Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Major Publishing Event: The Secret Doctrine Commentaries

There was a time when books issued by the various theosophical groups were well-crafted, well-thought out creations. They were meant to be companions for a lifetime, their very presence, they way they looked, a source of upliftment. But those days belong to nostalgia. Theosophical books became utilitarian and then badly made—books whose spines would crack after two or three handlings. So it was a pleasant surprise to see the volume recently issued by the I.S.I.S. Foundation in the Netherlands: The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: the Unpublished 1889 Instructions, transcribed and annotated by Michael Gomes. It hearkens back to a time of beautiful, well-made theosophical books.

The book comprises the twenty shorthand reports of meetings held in London from January 10 to June 20, 1889, published here for the first time. An edited version of the first ten meetings was issued in 1890 and 1891 as Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge. The material is basically questions on The Secret Doctrine posed to HPB and her responses. Aside from the content, the thing that makes the book so interesting is that we are able to see who the questioners were. They were some of the leading Theosophists of the time: Bertram and Archibald Keightley, who helped edit The Secret Doctrine, G.R.S. Mead before he began his career as a Gnostic scholar, Annie Besant as a new member, among others, and the queries were based on deep study, especially when they started dealing with issues that became the basis for The Key to Theosophy. As usual, HPB is erudite, profound, witty and sometimes exasperated.

In reply to one question she says: Manas does not come to be happy and to be developed. Manas comes because it is too pure; and being too pure, it has neither merit nor demerit. Therefore, it must come and suffer a little bit, and have the experience of everything that can be got in this cycle of imagination. And therefore, the same experiences will make it fit to emerge in the Absolute. It contains all the experiences in this blessed world, and the worlds that have been and will be.

To another she advised: Now you have got to study for yourselves. The only thing I can give you is just to put the “Key” in your hands and say: “This opens this way, and this that way,” and so on. You understand that whereas one person will understand well, another will understand less. You have to use your high faculty; intellect has nothing to do here; materialistic science would step in.…you have to take the whole thing and then proceed from the universals to the particulars. Otherwise you cannot grasp the thing. It is impossible. You have to skip many things, or to embrace it in a general sense, and then begin it in the first manifestation that you can; otherwise, you cannot make to yourself a clear representation. To me it is as clear and intelligible as can be. It may be because I am an innocent fool, but it has never presented to me any difficulty.

The importance of the book cannot be overestimated. It is the major amount of new doctrinal material from H.P. Blavatsky since the 1890s. It ranks with events like A. Trevor Barker’s publishing The Mahatma Letters or Israel Regardie’s volumes on The Golden Dawn: the release of material that had been limited to a select few. If we have any criticism, it is the price: 59 euros, at present over 75 dollars U.S. While this is not exorbitant for European publishers—books from Brill in the Netherlands, and Routledge in England are priced much higher—most Theosophists may find it so. Theosophy Company in Los Angeles was supposed to issue this material as a series of booklets, similar to their Blavatsky and Judge series, but have not done so yet even though they have had Gomes’s transcription for the same amount of time it took to produce the present book.

For over a quarter of a century Michael Gomes has been making an important contribution to our understanding of Theosophy. His publications, too lengthy to list, can be seen in a bibliography posted by Katinka Hesselink here. His abridgments of HPB’s Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine have served to bring her greater accessibility. May circumstances continue to allow him the ability to produce what has benefited so many and brought a greater recognition to HPB. To use the words of the eminent scholar of religion, Dr. Robert Ellwood, in his review of Gomes’s recent abridgment of The Secret Doctrine for Penguin: Gomes is to be commended for doing this job in the elegant, painstaking way one would expect from him. His is a book every Theosophist and spiritual explorer ought to have at hand, to pick up for adventures in occult knowledge at odd moments, which will often turn into hours.

The Secret Doctrine Commentaries: the Unpublished 1889 Instructions, transcribed and annotated by Michael Gomes, over 700 pages hardcover, can be ordered here.

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