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Book Reviews

Contents    Reviews



ABDILL, Edward: The Secret Gateway — Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, Quest Books Wheaton 2005, 241 pages. Review by Patricia Ossenberg in Theosophy in Australia June 2007.

BLAVATSKY, HP/ALGEO, John (ed): The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, Volume I, 1861-1879, HP Blavatsky Collected Writings, Quest Books TPH Wheaton 2003, xix+ 634 pages. Review by Pedro Oliveira in Theosophy in Australia November 2005.

BRADFORD, Roderick: D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, Prometheus Books NY 2006, 412 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia March 2008.

FULLER, Jean Overton: Krishnamurti and the Wind — a Biography, Theosophical Publishing House London 2003, 300 pages. Review by Brian Parry in Theosophy in Australia November 2005.

GODWIN, Joscelyn: The Theosophical Enlightenment, State Uni. of NY Press 1944, 448 pages. Review by John Cooper in Theosophy in Australia September 1996.

GOMES, Michael (ed): Isis Unveiled, Secrets of the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, Madame Blavatsky’s First Work, Helena P Blavatsky, A New Abridgement for To-day, Quest Wheaton 1977, xvii+274 pages. Review by John Cooper in Theosophy in Australia June 1998.

Additional Notes about Isis Unveiled, original Edition, 1877.

Inspiration from the Ancient Wisdom At the Feet of the Master; Light on the Path; The Voice of the Silence, Quest Books TPH Wheaton 1999, 140 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia September 2001.

OLCOTT, Henry S: The Buddhist Catechism, TPH Adyar 3rd ed 1908/2006, 116+ pages. Review by Richard Larkin in Theosophy in Australia September 2007.

PERT, Alan: Red Cactus: The Life of Anna Kingsford, Author-published, Australia, 2006, 231 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia June 2007.

PROTHERO, Stephen: The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, Indiana Uni. Press USA 1996, 242 pages. Review by Linda Harris in Theosophy in Australia September 1997.



ABDILL, Edward: The Secret Gateway — Modern Theosophy and the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, Quest Books Wheaton 2005, 241 pages. Review by Patricia Ossenberg in Theosophy in Australia June 2007.

It is important that the presentation of the Ageless Wisdom be reiterated periodically in terms of modern thought and contemporary trends, bringing the somewhat nebulous mass of ‘spiritual’ and ‘new age’ literature into perspective. To this end The Secret Gateway, being comprehensive, practical and well-indexed, provides a successful focal point.

Readers will benefit from Ed Abdill’s extensive experience gleaned from a long association with the Theosophical Society, for which he has held lecturing, teaching and administrative positions. His twofold aim is to show that the fundamental propositions of Theosophy can be found throughout nature, and to encourage readers to discover how these same universal principles operate in their own lives. The method of presentation has been carefully planned and clearly set out, starting with the enquiring mind, from which subjects such as knowledge and beliefs are discussed in relation to truth. The tenor of the book is expressed in the following quotation: ‘To experience truth is to understand a principle’.

The First and Second Fundamental Propositions [of The Secret Doctrine by HP Blavatsky] are explored and simply explained, using Blavatsky’s writings as a base. Ed Abdill also draws examples from both scripture and science to suggest that these are essentially compatible with theosophical thought. Throughout the text practical exercises, such as the expansive visualisation of oneself as space, can help the reader to identify certain principles.

Before tackling the Third Fundamental Proposition and the subject of conscious evolution that characterises the development of our unique human potential, Ed Abdill takes care to prepare his readers, devoting three chapters to the complexities of human nature. The personal ego, the soul, and near-death experiences are among the topics discussed. Other topics are the history of the Theosophical Society, The Mahatma Letters and a curiously practical story relating to world views, which leads to a statement of the Theosophical Worldview.

The final chapters concern the Path and its direction toward study, meditation and service. Each is treated in turn with simplicity, and emphasis on the experiential. To conclude, we are taken along the ‘Steep and Thorny Road’, through the portals or gates which guard the Paramita Heights.

Theosophy always points toward the eternal reality beyond the sensate world … The gateway that leads to the experience of inner self is secret because it is totally unknown until experienced.

The easy, almost narrative style of the book palls a little at times, but is cleverly balanced with insight and sharpness of relevant quotations from theosophical source material. So, even though we are never really asked to leave the solid ground of personal experience, we are not denied a view into the depths of the Ancient Wisdom.

