The Immortal Detective of
London Uses a Knowledge of Theosophy
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
Sherlock Holmes in the story “The Veiled Lodger”: original illustration and its legend
For more than one century Sherlock Holmes has not gotten old. Tall, thin, with an eagle’s nose, he first appeared in the streets of London in 1887 and has lived in human imagination since then, constantly protecting innocents, defeating criminals and preventing violence.
It is largely thanks to Holmes that the traditional London of the end of 19 century remains alive today. With his magnifying glass and his collection of smoking pipes, this detective is a living myth and possesses unlimited vitality. His ability to make logic deductions attracts the attention of millions of people. Each year the books with his adventures get new editions. From time to time films are produced. TV series are not difficult to find. Even in our century many admirers send air mail letters to him, using his traditional address of Baker Street, 221-B. His worldwide popularity is incomparable. He became one of the greatest characters in the literature of all time.
Even his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was unable to defeat Sherlock Holmes. At some point Doyle felt that detective stories had no real importance in his literary work. He wanted to write books of more significance. In an attempt to get rid of Holmes, Doyle described his death in a story, but the public rejected the idea. The pressure from readers and editors was so great that Doyle had to reveal in “The Empty House” that in fact Sherlock had not died – and new adventures started being published again.
There is something, however, that many have not realized: behind his enigmatic appearance, Holmes has a spiritual view of the world. While defending Life and justice, he uses esoteric knowledge. Arthur Conan Doyle had a personal interest in mysticism since youth and dedicated the last part of his life to the propagation of Spiritualism “after 36 years of esoteric studies”, as he writes in the preface to his memoirs.
The 60 original stories of Sherlock Holmes clearly show the human dramas of jealousy, greed, falsehood and violence. At each adventure the detective unveils and destroys a chain of illusions, and sometimes of self-illusion. Yet the universe of Holmes’ action did not stop growing. After Conan Doyle, other writers have adopted the immortal character of Baker Street and added all kinds of new stories, some of which considerably distort his life.
Sherlock is a private detective whose areas of personal interest are extremely varied and often paradoxical. He is an effective boxer, yet few can play violin like him. He practices baritsu (bartitsu), a British-Japanese martial art, but also spends sleepless nights making complicated chemical tests in the small apartment where he lives and works. His colleague John H. Watson described the working environment. “There were the chemical corner and the acid-stained, deal-topped table. There upon a shelf was the row of formidable scrap-books and books of reference which many of our fellow-citizens would have been so glad to burn. The diagrams, the violin-case, and the pipe-rack – even the Persian slipper which contained the tobacco.” [1] There is a great amount of newspapers and books. The fireplace is there. Living in the same building, Mrs. Hudson does the cooking and the housecleaning and opens the door to Holmes’ apartment. The detective reads ancient and religious texts. In the opening scenes of the story “The Golden Pince-Nez”, he spends a whole day examining the original text of a XV century palimpsest with a magnifying glass.[2] The palimpsests are parchments whose texts the scribes used to erase, so that other documents would be written; but it is not impossible to see the previous texts which in some cases were scraped or washed off long before.
Having an extraordinary mental power, Holmes loses no time or energy with trifles. His external behaviour is unpredictable. He has no attachment to the world of appearances. The London detective is a master in the art of disguising himself and can easily adopt the external characteristics of the average middle-class citizen, or of an old querulous beggar, if this helps him make easier progress in his investigations.
In the first paragraphs of “The Adventure of Black Peter”, Watson reveals that Holmes has numerous disguises and names “with which he conceals his own formidable identity”. The detective has at least five small refuges in different parts of London in which he is able to change his “personality”, using them until some specific task is accomplished.
Sherlock and Theosophy, in Ten Items
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Reigate
Squire”: classical illustration from “Strand” magazine
Holmes faces danger at every moment. His ability to take people by surprise is important for him to survive; yet this alone would not be enough. He has developed also concentration, courage, detachment, intuition, altruism. These are all qualities of an advanced student of the esoteric tradition. Holmes seems to have borrowed them from the philosophical and psychological world of Conan Doyle.
These are some practical examples:
1) One-pointedness. His remarkable degree of mental concentration suggests a personal atmosphere similar to that of Raja Yoga and can only be the result of a long process of self-training.
2) Direct perception. The use of telepathy and intuition is eminent in Sherlock’s method of work. In one of its opening paragraphs, the story “The Copper Beeches” records the fact that in the dialogues between the detective and Watson, Holmes uses to answer to Watson’s thoughts, rather than his words.
3) Full attention. In the first pages of “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Sherlock explains to Watson the difference between looking and observing:
“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Frequently”, says Dr. Watson.
