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On Our Written Literature

Jan 25, 1995 11:35 AM
by Eldon Tucker

Daniel Caldwell:

Your comments on the importance of not altering the basic
texts brings up important issues which I'd like to discuss.

On Our Written Literature -- Eldon Tucker

There are conflicting goals between a theosophical historian
and someone using the literature as a form of spiritual
training. From the historical viewpoint, the dead-letter
accuracy of the text is paramount, even at the expense of
readability or intelligibility. From the other standpoint,
clarity and ease of communication is the most important; this
is so that the media does not get in the way of the spiritual
process that can be engaged.

The original appearance of writings, down to the most minute
of detail, is not sacred. There are many stages for errors to
creep in, as we go from the manuscript to typewritten, then to
typeset text.

The ultimate source document for a book is the original hand-
written manuscript. We could choose not to trust the
typewritten nor typeset versions, and say that a true study
of, say, The Secret Doctrine, would have to be done against a
reproduction of that handwriting, were it possible.

A similar extreme standpoint would be to take the typography
of the classic books, and say that the page layouts themselves
are holders of esoteric truths. There are actually people that
would do numerology on the page, line, and word of a passage
in the layout of the original The Secret Doctrine.

As students of Theosophy, we don't have to be macho, to do our
studies the hard way, and suffer along with the historians.
What can we do to help keep our literature readable, where the
words and appearance don't detract from the studies?

First, we can do spelling corrections and standardize the
spelling of Sanskrit and foreign terms, adding necessary
accents. We should replace obsolete words, judiciously, when
those terms hold no particular esoteric meaning, but are
simply no longer in use.

Consider the following terms:

adumbration   vague foreshadowing
appanage      endowment
comestibles   food
milliard      billion
palsied       affected with uncontrollable trembling
profligates   wastrels
propinquity   kinship, nearness, proximity
sempiternal   everlasting, eternal

Terms like these would be candidates for modernization.

A final change would be in terms of typography, where the
quoted passages would be more obviously set apart from the
rest of the body text. Reading some books, it's difficult to
tell when we're in a quote or not, at times. For the printed
page, the quotes could be set apart with type of a different
size, or by indentation; for a computerized book the quotes
could be in a different color.

What do we gain by these changes? It is easier to read the
materials. It helps with searching on text and indexing. More
of the reader's attention can be upon the actual contents,
rather than upon details of spelling, obsolete terms, keeping
track of quotations, etc.

The approach mentioned is different that some people mean by
"modernizing" the literature. It does not mean to replace
Sanskrit and technical terms with ordinary words, but rather
to refine and increase the dependence upon them. It proposes
that we *reduce* the cultural-specific idiom, the timely stuff
that goes stale. The attempt should be to avoid changes to
placate and appease the 'politically correct' or other popular
political agendas, including rewriting materials to remove
gender-specific terms.

A historian might make the "slippery slope" argument against
changing theosophical works. The argument that not a single
word should be altered is too simplistic. We do not, by taking
a single step away from verbatim and facsimile reproduction of
a work, move onto a slippery slope, upon which we'll slide,
without control, into complete and unqualified destruction of
the original books!

It is not a black-and-white situation, with two choices facing
us. Rather, we have another area where judgement comes into
play. Like the subject of ethics, there are many shades of
grey, areas that require intelligence and discrimination
rather than blind obedience to externally-imposed rules. Where
do we draw the line? Close to the original works, but not
rigidly so. When we let go of the black-and-white viewpoint,
and admit to shades of grey, we mustn't fear that we'll lose

Consider what happens when a book is translated into a foreign
language. Every word in the book is changed; the potential
differences are massive. What I've proposed is next-to-nothing
by comparison. Can we say that the changes that I'd suggest
are "too much" while at the same time say that the process of
translating a book into, say, Spanish, is a reasonable way to
facilitate the ability of the reader to understand the

A more extreme example of reworking materials can be found in
the writings of Purucker, as changed by Theosophical
University Press. Consider "The Fundamentals of the Esoteric
Philosophy." All the references in the book to the fact that
it was a series of esoteric classes, and mention of "the
Beloved Teacher, Katherine Tingley," were purged. These
changes take away some of the feeling that the book
establishes, when read, and clearly are content changes,
rather than changes to enhance readability of otherwise
unaltered content.

Jerry Schueler mentioned that he did not always agree with
Purucker, and thought that Purucker's writings needed some
revisions. I'd agree in part, and also disagree. My agreement
concerns works like "The Dialogues of G. de Purucker", which
were never intended by Purucker for publication in their
question and answer format, and should have been redone. As
they stand, they are subject to misunderstanding. My
disagreement comes where changes are made because later
editors may feel they know better than the original author
what he should have said.

In the final analysis, the highest purpose of books is not to
preserve the literal, dead-letter expression of what the
author said, in terms of its outer form. The highest purpose
is to communicate the ideas the author was expressing, in the
clearest manner possible.

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