BLAVATSKY, HP/ALGEO, John (ed): The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, Volume I, 1861-1879, HP Blavatsky Collected Writings, Quest Books TPH Wheaton 2003, xix+ 634 pages. Review by Pedro Oliveira in Theosophy in Australia November 2005. For text online see Links to Theosophical Texts Online.

The launch of the American edition of H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings was announced by its editor, Boris de Zirkoff, a life-long student of Madame Blavatsky’s works, in the December 1949 issue of The Theosophist. In his article he went on to say that

As to her writings in her native Russian, they represent perhaps the least known aspect of her many-sided mind, and are still a terra incognita to thousands of students who have no access to them. Many of these Russian writings have never yet been translated into any other language.

The March 1978 issue of the same magazine mentioned above features an interview with de Zirkoff. When asked what remains to be done to complete the Collected Writings, he said:

In addition to that, there is the problem in regard to HPB’s letters; there are her letters to Sinnett and twice as many from archives, booklets and magazines. About 600 of her letters are on file in my office. They are all typed, checked and compared with microfilms. Many have been translated into English from Russian or French. Most of them however, are in English. The question is what to do with this material which will cover about two volumes.

The editor of the volume under review explains in his preface the involvement of the late Dr John Cooper in the project. Dr Cooper, who passed away in 1998, was awarded posthumously a doctoral degree for his thesis on the letters of HPB by the University of Sydney. Dr John Algeo was subsequently appointed as the new editor of the project, assisted by an Editorial Committee which consists of Daniel H. Caldwell, Dara Eklund, Robert Ellwood, Joy Mills and Nicholas Weeks. The editorial methods used in the production of this volume include background essays for each period covered by the letters plus introductory notes to each letter as well as comments on date and sources.

In some of her letters, HPB reveals aspects of her enigmatic inner life. Writing to her younger sister, Vera de Zhelihovsky (1875) she says:

I am embarked on a great work treating of theology, ancient beliefs and the secret of the occult sciences, but fear nothing for me; I am sure of my facts, more or less. I should not, perhaps, know well how to talk of these abstract things, but all essential matter is dictated to me. …. All that I shall write will not be my own; I shall be nothing more than the pen, the head which will think for me will be that of one who knows all. ….

Criticism has been levelled at the editor for including in the present volume the so-called Solovyov letters as their authenticity has not been established since the Russian originals are unavailable. The late Geoffrey Farthing, one of the most admired and earnest students of HPB’s teachings, in a letter of 25 May 2004 to a correspondent, commented on the criticism:

These small passages relating to some of HPB’s imperfections could very well have been written by her because she never in any sense regarded herself, as a personality, to be in any way perfect and was mindful of her defects and deficiencies, as indeed were the Masters. (.…) I think .... has in his mind put her up on too high a pedestal and does not like to accept the idea that she in her person may not have been as perfect as he would have liked her to have been. …. I do not think that John Algeo has done her any disservice and I think it unlikely ultimately that he has attributed to HPB letters that she herself did not write. There would be no point in his doing so and in any case he is quite honest in his comments on all the documents stating clearly in some cases that the originals are no longer available.

This volume is an important addition to the collection of H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings for it presents an intimate portrayal of an extraordinary woman through her correspondence with family members, relatives, friends, co-workers and enemies. It is a very welcome complement to the teaching part of her writings.

BRADFORD, Roderick: D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker, Prometheus Books NY 2006, 412 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia March 2008.

There are some intriguing comments in letters 37 and 42 of The Mahatma Letters to AP Sinnett, e.g. “… Mr Bennett … is one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds” and “B-- is an honest man and of a sincere heart, besides being one of tremendous moral courage and a martyr to boot. Such our KH loves …”. Who is this man? And why this mention in The Mahatma Letters?

D. M. Bennett was a courageous and principled 19th century publisher, social activist and defender of freedom of thought, and Roderick Bradford’s absorbing and very readable biography ‘brings him to life’. Equally compelling is his account of a period in American history when freedom of thought was under sustained attack. The book is well-researched, effectively using extracts from historical material.

