Portrait of Madame Blavatsky resized


No Religion Higher Than Truth

Gnostics and Mandaeans

BNet Newsletter
by Reed Carson
August, 2006

Dear Member of Blavatsky Net,

Recently, it seems to me, the talk list, bn-study at Blavatsky Net, has become much more gnostic in tone. But then it may just be that I am learning more on the subject. One of the issues that has always proven difficult, is to give a precise definition of the term “gnostic”. I thought you might relate to the definition that has satisfied me the most.

Stephan A. Hoeller has a web site at www.gnosis.org that is quite helpful on the subject of gnosticism. As an added plus, Hoeller has a background in Theosophy and an appreciation of Blavatsky. His book “Gnosticism: New Light on the ancient tradition of inner knowing” is published by Quest. On page 10 he writes

An early normative Gnostic statement defines the content and implications of gnosis:

What makes us free is the gnosis of who we were of what we have become of where we were of wherein we have been cast of whereto we are hastening of what we are being freed of what birth really is of what rebirth really is. (from Excerpta de Theodoto) [I have seen the “de” replaced with “ex”]

Is that material for a study class? To what extent does this quote from almost two millennia ago describe the central teachings of Theosophy? To what extent do the religions of the world give their own answers to these questions?


Let us start with the “search for truth” in Blavatsky’s words:

This search after truth leads us, indeed, into devious ways. Many are the obstacles that ecclesiastical cunning has placed in the way of our finding the primal source of religious ideas. Christianity is on trial, and has been, ever since science felt strong enough to act as Public Prosecutor. A portion of the case we are drafting in this book. What of truth is there in this Theology? Through what sects has it been transmitted?

The gnostics perhaps?

Whence was it primarily derived?

From the East perhaps?

To answer, we must trace the history of the World Religion, alike through the secret Christian sects as through those of other great religious subdivisions of the race; for the Secret Doctrine is the Truth, and that religion is nearest divine that has contained it with least adulteration.

Does the “secret Christian sects” she references include the gnostics?

Our search takes us hither and thither, but never aimlessly do we bring sects widely separated in chronological order, into critical juxtaposition. There is one purpose in our work to be kept constantly in view — the analysis of religious beliefs, and the definition of their descent from the past to the present. What has most blocked the way is Roman Catholicism; and not until the secret principles of this religion are uncovered can we comprehend the iron staff upon which it leans to steady its now tottering steps. (IU ii 291)

Roman Catholicism has certainly blocked Gnostisms. Witness the Heresiologists (Christian heresy refuters) – Irenaeus etc. It later years you were subject to death if you admitted to being a gnostic.

In his sympathetic advocacy of gnosticism, Hoeller commets on this relationship between East and West:

Many people in recent decades, and indeed since the latter half of the nineteenth century, have turned to Eastern religions in search of teachings and practices with less dogma and more inspiration. They have probably had no inkling that just such an alternative exists closer to home and that it is called Gnosticism. Neither have they seemed aware of the parallels between Gnostic and Eastern insights into reality, the soul, and the need for enlightenment. Some of these people have been responsible for implanting ideas from the East into minds of the Gnostics.

This last sentence of his seems a little strange to me. Perhaps he is saying that Blavatsky (and others?) said the gnostic ideas came from the East. Of course she did say that. He is right.

Hoeller continues:

Others have suggested, with equal plausibility, that some Eastern schools of thought, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, many have been influenced by Gnostic ideas. Once again, the most important common element joining East and West in this regard is apparently the experience of gnosis.

Then he gets to the juicy part. He quotes Hippolytus, one of those heresiologists, admitting this very connection between the East and the gnostics – at least that “some'” say it.

