How to Study The Secret Doctrine
A helpful road map for those daunted by the sheer size and complexity of Madame Blavatsky's masterwork
Guest article by Greg Wade
Introduction by Occult Mysteries
If we had a pound for every seeker who has told us they had been put off reading The Secret Doctrine by its sheer size and complexity we could afford to pay our contributors a very handsome fee. As it is, Greg Wade must be content with our sincere gratitude for contributing an article which tackles a vital subject long overdue for discussion. There is another class of seeker who is put off the book. Those who have read or been told that Blavatsky was a 'fraud' and a plagiarist. We addressed this criticism in an article published in 2017. We will not repeat ourselves except to say that those who think this have not read her books or any of the honest biographies about her life and work.
Another reason often cited is the so-called 'archaic' language in which the book is written. Frankly, this is not a fault one can lay at the feet of its author. Firstly because English was not her native language, or even her second language which, in common with most aristocratic Russians of her time, was French. Secondly, the book was copiously edited by G. R. S. Mead and other disciples of Blavatsky before publication. Finally, there were many books published around the same time which are considerably more 'archaic' in style than The Secret Doctrine. The real reason why many modern readers find the language difficult is that they have been reared on a diet of dumbed-down English. The works of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Haeckel, never mind Plato or Aristotle, are unknown to them. Or, as one reader once asked us "can you get it on Netflix?"
None of this is intended to disparage the genuine reluctance of sincere seekers to tackle the book. If we had been born at the very end of the last century rather than the middle, we too might well be daunted by the sheer size and complexity of this unique compendium of the Wisdom of the Ages. As it is we can but urge all those genuinely in search of Truth and Light to try to read it. If the excellent suggestions Greg Wade makes are followed and the reader takes their time, The Secret Doctrine is no more difficult to understand than a newspaper, yet considerably more beneficial and instructive!
Foreword by the author
The Secret Doctrine stands as a monumental work of Esoteric Philosophy that has captivated the minds of seekers, scholars, and even scientists ever since its publication in 1888. This extraordinary book is a profound exploration of the Ancient Wisdom, unveiling the fundamental principles that underlie the universe and our existence within it. Embarking on a study of H. P. Blavatsky's magnum opus is a transformative journey, delving deep into the realms of cosmology, metaphysics, and the perennial questions that have puzzled humanity since time immemorial. In this article I aim to detail some of the aims she had in mind when she conceived the work. I will also explore some of the ways in which the book can best be approached in order to make the task of studying it somewhat easier for those who have little or no knowledge of what this entails. In my Afterword I will examine one of the main purposes for the creation of the book and how its study can help all sincere students on their individual path of spiritual development and self-discovery.
As many of you will know, Madame Blavatsky was a prominent figure in the 19th-century spiritual renaissance. She dedicated her life to the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, drawing from various mystical traditions, philosophies, and sacred texts. In The Secret Doctrine she presents a comprehensive synthesis of her research, weaving together profound teachings from Eastern and Western traditions, ancient myths, and the scientific theories and discoveries of her time. She constantly encourages the reader to embark on their own, personal quest for hidden truths, to bravely challenge conventional beliefs and accepted theories, and to expand their understanding of the universe and man's place within it. In adopting this approach she was well ahead of her time. She never talks down to the reader, nor does she pander to popular prejudice or scientific orthodoxy as so many modern authors do. Every fact she presents, every conclusion she draws and every truth she presents is backed up with authoritative citations from the leading thinkers, scientists and philosophers of the period, as well as those of the past. This meticulous scholarship is underpinned with copious footnotes and a comprehensive index. As she herself says in her introduction to the book, quoting the French essayist, Michel de Montaigne:
"I have here made only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the string that ties them. Pull the 'string' to pieces and cut it up in shreds, if you will. As for the nosegay of FACTS — you will never be able to make away with these. You can only ignore them, and no more."
The book and its contents
The Secret Doctrine was first published in two volumes in 1888. The copy illustrated above is the edition published by The Theosophy Company, Los Angeles, California, in the USA in 1925. This consists of both volumes bound in one and is verbatim with the original edition. The first volume entitled Cosmogenesis explains in broad terms how a cosmos or solar system comes into being from a physical and also a spiritual perspective. The second volume — Anthropogenesis — details the evolution of mankind on Earth, also from a physical and spiritual point of view. A comprehensive index completes this volume. The teachings from The Secret Doctrine are based on the Book of Dzyan — a very ancient text written in Senzar, the sacred mystery language of the Atlantean Adepts. This language is pictorial or symbolic in form and was the common tongue of the initiates and sages of ancient times. Blavatsky stated that: "the book is utterly unknown to our Philologists, or at any rate was never heard of by them under its present name." Hence it is not surprising that it has long been dismissed as a hoax. It is my personal view that any open-minded reader who carefully studies even a few of the stanzas quoted in the book cannot be left in any doubt of their authenticity, as the following example (excerpted from stanza number seven in Volume one) shows.
