Review of the article by S.Y. Kuvaev

“Sources of Information about the Religion and Culture of Tibet in "The Mahatma Letters"”

(Proceedings of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Issue 31. Tibetology and Buddhology at the intersection of science and religion – 2020 / Editor-in-chief of the issue S.L. Kuzmin, T.L. Shaumyan. – Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies, 2021, pp. 407–435; see below for an English version)

E. Turley, academic secretary of the Scientific Council of the National (Russian) Roerich Committee, Ph.D.

First of all, it should be noted that quite a few errors in Tibetan cited in the article had already been dealt with in those materials cited by A. Goyios, D. Reigle and B.S. Grechin, which the author also noted in his article. These publications treated on possible reasons for the erroneous use of Tibetan vocabulary. For researchers-Theosophists interested in the occurrences of misuse of Tibetan lexis (as well as that of unknown origin) in some (sic!) Theosophical publications, it has long been known that the materialization of written messages containing texts by Great Masters of the East (Mahatmas of Theosophy, who are subject to earthly restrictions where their activities demanded it) was extremely rarely attributed to the latter themselves and that their chelas, disciples, were sometimes not up to the mark through making absurd mistakes in sequential transmission and translation of semantic units of these texts into an unfamiliar language. Importantly, the aforementioned researchers, including the Buddhist B.S. Grechin, who is not a Theosophist, dealt with the issue that S.Y. Kuvaev chose to ignore, namely, the peculiarities of imperfect transmission of thought through imperfect transmitters and the ways of transforming the original thought of the original subject into words expressed in writing[1]. Focusing entirely on lexicography and linguistic source study, the author thus seemed to fence himself off from other aspects of such a complex phenomenon as Theosophy (in the modern sense) and the goals and objectives of the Theosophical movement, apparently believing that behind the facade of a narrowly specialized study one may, without transgressing scientific rigor and comprehensiveness, securely approach the interpretation of the sources of a small part of the Theosophical texts quite tendentiously.

S.Y. Kuvaev, having made references to inconsistencies from the three above-mentioned most significant publications (more precisely, groups of publications, since D. Reigle has several ones), however cast veil over the explanation of his predecessors in the field of such studies about the possible reasons that exclude falsification. If the author believes that these arguments are inappropriate only because they cannot be stated in a modern scientific publication in their essential presentation, he could at least note their existence. After all, he certainly could have read them in the articles used. At the same time, as it is possible to judge also from open sources, he does not limit himself to Buddhology, but, participating in the Buddhist practice itself and spreading knowledge about it, admits for himself metaphysical speculations, which are to the same extent as Theosophical reasoning not taken into account by science. This deprives his approach, including that caused by the desire to protect true Buddhism, as he understands it, from Theosophical contaminations, of a considerable amount of objectivity.

After reading this article by S.Y. Kuvaev, with correction for the previously unaccounted facts, B.S. Grechin, similarly to as in 2013, supported again, in general, his position on possible reasons for the unreliability in H.P. Blavatsky, quite different from the fabrication of pseudo-Buddhist concepts. He also noted the ambiguity in the interpretation of some everyday things, which should, in the reviewed author's opinion, indicate some errors (this applies, for example, to the monastic garment chos gos)[2].

Since conceptual contradictions of the article connected with the deep development and coherence of Theosophical ideas, their prognostic value and multiple crossings with the philosophical, scientific and religious gnosis accumulated by mankind are quite reflected by other reviewers of the article, in this review mostly other details will be mentioned. The reasons for the author's mistakes and borrowings (to which the author sometimes confidently attributes also partially similar things), which have long been explained by Mahatmas, H.P. Blavatsky and other Theosophists themselves, will also not be mentioned (this is discussed in varying degrees of detail in other reviews, for instance by N.Ye. Samokhina, as well as by D. Reigle, B.S. Grechin and A. Goyios). As for the particulars provided here, they are meant to remind that linguistic phenomena cannot always be unambiguously established in a given material. This trivial and general scientific fact is surely known to the author of the article, as well as to any professional linguist. Therefore, the author's confidence in the linguistic foundations of his idea of reducing the emergence of the Theosophical texts of “The Mahatma Letters” at all costs to the realization of vain aspirations of one, as he admits, outstanding personality through falsification should be followed by separate remarks and comments. Errors and ambiguities discovered in the sources used, all of which have been investigated in order to gain as detailed understanding as possible of the material studied by the author, will also be pointed out.

S.Y. Kuvaev writes: “… other evidence in this letter that Blavatsky used Koeppen's book when writing it. Thus, further in the same letter Blavatsky uses a hybrid Sanskrit-Tibetan term “Dyan-Cho-han” (later in “The Secret Doctrine” she transliterates it as “Dhyan-Chohan”). In Koeppen we see the prefix “Dhyâni-” in the terms “Dhyâni-Bodhisattva” and “Dhyâni-Buddha.”

In fact, the previously found ”... name dhyanibuddha may be traced to an early scholar of Buddhism, Brian Houghton Hodgson, whose information was acquired at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Nepal <...> It reflects a late Nepalese tradition. Its origins are apocryphal, however, and the expression dhyanibuddha does not actually occur in Buddhist Sanskrit texts. The so-called dhyanibuddhas, occuring in a group of five, are best termed “the five Tathagatas,” the common name in China and Japan, or “the five Jinas,” a term which actually occurs in Indian texts”[3]. The full origin of the term, despite the fact that in Buddhism dhyana, associated with concentration and quieting of consciousness, does have a Sanskrit origin, is unknown. The issue of the establishment of the original linguistic basis used by the author to substantiate his theses will be further noted below.


Also S.Y. Kuvaev writes: “As for the first element, “Cho,” it most likely owes its appearance to Koeppen's book as well. On the same page where the term “mKhan po” is first mentioned in the book, we see this word in the title “Tschhoss rDsche.”

In fact, “mKhan po” is mentioned earlier in the preface and on the page 68 of Koeppen's book. In addition, there is another version, noted by the author himself: “as distorted chos kyong – “dharmapala,” “guardian of the Dharma,” and as “lord of the Dharma,” “dharmaraja,” or more precisely “khan of the Dharma.”“ An occasional discovery in Jaeshke's manuscript dictionary also points to “cho-khan,” which translates as “doer.” The author of the paper may find it necessary to correct a suggested Wiley's transcription for the word, “bco mkhan,” and semantic nuances that cannot be taken into account in this review due to a lack of sufficient knowledge of the Tibetan language. D. Reigle, however, later commented in correspondence that the word does not seem to fit the expected meaning.


Previously not described in detail in scientific publications and therefore rather bold, an attribution of sources is made also in the corresponding footnote: “… Mongolian titular denominations, which, along with some Tibetan titles and a number of toponyms, were borrowed from the book by Huc and Gabet (1866), widely known in Europe and Russia.” At the same time, this book, printed by K.S. Henrich (and not exactly by K.S. Henrich Publishing House on the imprint, as stated in the list of references), is a translation of “Souvenirs d'un Voyage dans la Tartarie, le Thibet, et la Chine pendant les Années 1844, 1845, et 1846,” authored by only one of the two missionary companions, namely E.R. Huc. The Russian-language book is titled “Journey through Mongolia and Tibet to the Capital City of the Tale Lama” (which equivalents to the German version, with its “Tale” for “Dalai” and the indicated dual authorship). The 1866 title corresponding to the modern spelling of the Dalai Lama cited in the bibliography, and therefore not authentic, is found in the in Internet search engines, at the time of writing the review, only in the author’s blog devoted to Mongolia: The same blog had already mentioned back then about H.P. Blavatsky's certain borrowings from that very book (she herself in her "Isis Unveiled" testifies to the popularity of what is described in the book and repeatedly refers to it), which the author became aware of through one of the works he mentioned there. By the way, in that paper concerning the possibility of borrowing and just as similarly not seriously considering the peculiarities of the mental transmission of information described in Theosophical sources, there is a quote of, as the author calls her, “Blavatsky's ideological heir,” H.I. Roerich. The latter herself was well aware that when writing her works Blavatsky could borrow someone else's travel descriptions, which is noted in the cited letter of 05.09.1935: “… it is quite possible that H. P. B. herself borrowed this particular passage from some travel books.”[4] Before that, she mentioned the issue of “mingled translations” in Koeppen in a letter of 02.06.1934[5].

S.Y. Kuvaev goes on to say: “It is likely that she also took from the same book the notions of “shammars” [zhwa dmar] and “dugpas” ['brug pa] as evil sorcerers, perverters of Buddhism and implacable opponents of Tsongkhapa's teaching, which appear in “The Letters.”

But it needs to be taken into account that Koeppen's book simply says that “shammar” translates as red hat. As for the involvement of sects in magic, it is written that it concerned three sects – u rGjen pa (Padmasambhava’s school), ssa ssKja pa (Sakyapa’s school) and, in the third place, ‘Brug pa (the “dugpa” sect). Actually, the very same D. Reigle wrote with much more reasoning about the use of this term by Blavatsky[6].


In S.Y. Kuvaev: “Tibetans never shorten “byang chub sems 'dpa” to “byang chub.” If the poetic size and the number of syllables in a stanza require it, they always abbreviate it to “byang sems.””

One can hardly give a hundred percent guarantee that there is no optional abbreviation, which is possible in many languages of completely different language groups. For instance, “bus” used to be “omnibus.” Some evidence of a different contextual use of “byang chub” meaning “bodhisattva” are not only the dictionary articles of J. Valby and I. Waldo, where བྱང་ཆུབ་སྤྱོད་པ (“byang chub spyod pa”) is translated as “bodhisattva conduct”[7], and J. Hopkins' dictionary, where བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་པ་ (“byang chub sems pa”) also means “a hero with respect to contemplating enlightenment; one['s?] intent on full enlightenment.”[8] But also the short form “byang sems” in many dictionaries has a meaning other than “bodhisattva,” namely “bodhichitta.” This suggests, for example, that the question of distinguishing between bodhichitta and its possessor can be rather secondary to use outside of a strictly linguistic work.


S.Y. Kuvaev: “As for the word “gyloong,” it is from the already mentioned book of the travels to Tibet by Bogle and Manning, familiar to Blavatsky.