The similarity was noted as early as about 225 A.D. by another orthodox Christian foe of the Gnostics Hippolytus, who in his refutations of heresies wrote concerning the Brahmins of India:

“They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge [gnosis] through with the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.” (Gnosticism by Stephan Hoeller, p 4)

So Hyppolytus, the heresy hunter, agrees with Blavatsky and proves her point in his own words. She says:

There are three trinities in the Nazarene system as well as in the Hindu philosophy of the ante and early Vedic period. While we see the few translators of the Kabala, the Nazarene Codex, and other abstruse works, hopelessly floundering amid the interminable pantheon of names, unable to agree as to a system in which to classify them, for the one hypothesis contradicts and overturns the other, we can but wonder at all this trouble, which could be so easily overcome. But even now, when the translation, and even the perusal of the ancient Sanscrit has become so easy as a point of comparison, they would never think it possible that every philosophy — whether Semitic, Hamitic, or Turanian, as they call it, has its key in the Hindu sacred works. Still facts are there, and facts are not easily destroyed. (IU ii 27)

The purpose of the above quote has to do with tracing religious traditions back to the East but in the process she mentions the three trinities. In more than a quarter of a century of being associated with Theosophy, I do not recall anyone referencing this subject of the three trinities. Just in passing I will review it in order to show she knows what she is talking about.

Hinduism shows the three trinities.

Swayambhouva is the unrevealed Deity; it is the Being existent through and of itself; he is the central and immortal germ of all that exists in the universe. Three trinities emanate and are confounded in him, forming a Supreme unity. These trinities, or the triple Trimurti, are: the Nara, Nari, and Viradyi — the initial triad; the Agni, Vaya, and Sourya — the manifested triad; Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva, the creative triad. Each of these triads becomes less metaphysical and more adapted to the vulgar intelligence as it descends. (IU ii 39)

The mysterious ten Sephiroth are also explained by her as a one plus three trinities.

Thus, with the Hebrew kabalists, En-Soph is non-existent [Hebrew word], for it is incomprehensible to our finite intellects, and therefore cannot exist to our minds. Its first emanation was Sephira, the crown [Hebrew word],. When the time for an active period had come, then was produced a natural expansion of this Divine essence from within outwardly, obedient to eternal and immutable law; and from this eternal and infinite light (which to us is darkness) was emitted a spiritual substance. This was the First Sephiroth, containing in herself the other nine [Hebrew word] Sephiroth, or intelligences. In their totality and unity they represent the archetypal man, Adam Kadmon, the [Greek word], who in his individuality or unity is yet dual, or bisexual, the Greek Didumos, for he is the prototype of all humanity. Thus we obtain three trinities, each contained in a “head.” (IU ii 213)

Lastly, IUii227 gives a pictorial presentation of the three trinities in Gnostic (Nazaraean), Hindu, and Egyptian traditions.

So, Hinduism, the kabalistic Sephiroth, Nazarene and Egyptian traditions all contain this triple trinity.


Since I have quoted above from Hoeller, I thought you would like to know about a most interesting extended passage in his book that deals with Blavatsky. His focus in the book is understanding Gnosticism from a sympathetic point of view. He himself is a priest in an active gnostic church in California. His book as a whole is filled with helpful information and occasionally, in my view – he rises to the level of poetry. Toward the end he reviews the historical role of Gnosticism and its appreciation – from Simon Magus in the first century to Carl Jung in the previous century. In that process he offers an extensive description of the role of Blavatsky toward advancing the subject of Gnosticism. His positive treatment of Blavatsky is informative and very welcome, so I have quoted it at length.

At the same time, he [Eliphas Levi] brought practically the entire spectrum of spectrum of subjects related to Gnosticism into daylight. The Jewish Gnosticism of the Kabbalah now became a subject of intense interest among non-Jewish occultists. It was in the wake of Levi’s pioneering achievements that the greatest figure of the occult revival, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, or H.P.B., as her friends and followers affectionately called her, appeared on the scene. She became the seminal figure of the alternative spiritual movement of not only the nineteenth century but much of the twentieth century as well.

Born in Russia in 1831, H.P. Blavatsky contributed immeasurable to the revival of Gnosticism that we are experiencing today. This remarkable woman’s interests were far ranging. She called her system of teachings “Theosophy,” resurrecting an ancient term used by the neoplatonist Ammonius Saccus. Where there are Neoplatonists, Gnostics cannot be far behind,. Blavatsky had a profound interest in Gnosticism, and she commented on the tradition voluminously (a compilation of her writings concerning Gnosticism runs to more than 270 pages). The contemporary student of Gnosticism, who has access to the Nag Hammadi Gnostic scriptures, would be greatly impressed if not outright awestruck by Blavatsky’s uncanny insight into Gnosticism.