Bennett was mostly self-educated with a burning desire for knowledge and a keen intellect. Fearless in his attacks on narrow-minded morals campaigners he exposed religious bigotry in particular. He was inspired by Thomas Paine’s ideal that service to humanity is the only true religion. In 1873 he founded a magazine, The Truth Seeker, which became a potent instrument to promote free thought and included both his own and others’ contributions robustly challenging aspects of the status quo. He also became the country’s leading publisher of liberal literature. However, his public attack on bigotry and narrow-mindedness brought a backlash from powerful social forces and some of his publications were censored and prohibited. In 1879 he was jailed for eleven months for allegedly disseminating obscene matter through the mail. A petition for pardon containing 230,000 signatures, addressed to the American President, was unsuccessful and indicates not only the influence of his enemies but also the extent of support he engendered.

Bennett provided a short-lived but important contribution to theosophical history having significant involvement with HP Blavatsky, Annie Besant, HS Olcott and the Theosophical Society. He introduced readers of The Truth Seeker to HP Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled when it was published in 1877; he was in contact with Annie Besant and shared the platform with her at the Congress of the Universal Federation of Freethinkers in Brussels in 1880, before Besant joined the Theosophical Society in 1889. In 1882, while in India as part of a world tour, Bennett contacted the Theosophical Society and was invited to reside with Blavatsky and Olcott. While there he joined the Society, impressed by its promotion of freedom of thought and by its motto “There is no Religion higher than Truth”. He died later that year, soon after returning to America.

Bradford’s biography brings to a modern audience the priceless contribution, made by a remarkable man, to the freedoms that we now generally take for granted but which continue to be under attack by many overt and covert social forces.

FULLER, Jean Overton: Krishnamurti and the Wind — a Biography, Theosophical Publishing House London 2003, 300 pages. Review by Brian Parry in Theosophy in Australia November 2005.

Another biography of Krishnamurti, and by a theosophist at that, easily fills the mind with apprehension. What new things can be said? What old embarrassments will be rehashed? However the fears were quickly banished. Fuller’s book is so absorbing that I read it in two whole days.

This is a readable, scholarly and imaginative work that is both biography and history. It also provides fascinating insights into the author herself as she draws on her own extensive interactions with Krishnamurti.

She covers the main events in his long life against a background assumption that Krishnamurti was in fact destined for the role envisaged by Besant and Leadbeater. But her view is not blind faith. Each viewpoint is carefully explained and the documentary sources fully noted. Where the author speculates she makes it very clear that this is her speculation. A classic example is her question as to whether or not Leadbeater had maintained his intimate contact with the Masters and occult powers during the unexpectedly painful ‘process’. This speculation is advanced as a possible reason that Leadbeater was unable to offer advice as to whether or how it might be ameliorated.

A most attractive feature is the easy way in which she deals with the overshadowing of Krishnamurti on the one hand and some of the details of his private life on the other that, for many, will seem incompatible. Instead of delicately omitting reference to his adultery over many years with the wife of his closest confidant, as so many previous authors have done, she handles it as a matter of fact and offers an explanation for it. The person who emerges is at once easier to understand as a man without detracting from his role as a world teacher.

Students of theosophical history will find many well-known characters weaving in and out of the central story. Of some, Wedgwood and Arundale in particular, she is very critical. Of Besant and Leadbeater she is supportive but is never afraid to question their views or pronouncements. Of others she presents them as caught up in a situation beyond their imaginings and is sympathetic to their fears, wilder enthusiasms or criticisms.

On the evidence of Krishnamurti’s own statements she accepts the role of the Masters in his ‘process’ but even here she is not afraid to question which Master did what. Above all she places the Krishnamurti phenomenon squarely within the modern theosophical movement — for her it was no aberration but a continuation of the work begun by H.P. Blavatsky — and which continues to-day.

GODWIN, Joscelyn: The Theosophical Enlightenment, State Uni. of NY Press 1944, 448 pages. Review by John Cooper in Theosophy in Australia, September 1996.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is one of the most important books ever written on the history of the occult. The author with a charming yet erudite style tells us all we need to know about the English occult world from the time of the French Revolution to the early part of this century. In this volume students of the writings of Madame Blavatsky will find the essence of the teachings of many of the sages about whom she wrote. In addition these occultists are linked to the social and political background of their time and the reader will also be able to trace their links to one another.