But it is noteworthy that the account of the trip to Bhutan in 1815, written by an Indian B. Bose, employee of the East India Company, and translated by D. Scott, in the 1865 edition, as well as in the 1881 edition of Bogle and Manning, དགེ་སློང (dge slong) is transliterated not as “gyloong” in “The Mahatma Letters” but as “gylong”[9] with a closed sound “o” similar to its pronunciation in Tibetan languages such as Amdo and Kham[10]. In an edition of B. Bose's report published in Asiatic Researches as early as in 1825, however, the same word is transliterated as “gelum,” which is even more similar to the version in “The Mahatma Letters”[11]. “Gelum” in fact can be also found in earlier issues of Asiatic Researches.


S.Y. Kuvaev: “… “Sankia K'houtchoo – the precious wisdom” is given as an epithet of the Buddha. This unintelligible phrase was inadvertently copied from Koeppen's book, where we find: “Sangdsche Kontschog, “Buddha-Kleinod”” …

But it must be taken into consideration that “san-gye” (སངས་རྒྱས), being a calcque of the Sanskrit Buddha, combines the attributes of enlightenment and awakening. Although the origin of “K'houtchoo” is linked to “Buddha-Kleinod,” the Buddha as one of the jewels of the doctrine, which corresponds to “Dkon mchog,” there is also the consonant གང ཟག (“gang zag”), “person, individual, spiritual teacher.” At the same time, if we take borrowing from literature as the main version, then the term appears in Della Penna's report on the Kingdom of Tibet, written back in 1730 and mentioned by the author, where, in the 1875 edition on the page 331 “Sankia K'hontchoa” is printed. In the original letter of the Mahatma, there is “Sankia K'hontchoo,” while the “n” in “K'hontchoo” looks like “u,” although it looks like the “n” in “Sankia.” From Della Penna's account, it is quite clear that this word is a phonetisation of “sangs rgyas dkon mchog” – the Buddha (sangs rgyas) as a jewel (dkon mchog). The two other Buddhist refuges are mentioned by him right after.


S.Y. Kuvaev: “... H.I. Roerich, who translated the neologism “Cho-han” as “Kogan” in Russian. Apparently, Roerich decided that the combination of the letters “ch” in this word should be read as “k” on the model of English words of Greek origin like “chaos,” “chimera,” “technic.””

Maybe she was referring to the kohens, the priests of the ancient Hebrews, one of the 12 tribes. At the same time, she may have had her own reasons, unknown to others, for establishing such a kinship. Besides, probably the origin of the investigated words is not connected necessarily with the Tibetan languages. It is also possible that they come from more ancient languages or simply from other languages, including those unknown to modern science, such as Senzar, a language of a closed community, which is mentioned in Theosophical and other traditions. In connection with the topic of the study it can be mentioned that individual Senzar words cited in some sources suggest that Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian words and roots, as well as from other languages of the Indo-European family, may be similar to those due to borrowing and other reasons. But, in fact, the author makes no attempt to distinguish between mere similarity to Tibetan and coincidence with Tibetan words, let alone taking the premise of Tibetan as a native tongue of the Mahatmas for granted.

In addition, in a publication of O.A. Kanischeva about H.I. Roerich's work on the translation of the text of “The Secret Doctrine,” for example, it is stated that .”.. the transcription of Tibetan words also caused difficulty. In “The Secret Doctrine” in a number of cases Helena Ivanovna found them transcribed incorrectly. This was not surprising, since at that time not many people in the West knew Tibetan. She checked most of the Tibetan words with Lama Lobzang Mingyur Dorje, the best, in her opinion, Tibetan language teacher. George Roerich also helped, of course. At that time he was completing work on a Tibetan-Russian-English dictionary with Sanskrit parallels and enjoyed a reputation among Western scholars as an expert on the Tibetan language. However, in those cases where the difference in transcription was significant, Helena Ivanovna did not dare to change it.”[12]

The following are inaccuracies in S.Y. Kuvaev's article.

For example, in letter 70, the “mahatma” quotes the Buddha’s words... In the same letter 70...

In the final version, the number was replaced with the correct one – 16.

Thus, the author of the letter No. 88 informs Sinnett, who was going to London, that evil sorcerers and spirits will try to confuse him there by means of false letters. And if the received letter does not contain three code words “Kiu-t-an,” “Na-lan-da” and “Dhah-ra-ni.”..

In fact, and this was corrected in the printed version, it is about the letter No. 92. By the way, in the 1923 edition by Barker, according to which, as the author claimed, the letters are numbered, these words, reprinted from the manuscript, contain typos: “Kin-t-an,” “Na-lan-ba” and “Dha-ra-in.”


The Dhammapada... 1881. p. 34.

The right page is 31. It remained uncorrected in the published version.



.”.. the quote from Kangyur in “Tibetan Teachings,” which she transcribed verbatim from the London edition of Udanavarga, again without citing the source.

In the September 1884 issue of “Lucifer,” although there is no reference to this particular edition in this article, there is a reference to the primary source under the quotation: “From the Tched-dubrjod-pai tsoms of the BKAH-HGYUR.”


The source of the extensive quotation from the letter No. 88 (1882) has also been ascertained. It is none other than a not too distant paraphrase of the original beginning of the Mahavagga, a translation of which was published in 1881 in the three-volume “Vinaya Texts” by Rhys Davids and Oldenburg.

It seems the author, before the correction in the published version, referred to the numbering not in Barker’s edition, but in the chronological edition prepared by V.H. Chin.[13] So, in the above phrase, it was about the letter No. 10, which was reflected in the final version. It is curious that the author, focusing on the criticism of the authenticity of the letters of the Mahatmas, confused the numbering of the letters similarly to the Hare brothers, who published this very find from the Mahavagga back in 1936 in a book given by the author in the literature section. Perhaps, exploration of some long-established counterarguments to the long-standing criticism of Theosophical sources[14], [15], including those relating the work of the Hares, would have earlier led the author also to the correct numbering.


Developing the issue of paraphrases, fertile ground for hypothesizing, S.Y. Kuvaev writes: “The letter No. 54 (1882) quotes the words of the Tathagata from another unnamed source: “He who masters Self is greater than he who conquers thousands in battle.” In these words the stanza from “Dhammapada,” translated and published by M. Müller a year before, can be easily recognized.

In Müller’s Dhammapada, as well as in the Sanskrit version, it is written about a thousandfold victory in battle over a thousand men (even the corresponding chapter is called “Thousands,” so the closely situated use of the word “thousand” in some verses may be due to reasons of an exclusively literary nature), while in “The Mahatma Letters” it is simply over thousands (and the phrase is abbreviated). However, taking into account the apocryphal nature of the Buddha's quotations and possible echoes with other Buddhist texts, to consider that the Mahatma necessarily took a quotation from Müller's translation and for some reason shortened it by “thousand times,” is like saying that the Golden Rule of morality is taken from that or this translation of Jesus' words in Matthew 7:12 and at the same time forgetting that there is their paraphrase in Luke 6:31 and it was known to ethicists in very different parts of the world long before Christ. By the way, H.P. Blavatsky reminded of it, also in relation to biased criticism, in an article about the ideals of Love and Brotherhood (proclaimed by the Theosophical Society and Theosophy), which are transplanted with blessed hands to “different climes and at epochs” (i.e. religions, teachings and moral codes): ““Do not do unto others what you would not wish others to do unto you,” said Confucius to his disciples. “Love one another, and love all living creatures,” preached Gautama the Buddha to his Arhats. “Love one another,” was repeated as a faithful echo in the streets of Jerusalem.”[16]


S.Y. Kuvaev goes on to wonder about such a source as the Book of Dzyan. He writes: “As for the “Book of Dzyan,” Reigle suggested that it could be some currently unknown tantra of the Kalachakra cycle (or a part of such a tantra) as long as the “extracts” from it deal with cosmogony.

If the author had consulted another, later work by D. Reigle[17], he should have found that, firstly, there is no reduction of the Book of Dzyan to the Kalachakra Tantra, and also there had been found “significant circumstantial evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Book of Dzyan.”


S.Y. Kuvaev made a number of other inaccuracies and misinterpretations.

S.Y, Kuvaev: “Two other Tibetan words, given without translation in the text of “The Letters” and also intended to demonstrate the author's familiarity with Tibetan culture and language, are “akhu” (No. 24) (uncle) and “dzing dzing” (No. 24b) (not quite compos mentis). Both are taken from the already mentioned Jaeschke's dictionary.

“Akhu” is used in the postscript to H.P. Blavatsky's letter to A.P. Sinnett, not in the letter No. 24: there is no letter with this number at all, there are only 24a and 24b. There appears to be no images of the original from the British Museum in the Internet, but the text version reads “Meanwhile the akhu tries to fascinate K.H. by her portraiture.” Obviously, the possessive “her” hardly fits an “uncle.” At the same time, Mrs. Kingsford is known to have tried to make contact with Koot Hoomi. In the same letter it is written about her: “She then complains that she had “endeavoured personally to come into ‘rapport’ with Mahatma K.H. but have quite failed,” and winds up by asking K.H. to strengthen her by his influence, for which reason thinking that “it may be an aid –magnetically or otherwise – to Mahatma K.H. to see my face (!?!?) – I send my photograph. <…> It may help him to a right analysis of my present personality …” etc., etc.” At the same time[18], in “The Secret Doctrine” by H.P. Blavatsky, in the Egyptian version of the seven principles that fashion man, the akhu is mind and perception. It is likely that Mrs. Kingsford's groundless hopes were simply sneered at by alluding to her akhu – the activity of her overly enterprising mind.


S.Y. Kuvaev: .”.. not all of the linguistic absurdities in the “Notes” owe their appearance to Blavatsky's ignorance of the Tibetan language. Some of them are certainly the faults of the copyist, Sinnett. Such, for example, is the mysterious word “A-ku” from the table, translated there as “body,” which is found in Jaeschke in the form,” etc.

Such edits were made by the linguist D. Reagle long ago, along with many other edits of this kind in modern versions of Theosophical texts, and the author is probably quite aware of this.


S.Y. Kuvaev: “As for the absurdities that Blavatsky herself made when writing out words from the dictionary, the most egregious of them is the case of the word “Chh-rab,” which the author of the letter translates as “genesis.””

But since “Chh-rab” is taken from a letter to A.O. Hume, rewritten by A.P. Sinnett, one may note that A.P. Sinnett shortened something and took something from A.O. Hume's own account. Thus, concerning the “Chh-rab” written immediately following the short answer to Question 22, it is known that after the question A.P. Sinnett wrote: “Essay by Hume, with Notes as before from M.”[19] If for A.P. Sinnett it was no use to go through the dictionary, it is not known for certain what A.O. Hume did in this regard. In any case, one more mistake of the chela in the transfer of the entrusted information seems quite likely here, unless deliberately excluding the chela’s participation in the deposition of ink on paper.


