“There can be little doubt in my opinion that the famous stanzas of the mysterious Book Dzyan on which Mme. H.P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, is based owe something, both in title and content, to the pompous pages of the Zoharic writing called Sifra Di-Tseniutha. The first to advance this theory, without further proof, was L.A. Bosman, a Jewish Theosophist, in his booklet The Mysteries of the Qabalah (1916) p. 31. This seems to me, indeed, the true ‘etymology’ of the hitherto unexplained title. Mme Blavatsky has drawn heavily upon Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (1677-1684), which contains (vol. II, pp. 347-385) a Latin translation of the Sifra Di-Tseniutha. The solemn and magniloquent style of these pages may well have impressed her susceptible mind. As a matter of fact, H.P.B. herself alludes to such a connection between the two ‘books’ in the very first lines of Isis Unveiled (vol. I, p. 1) where she still refrains from mentioning the Book Dzyan by name. But the transcription used by her for the Aramaic title shows clearly what she had in mind. She says: “There exists somewhere in this wide world an old Book… It is the only copy now in existence. The most ancient Hebrew document on occult learning-the Siphra Dzeniuta-was compiled from it.” The Book Dzyan is therefore nothing but an occultistic hypostasy of the Zoharic title. This ‘bibliographical’ connection between fundamental writings of modern and Jewish theosophy seems remarkable enough.”
This quote comes from the famous Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism (reviewed elsewhere) of the first Kabbalistic scholar Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). This book is a compilation of lectures that Scholem held and was first released in 1941. Scholem is justly regarded as the authority on the subject of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah and the first scholar to approach the subject scientifically. This even resulted in a vividly renewed interest in the Kabbalah that continues to the present day. Kabbalah is not really the subject of this article though.
The Stanzas Of Dzyan
Everybody who knows a little bit about modern Theosophy, a movement that we mostly owe to madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1854-1918) (HPB in short), has heard about the Stanzas Of Dzyan. A book -according to HPB- that is the most ancient text, containing the core-knowledge of humanity. On these stanzas her most famous work The Secret Doctrine is based. All this information you can already find in the quote from Scholem.
Scholem says that these stanzas are a rework of a book from the Jewish Zohar (the Sepher ha-Zohar or Book of Splendour). In this idea he follows the suggestion of a Jewish Theosophist, but he doesn’t give a any evidence. The quote -by the way- is actually a note to a lecture about the Zohar and not a subject that Scholem has really written about. Too bad, probably because I am very curious where he bases his idea on.
The Sifra Di-Tseniutha
What else does Scholem say about the Sifra in his Major Trends? Around page 160, Scholem speaks about the books of the Zohar, since this is a compilation of texts. As b) Scholem mentions the Sifra and translates the title as Book Of Concealment. The Sifra is “a document of only six pages containing a sort of commentary on passages from the first six chapters of Genesis from a single section in the synagogical division of the Torah. Its style is highly oracular and obscure, not a single name being mentioned, and only the briefest allusions are made to the various doctrines, while no explanation or any sort are vouchsafed.”
The Sifra is not mentioned all that often in Major Trends. A few short notes about it can be found on page 254 (“one of the most difficult parts of the Zohar“), page 166 (the Sifra is much alike the Aramaic sections of the Midrash Ha-Neelam) and page 185 (the Sifra was one of the first parts of the Zohar to be completed).
The Midrah Ha-Neelam is spoken about in length, but that is not really interesting for the subject.
I have used the excellent “bibliographical survey” of Don Karr about the Christian Cabala for my article about this subject. In this text of Karr he mentions the ‘HPB controversy’. He quotes and follows Scholem, refers to a compilation of texts of HPB that was released under the title Kabalah and Kabalism (I haven’t been able to trace it myself) stating three believes of HPB about the Kabbalah:
1. “Kabalah” was inferior to “our (Eastern) septenary system”;
2. kabbalistic writings “all suffered corruptions in their content by sectarian editors”;
3. there was “evidence of occult knowledge in the West,” even though HPB saw fit to expose “[its] limitations” and points to “the misleading character of Kabalistic symbolism”.
Karr continues to mention a mistake of HPB. She mentions the Zohar and the Sepher Dzeniutha (there are different spellings) as if they were two books. Karr also says “HPB had but a cursory knowledge of the subject from easily traceable sources.” “If one takes a lenient view, HPB’s sources could be blamed for the bulk of her errors for many of these had indeed “suffered corruptions in their content by sectarian editors.” These sources are:
1. “from Pico to Knorr von Rosenroth, Christian cabalists believed that with kabbalist methods rightly used, Jews could be shown the “thruth” behind the Old Testament and won over to Christ”;
2. Eliphas Levi, who “[n]ever made an independent statement upon any historical fact in which the least confidence could be reposed,” and who “never presented the sense of an author whom he was reviewing in a way which could be said to reproduce that author faithfully” (A.E. Waite, The Holy Kabbalah, p. 489).
