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Evaluating Theosophical history

Nov 09, 1996 03:07 PM
by Jerry Hejka-Ekins

>>> the most devastating attack upon the supernatural origin
>>>of both the letters and their authors is Who Wrote the Mahatma
>>>Letters?, by H.E. & W.L. Hare (1936) - a critique which has
>>>yet to be rationally rebutted.

>>In my opinion, this book by the Hare brothers was rationally
>>rebutted in a series of 12 articles or so by Dr. H.N. Stokes.

>I cannot help but note from your bibliography that a very large
>number of your citations are from very obviously "theosophical
>establishment"  sources.  I also note from your web site notice
>that you are looking explicitly for PRO-HPB material.

Putting aside the pros and cons of the Hare critique for a
moment, I think Alan's comment immediately above suggests a
deeper issue that I feel needs attention:  Are we to assume that
"PRO-HPB material" is necessarily any more or less scholarly or
accurate than ANTI-HPB material, or even NEUTRAL-HPB material?
If we are to dismiss PRO-HPB material as biased, then ANTI-HPB
material must also have a bias.  So called NEUTRAL-HPB material
may also have hidden biases, or may be a product of poor
scholastic methodology--even when it is published by an academic
press.  To elaborate:

Dr. Bruce Campbell's work ANCIENT WISDOM REVIVED was published by
the University of California Press--one of the most reputable
academic presses in the world.  It is the work of choice for
other academic researchers who are looking for a secondary source
to quote concerning Theosophy or HPB.  Yet, in my casual reading
I found the book riddled with errors of fact.  It turns out that
I wasn't the only person to feel this way.  Dr. Gregory Tillett

     ANCIENT WISDOM REVIVED, is marred by numerous errors of
     basic fact suggesting both shoddy methodology and a failure
     to use basic primary resources, misunderstandings and
     misinterpretations.  In fourteen pages I could identify
     (without any particular effort) more than thirty errors of
     fact.  (April 1989).

So much for the superiority of academic works as providers of
accurate information.  On the other hand, we have friendly
biographies that are condemned as "hagiography," such as
Cranston's recent biography.  Her book was given this label, not
because the information is necessarily inaccurate, but because
the Cranston was selective and avoided the more controversial
issues concerning HPB's life.  So concerning accuracy of
information, Cranston's book may be superior to Campbell's.  But
in terms of discussing controversial subjects, Campbell's book is
the better by default.  These two books became just what their
author's wished them to be.  Cranston's intention was to write a
comprehensive friendly biography showing HPB's influence on our
thinking in this century, and she accomplished this.  Campbell's
intention, as he admitted to the archivists at the Theosophical
Library at Pasadena, was to prove what he already believed before
he began the book: that all phenomena is fraudulent, and the
Masters don't exist.  He accomplished this.  Are their respective
"proofs" the last word?  No.

Returning to the Hare material: What did the Hare brothers
believe before they began their expose?  Did they use good
methodology in their analysis?  How can we tell?  Unless we know
as much about the subject as the author, we are at a great
disadvantage.  Certainly Campbell's editors were unable to detect
the errors in ANCIENT WISDOM, because they know comparatively
little about the subject.  Do we know enough about the Mahatma
letters and their production to make a judgement on the accuracy
of the arguments of the Hare brothers, H.N. Stokes, Beatrice
Hastings and others who have joined in this controversy?  When we
make an evaluation of a work, do we check the references and
follow the research methodology of the writer?  Unless readers
are very motivated, and have access to the same primary resources
(which is very unlikely), they are in no position to judge the
methodology of the writer; and therefore in no position to make
any judgement except to determine which writer put forth an
argument that was most appealing.  This is a very subjective way
to measure the merits of a work.  I recently experienced a
blatant example of this kind of subjectivity at a theosophical
gathering.  A woman once informed me that she was present at
Adyar and therefore had personal knowledge that Tillett's book on
Leadbeater was based entirely upon "second hand gossip" that he
heard from Belfour Clarke.  A casual glance at the citations at
the end of the book clearly shows that even if the author
accepted Balfour Clarke's views, they were extensively backed up
by citations from primary sources.  Since I also have access and
am familiar with the same source material, I was able to be
satisfied that he actually drew from the material.  But what
about the discussions with Belfour Clarke my friend over heard?
Certainly, one step in scholarly research is to gather oral
history whenever possible.  Obviously Tillett was doing this.

In summary of my points:  A casual reader is not in a very good
position to judge the reliability of a book, unless the reader is
aware of the motivations of the writer and is familiar with the
same documents researched in the book.  However, there are a few
things that a casual reader can do that may help to evaluate and
determine if the material is questionable:

1. Is the writer exploring an issue are trying to prove a point?

2. Does the writer support his arguments with source references
(other biographies, or other opinions are secondary sources.
Primary sources are the documents closest to the issue.  An
example, concerning the 1906 Leadbeater issue: a primary document
is CWL's actual testimony to Olcott's committee.  A secondary
source are the opinions of his friends and supporters.)

3. Does the writer deal with the controversial issues?
Cranston's biography is criticized for not doing this.

4. Does the writer acknowledge, present and explore the numerous
points of view concerning an issue?


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