An Imaginary H.P.B. Library

By John P. Van Mater

An extensive library could be assembled using books, reports and periodicals referred to or quoted by H. P. Blavatsky in her voluminous writings, particularly Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Such a collection would be characterized by its extraordinary scope and diversity. The world's leading religions and philosophical schools would be represented, ancient and modern, East and West, as well as the sciences of past eras and those of her day (19th century). Sages and teachers, mystics, occultists, masons and alchemists, materialists and dogmatists, spiritualists and psychics, yogis and gurus -- a cross section of all of these would be found on the shelves, together with treatises on numerology and astrology, necromancy, divination and augury, not to mention a selection of literary classics from many lands. The thread running through and uniting these widely varied works would, of course, be the wisdom-principles which Blavatsky sought to elucidate, and which she called Theosophy, taking this name from the Alexandrian school of Ammonius Saccas (3rd century A.D.).

Imagine, if you will, that our H.P.B. reference library were arranged by countries and regions, and within these, divided as to history, religion, philosophy, science, art, literature and language. And suppose we were to walk casually among the bookcases. What a panorama would unfold! The existence of fabled Atlantis and Lemuria would be explored as would the Americas, particularly the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico, Central America and Peru. Then on to Asia, to the rich heritage of India. Here some of the world's oldest and most revered books would pass before our gaze: the Vedas and Laws of Manu, many of the Puranas, the Upanishads, the yoga Sutras, as well as the teachings of the great Sankaracharya on which the Vedanta is based; and of course, Buddhism in texts and commentaries of both Hinayana and Mahayana schools. Then there would be writings on the Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, and others. The several systems of Indian philosophy, we would learn, include all and more of the speculations that characterize those of Greece and the modern West. The medicine, astronomy and mathematics of India would introduce us to a people who, when they regained contact with the Occident, had already forgotten a great deal of what they once knew.

In the section on the arts would be works on the cave temples of Elephanta and Ajanta, the delicate shawls woven in Kashmir where the girls can discern three hundred distinct colors; masterpieces of music from this land that appears to have invented the gamut of tones and halftones. And in literature: the great epic poems, the Mahabharata and Ramayana, poetry and drama of all varieties; and a language Sanskrit -- capable of the most refined expression.

Continuing our tour of this imaginary library, we would pick up books on China, Japan and Tibet. How old is China? How many rises and falls have taken place even before "known" history? Recorded times alone show us such a wealth of religions, sciences, arts, as dynasty succeeded dynasty, now unifying the country, now fragmenting it with internecine struggles. Lao-tzu and the mighty Tao; Confucius, the practical philosopher; Buddhism brought from India and given a Chinese slant (Ch'an). Japan too, though not so ancient, is a repository of religion and art. There the Ch'an became the Zen. On to Tibet, for centuries the spiritual home of millions: Lamaism, the Yellow and Red Caps, Tsong-kha-pa, the great reformer, the Dalai and Tashi (or Panchen) Lamas.

Thence we move to the Near East, that region so influential in determining the thought-life of the West. In no other area, perhaps, has the ebb and flow of empires produced such a diversity of beliefs and cultures: Babylonia, Assyria, Phoenicia, Palestine, Medea, Persia, the Parthians, Syrians, Hittites, etc. Alexander sweeps across Asia Minor, and upon his death, new dynasties emerge. Rome extends its empire to the Tigris and Euphrates, and other kingdoms are formed. Then the Arabs conquer through to India and beyond, and Islam becomes a dominating force. The religions of these lands are diverse: Persia alone produced Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Sufism, and others. Home of the Hebrew prophets, Palestine bequeathed the Old Testament, although its roots extend back to many lands and peoples. The secret schools, such as the Gnostics and Essenes, also left their stamp upon the Bible. The Magi and astrologers, the Chaldean oracles and accounts of Genesis, the Akkadians, the teachings and traditions of the Copts of Egypt and the Druses of Lebanon, these would be represented in our H.P.B. library. In the realm of history, the great cities that were founded, waxed and waned, and the arts that decorated them so profusely, can only be mentioned here.