Blavatsky was not concerned with resurrecting ancient Gnosticism. Her system, Theosophy, aspires to a universality within which Buddhist and Hindu esotericism unite with their analogues in alternative spirituality. Much of her terminology is derived from Sanskrit, as are her more popular, practical concepts of karma and reincarnation. By the same token, Gnosticism does occupy an honored position among the traditions that she tried to synthesize in her books, particularly in “The Secret Doctrine.” No one familiar with and sympathetic to Blavatsky’s corpus of teachings could possibly ignore Gnosticism or think badly of it.

Blavatsky’s Theosophical system necessarily bears some of the imprint of the late nineteenth century and its spirit, even as Gnosticism bears the imprint of its particular time. The late nineteenth century was a period of a certain sanguine spirit. Even though the so-called world-denying Gnostic pessimism is always mitigated by a kind of ultimate optimism that points to the soul’s glorious return to a better reality, it was still not very compatible with the optimistic, enterprising, progressive tone of the nineteenth century. Thus, Blavatsky did not call much attention to this feature of Gnosticism, though she certainly stated her agreement with many Gnostic teachings.

Blavatsky was certainly a true Gnostic when it came to the Gnostic concept of God. In her writings, she vehemently attacks the conventional concept of the monotheistic God and advocates the belief in a totally transcendental and impersonal Godhead – akin to the Gnostic “alethes theos”, or True God – instead. The Gnostic notion that the Old Testament God is the Demiurge is affirmed by Blavatsky. In some of her statement she “out-gnostics” the Gnostics, or instance, when she boldly states that Yehovah is Satan! Elsewhere she states that the universe was fabricated by imperfect spiritual beings. In short, Blavatsky always speaks highly of the Gnostics, and where she can safely do so, she boldly states her agreement with Gnostic teachings. In fact, in some respect she teaches what might be called a slightly covert or muted variety of Gnosticism. C. G. Jung’s statement that Blavatsky’s Theosophy as well as Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy (a variant of Theosophy) were both pure Gnosticism in Hindu dress contains a large grain of truth.

Blavatsky’s insightful, sympathetic attitude toward the Gnostics went a long way toward influencing large numbers of creative and spiritually adventurous people in the direction of Gnosticism. Her devoted pupil, G.R.S Mead, who was her last personal secretary and delivered the oration at her funeral in Brighton in 1891, under her inspiration became an expert translator of Gnostic and also Hermetic writings. The advantage of Mead’s work from a Gnostic point of view was that he wrote about the Gnostics as a friend who knew them and who understood the meaning of their writings. Mead made Gnosticism accessible to the intelligent public outside of academia which prepared the way for several waves of a Gnostic renaissance.


In studying Gnosticism, it does appear that Hoeller is right about the large amount of attention Blavatsky gives to the subject. She uses many of the terms of the Gnostics throughout her works and without a background in the subject we hardly know what she is talking about. So, this newsletter will include just a little of that background.

Did you know that one of the Gnostic groups was in existence for more some 1100 years? That was Manicheanism. It was founded by the Persian Mani in the third century. Blavatsky says:

A sect of the third century which believed in two eternal principles of good and evil; the former furnishing mankind with souls, and the latter with bodies. This sect was founded by a certain half-Christian mystic named Mani, who gave himself out as the expected “Comforter”, the Messiah and Christ. Many centuries later, after the sect was dead, a Brotherhood arose, calling itself the “Manichees”, of a masonic character with several degrees of initiation. Their ideas were Kabalistic, but were misunderstood. (Theosophical Glossary under Manicheans)

A little history from the internet:

Mani first spread his teachings in Persia two centuries after Christ. He was tortured and slain by a pro-Zoroastrian monarch, but his faith lived on, spreading to the Roman Empire, central Asia and even China. This religion, with its obvious truths, was a threat to the established religions and their incomplete, inferior dogma. Christians especially feared that their newfound power in the Roman Empire would be undermined because of the superior logic of Mani’s teachings. They considered Manichaeanism a heresy, and used force to destroy the Religion of Light. Over the next few centuries Manichaeanism was violently persecuted by both Zoroastrianism in Persia and Christianity in the Roman realm. After the Arab conquests in the 7th century, Islam took its turn, exterminating Manichaeanism in Persia. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Rhodes/3991/NeoMan1.html