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many! I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. This is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” [3]
And in “A Case of Identity”, Watson says to Holmes after hearing his description of a certain topic:
“You appeared to read a good deal upon [a certain lady] which was quite invisible to me.”
“Not invisible but unnoticed, Watson. You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important.” [4]
4) A visit to the East. The London detective made a long trip to the mystic region of the Himalayas, where he presented himself as a Norwegian named Sigerson. Sherlock confesses in “The Empty House”: “I travelled for two years in Tibet (…) and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Lama.” [5]
5) Working for the sake of the art. Holmes has no special interest in money and acts as an idealist. Watson writes:
“Like all great artists, [Holmes] lived for his art’s sake, and (…) I have seldom known him claim any large reward for his inestimable services. So unworldly was he – or so capricious – that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.” [6]
6) Selflessness. Sherlock is altruistic. Ethics is a central factor for him. He acts to defend the desperate and to protect those whose life is in danger, generally defeating even the worst rascals. His attitude is that of a gentleman. Whenever this is feasible, he aims at reeducating the criminals so as to put them once again on the road of honesty, as we can see in many narratives, including “The Three Gables” and “The Sussex Vampire”.
7) Nameless victories. Sherlock does not look for fame or social position. He prefers to work anonymously and allows the detectives of conventional police to officially present themselves as the ones who won his victories. As a result of this, Mr. Lestrade of the Scotland Yard feels for Holmes a strange combination of envy and gratitude.
8) The elixir. From Alessandro Cagliostro to Helena Blavatsky and Taoist Alchemy, the idea of an Elixir of Life constitutes a key issue in theosophical studies and esoteric philosophy. However, the Elixir of Immortality must not be sought mainly on the physical plane or for a selfish purpose.
Sherlock’s story “The Creeping Man” gives us an example of the disasters waiting for those who leave ethics aside, forgetting the need for absolute altruism in the search for an alchemically long life. By the end of the narrative, Holmes says to Watson:
“…When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny. (…) There is a danger there – a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”
Then Watson writes:
“Suddenly the dreamer disappeared, and Holmes, the man of action, sprang from his chair. ‘I think there is nothing more to be said’….”. [7]
9) Preventing a suicide. Sherlock seems to share with theosophists a knowledge of the fact that suicide must be avoided, for it radically expands the pain of the soul in almost every instance, making the suffering last for a much longer time than it would, if such a crime did not occur.
Esoteric philosophy teaches that suicide can seldom liberate anyone from difficulties. No individual will effectively “kill” himself: desperate people can only destroy their physical bodies, and in such cases they usually face extremely unfortunate afterlife situations.
Near the end of “The Veiled Lodger”, due to some intuitive or highly deductive means the detective sees that a long-suffering woman is planning suicide. He swiftly turns to her and says:
“Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it.”
“What use is it to anyone?”, she asks.
“How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.” [8]
10) Harmlessness. Sherlock follows as much as possible the principle of non-violence. He seldom feels the need to physically attack an opponent and uses no weapon in many of the dangerous situations he faces. When Holmes must have someone arrested, he gets in contact with the Police beforehand and prepares an effective ambush so that the criminal is caught by surprise and sees that an attempt to resist would be useless. After that, using his mental powers, Holmes typically leads the lawbreaker to a final talk that is both frank and balanced. The whole story is clarified to all parties, and ill feelings are avoided or uprooted as much as possible.
Holmes works with a significant degree of personal detachment and abstraction. The fact that he practices ahimsa, or harmlessness, becomes clear in various narratives. In “The Adventure of the Thor Bridge”, Holmes says:
“Watson, I have some recollection that you go armed upon these excursions of ours.”
“It was as well for him that I did so”, says Watson in his narrative of the episode, “for he took little care for his own safety when his mind was once absorbed by a problem, so that more than once my revolver had been a good friend in need.” [9]
Holmes’ attitude regarding criminals and suspects indicates he is free from the feeling of hatred. It is his personal rule to offer his adversaries when this is possible a graceful exit. However, he only opens such a possibility after he has deciphered the entire enigma, foreseen all possible reactions of his adversary, and chosen an effective antidote to each one of them. Once a complete victory is granted, he frequently leaves aside the legal bureaucracy and makes extrajudicial, implicit agreements. In some cases the offenders pay an informal indemnity to their victims, as in “The Three Gables”. When the end of this story comes close and an extrajudicial agreement is being discussed, Holmes says:
“I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.”
