The Mahatma Papers at the British Library by George McNamara

We went to see the Mahatma Letters at the British Library on Tuesday 14th February 2006.

I thought I'd write a brief report for any people or groups that want to go in future.

Organisational. The Library houses national and world treasures, so they are very concerned to make sure that people are well behaved, and they know who you really are !

  1. First you must get a readers ticket. You need to take a photocard with signature with you (passport or work ID card) plus a utility bill as proof of your address. You must enter your personal details on one of the computer screens (choose Manuscripts as the department, and the Mahatma papers as the research topic). Then you get a queue number, and eventually the staff will call your name or number. Then they will check your papers, take your photo, and print a card. The whole process takes at least 30 minutes, and maybe longer if they are busy.
  2. You must take your bag and coat to the cloakroom.
  3. Then you can go to the manuscripts section on the 2nd floor, and request the Mahatma papers from the desk. It may well take 50 minutes for them to be brought from the stores.

Unexpectedly, 10 people turned up for our visit, and when it became clear that it would take about 90 minutes to see the letters, our numbers dwindled to 5 people who had enough time to spare and enough determination. I'm sure the others will go back later !

Our numbers falling to 5 was probably much better for the library staff too - they were very uncomfortable with a large crowd, and I suspect they felt things might not be under their control - they take things very seriously, and we had to make an agreement that only 4 people at a time would look at the letters. Any future groups of visitors should try to take this into account, and talk directly to the Manuscripts Reading Room Staff well in advance

In The Reading Room. This reading room is quite large, and has a remarkable atmosphere - there were maybe 60 people studying ancient manuscripts of all sorts. One can only say that there is a concentrated hush in the reading room. The staff had agreed to let us have 4 of the bound volumes of the Mahatma Papers, and they had reserved 4 seats at one large table for us. We sat down and after a few minutes the supervisor wheeled over a trolley with four dark blue outer cases, and he ceremoniously opened them and put the blue leather bound volumes on our cushioned reading stands (two of us were sharing). It was really quite a solemn and exciting moment, and then we each began to open and explore our volumes.

The staff were very tolerant of us, I think, as we tended to wander around and look at each others volumes, though not excessively. However, when I got a pencil out and put it near the manuscript, they were very quick to ask me to be careful. The letters are beautifully bound in blue leather, and the staff were also quick to ask us to be careful in the way we handled the pages. You also will need to be as quiet as you can be! One of us borrowed a magnifying glass from the reception, and I would advise you to take your own - with as high a magnification as possible.

The Papers. There are 6 volumes, and we collectively had four of them, as follows:
Reference ADD 45.284 the main theoretical body of the text of the Mahatma Letters book
ADD 45.285 more of the the main of the text of the Mahatma Letters book
ADD 45.286 generally personal notes from the Masters to people
ADD 45.287 generally by HPB about the Coulomb affair, with few notes by the Masters
the others are references 288 and 289 - we do not know the contents of these.

In other circumstances, visitors can request two volumes each.

These are the papers which AP Sinnett bequeathed - obviously only the letters he received are here - in general the letters he sent are not here, so you only get one side of the picture. The letters in the first 3 volumes seem to be printed in their entirety in "The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett" which is available for about £20 from the TS bookshop. There are also simplified versions available.

Style and Appearance. To begin with, let us disregard the content of the letters, and just consider their style and appearance. A first reaction is of shock at how much writing there was in those days, all by hand - HPB in particular must have spent all her waking hours writing either books or letters. The letters are dated from about 1880 to 1885, and many of them have letterheads, envelopes, telegram forms, and other original features.

Most of the letters are by Koot Humi, it is fascinating how beautiful his writing is, every word is 'regular' and even, and the same at the top of the page as the bottom, and there is quite a lot of underlining. He writes in blue.
There are less letters by Morya - he writes in red, often diagonally, and is much harder to read, but his writing almost bursts off the page.
I think we only found one or two letters by Djwal Khul, where he wrote as requested by M or KH. His writing was very regular and even delicate.

Newcomers to the Theosophy might have two main problems with the letters:
1. The Masters. Koot Hoomi and Morya are seen by Theosophists as two of the Masters of the Ancient Wisdom. That is, if earth is a school, they are the most senior post-graduate teaching staff. "The Mahatma Letters" and "The Secret Doctrine" (by HP Blavatsky, their servant) are thought of as the two primary sources for Theosophy. In modern terms these set out the context of "how things are" - the creation of the planet, the planes of being, the other beings which exist, the constitution of man, the processes of birth and death, etc. This is covered in the first 200 pages of "The Mahatma Letters"
However, the Masters were also trying to establish the Theosophical Society as a centre for Universal Brotherhood, and to fulfil the other aims of the society, and they were trying to establish a system of discipleship and training for aspirants. The remainder of the Mahatma Letters is taken up with processes around this, and it is clear that there were considerable difficulties for the British officers and administrators in India (no matter how talented) to accept the possibility that mere Indians might be their spiritual superiors.
These two books were given out by the Masters in 1875 to 1885. Nowadays, there are thousands of works proclaimed to be from the Masters, and this creates difficulties and sullies the name of the Masters. Generally, the works which are 100% genuinely originated and approved by the Masters are "The Mahatma Letters" and "The Secret Doctrine" setting out the main context of their view, then the works of Alice A Bailey and the Agni Yoga teachings are accepted by many others as setting out the process of the path of development of an individual. While there are many valuable books by great thinkers and good people, I think that all the other messages from the masters in circulation are false.

2. Precipitation, and why you should take a magnifying glass. One of the key things about the letters is the way they were received. Some of the writing by the masters is normal handwriting, however, some notes were apparently added to the letters inside sealed envelopes while in the post. Other letters are supposedly sent by "precipitation"

As much may be said of my replies. For, whether I "precipitate" or dictate them or write my answers myself, the difference in time saved is very minute. I have to think it over, to photograph every word and sentence carefully in my brain before it can be repeated by "precipitation." As the fixing on chemically prepared surfaces of the images formed by the camera requires a previous arrangement within the focus of the object to be represented, for otherwise - as often found in bad photographs - the legs of the sitter might appear out of all proportion with the head, and so on, so we have to first arrange our sentences and impress every letter to appear on paper in our minds before it becomes fit to be read. For the present, it is all I can tell you.
(Koot Hoomi, letter 6, p 22 - Received at Allhabad about Dec. 10, 1880)

On a few letter there is a very interesting effect - there are diagonal hatchings in the letters. To our modern eyes this looks like inkjet printing where half of the (alternate) jets are working properly, and the other half are working very faintly. As we have our new technologies, it is interesting to wonder if this precipitation process is more like an old fax machine where heat makes a mark on the paper, or a laser printer where static charges attract the ink particles, which are then 'fixed'. However, these diagonal marks DO look more like an inkjet effect.

However, it is still difficult to take in that, first KH has organised all of his thoughts, then he has formed them into words and punctuation, then the has visualized them laid out on a sheet of paper, and then there has been some sort of telepathic transmission of the pages, and then a mental precipitation of the message onto paper. We looked at some precipitated pages very closely, and there was no sign of any indentations from a pen or pencil.


I hope this small article has served to remind the readers that the original manuscripts from the Masters, in their own handwriting, are available at the British Library for all to go and look at. It is wise to phone them beforehand to check that the procedure I have described above is still correct, and to allow plenty of time for the bureaucracy involved.
I have found it something wonderful to experience - to read the words in the handwriting of the Masters themselves has much more impact - it is so different from reading them printed in a book, and I think it has made a big impression on all of us.

I highly recommend seeing the Mahatma Letters yourself !