The same site is attempting to revive Manichaean practice. It further says:

THE NEO-MANICHAEAN CHURCH. This is the preliminary home page for the Neo-Manichaean Church. We represent a revival of the ancient teaching of the prophet Mani, who established a religion which spread across Europe and Asia and lasted for centuries despite horrible persecution. We believe that Manichaeanism was closer to the truth than the corrupted religions which attacked it, and should be updated and revived as a living faith to solve the problems of the modern world.

I wish them success. Is this a time of religious ferment? Does the internet facilitate it? We should use the internet also for the revival of the ancient wisdom.

There is one quote from Mani you may find interesting. How Theosophical would you find its principles?

Wisdom and good deeds have always from time to time been brought to mankind by the messengers of God. So in one age they have been brought by the messenger called Buddha to India, in another by Zarathustra to Iran, yet in another by Jesus to the West. Thereupon this revelation has come down, this prophecy in this latter age through me, Mani, the apostle of the God of truth in Babylonia. (quoted by Al Biruni, Athar ul Bakiya and quoted by Hoeller p. 63)

Some of you – like myself – may have been surprised to learn that a gnostic religion lasted for more than a millenium. (I cannot recall where but I seem to remember reading it was thought to have last been practiced in the 1400’s in Portugal.) However there is a point yet more interesting. Another Gnostic group has been continuously in existence from then till now – some two millenia.

That group is the mandaeans (sometimes mandeans). This group and its document – the codex nazaraeus – are mentioned frequently by Blavatsky. They are alive in Iraq and elsewhere in the world with estimated numbers of practitioners measured in the tens of thousands, sometimes over 50,000 and always under 100,000 people.

In the Glossary, Blavatsky says of them:

Mendæns (Gr.). Also called Sabians, and St. John Christians. The latter is absurd, since, according to all accounts, and even their own, they have nothing at all to do with Christianity, which they abominate. The modern sect of the Mendæans is widely scattered over Asia Minor and elsewhere, and is rightly believed by several Orientalists to be a direct surviving relic of the Gnostics. For as explained in the Dictionnaire des Apocryphes by the Abbé Migne (art. “Le Code Nazaréan “vulgairement appelé “Livre d’Adam”), the Mendæans (written in French Mandaïtes, which name they pronounce as Mandai) “ properly signifies science, knowledge or Gnosis. Thus it is the equivalent of Gnostics “(loc. cit. note p. 3). As the above cited work shows, although many travellers have spoken of a sect whose followers are variously named Sabians, St. John’s Christians and Mendæans, and who are scattered around Schat-Etarab at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates (principally at Bassorah, Hoveïza, Korna, etc.), it was Norberg who was the first to point out a tribe belonging to the same sect established in Syria. And they are the most interesting of all. This tribe, some 14,000 or 15,000 in number, lives at a day’s march east of Mount Lebanon, principally at Elmerkah, (Lata-Kieh). They call themselves indifferently Nazarenes and Galileans, as they originally come to Syria from Galilee. They claim that their religion is the same as that of St. John the Baptist, and that it has not changed one bit since his day. On festival days they clothe themselves in camel’s skins, sleep on camel’s skins, and eat locusts and honey as did their “Father, St. John the Baptist”. Yet they call Jesus Christ an impostor, a false Messiah, and Nebso (or the planet Mercury in its evil side), and show him as a production of the Spirit of the “seven badly-disposed stellars” (or planets). See Codex Nazaræus, which is their Scripture.

(For researchers, notice that she spells the name of the group here as Mendaeans, differently than is customary today as mandaeans. Also note the at least part of the Codex Nazaraeus, as she referenced it, is known today as Ginza Rba, Ginza Raba, or Genza Rabba.)

She says “One by one the tide of time engulfed the sects of the early centuries, until of the whole number only one survived in its primitive integrity.” I will quote this extended passage (that she wrote in 1877) because it touches on this point and adds more information. Then I will close with a little research that may related to another of her oft ignored predictions below.

