The Theosophical Glossary (book)

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Boris de Zirkoff's copy - 1952 replica of 1892 first edition

Writing and publication

Editions and availability online

The Union Index of Theosophical Periodicals lists 106 articles about or extracted from the Glossary. From 1894 to 1913 the journal Le Lotus Bleu regularly printed entries from the French edition, Glossaire Theosophique, and other journals have frequently based articles on the Glossary.

Reviews and criticisms of the Glossary

Several criticisms were leveled against the final editor of the Glossary after its publication:

  • Specific errors were identified.
  • Some entries were not original with HPB, but from unidentified sources.

Review by Colonel Olcott

Henry Steel Olcott, President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, wrote one of the earliest reviews. He praised the production of the book, its paper, binding, and timeliness; and its definitions of terms from The Secret Doctrine.

Nothing could have been more timely for, with the expansion of our literature, fresh Oriental terms are being introduced which, without interpretation,’ are meaningless to the Western reader. The present work supplies a crying want, therefore, and will add enormously to H. P. B.s literary reputation while, at the same time, going to show her extraordinary clairvoyant intuition. Needless to say, she never made the least pretence to what is called scholarship, i.e., acquiring her knowledge in the usual way by book-study: it came to her mainly while in the act of writing. In a letter to her sister, quoted by Mr. Sinnett in his biography of her, she very clearly describes this mental process. But when it came to quoting or translating from current literature, her habit was to ask the help of those who were learned in the specialities she might be discussing. When she first undertook the “Secret Doctrine” there was an agreement between her and the late erudite Mr. T. Subba Row, that he should edit the portions relating to Indian Philosophy, verify her transliterations and correct her interpretations of Sanskrit words. If she had lived to bring out the Glossary, this would undoubtedly have been her course, and the work would have been free from the large number of errors which now characterize it, and which are more than likely to be pointed out by unfriendly Orientalist critics. Deserving of all praise, as Mr. Mead’s industry and skill in editing this are he would have done better service to H. P. B. by calling upon some one or more of our most competent Indian colleagues to have verified the renderings of the Sanskrit words and phrases; the more so as they would doubtless have considered it a labor of love. Accuracy would not then have been sacrificed to speed. As it stands, the Glossary must be taken as giving the meanings which H. P. B. supposed the words to have, and which interpret the ideas she put in to English words while writing. In this respect it is invaluable to theosophical students. But from the point of Sanskrit scholarship it appears full of blunders. In imitation of H. P. B.’s own example, I have asked an English-knowing Sanskrit pandit to report upon the Sanskrit words under the initial A. He says:

“The transliterations of the Sanskrit words is sometimes so bad that readers may often confound them for others which have a different meaning. With this general remark, I may say that out of 154 words beginning with A, put down as Sanskrit, 28 words are so transliterated that some of them would not, in their new garb, be taken to be Sanskrit. Eighteen of the words are very badly explained, as, for instance, Adhyátma vidya, which literally means 'the Science of Atma,’ and not ‘the esoteric luminary.’ (This mistake is copied from Dr. Eitel.) Amitábha, is a Sanskrit expression, meaning ‘boundless splendor' not a ‘Chinese corruption of the Sanskrit Amrita Buddha,’ as explained. The Amitábhas are certain Devas who are said, in the Vishnu Purana, to rule the sky in Raivata and Sávarni Manvantaras. Aindriya means literally ‘pertaining to the senses,’ not ‘Indrani, the wife of Indra.’ Apana is wrongly explained as 'inspirational breath' and is not ‘a practice in Yoga.’ It means the 'wind' or 'vayu' which is said to be in the lower portion of the body. Prána, again, is ‘not expirational breath.’ Arasamaram is not Sanskrit but pure Tamil, and means simply the Pipal tree, literally, ‘the king of trees.’ Two of the erroneous renderings of Sanskrit under the letter A have been taken over from Dowson’s ‘Classical Dictionary of India,’ and five from Dr. Eitel’s 'Sanskrit-Chinese “Dictionary.’ Under the letter B there are seven mis-translations; under C one; and under D fourteen. Thus, overlooking minor ones, in the first four letters of the alphabet, out of 303 words, there are no less than 40 glaring mis-translations. I have examined no farther.”