S.Y. Kuvaev: “As for the rare authentic Tibeto-Buddhist terms found in “The Letters” (bde ba can, sems can, dkon mchog, stong pa nyid, etc.), they are stripped of their original meaning and interpreted by her in isolation from tradition.

However, “Bde ba can” in the writing of “Devachan” has, among other characteristics, those of Sukhavati. It is hard to say that “Sems can” in the sense of “Animated Universe/Organized matter” (as they are reflected in the “Notes”), and this is already close to one of the meanings of purusha, cannot necessarily correspond to Buddhist sattva. “Dkon mchog” in the spelling “Kon Chhog,” as mentioned above, has the meaning of Universal Mind, so that it can correspond to one of the meanings of the Buddhist dictionary, that is the Buddha as God. “Stong pa nyid” as shunyata could have been used in an ironic sense, or even as Mahatma's realization, to one degree or another, of one aspect of the “bodhisattva path,” that is withdrawal from the ultimately illusory world.

Regarding the words “Kon Chhog” (dkon mchog), meaning Universal Mind, it may be recalled that Christian missionaries chose to use this term for God in the Tibetan translation of the Bible, since “dkon mchog,” a jewel, refers to the three jewels of the doctrine in which Buddhists take refuge. Naturally, the use of this term to refer to God has been subject to much criticism, since it clearly refers to a completely different idea from the Christian idea of God. In the same way, D. Reigle believes, this term cannot refer to Universal Mind. His book “Blavatsky’s Secret Books” suggests that “Kon Chhog” is a distorted term “kun gzhi,” which is a Sanskrit translation of the term “ālaya-vijñana” and can mean something like Universal Mind[20].

In fact, even the author himself provided a link to a whole section of a website devoted to the search for the primary sources of the Book of Dzyan exactly by Theosophists, where a whole series of publications about “The Mahatma Letters” with similar inconsistencies are posted: In particular, one of the links describes a non-existent Sanskrit-like[21] phrase from “The Mahatma Letters,” “Nirira namastaka.” Curiously, some Russian translations refer to it as “sharira namastaka,” which gives it meaning. Although “namastaka” sounds more like a neologism of Srila Prabhupada, who used it in the title of his chants, the word formation at least follows an inherent pattern of the language.

Indeed, our outstanding compatriot, who founded the Theosophical Society with a purpose not only of “the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science” but also, first of all, “to form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste, or color” had some personality traits, which her critics readily had in the crosshairs, both rightly and in forms distorted beyond recognition. As it became clear even during her lifetime, her impetuous nature, although thirsting for the improvement of the life of all mankind, through the knowledge and understanding of the world available to her, sometimes made incorrect interpretations and inaccuracies, especially in earlier works. The process of earthly creativity has an infinite number of peculiar manifestations, which can be partially captured in the words of the popular Russian poet Akhmatova: “I wish you knew the kind of garbage heap wild verses grow on, paying shame no heed.” Sometimes in essays, she could be too indifferent to the validity of her guesses, also those associated with the etymology of words, most of all giving meaning to the essential concepts of various spiritual teachings. Thus, Brahmin S. Row, who played an important role in the work of the Theosophical Society and became famous for his lectures and publications on the topic of Vedanta and its parallels with Buddhism, by criticizing the beginning of the first draft of “The Secret Doctrine” for inaccuracies and vagueness, thereby in no small measure contributed to her more focused and quality work, that others later helped to improve. Even though this work, like any human creation, contains inaccuracies. This, however, in no way in itself negates the significance and depth, as well as the authenticity of those parts of Theosophical writings that are claimed to have arisen in the consciousness (but not necessarily from the pen) of much more perfect minds than the human’s, that of Mahatmas of the East, recognized and revered before and after H.P. Blavatsky also outside the Theosophical movement proper, by followers of various branches of Indo-Tibetan teachings, including both Vedic and Buddhist traditions.

Even in Buddhism itself, amid the existing serious differences in its main branches, the situation with the proof of authenticity of texts, as history shows, could change from denial (for example, Buton Rinchen Drub excluded most of the then esoteric Nyingma corpus from a compilation of Tengyur because it was impossible, after the era of persecution of Buddhism, to establish the line of transmission of this knowledge from original Indian sources) until the later discovery in Nepal of Sanskrit sources of a number of Nyingma tantras, previously not recognized by the Sarma school, which were indicative of the canonicity of these tantras. And this is not surprising. For example, the famous orientalist and Tibetologist George Roerich noted with good reason: “Tibet can be compared to a closed storeroom of an ancient castle, where treasures of the past are kept. The vast religious literature of Tibet has preserved ancient scriptures of Buddhism, the Sanskrit originals of which were lost in India.”[22] Another thing is that, as never before access to the contents of the monastic libraries was free enough, it has not become such even in our information age. Likewise, for example, the Vatican Apostolic Library still stores many documents unknown to science. In this sense, there is no reason to believe that the situation, similar to that described in relation to India in 1991 by the indologist N.F. Rukavishnikova, has completely disappeared: .”.. I have often come across such an attitude [of distrust] towards foreigners. In response to my questions, the inhabitants of monasteries and priests of temples in India most often told lies. When an Indian scientist came to them with the same questions at my request, the answers were completely different.”[23] It is noteworthy that Western scholars ranked the above mentioned Nyingma tantras as Tibetan forgeries on the grounds that they did not know the Sanskrit originals[24]. A similar skepticism prevails among Western Buddhologist and Tibetologists regarding the tradition of terma, texts hidden for the time being, which, being by definition sources of revelations from divine beings, were intended to be found later by tertons, mentioned by S.Y. Kuvaev and so characteristic of the same Nyingma school of old translations. Meanwhile, the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which has won incredible popularity in completely different circles, is a classic example of a terma. Undoubtedly, such questions, presumably much closer to Buddhism than, according to S.Y. Kuvaev, Theosophy, could provide for a researcher close to him in his mindset no less wide field for such a lexicological source study than the modern continuation of Theosophical teachings formed only in the 19th century and not polished by time.

In the study, the author, of course, did not aim to cover such a small work by H.P. Blavatsky as her translation into English of extracts from the so-called “Book of Golden Precepts,” which she attributed to the same body of texts as the “Book of Dzyan,” that is “The Voice of Silence.” But it was the 9th Panchen Lama, who for those treading the Path of Liberation and reading this work, the Tibetan terms from which had been verified with learned lamas from Tashi Lhunpo and Chinese Buddhists, that had also established the kinship of the text with their highest teachings, inscribed his message on the frontispiece of the 1927 edition in China.[25] With his blessing, this edition was prepared as the “only true exposition in English [at least at the time of the initial publication] of the Heart Doctrine of the Mahayana [expressed also in the Bodhicharya-avatar] and its noble ideal of self-sacrifice for humanity.” His secretary B.T. Chang, who wanted to translate this “gem of Buddhist teachings” into Chinese for Chinese Buddhists in full, in the same edition noted Blavatsky's deep acquaintance with Buddhist philosophy. And whereas one can be wary of stories about the meetings of different people with the 14th Dalai Lama, who collaborated with Theosophists, at which he testified about the high appreciation of works by H.P. Blavatsky on the part of Buddhist theologians (for example, in the memoirs of the foreign affairs journalist V.V. Ovchinnikov[26]), an undeniable fact is His Holiness’ preface to the 1989 centenary edition of “The Voice of the Silence.” In it he says that “this book has strongly influenced many sincere seekers and aspirants to the wisdom and compassion of the Bodhisattva Path.”[27]

From the false premise that H.P. Blavatsky felt “at liberty to treat fragments of its [Buddhism’s] teachings freely, twisting them,” also false because it is as if her sources contained only a modified exoteric knowledge, accessible (at that, to a quite limited extent) to the author of the article, and there was nothing more, released for the first time to the general public by direct bearers of the Buddhist tradition, he makes a bold conclusion that she “treated it [Buddhism] with a considerable degree of disdain.” The same S. Row was even forced to say goodbye to the Theosophical Society in no small measure because he believed that in her works Helena Petrovna had published too much secret, until then esoteric knowledge. Also, not only, as the author himself confirms, “Blavatsky caused a surge of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the West with her activities,” but the Theosophical Society, founded by her, provided, as generally recognized, opportunities, including material ones, for the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. And in the temple in Galle, where she and her fellow H.S. Olcott took five sacred vows of Buddhism, to this day there is a memorial stone with a plaque on which this event is engraved in words. The Theosophical movement also significantly contributed to the revival of national identity in India and, as a result, to its independence: many academic works have been written about this. Thus, the conclusion about the commitment of H.P. Blavatsky to “the standard Orientalist paradigm characteristic of European authors who in one way or another touched on the subject of the East in the XIX century,” while counter-arguments are well known from the history of the early Theosophical movement, looks even more strange as the ending of an entire article on the sources of some Theosophical texts.

In conclusion, it is also interesting to cite, with a few comments in square brackets, the opinion of the translator of the main work of H.P. Blavatsky “The Secret Doctrine” (published in 2017) V.V. Bazyukin, who expressed it in private correspondence and agreed for quoting him. He, too, believes that S.Y. Kuvaev's success would most likely have been not too large if he had tried to dissect all those cosmogony, ontology, hermeneutics, epistemology laid down in H.P. Blavatsky's writings from the perspective of falsification in such detail, too. The translator of the magnum opus of the founder of the Theosophical movement, which she published already after the last of the published Mahatma letters had been written, and which she began writing after the letters discussed in the author's article had been written, has provided the following commentary (in some revision).

The texts of “The Secret Doctrine” and “The Mahatma Letters” use a wide array of terms, including Tibetan terms (but not exclusively Tibetan!). Bringing them into Latin transliteration was not the easiest task. This was the 19th century, when no unified transliteration system had yet been formed and researchers sometimes used their own version. It is enough just to look through the journal “Asiatic Researches”: one can be very surprised by how some terms are transliterated there. Take, for example, the combination “ch.” It turns out that “the model of English words of Greek origin” has nothing to do with it. Who, for example, would recognize in “chiah” the Hebrew word “haya,” that is, “life”? And yet, this is how the word is spelled in Dunlap (Dunlap, “Sod, The Son of Man”), Inman (Inman, “Ancient Faiths”), and a number of other sources. The same applies to the spelling of the name Chiram (Hiram), the word “khubilgan” (chubilgan), etc.

