Secret Doctrine References — An Introduction

By Ina Belderis
The Secret Doctrine is considered H. P. Blavatsky’s masterpiece, and ever since its publication in 1888 it has been the subject of both admiration and criticism.  She herself said that the work was meant to demonstrate the existence of a core of ideas which she referred to as the Ancient Wisdom.  The purpose of the book was to show the universal character of this Wisdom Tradition, and where the serious seeker can find it.
In The Secret Doctrine hundreds of different books and articles are quoted.  Where did all of this material come from?  She did not have a library that contained all these books.  Archibald Keightley, who with his uncle Bertram, assisted her in organizing and rearranging the manuscript, remarked: “What struck me most in the part I was able to read during my short stay was the enormous number of quotations of various authors.  I knew there was no library to consult and I could see that HPB’s own books did not amount to thirty in all, of which several were dictionaries and several works counted two or more volumes.” (Wachtmeister, p. 84)  Blavatsky herself explains that “Master is collecting material for me.” (op.cit. p. 14)  W. Q. Judge mentions that HPB conversed with him about the book she was working on, and that “a serious series of consultations was held among them (HPB and her Teachers) as to what should go into The Secret Doctrine, and that it was plainly said that the book was to be done in such a manner as to compel the earnest student to dig out many profound truths . . . It was also said, from the same source, that this age, being a transition one, in all respects, that full revelations were not for this generation.” (op.cit. p. 90)
In her article “My Books” HPB mentions that “every word of information found in this work (Isis) or in any later writings, comes from the teachings of our Eastern Masters, and that many a passage in these works has been written by me under their dictation.” (Lucifer, v. 8, p. 243)
Countess Wachtmeister asked HPB once why she sometimes seemed to be doing the same passage over and over again.  HPB explained that she had tried twelve times to write a certain page correctly, and each time her Teacher said it was wrong.  After Wachtmeister asked her why she made mistakes, she said “if I need a reference or information from some book, I fix my mind intently, and the astral counterpart of the book appears, and from it I take what I need.  The more perfectly my mind is freed from distractions and mortifications, the more energy and intentness it possesses, the more easily I can do this; but today, after all the vexation I have undergone . . . I could not concentrate properly, and each time I tried I got the quotation all wrong.  Master says it is right now . . .” (Wachtmeister, pp. 24-5)
So The Secret Doctrine is the result of the cooperation between H.P. Blavatsky and her Teachers.  She wrote it down, but the material was provided by them.  And this material did not come in such a way that it was immediately ready for publication. Bertram Keightley remarks, “Before I had read much, it became plain that The Secret Doctrine was destined to be by far the most important contribution of this century to the literature of occultism; though even then the inchoate and fragmentary nature of much of the work led me to think that careful revision and much rearrangement would be needed before the manuscript would be fit for publication.” (op.cit., p. 77)  Both the Keightleys and Countess Wachtmeister assisted HPB in rearranging and reorganizing the manuscript.  Her sources were also checked as much as possible, and the manuscript was pasted, cut, and repasted several times before it was finally published in 1888. (op.cit. p. 85).
Because of the large number of quotations and references, HPB has been accused of plagiarism.  But what exactly is plagiarism?  Plagiarism is generally defined as the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.  A quick look at the end of the Introductory section to The Secret Doctrine leads us to the following text, quoted by H. P. Blavatsky, “I may repeat what I have stated all along, and which I now clothe in the words of Montaigne: Gentlemen, ‘I have here made only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them.’ ” (SD 1:xlvi)  So she very clearly does not represent the language and thoughts of others as her own.
Very often the contents of the books and articles by H. P. Blavatsky are described as “the teachings of H. P. Blavatsky,” — or contrasted with the teachings of other people.  But calling them “her teachings” is a misnomer, because she herself clearly indicated that they are not hers.  She said that the material for The Secret Doctrine was provided by her two teachers, but even they do not claim the teachings as their own.  What HPB’s teachers provided is the wisdom of the ages, and the main point is that one can find it, more or less veiled, in the various religious and philosophical writings of the world, whether ancient or modern, Eastern or Western.  Basically the ancient wisdom belongs to everyone, but no one person can claim to be the source.