The Theosophical Enlightenment is in three parts. The first deals with a revisionist approach to myth which developed into a universal view of history. The personages in this section include Richard Payne Knight, Sir William Jones, Henry O’Brien, Thomas Inman and Godfrey Higgens whose Anacalypsis was seen by one contemporary reviewer as a precursor to Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. In this chapter Professor Godwin does the reader a service in summarising the 1,500 pages of the Anacalypsis.

The second part deals with the occult sciences in England up to 1850 and covers such diverse characters as Emmanuel Swedenborg, Francis Barrett (author of The Magus), the novelist Bulwer-Lytton and Frederick Hockley.

The third portion views the rise of Spiritualism and deals in some detail with the mysterious Emma Hardinge Britten who was associated with the founding of the Theosophical Society. It also outlines the origins of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Christian disciples of Jacob Boehme, the Rosicrucians such as PB Randolf and Hargrave Jennings. Godwin also investigates the mysterious Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.

Dr Godwin sees Madame Blavatsky as a product of the sceptical enlightenment of the 19th century who brought together in the Theosophical Society the two threads of western and oriental occultism. He devotes well over 50 pages to the early Theosophical Society and brings forth a number of little-known details. The research is this volume is encyclopaedic and fascinating. I recommend The Theosophical Enlightenment as essential reading for those students interested in the history of esoteric ideas and in particular for students of Madame Blavatsky.

GOMES, Michael (ed): Isis Unveiled, Secrets of the Ancient Wisdom Tradition, Madame Blavatsky’s First Work, Helena P Blavatsky, A New Abridgement for To-day, Quest Wheaton 1977, xvii+274 pages. Review by John Cooper in Theosophy in Australia, June 1998.

Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine has been abridged on several occasions first by Katherine Hillard, then by Ernest Wood and finally by Christmas Humphreys with Elizabeth Preston. Her The Key to Theosophy has been abridged, notably by Joy Mills. The volume under review is the first attempt to produce an abridgement of Isis Unveiled.

The first question a reviewer must ask is why bring out an abridged edition of a work that is currently available in three editions — the de Zirkoff edition from Wheaton and two editions, based on the original 1877 publication, by Theosophy Company and Theosophical University Press? The answer to this question lies within the nature of the original work, which contains a large amount of material that is out of date dealing with 19th century science and religion.

The Editor, Michael Gomes, writes in his Foreword:

‘If the structure could be cleared of extraneous matter, what wonders might be revealed? With the hope of making Isis Unveiled more accessible, the present abridgement has been undertaken. It is not an easy task to remove more than three-quarters of an author’s work. Yet when lengthy quotations …have been pruned away, a thread of continuity emerges with startling clarity through the labyrinth of words, highlighting the basic concepts that Blavatsky was trying to explain’.

Accepting for the moment this argument we must next ask just what has been removed from this edition? Looking at Blavatsky’s Preface we find that much of the last two pages have been deleted. These deal with statements made by the then Pope and by the materialistic scientist Tyndall plus a prediction as to the acceptance of her volumes by Christians, scientists and others. These deletions are acceptable, although they contain some Blavatskyian irony!

The lengthy section titled ‘Before the Veil’ is totally deleted. As the greater part of this section was written by Professor Alexander Wilder this deletion is warranted.

Checking through the first chapter of Isis Unveiled the major deletions deal with obscure texts, primal religions and little known cults. Titles of texts have been modernised and that enigmatic Kabalistic volume the Sepher DiTseniutha is spelt as we find it in the writings of Gershom Scholem. Blavatsky had originally spelt it as Siphra Dzenioutha and this spelling was followed by Leonard Bosman who spelt it as Sepher Dzyanioutha, a corruption which led Scholem to state that Blavatsky’s The Stanzas of Dzyan was taken from this book. However even a cursory glance at both books show they are very different.

So here are my conclusions on this new version. If you have not read Isis Unveiled then this book is essential theosophical reading. If you have read the original text then this book is not needed unless you wish a refresher. For this reviewer much of the charm of the original is contained in its obscure references and mysteries they reveal and these are not always included in the new version.

What is lacking in this volume is any critical comments on the Blavatsky text. On page 26 mention is made of an obscure Oriental school called Svadhavika and they are described as Hindus. Then on page 181 they are described as Nepalese Buddhists. Both descriptions are given by Blavatsky in the original edition of Isis, and both appear to be incorrect as there is no known School, in either Hinduism or Buddhism, with this name. Here we must realise that portions, at least, of Blavatsky’s writings are based on the Orientalism of her day and that we now know far more about Hinduism and Buddhism than was known in the 19th century.