As for the term “Kogan” (“Chohan”), that is how Blavatsky herself pronounced the word. To be sure of this, it is enough to open her book written in Russian, “Letters from the Caves and Wilds of Hindustan.” There one would find the following phrase: .”.. our spiritual person, sutratma <...> merges all these qualities into one, becoming then a a perfect being, dhyan-kogan” {note: dhyan-kogan, esprit planetaire [planetary spirit (French)]}. The origin of this word is really not completely elucidated. One can only present a version, which, however, seems quite convincing. The origin of the word should not be traced to the Jewish kohen or kogan, but to the Mongolian kagans (chagans), princes. The presence of the Mongolian element should not be surprising, since other words of Mongolian origin can also be found in Theosophical literature, such as “hutagt,” “hubilgan,” etc. Quite curious information about Kagans can also be gleaned from the book of A.F. Weltman “Magi and the Midian Kagans of the XIII century.” And S.M. Solovyov (“History of Russia”) also mentions works of the first Kiev metropolitan Hilarion, praising “our Kagan Vladimir,” that is Prince Vladimir. Thus, the word “Kagan” can be understood as “prince,” “ruler.” And can the choice of this word to designate the “rulers of the world,” the “planetary spirits,” that is dhyani-kagans (or kogans), in this context be surprising? Is it surprising, if we talk, for example, about the Christian context of the use of the same word: “… Christ <...> calling into his arms “all those who suffer and are burdened,” the true “prince of the world.”..” (Brockhaus and Efron Enc. Dic., vol. XXXIIIa, p. 538)? Or in this context: “By the name of Beelzebub... it has to be recognized the chief of evil spirits, the prince of demons, whom the Lord Himself calls Satan” (“Bible Encyclopedia,” p. 99)? And here is how the same word sounds in a Muslim context: “Modern Islamic theologian Ali Apsheroni writes about Muhammad <...> “We are talking about a great man who was truly a veritable prince of mercy, the Imam of all believers....”

In the same context, of course, one should understand the expressions “dhyani-buddhas”: exactly as “princes,” “rulers of the world.” Often, specifying the meaning, Blavatsky refers to them as “angels” or “archangels,” which are purely Christian expressions. It is simply necessary to remember her warning that her work was not intended for philologists, but for people studying occultism. And so she considered it quite natural for her to use Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, Turkic, and whatever other terms she could to clarify the meaning of what she was talking about in her pages. Could she [or, in certain situations, Mahatmas themselves and even more so those intermediaries used to transmit the letters of the Mahatmas] have used for this purpose some expressions already in common usage in this or that Buddhological or other work? Of course! Does this in itself cast a shadow? It would be imprudent to assume so.

As V.V. Bazyukin, whose comments are appreciated, summarizes, it would have been much more fruitful if the author had paid close attention to the substantive side of what is written about in “The Secret Doctrine.” All the more so because sometimes it diverges from the exoteric, i.e. generally accepted provisions of Buddhism, whereas the Secret occult doctrine, set out in “The Mahatma Letters” and the works of H.P. Blavatsky, is not at all reduced to Buddhism and is not limited to it, which she says in detail in the introduction to her main printed work.

My gratitude is also expressed to D. Reigle, the Tibetologist who took the trouble to study the previous version of this review and article by S.Y. Kuvaev for possible factual errors, as well as making several comments that were taken into account. The American researcher, not sharing the attitude of the author of the source study related to certain aspects of the mechanism of borrowing vocabulary and H.P. Blavatsky’s motivation, also noted some usefulness of his research in clarifying the sources of the vocabulary.


Bibliography (in addition to that used by S.Y. Kuvaev)

Beacon of the Unknown / H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings Online. Compiled by Boris de Zirkoff. Vol. XI, p. 282.

Blavatsky H.P. The Voice of the Silence. Ed. Alice Cleather and Basil Crump. Peking: Chinese Buddhist Research Society, 1927.

Blavatsky H.P. The Voice of the Silence. Forward by HH. the XIVth Dalai Lama. Santa Barbara: Concord Grove Press, 1989.

Bose Kishen Kant B. Account of Bootan (translated by D. Scott) // In: Political Missions to Bootan, 1865, pp. 187–206.

Bose Kishen Kant B. Some Account of the Country of Bhutan (translated by D. Scott) // Asiatic Researches, 1825, XV, pp. 128–156.

Chin V.H. The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett: In Chronological Sequence (Theosophical Classics Series). Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1972.

Cosmological Notes // Theosophy Wiki. 1881. Accessed 15.02.2021.

Cox H.R.W. Who Wrote the March–Hare Attack on the Mahatma Letters? Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: H.P.B. Library, 1936.

Dale Saunders E. A Note on Śakti and Dhyānibuddha // History of Religions History of Religions. 1962, vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 300–306.

Grechin B.S. Buddhism and Theosophy (Continuation of the Old Story) // Accessed on 15.02.2021.

Hare H.E. and Hare W.L. Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd. 1936, pp. 105–108.

Hopkins J. et al. The Uma Institute for Tibetan Studies Tibetan-Sanskrit-English Dictionary // In process (May 2016 version), p. 519. Accessed on 15.02.2021

Kanishcheva O.A. Word and meaning: the work of H.I. Roerich on the translation of the texts of “The Secret Doctrine” by H.P. Blavatsky and proofreading of foreign translations of the Living Ethics // 130 years since the birth of H.I. Roerich. Materials of the International Scientific and Civic Conference 2009. Moscow: The International Roerich Center; Master Bank, 2010, pp. 434–435.

Letters of Helena Roerich: 1929–1938. Volume 1 // New York: Agni Yoga Society, 1954, p. 221.

Letters of Helena Roerich: 1935–1939. Volume 2 // New York: Agni Yoga Society, 1967, p. 23.

Ovchinnikov V.V. Blavatsky’s compatriot. Moscow: Rossiyskaya Gazeta, 01.03.2003.

Reigle D. The Book of Dzyan: The Current State of the Evidence // Brahmavidyā: The Adyar Library Bulletin, 2013, vol. 77, pp. 87–120.

Reigle D, Reigle N. Blavatsky's Secret Books: Twenty Years' Research. San Diego: Wizard Bookshelf, 1999, p. 70.

Reigle D. Who Are the Dugpas in Theosophical Writings? // 2009. URL: Accessed on 15.02.2021.

Roerich G. Tibet, Land of Snow // Tibet i Tsentral’naya Aziaya [Tibet and Central Asia]. Articles, lectures, translations. Samara: Publishing House “Agni,” 1999, p. 286

Rukavishnikova N.F. The riddle of the “Tibetan Gospel” // Ecology of the unknown. Scientific information bulletin of the Association “Ecology of the Unknown” and the Publishing House “Ladoga-100,” 2006, No. 1 (101), pp. 42–44.

Sangharakshita. Eastern and Western Traditions. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2019, p. 41.

Sentyakova E.A. The Mahatma Letters: History of Creation and Publication // Proceedings of the International Scientific-Practical Conference “Roerich's Heritage.” Vol. XVI. St. Petersburg: The Museum-Institute of the Roerich Family, 2017. pp. 268–281.

The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky to A.P. Sinnett and Other Miscellaneous Letters Transcribed // London: T. Fisher Unwin Limited, 1925, pp. 71, 73.

Tibetan Living Dictionary // Page “Byang chub spyod pa.” URL: Accessed on 15.02.2021.

Tibetan Living Dictionary // Page “Dge slong.” URL: Accessed on 15.02.2021.

[1] Sentyakova 2017.

[2] Grechin 2021.

[3] Dale Saunders 1962.

[4] Letters... 1967

[5] Letters... 1954

[6] Reigle 2009.

[7] Tibetan Living Dictionary

[8] Hopkins 2016

[9] Bose 1865

[10] Tibetan Living Dictionary

[11] Bose 1825

[12] Kanischeva 2010

[13] Chin 1972.

[14] Cox 1936.

[15] Hastings 1937–1939.

[16] Beacon of the Unknown

[17] Reigle 2013.

[18] Letters 1996

[19] Cosmological Notes 1881

[20] Reigle, Reigle 1999.

[21] In the initial version of the review, made in a short time, which was sent to the author at the stage of reviewing his article before its inclusion in the collected works, there was an erroneous reference to the Sanskrit-Tibetan origin of the phrase; it is probably by chance left from a paragraph by the author himself, in which he claimed unproven Sanskrit-Tibetan roots of the term “Dhyan-Chohan”; in fact, from the indicated source ‒ ‒ it immediately follows that the possible components of “nirvvā namastaka” are Sanskrit-like, just as the “sharira” used in the original edition of the "Chalice of the East" (translation by H. Roerich of some excerpts from "The Mahatma Letters"), apparently introduced there at the suggestion of G. Roerich, who might consider “nirira” a typo ("In the letters of M. all Sanskrit and Pali words are corrected by George, therefore do not be astonished at the difference with the English edition"; see on H. Roerich's letter to co-workers of Jul 19–27, 1925:, accessed on 15.02.2021).

[22] Roerich 1999.

[23] Rukavishnikova 2006.

[24] Sangharakshita 2019.

[25] Blavatsky 1927.

[26] Ovchinnikov 2003.

[27] Blavatsky 1989.


Sources of Information about the Religion and Culture of Tibet in “The Mahatma Letters”*

Sergey Y. Kuvaev

“Lama Tsongkapa” FPMT Study Group Coordinator,

Expositor at the Museum and Exhibition Complex of Lesnoy

*Translation by E. Turley (except for the abstract and key words translated by the author himself);

the words and numbers corrected as compared to the reviewed version are crossed-out


Abstract. Over the century that has passed since the first publication of “The Mahatma Letters,” information about the religion and culture of Tibet found in them has repeatedly become the subject of attention of researchers. This attention, however, was most often episodic and non-systemic, and complex work to identify the sources of this information was not carried out. Based on an exhaustive definition of the sources of borrowing of all the Tibetan vocabulary present in the letters, quotations from Buddhist literature and references to elements of the popular culture of Tibetans, the article also reveals the nature and circumstances of their inclusion in the letters' text. This, in turn, makes it possible to clarify the true attitude of the author of the letters (H.P. Blavatsky) to the Tibeto-Buddhist heritage and reconsider her role in the popularization of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

Key Words: The Mahatma Letters, Tibet, complex work, the Tibetan vocabulary, Buddhist literature, H.P. Blavatsky, the Tibeto-Buddhist heritage, popularization.


