Adulterating Theosophical Literature
In 1966, the Leaders of the Adyar Society
Discuss Their Tampering With Their Own Books
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
Ms. Radha Burnier (right) talks to Ms. Clara Codd (left) during
the 1966 World Congress of the Adyar Society in Salzburg. Photo
reproduced from “The Theosophist”, Adyar, October 1976 edition, p. 16.
The following text reproduces Chapter Seventeen
of the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical
Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline, The
Aquarian Theosophist, Portugal, 255 pp., 2013.
As we have seen in Chapter 10, ethical problems involving editorial policies within the theosophical movement started in the 1890s, when Annie Besant published her own version of “The Secret Doctrine”. We also saw that editorial mistakes were not always about the founder of the theosophical movement. We will now observe how one lie needs more falsehoods to be disguised and to resist for a longer period of time: one fraud leads to another.
Decades ago, in a Conference in Austria, leaders from different national sections of the Adyar Society openly discussed the editorial policy of changing the originals of theosophical books. This time, it was in order to avoid embarrassment and to “adapt” the books to the changing winds of public opinion.
It was also as a result of such an editorial strategy that Charles Leadbeater’s astral visits to Mars and Mercury disappeared from his books. The closed meeting occurred during the World Congress of the Theosophical Society held in Salzburg, in the summer of 1966.
In July 19 and 20, General Secretaries (national presidents) from all over the world and a few invited persons held a conference on “Presentation of Theosophy”. The international president, N. Sri Ram, chaired the meeting. Extracts of the proceedings were published in “The Theosophist” one year later. Its publication can be interpreted as an act of resistance, if not moderate denunciation. From reading the published text, one observes some central facts:
1) There is a general assumption among those present that in the 1960s no one is able to write significant books on Theosophy.
2) Since no one can write, some members of the Conference take for granted that they have the right to tamper with older texts as they please, as long as it is done “for the good of the cause”.
3) The main “problem” was that the books by C.W.L. and A. Besant were getting embarrassingly outdated, as many statements in them were already clearly false.
4) The proposition of such an “editing” policy came from members of the Adyar TS in the U.S.A.
5) From India, N. Sri Ram and his daughter Radha Burnier (then India’s Secretary General) clearly resist the idea. A fact illustrates this deep difference of views. During the conversation, N. Sri Ram ironically asks whether the “text reformers” intend to re-write “The Voice of the Silence”, too. That absurd suggestion was a joke - yet it was not taken as such, and Sri Ram had to calmly explain to people that it was “not meant seriously”.
6) The very publication of the proceedings in the magazine “The Theosophist” seems to show that Mr. Sri Ram, the international president, was not happy with the idea of tampering with the texts.
Let’s see now a few excerpts from the proceedings. By the end of each quotation, I give the page of the Adyar magazine which is my source.
Sri Ram opens the meeting and makes some general remarks. After that, Mr. Felix Layton (USA) takes the floor. Among other propositions, Mr. Layton says: “(...) Then there is the question of improving the appearance of our books and up-dating them, eliminating references to a World-Teacher, etc.” (p. 214)
Mr. Leslie-Smith, from England, says he generally agrees with Felix Layton. But Geoffrey Farthing, also from England, points to a fundamental problem in the theosophical literature:
“Then as regards the particular truths we claim to have, there are some ideas in our literature which present grave contradictions. I do not propose there should be crystallized dogmas. But as regards the marginal truths, apart from truths like Reincarnation and Karma, e.g., the nature of life after death, what was said in the middle period literature contradicts ‘The Mahatma Letters’.” (p. 215)
“Middle period literature” is, of course, a reference to the literature of the Leadbeater/Besant period. To that, Mr. Sri Ram reacts with his usual relativism, and says:
“As for Reincarnation, it may also be considered marginal by some people. Whether it is marginal or central depends on one’s understanding of himself. (…..) Some think Reincarnation and Karma are on the circumference, some think in the centre. Perhaps they are somewhere in between.” (pp. 215-216)
A few commentaries.