"This is thy present wheel, said the Flame to the Spark. Thou art myself, my image, and my shadow. I have clothed myself in thee, and thou art my Vahan [vehicle] to the day, 'Be with us,' when thou shalt re-become myself and others, thyself and me. Then the builders, having donned their first clothing, descend on radiant earth and reign over men — who are themselves. . ."
Interestingly, 'Be with us', meaning the Ascension longed for by so many New Age mystics, was also known in ancient Egypt under the term 'Come unto us', as we can read in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Madame Blavatsky was the first to translate a portion of the Book of Dzyan into English. In the first volume only seven stanzas were published, and in the second volume twelve, which together make up a fraction of the total number of stanzas in existence, most of which have never been translated and remain in the keeping of the secret Brotherhood whom Blavatsky served. Thus, she is presenting just a partial exposition of the Esoteric Philosophy. She repeats this important qualification in several places in the book.
Arrangement and scope
The Secret Doctrine is arranged in a particular way. The first part of volume one is devoted to a translation of, and commentary upon, seven stanzas from the Book of Dzyan. Part two delves into the development and significance of symbolism while part three compares the speculations and theories of 19th century materialistic science with the true facts and wisdom of Occult Science. Each volume also includes a lengthy introduction and conclusion. Volume one (Cosmogenesis) begins with a short Preface which concludes with the eminent statement that the book is "written in the service of humanity, and by humanity and the future generations it must be judged. Its author recognises no inferior court of appeal. Abuse she is accustomed to; calumny she is daily acquainted with; at slander she smiles in silent contempt." Well. . .Blavatsky has certainly been thoroughly slandered during the century that has elapsed since the publication of the book and is still being calumniated today, especially by so-called 'occultists'. It remains to be seen what generations yet unborn will think of the book. . .
The Preface is followed by a 40 page Introduction and detailed Table of Contents for both volumes. This leads into the Proem — another word for a preface popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. This 24-page series of preliminary observations is well worth reading for the light it sheds on the whole book. Readers who skip the Proem, or the Introduction, or both, have only themselves to blame if they later find the material 'too difficult.' As Blavatsky herself says towards the end of the Proem: "...this work is written for the instruction of students of Occultism. . ." (my emphasis). It was never intended for the reader who is a 'bit curious about the occult' and knows nothing about philosophy, science or theology. There are far better books for such readers many of which are reviewed by the authors of this website on their occult books pages. The introduction to volume two (Anthropogenesis) is called Preliminary Notes. This begins with a quotation from the Gospel of John, chapter VII, verse 16: "My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me." This reinforces the point made earlier, when Blavatsky quotes Michel de Montaigne in her Introduction to volume one. Volume two ends with the Addenda (additional material), subtitled Science and the Secret Doctrine contrasted. The two volumes share a similar theme in that they show the correspondence and interdependence between the cosmos and man preserved in the well-known Hermetic saying 'As above, so below'. It is important to keep this correspondence in mind as the teachings which are related to the cosmos can be applied on a human level too.
The aims of The Secret Doctrine were many. It was written not only to help the individual seeker after Truth, but also to enlarge the understanding of 19th century Westerners in general who had hitherto been totally ignorant of the Ancient Wisdom. As the subtitle tells us, the book attempts to synthesise Science, Religion and Philosophy. In the distant past these three branches of enquiry were not separate as they are today, but constituted individual aspects of one divine system of knowledge which was used intelligently for the benefit of all mankind. In writing The Secret Doctrine Madame Blavatsky endeavoured to show that all the main religions of the modern world took their origin from the same source; namely an ancient wisdom religion which encompassed scientific spirituality and esoteric philosophy, as well as many other important disciplines concerning the advancement of intelligent civilization. But more importantly it emphasized that the study and practice of these disciplines can aid in the advancement of the seeker along their unique evolutionary journey. Blavatsky also revealed that it is possible to approach spirituality in a scientific way, thereby expanding the boundaries of material science beyond the physical realm to embrace the non-physical dimension. But this illuminating avenue of learning will only reveal itself to those who are sincere and unselfish in their persistent pursuit of Truth and undeterred by the many obstacles which inevitably lie along the occult path.