Fasting, Contemplation and Insight
One of the typically spiritual techniques applied by Holmes is fasting, which he uses to expand his powers of concentration and his intuition. In the opening paragraphs of “The Mazarine Stone”, Mrs. Hudson asks: “When will you be pleased to dine, Mr. Holmes?” The detective answers:
“Seven-thirty, the day after tomorrow”. 
A couple of pages later, Holmes says to Watson:
“You have not, I hope, learned to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco? It has to take place of food these days.”
“But why not eat?”
“Because the faculties become refined when you starve them. Why, surely, as a doctor, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider.”
Good music is an effective way of bringing peace to the soul. For Holmes, playing violin is a way of meditation. When a challenge faced by him becomes most difficult, he isolates himself from the world and spends long hours solely dedicated to music, in the “violin-land, where all is sweetness, and delicacy, and harmony”.[10]
In such occasions, his violin sounds until the wee hours. The investigative technique that uses elevated states of consciousness produces good results: in the following morning he possesses the key idea that will help him solve the problem.
In other occasions, however, Holmes uses no music and remains in a state of apparent torpor, on the physical plane, with his mind concentrated at some higher level of perception. In the beginning of “The Creeping Man”, Watson receives an ironical telegram from him:
“Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient, come all the same. S.H.”
Upon arriving at Baker Street, Watson finds Holmes “huddled up in his armchair with updrawn knees, his pipe in his mouth and his brow furrowed with thought”.
Watson writes:
“With a wave of his hand he indicated my old armchair, but otherwise for half an hour he gave no sign that he was aware of my presence. Then with a start he seemed to come from his reverie, and, with usual whimsical smile, he greeted me…”
And Holmes said:
“You will excuse a certain abstraction of mind, my dear Watson. Some curious facts have been submitted to me within the last twenty-four hours (…).” [11]
Sherlock and The Mahatma Letters
Before starting to write stories about the London detective, Conan Doyle spent some time studying the original teachings of theosophy. He carefully read the books by Alfred Sinnett which transcribed a number of Letters from the Mahatmas. Sherlock Holmes was strongly influenced by such readings. Let us see a few examples.
In “The Occult World”, Sinnett quotes from a letter sent him by an Eastern Master:
“…Every thought of man upon being evolved passes into the inner world, and becomes an active entity by associating itself, coalescing we might term it, with an elemental – that is to say, with one of the semi-intelligent forces of the kingdoms. (…) And so man is continually peopling his current in space with a world of his own, crowded with the offsprings of his fancies, desires, impulses, and passions…”[12]
In “A Study in Scarlet”, Holmes defends the same idea as he formulates his theory of mental development:
“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge that might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilled workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” [13]
In other words, the difference in consciousness between Sherlock Holmes and the average citizen is in the way the forms of thought are produced. A similar difference exists between an experienced Yogi and the average human being. A Master of the Wisdom writes:
“The adept [that is, the sage] involves these shapes [thoughts] consciously; other men throw them off unconsciously.” [14]
In developing and using his deductive powers, Sherlock relies on the Eastern esoteric teachings. In one of the Mahatma Letters, we see:
“…Bearing ever in mind the wise old adage, ‘As below so above’ – that is the universal system of correspondences – try to understand by analogy. Thus will you see that in this day on this present earth in every mineral, etc., there is such a [cosmic] spirit. I will say more. Every grain of sand, every boulder or crag of granite, is that [universal] spirit crystallized or petrified. (…)  How then can we doubt that a mineral contains in it a spark of the One as everything else in this objective nature does?” [15]
And John Watson comes across an article – significantly entitled “The Book of Life” and written by Sherlock Holmes – in which he sees precisely the same idea:
“From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known wherever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it.” [16]
Indeed, the student of esoteric philosophy needs various incarnations to fully understand the relation between microcosm and macrocosm, mortal life and immortal life.
The Magnetic Power of Silence
Good sense complements abstract meditation. In an investigation, as in life in general, two decisive factors are carefulness and efficiency in the use of information. The investigator must speak little and know much. The practice of silence – a central tool in Sherlockian method – is equally important in the spiritual path and for the mental concentration of students of philosophy.
Although Holmes fully trusts Watson, he rarely shares his reasoning with his colleague before reaching the final answer to the problem to be solved.
Esoteric philosophy says there is a reason for keeping silent: intuitive thought consists of such a subtle sort of mental vibration that it is easily contaminated and broken when mixed with denser matter belonging to conventional thought – even when emitted by good-willing individuals. Therefore the “voice of the silence” must be heard in the temple of one’s heart. For this reason there are certain projects and ideas of which we only dare to speak once they have a certain amount of density and strength. Persons who are in harmony with us may be able at times to perceive our feelings with no need of words.