But again, where does all this information come from?  Knowing that it was provided by Blavatsky’s teachers does not really answer this question.  Many people have searched for these sources over the years, and a number of researchers have published their findings, most notably Boris de Zirkoff in his General Index and Bibliography to The Secret Doctrine, and John Van Mater, the compiler of The Secret Doctrine Index.  With the advent of the Internet and the ability to search through thousands of books by computer, a systematic approach to finding the sources that are quoted or referenced was begun.
Quotations in The Secret Doctrine References can be divided into four categories, those for:
1. References from books and articles that HPB quotes from literally, where she mentions the author or the title, on the page in the SD where the quote appears, or on an earlier page.
2. Passages that are paraphrased, where she again mentions the author or title.
3. Information that has no author or title citations, on subjects which many authors in her time discussed.
4. References that explain difficult terms and concepts, taken from publications available in her time.
Then there is a small category of references where, as far as can be checked, no material was available or published in her time, but which was covered by later authors.  Finally, there are also passages which appear to have been quoted or paraphrased, but the source has not yet been discovered — these are left for future researchers to uncover (there is no category “untraceable”).  The general goal was to provide references that readers can find themselves in published material, either available in books that are still in print, or which can be found online.  In the case of references where the citation is “Unpublished Manuscript,” an attempt has been made to find the same material by the same author in a source that was published.
Sometimes identical passages can be found in more than one of the sources which she regularly quotes.  For example, some texts that appear in Cory’s Ancient Fragments, can also be found in Smith’s Chaldean Account of Genesis, Myer’s Qabbalah, and Higgins’ Anacalypsis.  These and many other authors specialized in comparing ideas from different religions and mythologies, and sometimes different fields of science.  They compare hundreds of quotations from religious texts and commentaries, and large collections of authors and titles are given in their footnotes.
When quoting from these works on comparative religion and mythology, HPB often incorporates their footnotes into the quotation.  And since many authors have their own distinctive style of abbreviating when giving footnote references, one can often infer which “comparative” work is being quoted by the way the footnotes are abbreviated.  For example, Decharme in his Mythologie de la Grèce Antique refers to hundreds of classical Greek sources, and so does Bailly in his Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale.  When quoting passages from these books, Blavatsky adds the classical authors and titles that appear in Decharme’s and Bailly’s footnotes.  From the way the names, chapters, and page numbers are abbreviated, one can tell from which source this information comes.
Another problem in tracing a quotation is spelling errors, or errors in punctuation.  The Secret Doctrine has such errors because a number of people worked on the text, checking, rearranging, cutting and pasting, typing and retyping, and finally typesetting.  For example (SD 1:349):
“there was a perfect AION who existed before Bythos”
This does not make any sense because “Bythos” is a Gnostic term for the “Great Deep,” the very first Æon, the primordial Chaos that existed before anything had formed.  This quotation actually comes from Dunlap’s gnostic treatise, Sōd, The Son of the Man (p. 32 fn.) :
“there was a perfect Aiōn who existed before, called Buthon [Bythos]”
With the comma in the proper place, the meaning is: There was a perfect Æon that existed before [anything else], and it was called Bythos.
Another difficulty in tracing sources is Blavatsky’s use of translations and commentaries in languages other than English.  French was HPB’s second language after Russian.  As French was the cultural language in Europe at the time, she makes ample use of a large number of French books.  She translates French passages into English throughout The Secret Doctrine, and her translations are generally good.  But in the early years of writing the SD, she sometimes “anglicized” a French word when translating into English.  Sometimes these words have the same meaning in both languages, but often the meaning of the word in French is slightly different and would not be regarded as “proper” English.  Archibald Keightley noticed this as he read through her manuscript, and he also remarked that these literal translations happened less and less after HPB moved to England. (Wachtmeister, p. 85)
Blavatsky specifically chose those translators and commentators who gave the reader a better insight into the ancient wisdom, and whose comments showed that the perennial philosophy can indeed be found in different religions and philosophies.  For example, the SD has scores of quotations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but many of them are very different from the most well-known English translations.  The reason is that Blavatsky used the French translation by Paul Pierret, Le Livre des Morts, which has notes at the end of each chapter, and a comprehensive “Index Analitique” at the end of the book.  HPB made extensive use of Pierret’s text and notes, translating his French into English.
