T. Subba Row

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Tallapragada Subba Row (July 6, 1856-June 24, 1890) was a brilliant Advaita Vedantist who became an early Theosophist. A strict Brahman, he was trained as a Vakil (Pleader) within the Indian justice system, a highly profitable profession. He practiced law at Madras. In 1882, after corresponding with H. P. Blavatsky, Colonel H. S. Olcott and Damodar K. Mavalankar, he became a member of the Theosophical Society. Subba Row resigned from the Society in 1886 when an appeal was made to HPB by forty-five prominent members of the American Section to publish The Secret Doctrine without delay.

Theosophical work in Adyar

In 1882, Subba Row invited Blavatsky and Olcott to Madras (now Chennai), and recommended the purchase of the Adyar property, that became the permanent headquarters for the Theosophical Society. Upon his meeting them, Subba Row became able to recite whatever passage was so requested of him from the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and many other sacred texts of India. He had, apparently, never studied these things prior to the fateful meeting, and it is stated that when meeting Blavatsky and Damodar K. Mavalankar, all knowledge from his previous lives came flooding back. Prior to this meeting, however, Subba Row was not known for any esoteric or mystical knowledge, even by his closest friends and parents. It was only after meeting the pair that he began to expound on metaphysics, astounding most of those who knew him.

Subba Row had initial problems with instructing non-Hindus. It was his distinct belief at the time that Hindu knowledge should remain with India, and not be extended to foreigners. In fact, even after passing over this hurdle, he was still especially private regarding his spiritual life, even to his mother and close friends. Unless the person he was speaking to had a deep understanding of mysticism, it was a fairly mute topic for him.

For several crucial years, Subba Row was instrumental in establishing Theosophy in India. By the end of 1886 Mme. Blavatsky sent him the first draft of The Secret Doctrine, hoping that he would be a co-editor of it and add his knowledge of Hinduism. But upon reading the manuscript, Subba Row would not work on it as originally agreed upon because, as he said, there were so many errors he would have to rewrite it.

Mahatma Letters

Signature from Mahatma Letter No. 59

At the request of Madame Blavatsky, and with the concurrence of Mahatma Morya Mr. Subba Row considered instructing A. P. Sinnett in occult matters. Several letters related to this matter were collected in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. Mahatma Letter No. 58 (number 130 in the Barker system) was mailed on May 7, 1882 from Madras where Subba Row was editing The Theosophist in HPB's absence. In it he introduced himself to A. P. Sinnett, stated conditions under which instruction could take place, and asked whether Sinnett was familiar with Sanskrit.

Joy Mills states, "We know that Sinnett answered Subba Row's letter, although we do not know precisely how he replied. Subba Row sent the reply on to M [Morya], perhaps with a cover letter similar to the one addressed to HPB, extracts of which KH [Koot Hoomi] sent to Sinnett. It is clear that KH also read Sinnett's response to Subba Row."[1] Subba Row's guru, Mahatma Morya, told Sinnett to "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."[2] Koot Hoomi reinforced that message, although he seems to have regarded the prospect of Sinnett receiving instruction from Subba Row with skepticism. He knew that Subba Row - a lawyer as well as an initiate - could not ignore "the unpassable Chinese wall of rules and Law" that Sinnett had insufficient capacity to repect.[3]

Sinnett's response must not have been satisfactory, because in his June 26, 1882 letter, Mahatma Letter No. 64 (Barker no. 131), Subba Row firmly declined to convey practical occult teachings to Sinnett:

The qualified assent which you were pleased to give to the conditions laid down by me necessitated a reference to the Brothers for their opinion and orders. And now I am sorry to inform you that anything like practical instruction in the ritual of Occult Science is impossible under the conditions you propose. So far as my knowledge goes, no student of Occult Philosophy has ever succeeded in developing his psychic powers without leading the life prescribed for such students; and it is not within the power of the teacher to make an exception in the case of any student. The rules laid down by the ancient teachers of Occult Science are inflexible; and it is not left to the discretion of any teacher either to enforce them or not to enforce them according to the nature of the existing circumstances. If you find it impracticable to change the present mode of your life, you cannot but wait for practical instruction until you are in a position to make such sacrifices as Occult Science demands; and for the present you must be satisfied with such theoretical instruction as it may be possible to give you.[4]

