(PUB.). Helena P. Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society (TS), published The Secret Doctrine in two volumes in the autumn of 1888. The first volume, Cosmogenesis, treats of the birth of universes, suns, planets, and their kingdoms: elemental, mineral, vegetable, animal, human, and spiritual. The second volume, Anthropogenesis, covers the origin, evolution, and destiny of humanity. Both volumes are based on the archaic Stanzas of Dzyan, and contain sections analyzing and interpreting symbolism and contrasting science with the ancient wisdom. Blavatsky states the book’s aim in the Preface:
- The aim of this work may be thus stated: to show that Nature is not “a fortuitous concurrence of atoms,” and to assign to man his rightful place in the scheme of the Universe; to rescue from degradation the archaic truths which are the basis of all religions; and to uncover, to some extent, the fundamental unity from which they all spring; finally, to show that the occult side of Nature has never been approached by the Science of modern civilization. (SD I:viii)
The Secret Doctrine was begun in 1884 as a revision of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877). In January 1885 her teachers outlined plans for a new book; however, a near-fatal illness forced her to leave India for Europe in March. She traveled to Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, but only when Countess Constance Wachtmeister became her companion in December 1885 could she devote herself exclusively to writing.
In early 1887 Bertram and Archibald Keightley visited Blavatsky in Ostend, Belgium, and persuaded her to settle permanently in London that spring. Once she was there, the Keightleys organized the three-foot high stack of her manuscripts, dividing it into its present volumes and sections, and suggesting she give more commentary on the Stanzas of Dzyan. In 1888 The Secret Doctrine, a 1571-page book, was published simultaneously in America and England, volume one appearing November 1 and volume two on December 28. A third revised edition, edited by Annie BESANT and George R. S. MEAD, was published in three volumes in 1893 by the Theosophical Publishing House (TPH), correcting “awkward phrases” and adopting “a uniform system of transliteration for Sanskrit words.” In 1938, a six-volume edition (called the “Adyar Edition”) was published by the TPH, adding several prefaces (“H. P. Blavatsky: a Sketch of Her Life,” “How the Secret Doctrine Was Written,” bibliographies, a short glossary, and a revised index as the 6th volume). It is currently published by all three major theosophical organizations; these are: a two-volume facsimile edition (cloth and soft cover) from Theosophical University Press (TUP), a one-volume facsimile (cloth) from the Theosophy Company (TC), and a three-volume edition (Hardcover and paperback) which includes an index volume from Theosophical Publishing House (TPH); TC and TUP offer index volumes separately.
The contents of The Secret Doctrine can be approached through its basic postulates, termed its three fundamental propositions. The first postulates an ultimate, eternal, unknowable cause from which everything is born and to which all eventually return:
- An Omnipresent, Eternal, Boundless, and Immutable Principle on which all speculation is impossible, since it transcends the power of human conception and could only be dwarfed by any human expression or similitude. (SD I:14)
- This Principle she terms “Be-ness” rather than “Being” and identifies its aspects as “absolute abstract Space,” “absolute abstract Motion,” and “eternal Duration.” The second proposition is
- . . . the absolute universality of that law of periodicity, of flux and reflux, ebb and flow, which physical science has observed and recorded in all departments of nature. (SD I:17)
- This postulate emphasizes the duality and cyclic nature of everything that exists — from gods to atoms — issuing from the unknowable Principle. The third proposition pertains to those aspects of life with which we are most directly involved:
- The fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul . . . and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul — a spark of the former — through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law. . . . In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark . . . has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest . . . from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyšni Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (SD I:17)
Blavatsky reintroduces the concept of a living universe governed by karma or cause and effect. She describes every unit of manifestation as a consciousness or monad of infinite potential, the cosmos being filled with intelligences ranging from the tiniest subatomic beings to the grandest hosts of stars and beyond — all seeking to unfold themselves by means of repeated embodiments. A universe is reborn by means of all the lesser lives which compose it, the resulting universe being the effect of the karma (i.e., collective action) of the old, just as each entity is the result of its own past karma (actions).
