The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett

Foreword to the Combined Chronology of Margaret Conger

By Grace F. Knoche

In December 1923, the theosophical world was electrified by the publication of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett — over 120 letters purportedly written between 1880 and 1886 by two Eastern adepts, M. and K.H., to A. P. Sinnett of Allahabad, editor of The Pioneer, a leading Anglo-Indian newspaper, and to his friend A. O. Hume, C.B., in the service of Her Majesty's Government in India, and an ornithologist of note. Until then, extracts only from this remarkable correspondence had been available for study, chiefly those portions which Mr. Sinnett had quoted in his book, The Occult World, in 1881. Now the original letters, without deletions, had been transcribed and compiled by A. Trevor Barker.

Two years later, a companion volume was issued: The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett — written not only to Mr. Sinnett, but many of them to his wife Patience, whom H.P.B. held in lasting and affectionate regard.

It is of record that the Mahatma as well as the Blavatsky letters had been bequeathed by Mr. Sinnett "solely and unconditionally" to Miss Maud Hoffman, and that she in turn gave Trevor Barker the "great privilege of undertaking the whole responsibility" for their transcription and publication in book form. That he was keenly sensible of the "grave responsibility attending his action" is eloquently set forth in his Introduction to The Mahatma Letters (2nd edition), the more so as he was well aware that K.H., while encouraging Sinnett (ML 49) to "recast teachings and ideas" for his "future book" which became Esoteric Buddhism, had later on reminded him that the letters "were not written for publication or public comment upon them, but for private use, and neither M. nor I will ever give our consent to see them thus handled" (ML 63).

That was in 1884. By the 1920s the situation had greatly altered. The original message had in certain quarters become marred by intrusions of neo-theosophy, ideas counter to the teachings of H.P.B. and her teachers. So convinced was Trevor Barker that "the highest interests of The Theosophical Society demanded the full publication" of these documents in order that the members and the world at large could "study the truth for themselves concerning The Masters and their doctrines as set forth in these letters signed by their own hands," (1) that he determined to publish the whole of the Mahatma letters "verbatim from the originals and without omission" (ML Introduction).

Incredible as it may seem, publication of the letters roused a good deal of antagonism, mainly among those whom one would have thought would be the first to rejoice that at long last the direct words of H.P.B.'s teachers could be studied at first hand. Some went so far as to ban the book, for reasons of their own. A few believed sincerely that no good could come from "raking out of a desirable oblivion the faults and failures of early workers," forgetting that the penetrating analyses of character were compassionately motivated and, moreover, were not pointed to the individuals involved so much as to human frailties that all of us share in common. Others protested because of the final section in the Appendix in which Mr. Barker had outlined the facts of the "Mars and Mercury controversy" — a divergence of interpretation between A.P.S. and H.P.B. of the Master's teaching regarding the planetary chains (cf. "Mars and Mercury").

Most theosophists, of course, immediately recognized the book's intrinsic worth. Not least among these was Dr. H. N. Stokes, brilliant editor of the O. E. Library Critic, whose fearless reporting at the periscope of the theosophic ship was to earn him the title of 'watchdog' of the movement. To him The Mahatma Letters was "the most authoritative work of a theosophical nature ever made accessible to the public. It is simply transcendent in its importance" (March 12,1924). Now the actual letters, telegrams and memoranda from M. and K.H. in the possession of Mr. Sinnett at the time of his death could be read by all. In a word, the general public had access to the wellspring of inspiration, training and instruction on which H. P. Blavatsky herself had drawn. There was no further doubt as to authenticity of source or inner purpose.

Then in 1925, with the issuance of The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, covering the years 1881-87, students were given a glimpse into the innermost heart of H.P.B. as she valiantly battled to save the T.S., scarcely a decade old, and now reeling from the shock of the Coulomb treachery and the subsequent Report of the Society for Psychical Research, which had infamously branded her "as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting impostors in history" (cf. Proceedings, December 1885, London). {See also H. P. Blavatsky and the SPR: An Examination of the Hodgson Report, by Vernon Harrison PhD, TUP 1997}

To read her letters, especially those to Patience Sinnett written in the summer of 1885, is to come profoundly close to the reality of sacrifice. Of that memorable night when H.P.B. was shown the future and what she would have to endure if she chose to remain their instrument, she writes: "Death was so welcome at that hour, rest so needed, so desired; life like the one that stared me in the face, and that is realised now — so miserable; yet how could I say No to Him who wanted me to live!" (BL 105).

