Adyar in 1882

    ODL, II, 342-3: "We [H.P.B. and H.S.O.] reached that port [of Madras] the 23rd [April 1882] at 11 a.m., but got a message from T. Subba Row asking us to stop aboard until 4 p.m., for which hour a formal reception had been arranged...
    "Our time was crowded with engagements during the next succeeding days, with visitors and receptions of candidates into membership; among the latter, T. Subba Row, whom I had to admit alone in private, for some unfathomable reason of mystery..."

    Obit: "He was chiefly instrumental in having us [H.P.B. and H.S.O.] invited to visit Madras in 1882, and in inducing us to choose this city as the permanent Head-quarters of the Theosophical Society."

    BL, 142: "I [H.P.B.] made Subba Row's acquaintance on the day I first arrived to Madras, May, 1882. Saw him for a week..."

    Theos, Suppl., June 1882, 2: "[Madras Theosophical Society founded with] T. Subba Row Garu, B.A., B.L., Pleader, - the young scholar so well-known to the readers of the ‘THEOSOPHIST’ by his remarkable contributions on Esoteric Eastern Philosophy - was elected Corresponding Secretary of the Branch."

His Occult Life

    Obit: "It is remarked above that T. Subba Row gave no early signs of possessing mystical knowledge: even Sir T. Madhava Row did not suspect it in him while he was serving under him at Baroda. I particularly questioned his mother on this point, and she told me that her son first talked metaphysics after forming a connection with the Founders of the Theosophical Society: a connection which began with a correspondence between himself and H.P.B. and Damodar, and became personal after our meeting him, in 1882, at Madras. It was as though a storehouse of occult experience, long forgotten, had been suddenly opened to him; recollections of his last preceding birth came in upon him: he recognized his Guru, and thenceforward held intercourse with him and other Mahatmas; with some, personally at our Head-quarters, with others elsewhere and by correspondence. He told his mother that H.P.B. was a great Yogi, and that he had seen many strange phenomena in her presence. His stored up knowledge of Sanskrit literature came back to him, and his brother-in-law told me that if you would recite any verse of Gita, Brahma Sutras or Upanisads, he could at once tell you whence it was taken and in what connection employed. Those who had the fortune to hear his lectures on Bhagavad Gita before the T.S. Convention of 1886 at Adyar, can well believe this, so perfect seemed his mastery of that peerless work. For a man of his abilities, he left scarcely any monument; the papers he contributed to these pages and the one-volume Report of his four Adyar lectures being almost his entire literary remains. As a conversationalist he was most brilliant and interesting; an afternoon's sitting with him was as edifying as the reading of a solid book. But this mystical side of his character he showed only to kindred souls. What may seem strange to some is the fact that, while he was obedient as a child to his mother in worldly affairs, he was strangely reticent to her, as he was to all his relatives and ordinary acquaintances, about spiritual matters. His constant answer to her importunities for occult instruction was that he ‘dared not reveal any of the secrets entrusted to him by his Guru’. He lived his occult life alone. That he was habitually so reserved, gives the more weight to the confidential statements he made to the members of his own household."

    MLChr, 129: In February 1882 wrote the Mahatma M. in a letter to A.P. Sinnett: "You must have patience with Subba Row. Give him time. He is now at his tapas and will not be disturbed. I will tell him not to neglect you but he is very jealous and regards teaching an Englishman as a sacrilege."

    Obit: "As an example of his extraordinary cleverness, his friends cite his successful passing of the examination in geology for the Statutory Civil Service in 1885, though it was a new subject to him, and he had only a week for preparation."

The Pilgrimage of Damodar in 1885*

    Obit: "Subba Row was in confidential understanding with us about Damodar's mystical pilgrimage towards the north, and more than a year after the latter crossed into Tibet, he wrote him about himself and his plans. Subba Row told me of this long ago, and reverted to the subject the other day at one of my visits to his sick-bed."

His Occult Instructions at Adyar in 1886

    ODL, III, 400: "This year's session was memorable by a course of four lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita, by T. Subba Row, which charmed his hearers..."

    ODL, III, 394: "[Between Aug-Dec 1886] we saw a good deal of T. Subba Row at Head-quarters at this period, and enjoyed many opportunities to profit by his instructive occult teachings. I have a diary note to the effect that he told us that fully ‘one-third of his life is passed in a world of which his mother has no idea’."