In the history of the spread of Buddhism in the West the phenomenon of H.P. Blavatsky continues to be a peculiar “birthmark.” Despite numerous critical studies of her activity and written heritage, which began during her lifetime and invariably yielded results that denied the validity of the myth she popularized about the “Tibetan esoteric brotherhood” and the characters associated with it ‒ the so-called “mahatmas” ‒ until recent years researchers have made attempts if not to confirm the existence of “mahatmas” exactly as they are described by Blavatsky, then at least to discern in these characters personifications of some real people who were familiar to her.

One such attempt is the experience of a “linguistic study” made in 2013 by the philologist B.S. Grechin, who, concentrating on the Tibetan component of “The Mahatma Letters,” tried to prove that all the Tibetan words and concepts mentioned in these letters could not have appeared there without real communication with some Tibetan lamas. Before the appearance of his work, the Tibetan terms and phrases in “The Letters” had come to the attention of scholars only sporadically and had never been considered as a whole. Nevertheless, the insufficient coverage of the Tibetan vocabulary of “The Letters,” the small source base, and several originally incorrect theses on which his study was based, did not allow B.S. Grechin to come to correct conclusions. Meanwhile, it seems that the potential of a comprehensive analysis of the Tibetan vocabulary of the “Letters” is broader than the possibility of clarifying the reality of the personalities of the “mahatmas” or the persons who served as their prototypes. In particular, the nature of Blavatsky's use of Tibetan material while writing “Letters” could make more evident her own attitude to Tibetan Buddhism in general and, as a consequence, specify her role in the process of its popularization in Europe on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Grechin's first, and most unfortunate, assumption about the sources of the Tibetan vocabulary in “The Letters,” which led his entire study down the wrong path, was that if “mahatmas” were created by Blavatsky “with her imagination, if at no time in her life had she spoken to a living Tibetan, the only source of these words in the letters could have been dictionaries. By 1881 only two Tibetan-English dictionaries had been published, and no other dictionaries of the Tibetan language existed in the Western world”[1]. The dictionaries he is referring to are those of Kőrös (1834) and Jäschke (1881). It should be noted that beside them there were at least three other well-known dictionaries which Blavatsky could have used ‒ the Tibetan-Russian and Tibetan-German dictionaries created by Schmidt on the basis of Kőrös' dictionary, as well as Jaeschke's Tibetan-German dictionary. However the thesis that the author of the letters could borrow the Tibetan vocabulary only from dictionaries and nowhere else seems completely wrong, since by the beginning of the 1880s, the time of the appearance of “The Letters,” a large volume of literature devoted to the language, history and religion of Tibet had already been published in English and other European languages, including Russian. In all of these books one could find a mass of terms related to the religion and life of the Tibetans. Finally, some set of Tibetan vocabulary, mostly, presumably, titles and names, could be drawn from the Indian colonial press: Tibet was, after all, the northern neighbor of British India. Therefore, the author of the “historical and linguistic argument” should have looked for the sources of the Tibetan vocabulary in the letters of the “mahatmas” outside the two dictionaries he mentioned.

So, not finding such words as “Deva-Chan” and “Cho-Khan” in the dictionaries of Kőrös and Jaeschke mentioned by him, Grechin concludes that the author of the letters could have picked them up only from communication with living Tibetans in the process of studying from them. As for the first word, both the name and the description of Devachan (bde ba can) are found, in particular, in Schlagintweit's book Buddhism in Tibet (1863)[2], an introduction to which Blavatsky revealed in one of her articles.[3]

The identification of the word “Cho-Han,” which also occurs more than once in the letters of the “mahatmas,” has long troubled scholars of the history of the Theosophical movement. It has been interpreted as distorted “chos kyong” ‒ “dharmapala,” “guardian of the Dharma,” and as “lord of the Dharma,” “dharmaraja,” or more precisely “khan of the Dharma.” B. Grechin is in solidarity with the latter version. The unanimous interpretation of the element “Cho” as “chos,” “dharma,” may be agreed, but the identification of the element “khan” or “han” with the Mongolian title “khan” should be rejected. Although the Tibetan language after contacts with the Mongols and Oirats introduced a number of Mongolian words denoting mainly administrative terms and feudal titles, the Buddhist term “dharmaraja” is traditionally translated into Tibetan as “chos kyi rgyal po.”[4]

The book that allowed Blavatsky to construct the term should be recognized as C.F. Koeppen's “The Lamaist Hierarchy and Church,” which was first published in Berlin in 1859. As a book written in German, it escaped the attention of scholars of the sources of the mythology set forth in “The Mahatma Letters.” In Koeppen's book, the second part of the term occurs in the form “mKhan po” and is translated as “instructor, master, abbot” (der Lehrer, Meister, Abt)[5]. In Blavatsky's letter, in which the word “Cho-han” appears for the first time, she explains it very similarly: “spiritual instructor, master and the Chief of a Tibetan Monastery.”[6]

As for the first element, “Cho,” it most likely owes its appearance to Koeppen's book as well. On the same page where the term “mKhan po” is first mentioned in the book, we see this word in the title “Tschhoss rDsche” (Wiley: chos rje), and on the next page we find its transcription (Tschoidsche) and translation: “Lord of the Law” (Gesetzesfürst); separately, “Tschoss (Dharma)” is translated as “law, teaching, religion.”[7] It seems that in general the term “Cho-han” was originally conceived by Blavatsky as a translation into Tibetan of the expression “spiritual master,” which corresponds perfectly to the context in which it was first used by her.

There is other evidence in this letter that Blavatsky used Koeppen's book when writing it. Thus, further in the same letter Blavatsky uses a hybrid Sanskrit-Tibetan term “Dyan-Cho-han” (later in “The Secret Doctrine” she transliterates it as “Dhyan-Chohan”). In Koeppen we see the prefix “Dhyâni-” in the terms “Dhyâni-Bodhisattva” and “Dhyâni-Buddha.”[8] “Toong-ting, reliquary” from the same letter of Blavatsky is “gDung rTen” (Reliquien- oder Knochenbewahrer).[9] It is likely that she also took from the same book the notions of “shammars” [zhwa dmar] and “dugpas” [‘brug pa] as evil sorcerers, perverters of Buddhism and implacable opponents of Tsongkhapa's teaching, which appear in “The Letters,” as she did with these words themselves.[10]

We should mention one of Grechin's examples of how Blavatsky, allegedly hearing Tibetan words by ear, wrote them down at haphazard in the absence of a commonly used system of transcription. As examples Grechin cites variations of the word “byang chub” from the letter No 20[11] of “mahatma Koot Hoomi”: “Tchang-chub” and “Byang-tzyoob.” However, both of these forms are by no means arbitrary but are borrowed from the report of the Capuchin missionary Francesco della Penna, which was brought out in an English translation as a supplement to the book “Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and the Journey of Tomas Manning to Lhasa,” that was published in London in 1881. It is certain that Blavatsky was familiar with this book, as she herself quoted it extensively in one of her articles.[12]

It is clear from Della Penna's text that he refers to the bodhisattvas as “chang chubs.” The same understanding Blavatsky demonstrates in her articles and “mahatma Koot Hoomi” in his letters, confidently using their transcriptions of the Tibetan “byang chub” as a synonym for “bodhisattva.” Meanwhile, “byang chub” is by no means “bodhisattva” (which in Tibetan would be “byang chub sems ‘dpa”) but “Bodhi,” “Awakening”– the state to which a bodhisattva aspires. Tibetans never shorten “byang chub sems ‘dpa” to “byang chub.” If the poetic size and the number of syllables in a stanza require it, they always abbreviate it to “byang sems.”

In spite of this, without a shadow of a doubt Blavatsky reproduces in “The Letters” the inaccuracy made by Della Penna in his work. It is possible, however, that the author's confidence in the inaccurate translation of the word “byang chub” was reinforced by another English book published four years before, which, as it will be shown below, the author of the letters was also familiar with and actively used. It is a self-study manual of the Tibetan language by T. Lewin, published in Calcutta in 1877. At the same time, in the vocabulary accompanying this manual, the word “saint” is translated into Tibetan as “chang-chhub sem-pa,” which is quite correct. However, the parts of this word combination, “chang-chhub” and “sem-pa,” are placed on different lines one above the other, moreover, after “chang-chhub” there is a period[13]. Such a layout could have led the author of the letters to believe that these were not two parts of a whole, but two words synonymous to each other, which only reinforced the misuse of the word.

This assumption would seem quite credible in light of the description of a situation in which the particulars of the layout of Lewin's textbook were the factor that unwittingly exposed the complete ignorance of the author of “The Mahatma Letters” in regard of the Tibetan language, while perfectly demonstrating the “creative method” used in writing them.


“With a textbook in the lap”

The letter No. 54 tells the following story: mahatma Koot Hoomi, being at Pari Jong in a temple (“gun-pa”) of his friend, was walking in the yard listening to a telepathic speech of lama Ton-dhup Gyatcho. He was handed a letter and carelessly slipped it into his bag. When he heard a “young gyloong”'s (monk’s) cry, he woke up, but the letter had already been almost completely eaten by a goat. Koot Hoomi wanted to “rematerialize” the important letter in a magical way despite the prohibition to do so with the things of strangers, but then an image of the Chohan appeared to him and said: “Why break the rules? I will do it myself” and restored the letter to its pristine state. The author quotes the Tibetan speech of the “Chohan”: “Kam mi ts'har ‒ I'll do it.”

In 2009, A. Goyios discovered the phrase “Kam mi ts'har” in T. Lewin's manual of Tibetan language. It is placed opposite to the phrase in English “I can complete the task,” but both expressions are parts of longer sentences. The author of the letter felt that the first was a translation of the second, but the three Tibetan words at the end of the full sentence did not mean “I will do it,” as it might have seemed from the English phrase opposite it, but “or not do/complete.”[14] Goyios, followed by Grechin, rightly believe that a person familiar at least in a first approximation with the Tibetan language would never make such an error. Grechin, however, admits the possibility that the blatant illiteracy and inattention shown in the letter could have belonged not to the author of the letter but to “the one who wrote it down” ‒ as we know, Blavatsky claimed that “mahatmas” could telepathically dictate their letters to disciples, who wrote them down on paper and then sent them to a recipient.