Upper and Lower Egypt, kingdoms that retreat into the darkness of prehistory. What accomplishments in stone! To paraphrase a famous quotation, "they built like engineers and carved like jewelers." Perhaps in no other region has the religious and the secular life been so closely intertwined. The Great Pyramid, the temples of Karnak, the Zodiac of Denderah, with its three Virgos: H.P.B. refers often to this land where initiate kings once ruled (in earlier periods) by "Divine Right," and the mysteries of life and death were preserved in the sanctum of the secret schools.

In our "tour" we might come across a shelf or two describing Alexandria, that veritable melting pot of spiritual philosophies and cultures, East and West, the seat of Neoplatonism and other schools. Proclus, Plotinus, Porphyry -- H.P.B. quotes from the writings of all of these.

We would also be reminded of the prehistoric Mediterranean: Mycenae, Tiryns and Troy, about which Homer sang so grandly; then Crete, the source of many legends. And the Etruscans, who flourished before Rome was founded and are still a mystery. What about the vast cyclopean walls and structures, ancient when classic Greece began to flower, found also in other parts of our globe, including the Americas? Are they remnants of a worldwide civilization existing in prehistory? Then would follow naturally the Greece we all know, so marvelous of achievement in philosophy, the arts, sciences and literature, and whose drama was rooted in the Mysteries. On now to Rome, the builder and organizer, which produced Virgil and Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, Julian, Vitruvius, and others. We would also find books on the Celts, Druids, Irish and Welsh, including structures like Stonehenge and megalithic remains at Carnac, Brittany, and in other places. The Saxons with their King Arthur and the legends of the Grail might be next in the running sequence. Then there would be the Teutons, the Scandinavians with their Eddas, the Finns and their Kalevala; the world's mysterious islands, statues such as those of Easter Island, with its Atlantean figures on their cyclopean platforms, reminding us of the equally amazing Bamian statues in southern Afghanistan, carved out of a huge rock cliff.

A section would have to be devoted to comparative religion and mythology, for in this area alone, H. P. Blavatsky drew upon scores of volumes. Christianity, its history and doctrines, the contending of the Church Fathers, the destruction of the classic past, the establishment of dogma and the carnalization of symbols -- all had her exacting scrutiny. Volumes on the Dark and Middle Ages would be followed by works on the Renaissance, with its Illuminati -- Cardinal da Cusa, Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, Leonardo da Vinci, Paracelsus, to name but a few, along with treatises on Alchemy, the pseudo-Hermetica, Masonry and Rosicrucianism. And naturally there would be sections devoted to spiritualism, psychism, hypnotism, demonology, witchcraft, the Tarot and astrology. Out of this background grew the beginnings of modern science.

H. P. Blavatsky, in the course of analyzing the principles of science, refers to every important phase of the research of her day. Astronomy, involving among other subjects the various theories of cosmic and planetary birth, the speed of light, the possible existence of a finer structure of matter (ether), gravitation, lunar influences, etc. Physics, where she discusses time, space, what are matter, force, the atom, action over a distance, etc., many of which are still problems today. Geology also occupied her attention: continental risings and submergences, inversion of the poles, the fossil record in earth's strata, ice ages, and much more. Anthropology and biology, in which she included the evolution of life, and such well-known topics (still under discussion) as heredity, environment, and survival as set forth by Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, and others.

Archaeology and history: H.P.B. treats inspiringly of the civilizations of the past and the remains they have left strewn over the entire globe; and she criticizes sharply scientific dating of artifacts, a situation even more acute today. The origin of languages, Mesmerism, animal magnetism, faith-healing, psychometry, articles and books on these and many additional themes are taken up in her writings.

This swift journey through our imaginary H.P.B. library cannot do justice to the scope of subjects treated and to the extent of her erudition. With this last term she would have been the first to disagree, for she reiterated that her voice only echoed those of her teachers. Her detractors hasten to point out that given a few encyclopedias and reference works, she could have surrounded herself with the aura of learning. Such a charge is, of course, ridiculous for a number of reasons:

1. She did not have such reference works at her side, and in fact wrote her two major books rapidly by hand, sitting in her room. Others later were sent to check the quotes and references she had already written out, material "given" her by her teachers, a fact testified to by many who witnessed it firsthand and whose integrity is above reproach.