3. S.L. MacGregor Mathers, who was also dependent upon Rosenroth and Levi;
4. Isaac Myer, whose earnest study contains many errors, some of which even HPB did not commit, as for example, Myer’s mix-up of the roles and order of the sefiroth, calling binah the second and hokhmah the third (Myer, Qabbalah, pp. 259-63).”
Scholem writes that HPB draws “heavily upon Knorr von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (1677-1684)”. It is Don Karr who points to the sources more specifically, but also in Karr’s writing I find no evidence for the link between the two books in the title of this article. Some more investigation can be done here. There is an excellent and extremely detailed index of The Secret Doctrine from the hand of John P. van Mater. I have used it to find referrals to different subjects that can be of interest here. Let us start with Scholem’s pointer, Rosenroth:
Christian Knorr von Rosenroth is only mentioned a few times in The Secret Doctrine, his translation of books of the Zohar under the title Kabbala Denudata is mentioned by HPB four times and another writing called Liber Mysterii twice.
Karr’s pointers then:
Pico isn’t mentioned at all, Eliphas Levi numerous times (on page I.243 HPB uses him as Kabbalist authority), Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers and his translation of Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata under the title The Kabbalah Unveiled eight times and one time an unpublished manuscript of Mathers.
Isaac Myer is used much, much more by HPB and she even calls his books “excellent” (I 374).
Other keywords I looked for are “Kabbala, Kabala, Cabala, Qabbalah” with a great many hits, “Kabbalist(s)” which also results in an impressive list; “Kabbalistic”, about twenty hits, Adolphe D. Franck, seven times; Christian D. Ginsburg, two times; Johannes Reuchlin and his De Arte Cabbalistica, two times; Guillaume Postel, one time and Isaac Luria, two times.
If you (re)read my article about the Christian Cabala, you will see some familiar names, so HPB seems to have known the Christian Cabalist literature quite well. Better than Jewish Kabbalist literature?
Other interesting referals are of course Kabbalistic texts:
– Sepher Yetsirah: 15 times;
– Zohar: numerous times;
– Siphra’ di-Tseni’utha‘ (Dzeniouta in tx): 21 times.
One thing caught my attention, being the mention of the “unpublished manuscript” of MacGregor Mathers (1831-1891). I had never figured that these two might actually have known eachother. It didn’t take a very long search for the answer of this question. The biography of Mathers on the website of The Golden Dawn has some interesting info from Mather’s wife. She says that Mathers met HPB at an early age (they differ 23 years) and he was impressed by her. Still he soon found out that he had different ideas from HPB and the two went separate ways.
Yet, I ran into another thing on the page of the Golden Dawn. It is said that two of the founders of their order were members of the Theosophical Society of HPB, being Mathers and W.W. Westcott!! This seems more than just a brief meeting.
Some more investigation of Mathers therefor. Mathers’ The Kabbalah Unveiled is available on different pages in html or pdf. In the introduction Mathers explains the Kabbalah and its history, but refers almost only to Christian Cabalist writings (just as HPB). It is Mathers who says that Pico used the Sifra and as we saw, not HPB. Further Mathers says that his The Kabbalah Unveiled contains translations of a) Siphra Dtzenioutha; b) Idra Rabba Qadisha (or greater holy assembly) and c) Idra Zutra Qadisha (or lesser holy assembly).
Mathers and HPB knew eachother, this is for sure. It is very well possible that the two had influence on eachother, but I haven’t been able to find out the exact relation between the two. Was HPB Mathers’ teacher or quite the other way around, or did they have a tight/loose relation and only met to exchange their writings? In any case, Mathers was not the only Kabbalist that HPB knew and I don’t know if she got to know the others from Mathers or by herself.
The Secret Doctrine
Using the Van Mater index, I checked The Secret Doctrine to find out what HPB writes about a few subjects. A few interesting points:
– in book I, page XLIII (original numbering) you can read that the “very old book” that HPB opens Isis Unveiled with (see quote Scholem) is the source of the Kiu-Ti, the Sifra and even the Sepher Yetsirah. That is not all. Also the Shu-King (“the original Bible of China”), the original books of Thoth-Hermes, the Puranas from India, the Chaldean Book Of Numbers and the Pentateuch “are derived from the one little source-book”. HPB does make the link herself, but the other way around;
– a few times HPB refers directly to Mathers’ translation of the Sifra, like on page I 342 and II 504 and here and there also to other parts of the same book, such as the Ha Idra Rabba Qadisha (II 625) that HPB mentions;
– on page II 626 (note) HPB says that the Chaldean Book Of Numbers is the key to the otherwise hardly understandable Sifra.