Many of the esoteric subjects revealed in The Secret Doctrine were completely unknown to the West when it was first published in 1888. You may think that the doctrines of reincarnation, karma and the survival of consciousness after death have always been known in the West. This is not true. It was Blavatsky who first revealed them. Previously they had only been known to a select number of initiates. Some of the book is less relevant today as material science has revised its theories and in many cases confirmed the occult facts Blavatsky first brought to the attention of Western readers over 130 years ago. One such fact is the constitution of the atom which, as science has belatedly discovered, consists mostly of empty space. Another are the many holes in the prevailing theories about gravity which the authors of this website discuss in one of their scientific articles. However, most of the teachings in the book are true for all time; a fact which has been pointed out on this website many times in many different articles.
The Secret Doctrine has the reputation of being daunting to approach and difficult to understand. Part of the perceived difficulty lies in the utilisation of words and concepts from different languages such as Sanskrit, Tibetan, Greek, Hebrew, etc. This was necessary as Blavatsky was comparing different philosophies and traditions throughout history. In addition, she used many foreign terms because there were often no equivalent words in English to represent the ideas she wished to convey. Karma, Manas and Buddhi (not to be confused with the Buddha) are three examples of this which have entered the English language. The Esoteric Philosophy points towards the existence of higher realms of being which we naturally do not have words to describe adequately. Sanskrit on the other hand, and to a lesser extent ancient Greek and Hebrew, are able to convey esoteric truths and metaphysical principles, laws and concepts with a clarity and simplicity impossible in modern European languages. But this raises a further difficulty as it takes a truly inspired and gifted person to translate such elevated spiritual ideas and subtle meanings. In my view, Blavatsky overcomes this difficulty very well, especially, as I said earlier, given that English was not her native language.
Another difficulty are the many references in The Secret Doctrine to manuscripts and books of the past which are completely unknown to many modern readers. Blavatsky's purpose in citing these works was to show that the facts, laws, doctrines and ideas she presented were not new. They had been known and taught for millennia. It is one of the worst conceits of our generation to think that there is nothing the ancients knew that we do not know, or understand much better. Anyone who seriously studies The Secret Doctrine with an open mind will quickly learn that so-called 'civilization' did not begin with the Greeks and that material science and science-based disciplines are not the only valid ways to discover things. The book is not trying to convey knowledge in a conventional way by filling the reader's head with a whole host of difficult and often incomprehensible concepts. If that were the aim, then The Secret Doctrine would have become just one more philosophical work among many. Its primary aim is to awaken the power of spiritual intuition within the mind of the student. In other words to develop the faculties of the higher mind. But engaging in higher intellectual reasoning is only one side of the equation. The other lies in the cultivation of our spiritual potentialities through prayer, meditation, and spiritual exercises. Blavatsky sums up these challenges in one of her articles in which she writes:
"A work which compares several dozens of philosophies and over half a dozen of world-religions, a work which has to unveil the roots with the greatest precautions, as it can only hint at the secret blossoms here and there cannot be comprehended at a first reading, nor even after several, unless the reader elaborates for himself a system for it"
(Collected Writings, vol. 12, p. 235).
To put it another way, our unaided intellect is inadequate to the task of understanding The Secret Doctrine. It needs spiritual intuition too. Intellect can analyse very well, but only intuition can synthesize the results of that analysis.
So, as we have seen, this is not a book which can be casually perused in the usual manner. In fact, Blavatsky explicitly told her private pupils: "Reading The Secret Doctrine page by page as one reads any other book will only end in confusion." When these same students asked for further guidance she told them: "The first thing to do, even if it takes years, is to get some grasp of the 'Three Fundamental Principles' [Propositions] given in the Proem to Volume One." This is perhaps the most difficult task confronting the new reader as the Proem deals with some very complex and advanced occult propositions. On the surface, much of it appears to be a litany of puzzling, contradictory statements. But if we look deeper and further we see that Blavatsky had no intention of confusing her readers. On the contrary, the method she uses identifies and highlights the gaps in our understanding. When we keep re-reading and attempt to deeply contemplate the material, we will gradually widen our mental faculties until these initial contradictions fall into alignment and become easier to comprehend. Unfortunately, we live in an age where we are taught what to think, not how to think. This undesirable condition is propagated on purpose of course. Blavatsky then recommends that the student should "Follow this up by a study of the Recapitulation — the numbered items in the Summing Up to Vol. 1 (Part 1). Then take the Preliminary Notes (Vol. 2) and the Conclusion (Vol. 2)."