Finally this book is highly recommended for reading, particularly by non-theosophists who are puzzled by the fascination Blavatsky still hold for many students.

Additional Notes about Isis Unveiled, original edition:

BLAVATSKY, HP: Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology. vol I: Science, vol II Theology. JW Bouton London & NY 1877, 708 pages.

HP Blavatsky was one of the founders, in 1875, of the Theosophical Society. A prolific writer, her first major work was Isis Unveiled which made a sensational impact when published. It comprehensively covers philosophical, religious, scientific, mythological, allegorical and symbolical facts and theories, pointing to the antiquity of the occult tradition. Some of its chapter headings are: phenomena and forces; theories respecting psychic phenomena; some mysteries of nature; cyclic phenomena; Egyptian wisdom; inner and outer man; psychological and physical marvels; realities and illusion. It is a book that may be read at random or from cover to cover.

The birth of Isis Unveiled was dramatic and raises some interesting issues. Colonel Henry Olcott, a co-founder of the Theosophical Society, who was with Madame Blavatsky when she was writing it, gives an interesting account of the background of its to its writing in his biographical work Old Diary Leaves, vol I, published in 1895. He covers 95 pages discussing many of those issues. One example: in considering how Blavatsky was able to refer to such a large number of reference sources when she seemed to have access to only a moderate library he asks:

‘Whence did HPB draw the materials which compose Isis, and which cannot be traced to accessible literary sources of quotation? From the Astral Light and by her soul-senses, from her Teachers — the “Brothers”, “Adepts”, “Sages”, “Masters”, as they have been variously called. How do I know it? By working two years with her on Isis and many more years on other literary work.’


Selection of its title added some drama. Originally it was to be called the Veil of Isis but it was not known before a substantial number of printing plates had been prepared that another book of this title has already been published. The title Isis Unveiled was then chosen. In The Theosophist of August 1931, C Jinarajadasa notes:

‘The whole of the first volume in the 1st edition and in all the subsequent editions printed from the same stereo-typed plates, even as late as 1886, bears inside on each even page at top the title The Veil of Isis. But in the 2nd volume the title is Isis Unveiled. Evidently the whole of the 1st volume had been set up and stereo-typed before it was decided to change the title.’

Inspiration from the Ancient Wisdom At the Feet of the Master; Light on the Path; The Voice of the Silence, Quest Books TPH Wheaton 1999, 140 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia September 2001. The texts of the three books referred to are included in Links to Theosophical Texts Online.

This publication is aimed at the general, contemporary reader and includes three small books that are classics in theosophical literature. They are usually considered to be spiritual guidebooks and each relates to the concept of ‘The Path’.

At the Feet of the Master was first published in 1910 and is the work of Alcyone (J. Krishnamurti). It provides a simple guide to right behaviour and is dedicated to ‘ those who knock’.

Light on the Path, first published in 1885, was ‘written down by MC’ later identified as Mabel Collins. The title page describes it as ‘a treatise written for the personal use of those who are ignorant of the eastern wisdom and who desire to enter its influence’. It contains rules augmented by notes. During 1887 and 1888 comments by the author on some of the rules were published in Lucifer and later editions of the book generally included those comments. They are not in this edition — although the useful essay ‘Karma’ has been included.

The Voice of the Silence was produced in 1889 by H. P. Blavatsky and is dedicated to ‘the few’. It consists of verses that range in length from several words to a few sentences. These are in three fragments, translated and annotated by Blavatsky, which she says are extracts from a longer work The Book of the Golden Precepts, another spiritual guidebook.

Readers need to know that the three books are not reprinted with their original texts but have been subjected to some editing — ‘modernisation’ is the word the publishers use — and inevitably questions arise as to the necessity for such editing. Light on the Path as a work with a ‘complex internal structure and considerable variations in its style’ has been the most modernised. At the Feet of the Master is the most recent publication and as it is written in somewhat plain language the publishers considered it needed the least modernising. The Voice of the Silence has a more poetic, perhaps archaic, style which is an integral part of the work and is the least suited to editing so restraint was exercised — although it should be noted that all diacritical marks have been omitted from the Sanskrit words of which there are quite a few. One wonders why — are diacritics considered a distraction in this instance?