Blavatsky presents planetary evolution as a series of cyclic pulsations or “Rounds.” For tens of millions of years, neither earth nor its kingdoms resembled even remotely what we see about us today, for everything then was ethereal or astral, not physical as now. During each succeeding Round, however, the earth grew more material until it reached its most material phase in the current Fourth Round. In this Round each of the lower kingdoms has successively dominated earth, and now the animal kingdom is giving way to the human.
- Volume two states three further propositions:
- As regards the evolution of mankind, the Secret Doctrine . . . teaches (a) the simultaneous evolution of seven human groups on seven different portions of our globe; (b) the birth of the astral, before the physical body, the former being a model for the latter; and (c) that man, in this Round, preceded every mammalian — the anthropoids included — in the animal kingdom. (SD II:1)
The seven primeval human races appeared simultaneously in seed or germ, to flower one by one, each on its own system of continents. Such Root-Races last millions of years and have several subraces and subdivisions.
Perhaps the most important human evolutionary event occurred in the Third Root-Race: the awakening of mind. This has been symbolized by Prometheus stealing the fire of mind from the gods, and by mšnasaputras or “sons of mind” incarnating in humanity to awaken its mental life and self-awareness. The same legend is carried forward in the Garden of Eden story. After the midpoint of the Fourth Root-Race, the present Fifth Root-Race or humanity enjoyed its Golden and Silver ages in a series of great civilizations in Central Asia and is now entering its kali-yuga (dark or iron age) or midpoint.
In The Secret Doctrine Blavatsky quotes from approximately 1,200 major scriptures and authors from many ages and cultures to illustrate her themes. The charge that she plagiarized her material stems from statements by W. E. Coleman, a leading spiritualist “who wrote scathing denunciations of Theosophy and HPB in the spiritualists’ journals.”1 By plagiarism he meant that while she cited the primary sources she had used, she did not always cite the secondary sources in which these were found — a common practice in scholarship. In 1893 Coleman stated that a detailed proof of his assertions would soon appear, but he never published it and research has not substantiated his claims.
Since Blavatsky had very few reference books, the questions arises as to how she could quote so many sources, some of which were not widely available. She explained this in a letter to Alfred P. Sinnett dated May 3, 1886:
- Master finds that it is too difficult for me to be looking consciously into the astral light for my S.D. and so, it is now about a fortnight, I am made to see all I have to as though in my dream. I see large and long rolls of paper on which things are written and I recollect them. (The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, p. 194)
Those who have checked her quotes have found that even references from rare and obscure sources are usually cited verbatim.
Blavatsky insisted that the ideas she presented were not her own, but simply what she had been taught. She only claimed credit for a knowledge of the principles of the ancient wisdom as known and taught through the ages — representing not the “fancy of one or several isolated individuals,” but “the uninterrupted record covering thousands of generations of Seers whose respective experiences were made to test and to verify the traditions passed orally by one early race to another” (SD I:272-3). Because she had these principles of the esoteric philosophy in the forefront of her mind, she could cull the literatures of the world to illustrate their universality.
Concerning The Secret Doctrine, one of her teachers, Koot Hoomi, wrote to Henry S. Olcott in August 1888:
- Be assured that what she has not annotated from scientific and other works, we have given or suggested to her. Every mistake or erroneous notion, corrected and explained by her from the works of other theosophists was corrected by me, or under my instruction. It is . . . an epitome of occult truths that will make it a source of information and instruction for the earnest student for long years to come. (Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, No. 19, 5th ed., TPH, 1:47)
Blavatsky closes The Secret Doctrine by stating that two more volumes were “almost completed,” one dealing with a “more practical teaching” and the other with the history of occultism and the great spiritual teachers of the past. She stated that their eventual appearance “entirely depends upon the reception with which Volume I and II will meet at the hands of Theosophists and Mystics” (SD II:798). These manuscripts have never been published or found. After Blavatsky’s death, however, some of her students published her remaining papers on various topics, including the Esoteric Section, as volume three of The Secret Doctrine. This material appears in the 5th volume of the Adyar Edition of The Secret Doctrine, The Esoteric Writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (TPH Quest Book, 1980), and her Collected Writings.