IN the next two chapters we shall notice the most important of the Christian secret sects — the so-called “Heresies” which sprang into existence between the first and fourth centuries of our era.

Glancing rapidly at the Ophites and Nazareans, we shall pass to their scions which yet exist in Syria and Palestine, under the name of Druzes of Mount Lebanon; and near Basra or Bassorah, in Persia, under that of Mendæans, or Disciples of St. John. All these sects have an immediate connection with our subject, for they are of kabalistic parentage and have once held to the secret “Wisdom Religion,” recognizing as the One Supreme, the Mystery-God of the Ineffable Name.

One by one the tide of time engulfed the sects of the early centuries, until of the whole number only one survived in its primitive integrity. That one still exists, still teaches the doctrine of its founder, still exemplifies its faith in works of power. The quicksands which swallowed up every other outgrowth of the religious agitation of the times of Jesus, with its records, relics, and traditions, proved firm ground for this. Driven from their native land, its members found refuge in Persia, and to-day the anxious traveller may converse with the direct descendants of the “Disciples of John,” who listened, on the Jordan’s shore, to the “man sent from God,” and were baptized and believed. This curious people, numbering 30,000 or more, are miscalled “Christians of St. John,” but in fact should be known by their old name of Nazareans, or their new one of Mendæans.

To term them Christians, is wholly unwarranted. They neither believe in Jesus as Christ, nor accept his atonement, nor adhere to his Church, nor revere its “Holy Scriptures.” Neither do they worship the Jehovah-God of the Jews and Christians, a circumstance which of course proves that their founder, John the Baptist, did not worship him either. And if not, what right has he to a place in the Bible, or in the portrait-gallery of Christian saints? Still further, if Ferho was his God, and he was “a man sent by God,” he must have been sent by Lord Ferho, and in his name baptized and preached? Now, if Jesus was baptized by John, the inference is that he was baptized according to his own faith; therefore, Jesus too, was a believer in Ferho, or Faho, as they call him; a conclusion that seems the more warranted by his silence as to the name of his “Father.” And why should the hypothesis that Faho is but one of the many corruptions of Fho or Fo, as the Thibetans and Chinese call Buddha, appear ridiculous? In the North of Nepaul, Buddha is more often called Fo than Buddha. The Book of Mahaw~nsa shows how early the work of Buddhistic proselytism began in Nepaul; and history teaches that Buddhist monks crowded into Syria* and Babylon in the century preceding our era, and that Buddhasp (Bodhisatva) the alleged Chaldean, was the founder of Sabism or baptism.

What the actual Baptists, el-Mogtasila, or Nazareans, do believe, is fully set forth in other places, for they are the very Nazarenes of whom we have spoken so much, and from whose Codex we have quoted. Persecuted and threatened with annihilation, they took refuge in the Nestorian body, and so allowed themselves to be arbitrarily classed as Christians, but as soon as opportunity offered, they separated, and now, for several centuries have not even nominally deserved the appellation. That they are, nevertheless, so called by ecclesiastical writers, is perhaps not very difficult to comprehend. They know too much of early Christianity to be left outside the pale, to bear witness against it with their traditions, without the stigma of heresy and backsliding being fastened upon them to weaken confidence in what they might say.

So the Mandaeans escaped the ravages of time by hiding as Christian Nestorians. Also they receive favorable treatment in the Koran being called “people of the book”.

Now she builds to her “prediction”.