2. Suppose she had had available all the works to which she referred, how would she have known ahead of time just which ones to assemble; and without years of exhaustive research, just which parts of them would be pertinent to the themes she was developing? To put it in another way, suppose you or I had access to all this information, does this mean we could produce a Secret Doctrine describing the birth of worlds and the evolution of all life? Besides, why send others out to check her quotes if she already had the books in her quarters?

3. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that her writings and the philosophy she expounded were not syncretistic, that is, a mere synthesis of data drawn from here and there. She was obviously filled with a wisdom which she was entrusted to impart, a wisdom with which she and those behind her were already familiar. Her numerous citations and commentaries thereon were in the form of implementation: confirmatory evidence that these ideas had been taught down the ages. They also enabled her to make bridges of thought with her contemporaries of differing educational, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

The question might be asked "how many different works -- books, magazines, reports, lectures -- were quoted or referred to by H.P.B. in the course of her short career (16-17 years) as a writer?" Only a rough estimate can be given. The main repositories are, of course, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. Allowing about two thousand works for these, we might add an additional thousand for all her other books and articles and reach somewhere between three and four thousand items. This figure, of course, does not indicate how often each work may have been used. The Vishnu Purana, incidentally, is quoted numerous times in the S.D. alone; and so are the Zohar and other early Kabbalistic treatises.

Anyone interested in checking H.P.B.'s quotations will have to be careful as to the translation and edition. For example, Cory's Ancient Fragments was first published in 1829, and later enlarged by the author and reissued in 1832. In 1876 E. R. Hodges again issued the Fragments with some excellent notes and with an index, but omitted some of the very material which H.P.B. quotes from Cory's second edition. The same is true of the Vishnu Purana: H.P.B. refers to the Wilson translation as revised by Fitzedward Hall in 1864 (5 volumes and index). This is important because Hall's intuitive notes are part of the material she utilizes. Another interesting peculiarity: when she quotes from Jacob Bryant's famous Ancient Mythology, she twice refers to the six-volume 1807 edition, and once to the three-volume 1775 edition. Unless we know of the various editions, we might look in vain at the volume and page numbers she gives.

There are many other interesting facts connected with the books drawn upon by H.P.B. in her various literary endeavors. For example, it is true that she uses the works of other researchers, such as the monumental writings of the Catholic apologist de Mirville, who was one of the ablest scholars of his day. But the material gleaned in this fashion provides only a small portion of the total bibliography, for she usually quotes firsthand.

In her time, the number of Sanskrit treatises in English translation was fractional compared with today. Even now relatively few of the Puranas are available, and in the S.D. she uses at least a dozen or so. This, of course, gives us a hint as to the sources available to her from her teachers and elsewhere. She was, we know, conversant in several European languages, most fluent in Russian (her mother tongue) and French. Her English was remarkable considering that until she came to New York in 1873, she had scarcely used it since childhood. The story behind the writing of Isis, her first major work in 1877, is that the Master K.H. "imparted" to her much of his mastery of that language (see The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, pp. 478-9). Her own brilliance supplied the rest.

On one occasion, Bertram Keightley reports, H.P.B. gave him a verse which she said was from Tennyson. Keightley was sure it was not and said so. H.P.B. then gave him a slip on which was written "The Gem -- 1831" No such poem appears in his collected writings. Keightley then consulted Richard Garnett of the British Museum, who also at first was quite certain the poem was not Tennyson's. But on further reflection, he remembered a short-lived magazine of this title, and there Keightley found it "verbatim as she had written it," and signed Alfred Tennyson (Keightley's Reminiscences of H. P. B., pp. 22-3).

All this may sound much like hocus pocus in these days of wandering "gurus" with their claimed powers. But there are several facts to bear in mind. First, the multi-sourced material quoted by H.P.B. was then, or since has been, thoroughly checked and verified. Second and most important, she was not trying to produce "phenomena"; she was trying to get on with her work, and the methods used were simply a means to that end. H.P.B. cared not a bit about what people thought of her; she was only concerned with the welfare of humanity and the transmission of the wisdom-teachings she had been charged to impart.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, November 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press.)

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