In spite of his positive qualities, Holmes has significant shortcomings. The high levels of tension he experiences in work has negative effects on his way of living, and Watson often refers to his mistakes and moments of failure.
A great hero needs a great scenario: the city where Sherlock Holmes lives and works is as immortal as himself. Time does not change the old mysterious London, immersed in fog, its streets being traveled by beautiful carriages. Watchful readers may be able to hear the sound of horses’ hooves. At night, lanterns dimly illuminate the city which Watson’s descriptions make it easy for every reader to see.  Holmes himself perhaps will be met by one’s imagination in some dark alley, making a secret investigation. He will be disguised as the seller of rare old books, or he will be impersonating a beggar, so as to defeat some dangerous gang of thieves which will be arrested with no chance of resisting the police.
Being a popular detective of a city that never dies, one should not expect Sherlock Holmes to be also a daily reader of books by Plato, Plotinus and Blavatsky, or an associate of the Independent Lodge of Theosophists.
Arthur Conan Doyle is not one of the greatest thinkers of all time in human history. However, Sherlock Holmes can be easily recognized as an honest and selfless individual who defends ethics and the common good. He developed to a considerable degree the altruistic powers of abstraction, of mental concentration and self-sacrifice for the ideal of justice. His practical view of life has essential aspects in common with the original teachings of esoteric philosophy.
In the section two of her book “The Key to Theosophy”, H.P. Blavatsky writes:
“Theosophist is, who Theosophy does.”
And in the final paragraph of the story “The Red-Headed League”, when Watson says that Sherlock is a benefactor of human race, the detective answers by quoting Flaubert:
“The man is nothing, his work is everything.” 
[1] “The Adventure of the Empty House”, in “The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes”, Arthur Conan Doyle, Castle Books, undated edition, New Jersey, USA, 636 pp., page 460. See also the volume “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wordsworth Library Collection, Wordsworth Editions, UK, 2007, 1408 pp., page 862.
[2] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wordsworth Editions, UK, 2007, 1408 pp., pages 1009-1010.
[3] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 431.
[4] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 476.
[5] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 855, and “The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes”, p. 454.
[6] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 946. See the opening lines of “Black Peter”.
[7] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wordsworth Library Collection, p. 1359.
[8] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 1382. And Helena Blavatsky writes:
“No more than murder, is it [suicide] ever justifiable, however desirable it may sometimes appear. (…) The individual who affirms that any man, under whatsoever circumstances, is called to put an end to his life, is guilty of as great an offence and of as pernicious a piece of sophistry, as the nation that assumes a right to kill in war thousands of innocent people under the pretext of avenging the wrong done to one. All such reasonings are the fruits of Avidya mistaken for philosophy and wisdom.” Blavatsky says that in every case the afterlife situation of a suicide is “full of dangers”. However, individual Karma can be very different from one person to another, and she adds: “there is hope for certain suicides, and even in many cases A REWARD, if life was sacrificed to save other lives and that there was no other alternative for it.”  She clarifies: “No man, we repeat, has a right to put an end to his existence simply because it is useless.” (See the article “Is Suicide a Crime?” in “Collected Writings”, Helena P. Blavatsky, TPH, volume IV, pp. 258-259.) On another occasion, Blavatsky wrote that suicide is “hateful and absurd, since no one can escape rebirth by taking his life”. (“Collected Writings”, Helena P. Blavatsky, TPH, volume IV, p. 301.)
[9] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 1341, not long before the end of the story.
[10] “The Read-Headed League”. See for instance “The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes”, p. 35, left side column, or “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 461.
[11] “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, pp. 1344-1345.
[12] “The Occult World”, Alfred P. Sinnett, facsimile edition of the 1884 edition, Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana, USA, 160 pp., see pp. 89-90.
[13] “A Study in Scarlet”, part I, “The Science of Deduction”, “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 20.
[14] “The Occult World”, Alfred P. Sinnett, 1884, facsimile edition, Kessinger Publishing Co., see p. 90.
[15] “The Mahatma Letters”, 1926 edition, published by T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., in London, UK, with 493 pages and Index. The book is available in our websites. See letter XV, pp. 92-93.
[16] “A Study in Scarlet”, part I, “The Science of Deduction”, “The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes”, p. 22. 
Read in our websites the article “Conan Doyle Studied Theosophy”.
The above article was published on 10 June 2018. It is a translation from the Portuguese language text “A Filosofia de Sherlock Holmes”.
On 14 September 2016, a group of students decided to found the Independent Lodge of Theosophists. Two of the priorities adopted by the ILT are learning from the past and building a better future.