Meanwhile, a careful comparative analysis of the text of the letter and the content of Lewin's manual allows us to explain the coincidences contained in them, which are not limited to the above case, even without the involvement of hypotheses about telepathy. Most likely, the circumstances of writing the letter were as follows: Blavatsky intended to impress Sinnett with some story that would show that the Chohan himself appreciated the importance of his letters to Koot Hoomi ‒ supposedly the Chohan himself had “phenomenally” recovered his suddenly lost letter. For greater effect, she wanted to add a phrase in Tibetan to her description. Knowing that Lewin's manual had an English-Tibetan dictionary with indication of the exercises, in which the words from the dictionary appeared for the first time, Blavatsky found in the dictionary a word with the meaning of “to do” (or she simply looked it up, assessing the applicability of words for her idea as she went along). She found a suitable word, “complete,” at the beginning of the dictionary. The dictionary offers its several translations into Tibetan, while indicating that only one of these is a verb ‒ “tshar,” and it is used in the phrase in the exercise No. 16. Turning to this exercise, Blavatsky carefully read the English phrases, looking for “complete” in them, but there was none ‒ the word “tshar” here is in a Tibetan phrase, which is translated into English as “We have sold our bull to the friend of our uncle.” Meanwhile, on the same page 15, she also came across the word “goat.” Failing to find “complete” she was looking for on the pages 14 and 15, she flipped through the textbook further, thinking the exercise continues on the page 16. But there was a new one, No. 17, in the English part of which she found the name Tondub, which is indicated as a man's name.

Well, perhaps one would manage to find the word “complete” somewhere else, since it is listed in the dictionary? After scrolling through two dozen pages, Blavatsky found it on p. 43 in an appropriate combination: “I can complete the task” (which, as noted, is part of a longer sentence). The word “tshar” is present in the transcription ‒ so the material for the story was found, along with unexpected details: the goat and lama Tondub. Blavatsky altered the transcription “Tondub” from the manual to “Ton-dhub” and added to it the last part of the name of the lama who consulted the author of the manual, Yapa Ugyen Gyatsho, which appears on the title page. In a usual way, she also distorted it slightly, writing it as Gyatcho.

Here, in Lewin's manual, we also see the word “gun-pa” used by the author of this letter. In the dictionary it is transcribed as “gön-pa” and translated as “temple.” As for the word “gyloong,” it is from the already mentioned book about the travels to Tibet by Bogle and Manning, familiar to Blavatsky. In the index to it we find “gylong” and even, in a subheading, “young gylong.” The same book also uses the transcription “Pari-jong,” reproduced in the letter as “Pari Jong.” B.S. Grechin tried to identify this toponym as a truncated “[gnyan] pa ri rdzong” ‒ “Nyenpa ridzong, a famous monastery near Mount Kailash.” Pari-jong (phag ri rdzong), however, is a village on the Tibeto-Bhutanese border.

Goyios cites another egregious case to illustrate that Blavatsky's “mahatmas” had very little understanding of Tibetan, and in case they needed to write something in Tibetan they turned to Lewin's textbook. On the envelope of one of the letters of “mahatma Morya” there is a quote from “Ratna-gotra-vibhāga” written in Tibetan script and accompanied by a Latin transcription and translation into English. Both the Tibetan text and the transcription, as well as the translation are borrowed to the letter from the same Lewin’s textbook. Not only that, but the Tibetan inscription on the envelope reproduces all the printing defects in the book. Where the ink in the textbook is blurred, something illegible is also drawn on the envelope. Where a letter in the textbook is more or less clear, it's relatively clear on the envelope as well. The look of the poorly copied graphemes and their combinations quite clearly shows that “mahatma Morya,” who copied them, had no basic knowledge of the written Tibetan language, and in case of a need to express himself in Tibetan he did it, as B.S. Grechin aptly put it, “with a textbook in the lap.”[15]


Mangled transcriptions

As already mentioned, one of the arguments put forward by B.S. Grechin in favor of the fact that Blavatsky did communicate with some Tibetan lamas was the presence in “The Mahatma Letters” of Tibetan words, “which are not so much incorrect but rather inaccurate.” That is, the “mahatmas” supposedly transcribed Tibetan words by ear as they had to, while no unified system of Latin transliteration of the Tibetan language, like Wiley's, had yet been developed.

Meanwhile, having determined the source of the borrowings of those Tibetan words that appear in the letters, it is easy to identify the mechanism of all those “inaccuracies” about which Grechin speaks. When deciding to use a word found in a book in a “mahatma's” letter, Blavatsky most often deliberately distorted the available transcription so that the borrowing would be less obvious. This distortion followed a simple pattern: the letter “d” in the original could be changed to “t” (and vice versa), “t” to “th,” “k” to “kh,” “d” to “dh,” “u” to “oo,” “e” to “i,” and “tsh” to “ch.” This last pair shows that Blavatsky did not know how the grapheme, written in Wiley's system as “tsha,” was actually supposed to be read. Apparently, she thought that it should be pronounced as “tsha” (according to the rules of English phonetics), which does somewhat resemble “cha,” but not “tskha” as it should be pronounced in reality.

It is quite symptomatic that a similar incorrect interpretation of Latin transcriptions of Tibetan words can also be found in letters of Blavatsky's ideological heir and translator of her “Secret Doctrine” into Russian, H.I. Roerich, who translated the neologism “Cho-han” as “Kogan” in Russian. Apparently, Roerich decided that the combination of the letters “ch” in this word should be read as “k” on the model of English words of Greek origin like “chaos,” “chimera,” “technic,” etc.


Quotes from Buddhist literature


In addition to individual Buddhist terms, “The Letters” contain references to individual Buddhist sutras and shastras, as well as entire quotations from Buddhist sources. Do Blavatsky's “mahatmas” demonstrate an outstanding knowledge of Buddhist literature that surpasses that of European Buddhologists? Not at all ‒ all the works, the titles of which are mentioned in the letters of “mahatmas,” with or without quotations from them, had already appeared in Buddhist and Tibetan literature in English, published by the beginning of 1880s.

For example, in the letter No. 1670, a “mahatma” quotes the Buddha's words from a certain work called “Shan-Mun-yi-Tung.” His quotation is nothing but an inaccurate and abridged translation made by S. Beal and included by him in the book “A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese,”[16] which was noticed by D. McDavid, followed by D. Reigle[17]. The title “Shan-Mun-yi-Tung” is also taken from there, and, characteristically, it is not a Chinese translation of a Buddhist sutra or shastra, as one might think. It is the name of a Chinese prayer book, from which Beal extracted a fragment of the Amitabha Sutra (aka Sukhavativyuha Sutra), first translated and published by him as early as in 1866[18]. In the 1866 edition the real name of the sutra is given, but not in the 1871 edition, where only a reference to the above-mentioned collection of prayers is provided. So the “mahatma” was compelled to cite this collection as the source, instead of giving the exact title of the sutra.

The same letter No. 1670 also mentions the Avatamsaka Sutra, which describes the postmortem states, the “Territory of Doubt.” In the same Beal’s book we read both of the Avatamsaka Sutra, and of the varieties of postmortem states[19] described therein. The Lau-Tan Sutra, aka the Pinda-dhana Sutra, is also mentioned there. Both names, Chinese and Sanskrit, together with quotations from it, are again borrowed from Beal[20].

The author's active use of quotations from Beal's book was noted as early as in 1895 by W. Coleman in his essay “The Sources of Madame Blavatsky's Writings.”[21] However, Blavatsky took from it not only excerpts from sutras. Thus, the author of the letter No. 9288 informs Sinnett, who was going to London, that evil sorcerers and spirits will try to confuse him there by means of false letters. And if a received letter does not contain three code words “Kiu-t-an,” “Na-lan-da” and “Dha-ra-ni,” it means that it is not from the mahatma. All three of these words are easily found in the subject and name indexes to Beal's monograph: “Kiu-t'an, Gotama, a name of Buddha,” “Nalanda, convent of,” and “Dharani, magic formulae.”

The source of the extensive quotation from the letter No. 1088 (1882) has also been ascertained. It is none other than a not too distant paraphrase of the original of the beginning of the Mahavagga, a translation of which was published in 1881 in the three-volume “Vinaya Texts” by Rhys Davids and Oldenburg[22].

The letter No. 54 (1882) quotes the words of the Tathagata from another unnamed source: “He who masters Self is greater than he who conquers thousands in battle.” In these words the stanza from “Dhammapada,” translated and published by M. Müller a year before[23], can be easily recognized. The letter No. 64 also contains another saying attributed by the author to the Buddha: “The right in thee is base, the wrong a curse,” which turns out to be a literal quotation from the poem “The Light of Asia” by E. Arnold, published in London in 1879.

It is very indicative that the “members of the Tibetan secret brotherhood” did not quote in their letters a single sutra, tantra or shastra typical of the Tibetan tradition. Blavatsky also hardly ever gave translations from Tibetan in the articles written on her own behalf, and what she did quote was taken from Western literature. For example, such is the quote from Kangyur in “Tibetan Teachings,” which she transcribed verbatim from the London edition of Udanavarga,[24] again without citing the source.

A separate case is the so-called book “Kiu-te” and its constituent part, the “Book of Dzyan.” The identification of these works has long been an insoluble problem for researchers of Blavatsky's literary heritage. However, in 1975 H. Spierenburg identified this word as a phonetic transcription of the Tibetan “rgyud sde,” that is a “section of Tantra” ‒ one part of the Kangyur[25]. Six years later D. Reigle managed to confirm this conjecture by identifying the source from which this transcription had been borrowed. It turned out to be the aforementioned report by Della Penna from the 1881 book on the Tibetan missions of Bogle and Manning[26]. In Della Penna's work “the thirty-six volumes of the law Khiute,” that “gives precepts for practising magic,” is expressly called one of the two constituent parts of the Kangyur along with the “Dote”, “mdo sde,” a section of the Sutra[27]. As for the “Book of Dzyan,” Reigle suggested that it could be some currently unknown tantra of the Kalachakra cycle (or a part of such a tantra) as long as the “extracts” from it deal with cosmogony. However, in the light of the above, all “excerpts from the Book of Dzyan” in “The Mahatma Letters” and other works of Blavatsky should be considered, apparently, no more than a fruit of her own creativity.