    BL, 332-3: "[H.S.O. wrote to H.P.B., March 17, 1886] The [Adyar] Library is a most splendid convenience for all of us writers, and it also serves for Council Meetings and for Subba Row’s semi-weekly philosophical ‘conversations’, for which a private place is required."

His Refusal to Edit The Secret Doctrine, 1886-1887

    ODL, III, 398: "About the same time [the first week of December 1886] I received from H.P.B., for reading and revision by T. Subba Row and myself, the MS. of Vol. I of The Secret Doctrine;* but in his then captious mood the former refused to do more than read it, saying that it was so full of mistakes that if he touched it he should have to rewrite it altogether! This was mere pique, but did good, for when I reported his remark to H.P.B. she was greatly distressed, and set to work and went over the MS. most carefully, correcting many errors due to slipshod literary methods, and with the help of European friends making the book what it is now."

    ODL, IV, 23, 25: "It is painful beyond words to read her [H.P.B.'s] correspondence from Europe [in 1887], and see how she suffered from various causes, fretting and worrying too often over mare's nests. Out of the sorest grievances I select the defection of T. Subba Row...; the refusal of Subba Row to edit the Secret Doctrine MSS., contrary to his original promise, although she had it type-copied at a cost of £ 80 and sent me for that purpose; his wholesale condemnation of it...
    "As regarded her return to India, she had no heart for it if Subba Row was to be her enemy, so much had she loved and respected him..."

The Dispute on the Principles in 1887

    Obit: "A dispute - due in a measure to third parties - which widened into a breach, arose between H.P.B. and himself about certain philosophical questions, but to the last he spoke of her, to us and to his family, in the old friendly way."

His Resigning from Membership of the T.S. in 1888

    ODL, IV, 43: "[In 1888] things were growing more and more unpleasant at Adyar on account of the friction between T. Subba Row and certain of his Anglo-Indian backers. They even went so far as to threaten withdrawal from the Society and the publication of a rival magazine if H.P.B. did not treat them better. In fact, Subba Row and one of his friends did resign that year, but I gave myself no uneasiness about the projected magazine, for the basis of success - persevering effort and unselfish zeal for Theosophy - were not among the strong points of their characters."

    Theos, Suppl, June 1888, xli: "We are requested to announce that Mr. T. Subba Row, B.A., B.L., late President of the Madras Branch T.S., and Mr. J.N. Cook (late of the London Lodge) have resigned their membership..."

    Ransom, 246-7: "To his great regret the President received the resignation of T. Subba Row. It was brought about by the appeal in The Path (U.S.A.), February [1888, pp. 354-5], by a number of American members [45, headed by W.Q.J] to the ‘Respected Chief’, H.P.B., to bring out The Secret Doctrine without further delay. They heard she had been asked to withdraw it from publication lest it be ‘attacked or ridiculed by some East Indian pandits and that it was not wise to antagonise these Indian gentlemen’. These remarks were objected to by N.D. Khandalavala, Tukaram Tatya, K.M. Shroff and others [17 members, in The Path, June 1888, pp. 97-8] who declared that there were no objections in India...[etc]"

    Praoc, 90: "[Letter of June 16, 1888, from W.Q. Judge to Tukaram Tatya] The letter from Khandalavala and as* was printed by me as you see by Path. That ends the matter as I wish to avoid controversy... The T.S. has great strength in America; and the defection from its ranks in India or Europe of a few will not affect us here..."

    ODL, IV, 74: "The Bombay Branch sent me, on November 30th [1888], a resolution recommending that T. Subba Row, who had resigned, be asked to come back to us, but I have positively refused to lower the Society's dignity in any similar case, however influential might be the seceder..."

His Sickbed in 1890

    Obit: "When he last visited the Head-quarters, the first week in April [1890] last, the mysterious cutaneous disease to which he ultimately succumbed, had begun to show itself in an outbreak of boils. Neither he nor either of us dreamt that it was at all serious. But shortly after he had to keep to his room, then to his lounge, and he never went out again save once, when he was taken to a different house for change of air."

