H. P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings Volume 13 and the Pistis Sophia

Review article by W. T. S. Thackara

Volume 13, the most recent in the valuable collection of H. P. Blavatsky's literary works,* is a book of contrasts, insights, and even a few mysteries. Like its predecessors, this volume — for the years 1890-1 — contains H. P. Blavatsky's articles, notes, and other writings, together with a chronological survey for 1891 and a bibliography. Of relevant interest in the latter are the biographical sketches of J. Ralston Skinner, C. W. King, John W. Keely, and G. R. S. Mead, HPB's last private secretary and a fine Gnostic scholar.

*Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton/Madras/London, 1982, 497 pages. This and other volumes of the series may also be ordered from Theosophical University Press, Pasadena.

Unlike its predecessors, and because it covers the year in which HPB died, this volume is the first to contain a major collection of her literary remains, some hitherto unpublished. It is also the first in the series to appear after the death of its compiler, Boris de Zirkoff.

The large posthumous section is a collage of fragments, rough outlines of articles, and nearly complete essays, as well as obvious castoffs. Beautiful gems are to be found throughout, if the reader is willing to dig a little, but much of the writing is not equal to HPB's finished work. In fairness, we must remember that none of this material had the benefit of her considerable editorial polish.

Here, too, the question of attribution raises itself in a few places: Is this really all HPB? The data given in the compiler's introductory notes to one manuscript in particular illustrates the problem. "On Cosmic Cycles, Manvantaras, and Rounds," evidently written around 1884, purports to give exact figures for the duration of rounds and races which are substantially different from those found in The Secret Doctrine. After mentioning missing pages and sentences that are broken off, the compiler adds that the "most noteworthy point in connection with this MS. is that it is written in two different handwritings, one of which is larger and more rounded than H.P.B.'s ordinary one." In view of this, it is difficult to assess the value of the essay without further analysis; and, for the record, the validity of the figures given in this essay has been questioned by some students.

In contrast, the previously unpublished "Nebo of Birs-Nimrud" is a satisfying excursion into the prototype of the Tower of Babel. When it is read together with two of the nonposthumous articles, "The Devil's Own: Thoughts on Ormuzd and Ahriman" and "The Babel of Modern Thought," we begin to feel the volume's curious unity of theme; especially when balanced with the book's lengthiest contribution dealing with the Pistis Sophia. HPB's extensive commentary on this extraordinary compilation of Gnostic* wisdom occupies some eighty pages. Although space and economic considerations prohibited inclusion of the entire codex, which would have required another 200 pages at least, the compiler has carefully arranged pertinent extracts with HPB's notes subjoined. This illuminating commentary adds a significant element to our understanding of the West's cultural and spiritual heritage.†

*The word gnostic is from the Greek gnōstikos, meaning “knower,” and gnōsis, “knowledge” of spiritual realities.
†With the complete text in hand, it is possible to follow the thread of exposition and thus get more from HPB’s notes.

But just what is the Pistis Sophia? Technically speaking, it is a gospel — that is, a compilation of sayings and incidents in the life of Jesus — its text attributing authorship in several places to the apostle Philip. The manuscript in fact bears no title, and its current designation is but a scribe's heading to the second section of the codex whose central theme is the myth of Pistis Sophia, "Knowledge-Wisdom" as translated by HPB.*

*Although pistis is usually translated as “faith,” HPB, in her earlier series, “The Esoteric Character of the Gospels,” objected to the word’s customary theological interpretation. These articles, reprinted in Collected Writings 8:172-239, and also in Studies in Occultism, form a helpful prelude to her commentary on the Pistis Sophia.

What is of particular interest, however, is that the book is devoted wholly to the post-Resurrection "history" and theo-philosophy of Jesus. In other words, it purports to set forth the higher Mystery-teachings imparted by the Master to his disciples for eleven years after the Crucifixion. Like most Gnostic writings, the Pistis Sophia was intended for private circulation among the "spiritually mature" and, according to custom, was written allegorically to veil its content from profane eyes. Those who knew how to read esoteric history and its symbolism — i.e., those who had the "eyes to see" — would understand the deeper import of the book.*

*Compare Matthew 13:10-17; also Luke 8:10, where Jesus says to his disciples, “It has been granted to you to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but the others have only parables, so that they may look but see nothing, hear but understand nothing” (The New English Bible).