The Secret Doctrine has affected the thought-life of such diverse figures as Flammarion, Einstein, Burnouf, Kandinsky, Scriabin, Roerich, and Evans-Wentz. The scope of its influence is difficult to ascertain because it is often unacknowledged. But as the Irish poet George Russell (AE) remarked:
- The real source of her [Blavatsky’s] influence is to be found in The Secret Doctrine, . . . a book which Maeterlinck said contained the most grandiose cosmogony in the world, and if you read it merely as a romantic compilation, it is one of the most exciting and stimulating books written for the last hundred years.
- It is paying a poor compliment to men like Yeats, Maeterlinck, and others, to men like Sir William Crookes, (1832-1919), chemist and physicist who discovered thallium and who was a member of her society, to Carter Blake, F.R.S., the anthropologist, and the scholars and scientists in many countries who read H. P. Blavatsky’s books, to assume that they were attracted by “hocus pocus.”
- If you are ever in the National Library, . . . you might dip into “The Proem” to The Secret Doctrine, and you will understand the secret of the influence of that extraordinary woman on her contemporaries. . . . You should not be misled by popular catchwords . . . but try to find out the real secret of H. P. Blavatsky’s influence, which still persists strong as ever, as I have found over here [in London] among many intellectuals and well-known writers.2
Several aids for studying The Secret Doctrine have been published, among them: An Invitation to the Secret Doctrine (TUP) and Foundations of the Esoteric Philosophy (TPH), which contain Blavatsky’s suggestions for study as well as relevant portions of The Secret Doctrine; Secret Doctrine Commentary (TUP) alternatively titled Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge (TC), transcripts of meetings held in London (1888-89) where Blavatsky answered questions about the Stanzas of Dzyan; A “Secret Doctrine” Digest, Ernest Wood, T.P.H., Adyar; Rebirth of the Occult Tradition (TPH) by Boris de Zirkoff, on how The Secret Doctrine was written; and Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy (TUP) by Gottfried de Purucker, commentary and elucidation of The Secret Doctrine. Reprints of many of the books most frequently referred to in The Secret Doctrine are available from Wizards Bookshelf.
1 Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky, Founder of the Modern Theosophical Movement, Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1993, p. 379.
2 From a letter to Séan O’Faoláin, July 1935, quoted in A Memoir of AE, John Eglinton, Macmillan, 1937, pp. 164-5; on Blavatsky’s influence, see Cranston, HPB, pp. 349-60, 423-554.
Ashish, Sri Madhava, Man, Son of Man. TPH, 1970.
Barborka, Geoffrey A. The Divine Plan. Adyar: TPH, 1964.
Besant, Annie. The Building of the Kosmos. (TPH, 1894) and The Pedigree of Man (TPH, 1908).
Chodkiewicz, K. Occult Cosmogony. London: TPH, 1957, 1958, 1959 (3 volumes).
Prem, Sri Krishna and Sri Madhava Ashish. Man, the Measure of All Things. Adyar: TPH, 1966.
Preston, Elizabeth and Christmas Humpreys, eds. An Abridgement of The Secret Doctrine. London: TPH, 1966.
Purucker, G. de. Studies in Occult Philosophy. TUP, 1973. _____. Fountain Source of Occultism. TUP, 1974. _____. Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy. TUP, 1932.
Taylor, Alfred. The Secret Doctrine — Commentaries and Analogies. (2 vols., Krotona School of Theosophy, 1970, 1971).
Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. TC, 1923.
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