The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky

The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky

abridged and annotated by Michael Gomes
New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2009. 355 pages, paper, $17.95.

This new abridgment of The Secret Doctrine, the major work of H. P. Blavatsky, will be welcomed by students of Theosophy, whether beginners or advanced. The former will find here a manageable version of a book that can at first seem overwhelming and discouraging. Michael Gomes, librarian at the New York lodge of the Theosophical Society, has attained this goal by selecting key passages and characteristic essays so that The Secret Doctrine's basic structure and argument become readily apparent. Those who already have some familiarity with the text, on the other hand, will welcome the insightful introduction. They will also find in this version a useful inventory of the main points in the original work's awesome but sometimes mind-boggling account of the inner development of the universe and humanity.

Gomes's skill in the condensation of Theosophical classics was previously tested in his popular abridgment of Isis Unveiled, published by Quest Books in 1997. With its greater scope and amplitude, The Secret Doctrine presented an even more daunting challenge. Much had to be left out. Entire sections are reduced to a few concise lines, most quotations from other authors are dropped, and as Gomes states, "the sections on Science, dealing as they do with the concerns of nineteenth-century science, proved to be unsalvageable for this abridgment and they have been omitted."

What is left are a "Proem," which draws on lines from Blavatsky's preface, introduction, and proem alike, then the seven stanzas of the Book of Dzyan reproduced in the first volume of the original (entitled Cosmogenesis) with abbreviated commentary for each, plus the twelve stanzas reproduced in the second, Anthropogenesis volume, with further commentary. These are followed by Gomes's part three, which he calls "The Mystery Language of the Initiates." This includes short versions of most of the chapters in part two of the original volume one—which Blavatsky entitled "The Evolution of Symbolism in Its Approximate Order"—plus three comparable pieces from parts two and three of the original volume two, "The Archaic Symbolism of the World-Religions" and "Addenda." Finally, there is material from the very useful "Summing Up" section from the end of volume one, part one, of the original. Gomes has also provided an index, offering helpful identifications of unfamiliar names and terms.

It is always easy to quibble over the selection in books like this. I miss the dramatic and familiar opening lines of the original proem: "An Archaic Manuscript—a collection of palm leaves made impermeable to water, fire, and air, by some unknown process—is before the writer's eye." But Gomes has done the work and made the choices. By and large they are good, and I respect them.

I would like to suggest two possibilities for future editions of this work, which I am confident will long remain in print and go through many editions. One is that the selections be precisely identified by original part and chapter name and number, and preferably also by page numbers in the standard Theosophical Publishing House edition, so that students intrigued by a particular passage and wanting to read more, but not totally at home in the original, can easily find it in the source. This is particularly important since the material is not always in the original order or under the original heading.

Second, I think it would be helpful if, in addition to his excellent introduction, Gomes were to provide concise paragraph introductions to some if not all the selections, summarizing them in accessible contemporary language and in terms of current ideas. This might be particularly important in the case of some of the more challenging Anthropogenesis material. This would make Gomes's valuable work even more engaging to present-day seekers. The clean, easy to read appearance of the present pages, with Blavatsky's often lengthy notes, notorious digressions, and other apparatus deleted, is admirable, but just a little more support for readers would add to their usefulness.

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. Reading Gomes's abridgment of The Secret Doctrine will add to the student's store of wisdom and to his or her appreciation of the original. Many will eventually be led back to the original by way of this introduction.

Robert Ellwood

The reviewer is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently resides at the Krotona School of Theosophy.