FIONA C. ODGREN
Winchester, U.K.: Axis Mundi, 2016. 274 pp., paper, $25.95.
The Masters behind H.P. Blavatsky—Morya and Koot Hoomi—are the most enigmatic figures in Theosophical history. Much has been written about them; still more has been imagined. But after more than a century, they remain unapproachable.
To gain some understanding of them, it is necessary to examine the collection of writings known as the Mahatma Letters, allegedly written, mostly, by Morya and K.H., and addressed, again mostly, to the British Theosophists A.P. Sinnett and A.O Hume. It is hard to imagine that these letters were ever intended for publication. But in the 1920s, Maud Hoffman, who had been left the letters by Sinnett after his death, worked with A.T. Barker to produce an edited version, first published in 1924. The letters were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, which made sense up to a point, since they were almost entirely undated. In 1993, Vicente Hao Chin, using a chronology of the letters written by Margaret Cosgrove, published the letters in chronological order. Chin’s edition at this point is the one most widely used by Theosophists.
The letters remain hard to approach. They contain a great deal of fascinating information, but it is presented in a rather ad hoc fashion, interlaced with remarks about individuals and ephemeral details that most readers will probably not want to bother to sort out.
Thus this anthology is a welcome addition to the literature. It culls quotes from the Mahatma Letters (using the second edition of Barker’s version) and groups them under fifty subject headings, such as “Adepts and Masters,” “Discipline and the Spiritual Path,” “The Occult Brotherhood and Their Mission,” and “Tibet.” The selections are concise, readable, and intelligent, and will make a much more accessible introduction to this material than either of the complete editions. At this point Insights from the Masters is no doubt the best entrance point to the letters. I believe that it will be useful for students at all levels.
The book could be improved. It includes a number of photos and images of individuals mentioned in the letters, but without captions, so one is often left guessing about these people’s identities. And while citations are given to Barker’s second edition of The Mahatma Letters, they do not indicate which Master is speaking. Furthermore, the glossary, based on HPB’s Theosophical Glossary and Gottfried de Purucker’s Occult Glossary, is sometimes unreliable. Contrary to what it says here, for example, “Poseidon” was not the name of the chief city in Atlantis. Plato, the original source of the Atlantis myth, leaves it unnamed, and the Masters themselves, as quoted in this volume, speak of it as “Poseidonis.” The magus Éliphas Lévi was not “unfrocked” as a priest “due to his kabalistic interests,” but dropped out of seminary before ordination because he had fallen in love. The eighteenth-century British astronomer was not “John Flamsted,” but John Flamsteed. The Hebrew word Adonai, literally meaning “my Lord” and applied to God, is not “the same as Adonis,” a mythical figure whose death was lamented annually by the ancient Semites, although the two names come from the same root.
Although this collection is useful and engaging, it still remains to provide some kind of adequate and balanced portrait of the Masters. Conventional scholars take it as a given that the Masters were a hoax cooked up by Blavatsky, while Theosophical writers often speak of them as quasi-divine (a danger the Masters themselves warned against). Thus there has been no really deep inquiry into who they actually may have been and what they were saying. Were they Buddhists? They say they are. Morya speaks of the Buddhist text Khudikka Patha as “my family Bible.” On the other hand, K.H. speaks of “‘the divine Self perceived or seen by Self,’ the Atman,” when every Buddhist I have ever known or read denies the existence of any such Atman. (All emphasis in quotations is from the original.) Indeed anatman, or anatta, the doctrine of “no-self,” is one of the main points on which Buddhism diverges from Hinduism. While K.H. insists, “We are not Adwaitees [sic],” the Mahatmas sound more like adherents of the Advanta Vedanta.
In addition, rather than the quasi-divine beings imagined by many Theosophists, the Masters come across as all too human. They are not above making snide comments to Hume about Sinnett, and vice versa. At one point K.H. tells Hume, “You have now more chances [for the attainment of paranormal powers] before you than my zoophagous friend Mr. Sinnett.” At another point K.H. writes to Sinnett saying, “There’s one thing, at any rate, we can never be accused of inventing: and that is Mr. Hume himself. To invent his like transcends the highest Siddhi powers we know of.” Often the Masters sound irritable and contemptuous of their correspondents. Admittedly, they were writing to Victorian Englishmen, who were often pompous and self-congratulatory in their own right. All the same, the Mahatma Letters do not read like sacred or quasi-infallible texts. Rather they are a glimpse into the ideas and characters of fascinating but quite fallible figures whose identities we are likely never to know.
The proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated to projects supported by the Theosophical Order of Service of Canada.