Sometimes Blavatsky quoted Russian authors, and many of these were not translated into English in her time.  On p. xxxiii of the Introduction, there is a description of the explorer Prjevalski finding the ruins of cities, close to the oasis of Tchertchen (Takla Makan desert, Central Asia).  He describes mummies, human remains of very tall people, who also looked very different from the people who now live in and around this area.  The mummies he was describing are now called the Urumqi mummies in Xinjiang, China, named after the city where the mummies are kept in a museum.  Prjevalski’s book about his travels was written in Russian, and no English translation was available.  But there was a translation into Swedish, made by the explorer Sven Hedin.  Then in 1939 Folke Bergman translated parts of Sven Hedin’s Swedish book into English for his publication Archaeological Researches in Sinkiang.  It is especially interesting that the one long passage that he chose to translate is exactly that passage chosen by HPB — the narrative about the Mummies of Tchertchen.
The Secret Doctrine has hundreds of quotations from the “Kabbalah,” but most of these come from well-known commentators and translators.  When HBP writes “the Zohar says” or “the Sepher Jezirah mentions,” and includes chapter and page numbers, she is actually quoting from works by Myer, Ginsburg, Franck, Lévi, MacGregor Mathers, Skinner, and Mackenzie.  Many of the passages translated by these authors are nearly identical, so many of these SD quotations can be found in a number of different books.
This also happens when she cites Greek and Latin sources.  For example (SD 2:600):
“. . . according to Theon, the Pythagoreans who gave the name of Harmony to the Tetraktis, ‘because it is a diatessaron in sesquitertia’ — were of the opinion . . .”
This seems to come straight from Theon, but in fact it comes from Oliver’s The Pythagorean Triangle (p. 114):
“The name of Harmony was given to the tetrad, because it is a diatessaron in sesquitertia.  The Pythagoreans, however, were of opinion, according to Theon . . .”
Many of the SD’s classical references come from French commentators, such as De Mirville (Des Esprits), Decharme (Mythologie de la Grèce Antique), and Bailly (Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale).  For instance (SD 2:620):
“Moreover, Diodorus Siculus (Lib. I. § 26, p. 30) calls ‘thirty days an Egyptian year,’ or that period during which the moon performs a complete revolution.  Pliny and Plutarch both speak of it (Hist. Nat. Lib. VII., c. 48, Vol. III., p. 185, and Life of Numa, § 16) . . .”
These classical references — (Lib. I. § 26, p. 30), (Hist. Nat. Lib. VII., c. 48, Vol. III., p. 185, and Life of Numa, § 16) — duplicate references that appear in Bailly’s book (p. lxxxxvi) with Bailly’s footnotes in curly brackets:
“La révolution entière de la lune est cette espèce d’année dont parle Diodore de Sicile; cette année de 30 jours, connue en Egypte {Diod. Lib. I, §. 26, p. 30}, également attestée par Pline {Pline Hist. nat. Lib. VII, c. 48, Tom. 3, p. 185}, & par Plutarque {Vie de Numa, §. 16}”
In translation:
“The entire revolution of the moon is that part of the year of which Diodorus of Sicily speaks; that year of 30 days, known in Egypt, and also mentioned by Pliny and Plutarch.”
The footnotes in Bailly’s Preface show the abbreviated titles of books by Diodorus, Pliny and Plutarch.
