The Theosophical Glossary (book)

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

The Theosophical Glossary was written by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, but published posthumously in 1892 after some editorial work by G. R. S. Mead. An ambitious work, the glossary included 2797 terms from Sanskrit, other oriental languages, Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, Egyptology, Judeo-Christian studies, and other sources. The manuscript did not benefit from an opportunity for the author to review and revise it, due to her death on May 8, 1891. Consequently, the entries in the glossary include errors and have to be read with discrimination, as Madame Blavatsky herself recommended for any form of study.

Two other resources that should be consulted for comparison to The Theosophical Glossary, or to supplement its information, are Occult Glossary by Gottfried de Purucker and the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary at Theosophical University Press Online.

Writing and publication


After the death of Madame Blavatsky, the work of editing the glossary was taken over by G. R. S. Mead, then only 28 years old. He was well-educated in philosophy, but not as an orientalist. In his preface to the book, Mead freely admitted that he had not been able to undertake the scholarly work needed to verify the glossary entries and identify their sources. According to HPB's wishes, he did acknowledge the assistance of William Wynn Westcott and the works of four authors as significant sources of information: Ernest John Eitel, John Dowson, Wilson, and Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie.

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

The eagerly-awaited Glossary was quickly found wanting, after its release in 1892. Several criticisms were leveled against the work:

  • Errors were made in transliteration of Sanskrit terms.
  • Definitions of terms were erroneous.
  • Important concepts and persons were omitted.
  • Sources of definitions were not identified.

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. He expressed great regret, however, that Sanskrit scholars had not been consulted to review the manuscript.

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:

Spine label on Boris de Zirkoff copy

“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 MS. 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]

Spine label on Boris de Zirkoff copy

Critique by Boris de Zirkoff

Boris de Zirkoff, editor of Madame Blavatsky's Collected Writings, wrote an article in his journal Theosophia called "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'"[2] He reiterated much of the criticism expressed by Colonel Olcott, and also his praise of definitions written purely by Madame Blavatsky without reference to other sources.

As far as Mead is concerned, he lets us know, in his Preface to this work, that H.P.B. desired to express her indebtedness “as far as the tabulation of facts is concerned,” to four works, namely, the Sanskrit-Chinese Dictionary of Eitel, the Hindu Classical Dictionary of Dowson, Wilson’s Vishnu-Purâna and the Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia of Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie. He also points out the definitions signed W.W.W. are by W. W. Westcott...

A careful analysis of the definitions and of the probable sources from which they were borrowed, has disclosed that out of the 2,767 definitions, a minimum of 2,212 have been taken from the works of a large number of scholars, either verbatim or with very minor alterations, and with no acknowledgement whatsoever; in a few cases a line or two has been added, giving an occult interpretation probably by H.P.B. herself; such instances are very few...

There are 124 terms signed by W. Wynn Westcott; 217 terms identical, or practically so, with the corresponding terms in the Glossary of the 2nd edition of The Key to Theosophy; about 25-30 terms from The Secret Doctrine; and about 70 terms from Isis Unveiled.

We are faced here with a perfectly honest but woefully inadequate attempt on the part of various early scholars to grasp the subtle meaning of Oriental and other ancient terms, and to render their phonetic or actual form in English letters...

To publish the Theosophical Glossary as it now stands simply means to perpetuate willingly and deliberately hundreds of errors; it also means to ascribe them, at least partially so, to H.P.B., imagining that the definitions are hers, as no source of reference is given; while in reality, when adequate explanation and analysis of the text is made, nothing could be more erroneous than to imagine that H.P.B. was herself responsible for the majority of the definitions in the book...[3]

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."[4]

Analysis of sources, by Boris de Zirkoff

Boris de Zirkoff 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 # of
Author Title Digital links
Wilhelm Wägner
M. W. MacDowell
W. S. S. Anson
Asgard and the Gods. Adapted by M. W. MacDowell, and edited by William Swan Sonnenschein
(afterwards Stallybrass) Anson. London, 1880; 2nd ed, 1882; 5th ed 1887.
1882 edition
James Bonwick Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought. London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1878. 1876 edition
Bishop E. Harold Browne
Isaac Preston Cory Ancient Fragments of the Phoenician, Carthaginian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other authors. First edition 1832; revision 1876. 1832 edition
1876 edition
John Dowson A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History, and Literature.
London: Trübner & Co., 1879.
1879 edition
Draper title source
Ernest John Eitel Handbook of Chinese Buddhism, being a Sanskrit-Chinese dictionary.
Hong Kong, 1870; London: Trübner & Co., 1888 2nd ed.
1888 edition
Robert Spence Hardy Eastern Monachism. London, 1850. 1860 edition
H. P. Blavatsky 469 terms were written by HPB in whole or in part Not applicable
H. P. Blavatsky Isis Unveiled. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1877. 1893 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Key to Theosophy. London: Theosophical Publishing Company; New York: W.Q. Judge, 1889. 1889 edition
C. W. King The Gnostics and Their Remains. London: Bell and Dalby, 1864. 1864 edition
1887 edition
Kenneth R. H. MacKenzie The Royal Masonic Cyclopaedia. London: Hogg, 1877. limited access
limited access
Preston Isaac Myers Qabbalah. Philadelphia, 1888. 1888 edition
unidentified unidentified not available
Pop. Encycl.
Alexander Whitelaw
Charles Annandale
The Popular Encyclopedia; or, Conversations Lexicon. London: Blackie & Son, in many editions. Public Domain Sources
in Wikipedia
Emil Schlagintweit Buddhism in Tibet. Leipzig: E. A. Brockhaus and London: Trübner & Co., 1863. 1863 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Secret Doctrine. London: Theosophical Publishing Co., Ltd., 1888. 1888 edition
James Ralston Skinner The Source of Measures. Philadelphia: D. McKay Co., 1886. 1886 edition
George Smith The Chaldean Account of Genesis 1876 edition
H. P. Blavatsky The Voice of the Silence. London: Theosophical Publishing Co. and New York: W. Q. Judge, 1889. 1889 edition
W. W. W.
William Wynn Westcott Various works later published in ten volumes as the Collectanea Hermetica various sources
Wilson, H.H.
Horace Hayman Wilson Vishnu Purana 1840 edition
H. P. Blavatsky Five Years of Theosophy. London: Reeves and Turner, 1885. 1885 edition
more research is needed
Check mark.jpg
check for references


  1. H. S. Olcott, "Theosophical Glossary by HP Blavatsky," The Theosophist 13.7 (April, 1892), 444. Available from IAPSOP website.
  2. Boris de Zirkoff, "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'" Theosophia 24.113 (Winter, 1967-1968), 12. It was reprinted in The Canadian Theosophist Vol. 49, May-June, 1968.
  3. Boris de Zirkoff, "Who Played That Trick on H. P. B.? the Puzzle of 'The Theosophical Glossary.'" Theosophia 24.113 (Winter, 1967-1968), 12. It was reprinted in The Canadian Theosophist Vol. 49, May-June, 1968.
  4. Mrs. Harry Benjamin, "Theosophical Glossary and the Psychic," Theosophy World (August 1996). Available online.