The world is vastly in debt to the karma surrounding these letters, First, to Trevor Barker for the courage and tenacity of purpose to consummate their publication. Secondly, to A. P. Sinnett for his faithful care of these priceless documents, all the more because in his latter days he wrote disparagingly of his old friend H.P.B., casting a slur on her role as intermediary between himself and the Brothers. And thirdly to Maud Hoffman who held the safeguarding of this bequest as a most sacred trust. A fact that is amply attested by her foresight in arranging with Mr. Barker to present the entire collection of Mahatma and Blavatsky papers to the British Museum {now British Library} in 1939, where they are housed in the Department of Manuscripts, beautifully bound in several volumes, and protected under the most favorable conditions for future generations of students.

Having myself had the inestimable privilege in 1951 of examining the originals, it doesn't take much imagination to sense the enormous challenge that must have faced Trevor Barker on receiving into his hands the wooden box which Mr. Sinnett had had made to hold the letters. Here were hundreds of loose letters, of every size, shape and color, some of them written on fragile rice paper, others on heavier grained stock, with the writing at times startlingly clear, but again, in places almost indecipherable, and with the style of handwriting varying nearly as greatly as the quality of ink, pencil or crayon used. What is more, most of the letters are undated, or only sketchily identified by the recipient as to date or place of receipt. Inevitably, as in the swift momentum of history in the making, too much is coursing through the consciousness to stop for minutiae. To the historian decades (or centuries) later, the lack of documentation looms large.

Trevor Barker, at once recognizing the impossibility of accurately arranging the Mahatma letters in chronological order, did the next best thing: he assembled the material under several major categories, starting with those letters from Sinnett's Occult World. Not only were they already well known to students, but were obviously the earliest received. Then came those majestic epistles on philosophical themes, dealing with the grand evolutionary pilgrimage through the kalpas of man and the kingdoms both below and above the human; next, the section on Probation and Chelaship, to read which is to be immeasurably chastened, and strengthened also, through identifying with those who sought then, as does the earnest aspirant of every age, to purify the heart of selfish motive.

Naturally it would have been preferable if Mr. Sinnett and Mr. Hume had conscientiously jotted down the date and circumstance surrounding the receipt of each communication, for then the moving force behind the sequence of events during those formative years of the theosophical effort might now be more clearly revealed. To compensate for this lack, Margaret Conger in 1939, after years of careful, painstaking examination of the early documents and periodicals of the Society, published her Combined Chronology for use with both the Mahatma and the Blavatsky letters — this being designed as a table of dates, with explanatory notes, giving the order (in certain instances approximate only) of the letters as they were written and received, and by whom. Mrs. Conger brought to her research a lifetime's study of and dedication to theosophical principles, having joined the Society and also its esoteric section under H.P.B. in 1890. From 1927-1939 she had the added advantage of testing her findings in her Mahatma Letters Class, in which her husband, Colonel Arthur L. Conger, and Dr. H. N. Stokes were active participants.

The next year, Mary K. Neff, author of Personal Memoirs of H. P. Blavatsky, published two small pamphlets, giving a chronological order of the letters of each volume separately. Other suggested arrangements by different scholars were made over the years, but to our knowledge never publicly shared. Then in 1972, George E. Linton and Virginia Hanson issued a Reader's Guide to the Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, an important contribution inasmuch as it gives for each letter not only its physical description, (2) approximate date when received, but the circumstances as far as known, with references in the literature to support their research. They also indicate where they consider the Blavatsky letters fit in to the Mahatma series. No one claims to provide the definitive order, but it is useful to compare doubtful points with the conclusions of others.(3)

The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett is again available, after being out of print for more than thirty years, and the reissuance now of Margaret Conger's work is therefore welcome and valuable. Her arrangement of order is just what the title says it is, a combined chronology. Simple and direct, there is nothing extraneous to detract from the full impact of H.P.B.'s or the Master's thought.