Sri Ram’s relativism in the above quotation, as he says that the Law of Karma “may be” unimportant, is rather far-fetched. In the opening of the Letter 10, in the Mahatma Letters , the Master defines Occultism as the knowledge of the causes by their effects, and of the effects by the study of their causes. Occultism is therefore the study and knowledge of the karmic law, as it works in Nature and in Man.
One reason for such a strained intellectual relativism in Adyar was that Sri Ram was fond of Krishnamurti, and Krishnamurti openly ignored the theosophical teachings on Karma and Reincarnation, besides rejecting central concepts like Adepthood or Discipleship. By means of his radical ambiguity, Sri Ram was in fact trying to keep a sort of political harmony. He just wanted to reconcile different views about Theosophy.
Although such a policy dates to Annie Besant, it was somewhat perfected in the 1930s by C. Jinarajadasa, who in 1934 had taken responsibility for the “inner” or esoteric section of the Adyar Society. The matter of the fact is that truthfulness is the only lasting foundation for brotherhood. All attempts to keep harmony through the use of ethical and political ambiguity must end in hypocrisy, as History has shown.
Since the 1930s, there have been three main currents in the Adyar Society:
1) The students of HPB and the Masters, whose inspiration is in the “classical” period (1875-1891);
2) The Leadbeater/Besant ritualistic devotees, who are mainly inspired by the “middle period” (1894-1934); and
3) The followers of Krishnamurti, who gradually gain strength in the later period (from the 1930s).
Jinarajadasa’s strategy consisted in a relativistic acceptance of these three currents of thought, while preserving the centralized power-structure created by Leadbeater. The top-down structure was based in Leadbeater’s “clairvoyant” ritualisms - namely Christian messianism, Masonry and pseudo-theurgy, alongside with the popish version of the Esoteric Section which HPB had created in 1888.
It is in this context that, during the 1966 Salzburg meeting, Geoffrey Farthing (clearly a Blavatsky student) mentioned the deep contradiction existing between Leadbeater/Besant literature and the HPB/Masters teachings.
There was a great difference between the two teachings, and it was the Besant/Leadbeater literature which needed urgent changes. HPB students could easily see how deep and lasting was their “classical” literature. Krishnamurti followers in India - the most recent of the three currents of thought - also were not worried about changes in literature. But North-Americans cared much more about Leadbeater and Besant, and they were in a hurry to have changes in their texts.
Thinking of the wider public, Miss Helen Zahara (USA) candidly says:
“People are going less and less to lectures. Our greatest contact is probably through literature. We should make a concerted effort in relation to having books written in a contemporary style. Even while the literature of the past is represented, it could be revised and the dogmatic statements eliminated. Could we have a concerted effort between the Sections to tap writing talent for editing work and improving our literature? The sales of books are increasing and there is less attendance at meetings.” (p. 216)
Ms. Zahara seems to have forgotten a few facts. Tampering with originals is intellectually dishonest. Each new generation has the right to write its own books, but it has also the duty to preserve the best books of older generations, and to accept the fact that bad books deserve oblivion.