Some other examples of the editing:

What are we saying about our attitudes to these theosophical classics when we feel we cannot publish them in their original forms — that we need to ‘modernise’ them? It seems to me that because of their importance to theosophical students, and because of their historical significance, there should be serious consideration whether editing is appropriate. Is there an implication that the three books in their original format are too difficult for the ‘general, contemporary’ reader?

If so, what impression does this give to those who are attracted to the Theosophical Society and its principles? It is important that our presentation of theosophical literature is pertinent to contemporary society but is it also important that we attract serious students to achieve that end. The dedications and title-page comments of the books clearly indicate that special effort is needed when studying them.

We need to stretch our understanding of theosophical concepts, to embrace their apparent difficulties, to explore their depth as well as their breadth, and to encourage others to do the same. Further, books reflect the background, wisdom and style of their authors and the cultures in which they were written — this provides their potency. ‘Modernising’ them may significantly dilute their impact.

These comments, however, should not detract from the value of this 3-in-1 publication. Many readers will probably find this version useful and Quest Books is to be commended for providing it in this handy and physically well-presented format.

OLCOTT, Henry S: The Buddhist Catechism, TPH Adyar 3rd ed 1908/2006, 116+ pages. Review by Richard Larkin in Theosophy in Australia September 2007. For text online see Links to Theosophical Texts Online.

As this year marks the centenary of Colonel Olcott’s passing, it is a pleasure to find that TPH has republished one of his classic works, The Buddhist Catechism. First published in 1881, this volume is a reissue of the final edition published in 1908.

Though a small book (116 pages plus prefaces), The Buddhist Catechism expertly covers the basics of Buddhist philosophy in a clear but insightful way. The reader should note that this book concentrates on Theravada Buddhism, this being the form of the religion that the author was most familiar with.

Written in a straightforward question and answer style, The Buddhist Catechism provides a comprehensive but easy to read look at the basics of Buddhist philosophy such as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, along with Buddhist attitudes to topics such as karma, dharma and reincarnation. Olcott pays particular attention to the Buddha’s ethical teachings and their importance in daily life.

Though concentrating on doctrine and philosophy, other subjects such as the Buddha’s biography, Buddhist history and Sangha (the Buddhist monastic organisation) are briefly examined. There is also a quick but interesting look at Buddhism and science. I think Olcott would have been pleased to see how sciences like physics and psychology are today recognising the similarities that their fields share with Buddhism.

My only real criticism of this edition is the lack of a new introduction, which would have been useful for placing Colonel Olcott’s life and achievements in perspective. For example, Olcott’s crucial work in reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as well as his role in introducing the religion to the West, would have provided some context for the reader.

Fortunately this edition has an appendix, ‘Fundamental Buddhistic Beliefs’, a document that helped create a dialogue between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. Olcott was instrumental in getting this document organised and it is a good example of his work on behalf of Buddhism.

All in all, The Buddhist Catechism is still a very useful primer for the student of Buddhism even after the passage of a century, and is a welcome addition to any Buddhist or theosophical collection.

PERT, Alan: Red Cactus: The Life of Anna Kingsford, Author-published, Australia, 2006, 231 pages. Review by Naomi Blumensaadt in Theosophy in Australia June 2007.

Throughout its history the Theosophical Society has attracted to its work and membership a varied range of people, some more remarkable and more unconventional than others. Some have stayed at the forefront of awareness and activities and others have dropped from sight. Anna Kingsford (1846-1888) is one of the latter but Alan Pert’s well-researched and readable biography should help rekindle interest in her and in her work.

Anna Kingsford was President of the British Theosophical Society in 1883 but resigned and established the Hermetic Society. This move reflected both her significant differences with some leading members of the Theosophical Society and her wish to provide opportunities to pursue a more Christian-oriented focus on understanding the mystery teachings. She saw herself as a mystic and a prophetess who perceived the way forward for the betterment of humanity. Her mystical ‘illuminations’, apparently obtained mostly through dreams, form the basis of The Perfect Way or the Finding of Christ. This major work, written with her co-worker Edward Maitland, sets out the Hermetic philosophy also called esoteric Christianity. Among other significant publications are The Virgin of the World and Clothed with the Sun. Her works had some influence in the emergence, after her death, of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Anna Kingsford was also active in various social causes. She obtained, in Paris, a medical degree that provided credentials in her vigorous campaign against vivisection and in her promotion of vegetarianism and a healthy life. She also supported women’s rights and animal welfare, and owned and produced a magazine.