To be able to follow letter by letter, first in the Mahatma series, and then in the Blavatsky book, to find an illuminating sidelight by H.P.B. on the very event or person just alluded to by M. or K.H., is to get a feel, an atmosphere; it is to sense the flow not only of developments, but of relationships between the teachers and H.P.B., and between them and Olcott and Sinnett and Hume, and Damodar too, and, indeed, all who came within the circle of their compassionate interest.

It is a tremendously inspiring experience, even at this late date, to participate in the behind-the-scenes doings of those momentous years that finally persuaded the Chief to permit K.H. and his brother M. to enter into correspondence, through H.P.B., with those proud Englishmen, in order to instruct them in some of the laws of natural being. Unfortunately, these gentlemen, with all their amazing intellectual and moral endowments, and even their philanthropic urgings (which, alas, had "no character of universality"), never seemed able to grasp the simple fact that the "truths and mysteries of occultism," while of the "highest spiritual importance . . . for the world at large," would not be imparted for the delectation of a select group, a few "enlightened minds," but solely that they might "work for the good of mankind" (ML 6).

This is not to belittle Sinnett or Hume. Had it not been for their unique karma, humanity may well have had to wait a good deal longer before this mighty philosophy could have been given to the world as fully as it has. Indeed, who knows but that they, by their eagerness to learn, may have pushed the door sufficiently ajar so that H.P.B., far better equipped by training and innate soul-quality, could sweep through and unfold in master strokes the cosmic grandeur of the Stanzas of Dzyan on which her Secret Doctrine is based. From the perspective of the errors and successes of several generations of theosophists, of the decades of service given without thought of self, dare we be prideful? How would we have fared so close to the Flame, to the primal source of Power?


We are also reproducing herein two important letters because they rightly belong to the Mahatma letter series, although Trevor Barker did not include either of these in his published volumes. They are:

1) The first letter of K.H. to A. O. Hume, dated November 1st (1880), in response to Mr. Hume's proposition to form an Anglo-Indian Branch of the Theosophical Society, provided it would be independent of H.P.B. and the Parent Society (ML 4); and

2) View of the Chohan on the T.S., as reported to A. P. Sinnett in an abridged version by K.H. and received by A.P.S. in late August 1881.

Today, after nearly a hundred years of theosophic ideas in circulation, the current generations of earnest seekers find them as natural and inevitable as they were shocking and revolutionary to those of a century ago. But there is danger here as well. Along with an inrush of light, always deep shadows form. With the outpouring of spiritual vitality, the wave of psychic interest has been steadily cresting, and nowadays more and more people, untutored in discrimination, self-discipline and awareness of their own dual nature, are being caught in its wake. Knowledge of who man is, and of the perils of wantonly opening the door into the astral realms, is needed if the tide toward psychic experimentation is to be controlled.

This is reason enough to reprint these additional letters for study with the Mahatma and Blavatsky correspondence, for it is essential at just this time, when the concept of Masters and the Brotherhood has been cheapened by vulgar publicity, to have particularly the view of the Chohan as a guideline.

To read the letters of H.P.B.'s teachers and of their teacher is to remind ourselves that benevolence, compassion, generosity of soul, are not intellectual theories with them; they are profound realities born from the dedication of ages.

Grace F. Knoche

November, 1973


1. In 1938, in response to a number of inquiries, Mr. Barker explained that at the time of publication he had not had the opportunity "to assimilate fully the whole content of the letters," and therefore it might have been better not to have implied that the Mahatmas wrote the letters with "their own hands." He called especial attention to several wonderful passages (Letters 53, 93, 140) that deal with the transmission of teaching, i.e. by precipitation, impressing the minds of young chelas or trained amanuenses, by mental dictation or mental telegraphy (cf. "The Writing of the Mahatma Letters"). (return to text)

2. Further detail on the physical characteristics of the letters, their calligraphy and methods of transmission, as well as historic background, will be found in The Mahatmas and their Letters (1973), by Geoffrey A. Barborka (Theosophical Publishing House, 1973). {See also, George E. Linton and Virgina Hanson, Readers' Guide to The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, 2nd ed., TPH, 1988}(return to text)

3. {In 2021, utilizing far greater access to primary sources, some of which was unavailable in the 1930s, TUP published a Second & Revised Edition of The Mahatma Letters with an updated chronological order.}(return to text)

Theosophical University Press Online Edition