Here is a clear instance of the benefit of comparing an SD passage with the original source (SD 2:54):
“The Cosmogonical tablets prove that this our actual creation was preceded by others (See ‘Hibbert Lectures,’ p. 390); and as shown by the author of ‘The Qabbalah,’ in the Zohar, Siphrah Dzeniouta, in Jovah Rabbah, 128a, etc., etc. The Kabala states the same.”
What does “The Kabala states the same” mean?  All of this information comes directly from Myer’s Qabbalah, p. 246 & footnotes.  The last footnote on that page reads: “Franck’s La Kabbale, p. 205 sq.” La Kabbale is the title of a well-known kabbalistic treatise in French, by Adolphe Franck.  “The Kabala says the same” means the same interpretation can be found in Franck’s La Kabbale.
Another example of how the original source can explain an obscure SD passage can be found in SD 2:222:
“All except Xisuthrus and Noah, who are substantially identical with the great Father of the Thlinkithians in the Popol-Vuh, or the sacred book of the Guatamaleans, which also tells of his escaping in a large boat like the Hindu Noah — Vaivasvata.”
The Thlinkithians or Thlinkit Indians live in Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia, while the Popol-Vuh is the sacred book of the Quiché Maya in Guatemala.  So how does this fit together?  We can find this in Max Müller’s Chips from a German Workshop (1:338), in his chapter called “The Popol-Vuh”:
“The Thlinkithians are one of the four principal races inhabiting Russian America. . . . These Thlinkithians believe in a general flood or deluge, and that men saved themselves in a large floating building.”
So in Max Müller’s chapter on the “Popol-Vuh,” he finds strong similarities in comparing the creation stories of the Thlinkit Indians and the Mayans.
Tracing the references in The Secret Doctrine back to their sources can give the reader a great deal of insight into what HPB is trying to say.  Moreover, many of these sources have more information about the subject matter.  But even if we had access to the many hundreds of books and articles that are quoted in the SD, we would still have only a fraction of the real “Secret Doctrine.”  As Blavatsky writes (SD 1:xxii), she could outline only a few truths, “because that which must remain unsaid could not be contained in a hundred such volumes, nor could it be imparted to the present generation of Sadducees.”
In addressing the question as to whether she would ever publish more volumes of The Secret Doctrine, she said that it would entirely depend on how Volumes I and II were received.  But there is certainly enough material in HPB’s writings “to compel the earnest student to dig out many profound truths” on their own.  In “The Babel of Modern Thought” (Lucifer, v. 7, p. 442), Blavatsky summed up what was important about The Secret Doctrine:
“. . . the Secret Doctrine merely asserts that a system, known as the WISDOM-RELIGION, the work of generations of adepts and seers, the sacred heirloom of pre-historic times — actually exists, though hitherto preserved in the greatest secrecy by the present Initiates; and it points to various corroborations of its existence to this very day, to be found in ancient and modern works.”
In other words, she set out to show that the esoteric philosophy exists and that it can be found all over the world, in its sacred writings, and in the commentaries of those writers who had a sense of the Wisdom Tradition. The Secret Doctrine accomplishes that goal for all those who will take the trouble to make themselves acquainted with it.
Bailly, J.-S., Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale. Paris: Debure l’aîné, 1787.
Blavatsky, H. P., “The Babel of Modern Thought,” Lucifer, v. 7, February 15th, 1891.
Blavatsky, H. P., “My Books,” Lucifer, v. 8, May 15th, 1891.
Blavatsky, H. P., The Secret Doctrine. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 2014.
Dunlap, S. F., Sōd, The Son of the Man. London: Williams & Norgate, 1861.
Müller, F. Max, Chips from a German Workshop, vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1867.
Oliver, G., The Pythagorean Triangle. London: John Hogg & Co., 1875.
Qabbalah, The Philosophical Writings of Solomon Ben Yehudah Ibn Gebirol or Avicebron, tr. Isaac Myer. Philadelphia: Published by the Author, 1888.
Wachtmeister, Countess, Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine. Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976.