Tibetan proverbs

When writing the letters on behalf of “mahatma Koot Hoomi,” Blavatsky used several “Tibetan proverbs” in order to give her addressee A.P. Sinnett the impression that his correspondent was well acquainted with Tibetan culture. One of them looks like this: “No Lama knows where the ber-chhén will hurt him until he puts it on.” This phrase in the letter No. 8 is a deliberately “Tibetanized” version of an English proverb that is still used today: “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.” It is recorded in the popular collection of proverbs “Jacula prudentium” by the 17th century English priest and metaphysician poet G. Herbert, and in turn goes back to an anecdote mentioned by Plutarch in his “Comparative Biographies” when describing the divorce of Aemilius Lepidus.

Blavatsky's method of “creative remaking” of this proverb cannot be called elaborate. Having slightly changed its wording, she found in the Tibetan-English dictionary compiled in 1866 by H.A. Jaeschke the first name of a typical Tibetan garment, “ber-chhén,” which was translated as “lama's cloak,” and mechanically inserted both “ber-chhén” and “lama” into it. Blavatsky obviously did not know what this “ber chen” (full cloak) looked like, nor did she know how this word is translated literally, otherwise she probably would have had to wonder if a cloak, and a big one at that, could hurt, squeeze, etc.?

By the way, this is not the only example of an unsuccessful attempt to mention Tibetan clothing in order to give “The Letters” an appropriate flavor. Thus, in the letter No. 5, “mahatma Koot Hoomi” ironically suggests putting a perfumed handkerchief in the pocket of his “chogga” in order to make a better impression in the company of English gentlemen. “Chogga” is, of course, chos gos, lit. “Dharma garment,” which could mean either the standard set of three monastic robes or the upper cloak of a full gelong monk. The word may have been borrowed from Koeppen[28] in particular. However, none of the garments called by this word have any pockets, of course.[29]

Another “Tibetan proverb” quoted by a “mahatma” in the letter No. 54 is as follows: “Like the bird of night: by day a graceful cat, in darkness an ugly rat.” Such a proverb is indeed recorded, and given by the “mahatma” with almost no “creative reworking,” only again it is not Tibetan but... Kabyle.[30] This proverb got straight from W. Hodgson's book “Notes on Northern Africa, the Sahara and Soudan” (1844), where it sounds like this: “You are like the bird of night; by day a cat, in darkness a rat.”[31] Interestingly, there is a truly Tibetan proverb that is very similar in meaning, in which not the “night bird” (mtshan bya) but the “night mouse” (“mtshan byi,” a bat) also shows one of its guises depending on the situation[32]. However, the almost literal coincidence of the phrase from the “mahatma's” letter with Hodgson's translation of the Kabyle proverb leaves no doubt as to where exactly this proverb was copied from.


Cosmological notes

To the greatest extent Tibetan “terms” are concentrated in the so-called “Cosmological Notes,” which consist of “mahatma Morya's” answers to questions posed to him by one of his correspondents, A.O. Hume. The original letter (or a series of letters) “from a mahatma,” which formed the basis of the “Notes,” did not survive; its content is known only because Sinnett copied the entire text into his notebook for personal purposes. From the context it is possible to date the appearance of the original “Notes” in the fall of 1881.

The “Notes” contain not only scattered Tibetan words but also two full tables with Sanskrit “parallels” and English “semantic translation” of the mentioned Tibetan “terms.” This orderliness made some optimistic researchers believe that behind these tables is some real Buddhist source, not yet introduced into the Western Tibetology. Individual tantras (such as the lost Kalachakra “root” tantra), the literature of the Dzogchen cycle, and individual termas have been cited as such a hypothetical source. However, the author of the work, from which “mahatma Morya” borrowed all the Tibetan vocabulary used in his tables, was by no means a certain little-known terton. Ironically, the terms describing “the teachings of the esoteric Tibetan brotherhood” were supplied to a member of this brotherhood by the Protestant missionary to Western Tibet H.A. Jaeschke, translator of the Bible into Tibetan.

His famous Tibetan-English Dictionary appeared in 1881, the same year as the original “Notes,” but it was not it that the “mahatma” used, rather the “Romanized Tibetan-English Dictionary”, which Jaeschke had compiled as early as in 1866. This small, 157-page dictionary was apparently intended for the internal use of the mission in Western Tibet, existed only as a manuscript and was never published. It is difficult to say how Jaeschke's manuscript (or a copy) ended up in Blavatsky's hands, but the very fact that the Tibetan terms from the “cosmological” tables of “mahatma Morya,” as well as other Tibetan words from the “Notes,” were taken from it should be considered indisputable.

Obviously, the basic structure of these tables demonstrating the “seven principles” of the structure of man and the universe was invented by Blavatsky beforehand. A relatively small volume of the dictionary allowed her to read it in its entirety, selecting and writing out Tibetan words that fitted the meaning. The same applies to the words mentioned in the “Notes” outside the tables. At the same time, while the main text of the notes, in the preparation of which she had few restraints, could be written so that the Tibetan words inserted for authenticity were used in a more or less literal sense, the finished structure of the tables did not provide for such liberties. As a result, of the 18 Tibetan words used in these tables, only two of them could be used in their basic dictionary meaning. The rest of the words were used in their figurative meaning, and for those concepts for which it was not possible to find words even approximately, two-part neologisms were constructed (such as, for example, the awkward phrase “Zigten-jas,” which is given as a translation of the word “cosmogony”).

If in the main text such words from Jaeschke's dictionary as “Chhag” (genesis); “Kyen” (cause); “Dang-ma” (purified soul); “jas” [byas] (to make); “Dam-ze” (brahman); “Jigten” (written as “Zigten” ‒ “world”) are used literally, then in the table they are only “A-ku” (body) and “Nyug” (duration). In contrast to the cases of borrowings from other sources described above, here Blavatsky almost did not distort the transcriptions, being satisfied with those suggested by Jaeschke. It should be noted that in these examples not only the transcriptions are exactly the same, but even the English words given as translations.

The reason for Blavatsky's carelessness seems to lie in the fact that she was not worried that Jaeschke's manuscript would ever come across to Hume or Sinnett in the foreseeable future (given that all their correspondence with the “mahatmas” was confidential and not intended for publication). It must be mentoned that this plan turned out to be quite justified ‒ this dictionary remained unknown not only to them but also to everyone except a narrow circle of specialists in Tibetan linguistics until it was digitized. Therefore, Blavatsky could indeed feel relatively safe in transcribing, almost without alteration or distortion, fragments of Jaeschke's dictionary entries into the letter “from mahatma Morya” to Hume. However, she did make a few unintentional mistakes, and the resulting absurdities testify to the source of borrowing with all possible unambiguity.

To be fair, not all of the linguistic absurdities in the “Notes” owe their appearance to Blavatsky's ignorance of the Tibetan language. Some of them are certainly faults of the copyist, Sinnett. Such, for example, is the mysterious word “A-ku” from the table, translated there as “body,” which is found in Jaeschke in the form “(s)ku.” The fact is that in the characteristic handwriting used to write the letters “from Morya” and to which Sinnett was unaccustomed, the capital S extremely resembles the letter A, which led to the birth of this verbal chimera. Obviously, the term “Zhihna,” “Vital soul,” appeared in a similar way. In Jaeschke “zhi-(ma)” is “basis,” “reason,” but further the word combination [kun gzhi] is given in Tibetan and explained as “first cause, soul (in some metaphysical schools).” Apparently, in the original, the first vertical element of the letter “m” was written somewhat higher than the others, which led Sinnett to mistake it for the combination “hn.” The second time he encountered this word, he rewrote it correctly: “Zhima.” In addition, in the text of the copy, as a Tibetan analogue of the concept of duration, there are both the dictionary word “Nyug” [snyugs] and the distorted “Nyng.” The spelling “Zigten” instead of “Jigten” also seems to be nothing more than a copying defect.

As for the absurdities that Blavatsky herself made when writing out words from the dictionary, the most egregious of them is the case of the word “Chh-rab,” which the author of the letter translates as genesis. This “chh-rab,” unlike other distorted Tibetan words from the “Notes,” remained completely unreadable to interpreters. Turning oneself to Jaeschke's dictionary easily resolves this difficulty. Here we find the transcription “chhag(s)-pa” with the first meaning “to be fond of, love.” The second meaning, indicating the form [chags rab], is genesis. So how is it that instead of the first syllable entirely, “mahatma” copied its chunk? As it has been demonstrated more than once, Blavatsky and her “mahatmas” did not know Tibetan writing even in the very first approximation. The form [chags rab] in the dictionary article was given in Tibetan, which means that Blavatsky could not understand how it sounds from this spelling. Therefore, as in all other cases of borrowing from this dictionary, she turned to the phonetic Latin transcription. However, this time it turned out to be abbreviated: not “chhag(s)-ráb” but “chh.-ráb.” If Jaeschke had not saved space on the page or if Blavatsky had noticed the period after “chh,” then this absurd, phonetically impossible “chh-rab” would not have come from the pen of “mahatma Morya.” Nor would it have come out, had “mahatma Morya” (together with his author) mastered the Tibetan language at least at the level of Mongolian novices, khuvrags, who were described by M.A. [mistyped for A.M.] Pozdneev in the second half of the 19th century. Even if they were quite ignorant of what a Tibetan text was about, they were still able to understand the Tibetan graphemes and pronounce them correctly.

The word “Chyang” is another example of this kind in the “Notes”; it is translated there as “omniscience.” This “translation” made some interpreters and researchers assume that the author meant the Tibetan “byang [chub]” (Awakening), a word whose pronunciation really resembles the author's transcription and fits well in meaning. However, this rather lucky guess turned out to be erroneous at first sight. In Jaeschke's dictionary there is a word “chang” [cang], which is a shortened form of the phrase “chi-ang” [ci'ang], which literally translates as “whatever,” “anything.” Here again, the peculiarities of the abbreviations in dictionaries, multiplied by the ignorance of Tibetan, played a cruel joke on Blavatsky. Further in the corresponding dictionary entry, the expression “chang-shes” is given, which is translated as “knowing anything, omniscient.” But the first word in this expression, “chang,” was omitted by Jaeschke, because it was already given by him at the beginning of the article, and the second, “-shes,” was written down by him in Tibetan. Blavatsky could not read this “shes,” and she had to use what was available by modifying “chi-ang” into “Chyang.”