Among the many proofs of the incompleteness of the M S. must be mentioned these: Sankara, Founder of the Adwaita school, is mentioned, but not Ramanuja and Madhava, the equally well known Founders of the other two great schools, the Dwaita and Vishisthadvaita ... All these would have been rectified if H. P. B. had lived.

In his modest Preface to the Glossary, Mr. Mead disclaims all "pretension to the elaborate and extraordinary scholarship requisite for the editing" of the work, and candidly admits the likelihood of there being mistakes in transliteration: he tells us also that, for the interpretation of facts relating to the Kabalah, to Rosicrucian and Hermetic doctrines, H. P. B. availed of the Help of our erudite brother W . Wynn Westcott. It is a thousand pities that the Sanskrit portions were not sent here for verification by Mr. Gopalacharlu, Prof. Manilal, Mr. Govinda Dasa, of Benares, or R. Sundara Sastri, of Kumbakonam — all F. T. S.’s and staunch friends of H. P. B. Permitting the work to be hurried out with so many errors of omission and commission in its Sanskrit department, are we not playing into the hands of Prof. Muller and other Sanskritists who concur with him in calling us a lot of pseudo-scholars?

As for the explanations of terms pertaining to occultism and the Secret Doctrine in particular, words of praise are superfluous, for H. P. B. wrote upon those themes with perfect knowledge of her subject and with unequalled force and brilliancy. For this reason, I repeat, the work should be in every Theosophist’s library.[1] Available from IAPSOP website.

Comments by Elsie Benjamin

Elsie Benjamin commented about this controversy:

Do you Know -- I think it is very salutary that we have these uncertainties, because it throws us back onto our own investigations and intuitions, if we find something that seems not "to ring true" to us, or something that we think may be a misprint. Which of course doesn't mean that we should immediately reject it, but they are points to ponder over and see whether we can accept them. Remember HPB's advise to the American Convention: "orthodoxy in Theosophy is a thing neither possible nor desirable. It is diversity of opinion, within certain limits ... a certain amount of uncertainty, etc. that keeps the Society a healthy body."[2]

Analysis of sources, by Boris de Zirkoff

Boris de Zirkoff, editor of Madame Blavatsky's Collected Writings, devoted a considerable effort to analyzing the sources of the Glossary entries. He took a 1952 replica of the 1892 first edition and penciled marginal notes beside most of the terms. A complete scan of that volume is available online. Richard Robb and Michael Conlin have expanded Mr. de Zirkoff's notes about his abbreviations:

Abbreviation Author Title
H. P. Blavatsky Five Years of Theosophy
James Bonwick Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought
Isaac Preston Cory Ancient Fragments, Appolodorus
John Dowson A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion
Ernst John Eitel Handbook of Chinese Buddhism
Robert Spence Hardy Eastern Monachism
H. P. Blavatsky
H. P. Blavatsky Isis Unveiled
H. P. Blavatsky The Key to Theosophy
C. W. King The Gnostics and Their Remains
Kenneth R. H. McKenzie Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia
Preston Isaac Myers The Qabbalah
Pop. Encycl.
Emil Schlagintweit Buddhism in Tibet
H. P. Blavatsky The Secret Doctrine
George Smith The Chaldean Account of Genesis
H. P. Blavatsky The Voice of the Silence
W. W. W.
William Wynn Westcott
Wilson - see page 264 margin
Wilson, H.H.
Hayman Horace Wilson - see page 382 margin Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1819)
more research is needed
center> check for references


  1. H. S. Olcott, "Theosophical Glossary by HP Blavatsky," The Theosophist 13.7 (April, 1892), 444.
  2. Mrs. Harry Benjamin, "Theosophical Glossary and the Psychic," Theosophy World (August 1996). Available online.