The meeting is now getting to the crux of the matter, and N. Sri Ram answers to Helen Zahara:
“The Theosophical Publishing House in England has just brought out a summary of The Secret Doctrine. This is along the lines suggested. However, we must take care, in our editing and revising, not to destroy the meaning and beauty of the original. If The Secret Doctrine were re-written in modern language, the depths would have gone.” (p.216)
A little later, Mr. Felix Layton takes the floor again:
“I agree with Sri Ram about the danger of changing any of our literature. But I hope this Conference will come to an agreement or form a competent committee to get something started. There must be something concrete as a result of this Conference.” (p. 217)
To this, Sri Ram firmly replies:
“This Conference is not meant to come to any particular agreement to be implemented by all Sections, but to discuss and produce more enlightenment in the minds of those present. It will depend on the Sections what they would implement. We must be clear what kind of revision or ‘up-dating’ we want, so that it does not destroy the spirit of the original work.” (pp. 217-218)
John Coats, from the European Federation , says:
“Is it possible for Mr. Layton to suggest some book on which a person or persons might start work and produce the sort of result they have in mind? Then that could be submitted to the President and others. We will always have our old books for reference.” (p. 218)
To which Sri Ram adds a question:
“The Voice of the Silence?” (p. 218)
Mr. Coats takes it seriously and explains:
“No, I mean certain valuable books written fifty years ago, which mention the World Teacher’s coming and that is not of interest today.” (p. 218)
Sri Ram has to clarify:
“My suggestion regarding The Voice of the Silence was not meant seriously.” (p. 218)
Mrs. Radha Burnier raises an ethical question :
“What is implied by this revising and re-editing? For instance, a book of Dr. Annie Besant revised and printed in her name would not be fair to her.” (p. 218)
And Miss Joy Mills tries to explain the “practical need” for tampering with the texts:
“(...) In the United States we use shorter sentences nowadays. Dr. Besant uses long ones. And many references in the old books are no longer applicable. We could perhaps form an editing Committee to give such books more ‘punch’ in the modern world. We must present the eternal in a contemporary setting. It is not intended to change what is magnificent and beautiful, but only to take out contemporary references of fifty years ago and put in contemporary references of today.” (p. 218)
Mr. Leslie-Smith, from England, then poses an embarrassing question:
“Surely if Theosophy is alive in us we should be able to produce our own literature. Could we not, in groups, produce up-to-date literature suitable for the modern generation, until a great writer appears?” (pp. 218-219)
Mrs. Nairn is now led to a logic conclusion:
“If we begin to tamper with the writings of Dr. Besant and others, we might run the risk of losing valuable literature. We should be able to distill our own wisdom out of these books and re-present it.” (p. 219)
And Mr. Leslie-Smith adds more fuel to the contradictory dialogue:
“To give a bit of history: About fifteen or twenty years ago a group asked me to take two books of Annie Besant and edit them. I tried to do it. What I did was to leave her words, but perhaps only half of them, just as in ʻAn Abridgement of The Secret Doctrineʼ. I presented it, and later was told that if we do this, we take away the real spirit that Dr. Besant put into this. I am in full sympathy with Mr. [Felix] Layton about new literature, and group work might be able to produce it. If so, ONE person must be responsible for the final editing. However, one must be careful. A modern version of ‘Hamlet’ would not be very valuable.” (p. 219)
Professor J. Meyer-Dohm (Germany):
“I feel re-writing old authors is not the right thing, but could we not add an introduction to the works of classical authors, with explanatory remarks?” (pp. 219-220)
Against any obstacles, Mr. Geoffrey Hodson (New Zealand), supports the North-Americans proposition:
“Our members apparently are in favor of a modernization of such Theosophical literature as needs it. Statements in earlier books which no longer apply or are false should no longer be presented from our book-stalls .” (p. 221)
Mr. James Perkins (international vice-president) tries to come back to reality. He says:
“Re-writing classical works is not necessarily the thing to do. Every student must have the source-material untouched. It would be an error of ignorance to re-write under the same title and with the same name the material originally put there. If Dr. Besant spoke of a World Teacher, we should keep this in the context of the time when it was said, the audience addressed, and the inner urge playing through her, what it revealed. We should not touch any of this. We can re-write in the sense that we can WRITE books based on original works. This demands creative writing, devotion to the cause, delicacy, perceptivity, and reference to the source.” (pp. 221-222)
Yet Mr. Geoffrey Hodson insists in the need for taking out any “embarrassing portions”:
“I think what is needed is less re-writing of our valuable earlier literature than perhaps elision, taking out that which does not apply.” (p. 222)
The word “elision” was certainly an extreme understatement made by Hodson. The term means only “the omission of a vowel, a consonant or syllable in pronunciation”, while Mr. Hodson meant much more than that. He wanted the omission of all absurdities which were already obvious in the Leadbeater/Besant literature, while preserving all absurdities which were still not obvious to the public.