The mistake most new readers make is that they don't follow Madame Blavatsky's own recommendations. Instead, they start reading from page one onwards as one would normally do. But as they continue, they find that they struggle to gain a clear idea of almost anything. Their eyes glaze over, their head swims, and the more they read the greater their confusion grows. But if one follows the suggestions given above these pitfalls can be avoided and the task becomes somewhat easier. Madame Blavatsky also advised her personal pupils to constantly keep four main critical concepts in mind. In her own words these are:
- "The Fundamental Unity of All Existence. This unity is a thing altogether different from the common notion of unity — as when we say that a nation or an army is united; or the like. The teaching is not that. It is that existence is One Thing, not any collection of things linked together. Fundamentally there is One Being. The Being has two aspects, positive and negative. The positive is Spirit, or Consciousness. The negative is Substance, the subject of consciousness. This Being is the Absolute in its primary manifestation. Being absolute there is nothing outside it. It is All-Being. It is indivisible, else it would not be absolute. If a portion could be separated, that remaining could not be absolute, because there would at once arise the question of Comparison between it and the separated part. Comparison is incompatible with any idea of absoluteness. Therefore it is clear that this fundamental One Existence, or Absolute Being, must be the Reality in every form there is."
When one of Blavatsky's pupils complained that he did not think many people who studied The Secret Doctrine would grasp this concept, she replied: "Theosophy is for those who can think, or for those who can drive themselves to think, not mental sluggards." Harsh words, but true.
- "The second idea to hold fast to is that there Is No Dead Matter. Every last atom is alive. It cannot be otherwise since every atom is itself fundamentally Absolute Being."
- "The third basic idea to be held is that Man is the Microcosm. As he is so, then all the Hierarchies of the Heavens exist within him. But in truth there is neither Macrocosm nor Microcosm but One Existence. Great and small are such only as viewed by a limited human consciousness." This also reminds us to never lose sight of the first and most important principle regarding the unity in everything.
- "The fourth and last basic idea to be held is that expressed in the Great Hermetic Axiom — 'as above, so below'. It really sums up and synthesizes all the others. As is the Inner, so is the Outer; as is the Great, so is the Small; as it is above, so it is below: there is but One Life and Law; and he that worketh it is One. Nothing is Inner, nothing is Outer; nothing is Great, nothing is Small; nothing is High, nothing is Low, in the Divine Economy." When another of her pupils suggested that following her suggestions must be exceedingly fatiguing for some people, she smiled and said. "One must not be a fool and drive oneself into the madhouse by attempting too much at first." The experienced occultists among my readers will recognise that the four concepts Madame Blavatsky enumerates are the foundation of Occult Science without which it is impossible to understand any of its branches, such as astrology, numerology or the magical arts.
As I've tried to show, The Secret Doctrine cannot be studied in a general way, least of all intellectually, as one might read a scientific textbook. Reading the book requires prolonged meditative study over many years to slowly unlock its profound and transformative qualities. You might well ask if the Ancient Wisdom has a place in the current age of instant information and gratification? At a time when smartphones and other electronic devices dominate our attention, where social media has destroyed our ability to concentrate while also creating a shallow, apathetic, self-obsessed and debased culture, the result of which is evidenced by the stratospheric rise in mental health issues — particularly among young people. Against this often dismal outlook, how many possess even a passing interest in genuine spiritual elevation, never mind the qualities or drive necessary to unlock the deeper meaning encapsulated in the most profound metaphysical ideas contained in The Secret Doctrine? Unfortunately, very few indeed as has always been the case. A near endless parade of alluring distractions and attractions bombard the lower mind and inhibit the proper utilisation of our most precious gift — namely the intelligent use of our conscious free will. The author struggles with all the dazzling allurements of modern society as much as the next person but has thankfully learned the painful truth that material pursuits and pleasures are all too fleeting. It is only the search for, and attainment of true spiritual knowledge and wisdom which can satisfy the innate unconscious yearning to return to our rightful home among our sacred kin. May the light and spiritual love contained within the luminous pages of The Secret Doctrine inspire your heart and light your way inward and onward in these troubled times.
Foreword, article and afterword © Greg Wade. Introduction © Copyright occult-mysteries.org.
All worldwide rights reserved. Published 22 October 2023.