This is the second biography of Kingsford — the first, Anna Kingsford Her Life, Letters, Diary and Work by her co-worker Edward Maitland was published in 1896 in 2 volumes. Alan Pert initially planned to abridge this biography as it was not in print but says the “work is full of errors” and he “soon found inadequacies …. especially a serious lack of personal information on Anna’s background and life …. Maitland assumes centre stage, and we see Anna only through his distorted lens”. Further, the biography “is about Maitland himself, rather than his professed subject”. Pert attempts to rectify this by providing what he considers a more accurate picture of Anna Kingsford, her life and her broad contribution to society. He is obviously partial to Kingsford and in his efforts to balance the perceived bias in Maitland’s biography he may have swung the pendulum too far the other way. Nevertheless, Alan Pert has provided a very valuable service to the theosophical movement by producing this biography and letting us know just how remarkable and extraordinary Anna Kingsford was.

PROTHERO, Stephen: The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott, Indiana Uni. Press USA 1996, 242 pages. Review by Linda Harris in Theosophy in Australia September 1997.

While accounts and biographies of the life of Madame Blavatsky have abounded over the years, Colonel Olcott’s life and work have not enjoyed a similar degree of publicity. This biography of him is by historian Stephen Prothero, Assistant Professor, Religion Dept. at Boston University. He describes his book as a ‘fish out of water’ tale, chronicling ‘the passage of a New Yorker from America to Asia in an age where “East” and “West” were in the process of inventing one another’. The ‘fish’ is Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and the ‘water’ is 19th century America. The book’s title comes from the Sinhalese people who hailed Colonel Olcott as one of their own — ‘The White Buddhist’ — in recognition and appreciation of Olcott’s work in Ceylon.

The author freely admits in his preface that the work is one, not only of history, but also of criticism. He focuses in particular on the Colonel’s work on behalf of Buddhism and Hinduism in Asia. Hence as he acknowledges, the book is not so much a full-blown biography as a ‘case study in cultural or religious contact or … an examination of the complexities and ambiguities of the 19th century American encounter with Asian religious traditions’. The book seeks to address an imbalance of existing secondary literature which is ‘as skimpy on the Buddhist and Hindu side as it is weighty on matters theosophical’ and in this respect is very useful.

How many times have we heard that we are the product of our conditioning? In this vein, Prothero considers that Olcott’s adult life is best understood as an outgrowth of 19th century American Protestantism. As a result, he considers that Olcott’s faith represented a creative ‘creolization’ (mixture) of American Protestantism and Buddhist norms. Considerable emphasis is placed on his ‘Protestantisation‘ of Buddhism. This a recurrent theme in the book along with anti-Christian statements made by Olcott. However, the author later acknowledges that a number of Christian missionaries working in Asia became the Colonel’s friends and that he tempered his attitude toward Christianity over time. While Theosophical Society luminaries have made their mark over the years it is important for us to remember that they are human, rather then minor deities. The price that they pay for their very public work includes the exposure, real or imagined, to various personal failings.

The breadth of Colonel Olcott’s life work is acknowledged by Prothero at the outset: ‘theosophist, attorney, agricultural reformer, spiritualist, reporter, drama critic, cremationist, editor, investigator of Lincoln’s assassination, and indefatigable spirit’. Toward the end of the book, Olcott is described as not just a ‘reformer of Buddhism’ but a ‘reformer of religions’. However, in some respects the author appears to miss the mark in terms of understanding what Theosophy and the Theosophical Society are.

From the outset the author makes it clear that ‘this is a work not only of history but also of criticism’ and that he hopes to present a sympathetic yet scholarly interpretation of Olcott’s adult life’. The White Buddhist provides a thorough coverage of the aspects of Colonel Olcott’s life that it sets out to address and gives a brief treatment of his early years and discovery of Theosophy. The book is extremely well-written as well as entertaining in places and is recommended for theosophical libraries. It is also recommended for those who are particularly interested in Olcott’s work for Buddhism and Hinduism, an interpretation of the broader 19th century American encounter with Asian religions, and in the linguistic category of ‘creolization’ as a device for analysing situations of cultural contact and interreligious interaction.


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