By now it was about time to end the meeting, and N. Sri Ram tried to get to some conclusions:
“(...) There can be no objection to a summary or abridgement of an old work which does not change the language of the writer and is not summarized in such a way as to leave out material portions and give a wrong idea. We can say in the preface that this is an abridgement. That will not be tampering. What we object to is anything that would change the thought of the writer. There may be in just a few words a very deep meaning.” (p. 223)
In the proceedings of the conversation, one can see the clear difference in editorial views between USA leaders (with some support from England and New Zealand) and India-based leaders (Sri Ram, Radha Burnier and the vice-president James Perkins).
The same difference materialized again some forty years later with the publication of “The Letters of H.P. Blavatsky, volume I”, as we will see in the next Chapters. Some of the Adyar TS leaders in the USA seem to have a decades-old tendency to act as Sophists, by freely adapting to their own short-term interests whatever they say or publish, and even what others wrote long time before.
Perhaps they ignore that there is a huge difference between Sophists and Theosophists. Students of the ancient esoteric science are “Philosophers” in the classical sense of the term. Both theosophists and philosophers are “Friends of Truth and Wisdom”. As they challenge Sophistry, they must pay the price for their truthfulness. This is called “probation path”.
Paradoxically, the oceanic difference between Sophists and Theosophists is rather difficult to discern, because Sophists act in a disguised way, often combining unconscious self-delusion with the conscious use of intellectual ambiguity.
In his Dialogues Protagoras and Sophist, Plato describes in the most eloquent terms the challenging contrast between Wisdom and Sophistry. These two Dialogues help explain the ethical problems the theosophical movement must face and solve in the 21st century.
In Sophist, for instance, Theaetetus says:
“Yet the Sophist has a certain likeness to our minister of purification [id est, the philosopher].”
And a Stranger answers:
“Yes, the same sort of likeness which a wolf, who is the fiercest of animals, has to a dog, who is the gentlest.” 
Having examined editorial policies adopted by the theosophical movement during the 19thand 20th centuries, we must now observe the state of the chessboard during the present century. 
 “The Theosophist”, Adyar, Madras (Chennai), India, vol. 88, July 1967, pp. 211-225. The title of the text is “The Presentation of Theosophy”.
 Letter number 10 in the T.U.P. Edition (Pasadena) and the T.P.H. Adyar edition of “The Mahatma Letters”. It is Letter 88 in the Chronological Edition (TPH-Philippines).
 John Coats was later to be the international president of the Adyar Society, from 1973 until his death in December 1979.
 N. Sri Ram’s daughter, Ms. Radha was elected as the Adyar international president in 1980.
 Joy Mills was the international vice-president during John Coats’ term in the presidency (1973-1980).
 “Fifty years ago” - that confirms they are talking about the books by Besant and Leadbeater, not HPB literature.
 Mr. Hodson himself wrote about human civilizations on the physical plane in Mercury and Mars. In this he followed the lines of C.W. Leadbeater’s imaginary clairvoyance. G. Hodson also considered himself a clairvoyant.
 “Sophist” , in “The Dialogues of Plato”, Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago/London/Toronto, 1952, 814 pp., see p. 559.
 An initial version of the above Chapter was first published as an article at “Fohat” magazine, Canada, Fall 2006 edition, at the pages 64, 65, 66 and 71. Original title: “In 1966, Adyar Leaders Openly Discuss Tampering With Their Own Literature”.
In September 2016, after a careful analysis of the state of the esoteric movement worldwide, a group of theosophists decided to form the Independent Lodge of Theosophists, whose priorities include the building of a better future in the different dimensions of life.
E-Theosophy e-group offers a regular study of the classic, intercultural theosophy taught by Helena P. Blavatsky (photo).
Adulterating Theosophical Literature