    Obit: "In the beginning of June he sent me a touching request to come and see him, which, of course, I did. He was a piteous sight: his body a mass of sores from crown to sole, and he not able to bear even a sheet over him, nor to lie in any comfortable position, nor get sound sleep. He was depressed and despairing, and begged me to try if I could not help him a little by mesmerism. I did try with all my will, and it seemed with some success, for he began to mend from that evening, and at my third visit he and I thought he was convalescent, and so informed his unhappy family."               ODL, IV, 241-2: "On the 3rd of June I visited T. Subba Row at his request and mesmerised him. He was in a dreadful state, his body covered with boils and blisters from crown to sole, as the result of blood poisoning from some mysterious cause. He could not find it in anything that he had eaten or drunk, and so concluded that it must be due to the malevolent action of elementals, whose animosity he had aroused by some ceremonies he had performed for the benefit of his wife. This was my own impression, for I felt the uncanny influence about him as soon as I approached. Knowing him for the learned occultist that he was, a person highly appreciated by H.P.B., and the author of a course of superb lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita, I was inexpressibly shocked to see him in such a physical state. Although my mesmeric treatment of him did not save his life, it gave him so much strength that he was able to be moved to another house, and when I saw him ten days later he seemed convalescent, the improvement dating, as he told me, from the date of the treatment. The change for the better was, however, only temporary..."

    Obit: "When we last saw each other we had a long talk about esoteric philosophy, and he said that as soon as he could get out, he should come to Head-quarters and draft several metaphysical questions that he wished Mr. Fawcett* to discuss with him in the Theosophist.
    "His interest in our movement was unabated to the last, he read the Theosophist regularly and was a subscriber to H.P.B.'s Lucifer."

His Death in 1890

    Obit: "The announcement, I [Col. H.S. Olcott] am now compelled to make, of the death of this brilliant young Indian mystical philosopher, will shock the theosophical reading public. Wherever our work has extended, there has his reputation spread. He was an intellectual phenomenon, and his mental history goes as far as anything conceivable to support the theory of palingenesis. The facts bearing upon the case, as I derived them from his venerable mother on the day of the cremation, will presently be given. But rapidly, and, on Tuesday, the 24th June, at 10 P.M., he expired, without a word or a sign to those about him."

    ODL, IV, 242: "He died during the night of the 24th of the same month [June], and was cremated at 9 on the following morning. From members of his family I obtained some interesting particulars. At noon on the 24th he told those about him that his Guru called him to come, he was going to die, he was now about beginning his tapas (mystical invocations), and he did not wish to be disturbed. From that time on he spoke to no one."

    Obit: "The last worldly business he attended to was to declare on the morning of 24th instant in the presence of his relatives and friends, among them, Diwan Bahadur P. Shrinivasa Rao, that he had authorized his wife to adopt a son after his death - there being no issue of his marriage.
    "At noon on that day, he said his Guru called him to come, he was going to die, he was now about beginning his tapas (mystical invocations), and he did not wish to be disturbed. From that time on, he spoke to no one. When he died, a great star fell from the firmament of Indian contemporary thought. Between Subba Row, H.P. Blavatsky, Damodar and myself there was a close friendship.
    "He leaves a young widow of 24 years, and an aged mother - herself a learned Brahman lady - who mourns the loss of her great son, the pride of her soul, most bitterly. The cremation took place at 9 o'clock on the morning after his death. Our brother, Judge P. Srinivasa Row, was with him at the last, and T. Vijiaraghava Charlu saw him two hours before the event occurred."

The Mahatmas and H.P. Blavatsky on T. Subba Row

    MLChr, 156 (1882): "...Subba Row will help you [A.P. Sinnett] to learn, though his terms - he being an initiated Brahman and holding to the Brahmanical esoteric teaching - will be different from those of the 'Arhat Buddhist' terminology. But essentially both are the same - identical in fact."

    MLChr, 158 (1882): "I [K.H.] do not know Subba Row - who is a pupil of M. At least - he knows very little of me. Yet I know, he will never consent to come to Simla. But if ordered by Morya will teach from Madras, i.e., correct the MSS. [of Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism] as M. did, comment upon them, answer questions, and be very, very useful. He has a perfect reverence and adoration for - H.P.B."

    BCW, IV, 344 (1883): "We know of no better authority in INDIA on anything concerning the esotericism of the Advaita philosophy."

    BCW, IV, 492 (1883): "Mr. T. Subba Row is no ‘defender of the true faith in orthodox Brahmanism’, for the present ‘Orthodox Brahmanism’ is rather heterodox than orthodox. Our brother, Mr. T. Subba Row, is a true Vedantic Advaitee of the esoteric, hence genuine, Brahman faith and - an occultist."

    BCW, IV, 561 (1883): "...our brother, Mr. T. Subba Row, [is] learned in Advaita philosophy as in the esotericism of the sacred books of the East."

    BCW, V, 40-1 (1883): "...our brother, Mr. T. Subba Row, the most learned occultist in India at this time, a disciple of the Himalayan Hierophants..."