This error is only aggravated later in the “Notes” by her use of “Chyang-mi-shi-khon,” translated as “ignorance,” meant to be an antonym to “Chyang.” However, not only is this phrase non-antonymous to “Chyang,” as it has just been shown, but it is not translated as “ignorance.” In Jaeschke, this expression is given in the form “chang-mi-she(s)-khan” [cang mi shes mkhan] and translated as “ignorant”; literally, it means “incapable of understanding anything.” Blavatsky, who could not find anything in the dictionary more suitable as an antonym for the word “omniscience,” decided to insert into her text something even remotely resembling it.

Not only “mahatma Morya” but also other characters of Blavatsky, in particular ‒ “the Chohan-Lama,” “the Chief of the Archive-registrars of the secret Libraries of the Dalai and Ta-shü-hlumpo Lamas,” and a “Gelung of the Inner Temple, a disciple of the Sacred Teachings,” were “taught” by Jaeschke. Two articles that Blavatsky prepared in 1882 were written as excerpts from letters of these two characters.[33] The entire Tibetan vocabulary of this “gelung” (Bas-pa, Phag-pa, Sang-gyas, Ngag-pa, A-tsa-ra, Thar-lam, Tul-pa, Dal-jor, Tong-pa-nyi, Dang-ma, Dzu-tul, Jang-khog), as well as partially the wording of the English translations of these words, were taken from Jaeschke's dictionary. His fellow the “Chohan-Lama” explicitly mentioned that he had attended a missionary school in Lahoula as a child, whereas the “Moravian brethren,” among whom Jaeschke was a member, worked precisely in Lahaul district, as was indicated on the title page of his dictionary. Apparently, Blavatsky made the “Chohan-Lama” mention it among other things in order to make sure in case after publishing these articles (which, by the way, never happened during her life) someone familiar with Jaeschke's dictionary would demand to explain why her highly learned Tibetan correspondents so often and so willingly resort to the fruits of his linguistic studies.



The identification of the literary sources for the whole Tibetan vocabulary used in “The Mahatma Letters” shows that Blavatsky hardly communicated with any living bearers of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition; in any case, there is nothing in her own works or in “The Letters” that proves the contrary. All of the Tibetan words they contain are borrowed from European (mostly English-language) literature published in the 1850s and early 1880s; all information about Tibetan culture and religion is taken from there as well. No new information about the history, culture, and religion of Tibet reported in “The Letters” and subsequently confirmed has been revealed.

The Tibetan elements were inserted into the letters of the “mahatmas” in order to impress two Britons, who knew almost nothing about Tibet, so the methods of falsification did not have to be too elaborate. Blavatsky drew and compiled these disparate elements from religious, linguistic and popular science literature, sometimes even from adjacent pages of a single book, picking up details as she went along and masking her borrowings by distorting transcriptions.

The nature and peculiarities of the reproduction of the Tibetan vocabulary in Blavatsky's works clearly show that she had no knowledge of the Tibetan language, not only at the level of basic grammar but even of a basic acquaintance with Tibetan writing. Those works on the Tibetan language that she used to compile the texts of “The Mahatma Letters” (Lewin's manual and Jaeschke's dictionary) contained descriptions of the both, but Blavatsky ignored the opportunity to fill this gap. This circumstance, given Blavatsky's undoubtedly remarkable intellectual capacity and memory, calls into question whether she had a genuine interest in Tibetan Buddhism, its teachings and literature. Meanwhile, her systematic use of data from a number of European publications on Tibetan religion and culture, without mentioning the books themselves or their authors, suggests that she purposely tried to create the appearance of such an interest and, moreover, of her own profound knowledge of the field.

In fact, the “terms” constructed with the help of Tibetan vocabulary arbitrarily extracted from dictionaries and other literature that came into her possession were used by her as an exotic wrapper for presenting to the public her own metaphysical fabricationsderivations based on European and Middle Eastern material. As for the rare authentic Tibeto-Buddhist terms found in “The Letters” (bde ba can, sems can, dkon mchog, stong pa nyid, etc.), they are stripped of their original meaning and interpreted by her in isolation from tradition.

Although Blavatsky caused a surge of interest in Tibetan Buddhism in the West with her activities, she herself had no such interest in it and even treated it with a considerable degree of disdain, feeling at liberty to treat fragments of its teachings freely, twisting them according to her own ideas. This attitude, coupled with direct declarations of a deeper knowledge of the Buddhist tradition than that possessed by its direct bearers, is quite in keeping with the standard Orientalist paradigm characteristic of European authors who in one way or another touched on the subject of the East in the XIX century.


Sources and Literature

Beal S. 1866. Translation of the Amitâbha Sûtra from Chinese // Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Beal S. 1871. A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese. ‒ London: Trübner & Co.

Blavatsky H. P. 1894:1. Tibetan Teachings \\ Lucifer, Vol. 15, No. 85.

Blavatsky H. P. 1894:2. Tibetan Teachings. Doctrines of the Holy “Lha”: // Lucifer, Vol. 15.

Blavatsky H. P. 1936. Letter to Mrs. Hollis Billings. Simla, Oct. 2 1881 // The Theosophical Forum. ‒ Point Loma, California: May 1936.

Blavatsky H. P. 1979. Collected Writings. Vol. VI. ‒ Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House.

Coleman W. 1895. The Sources of Madame Blavatsky's Writings. ‒ London, Longmans, Green, and Co., Appendix C. Pp. 353-366.

Goyos A. 2009. Tracing the Source of Tibetan Phrases Found in Mahatma Letters #54 and #92. URL: (accessed 09.12.2020).

Grechin B. S. 2013. A Buddhist's Attitude to Theosophy. A Historical and Linguistic Study. (accessed 09.12.2020).

Hare H. E., Hare W. L. 1936. Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters? ‒ London: Williams & Norgate Ltd.

Hodgson W. B. 1884. Notes of Northern Africa, the Sahara and Soudan. ‒ NY: Wiley and Putnam.

Huc, Gabet. 1866. Journey through Mongolia and Tibet to the Capital of the Dalai Lama {Russ.}. Moscow: K.S. Henrich Publishing House.

Jaeshcke H. A. 1866. Romanized Tibetan and English Dictionary. ‒ Kyelang.

Jäschke H. A. 1881. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Special Reference to the Prevailing Dialects. ‒ London.

Koeppen C. F. 1859. The Lamaic Hierarchy and Church. ‒ Berlin: Ferdinand Schneider.

Lewin T. H. 1879. A Manual of Tibetan. ‒ Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press.

Lhamo Pemba. 1996. Tibetan Proverbs. ‒ Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet, and the Journey of Tomas Manning to Lhasa ‒ London: Trübner & Co, 1881.

Reigle D. 1983. The Books of Kiu-te, or the Tibetan Buddhist Tantras: A Preliminary Analysis. ‒ San Diego: Wizards Bookshelf.

Reigle D. 2017. Some Mahatma Letters Sources. URL: (accessed 04.05.2020).

Schlagintweit, E. 1863. Buddhism In Tibet with an Account of the Buddhist Systems Preceding it in India. ‒ London: Trübner & Cо.

Spierenburg H. L. 1975. De Zeven Menselijke Beginselen in het Werk van H. P. Blavatsky en het Tibetaans Buddhisme // Tibetaans Boeddhisme. ‒ Amsterdam.

The Dhammapada. A Collection of Verses / transl. by M. Muller. ‒ Oxford University Press, 1881.

The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett / transl., compiled and with an introduction by A. T. Barker. ‒ London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923.

Udânavarga: a Collection of Verses from the Buddhist Canon. ‒ London: Trübner & Co., 1883.

Vinaya Texts. Part I / transl. from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenburg. ‒ Oxford University Press, 1881.

[1] Grechin, 2013.

[2] Schlagintweit, 1863. P. 101.

[3] Blavatsky, 1894:2. P. 97.

[4] “The Letters” meanwhile do use authentic Mongolian titular denominations, which, along with some Tibetan titles and a number of toponyms, were borrowed from the book of Huc and Gabet (1866), widely known in Europe and Russia.

[5] Koeppen, 1859. P. 253.

[6] Blavatsky. 1936, P. 345.

[7] Koeppen, 1859. P. 254.

[8] Koeppen, 1859. Pp. 23‒25, 27.

[9] Koeppen, 1859. P. 58.

[10] Koeppen, 1859. Pp. 112, 269, 361; 272, 360.

[11] Hereafter the letters are numbered according to the first edition (The Mahatma Letters..., 1923).

[12] See Blavatsky, 1894:1. Pp. 9‒17.

[13] Lewin, 1879. P. 167.

[14] Lewin, 1879. P. 43.

[15] This case is not the only one in which printing defects in books caused Blavatsky and her “mahatmas” to make curious mistakes. For example, in the letter No. 49, “Sankia K'houtchoo ‒ the precious wisdom” is given as an epithet of the Buddha. This hardly understandable phrase was inadvertently copied from Koeppen's book, where we find: “Sangdsche Kontschog, “Buddha-Kleinod”” (Koeppen, 1859. P. 292). The final “oo” instead of “og” probably appeared because of the poorly printed outline of the letter “g” in her copy of the book.

[16] Beal, 1871. Pp. 378‒379.

[17] Reigle, 2017.

[18] Beal, 1866. Pp. 136‒144.

[19] Beal, 1871. Pp. 30‒31.

[20] Beal, 1871. P. 90.

[21] Coleman,1895. Pp. 353‒366.

[22] Vinaya Texts... 1881. Pp. 73‒78.

[23] The Dhammapada... 1881. P. 34.

[24] Udânavarga... 1883. P. 93.

[25] Spierenburg, 1975. P. 74.

[26] Reigle, 1983.

[27] Narratives ... 1881. P. 338.

[28] See Koeppen, 1859. P. 267.

[29] Two other Tibetan words, given without translation in the text of “The Letters” and also intended to demonstrate the author's familiarity with Tibetan culture and language, are “akhu” (No. 24) (uncle) and “dzing dzing” (No. 24b) (not quite compos mentis). Both are taken from the already mentioned Jaeschke's dictionary.

[30] The Kabylie are a Berber people living in northern Algeria.

[31] Hodgson, 1844. P. 18.

[32] Lhamo Pemba, 1996. P. 129.

[33] See Blavatsky, 1894:1. Pp. 9‒17; Blavatsky, 1894:2. Pp. 97‒104.