Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Mahatma Letters

The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett from the Mahatmas M. and K.H. is one of the main doctrinal sources from the Blavatsky era of Theosophy. Although only completely published in 1923, it’s contents were known to theosophical leaders through manuscript copies that were circulated. One such collection was published in 1923 as The Early Teachings of the Masters from copies at Adyar. The various theosophical groups have responded to these letters differently. The Point Loma Society welcomed them, but this may have been facilitated by the fact that A. Trevor Barker, who transcribed the letters for publication, was then a member of their group. The Adyar Society took the stance that the letters were often colored by the person who transmitted them (HPB) and therefore not always representative of the writer’s views. The United Lodge of Theosophists ignores them.

The Theosophical Publishing House of Wheaton, Illinois, has entered the debate by issuing a book of commentaries on the letters by Joy Mills, titled Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom. At 600 pages this commentary is as long as the book it comments on. The book upholds the Adyar position. The author writes: A significant point, one we will return to later, is that when chelas are transcribers or transmitters of the Mahatmas’ letters, some distortion, or even alteration, of the ideas the Mahatmas intended to convey is possible (p. 102). Dealing with the so-called Prayag letter (Letter 30 in this book), she notes: Whether HPB, in transmitting her Teacher’s words, got herself into the picture, as it were, is a question each student is invited to consider without bias or prejudgment (p. 105).

This was Olcott’s view, and Annie Besant’s, and that of many others in the Adyar Theosophical Society. When W.Q. Judge printed an edited version of this letter in the March 1895 Path, Olcott in India stopped the press for the April issue of The Theosophist that was about to be printed to add a note stating that he thought the letter fraudulent. When Annie Besant upheld Olcott’s position, this allowed Judge to frame the debate as one of Olcott and Besant versus HPB. But the matter was not that simple, though theosophists like to frame their feuds in broad strokes of black and white.

The letter in question (number 30 in the chronological edition of the Mahatma Letters/number 164 in previous editions) was written by Blavatsky to Sinnett in Nov. 1881, transmitting her teacher’s rationale for not corresponding with Indian members:

They join the Society, and though remaining as stubborn as ever in their old beliefs and superstitions, and having never given up caste or one single of their customs, they, in their selfish exclusiveness, expect to see and converse with us and have our help in all and everything....What have we, the disciples of the true Arhats, of esoteric Buddhism and of Sang-gyas to do with the Shastras and Orthodox Brahmanism. There are 100 of thousands of Fakirs, Sannyasis and Sadhus leading the most pure lives, and yet being as they are, on the path of error, never having had an opportunity to meet, see or even hear of us.

These statements stood in contradiction to the objects of the Theosophical Society at the time, which encouraged the study of Indian philosophy and religion, and its non-sectarian platform urging members to find meaning in their own traditions. Olcott as President, living in India, the base of its largest membership, no doubt saw the danger of these remarks. When the theosophists first came to India, one of the charges brought against them (by Swami Dayananda) was that their Society was a cover to convert Indians to Buddhism. As late as 1892 Olcott noted in a talk in Calcutta that despite his many years in the country, he had never lectured in India on Buddhism.

Judge at this point had nothing to lose by antagonizing Indian members, the majority of whom sympathized with Besant in what they viewed as his unbrotherly attack on her, with his statements of black magicians using the Brahmins of India as part of a nefarious plot. In subsequent articles Judge went on to play down the eastern influence of the movement and declare this would be an era of western occultism. Now that the personalities involved with these issues are long deceased, the debate about this matter might be better framed as one of the Mahatmas versus the T.S. and its the non-sectarian platform. That is, of course, if one believes HPB’s account accurate and the whole thing not a “vast imposture.”

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