    BCW, V, 53 (1883): "...Subba Row, a Brahman of the highest class and a distinguished occultist."

    MLChr, 404 (1883): "You [A.P. Sinnett] are wrong in distrusting Subba Row's writings. He does not write willingly, to be sure, but he will never make a false statement."

    MLChr, 410 (1884): "Upasika (Madam B.) and Subba Row, though pupils of the same Master, have not followed the same philosophy - the one is Buddhist and the other an Advaitee."

    BCW, VI, 275-6 (1884): "...there is more knowledge in ‘...Subba Row's’solitary head than in dozens of heads of ‘Orientalists’..."

    BL, 95 (1885): "Such as Subba Row - uncompromising initiated Brahmans, will never reveal - even that which they are permitted to. They hate too much Europeans for it."

    BCW, VIII, 325 (1887): "...our learned Vedantin Brother - T. Subba Row..."

    Lucifer, August 1890, 509 (H.P.B.): "There are few members of the Theosophical Society who have not heard of Subba Row, the great Vedantin scholar; few readers of The Secret Doctrine who are not familiar with his name, as the talented author of the Lectures on the Bhagavad-Gita... Karma has mysterious ways of working out its ends, which to the profane must remain for ever unfathomable. We can only feel profound regret that such karma has reached one by whose death Madras has been deprived of a giant-intellect, and India has lost one of her best scholars.
    "May his next rebirth be speedy and his life-span longer, and, above all, may he be born in Aryavarta still. Sit tibi terra levis."



Boris de Zirkoff (vols XIII-XV with Dara Eklund), H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, Wheaton, Madras, London 1950-91.


A.T. Barker, The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett, London 1925, pp. xv, 404, many verbatim reprints.


N.C. Ramanujacharya, A Lonely Disciple, Monograph on T. Subba Row, 1856-90, Adyar 1993, pp. xii, 59.


H.P. Blavatsky in Lucifer, August 1890 (not in BCW).


Vicente Hao Chin, The Mahatma Letters in Chronological Sequence, Quezon City, Philippines 1993, pp. xxvi, 600.


Obituary on the death of T. Subba Row, written by Colonel H.S. Olcott in The Theosophist, July 1890, pp. 576-578.


H.S. Olcott, Old Diary Leaves, vols II-IV, reprint Adyar 1974.


Arthur L. Conger, Practical Occultism from the Private Letters of William Q. Judge, Pasadena 1951, pp. 307.


Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society, Adyar 1938, reprint 1989, pp. xii, 591.

Theos, Suppl.    

Supplement, The Theosophist, Adyar.

T. Subba Row Collected Writings

T. Subba Row played a key role in the early history of the Theosophical Society. He shared with H.P. Blavatsky the same adept teacher (Morya), and through his writings and lectures he helped to elucidate and promote interest in the theosophic philosophy. T. Subba Row Collected Writings, compiled and annotated by Henk J. Spierenburg, consists of two volumes, published by Point Loma Publications in 2001 and 2002.

Volume 1 (xxiv + 264 pages) covers such subjects as 'The twelve signs of the Zodiac', 'The philosophy of spirit', 'A personal and an impersonal God', as well as inquiries into Buddhism, the sevenfold principles in man, and a detailed biographical overview.

Volume 2 (x + 390 pages, incl. a 13-page bibliography and 44-page index) includes Subba Row's insightful commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and articles on such subjects as Gautama Buddha, the human monad, devachan, kama-loka, thought-transference, 'The constitution of the microcosm', and 'The occultism of southern India'. The two volumes contain some 60 pages of new material not found in earlier compilations of Subba Row's writings.

As the publisher says, within these volumes 'the reader can find material for deeper spiritual and intellectual reflection in harmony with the root ideas of the Theosophical renaissance initiated by Helena Blavatsky in 1875'.

Henk Spierenburg has published a series of Blavatsky Reference Books, each containing all the relevant texts authored by H.P. Blavatsky on a specific theme, accompanied by his own valuable footnotes on her sources. The following titles have so far appeared:

  • The New Testament Commentaries of H.P. Blavatsky
  • The Buddhism of H.P. Blavatsky
  • The Vedanta Commentaries of H.P. Blavatsky
  • H.P. Blavatsky, On the Gnostics
  • The Veda Commentaries of H.P. Blavatsky
  • Astrology of a Living Universe

  • From the Theosophical Website of David Pratt

    Slightly adapted and updated by Katinka Hesselink 2010