There are two very clear statements about Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denundata to be found within The Secret Doctrine. HPB says that Rosenroth’s Latin is distorted (I 391), but also that Rosenroth’s text is “a puzzle, not a guide” (I 215). Did she try to cover her sources or is this her actual opinion? It at least seems to imply that HPB knew both Rosenroth’s Latin text as Mathers’ English translation of it.
The information above makes it quite clear that there must be a link between the two texts, but the discussion is which is the oldest.
“The Stanzas Of Dzyan” and “The Sifra di-Tseniutha”
I made a textual comparison. I have been reading both texts, put them aside eachother and tried to find conformities. I may not be the right person for such a task, but here are the results.
The Stanzas are a very Eastern text about creation with many strange names and terms that were most known to orientalists of the time of HPB (she says). The Sifra is a very Kabbalistic text speaking about creation in the form of the building of God’s body. This is the first conformity, both texts speak about the creation of the physical world.
On to the texts themselves then. In the beginning there are verses that are quite alike, just read these parts:
Sifra I.2 “For before there was equilibrium, countenance beheld not countenance.”
Dzyan I.2 “Time was not, for it lay asleep in the infinite bosom of duration.”
Sifra I.3 “And the kings of ancient time were dead, and their crowns were found no more; and the earth was desolate.”
Dzyan I.6 “The seven sublime Lords and the seven truths had ceased to be, and the universe, the son of necessity, was immersed in Paranishpanna, to be outbreathed by that which is and yet is not. Naught was.”
Sifra I.5 “This equilibrium hangeth in that region which is negatively existent in the Ancient One.”;
Sifra I.6 “Thus were those powers equiponderated which were not yet in perceptible existence.”;
Dzyan I.7 “The causes of existence had been done away with; the visible that was, and the invisible that is, rested in eternal non-being — the one being.”
Sifra I.7 “In His form existeth the equilibrium: it is incomprehensible, it is unseen.”;
Dzyan I.8 “Alone the one form of existence stretched boundless, infinite, causeless, in dreamless sleep; and life pulsated unconscious in universal space, throughout that all-presence which is sensed by the opened eye of the Dangma.”.
If these sentences are comparable, I could take a few more from the beginning of the two texts.
– The number seven is prominent in both texts;
– Both texts seem to speak about two worlds or two creations (or seven?), the Sifra literary (I.18), Dzyan speaks about the “first divine world” (V.4);
– Sifra I.23 says “six worlds follow afresh”, can we compare this to the “he created six” (Sifra I.16) that HPB uses several times in The Secret Doctrine?;
– Explaining the Stanzas HPB uses a drawing from Eliphas Levi (I.242) which looks an awfull lot like Mathers drawing in the first chapter of the Sifra;
– Both Rosenroth and HPB refer to “The Mantuan Codex” several times;
– Both texts use asterixes (***) in places a name could not be given.
– Thirteen is an important number in the Sifra but I haven’t found in the Stanzas;
– In the Sifra physical creation already starts in I.8, but in Dzyan no earlier than V.5;
– Both texts are short, but the Sifra has three books, of which the last two have little or nothing to do with what you can read in the Stanzas.
I can mention a few other points in favour of Scholem’s theory though:
– On page I.239 of The Secret Doctrine HPB quotes the Sifra to explains a stanza (but doesn’t say which verse);
– The Sifra refers to Genesis/Bereshit (I.20+21 i.e.) which really undermines HPB’s remark that it is an ages old text based on an even older text. She may say that the source-text also inspired the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), but that doesn’t explain how the Sifra refers to the correct verse in the present-day counting. Also I can mention referrals in the Sifra to Ezekiel (I.30 i.e.) which is not one of these first five books;
– The “seven sublime lords” (see above) are seven creative spirits also called Dzyan Chohans, Elohim or archangels, to use HPB’s own words. Also the “builders” of stanza II.1 and “Fohat” of V.2 are much alike the Elohim to me:
– Dzyan V.4 speaks about “the seventh — the crown”, kether?
All in all more in favour of Scholem’s theory than I initially expected. Definate proof? Well, that goes a little far for me.
But, should anyone who reads this have more info, leave your comment. If you are looking for more information, follow the links that are to be found within the text. Kabbalah.com also has a commentary on every book of the Zohar (if you subscribe), which you may want to read.
-basic text 29/10/03-
-first adaptation 31/10/03-
-second adaptation 2/11/03-