But where else can science find so good a field for biblical research as among this too neglected people? No doubt of their inheritance of the Baptist’s doctrine; their traditions are without a break. What they teach now, their forefathers taught at every epoch where they appear in history. They are the disciples of that John who is said to have foretold the advent of Jesus, baptized him, and declared that the latchet of his shoe he (John) was not worthy to unloose. As they two — the Messenger and the Messiah — stood in the Jordan, and the elder was consecrating the younger — his own cousin, too, humanly speaking — the heavens opened and God Himself, in the shape of a dove, descended in a glory upon his “Beloved Son”! How then, if this tale be true, can we account for the strange infidelity which we find among these surviving Nazareans? So far from believing Jesus the Only Begotten Son of God, they actually told the Persian missionaries, who, in the seventeenth century, first discovered them to Europeans, that the Christ of the New Testament was “a false teacher,” and that the Jewish system, as well as that of Jesus (?), came from the realm of darkness! Who knows better than they? Where can more competent living witnesses be found? Christian ecclesiastics would force upon us an anointed Saviour heralded by John, and the disciples of this very Baptist, from the earliest centuries, have stigmatized this ideal personage as an impostor, and his putative Father, Jehovah, “a spurious God,” the Ilda-Baoth of the Ophites!

And finally:

Unlucky for Christianity will be the day when some fearless and honest scholar shall persuade their elders to let him translate the contents of their secret books and compile their hoary traditions! It is a strange delusion that makes some writers think that the Nazareans have no other sacred literature, no other literary relics than four doctrinal works, and that curious volume full of astrology and magic which they are bound to peruse at the sunset hour, on every Sol’s day (Sunday). (IU ii 289-292)

Now, as a result of work done during the early 20th century and proceeding up to at least 1959, we do have definite knowledge that the Mandaeans have information that is secret. Dame Elisabeth S. Drower spent many years gathering and publishing works of the Mandaeans.

To give you some flavor of her work she writes:

“The first Mandaean book which came into my hands was a small volume of 200 hundred and thirty-eight pages in a poor handwriting. It was presented to me by an old Mandaean silversmith a year or two after the first World War. This volume inspired me with curiosity, and later when I had read Nodeke’s ‘Mandaische Grammatik’, I found that it contained prayers for minor ablutions, the daily office (the ‘nisania) and the masitqa prayers.

An early visit to ‘Amarah resulted in the acquisition of a damaged and imperfect copy of the entire codex, I mean prayers considered canonical and still used by priests. A head priest (a ganzibra) copied into it some of the missing pages and to these I added others when I had had access to other MSS. Complete copies of the collection is hard to come by for they are in constant use.

It was not until many years later in the spring of 1954 that I persuaded the owner of a prayerbook, himself a ganzibra, to give me his in exchange for a money gift for sacred manuscripts are never bought. This codex N. 53 of my collection is in a good hand and from it very little is missing.” (from Introduction to Canonical Prayerbook of the Mandaeans, E.S. Drower, Leiden: 1959

Here are two striking quotes, both from her “Secret Adam”.

Those amongst the community who possess secret knowledge are called Nasuraiia – Nasoreans (or, if the heavy ‘s’ is written as ‘z’, Nazorenes). At the same time the ignorant or semi-ignorant laity are called ‘Mandaeans’, Mandaiia – ‘gnostics’. When a man becomes a priest he leaves ‘Mandaeanism’ and enters tarmiduta, ‘priesthood’. Even then he has not attained to true enlightenment, for this, called ‘Nasiruta’, is reserved for a very few. Those possessed of its secrets may call themselves Nasoreans, and ‘Nasorean’ today indicates not only one who observes strictly all rules of ritual purity, but one who understands the secret doctrine.

Also by Drower:

In this book I have tried to view Nasoraean gnosis as a whole and have not concealed my belief that the secret teaching, based upon the Mystic Adam, goes back to the first and second centuries. Vitally significant aspects of that gnosis are evident in unpublished scrolls held as a closely-guarded heritage by the inner circle, the Nasoraeans. These a layman, however pious, is not allowed to see or hear. They contain tenets imparted only to an initiated few; indeed, Nasirutha could be called truly esoteric – a religion within a religion, a gnosis within a gnosis, and its heart is the interpretation which it attaches to sacramental acts. (“The Secret Adam: A Study of Nasoraean Gnosis” by E.S. Drower)

Was Drower beginning the first steps of Blavatsky’s prediction:

Unlucky for Christianity will be the day when some fearless and honest scholar shall persuade their elders to let him translate the contents of their secret books and compile their hoary traditions!

When we recall Blavatsky’s seeming knowledge of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, and the Gospel of Judas, we may wish to give added weight to her assertions relative to the secret texts of the Mandaeans.

Reed Carson

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