Controversy with H. P. Blavatsky

In Dec. 1885 Subba Row delivered a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita at the Convention of the Theosophical Society held in Adyar, Madras. The lecture, entitled "Introductory," was published in the February 1886 issue of The Theosophist. In this lecture Subba Row criticized the Theosophical concept about the septenary constitution of the universe and human beings. The philosophical controversy began in April, 1887, when H. P. Blavatsky publishes in the same journal the article "Classification of Principles." This resulted in a number of remarkable articles between the two occultists discussing the subject as presented in the teachings of the trans-Himalayan School and the Târaka Râja Yoga’s.


Subba Row, as an orthodox Brahmin, was critical of Blavatsky's disclosure of certain hitherto esoteric teachings. In 1888, he resigned from the Theosophical Society along with J. N. Cook. Thereafter he fell gravely ill when he contracted a cutaneous disease, a sickness which manifested itself in an outbreak of boils in 1890 during his last visit to the Theosophical Society's headquarters in Madras. Despite the healing treatment by Henry S. Olcott he eventually died on June 24, 1890, saying that his guru had called him, and that it was time for his departure. He was cremated the morning after as per Hindu tradition.

Although he was a member for only about four years, he influenced significantly the Society and left an important legacy of esoteric teachings.

Subba Row Medal

The 1883 Convention honored Subba Row by establishing the Subba Row Medal, to be awarded to writers of works of outstanding merit on Eastern and Western philosophy.


Spierenburg book.jpg

Subba Row's contribution to Theosophical literature was significant, even considering the shortness of his life. His lectures on the Bhagavad Gita were compiled into Notes on the Bhagavad Gita. A Collection of Esoteric Writings of T. Subba Row was a compilation of articles from [[The Theosophist (periodical)|The Theosophist, produced by Bombay Theosophical Publishing Fund in 1895, with an expanded version by the Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar in 1931.

Henk J. Spierenburg published a two-volume collection, T. Subba Row Collected Writings, through Point Loma Publications. Volume I has a biographical sketch and covers the topics of Buddhism and the sevenfold principles of man, while Volume II includes esoteric teachings on chakras, rays, devachan, and so on.

Many of Subba Row's finest works are available online:

  • Notes on the Bhagavad Gita. Lectures first published in The Theosophist volumes VII and VIII, and assembled in book form in 1934 by Theosophical University Press.[1]
  • On the Bhagavad Gita. This was published in 1912 as No. 17 in the Adyar Pamphlets series, written with Nobin K. Bannerji. Canadian Theosophical Association.[2]
  • First Ray in Buddhism. Katinkahesselink.net.[3]
  • What Is Occultism? First published in The Word, 1:4 (January, 1905). Theosophy Northwest.[4]
  • Comments on the Idyll of the White Lotus. This is No. 8 in the Adyar Pamphlets series. Canadian Theosophical Association.[5]
  • Occultism of Southern India. Katinkahesselink.net.[6]
  • Personal and Impersonal God. This was published in volume V of The Theosophist. Levir.com.br.[7] and Katinkahesselink.net.[8]
  • Places of Pilgrimage. This was published in 1915 as No. 58 in the Adyar Pamphlets series. Levir.com.br.[9]
  • The Twelve Signs of Zodiac. This was first published in The Theosophist of November, 1881, and was issued as No. 31 in the Adyar Pamphlets series in 1913. Canadian Theosophical Association.[10]


  1. Joy Mills, Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom: A Commentary on the Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett," (Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House,2010).
  2. Mahatma Letter No. 46.
  3. Mahatma Letter No. 60.
  4. Mahatma Letter No. 64.

Additional resources

  • "T. Subba Row Online." Online Teosofiska Kompaniet Malmö Website.Subba Row Online
  • "Chapter 15: T. Subba Row and Brahmanism." In H. P. Blavatsky and the Theosophical Movement by Charles J. Ryan, available online at Theosophical University Press Chapter 15.