It is likely that the codex was hidden before the Gnostic schools and their writings were suppressed and finally banned as heretical by the Church; of the document's later history we know only that it was bought from a London bookseller in the mid-1700s by Dr. Askew, and in 1785 was sold by his heirs to the British Museum where it remains today. Written in a dialect of Upper Egypt, it is a translation of a Greek manuscript and is thought to have originated in the second or third century a.d. Before the codex came to light, most information about the Gnostics could be obtained only from the censorious writings of the early church fathers. Since the Pistis Sophia is believed to have been left intact, unedited by antagonists, it was one of the few authentic and lengthy source documents extant prior to the 1945 discovery of the Coptic library at Nag Hammadi.*

*For further background on Gnosticism and the importance of the Nag Hammadi discoveries, see Sunrise, “Children of Light,” April, May 1978; “Are You a Gnostic?,” June/July 1981, [also “Secret Gospels and Lost Christianities,” Dec 2003-March 2004]; and Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, New York, 1979.

Study of the Pistis Sophia, however, remained confined to a few scholars for over a hundred years and had little popularity until G. R. S. Mead and H. P. Blavatsky began their collaboration — he translating, she elucidating the Gnostic concepts and terminology — the result being published serially in the theosophic magazine, Lucifer.* Of the need to decipher the esoteric nomenclature, Mead was later to write:

No one can thoroughly understand the New Testament who has not acquainted himself with the terminology of these early schools of initiates, the real Christians of the first centuries of our era. Many of the expressions in the New Testament now translated as ordinary commonplace words, are purely technical terms of the stupendous system of the Gnosis, which has so far baffled scholars, . . . — Lucifer 7:478

*Mead’s was the first translation in English. Lucifer, from the Latin, means “light-bearer” and originally was the proper name for the planet Venus — theological misappropriations notwithstanding. Of pertinent interest is Revelation 22:16 where Jesus equates himself with Venus-Lucifer, the “bright star of the dawn.”

Among some of her best interpretive writings, these notes explain such themes and symbols as Baptism, Repentance, the Cross and the Dove, Redemption, the Three Vestures of Christ and their analogy with the Trikaya doctrine of Buddhism, the jealous god in the Garden of Eden and the Unknown God, the Kingdom of Heaven — what it is and when it is to be expected — Israel and Egypt as metaphors, the relationship between Christ and Jesus; and, main theme, Pistis Sophia, about whom HPB writes:

The Soul was the one subject, and the knowledge of the Soul the one object of all the ancient Mysteries. In the "Fall" of Pistis-Sophia, and her rescue by her Syzygy, Jesus, we see the ever-enacted drama of the suffering and ignorant Personality, which can only be saved by the immortal Individuality, or rather by its own yearning towards it. In reading this portion of the Pistis-Sophia, the mysterious Duality of the Manas [mind] should always be remembered, and this key applied to every line.
As Wisdom was the end of the GnOsis, so the pivot of the whole Gnostic teaching was the so-called "Sophia-Mythus." For whether we interpret the allegory from the macro- or from the micro-cosmic standpoint, it is always the evolution of Mind, that the Initiates of old have sought to teach us. The emanation and evolution of Mahat [cosmic Intelligence] in cosmogenesis, and of Manas in anthropogenesis, was ever the study of the One Science. — p· 40

Regrettably, only two of the four sections of the Pistis Sophia were annotated by HPB before she died. Mead finished the translation, however, and published it in book form in 1896, but without HPB's notes. What we do have of her commentary, though, is another convincing affirmation that original Christianity had its roots in the perennial wisdom-religion which once encompassed the globe.

Two other articles in Volume 13 of the Collected Writings, written in the final weeks of HPB's life, should be mentioned in closing. The first is "My Books." Centering on how Isis Unveiled was written, it is an informative and moving glimpse of the very human side of HPB — in many ways reminiscent of Socrates' life-message to his Athenian tribunal. The other is her letter to the 1891 convention of the Theosophical Society's American Section. This document is her consummatum est, summing up her "every wish and thought" for the welfare of humanity.

A word of sincere appreciation is due to Dara Eklund and those who assisted her in the final preparation and production of this notable volume.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1983; copyright © 1983 Theosophical University Press)

     In the human heart are three virtues that form so to say a trinity. The first is love, that radiant essence that is a reflection of Eros, the primeval love that keeps all things united. The second is loyalty, evident in the implied choice to obey the mandate of compassionate love, to serve what is right and noble, to promote what is precious but vulnerable not for one's own benefit but for the good of all. The third is fearlessness expressed by a willingness to pay the high price of one's very life for the sake of others, a virtue that is rooted in the deathless soul of man.
     These three, love, loyalty, and fearlessness lose their value and significance when separated: love then becomes a sterile abstraction if not made manifest with the other two virtues; while loyalty by itself can turn into a slavish compliance with orders given; fearlessness, unenlightened by love and loyalty, degenerates into aimless and vulgar recklessness.
     The oneness of all that lives, visible and invisible, the Principle that underlies the eternal ethical law of nature, is the inexhaustible source of inspiration, cherished as a spiritual ideal in the stillness of the soul. — Hans Kooistra

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